NFL Wild Card Playoffs: Everything You Need to Know for Sunday's Games
We're halfway through the opening weekend of the NFL postseason.
Wild Card Weekend opened up with a bang as the AFC sorted things out in an action-packed playoff Saturday. The Kansas City Chiefs blew out the Houston Texans 30-0, while the Pittsburgh Steelers squeaked out an 18-16 win over the AFC North rival Cincinnati Bengals.
Now, it's the NFC's turn to take center stage in the football world. Things kick off with the Seattle Seahawks versus the Minnesota Vikings. The Washington Redskins will host the Green Bay Packers in the late-afternoon game.
All four teams will be clawing tooth and nail to advance to the second round of the NFC playoffs, and both games have the potential to be epic. Here's everything you need to know about them.
Minnesota Vikings (11-5, 1st in NFC North)
This year's Vikings team might not carry the hype the 2009 edition did, but it is a dangerous outfit. Minnesota has a smothering defense that ranked fifth in points allowed (18.9 per game) and an offense that does enough (ranked 16th, with an average of 22.8 points per game) to complement it.
That offense is a physical, grinding unit led by the league's rushing leader (1,485 yards), Adrian Peterson. Second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is careful with the football and effective enough under center that opposing defenses cannot simply focus on stopping the run game. Rookie gem Stefon Diggs provides enough firepower to give Minnesota some quick-strike capability.
The Vikings come into the playoffs with a little momentum, having won their final three games, including the season finale against the rival Packers.
Seattle Seahawks (10-6, 2nd in NFC West)
The Seattle Seahawks are the hottest team in the NFC heading into the postseason. They won six of their last seven contests and have watched quarterback Russell Wilson make the transformation from opportunistic game manager to lethal gunslinger.
Wilson, who has become the cornerstone of the Seattle offense, threw for 4,024 yards with 34 touchdowns and just eight interceptions in the regular season. He finished with a whopping passer rating of 110.1.
Wilson isn't the only player to emerge as an offensive star down the stretch, though. Receiver Doug Baldwin (1,069 receiving yards, 14 touchdowns) has quickly become one of the league's most dangerous pass-catchers.
Let's not forget about the Seattle defense, which is still one of the league's best. It finished the regular season ranked first in points allowed (17.3 per game) and second in yardage (291.8 yards per game allowed).
Washington Redskins (9-7, 1st in NFC East)
Plenty of folks are likely to knock the Washington Redskins for slipping into the postseason with an NFC East title. The division was weak, certainly, but Washington can't be overlooked.
Behind the leadership of quarterback Kirk Cousins, the offense has solidified as a dangerous group. Weapons such as receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, tight end Jordan Reed and running back Alfred Morris give Cousins the tools he needs to do damage on the field. Washington finished the regular season ranked 10th in scoring (24.3 points per game).
The Washington defense might not have a lot of star power, but it is an efficient group that does enough most of the time to keep the team in the game. Washington was ranked 17th in scoring defense, with an average of 23.7 points per game allowed.
Washington's biggest defensive asset is its pass rush, which is rated ninth in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.
Green Bay Packers (10-6, 2nd in NFC North)
It has been a down year for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, but this is still a team that shouldn't be taken lightly. Though Rodgers hasn't been his usual self, he has still completed 60.7 percent of his passes and has been smart with the ball (31 touchdowns to just eight interceptions).
When Rodgers is on, Green Bay can beat any opponent.
The team also benefits from a defensive unit that is a bit underrated. The defense finished the season ranked 12th in points allowed (20.2 per game) and produced 43 sacks on the year.
However, the Packers aren't coming into the postseason with positive momentum; Green Bay dropped six of its final 10 games and backed into the playoffs after a 6-0 start to the season.
Who: Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings
When: 1:05 p.m. ET
Sunday's early game is a contest between teams with similar structures. Both the Seahawks (ranked first with 17.3 points allowed per game) and Vikings (ranked fifth with 18.9 points per game allowed) are built on the concept of winning with defense.
The two teams are also built to complement those defenses with strong running games. The difference here is that Minnesota's Adrian Peterson is healthy and available. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Marshawn Lynch didn't even make the trip for Seattle. The Seahawks will rely on a committee in the backfield.
Having a little uncertainty in the ground game won't do much to derail Seattle's offensive capability, though. So long as Russell Wilson is healthy, Seattle's passing game should be potent enough to score points. The Seahawks are rated fifth overall in passing offense by Pro Football Focus.
Of course, Wilson and Co. are going to have to deal with a rather chilly reception. According to Associated Press football writer Dave Campbell, the temperature is expected to be around zero degrees at kickoff. That weather might favor Minnesota's run-oriented, balanced offense.
"You've got to make it work. Just use it to your advantage," Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs said, per Campbell. "Nobody likes being cold, but you've got to be comfortable being uncomfortable."
The Seahawks won the regular-season matchup with Minnesota 38-7.
Who: Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins
When: 4:40 p.m. ET
Even though the NFC East was one of the league's weaker divisions this season, winning it had its perks. Washington gets to host the Packers, who finished the regular season on a slide.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been keeping the Packers offense afloat. Despite injuries, a suspect offensive line and an inconsistent running game, Green Bay is still rated 10th overall in offense by Pro Football Focus.
Rodgers' counterpart in Washington, Kirk Cousins, has also been key to his team's success. However, Cousins has his Redskins coming into the postseason with momentum. Rodgers recently admitted it might take a more aggressive approach on offense for his team to gain some.
"Whatever it takes to win," Rodgers said, per Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "At this point we haven't been very consistent in any capacity on offense, so if it means being a little riskier with the ball with a bigger reward on the back end, that's something you've got to think about."
The Packers get the edge in terms of defensive efficiency and consistency. Pro Football Focus rates Green Bay 16th in overall defense. Washington is rated just 26th. Yet, the Redskins' pass rush might have the edge Sunday against an offensive line that allowed 46 sacks in the regular season.
This game might go to whichever team can shut down the opposing passer.
Can the Packers Offense Find Its Rhythm?
The Packers averaged 23 points per game in the regular season, but the numbers are padded a bit by a hot start and a few blowouts. The Green Bay offense hasn't boasted much consistency.
The Packers scored 30 or more points in four games and 16 or fewer in five contests. Much of Sunday's game will come down to whether the good or the bad Packers offense decides to show up. The good incarnation was missing at the end of the regular season. The Packers totaled just 21 points in the final two weeks.
The good news for Green Bay is the offense gets to go up against a Washington defense that is ranked just 28th in terms of defensive yardage (380.6 yards per game allowed).
Can Teddy Bridgewater Take the Next Step?
When the Vikings take the field Sunday, they will do so against a quarterback in Russell Wilson who has proved his playoff mettle. Though Wilson was rarely the centerpiece of the Seattle offense before this season, no one can deny he has twice led his team to the Super Bowl.
Now, it's time for Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to show he can follow in Wilson's footsteps.
So far, he looks like he can become a franchise-caliber player. Bridgewater solidified his starting status as a rookie, and Pro Football Focus rated him 15th overall among quarterbacks this season.
However, Bridgewater hasn't been asked to carry the offense often. As was the case early in Wilson's career, Bridgewater has more frequently served in the cliched game-manager role. He attempted just 447 passes in the regular season—20 quarterbacks attempted more.
He will likely have to shed that role in order to beat a stingy Seattle defense. If Bridgewater can make enough plays to net a playoff win over a quality opponent, the Vikings will know they have a quarterback they can build around.
Can the Vikings Sustain an Effective Ground Game?
If the Vikings want to take some of the pressure off Bridgewater's shoulders, they will have to mount an effective rushing attack behind star back Adrian Peterson. However, this will prove a most difficult task, as no team was stingier against the run than the Seahawks during the regular season.
Cold conditions in Minnesota will make it even more important for the Vikings to run the football efficiently. Obviously, running the ball will be important for both teams, but past experience should give the Seahawks confidence in Wilson, should they have to become one-dimensional.
Luckily for Minnesota, it has one of the best running backs in the modern NFL era on its side.
What About the Seattle Run Game?
The Seahawks have a championship-caliber quarterback, but it could still be difficult to sustain offensive success if they cannot mount an effective running game of their own.
Without Marshawn Lynch, Christine Michael and Bryce Brown will need to perform. Minnesota finished the regular season ranked 17th in run defense (109.3 yards per game allowed).
Stats to Know
Yards rushing by Vikings back Adrian Peterson in the regular season. He won his third league rushing title and should be a major part of Minnesota's game plan so long as rushing remains effective.
Rushing yards allowed per game by the Seattle defense. No team allowed fewer in the regular season. The Vikings might not find rushing to be effective for long.
Touchdowns thrown by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson over the final seven weeks of the season. Those 24 scores came with just one interception and one loss. Wilson has the potential to take over Sunday's contest.
Sacks suffered by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the regular season. We've mentioned this statistic before, and we'll mention it again. Protecting Rodgers has to be a primary goal for Green Bay.
Yards passing per game by Washington this season. Rodgers may be the household name, but Kirk Cousins has led the more prolific passing attack.
Yards passing per game by Green Bay. This is nearly 50 fewer yards on average than what the Packers produced a year ago. The season-long loss of Jordy Nelson clearly has something to do with that.
Here are the odds for Sunday's games, via Odds Shark:
|Game Time (ET)||Away Team||Home Team||Favorite|
|1:05 p.m.||Seattle||Minnesota||Seattle -4.5|
|4:40 p.m.||Green Bay||Washington||Washington -1|
Matchups to Watch
Washington Pass Rush vs. the Green Bay Offensive Line
For Washington, the key to winning defensively rests in the team's ability to pressure Aaron Rodgers. The Redskins, who are rated ninth in pass rush by Pro Football Focus, have the talent to do exactly that.
Strengthening the Redskins' chances of getting to Rodgers is the fact the Packers have been struggling and have been injured along the offensive line. That line knows it has a challenge ahead.
"They chase after the ball and punch the ball out. Everywhere, they're very solid across the board," Packers guard Josh Sitton said of the Washington defense, per the Associated Press (via Fox Sports).
This could be the most important matchup in the Packers-Redskins game.
Vikings Pass Defense vs. Doug Baldwin
We've mentioned how well Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been playing, and we would be remiss if we didn't credit wide receiver Doug Baldwin for part of that success.
While Baldwin has earned a reputation as a scoring machine this season, the reality is he has developed into one of the league's top all-around offensive playmakers. Pro Football Focus rates him seventh overall among receivers.
Stopping Baldwin has to be one of the primary goals for the Minnesota defense. Fortunately for the Vikings, Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman and Harrison Smith provide enough talent in the secondary.
Pro Football Focus rated the Vikings 10th overall in pass coverage this season.
Teddy Bridgewater vs. the Seattle Pass Rush
One area in which Bridgewater has excelled this season is his ability to handle a pass rush. Pro Football Focus rated him fifth among starting quarterbacks when facing pressure. He completed 50 percent of his passes when under pressure during the regular season, with 38 incompletions being throwaways.
However, Bridgewater also suffered 44 sacks and tossed six interceptions when under pressure. Rattling him with a pass rush has to be a goal for the Seahawks.
Do the Seahawks have the firepower to get to Bridgewater? Absolutely. They finished the regular season with 49 sacks and rated fifth in pass rush by Pro Football Focus.
Here are the most significant injuries for Sunday's games:
According to Minnesota's injury report, defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis has been ruled out with an ankle injury. Running back Adrian Peterson (back), fullback Zach Line (illness), defensive tackle Linval Joseph (foot), defensive end Everson Griffen (shoulder) and receiver Adam Thielen (shoulder/back) are all probable.
According to the Seahawks' injury report, running back Marshawn Lynch (abdomen) is questionable. But as we mentioned earlier, he didn't make the trip to Minnesota. Tight end Luke Willson (concussion) is also out. A number of players—including receiver Tyler Lockett (hip), defensive end Michael Bennett (toe) and cornerback Jeremy Lane (oblique)—are listed as probable.
According to Redskins.com, running back Matt Jones (hip), cornerback Quinton Dunbar (quadriceps) and safety Dashon Goldson (shoulder/rib) are questionable. Running back Chris Thompson (toe), defensive end Jason Hatcher (neck/knee), receiver DeSean Jackson (knee), safety Jeron Johnson (chest), cornerback Dashaun Phillips (neck) and tackle Trent Williams (knee) are probable.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers have officially ruled out cornerback Sam Shields with a concussion. Offensive tackle David Bakhtiari (ankle), defensive end Datone Jones (neck) and tight end Justin Perillo (hamstring) are questionable. Linebacker Jayrone Elliott (quadricep) is doubtful. Numerous players are listed as probable.
Expert Picks and Predictions
Here are this weekend's picks and predictions from Bleacher Report's panel of NFL experts: