It's one of the best weekends of the year: The NFL Wild Card Weekend, when the teams that barely scratched out a playoff spot face off against the division winners.
The Wild Card Weekend is often full of surprises. After all, who could forget when a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks team shocked Drew Brees and the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints (and caused an earthquake in the process) in January 2011?
Below, we'll take a look at the weekend's schedule and break down the matchups.
Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans
This is probably the toughest game to call, mostly because both teams come into this game peaking at the right time and because both play some of the best defense in the league.
The Kansas City Chiefs have won 10 straight games and have given up the third-fewest points (287) and seventh-fewest yards (329.3) this season. The Houston Texans have won three straight and eight of their last 11 games and have given up the third-fewest yards (310.2) and the seventh-fewest points (313, tied with the Arizona Cardinals) this year.
Both teams have elite pass rushes. Both teams have shakier offenses, however, and the difference in this game will likely come down to which team can actually move the ball.
Thus, do you trust Alex Smith, Jeremy Maclin, Travis Kelce, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West to move the ball? Or do you put your faith in Brian Hoyer, DeAndre Hopkins and Alfred Blue?
The wise bet here seems to be trusting in Smith. As Jenny Vrentas of MMQB noted, once the Chiefs put more faith in him this season, things turned around:
The team was at a crossroads, falling to 1-5 and losing its top offensive weapon, running back Jamaal Charles. So to get out of it, they tapped into one of their most valuable assets: Alex Smith’s brain, giving the veteran more freedom to change protections, runs and routes at the line.
For as many great quarterbacks as Reid has coached in his West Coast system—as Brett Favre’s quarterbacks coach in Green Bay, and in Philadelphia with Donovan McNabb—none has been given as much freedom as Smith has this season.
That decision has obviously worked wonders. And it's Smith who should be the difference in what will be a very physical, very close matchup.
Prediction: Chiefs win, 16-14.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals are a very good team. With Andy Dalton, they maybe a Super Bowl winning team. Without him, however, it's tough to pick them against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Look, AJ McCarron hasn't been terrible. He's gone 2-2, but he lost to the two playoff teams he's faced, the Steelers (at home) and the Denver Broncos. And the Bengals have scored a maximum of 24 points in every game he's started. They scored 30 or more points six times with Dalton at the helm.
It will be tough for Cincy to rely solely on the run too, as Pittsburgh held opponents to the fifth-fewest rushing yards (1,459) this season. And the Bengals will need to keep up with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and the league's third-ranked pass offense.
Maybe home-field advantage—the Bengals are 6-2 at home—will inspire them to the win. But the fact the Steelers already beat the Bengals in Cincy with McCarron under center makes it tough to pick against a solid Pittsburgh team.
Prediction: Steelers win, 21-17
Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings
Even at home, it's hard to see the Minnesota Vikings winning this game. For one, Seattle thumped them in Minny in Week 13, 38-7. Plus, Seattle is one of the league's hottest teams, winning eight of its last 10 games. And the offense has been on fire because of Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett.
This is a scary matchup for Minnesota, which will have to deal with the MVP-esque play of Wilson and the weapons at his disposal. It's just incredibly difficult imagining Minnesota slowing down the Seahawks enough to give Teddy Bridgewater and Co. a chance.
Prediction: Seattle wins, 28-10
Green Bay Packers at Washington
Normally, this would be a no-brainer. After all, how often does it make sense to bet against Aaron Rodgers, especially when the quarterback on the other sideline is Kirk Cousins?
This might just be that year, however.
While Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have gone cold down the stretch, losing two straight and six of their last 10 games, Washington has won four in a row and posted 34 or more points in three straight games. Washington is also 6-2 at home, giving them another advantage.
With Rodgers, you never know. He could suddenly get Green Bay's offense humming. He's that good. But given recent trends—the Packers have scored 30 or more points just once in their last six games—it's hard to pick the Packers here.
Prediction: Washington wins, 31-27
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