Could all four road teams advance during the NFL's Wild Card Weekend?
Two of the matchups feature visiting squads with better records than their hosts, and the other two include a couple of on-fire teams (the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks) with extensive playoff experience that are trying to win on the road against squads that lack recent playoff success.
Regardless of whether the four "underdogs" can all accomplish the feat, the first round of the playoffs should at least be entertaining. We'll look at the postseason bracket and move on to the all-important predictions for the first-round games:
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Houston Texans (9-7)
Can the Kansas City Chiefs make it 11 wins a row? Yes.
Per ESPN.com's Adam Teicher, Pro Bowl linebacker Justin Houston will return to the lineup for Wild Card Weekend after missing five games. His return could be key for the Chiefs as they try to take advantage of a Houston Texans offensive line that will be missing left tackle Duane Brown. Look for the Kansas City pass-rusher to force Brian Hoyer to rush some throws and possibly toss an interception.
Speaking of Hoyer, the difference at quarterback should also be significant. With both players facing stout defenses, Alex Smith seems like a smart choice to play a cleaner game than Hoyer, who is new to the playoff scene.
Houston's home-field advantage and raucous crowd will keep this game competitive, though.
Prediction: Chiefs win, 23-16.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)
Head coach Marvin Lewis has to get this monkey off his back. The 13-year Cincinnati Bengals head coach is 0-6 in the playoffs, and he's lost those six contests by an average of 14 points.
Unfortunately, some bad injury luck with his breakout star quarterback (combined with a hot opponent) puts him at a disadvantage in his seventh shot at a postseason victory. Andy Dalton's thumb hasn't healed yet, and Lewis said the team is planning to start AJ McCarron under center, per Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Pittsburgh has an injury issue of its own, though, as veteran running back DeAngelo Williams is still uncertain for Saturday's contest. ESPN's Jeremy Fowler offered some encouraging news Thursday, however:
Jeremy Fowler @JFowlerESPN
DeAngelo Williams is making progress. He's walking without a limp on Thursday. Working to get right for Saturday... https://t.co/ITyKltu9gD1/7/2016, 7:12:32 PM
Today's NFL is a passing league, though, and Ben Roethlisberger, combined with Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, leads one of the most dynamic aerial attacks in the league. And even if Williams can't go, Pittsburgh is still generally healthy.
Just like the other AFC wild-card matchup, experience is a factor to consider. Roethlisberger has 10 playoff wins and two Super Bowl victories, and McCarron has started a total of three NFL games. Ultimately, Cincinnati's defense won't be dominant enough to keep Big Ben and his boys from moving the chains.
Prediction: Steelers win, 27-21.
Seattle Seahawks (10-6) at Minnesota Vikings (11-5)
Poor Minnesota. The Vikings won the NFC North and earned the No. 3 seed, only to face a team that finished the season with a plus-146 point differential and beat them 38-7 on their home turf in Week 13.
The Seahawks are the hottest team in the NFL, and they are playing like Super Bowl champs they have been at the perfect time. Quarterback Russell Wilson would be the MVP of the second half of the season if there were an award for that.
In most situations against great pass defenses, Minnesota could rely on Adrian Peterson instead of young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The problem is that the Seahawks run defense has been even better, and All Day may have trouble getting going again. (He had only 18 yards on the ground in Week 13.)
The Vikings' best chance of winning is if the Seahawks offensive line has an off game, allowing Minnesota to get consistent pressure on Wilson and force a couple of turnovers. But that's unlikely.
Prediction: Seahawks win, 28-14.
Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Washington Redskins (9-7)
In the first three matchups, the team with the more experienced quarterback looks set to come out on top. However, when the more experienced quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) isn't playing well and the less experienced one (Kirk Cousins) is tearing it up, the game could easily swing the other way.
The Green Bay Packers offensive line is hurting Rodgers' performance, and a solid Washington Redskins pass rush could expose that weakness. Washington's offensive line is also strong, while the Packers defensive front is another weakness.
The Redskins have an advantage in the trenches, which should help them establish their running game and open up passing lanes for Cousins against a playmaking Packers secondary.
Throw in the fact that Washington is at home, and Green Bay's season looks as though it could end earlier than expected.
Prediction: Redskins win, 23-21.
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