The Oakland Raiders are back in the playoffs for the first time since losing Super Bowl XXXLVII, following the 2002 season. That was also a special season for the Houston Texans, who were in their first season as an expansion team. With the Super Bowl at NRG Stadium, Houston is having visions of a Texans home game on February 5th.
The Texans are in the postseason for the fourth time in six years, winning the AFC South. Coincidentally all six Texans playoff berths have begun with a home game, which was the first game on Wild Card Saturday at 4pm. That has become Texan time as Houston has advanced in two of their previous three appearances. Despite missing J.J. Watt for most of the season, the Texans had one the NFL’s stingiest defenses, allowing a league-low 305.7 yards per game and giving up the fewest first downs with just 17.1 per game. Unfortunately, the Texans offense is one of the weakest as their big off-season signing Brock Osweiler was a total bust, with a terrible quarterback rating of 72.2.
The Raiders defense was nearly as strong, with Khalil Mack being a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year as they Raiders posted a 12-4 record. The Raiders record was largely the work of Quarterback Derek Carr, who had a MVP type season with 3,937 yards along with 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. Unfortunately for the Raiders Carr broke down in Week 15, breaking his leg against the Colts in Week 16. The Raiders with a chance to win the division lost their season finale against the Broncos and also saw backup Matt MGloin knocked to the sideline. This leaves the Raiders with rookie Connor Cook to make the start on the road against a tough defense in the playoffs.
Cook’s start is the first time ever that a NFL quarterback is making his first start in the postseason. In short the Raiders goose is cooked, when these two teams met in Mexico City in Week 11 the Texans had a fourth quarter lead, before suffering a 27-20 setback to a Raiders team that at the time was playing their best football of the season and completely healthy. The Texans were strong at home all season, winning seven of eight games at NRG Stadium. Had their quarterback been able to go, the Raiders would be the obvious pick, but it’s hard to go very far when your Carr is in the shop.
The Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks both enter the playoffs heading in the wrong direction, as the motor city kitties has backed in with losses in their last three games, while the Seahawks come in riding an ambulance with several key players suffering devastating injuries at the end of the season. Among the key players injured for Seattle Earl Thomas and Tyler Lockett who are key to the Seahawks passing game and their pass defense.
The Seahawks again rose to the top of the NFC West, and when playing at their highest level were among the NFL’s best teams as seen in their Week 10 win in Foxboro. However, at 10-5-1 the Seahawks rarely hit that level as they had several major flaws and had to fight for nearly every yard in every game. A major point of struggle for the Seahawks was a tattered offensive line, which led to Russell Wilson being on the run and banged up all season. Despite spending the season under duress, Wilson again was among the league’s best passers, with a career best 4,219 yards with 21 touchdowns. Wilson needed to be the Seahawks focal point as they struggled all season to find a reliable runner to replace the retired Marshawn Lynch.
The Detroit Lions had their own big star retire, with Calvin Johnson hanging up his cleats. Instead of hurting the Lions passing game, it seemed to give a boost to Quarterback Matthew Stafford who passed for 4,327 yards with 24 touchdowns and a career low ten interceptions. Stafford now forced to spread the ball around seemed to benefit from no longer needing to force the ball into Megatron. However, after dislocating his finger against the Bears in Week 14, the Lions went into a tailspin losing their final three games to fall out of first place and settle for the sixth seed in the NFC. Even when the Lions were rolling, it was a struggle as they trailed in the fourth quarter in eight of their nine wins, as Stafford was magical when the game was on the line most of the season.
Looking at the intangibles alone, the Seahawks have to be the favorite as the Lions have won just one playoff game in the last 60 years. The Seahawks, meanwhile have won at least one playoff game every season since 2012, which includes coming one yard away from winning two straight Lombardi Trophies. The Seahawks hold a big home field advantage with the 12th man. The Seahawks may not be healthy but they are still a better overall team, that knows how to win and that will be enough.
It may seem like ages ago, but the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers have already played each other this season. Back in Week 6, the Dolphins stunned the Steelers 30-15 at Hard Rock Stadium, to get their season on track. That game was like the alarm bell for the sleeping Dolphins, who entered the game reeling at 1-4. With a rookie coach in Adam Gase, and an eight-year playoff drought, it looked like another lost season in South Florida. However, that game seemed to launch the Dolphins on to bigger and better things as Jay Ajayi had a breakout performance, rushing for 204 yards with two touchdowns on 25 carries. Ajayi would also crack 200 yards a week later as the Dolphins began a six game winning streak to reach ten wins.
The October 16th game was also a turning point for the Steelers who began a four game losing streak, with Ben Roethlisberger suffering a knee injury against the Dolphins after throwing an interception in the second quarter. Roethlisberger of course being the toughest quarterback in the NFL missed just one game, and a bye week. The Steelers lost their first two games up Roethlisberger’s return, but have not lost since, ending the season with seven straight wins to capture the NFC North.
When they are their best, the Steelers have one of the best offenses in the NFL, with Antonio Brown, being perhaps the best receivers and Le’Veon Bell being among the league’s top rushers. This could spell trouble for the Dolphins who ended the season with several players missing in the secondary, including Isa Abdul-Quddus who was one of the Dolphins’ top tacklers with a career best 78, along with two interceptions, including a big pick against Pittsburgh in Week 6.
Even if the Dolphins were 100% healthy the odds would be highly stacked against them going into Heinz Field against a Steelers team used to winning big games in January. Add the fact that Ryan Tannehill is still out with his own knee injury and the Dolphins are clearly facing long odds in their first postseason game in eight years. Matt Moore has played well, in his three starts, but there is a reason why he has been a career backup at quarterback. Add the loss of Abdul-Quddus and the middle of the Dolphins secondary is likely to be picked apart by Roethlisberger and Brown. The only hope for the Dolphins is for another big game by Jay Ajayi and for Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh to batter Ben Roethlisberger as much as they did in the first meeting.
This could be the most interesting matchup of Wild Card Weekend, as either the New York Giants or Green Bay Packers can go on a run after winning Sunday’s finale. The two teams met early in the season with the Packers scoring a 23-16 win at Lambeau Field. At the time the Giants were scuffling, losing their third straight to fall to 2-3. The Giants turned thing around in the proceeding weeks, winning their next six games, as they ended the year with a record of 11-5, which was the second-best mark overall in the NFC, beating the Cowboys twice along the way.
The Giants strong season was done without a spectacular season for Eli Manning, who finished with 4,027 yards and 26 touchdowns. Many of Eli’s biggest passes ended up in the hands of Odell Beckham Jr. who had 1,367 yards with ten touchdowns, when he is not on a boat with Justin Bieber. The Giants receiving corps is particularly important since they have struggled all season to find consistency in the running game. One thing that should play into the Giants favor, is the Packers secondary which has struggled all season, despite their season ending six-game winning streak. Giants meanwhile have been strong in the secondary, which is the true reason behind their return to the playoffs. Landon Collins and Janoris Jenkins each have had Pro Bowl seasons. Landon Collins ended the season as the only player in NFL history to have 100 solo tackles, two sacks, five interceptions, and 12 pass deflections, while Jenkins in his first year with the Giants made life hell for some of the top pass catchers. In Week 14 against the Cowboys, Dez Bryant was held to one catch that he later fumbled.
It was a season of ups and downs for the Packers, who at one point looked to be heading for disaster at 4-6 with four straight ugly losses, as teams took advantage of the Packers soft pass coverage. The Packers ended strong, winning their last six games to win the NFC North at 10-6. However, it was Aaron Rodgers who was the reason for the turnaround as the Packers quarterback put the team down the stretch and finished among the league’s top passers as he had a NFL best 40 touchdowns.
In the end, it will come down to who makes the plays, Eli Manning always seems to play better in the postseason with his two Super Bowl runs, each time the Giants needed to win a game on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. With the Giants secondary able to shutdown top receivers and make big plays that will be the difference as the Giants begin what they hope is another long playoff run with Eli and Odell leading the way.