NFL Wild Card Weekend Preview

NFL Wild Card Weekend Preview

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Here we are a new year and the start of the NFL Playoffs. We’ve got some great match-ups this weekend, so here’s my preview.

AFC:

Byes: New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs

Oakland Raiders (12-4) at Houston Texans (9-7) Saturday 4:35PM ET (ESPN/ABC)

These two teams met in week 11 where the Raiders won 27-20 in Mexico City, but a lot has changed since then.

Just a few weeks ago, the Raiders were being talked about as a possible Super Bowl contender, now they walk into the playoffs nearly depleted. We all know about quarterback Derek Carr being out with a broken fibula. Matt McGloin injured his shoulder last week, so it looks like it’s going to be rookie Connor Cook under center. With that said, don’t be surprised if the Raiders depend on the run game more with back Latavius Murray.

Their defense is just as banged up, safety Karl Joseph and defensive tackles Austin Howard and Stacy McGee (no relation to me) are all questionable due to injuries. Pro Bowlers safety Reggie Nelson, who led the team in interceptions and versatile defensive end Khalil Mack will have to make sure the Texans don’t advance the ball.

As for the Texans, they won the AFC South for the second straight year, despite finishing 29th in total offense and with the worse point differential since the merger. Running back Lamar Miller, who finished top ten in rushing yards, has been nursing an ankle injury the last couple of weeks but should be good to go. Quarterback Brock Osweiler proved (at least so far) to not be worthy of that big contract. Still they may have to take risks in the air to wide receivers Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins.

The defense did just fine without defensive end J.J. Watt, finishing number one overall. Cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph and safety Quentin Demps, who finished number three in the league in interceptions, may be blitzing more since Oakland isn’t expected to throw the football much. We’ll see if linebacker Jadeveon Clowney plays, he’s been nursing a wrist injury as well as fellow linebacker Brian Cushing, who’s got an ankle injury. Oh and don’t forget the ageless tackle Vince Wilfork.

Miami Dolphins (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) Sunday 1:05PM ET (CBS)

These two teams met in week five, where the Dolphins defeated the Steelers 30-15.

Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi emerged as one of the NFL newest stars finishing in the top five in total rushing yards. He’s dinged up with a yet unspecified injury, something to watch for. Quarterback Matt Moore has been solid since taking over for Ryan Tannehill. He must minimize mistakes if he wants to help the Dolphins advance. He has to make sure receivers Kenny Stills and Jarvis Landry have a chance to catch the ball.

Linebacker Kiko Alonso led the team in tackles. Tackle Ndamukong Suh made the big tackles when necessary. Veteran defensive end Cam Wake, who came back from a torn Achilles last season, had 11 ½ sacks and was named to the Pro Bowl. Cornerback Tony Lippett led the team in interceptions. They must attack to force three and outs for the Steelers offense.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for two interceptions and was left limping in that week five meeting. Since then, the Steelers have gone on to finished top ten in total offense. Big Ben ended up throwing 13 interceptions total. He must make sure that wide receiver Antonio Brown, who finished fifth in receiving yards, will be able to make plays. Running back Le’Veon Bell finished number five in rushing yards, that was despite missing the first four games due to suspension. The Dolphins defense will have to slow him down.

Linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier lead a Steelers defense that aren’t total household names, but they have made plays when they’ve had to. They’re going to have to make those big plays to slow down the Dolphins offense.

NFC:

Byes: Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons

Detroit Lions (9-7) at Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1) Saturday 8:15PM ET (NBC)

Lions quarterback Matt Stafford finished sixth in passing. Stafford must make sure his receivers Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and Anquan Boldin and tight end Eric Ebron have opportunities to catch the ball and avoid the interceptions. With Theo Riddick on injured reserve, will the Lions abandon the run game altogether or can Dwayne Washington be able to move the chains?

The defense finished in the middle of the pack but have veteran players that can do the job, tackle Haloti Ngata and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah lead the way upfront. Their best secondary guy, cornerback Darrius Slay has been bothered by a hamstring injury, if he’s able to play, he can give the Seahawks receivers fits.

As for the Seahawks, quarterback Russell Wilson made some crucial plays but also some bad interceptions. He has his playmakers: receivers Doug Baldwin (who finished just outside the top ten in receiving yards) and Jermaine Kearse, who’s also made some big plays this season and of course tight end Jimmy Graham. The Seahawks had 18 (yes, you read that right) players run the ball this season, most by any team since 1987.

The Legion of Boom defense has been just that, finishing top five in the league once again. They have a great mix of veterans and young guys, led by linebacker Bobby Wagner, who led the league in tackles, defensive ends Cliff Avril, Frank Clark and Malcolm Bennett, who recently got himself a nice pay raise. The secondary has been stellar once again, with cornerback Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. They’ve done well without safety Earl Thomas, but now we’ll get to see how the defense really fares.

New York Giants (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (11-5) Sunday 4:40PM ET (FOX)

Giants won both playoff meetings in Green Bay in ’07 and ’11, so don’t expect the Giants to be terrified at the thought of playing a playoff game in Lambeau Field. Some have even said that the winner of this game could advance to the Super Bowl.

Quarterback Eli Manning threw for 26 touchdowns in the regular season. He has his main guy, receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who finished number three in receiving yards and caught ten touchdowns. Manning must spread the ball to fellow receiver Victor Cruz and tight end Larry Donnell. They finished 29th in the league in rushing so running backs Rashad Jennings and perhaps rookie Paul Perkins must help move the chains as well.

The Giants finished top ten in total overall defense. Safety Landon Collins led the team in tackles and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie finished tied for second in the league in interceptions. Something to look out for though, cornerback Janoris Jenkins has a sore back, we’ll see if he plays on Sunday.  Defensive end Olivier Vernon must lead the way up front to pressure Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Speaking of Rodgers, he finished number four in the league in passing yards and threw for 40 touchdowns and only seven interceptions overcoming a slow start. He has his slew of playmakers: Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams (who’s catching the ball), and Randall Cobb, who’s dinged up with an injury at the moment, also tight end Richard Rodgers. It seems that the Packers have given up on the run game, but expect the versatile Ty Montgomery to get touches on the ground.

The defense didn’t have the best stats in the regular season but they have players that are capable of making big plays. Safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who was named to his first Pro Bowl and Morgan Burnett, who led the team in tackles have done just that in the secondary. Don’t forget about veteran linebackers Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews.

Should be a great wild card weekend, enjoy!!!