After 17 weeks of ups, downs, twists, and turns, the NFL has finally reached its second season: the playoffs. These playoffs are more wide open than ever before, and there is a case for all 12 teams to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in 30 days. It all starts with Wild Card Weekend, and here is a preview of this weekend's games:
Kansas City Chiefs @ Houston Texans, Saturday, 4:35 PM EST, ESPN
The Chiefs and Texans have both had very similar roads to the postseason. They played each other in Week 1, where the Chiefs pulled out a 27-20 win in Houston. After that game, the Chiefs lost five straight, but turned it around and won their last ten games. The Texans started out 2-5, but an undefeated November put them back in contention. Two losses to Buffalo and New England sent them down a shaky path, but they ended the season strong, winning three divisional games en route to winning the AFC South.
Both teams are riding momentum, but one team's momentum will come to a crashing halt Saturday afternoon. Both teams have similar journeys, but they also have similar winning formulas. Both teams win the game on defense. Kansas City and Houston have two of the best front sevens in the NFL, led by Justin Houston and J.J. Watt, respectively.
Nobody has a winning streak longer than the Chiefs, and many people are choosing them to win this game against the 9-7 Texans, who people are underestimating because they won the weakest division in the league. However, the Chiefs' biggest mistake would be to overlook the Texans. Houston allowed the third-fewest yards all season, and defeated the AFC North Champion Bengals and 10-6 New York Jets with a backup quarterback. Now, Brian Hoyer, who threw for 19 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in nine starts, is back under center for the Texans.
I'm picking the Texans to win, not because they are my favorite team, but because I think the Chiefs' win streak does not say the whole story. They almost lost to the Johnny Manziel-led Browns team at home just two weeks ago, and they are going into Houston, where the roof will be closed at NRG Stadium and home-field advantage will be in full effect. They have not lost a home playoff game in franchise history, and the Chiefs have not won a playoff game in their last eight trips to the postseason. That number will becomes nine on Saturday.
Jeremy Brener's pick: Texans, 21-13.Jim Buzinski: Chiefs, 16-10.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals, Saturday, 8:15 PM EST, CBS
For the previous four seasons, the Bengals have entered the playoffs looking for their first playoff win since 1990, only to exit at wild card weekend. Most of the blame had been placed on Andy Dalton for the losses, but now, the blame can't be placed on him, as he has been ruled out for Saturday's game with an injury to his thumb, which happened the last time the Steelers went to Cincinnati in Week 14.
A.J. McCarron took Dalton's place and was under center for most of the last four games of the season, where he threw for 832 yards and six touchdowns. He threw zero interceptions in his three starts, which resulted in two wins and one overtime loss that would have gotten them the #1 seed had they won. McCarron's offensive production is average; he won't make mistakes but he won't put up flashy enough numbers to win the game. Ben Roethlisberger, on the other hand, can put up flashy enough numbers to win the game.
In eight of the Steelers' wins in which Roethlisberger took a snap this season, the Steelers scored 28 points or more. The offense is electric and the receiving corps led by Antonio Brown is arguably the best in the league. The team will be even harder to stop if DeAngelo Williams plays Saturday night. Williams hurt his ankle last Sunday and will likely be a game-time decision. The way to beat the Steelers is to stop the pass and the run in their multi-dimensional offense. If Williams doesn't play, it will certainly help the Cincinnati defense out. The Steelers are being labeled as the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs, simply because they are the hardest team to stop on offense, but it is certainly not impossible to stop the Steelers. The Ravens held them to just 17 points two weeks ago.
If the Bengals had Dalton, this would be a different story. The Steelers are going to try and make the game a shootout, and with A.J. McCarron under center, the first team to 21 will win the game. I like the Steelers to be the first to 21 and to advance to face Denver.
Jeremy: Steelers 31, Bengals 17. Jim: Steelers 24-10.
Seattle Seahawks @ Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, 1:05 PM EST, NBC
Temperatures are expected to be below zero in the first outdoor playoff game in Minnesota in almost 40 years. The Vikings won the division on the road at Lambeau Field last Sunday night, but people wonder if they actually got the better outcome because they now have to face the two-time defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks were 2-4 after six games, but have since gone 8-2 and find themselves as the sixth seed. Their 10-6 record could be 15-1 had they held the fourth quarter leads they relinquished in five of their six losses. The staple of the team over the past two seasons has been its defense, but this season, despite injuries to many key offensive playmakers, Russell Wilson became the first Seattle Seahawk quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards and took the offense to new heights, averaging more than 26 points per game. Luckily for them, Marshawn Lynch, who has missed several weeks recovering from sports hernia surgery, is slated to play on Sunday.
The Vikings have a tough task ahead of them, but they can handle it. They have won three straight, including a road win at Green Bay to clinch the division. The offense is lead by Adrian Peterson, this year's leading rusher, and Teddy Bridgewater. However, the root of the team's success is the defense. There aren't many big names on defense, but they have a consistent unit with second-year linebacker Anthony Barr, nose tackle Linval Joseph, and 2014 All-Pro safety Harrison Smith.
The Vikings are tied with the Chiefs for the second-youngest team in the playoffs and only trail the Texans. Many players are just getting their feet wet in the playoffs, while the Seahawks are comprised of most of their Super Bowl team from the past two seasons. Experience counts in the playoffs, and the Vikings lack the offense necessary to beat the stout Seattle defense. The Seahawks beat the Vikings 38-7 in Week 13 in Minnesota, and even though the score won't be as lopsided, the Seahawks will win convincingly.
Jeremy: Seahawks, 31-13. Jim: Vikings 16-13.
Green Bay Packers @ Washington Redskins, Sunday, 4:40 PM EST, FOX
The last game of the weekend is perhaps the most interesting game and my game of the week. The Packers are coming into this game having lost six of 10 after a 6-0 start. Meanwhile, the Redskins are on a four-game winning streak and have the most accurate passer in the NFL, Kirk Cousins.
The Redskins are coming off a four-win season and struggled to find stability at the quarterback position before this season. Cousins has righted this ship around. Coach Jay Gruden, who many believed should have been fired at the beginning of the season, looks like a genius. Jordan Reed had 11 touchdowns and Cousins distributed a very balanced attack with Reed, Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, and rookie Jamison Crowder all recording over 500 receiving yards. The reason this team is so dangerous is because there are so many people to worry about. And the defense has been solid throughout the year as well. Ryan Kerrigan led the team with 9.5 sacks and safety Dashon Goldson had a comeback year in his first year in D.C., leading the team with 71 tackles.
The Packers are the favorite in this game, and rightfully so. They simply have more experience than do the Redskins. Aaron Rodgers threw for 3,821 yards and the leading receiver was a big surprise: James Jones. After Jordy Nelson tore his ACL, Jones stepped in and contributed in a huge way. Tight end Richard Rodgers also caught eight touchdowns,and despite it being considered an "off" year for the Packers, they still won six straight at the beginning of the year and have the talent for a playoff run. However, we haven't seen it in the past few weeks and it could be an early offseason for Green Bay if the magic doesn't surface Sunday.
Given the momentum of the two teams, I like the Redskins to upset the Packers. The Packers' offensive line is in shambles, which will make Rodgers' day very difficult. The Redskins haven't lost since the first week in December and are going to have their home crowd behind them on Sunday. The Packers have struggled to put up points in the past two weeks and are facing a team who has put up no less than 34 points in the last three weeks. This will be the largest scoring game of the weekend.
Jeremy: Redskins, 38-35. Jim: Packers 24-21.