Let the playoffs begin. After 16 gruelling games, the NFL begins its postseason with some intriguing matchups. In the past, the wildcard weekend has produced great games, but few champions. That has changed in recent years, as the last 2 Super Bowl Champions, were wildcard teams. Could it happen 3 years in a row? Only time can answer that question. Here are my picks for this weekend’s games.
Cincinnati at Houston
A rematch of last year’s encounter, in which the Texans clobbered the Bengals 31-10, thanks to a 29 yard interception return by J.J. Watt, for a touchdown, that turned the game into the Texans favour. The Texans may need that type of play, to turn their fortunes around again. Houston is going into this game with a 2 game losing streak, that cost them home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Can head coach Gary Kubiak motivate his team, and have them ready for the playoffs?
For Houston to win, they’ll need Arian Foster to grind out yards on the ground. The fourth year back, rushed for 1,424 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, and Houston is 6-0 this season, when Foster gains over 100 yards. This does put pressure on the Bengals defence, particularly defensive tackle Geno Atkins. The former Georgia Bulldog defensive tackle, anchors the Bengals front four and will be called upon to both stop the run, and put pressure on Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.
Speaking of Schaub, this will be his first career playoff start, and it will be fascinating to see if he can handle the pressure. Schaub had a fine season for Houston, completing 64.3% of his passes for 4,008 yards, 22 touchdowns to 12 interceptions, for a QB rating of 90.7. However, Schaub only has 1 touchdown pass in his last 4 games. There are questions on whether Schaub is a big game player. He gets a chance to answer his critics. One thing is certain. Schaub will look in Andre Johnson’s direction, when in passing mode. Johnson was second in the NFL with 1,598 yards receiving, while grabbing 112 passes for 4 touchdowns. Johnson poses a difficult matchup for any corner, as he can use his 6’3 230 pound frame, to create space and passing lanes. The Bengals are decent against the pass, ranking 7th in the NFL in pass defence. The main reason is Atkins, who led the team with 12.5 sacks. If the Bengals can put pressure on Schaub, they will minimize Johnson’s effect down the field.
For the Bengals to win, the passing combo of Andy Dalton to A.J. Green must click early and often. Green, the second year receiver, has a superb season catching 97 passes for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns. Look for the Texans to roll their safeties over, to prevent big plays from the explosive Green.
Dalton had a decent sophomore season, completing 62.3% of his pass attempts for 3,669 yards, 27 touchdowns to 16 interceptions, for a QB rating of 87.4. Dalton did struggle in last year’s playoff game against the Texans, and he will need to know where J.J. Watt is at all times. The All-Pro defensive end led the NFL with 20.5 sacks, and is simply a beast coming off the edge. If Watt can get to Dalton early, it will be a long game for the Bengals.
One way for the Bengals to relieve that pressure is to run the ball. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was vital to the Bengals offence, running for 1,094 yards and 6 touchdowns. Look for the Bengals to use Green-Ellis, to curb Houston’s pass rush.
History doesn’t favour the Bengals. Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game since January 6, 1991 when they ironically defeated the old Houston Oilers 41-14. It was so long ago, Boomer Esiason was the Bengals quarterback. I know Houston is struggling, but I’m not sold on the Bengals yet. Expect a big game from Watt and company. Houston wins.
Minnesota at Green Bay
Two bitter rivals meet in Lambeau Field. The Vikings needed a last second field goal, to defeat the Packers last week, just to make the playoffs. The Packers have won 4 out of their last 5 games, going into the tournament.
The Vikings offence revolves around Adrian Peterson. The superstar running back had an amazing season, rushing for 2,097 yards, just 8 yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s long-standing record of 2,105 yards rushing in a single season. What makes it more incredible, is that Peterson wasn’t expected to play this season, after tearing his ACL in the final game of the 2011 season. The Vikings have rallied around AD, and will go as far as he can carry them.
With receiver Percy Harvin on IR, the passing game is a mess. Quarterback Christian Ponder struggled throwing the football in the second half of the season. The Florida State grad, completed 62.1% of his pass attempts for 2,935 yards, 18 touchdowns to 12 interceptions, for a QB rating of 81.2. The Vikings were 31st in throwing the football, averaging a mere 171.9 yards in the air. The only way the Vikings win this game is if Peterson has a monster game on the ground.
The Packers have no such worries throwing the football. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had another MVP type season, completing 67.2% of his pass attempts for 4,295 yards, 39 touchdowns to only 8 interceptions, for a QB rating of 108.0. With receiver Greg Jennings healthy, and the emergence of James Jones and Jordy Nelson, Rodgers has multiple weapons, in his aerial arsenal, which makes it difficult for the Vikings on whom to defend. It will be up to defensive end Jared Allen, to put pressure on Rodgers, forcing quick throws, and getting Rodgers out of rhythm.
The only concern for the Packers is run defence. The Packers ranked 11th in the NFL, defending the run, but still are prone to over pursuing their lanes and losing their angles on the tackle. If the Packers can contain Peterson, forcing Minnesota to throw the ball, I see them winning this one going away. Green Bay wins.
Indianapolis at Baltimore
Call this one the Inspirational Bowl. The Colts made the playoffs, after going 2-14 last season. Indy have been inspired by head coach Chuck Pagano, who battled leukaemia throughout the season. With the cancer in remission, Pagano returned to the sidelines in the final game of the regular season. The Ravens learned that their leader, Ray Lewis will retire at seasons’ end. Lewis suffered a torn triceps muscle in Week 6, and missed the rest of the regular season. However, Lewis is expected to play on Sunday, stating “I didn’t make the announcement, with the thought of losing in the first round of the playoffs.”
The Colts have been riding the arm of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck to the postseason. The first overall pick out of Stanford, has enjoyed an excellent rookie season, completing 54.1% of his pass attempts for 4,374 yards, 23 touchdowns to 18 interceptions, for a QB rating of 76.5. While his interception rate is high, what makes Luck special is his ability to lead his team from behind. On four separate occasions, Luck has led the Colts to victory, after trailing at some point in the fourth quarter. He doesn’t seem to get rattled, even after throwing a pick. His calm leadership has been vital to the Colts success.
Another key to the Colts success has been the re-emergence of receiver Reggie Wayne. After a tough 2012 season, Wayne recaptured his form of seasons past, leading the Colts with 106 receptions for 1,355 yards and 5 touchdowns. While not possessing the greatest speed, Wayne will use his experience and savvy, to get himself open.
The running game was a struggle for the Colts, as they ranked 22nd in the NFL in yards rushing. Vick Ballard led the team with 814 yards on the ground, but was inconsistent and disappeared for large chunks of games. The Colts cannot be one-dimensional against the Ravens defence, as Baltimore likes to force teams into the passing game, so they can use their many blitz schemes. If Indianapolis cannot get the running game going, it will be long afternoon for Luck.
The Ravens will definitely use Lewis as a motivating factor in this playoff season. There is no question that the future Hall Of Fame linebacker is the leader of the Ravens, and his return will spark his teammates. The problem is, Ray Lewis can’t play offence. That is where the Ravens struggle.
Quarterback Joe Flacco needs to step up his game, if Baltimore are to be successful. While putting up decent numbers, completing 59.7% of his passes for 3,817 yards, 22 touchdowns to 10 interceptions for a QB rating of 87.7, Flacco has yet to lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl. If Flacco ever wants to become an elite quarterback, he will need to lead the Ravens to the big show.
Ray Rice will try to relieve some of that pressure from his embattled quarterback. The former Rutgers University star, gained 1,143 yards on the ground while scoring 9 touchdowns. Rice is a bruising back who provides strength and speed from the backfield. If Rice has a big game, the Ravens chances of winning improves greatly.
A receiver to watch for is Torrey Smith. While not putting up great numbers, Smith has shown the ability to make the big play. With Anquan Bolden expected to receive double coverage from the Colts secondary, Smith will be called upon to stretch the defence, and make the important receptions down the field.
The once vaunted Ravens defence, slid down a notch this season, but they are still a force to be reckoned with. Safety Ed Reed recorded 4 interceptions, and has an uncanny knack, for being around the football. The Colts must be focused, on where Reed is at all times.
So whose inspiration is better, Pagano or Lewis? While the Colts are riding high, I do think the clock on their Cinderella story is about to strike midnight. Even though the Ravens have lost 4 out of their last 5 games, the return of Lewis will provided the extra spark, Baltimore desperately needs. The Colts are young and have a bright future, but it is now or never for the Ravens. Baltimore wins.
Seattle at Washington
This one has all the trappings of a classic. The two hottest teams in the NFL, squaring off at a noisy FedEx Field. The Seahawks come into the game, winners of their last 5 games. The Redskins are currently riding a 7 game winning streak. This is also a battle of rookie quarterbacks. Russell Wilson of the Seahawks versus Robert Griffin III of the Redskins. It is also a battle between the top rushing offence in the NFL, (Redskins) versus the defence that gave up the fewest points in the NFL. (Seahawks)
The Seahawks have been led by Wilson, who has progressed into a quality quarterback. The third round pick out of Wisconsin, completed 64.1% of his passes for 3,118 yards, 26 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, for a QB rating of 100.0. His composure has surprised many experts, but not his coaches or teammates. Wilson is very athletic, who understands when it is time to scramble out of the pocket, or to hang in the extra second, to throw the football. He will be a star in this league.
Wilson is aided by a strong running game. The Seahawks ranked third in running the football, thanks in large part to Marshawn Lynch. The beast who has a craving for Skittles candy, gained 1,590 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on the ground. Lynch’s strong running eases the burden on Wilson, and has been the primary reason Seattle is in the playoffs.
Golden Tate and Sidney Rice are dual threats on the outside. Both can stretch the field and both command double coverage. The Redskins secondary will have to make a choice on which receiver the safety rolls over to double cover. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall is a superb cover corner, who will have his hands full with either wideout.
The Redskins have RG3 to thank for their NFC East title. The second overall pick out of Baylor, had an outstanding rookie season, completing 65.6% of his pass attempts for 3,200 yards, 20 touchdowns to only 5 interceptions, for a QB rating of 102.4. RG3 is the most exciting player in football right now, and he has generated plenty of thrills in the DC area. While he is battling a knee problem that is forcing him to wear a brace, RG3 is still very effective as a runner and a passer.
Rookie running back Alfred Morris will shoulder the load on the ground. Morris enjoyed a fantastic season, gaining 1,613 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns on the ground. In the Redskins season finale against Dallas, Morris carried the ball 33 times for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns. You can make a serious argument that Morris is just as important to the Redskins offence as RG3.
Josh Morgan, Pierre Garcon and Santana Moss are the key targets in the passing game. Morgan led the team in receptions, (48) Garcon led the team in receiving yards, (633) while Moss led the team in receiving touchdowns (8). All three will need to be at their best, as they face the best secondary in the NFL. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are big, physical corners for the Seahawks who have no fear for any receiver. They will challenge the Redskins’ wideouts on every play, and force RG3 into some very difficult decisions in the passing game.
Playoff history favours the Seahawks, as they have won both playoff encounters against the Redskins. However, those games were in Seattle. This time it is the Seahawks who have to make the flight across the country for the game. Seattle is only 3-5 on the road compared to 8-0 at home. If this game was in Seattle, I would pick the Seahawks. But this game is in Washington. So my pick is with RG3 and company. Washington wins.
You can follow me on Twitter @jstar1973