Last week, the New England Patriots were able to close out the regular season in dominating fashion with a 28-0 win over the Miami Dolphins. The defense had seven sacks on Ryan Tannehill (3 from Justin Francis) and saw the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski on offense. The Pats did have an injury scare with the strained hip muscles that linebacker Rob Ninkovich injured in the 2nd quarter, but all accounts suggest that he will be ready for the Patriots’ Divisional Playoff game which will be played next Sunday at 4:30 EST on CBS. Yes, the Patriots have a 1st round bye in this year’s playoffs due in part to the Houston Texans losing to the Indianapolis Colts.
With no Patriots’ game preview to cover this week; I am going to do a yearly tradition I have done for the past two years at Foxboro Blog. Instead of one mega preview, I will give you readers a small preview of each of the four Wild Card matchups that will be played this weekend.
With that being said, here are my keys and picks for the Wild Card games, starting with the NFC:
(6) Vikings at (3) Packers (Saturday, 8:00 EST. NBC)
Round Three of this NFC North rivalry kicks off on Saturday at Lambeau Field just six days after the two teams played a thriller in Minnesota. The Vikings clinched their ticket to the postseason party after beating the Packers 37-34 despite running back Adrian Peterson falling nine yards short of the single season rushing record. The gametime weather conditions call for snow flurries and 26 degrees. On the Minnesota side, how far can AP take them? Peterson has averaged over 200 yards per game in two contests vs. the Packers this year. However, the key on the Vikings side for me is quarterback Christian Ponder. Ponder did have three touchdowns last week vs. Green Bay, but in the first matchup back in Lambeau on December 2nd, the former FSU QB had only 119 yards passing and two interceptions. If he can make some big 3rd down passes, it will help Minnesota prevent the Packers from stacking the box on every play with eight or nine guys.
As for the Packers, the key to this game is their defense. Under Dom Capers, this team has improved in defending the pass from a year ago. They are 11th at defending the pass, giving up just 218 yards per game. The X-Factor for the Packers would be Charles Woodson because he has been cleared to play for the playoffs. His presence should help a player like rookie Casey Hayward who leads the team with six interceptions.
For this game, I am picking Green Bay to win. The reason is I don’t think Christian Ponder can win this one on the road with his arm even though Adrian Peterson will probably run for 150+ yards. Also, the Packers might get wide receiver Randall Cobb back which will be a boost to their injured receiving corps as well as their return game.
PACKERS 34 VIKINGS 23
(5) Seahawks at (4) Redskins (Sunday, 4:30, FOX)
This game features two of the leading candidates for offensive rookie of the year in quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III. Both rookies have rejuvenated their respective franchises and have both teams. These teams both are young at a lot of key positions which could make this a playoff matchup for years to come.
For the Seahawks, their strength is on the defensive side of the ball. Patriots’ fans know all about cornerback Richard Sherman and his trash talk. Sherman, however, has backed up his trash with some awesome treasure-like play to the figures of eight interceptions. This includes four interceptions in his last three games. For Seattle, all eyes will be on the return of the other star cornerback Brandon Browner. Browner returns after serving a four game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. I am interested to see how many reps he gets out there against players like Pierre Garcon and Santana Moss on the outside for Washington.
As for the Redskins, the key will be their running attack and another rookie (Alfred Morris). Morris ran for 200 yards and three touchdowns in their win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. He has gone on a tear his last four games with seven rushing touchdowns. If Washington can run the ball successfully, it will allow them to successfully run play action plays, which they run 63% of the time on early down situations. With RGIII now about 100% healthy, the read option and play action bootlegs will be out in full effect.
My prediction is this game will be a close ballgame because of the identical styles these two teams play with running the ball and using the play action. Due to the home field advantage, I am picking the Redskins to win this one due to the success of Alfred Morris and the ability for the Washington defense to contain Marshawn Lynch.
REDSKINS 20 SEAHAWKS 17
AFC WILD CARD PICKS
(6) Bengals at (3) Texans (Saturday, 4:30, NBC)
No, you did not rewind back in time to last year. For the second straight season, the Bengals and Texans will matchup on Wild Card Saturday at Reliant Stadium. Last year, the Texans won this matchup 31-10, but Houston comes in reeling this year. Over the last three weeks, Houston has gone from being the best team in the AFC to playing on Wild Card Weekend. They go up against a Bengals’ team that has won seven of its last eight games and has one of the best pass rushes in the National Football League.
There is one Texan that is making his playoff debut that did not play last season and that is quarterback Matt Schaub. Schaub had 21 touchdowns to nine interceptions when Houston started 11-1. Over the last three games, he has had just one touchdown and two interceptions. Last year, Arian Foster ran for 150+ yards against Cincy in the Wild Card game. They need balance to win this football game, as do the Bengals.
Last year, the Bengals did not have a good offensive gameplan. They threw the ball over 40 times, which led to three Andy Dalton interceptions. Will the gameplan change for offensive coordinator Jay Gruden now that the Law Firm is in business? BenJarvus Green-Ellis has run for over 1,000 yards this season, which includes four 100+ yard rushing games in his last six games. Houston’s defensive strength is in their front seven. The battle of the trenches between Cincy’s offensive line and Houston’s defensive line is the matchup I am looking forward to seeing in this one.
For me, it comes down to the defensive line to settle my prediction. Cincy has a great player on its defensive line in Geno Atkins and his 12.5 sacks, but Houston has J.J Watt and his 20.5 sacks who can cause havoc for Dalton with both interceptions and tipped passes. Houston is going to come out as the team that nobody thinks they are going to win. That motivation along with Houston’s offensive balance is going to book them another trip to Foxboro next week!
TEXANS 27 BENGALS 21
(5) Colts at (4) Ravens (Sunday, 1:00, CBS)
This game, for me, is the most intriguing game of the weekend. You have basically two emotional teams squaring off in Baltimore. One team is playing for their head coach who is back on the sideline after battling leukemia while the other team is playing to give one of their best defensive players ever one more game. There is also a reunion with Colts’ head coach Chuck Pagano as he re-unites with the team that he used to be the defensive coordinator for. It will be interesting to see if the emotion of the game will affect any of these teams in a negative fashion.
For the Colts, all the storylines center around their rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. While Luck broke the single-season rookie passing yards record, he also has had a habit of giving the ball away that is borderline Sanchez-esque. Luck had 18 interceptions to go with 10 fumbles in the 2012 campaign. However, Luck has not turned the ball over in each of his last three games. The one thing you have to like about the former Stanford QB is even when he throws two or three INT’s, it doesn’t phase him in the latter stages of the game, hence the seven fourth quarter comebacks.
As for the Ravens, all the attention has been around Ray Lewis and his retirement, but former Colts head coach and now Raven offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell needs to find a way to use running back Ray Rice. Rice is the centerfold of this offense, but it seems like this year, the Ravens have tried to show off quarterback Joe Flacco’s talents. Now, the former Delaware QB did throw for over 300+ yards against the Giants, but he also has been sacked 14 times in the last six games. This Raven offensive line has a lot of holes that they need to plug up. Otherwise, the duo that has haunted Tom Brady for years in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis could have a field day (13 sacks combined).
I think both quarterbacks will throw two interceptions in this one in an ugly low scoring contest. Give me the quarterback that can shake off those interceptions and have it not damage his performance for four quarters. Plus, the best offensive receiver on the field is Reggie Wayne. Luck throws a late TD to Wayne to keep the Chuck Strong movement going.
COLTS 20 RAVENS 16