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