NFL Wild Card Round Preview: Beware the 6-Seeds
The NFL playoffs begin this weekend with four games in the Wild Card round. Though four division champions will host games, the 6-seeds in each conference are the teams to watch:
Saturday, January 9
AFC Wild Card Game: (5) Kansas City Chiefs at (4) Houston Texans
NRG Stadium, Houston; 4:35 p.m. (ET) on ABC/ESPN
How They Got Here: The Kansas City Chiefs (11–5) recovered from a 1–5 start and the loss of running back Jamaal Charles to win 10 consecutive games and claim an AFC wild-card berth. The Houston Texans (9–7) rallied from a 2–5 start and a revolving door at quarterback to win the AFC South title.
Recent History: The Chiefs beat the Texans, 27-20, in Week 1.
Preview: Two of the NFL’s top seven defensive units should make the postseason’s first contest a low-scoring, hard-hitting affair. The NFL’s hottest team, Kansas City uses an efficient offense quarterbacked by Alex Smith to complement an aggressive defense which recorded the fourth-most sacks in the NFL (47) — two ahead of the sack-happy Texans. Chiefs pass-rushing stud Justin Houston is set to return after missing the last five games with a knee injury. That means big trouble for the Houston offense. The K.C. running back tandem of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware will attack the Texans defense, too.
Having used four different mediocre starting quarterbacks (Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden) this season, Houston isn’t known for offensive prowess. They do have Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but he’s likely to draw excess attention from the K.C. secondary. The best of the average QBs, Hoyer must sustain drives, eat up the clock and avoid turnovers for the Texans to wear down the more-complete Chiefs. NFL sack leader J.J. Watt needs to be his dominant self and keep Smith from getting comfortable in the pocket and marching Kansas City down the field.
AFC Wild Card Game: (6) Pittsburgh Steelers at (3) Cincinnati Bengals
Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati; 8:15 p.m. (ET) on CBS
How They Got Here: The Pittsburgh Steelers (10–6) used the AFC’s best offense to gain an AFC wild-card berth despite the loss of running back Le’Veon Bell and a sometimes leaky defense. The AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals (12–4) were often dominant this season — their fifth consecutive playoff appearance — but the loss of quarterback Andy Dalton to a broken thumb in Week 14 nearly derailed their postseason hopes.
Recent History: The teams split two games this season. The Bengals won 16-10 on November 1 and the Steelers were 33-20 victors on December 13.
Preview: As the pregame brawl prior to their Week 14 game might indicate, these teams do not like each other. Winless in the playoffs since 1990, Cincinnati will likely have to break that streak with backup A.J. McCarron — and not Dalton — at quarterback. The Bengals need their defense to find a way to slow Pittsburgh down, while McCarron manages the game — and hands off to Jeremy Hill often.
Led by Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers offense puts up big yards and point totals. Cincinnati must contain both Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant — a task that might be made easier with the ankle injury to running back DeAngelo Williams. Pittsburgh’s defense will have an easier time against McCarron than they would Dalton, but this is not a Steel Curtain. No lead should be considered safe.
Sunday, January 10
NFC Wild Card Game: (6) Seattle Seahawks at (3) Minnesota Vikings
TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis; 1:05 p.m. (ET) on NBC
How They Got Here: Two-time defending NFC champs, the Seattle Seahawks (10–6) rebounded from a 2-4 start to claim an NFC wild card spot. An upstart team, the Minnesota Vikings (11–5) rode NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson to the team’s first division title since 2009.
Recent History: The Seahawks routed the Vikings, 38-7, in Week 13.
Preview: Seattle is arguably the most-dangerous 6-seed in NFL playoff history. The Seahawks still have the same versatile offense and stout defense that led them to back-to-back Super Bowls. Quarterback Russell Wilson excelled this season despite not having the threat of ‘Beast Mode’ running back Marshawn Lynch for much of the campaign. With Lynch back in the lineup against Minnesota, Seattle should put plenty of pressure on the Vikings defense. Meanwhile, the Seahawks’ vaunted Legion of Boom defense hopes to shut down Peterson as it did in Week 13 (18 yards on eight carries).
Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater can’t be intimidated by the Seattle secondary. He needs to use Peterson to help control the tempo of the game, and test Richard Sherman and Co. when he can. The bitter-cold home-field advantage — it’s the Vikings first outdoor playoff game since 1976 — could help slow down Wilson and Lynch, but the defense likely needs to create turnovers to help beat the seasoned Seahawks.
NFC Wild Card Game: (5) Green Bay Packers at (4) Washington Redskins
FedEx Field, Landover, Md.; 4:40 p.m. (ET) on FOX
How They Got Here: The Green Bay Packers (10–6) got off to a 6–0 start before sputtering, however quarterback Aaron Rodgers helped rally the team to an NFC wild card berth. The Washington Redskins (9–7) took advantage of a mediocre NFC East and rode the hot hand of Kirk Cousins to the division title.
Recent History: The teams did not meet in 2015.
Preview: Green Bay didn’t miss game-breaking wide receiver Jordy Nelson — Rodgers’ favorite downfield target — during the early hot streak, but the Packers offense has been inconsistent over the second-half of the season. Rodgers needs help from running back Eddie Lacy and his receivers to control the ball and convert drives into points. The Packers defense has to create turnovers and get its offense back on the field.
Washington never seemed like a playoff-level team until they were. Cousins has been nearly perfect, throwing 23 touchdowns and just three interceptions over his last 10 games. If Green Bay can force him into mistakes and obvious passing downs, they can beat the Redskins. Washington has dropped its last four games against teams with a winning record; their last such contest was a 44-16 drubbing at the hands of the Panthers on November 22.
NFC: (1) Carolina Panthers (15–1) and (2) Arizona Cardinals (13–3)
AFC: (1) Denver Broncos (12–4) and (2) New England Patriots (12–4)
Remaining NFL Playoff Schedule
Saturday, January 16
AFC Divisional Round Game 1: (2) New England Patriots vs. highest remaining AFC seed at 4:35 p.m. (ET) on CBS
NFC Divisional Round Game 1: (2) Arizona Cardinals vs. highest remaining NFC seed at 8:15 p.m. (ET) on NBC
Sunday, January 17
NFC Divisional Round Game 2: (1) Carolina Panthers vs. lowest remaining NFC seed at 1:05 p.m. (ET) on Fox
AFC Divisional Round Game 2: (1) Denver Broncos vs. lowest remaining AFC seed at 4:40 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Conference Championship Round
Sunday, January 24
AFC Championship: 3 p.m. (ET) on CBS
NFC Championship: 6:40 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Super Bowl 50
Sunday, February 7
Super Bowl: AFC champion vs. NFC champion, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.; 6:30 p.m. (ET) on CBS