NFL Playoffs — Wild-Card Weekend Preview
The wild-card round of the NFL playoffs begins this weekend, with two games in each conference. Winners from this Saturday and Sunday will advance to next weekend’s divisional round. Here’s a preview of this weekend’s NFL playoff action:
Saturday, January 5
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans
Reliant Stadium, Houston; 4:30 p.m. (ET) on NBC
AFC South champion Houston (12-4) hosts Cincinnati (10-6) in a rematch of teams that played in last year’s AFC wild-card round, a game won by the Texans. A Super Bowl contender for most of the year, Houston lost three out of its last four games; Cincinnati has won seven of their last eight contests.
The Texans’ Arian Foster was the AFC’s second-leading rusher in 2012. His 15 touchdown runs were the most in the NFL. Houston would like to avoid putting quarterback Matt Schaub in obvious passing situations. He has been sacked 12 times in his last four games, while throwing just one touchdown pass. The Bengals finished third in the league with 51 sacks, including 12.5 by Geno Atkins and 11.5 by Michael Johnson. Cincinnati was sixth in the league in total defense, but just 12th against the run, allowing 107.2 rushing yards per game.
Quarterback Andy Dalton leads the Bengals offense, but he has five interceptions against four touchdowns in his last five games. Dalton’s favorite target is receiver A.J. Green, who had 97 receptions for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. Cincinnati running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is questionable due to a hamstring injury. The Texans rank seventh overall in total defense, but 16th against the pass, yielding 225.8 yards per game through the air. Houston finished tied for fifth in the NFL with 44 sacks, including 20.5 by league-leader J.J. Watt.
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers
Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.; 8 p.m. (ET) on NBC
NFC North champion Green Bay (11-5) hosts Minnesota (10-6) in an instant rematch of teams that played a 37-34 thriller won by the Vikings last Sunday. The setting could factor into the game, which shifts from last week’s climate-controlled dome at Mall of America Field in Minneapolis to the vaunted “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
NFL rushing champ Adrian Peterson, who ran for 199 yards against the Packers in the season finale, is the centerpiece of the Vikings offense, but quarterback Christian Ponder’s play could be more crucial to the outcome of this game. The Packers finished fourth in the NFL with 47 sacks, and they tied for eighth with 18 interceptions. Green Bay had just one sack and no INTs against Ponder in last week’s loss. Packers safety Morgan Burnett picked off two Ponder passes in a 23-14 win over Minnesota in Week 13. Green Bay expects safety Charles Woodson to return on Sunday after missing nine games due to a broken collarbone.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the NFL’s top-rated passer in 2012. He threw five touchdowns and just one interception in two games against the Vikings defense. Rodgers was also sacked an NFL-high 51 times during the season. Green Bay hopes to get wide receiver Randall Cobb back from injury for this week’s game. The Vikings defense tied for fifth in the NFL with 44 sacks, but they had just 10 interceptions, tied for 27th in the league. Minnesota cornerback Antoine Winfield left Sunday’s game with a broken hand.
Sunday, Jan. 6
Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens
M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS
A year removed from the worst record in the league, Indianapolis (11-5) will visit AFC North champion Baltimore (10-6) for the first round of the playoffs. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano will direct his team against a Ravens defense he coached from 2008 through 2011. Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell served as head coach of Indianapolis from 2009 through 2011. The Ravens have lost four of their past five games, while the Colts have won five of their last six contests.
Indianapolis rookie quarterback Andrew Luck was third in the AFC with 4,374 passing yards in 2012, but he tied for the conference lead with 18 interceptions and he was sacked 41 times. The Ravens defense is not as fierce as it has been in years past, but it still allowed just 21.5 points per game. Veteran linebacker Ray Lewis, who just announced that he would retire after this playoff run, could return from a triceps injury for Baltimore.
The Ravens’ Ray Rice was sixth in the AFC in rushing with 1,143 yards; he also caught 61 passes out of the backfield to lead all conference running backs. Rice and reserve Bernard Pierce could challenge a Colts defense that ranked 29th in the league against the run. Indianapolis forced just six fumbles, tied with Baltimore for last in the NFL. Colts linebacker Robert Mathis, who leads the team with eight sacks, was named to his fifth Pro Bowl.
Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins
FedEx Field, Landover, Md.; 4:30 p.m. (ET) on Fox
The two hottest teams in the NFC will meet when Seattle (11-5) visits NFC East champ Washington (10-6). The Seahawks have won five games in a row, but the Redskins have reeled off seven straight victories. Seattle finished 8-0 at home, but 3-5 on the road.
Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III helped reshape the Washington offense this season, but rookie running back Alfred Morris led a Redskins running attack that ranked first in the NFL with 169.3 rushing yards per game. Morris was first in the NFC with 13 rushing touchdowns. Seattle finished fourth in the league in total defense and allowed an NFL-low 15.3 points per game. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman had eight interceptions in 2012. The Seahawks will be without cornerback Walter Thurmond, who was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.
Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson was nearly flawless in his last eight games, throwing 16 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch finished third in the league in rushing with 1,590 yards. Led by ageless linebacker London Fletcher, the Washington defense ranked fifth in the league against the run, but 30th versus the pass. The Redskins picked off 21 passes, tied for third in the NFL.
[Stats and schedule via NFL.com]