NFL Wild-Card Round Preview

Blake Krantz

by Blake Krantz
Heading into the first round of the 2016 NFL playoffs this weekend, many storylines leave fans nationwide clueless as to who are the “favorites” in each conference and which wildcard teams are poised to make a deep run into the playoffs. In fact, many would be minimally surprised if Super Bowl 50 includes two six-seeds facing off.
In the four playoff games that will comprise the wild-card round, all four road teams are favorites, undermining the advantage of home field advantage and only increasing the intrigue paired with this weekend’s games.
By Sunday night, four teams will have advanced to face either the Denver Broncos or New England Patriots in the AFC or either the Carolina Panthers or Arizona Cardinals in the NFC, teams who will be at home watching the wild card round on a bye.
With that in mind, these are the four wild card games that will take place this weekend:
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Houston Texans– When Kansas City travels to Houston to face the AFC South champion Texans Saturday afternoon, they will carry a 10-game win streak with them. In a ten-game stretch in which the Chiefs have looked like a legitimate contender, balance has been the key. The defense, and particularly the pass rush, have played well, and an optimal balance of run and pass has fueled the Kansas City attack on offense. Quarterback Alex Smith has also proven himself to be a mobile threat, a factor which the Texans’ defense will need to address in the game. For Houston, J.J. Watt and the defensive line need to find a way to make influential and pivotal games, and star receiver Deandre Hopkins will likely need multiple deep pass receptions to incite the Houston crowd. Ultimately, this will not be enough for Houston, and the Chiefs will pull of the playoff win on the road by a field goal.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals- This AFC North matchup is perhaps the most intriguing of all. The first two times that these two teams faced off this season, the road team won each time, and once again, the road team, the Steelers, is favored to win this one. One of, if not the most explosive offenses in the NFL, Pittsburgh and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have consistently put up large totals to support a somewhat vulnerable defense. Wide receivers Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant are the main targets for Roethlisberger, and each should score and have a good game in this one. For the Bengals, quarterback A.J. McCarron has stepped in nicely after starting quarterback Andy Dalton went down, and playmakers such as A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, and Jeremy Hill aid the Bengals’ chances to win this one at home. Ultimately, as long as Roethlisberger avoids throwing interceptions and turning the ball over, the Steelers should pull this one out and advance to face the Broncos, in a hard-fought contest between two familiar teams.
Green Bay Packers vs. Washington Redskins- The collapse of the perennially contending Packers to “average,” highlighted by a Week 17 loss to Minnesota at home, has been astonishing. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has drastically underperformed compared to his standard, but he generally has his teammates to blame. The loss of wide receiver Jordy Nelson has finally taken its toll on the Green Bay offense, weakening a passing attack that is currently paired with a futile running game from Eddie Lacy in particular. On the other hand, the Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins has played extremely well at FedEx Field this season, and Cousins has thrown 11 touchdowns in his last three games. Although Green Bay is favored in this one, I see home field being more of a factor in this one than any other, and Washington will win a close game to advance to the divisional round.
Seattle Seahawks vs. Minnesota Vikings- After a rough start to the season, Seattle and quarterback Russell Wilson are on fire, and suddenly are many people’s favorite pick to emerge from the six-seed to return to win the NFC and return to the Super Bowl for the third straight season. In this case, a win against Green Bay in Week 17 may have hurt the Vikings as they now have to face one of the best teams in football, albeit on their home field. Seattle’s Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch may return in this game, and Wilson is one of the top men that you want under center leading your team come playoff time. Despite a likely hard-fought effort from the Viking’s star running back Adrian Peterson, the Seahawks should win in Minnesota in this one by a fairly large margin, setting up a divisional round matchup for Seattle against the 15-1 Carolina Panthers.