N.F.L. Wild-Card Matchups: Who We Think Will Win
The Giants leapt through an arctic Lambeau Field in the postseason nine years ago, on their way to a Super Bowl parade. The 1972 Dolphins won a playoff game in wind-chilled Pittsburgh on their path to a perfect season.
Both the Giants and the Dolphins may want to channel their former selves in Sunday’s wild-card playoff games. Each team’s road to this year’s Super Bowl in Houston winds through freezing conditions (temperatures will peak in the midteens) and the city limits of a divisional champion.
The tale of Saturday’s two playoff games is all about the headline names who will not be taking their Pro Bowl talents to the line of scrimmage in Houston and Seattle.
Texans defensive end J. J. Watt (back surgery) will not be chasing down Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (broken leg), and Seahawks safety Earl Thomas (broken leg) will not be blitzing Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, an injured star who will play, albeit with a 1-3 record since dislocating his right middle finger.
Here is a look at this weekend’s wild-card playoff games and who we think will win them. All times Eastern.
Raiders (12-4) at Texans (9-7)
4:35 p.m. Saturday. Line: Texans by 3 ½
The Texans have the No. 1-ranked defense in the N.F.L. The Raiders counter with the clubhouse leader for the Defensive Player of the Year Award, Khalil Mack.
Given the available quarterbacks, this game has all the makings of an offensive slog.
In Carr’s absence, the Raiders rookie Connor Cook is set to become the first N.F.L. quarterback to make the first start of his career in the postseason. With Houston’s late-season starter, Tom Savage, in the concussion protocol, its $72 million quarterback, Brock Osweiler, will come back from the bench — where he was sent in Week 15 along with his 16 interceptions against 14 touchdowns.
The Texans will saturate the pocket with unhealthy amounts of the Pro Bowl pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney (16 tackles for a loss). Combine that with the return of the 1,073-yard rusher Lamar Miller (ankle), plus a 7-1 home record this season, and Houston should like its chances.
The Raiders’ defense will struggle to get off the field. Oakland’s offense has only 13 first downs in its 15 post-Carr drives — a sure way for the Raiders to wear out their own defense from overexposure. They will need their sixth-ranked rushing game to buy time if they are to survive the franchise’s first postseason game in 14 years. Pick: Texans
Lions (9-7) at Seahawks (10-5-1)
8:15 p.m. Saturday. Line: Seahawks by 8
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has never lost a playoff game at home. But then, he has never been asked to do so without the Pro Bowl services of Earl Thomas and running back Marshawn Lynch, who retired after last season.
In Wilson’s 10th postseason home game in five years, he will have to compensate for his team’s suddenly vulnerable pass defense and 25th-ranked rushing offense if the Seahawks, the N.F.C. West champions, are to advance.
Wilson has the requisite accuracy (64.7 percent completion rate) to pick apart the Lions’ secondary; Detroit opponents completed 72.7 percent of their passes, an N.F.L. season record. As shaky as Seattle’s offensive line has been, it will not capitulate to a Detroit pass rush that has 26 sacks, the second fewest in the league.
The Lions have lost three consecutive games since quarterback Matthew Stafford dislocated his finger, tumbling from the N.F.C. North leaders to the last wild-card team.
Stafford’s ability to throw will determine if the Lions win a playoff game for the first time since 1991, and one on the road for the first time since 1957.Pick: Seahawks
Dolphins (10-6) at Steelers (11-5)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell in the second half of a game last month against the Buffalo Bills.CreditBill Wippert/Associated Press
1:05 p.m. Sunday. Line: Steelers by 10
On Oct. 16, the Dolphins were 1-4, worst in the A.F.C. East. The Steelers were 4-1, kings of the A.F.C. North. They met in Pittsburgh, and Miami won, in a game no one considered a postseason preview. But here they both are, together again in a playoff showdown.
The Dolphins won Round 1 because running back Jay Ajayi gained 204 yards on 25 carries and scored two touchdowns. It helped that Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 24 of 32 passes for 252 yards, but he has been out with a sprained knee since Week 11. It is up to Tannehill’s replacement, Matt Moore, who is making the first postseason start of his nine-year career, to provide air cover for the running game.
Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell missed the past two postseasons with knee injuries. Now, his ligaments are as healthy as his numbers. Bell rushed 110 times in the last four games of the regular season, for 569 yards, and he averaged 187 yards from scrimmage. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who played with an injured knee in the first meeting with the Dolphins, has led the Steelers to seven consecutive victories.
Defense tips the scoreboard in Pittsburgh’s favor. This season’s team is not the Steel Curtain of old, but it pinches up inside the 20-yard line — with the N.F.L.’s fourth-ranked red-zone defense. Pick: Steelers
Giants (11-5) at Packers (10-6)
4:40 p.m. Sunday. Line: Packers by 4 ½
Giants fans keep waiting for the return of the good Eli Manning, the quarterback who won two Super Bowl rings with wild-card teams — both of them after having successfully passed through Green Bay.
Only one defense has allowed fewer points than the Giants’ this season. The Giants kept opposing teams to 10, 6 and 7 points in their last three victories. That was necessary because Manning’s offense scored 19, 17 and 10 points in those games.
The Giants need Manning to flip the playoff switch, especially if Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers turns this game into a Lambeau Leap-a-thon. That is what happens when Rodgers has at least five seconds to find open receivers. Giants cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie cannot cover their men forever, not against one of the best ad-lib throwers in the league.
Rodgers has not thrown in an interception in 245 consecutive passes, which helps explain how Green Bay won its final six games (three against playoff teams). The Packers have scored at least 30 points in each of the past four weeks to outpace the shortcomings of their own defense. Did we mention that they beat the Giants once already this season? Pick: Packers