NFL wildcard weekend is here! Three of the four home teams go in as underdogs, some rightly so but what do you need to know ahead of this weekend’s action?
NFC Wildcard games
Seattle Seahawks (#6 seed) @ Minnesota Vikings (#3 seed)
What you need to know about Seattle
They are led by star quarterback Russell Wilson who has thrown 26 touchdowns and just one interception in the last seven weeks. Wilson’s form resurgence has led to the coming of Doug Baldwin who caught 14 touchdowns this season (equal most in the NFL) including 12 in the last seven games.
While Seattle is smoking hot offensively, their defense has been as miserly as ever. The rank second in least points conceded per game and first in least yardage conceded and come in full of confidence despite facing a challenging path littered with road games.
What you need to know about Minnesota
One of the surprise packets of the season, the Vikings have built a strong season around their running game and defense. The Vikings rank 4th in yards gained per rush, led by star Adrian Petersen who led the league in both yards rushed per game and total rushing yards. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater attempted the least passes per game of any quarterback in the league, due to the strong rushing game but this may well play into Seattle’s hands.
Seattle is ranked #1 in points conceded and rushing yards conceded per game, meaning Bridgewater may well have to pass and his performance against teams with top 10 DVOA ratings this season were concerning. DVOA measures team efficiency based on game situation and opponent, and Bridgewater threw just 4 touchdown passes and 4 interceptions and took 25 sacks in 6 games against opponents with top 10 DVOA ratings.
Seattle do not have home field, but have Minnesota covered in every other aspect of this game
Prediction – Seattle 20, Minnesota 13
Green Bay Packers (#5 seed) @ Washington Redskins (#4 seed)
What you need to know about Green Bay
Aaron Rodgers is the reigning NFL MVP but he is without his #1 wide receiver (Jordy Nelson), has seen a noticeable drop in production from his best running back (Eddie Lacy) and is getting little to no protection from his offensive line. These struggles reflect in the numbers, as Rodgers ranks just 24th in pass completion percentage, 25th in pass yards per game and 30th in yards per pass.
Those offensive numbers are less than ideal, but defensively the Packers have also struggled, conceding more than 27 points per game to other playoff teams. Furthermore, they are just 1-4 against teams with winning records since Week 3, having stumbled to a 10-6 record in an unconvincing manner.
What you need to know about Washington
The Redskins position as the #4 seed should be taken with a pinch of salt, as they won one of the weaker divisions the NFL has had in many a year. Washington defeated just one team with a record better than 0.500 but their last month has been superb as the offense has averaged more than 30 points per game. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has marshalled this team very well, utilising wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon and tight end Jordan Reed while leading the NFL in completion percentage (69.3%) and throwing more touchdowns in the last four weeks than every other quarterback bar Russell Wilson.
The Redskins rush defense has been superb and will place even more pressure on Rodgers to excel in the passing games; they concede the second-least yards per rush and just 122 rushing yards per game, ranking them 7th in this category.
The bookmakers see this as a 50/50 game, and it comes down to having a quarterback you trust versus one you don’t. Even the great Aaron Rodgers is pushing the proverbial uphill in a matchup where most things are running against him.
Prediction – Washington 24, Green Bay 21
AFC Wildcard games
Pittsburgh Steelers (#6 seed) @ Cincinnati Bengals (#3 seed)
What you need to know about Pittsburgh
No team is more formidable offensively in the passing game than the Steelers. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for the 3rd most passing yards per game in NFL history this season in part due to the multitude of weapons available to him. Star wide receiver Antonio Brown is the preeminent player in his position, ranking second in total receiving yards after leading the league in this category last season. Brown is well supported by Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, with this triple-headed monster likely to give the Cincinnati secondary fits. With running back DeAngelo Williams doubtful due to injury, the passing game must be on task for Pittsburgh.
Defensively, the Steelers are outstanding at rushing the passer but beyond that they have struggled to contain opponents on that side of the ball. The Steelers concede the third-most passing yards per game and have allowed opposition quarterbacks to complete more passes than any other playoff team.
What you need to know about Cincinnati
The playoffs have not been kind to the Bengals; they have lost in the wildcard round the last four years. This season they face the possibility of being without franchise quarterback Andy Dalton, who has a broken thumb and is unlikely to play. What the Bengals do have is a lethal wide receiver/tight end combo in A.J.Green and Tyler Eifert, both of who are among the league leaders in touchdowns.
Defensively the Bengals have been superb, allowing a total of just three passing touchdowns in the last six weeks. In terms of volume, teams pass against the Bengals more than any other team, and rush against them less than any other team this is likely to remain the same this week. If Cincinnati can continue their outstanding recent pass defense, they are well placed to break their playoff drought.
This shapes as a battle of two elite groups - Pittsburgh’s passing game against Cincinnati’s passing defense. It could go either way but ‘Big Ben’ is a good bet to find Brown and co. often enough to rack up a winning score
Prediction – Pittsburgh 27, Cincinnati 24
Kansas City Chiefs (#5 seed) @ Houston Texans (#4 seed)
What you need to know about Kansas City
The Chief come into this wildcard match on a 10-game winning streak on the back of an outstanding defense that has conceded less than 12 points per game over that period. Their rush defence, led by Marucs Peters has held opponents to the second lowest pass completion percentage in the league as well as forcing the second-most interceptions to be thrown in the NFL.
On offense, quarterback Alex Smith is a low-volume, high-efficiency player who has thrown the least interceptions of all starting quarterbacks. While having Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce to throw to, and both being strong threats, Kansas City rely heavily on their running game. They lead the league in rushing touchdowns and rank third in yards per rush.
What you need to know about Houston
Defense, defense, defense…the Texans concede the 7th least points per game, the third least yards per game and no team allows their opponents less third-down conversions. Led by superstar J.J.Watt, the pass defence ranks 3rd in sacks per game and has not allowed any visiting team to pass 27 points.
The Texans need the defense to be this strong as the offense is a mess. Injuries and other issues have resulted in Houston using four quarterbacks this season, and starter Brian Hoyer ranks among the bottom 10 quarterbacks in completion percentage and touchdowns thrown. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins has been one of the better positional players in the league, ranking third in total receiving yards and fifth in yards per game but has done most of his damage against weaker teams, passing 100 receiving six times but none of those have been against fellow playoff teams.
This game figures to be a battle of the defences, and may be the hardest to pick of the wildcard weekend. Kansas City’s form line, as well as their options on offense gives them an ever so slight edge in what looms as a dour struggle
Prediction – Kansas City 17, Houston 15