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NFL picks: Can Raiders, Lions prevail on the road in Saturday's wild-card games?

Just a few weeks ago, both the Lions and the Raiders were strong contenders to win their respective divisions. Now, they’re both playing on the road during the first round of the playoffs.

As recently as three weeks ago, it appeared that both Detroit and Oakland would be celebrating division titles this season, the Raiders possibly while also enjoying a bye to open the postseason.

Life comes at you fast.

Instead, it’s the Raiders and Lions who will take on the first two road tests of the postseason: Oakland in Houston to kick off the 2016 season’s playoffs, Detroit in Seattle for Wild-Card Weekend’s lone prime-time affair.

Can either earn the right to hit the road again next week? Or will the host Texans and Seahawks play on into the divisional round?

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Four-Man Front

A quartet of players who could be key to Saturday’s matchups:

1. Jalen Richard, RB, Raiders: Oakland will have a difficult time advancing down the field in small chunks Saturday. It’s going to take a home run-type play or two to hang points on the scoreboard. Richard is the most dangerous big-play threat in the Raiders’ backfield. He is also a key man on special teams, with a combined 708 return yards this season. If a Raider takes it to the house from distance, odds are Richard will be the one with the ball in his hands.

2. Vince Wilfork, DT, Texans: Is this the end of the line for the 35-year-old space-eater? Wilfork said he will contemplate retirement once this seasons wraps. Before that, he’ll be a focal point up front for Houston’s run defense Saturday. He returned from a one-game absence to play a critical role vs. Oakland earlier in the year, as the Texans stymied the Raiders’ rushing attack. If Oakland can’t move him off his spot inside, running between the tackles will be almost impossible.

3. Kerry Hyder, DE, Lions: Hyder had to battle his way onto the roster this preseason, and it’s a good thing for the Lions he was up to the challenge. He finished the regular season with a team-leading 8.0 sacks, and he may have been Detroit’s most consistent defender, period, in 2016. Hyder can make plays off the edge or slide down inside to tackle and push the pocket. Either way, the Seahawks’ maligned offensive line will have its hands full keeping him off Russell Wilson.

4. Devin Hester, WR, Seahawks: Yep, “Devin Hester, Seahawks” looks weird. As of just this week, though, the all-time great return man has joined up with Seattle to help replace Tyler Lockett on special teams. Even with his career running on fumes, Hester averaged 24.5 yards on kick returns for Baltimore this year, and we all know what he’s done in the past as a punt returner. The rub: He fumbled five times as a Raven, four of those coming on punts.

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So, this is happening. The AFC South champion Texans will turn back to their $72 million man at QB, Brock Osweiler, a mere three weeks after he was benched for Tom Savage. And Osweiler will by far the more seasoned of the two starting quarterbacks Saturday. Oakland—by default after its top two options fell to injury—will roll with rookie Connor Cook, who just threw his first 21 career passes last Sunday and hasn’t started a game since Michigan State’s playoff loss to Alabama.

In doing so, Cook will become the first quarterback in NFL history to make his debut in a playoff game.

“Anything can happen,” Cook said this week, per the Raiders’ website. “Anything can change with a drop of the hat. So, you just always have to be ready and whether it’s out there on the practice field getting mental reps, putting yourself through it mentally to now actually getting reps, you just have to approach every single day like it’s the same.”

Cook completed 14 of 21 passes for 150 yards, a TD and an interception at Denver last week, in relief of Matt McGloin (shoulder). Afterward, OT Donald Penn admitted to The Mercury News, “It’s the first time I’d heard [Cook’s] voice in the huddle.”

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The Raiders had been closing in on the AFC West title and a first-round bye when starting QB Derek Carr broke his fibula in Week 16. A Week 17 loss to Denver bumped the Raiders to second place in their division and the No. 5 seed. Which means Cook has to solve Houston’s No. 2-ranked pass defense, on the road.

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The Texans have not been as formidable up front without the injured J.J. Watt (they had 31 sacks this season, tied for 24th), but they have proven stingy in the secondary. In fact, the only team to top 270 yards passing against them this season was, ironically enough, Oakland—Carr threw for 295 and three TDs in a come-from-behind 27–20 win over Houston in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, back on Nov. 21.

That game marked one of Osweiler’s better outings as a Texan, too (26 of 39 for 243 yards, one TD and one INT), at least when he wasn’t getting laser pointers to the face. The Raiders led that game 20-13 in the fourth quarter, until TD passes from Carr to Jamile Ozawale and Amari Cooper bookended a controversial Oakland defensive stand in its red zone—the Texans’ Akeem Hunt appeared to pick up a first down at the Raiders’ 15, but he was marked short and the call upheld on replay.

Still, Osweiler’s outing is one to file away. He targeted TEs C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffen a combined 15 times for nine completions and 114 yards; Oakland allowed 64.1 yards per game to opposing tight ends, the fifth-highest clip in the league.

Lamar Miller also rushed for 104 yards vs. Oakland, while the Texans held the Raiders—and their physical O-line—to just 30 yards on 20 rushing attempts. If this turns into a ball-control game, as it very well might, the Raiders will have to reverse those numbers to pull off the victory.

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That is, unless Cook can replicate some of Carr’s success through the air. He gives Oakland a better shot in that regard than McGloin would have, if for no other reason than that Cook is willing and able to stretch the field vertically. The Raiders’ early game plan vs. Denver, before McGloin left with a shoulder injury, pointed toward a far less aggressive approach with the veteran in the lineup.

Both Cook and Osweiler will have to be aware of the defenders coming at them off the edge. Oakland boasts Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack (11.5 sacks) and Bruce Irvin (7.0), while Houston counters with Pro Bowler Jadeveon Clowney (6.0) and Whitney Mercilus (7.5).

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The NFL playoffs are unpredictable by nature—one-game, win-or-go-home setups always are. But if there is a safe bet to be made this weekend, here it is: The Lions will trail at some point during the fourth quarter Saturday night.

In 15 of its 16 games this season, Detroit trailed at some point during the fourth quarter. The lone exception was a Week 13 trip to New Orleans that the Lions led from the 8:14 mark of the first quarter on. Their eight other victories this year were of the come-from-behind variety.

Only twice did Jim Caldwell’s team pull the trick away from home, though: Week 1 at Indianapolis and Week 9 at Minnesota. All, the Lions finished 3–5 on the road and 0–3 in outdoor games, with an average of 15.7 points. They will receive no break from the elements Saturday night when they visit Seattle (current forecast: low 30s with a mixture of precipitation), where the Seahawks famously own a significant home-field advantage.

“They do a great job with home-field, create a lot of noise,” Detroit QB Matthew Stafford said. “The 11 guys between the white lines are pretty solid, too. That’s our biggest challenge is playing the guys on their team. [Pete] Carroll does a great job of getting those guys ready to play and they come out and play well, especially at home.”

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The Lions’ chances of quieting the crowd rely on exposing Seattle’s own potential weaknesses, most glaring of which are: 1) a secondary that has not been the same since losing all-world safety Earl Thomas to a broken leg in Week 14, and b) an offensive line that has been hit or miss, at best.

Seattle allowed just 18.3 points per game this season (third-best in the NFL), but that number rose to 24.5 in Weeks 14–17, sans Thomas—that’s with a 24–3 win over the hapless Rams included, too.

Not only is Thomas critical to Seattle’s defensive communication, he is the trigger man of their secondary, roaming the middle of the field in their preferred Cover-3 scheme. Without him, Steven Terrell has stepped into the starting lineup and the Seahawks have been far more susceptible to big plays.

“Earl is a unique player,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said, via HeraldNet. “He’s an extraordinary player, he’s proved that. No matter what position a guy plays, you miss that unique quality. We’re always talking about uniqueness and Earl is a fantastic football player. You’re just going to miss him. He’s got leadership, he’s got play-making in him and he’s got great experience. That’s Earl.”

Stafford lives more in short and intermediate windows within the Jim Bob Cooter offense, but he usually takes a handful of shots per game, usually near the sideline. Terrell could be responsible for helping there; he’ll definitely need to be aware of TE Eric Ebron and WR Golden Tate running routes across the middle of the field.

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Seattle can cover any trouble spots deep with its pass rush, led by two double-digit sack producers off the edge (Frank Clark and ex-Lion Cliff Avril) plus the versatile Michael Bennett. Detroit’s banged-up O-line—both center Travis Swanson and RT Riley Reiff are questionable for Saturday—has been overwhelmed during the second half of three straight losses, to the Giants, Cowboys and Packers.

The matchup on the ground favors Seattle, as well. The NFC West champion Seahawks allowed a mere 3.4 yards per attempt this season, an NFL-best number, so new Lions’ No. 1 RB Zach Zenner will find the going difficult. Detroit’s defense came in at 4.4 yards per attempt, good news for Seattle RBs Thomas Rawls and Alex Collins.

The Lions’ defensive line also hit the wall in Weeks 16 and 17. Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys simply took over en route to a 42–21 win, then Aaron Rodgers schooled Detroit to clinch the NFC North last Sunday night.

A standout performance from DE Ziggy Ansah is almost a must (2.0 sacks in the regular season). So, too, is a full game from CB Darius Slay, who has been dogged by a hamstring injury. When he’s on the field, he has shutdown potential. Without him, the Lions’ secondary might be doomed—it allowed 31 TD passes this season and ranked dead last in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

Even if the Lions do manage to hold Seattle’s receivers in check, there’s still Jimmy Graham to worry about. He caught 65 passes for 923 yards and six TDs during the regular season. Detroit’s defense, meanwhile, struggled all year to harness tight ends.

Containing Russell Wilson will be a chore. He, like Rodgers last week, thrives when he breaks contain and can make plays outside the pocket.