So much of the opening weekend of the NFL playoffs is spent figuring out not just who can win one game, but who can get hot enough to rip off four victories in a row. Two teams playing Sunday, the Packers and Steelers, will be popular choices for such a hot streak.
Both come in red hot, as it is—the Packers are winners of six straight to take the NFC North, the Steelers of seven in a row to lock down the AFC North and the No. 3 seed.
Both also face tough tests this weekend from teams that would urge everyone not to forget about them. The Giants have made the march from wild-card weekend to the Super Bowl before, doing so in both the 2007 and ’11 seasons.
Which two teams punch the final tickets to the divisional round? Sunday’s picks:
A quartet of players who could be key to Sunday’s matchups:
1. Kenny Stills, WR, Dolphins: In Matt Moore’s first start of the season (Week 15 at the Jets), he completed just 12 passes, but four of those resulted in TDs. One reason for the high success rate: Moore’s willingness to bomb it. While Stills has yet to turn into the consistent 1,000-yard receiver some thought he could be, he has established himself as one of the league’s deadliest deep threats—his 17.3 yards per reception ranked third in the NFL this year. If Moore airs it out, Stills will be the likely target downfield.
2. Bud Dupree, OLB, Steelers: Dupree spent the first nine games of the season on IR after core-muscle surgery. He’s had a major impact since his return, producing 4.5 sacks and giving the Steelers’ defense another three-down option. That sack total actually put Dupree just a half-sack off the team-lead pace set by veteran James Harrison, who finished with 5.0 in 16 games. If the Steelers can push Miami into obvious passing downs, they can turn loose a relatively fresh Dupree.
3. Leon Hall, S, Giants: Hall opened the season as the Giants’ slot cornerback, slumped his way into being a healthy scratch for almost a month and now is set to start in a playoff game at safety. He will line up alongside Defensive Player of the Year candidate Landon Collins, whose presence should allow Hall a little freedom to take a few risks. Hall still can slide down into the slot to help cover Jared Cook, Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison or whomever the Packers employ there. A turn-back-the-clock coverage game from him would go a long way toward slowing Aaron Rodgers.
4. Geronimo Allison, WR, Packers: Speaking of Allison, he was a surprise star for the Packers in both Weeks 16 (four catches for 66 yards) and 17 (four catches for 91 yards and a TD). The link: Cobb didn’t play in either of those games, freeing up his snaps for the rookie out of Illinois. There may be no reason to rush Cobb (ankle) out there Sunday, if Allison can maintain his hot streak. He’s been particularly dangerous on wheel routes out of the slot, but his touchdown came on a patented Rodgers play, in which he slid left twice to avoid pressure before firing a low pass to Allison at the back of the end zone.
Two obvious keys for the Steelers on Sunday: Keep Ben Roethlisberger healthy, and slow down Jay Ajayi. They did neither during a Week 6 loss in Miami—Roethlisberger (although he finished the game after a brief absence) suffered a torn meniscus during the game, while Ajayi bullied his way to 204 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
As far as Roethlisberger’s status goes, there is only so much Pittsburgh can do. Big Ben was sacked just 17 times this season, although that number would have been much higher were he not so Roethlisbergian in shuffling away from pressure. Miami will bring the heat: inside with Ndamukong Suh, outside with Cameron Wake and Andre Branch.
In other words, what happens with Roethlisberger will depend mostly on, well, Roethlisberger. Keeping Ajayi in check is a more pressing—and more difficult—challenge.
“We are not going to pretend like Jay Ajayi’s 200-yard day was a lightning strike,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said during a press conference this week, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “No, it was very real. I don’t think it’s appropriate to take that approach. He ran for 200 yards twice against the Buffalo Bills this year. There is tangible evidence that we need to respect this preparation process.”
The Steelers were a middle-of-the-pack unit against the run this season, but Baltimore averaged 4.9 yards per attempt against them in Week 16 and Cleveland bumped put up a whopping 7.0 per carry in Week 17. Pittsburgh did not have anything on the line last Sunday, so it cleared the bench. That outing still was not quite a confidence booster.
The loss of DE Cam Heyward (pectoral) for the season and an injury to Stephon Tuitt (knee) thinned the ranks; the Steelers hope to have Tuitt back Sunday, along with Ricardo Mathews (ankle), who exited the season finale early.
Winning at the point of attack and getting bodies to the ball will be critical for the Steelers. Ajayi rushed for 1,272 yards this season with a league-best 3.5 yards-per-carry after contact.
The Dolphins would love to establish Ajayi early, thus taking a little weight off QB Matt Moore’s shoulders. The veteran has gone 2–1 (and put up decent numbers) since replacing an injured Ryan Tannehill, but this will be Moore’s first career playoff start.
Also on track to make their postseason debuts: Tony Lippett, Xavien Howard, Michael Thomas and Bacarri Rambo—four key members of a depleted Dolphins secondary. Safeties Reshad Jones (shoulder) and Isa Abdul-Quddus (neck) both had interceptions in Miami’s earlier win over Pittsburgh; both are now on IR.
On top of lending support against Le’Veon Bell, that youthful (Byron Maxwell aside) crop of Miami cornerbacks has to find a way to hang with Antonio Brown. Slot man Eli Rogers has emerged as a preferred target himself—he averaged 73.3 yards over the Steelers’ final three games.
It has been well-documented how much better Roethlisberger was at home this season than on the road. In six home games (he sat two), Roethlisberger completed 70.8% of his passes for 1,915 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions, good for a QB rating of 116.7. On the road, playing a full eight-game slate, he had 1,904 yards on 59.4% passing with nine TDs, eight picks and a 78.4 rating.
The weather in Pittsburgh shouldn’t be a problem. It’ll be cold, as the current forecast calls for a wind chill of 12 degrees during the day Sunday, but with no snow or rain. The Dolphins already picked up December wins in both New York and Buffalo, so it shouldn’t be the thermostat that causes them problems.
The wild-card round closes with another rematch of a 2016 regular-season game, and another opportunity to ask: Just how much does what happened in October mean in January?
In this case, probably not much.
For starters, the Giants’ run game in the season’s first meeting, a 23–16 Packers win at Lambeau Field, featured a one-two punch (probably the wrong phrase given it produced 43 yards on 15 carries) of Bobby Rainey and Orleans Darkwa. It’s possible neither will see the field this Sunday. Darkwa certainly won’t, since he’s on IR. The current Giants offense has found life on the ground with a combo of Rashad Jennings and Paul Perkins in the backfield, and the latter has especially provided a jolt.
After topping 10 carries just once over the season’s first 13 weeks, Perkins averaged 15.5 attempts in Week 14–17 and averaged 4.3 yards per carry in that stretch. That’s not a huge number, yet it’s well up from that of Jennings (3.3), Rainey (3.7) or Darkwa (3.7).
“Our defense is playing outstanding,” Giants QB Eli Manning said last Sunday, per USA Today, “so that is a pretty good formula if your defense is playing strong and [you are] running the football well. You are going to be strong going forward.”
At one point this season, the Packers had the league’s top-ranked run defense. They since have slipped to eighth (94.7 yards per game) and 15th in yards per attempt (4.0). Even during Green Bay’s impressive season-ending, six-game win streak, opponents found moderate success on the ground—Philadelphia and Seattle topped 100 yards, Chicago averaged 5.0 per carry and Detroit’s Zach Zenner found space in the first half last Sunday.
All that said, the Packers will enter the playoffs with more question marks in their secondary than up front. Their worries were made worse last week, when Makinton Dorleant tore his ACL and Quinten Rollins had to be taken to the hospital after suffering a scary concussion.
A slight silver lining for Green Bay is that it still has outside CBs Damarious Randall and Ladarius Gunter. That duo will be mainly responsible for Odell Beckham Jr. on Sunday. The Giants could try to free Beckham up by sliding him to the slot, where favorable matchups with Micah Hyde or Morgan Burnett await.
Whereas the Packers will be piecing together their coverages, though, the Giants are a great deal healthier in the secondary than they were back in Week 5. CB Eli Apple had a short day because of a groin injury, while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie also was hobbling.
Aaron Rodgers was up and down nonetheless (23 of 45 for 259 yards, two TDs and two INTs), but this was well before he and the Packers’ offense kicked it into gear. Their RBs that day, Eddie Lacy and James Starks, since have ceded via injury their jobs to Ty Montgomery, Christine Michael and fullback Aaron Ripkowski. The thunder-and-lightning duo of Ripkowski and Montgomery have helped make the Packers’ offense hard to defend—Montgomery has averaged 5.9 yards per carry this season; Ripkowski just cranked out 61 yards on nine carries against Detroit, taking advantage of the Lions’ nickel and dime packages.
And that’s a matchup to watch Sunday: How the Giants defend the run when Green Bay’s offensive personnel dictates extra DBs be on the field. Those are spots where the Packers feel like they have a numbers, or at least a size, advantage between the tackles.
Obviously, it’s still the Aaron Rodgers Show, for the most part. Six weeks ago, he said he believed the Packers could “run the table” to reach the playoffs, then buoyed his own MVP candidacy by proving that prediction correct.
The Giants tried to disrupt Rodgers with a four-man rush on the majority of snaps during that Week 5 game. That’s the game plan for most defenses against Rodgers—he’s often a wizard against the blitz, even more so when he can escape the pocket. But the Giants failed to sack Rodgers, and that was with Jason Pierre-Paul in the lineup. He will not be available Sunday, so will New York try to dial up a little extra pressure from its linebackers or DBs?
On the outside, the Giants no doubt will be focused on Jordy Nelson. Inside, the key could be limiting Jared Cook. The Giants coughed up more than 1,000 yards to opposing tight ends this season, while Cook has seen 21 targets from Rodgers the past three weeks.
It will be tough to rattle either Manning or Rodgers, both of whom have been through the playoff grind numerous times before.
Which run game shows up? Which secondary holds the fort? This game has the potential to be a great one.