- 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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
Which QB can make a big play if he needs one? Perhaps more importantly, which one will avoid a game-changing mistake?
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.”
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.
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.
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.