It’s been a long and winding road, but we’ve finally made it to the NFL’s Wild Card playoffs. On Saturday, one of the best tournaments in sports will finally kick off.
Unfortunately, injuries to key players have dimmed the excitement for a few teams. The Raiders‘ grand return to the postseason after 14 years away is completely overshadowed by the absence of their leader, MVP candidate Derek Carr. Seattle is still a strong contender in the AFC, but without Earl Thomas, their defense is far from invincible.
Predicting Wild Card weekend is essentially impossible. There’s a reason all of these teams are in the playoffs (yes, even the Texans). Winning in the NFL is always hard, but it’s especially difficult in the postseason; every game really can do either way.
Home-field advantage also doesn’t necessarily make a difference; last year, every road team won in the Wild Card round.
Rather than make picks, let’s rank this weekend’s games based on how exciting they’ll likely be.
To start, we’ll discuss a game that will be much closer than it would’ve been just a couple weeks ago.
4. Oakland Raiders @ Houston Texans
Just a couple weeks back, it became clear that the Texans would play host to either the Raiders or Chiefs, depending on who didn’t win the AFC West. In either scenario, the road team would’ve been a big favorite.
Now, it’s more of a toss-up. The Raiders looked shaky and uninspired on Sunday against the Broncos without Carr as they lost out on a bye. They may be 12-4, but they’re not the same team without their star QB, and rookie Connor Cook will likely get his first start with Matt McGloin hurt.
Luckily, they’re facing the weakest team in the playoffs. Houston backed into the dance, clinching the AFC South when the Bengals missed a game-winning field goal in Week 16. They then proceeded to lose to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, despite the fact they were starting Matt Cassel with Marcus Mariota injured.
These teams played earlier this season, with Oakland edging out Houston in a close game in Mexico City. If this matchup resembles that one in any way, it has a chance to rank much higher on this list by the end of the weekend.
But, at the end of the day, you come back to McGloin/Cook versus Osweiler, and it doesn’t exactly exude excitement.
Texans-Raiders: The first playoff game ever without playoff implications
— Gregg Rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) January 3, 2017
If Carr was playing, the return of the Raiders to the playoffs would’ve at least boosted this game up a spot.
Up next on our list is the Lions’ matchup with the Seahawks in Seattle. This game easily could’ve been swapped with number two, but a couple of factors landed it in the third spot.
Just three weeks back, Detroit was sitting at 9-4. But, for anybody watching the team on a weekly basis, that mark was a little misleading.
The Lions went on to lose their final three games, but the most alarming stat was that they trailed in the fourth quarter of 15 of their 16 games in 2006. Matthew Stafford regularly led them to dramatic comeback victories all season long, but he failed to do so down the stretch against stiffer competition.
The Lions failed to win a single game against a playoff team this year, going 0-5 against them. On top of that, they only won one game by more than one score. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, Detroit is just 15th in offense, and they’re dead-last in defense.
With all of that in mind, Seattle would figure to be a huge favorite, but they have more than their fair share of issues.
The Seahawks managed to go 7-1 at home in 2016, but their previous dominance in Seattle was not on display this season. Wins over the Bills, Falcons, and Dolphins came at the last-minute, and a defeat at the hands of the Cardinals exposed a number of holes on their roster.
Seattle’s offensive line has been putrid all season long, but luckily for them, the Lions’ pass rush isn’t all that mighty. The scarier part for Seahawks fans is the fall of their usually dominance defense.
Ever since Earl Thomas went down, Seattle has struggled to stop the passing game over the middle, and running backs that get past the first wave of defenders are finding more open green than usual.
Stafford has to feel like he can put up some points on Saturday night, as well as Russell Wilson. It should make for an exciting affair.
2. Miami Dolphins @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Next up, we have the Dolphins appearing in their first playoff game since 2008 taking on the Steelers.
After a 1-4 start, Miami ran off six straight victories and nine wins over their final 11 games. Of course, for most of that run, they had Ryan Tannehill.
Miami’s starting QB went down with a knee injury a few weeks back, but he avoided a full tear. Head coach Ryan Gase hasn’t ruled him out from playing this upcoming Sunday.
More than likely, Matt Moore will get the start, and he’s at least had some solid moments. But, this is a huge edge for Pittsburgh.
With all of their offensive stars healthy, the Steelers should continue to put up points in a big way. A balanced attack featuring Ben Roethlisberger throwing strikes to Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell carving up opposing defenses led Pittsburgh to victories in their last seven games.
For the second straight year, the Steelers get to face a backup QB on Wild Card weekend. Whether it leads to another win remains to be seen; they played earlier this year, with breakout star Jay Ajayi pounding Pittsburgh for 204 yards on the ground in a 30-15 Dolphins victory.
With playmakers on both sides of the ball for both teams, this game has a chance to feature the most points of any Wild Card matchup. Make sure to tune in.
1. New York Giants @ Green Bay Packers
Finally, we move on to easily the most anticipated playoff game of Wild Card weekend.
The history. The names. The story-lines. The hype. Packers-Giants has it all.
The last two times New York played Green Bay in the postseason, the Giants came out victorious at Lambeau Field and went on to win the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers hopes to flip the script in the concluding game this weekend.
The Giants lost to the Packers in Week 5, 23-16, but a lot has changed for both teams since.
Green Bay went into a midseason slump, dropping all the way to 4-6. That’s when Rodgers said the Packers could run the table, and sure enough, they did. Wins in their last six games landed the Pack their eight straight playoff appearance and another NFC North title.
After that early season loss to Green Bay, the Giants won their next six games and nine of their last 11, just like the Dolphins. But, unlike Miami, they still have their starting QB.
Eli Manning has been far from spectacular this season, but that’s been just fine. The real strength of this team is their defense.
According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Giants have the second best defense in the NFL. Nobody scored 30 against them this year, and over their final four games, they held the prolific offensive attacks of the Cowboys, Lions, and Redskins to just seven, six, and 10 points respectively.
To continue their run, Green Bay probably needs Aaron Rodgers to be perfect against possible DPOY Landon Collins and the rest of the Giants’ stout secondary. Luckily for them, that’s pretty much been the case the last six weeks:
Aaron Rodgers' stats heading into the playoffs…
In his last 6 games:
15 pass TDs
121.0 passer rating pic.twitter.com/G3dZpZ8LWW
— Randall Liu (@RLiuNFL) January 2, 2017
If New York wins, Eli will have a combined 4-0 playoff record against Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. If they lose, we get to hear talk show hosts blasting Odell Beckham Jr. and the Giants receivers’ trip to South Beach on Monday.