Give the NFL credit for knowing how to stretch out the anticipation on the first playoff weekend. We begin with a matchup of quarterback-stressed teams, Oakland at Houston, and finish with the two best teams playing on the opening weekend, the New York Giants at Green Bay.
It would hardly be going out on a limb to say the Giants-Packers winner is the team with the best chance to beat Dallas and win the NFC championship, and, in fact, because of experience at quarterback, might actually have an edge in such a game.
The AFC appears to be headed for a championship matchup between the Patriots and the winner of a likely second-round game between Pittsburgh and Kansas City. For now, however, we’ll concentrate only on the opening weekend, and here we go, in the order the games will be played.
Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans – The Raiders were 12-4, the Texans 9-7, but Houston gets the home field because it won a division title. On paper, the matchup would appear to favor the Texans because injuries to their top two quarterbacks force the Raiders to start rookie Connor Cook, making his NFL starting debut. But Houston doesn’t have the quarterback it wanted, having to revert to benched starter Brock Osweiler because of an injury to his replacement, Tom Savage.
With that depressing quarterback situation, this game should be low scoring, and the edge would figure to go to Houston because the Texans have a much better defense than the Raiders. How much better? Houston allowed the fewest yards in the league, 301.3 a game. The Raiders allowed 375.1 and ranked 26th.
Even so, Oakland might have the single most dangerous defensive player on the field, linebacker Khalil Mack, who tied for eighth in the league with 11 sacks. And Houston’s anemic passing attack is a juicy target for him. Mack had one sack and a tackle for loss on a running play in the Raiders’ come-from-behind victory over the Texans in November.
Basically, this game may boil down to which replacement quarterback – Osweiler or Cook – can survive.
Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks – The Lions are here because of quarterback Matthew Stafford’s ability to lead come-from-behind victories. He led the Lions to eight come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most since at least the 1970 merger of the NFL and the American Football League.
Seattle is a great case study for those who still yearn for the NFL dynasties of old, an extinct species except for New England. The Seahawks looked like they were set up for a long run of success after winning the Super Bowl three years ago, but then came that horrendous interception the next year, the unexpected retirement of Marshawn Lynch and some of quarterback Russell Wilson’s magic wearing off.
Without Lynch, the Seahawks ranked 25th in the NFL in rushing this year, down from third a year ago. They did not have a back with as many as 500 yards rushing, and without a great running game to protect him, Wilson was under enough pressure that his completion percentage dropped three and a half points.
Fortunately for Seattle, the Lions’ running game may be even worse than theirs, and the Seahawks’ defense – the only one in the playoffs to rank among the top 10 against both the run and the pass – probably is strong enough to keep Stafford from another fourth-quarter comeback.
Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers – Interesting. In October, the Dolphins beat the Steelers, 30-15, Ben Roethlisberger had one of his worst games of the year, Ryan Tannehill had one of his best, and Jay Ajayi had his coming out party by rushing for 204 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
For what it’s worth, that game was in Florida and this one will be in Pennsylvania, with a forecast calling for a high of 20 degrees, hardly weather that will make the Dolphins comfortable. And Tannehill, because of a sprained knee, will not play. Instead, Matt Moore, who has looked mostly good as a fill-in, will make his fourth straight start at quarterback for Miami.
The Steelers don’t figure to make the Dolphins very comfortable, either, because while so much attention has been paid to Tom Brady and the Patriots, to Matt Ryan in Atlanta, and to the Cowboys’ revival with a pair of key rookies in the backfield, Pittsburgh has flown under the radar and finished the regular season with seven consecutive victories after a 4-5 start.
Roethlisberger took the seventh game off because it meant nothing to the Steelers, but two of his best games of the year came earlier in the streak against a pair of playoff contenders, the Giants and the Colts. The Steelers can control the ball with Le’Veon Bell’s running, and are eager to reverse a trend of recent playoff losses with a depleted roster. This time, they are healthy.
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers – The highlight of the weekend. The Giants’ last two Super Bowl runs were spurred by victories at Green Bay – in the NFC Championship Game in 2007 and in a divisional playoff game in 2011. Green Bay was favored both times, the last time when the Packers had a 15-1 regular season and the Giants were 9-7. Remarkably, the Giants have won only one other game in Wisconsin in the last 35 years.
Perhaps one factor that makes this different from recent history is that the Packers are not only hungry, they are hot. They recovered from a 4-6 start to win their last six games, needing all of them to reach this spot; there was no coasting. In both 2007 and 2011, they won their division by five games.
Green Bay’s defense is of questionable quality, but the Giants had one of the worst offenses in the NFL – 25th in yardage, 26th in scoring. Their hope is that quarterback Eli Manning can get on the kind of roll he was on during New York’s two recent Super Bowl drives: 15 touchdown passes, two interceptions and 296 yards a game passing in seven post-season victories in 2007 and 2011.
This season, Manning finished 22nd in the NFL in passer rating.
Aaron Rodgers, meanwhile, ranked fourth in passer rating, led the NFL in touchdown passes, and during the six-game winning streak to finish the season, completed 71 percent of his attempts, averaged 8.3 yards an attempt and 277.8 yards a game, and threw 15 touchdown passes without an interception.