The NFL playoffs are finally here!
After an epic Week 17 where teams played themselves in and out of the playoff picture, while top teams rested players, the matchups are set for Wildcard Weekend that starts tonight.
The first matchup of Wildcard Saturday is the Seattle Seahawks vs the Detroit Lions at 4:25 PM with the nightcap at 8:25 featuring the Oakland Raiders vs the Houston Texans.
Both of these matchups are compelling and are virtual toss-ups for many reasons.
Starting with the Seahawks and Lions, this is a game that could go either way depending on how each defense responds.
The Seahawks’ vaunted defense has been the hallmark of the NFL the past three or four seasons, however, it is missing what Tedy Bruschi’s calls its “bus driver” in safety Earl Thomas, who was lost for the season after injuring his leg versus the Carolina Panthers. Thomas was the eyes of the defense, not only able to cover a lot of ground in the secondary, allowing the corners to press and play man-to-man coverage with confidence, but he was also a force on the second level where he made a lot of one-on-one tackles on the best-running backs that the NFL has to offer, stopping huge gains on the ground time after time. Although the defense still features all pros like Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett among others, the loss of Thomas opens up the field for a Detroit Lions offense who can put up some points.
We know what the Lions offense can do led by Matt Stafford coming off a great year throwing the ball and leading the offense by throwing it to targets like Golden Tate, Eric Ebron and even Theo Riddick out of the backfield. The Lions are always a threat to flirt with 30 points on any given night, but like the Seahawks, it’s their defense that has to step up because the Seahawks offense has looked as potent as ever the last part of the season. Russell Wilson is finally getting healthier after early season knicks and knacks and the return of Thomas Rawls to the backfield has given Seattle a legitimate ground game to compliment the experience and great decision making of Wilson. Receivers Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett have proved to be Wilson’s top targets with Baldwin being the go-to-guy and Lockett being the guy that can take the top off of any defense with his elite speed. The Lions, who have improved mightily on the defensive end, have their work cut out for them as they must first stop the run and contain Wilson from getting outside of the pocket, where he does his best work.
If either team has any chance to win, their defenses must contain offenses who are each playing well and clicking on all cylinders.
In the primetime matchup, the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans are intriguing because each has had to deal with unlikely situations at the Quarterback position. As we talked about earlier this week, the Raiders had to address the loss of MVP- candidate Derek Carr, but although I thought that Matt McGloin would get the start, they announced on Thursday that rookie Conor Cook will make his first NFL Start in this Wildcard game.
It’s a bold move by a team that has teetered on the lines of wins and losses all season with many of those turning into wins. They have flirted with disaster all season and this is just the latest move in their chess game. Despite being a rookie, Cook was a four year starter at Michigan State and played against tough Big Ten competition throwing for over 70 touchdowns in a little over 40 games.He has played in many big games at Michigan State and has led his team to many impressive wins in big situations. But that was in college, this is the NFL playoffs and to make your first start in a playoff game is a tall task. Either way, the Raiders had to start someone who was going to make their first NFL start regardless. They chose to go with Cook who has a lot of upside and is a good decision-maker. Once again, the defense will have to dominate and live up to their potential to give the offense as many chances as possible to score versus a Texans defense that was among the best in the NFL.
The Texans themselves had to work out their situation at Quarterback after benching Brock Osweiler towards the latter part of the regular season. Ultimately, backup Tom Savage did a nice job filling in, but has entered concussion protocol and therefore, Osweiler will make the start for the Texans.
Osweiler will have to face a Raiders defensive rush that can prove to cause many problems for many teams. Osweiler has proven to be flustered against a good pass rush so the Raiders will likely bring the pressure on most plays during the game and try to cause confusion for a quarterback who will likely play with tremendous pressure as he has to prove himself to his teammates again in the biggest game of the year to this point.
Who do you think will win these two Wildcard Saturday matchups? Let’s talk about it here or find me on Twitter @Phenombc3.