Raiders @ Texans
Kickoff: Saturday January 7th 2017, 4:35pm ET
- Winner: Texans 1/2, Raiders 17/10
It was clear through the end of week 15 that one of the AFC West powerhouses would end up playing the Texans, what was not decided was which. As the Chiefs and Raiders did battle in separate matches but direct competition, it came down to the final minutes to see which team would get a bye and which would travel to Houston to face the Texans. On the face of it, either the Chiefs or the Raiders would walk this matchup against a failing Brock Osweiler and their ugly offence. However, when Derek Carr went down in week 15 with a broken leg, everything changed.
This game went from being one of the most boring matchups of the playoffs, on a par with the Chiefs 30 – 0 romp over the Texans this time last year, to being one of the more intriguing contests on the card. With both teams now using a worse than average QB under centre, but boasting very competent defences, it’s hard to see this one being a big scorer. The deciding factor will undoubtedly be the age old cliché of which team “wants it more”. Will the Raiders be able to rally behind the adversity of losing their star QB and MVP candidate, and ride off the successes of the unblockable Kalil Mack? Or will Brock Osweiler be able to return to the form he had at the Broncos last year, which he hasn’t had in a single game in 2016?
Lions @ Seahawks
Kickoff: Saturday January 7th 2017, 8:15pm ET
- Winner: Seahawks 4/15, Lions 29/10 -
This is another matchup that was decided in the final moments of week 17, with the Lions and the Packers playing on Sunday Night Football. The winner of this game would get to play the Giants at home, and the losers would have to travel to Seattle to play the Seahawks. On paper this was a must win for both teams, with no team wanting the unenviable task of playing against the Seahawks in Century Link Field in the playoffs, a matchup which has been near impossible to win in the past few years. However, the Lions may have dodged a bullet. The Seahawks are not the team they once were. They lack a running game this year, and lost Tyler Lockett to a broken leg early in week 16.
The Seahawks have been 1-7 at home this season and haven’t lost at home in the playoffs since 2004, which is an amazing stat line no matter which way you look at it. However, there are some things to remember. The Seahawks have only played one playoff team at home this year, and that was the Atlanta Falcons, a team which likely would have won were it not for the non-call when Richard Sherman mugged Julio Jones on 4th down in the middle of the field. The Seahawks also came eerily close to losing to the 2-14 San Francisco 49ers in week 17.
Although there is hope for the Lions in this matchup, they will undoubtedly need to bring their A game, and go out to an early lead. If they are unable to run the ball and form a fully-fledged, rounded offense, then they are going to struggle against a robust Seahawks defence (although they are missing all-star safety Earl Thomas). As the Lions are a scary 0-5 against playoff teams this year, they are going to face an uphill battle in this matchup. Still, it’s probably better than playing the Giants at this point.
Dolphins @ Steelers
Kickoff: Sunday January 8th 2017, 1:05pm ET
- Winner: Steelers 1/5, Dolphins 15/4
This is probably the closest match to a “sure thing” this week. The Dolphins are missing their starting QB Ryan Tannehill, who lead them to the lion’s share of their wins this season, whereas the Steelers are at full strength, boasting the most comprehensive offence in the AFC.
This game is going to be decided by who can get the run game going first. We know that Le’Veon Bell is going to put on a show; he has been incredible in the final weeks of the season. So, the question here is whether NFL newcomer Jay Ajayi can keep pace. The Dolphins’ strength comes from their lines. On defence they are led by All-Pro Ndamukong Suh, and their offensive line is equally stout. If the Dolphins are to have any chance they need their offensive line to work seamlessly with Ajayi and create a reliable run option. Without that, backup QB Matt Moore is going to struggle moving the ball with the pass, and we could see a whitewash.
The Steelers are very real Super Bowl contenders, and any team in the AFC knows that. Ben Roethlisberger has proven his playoff credentials with many career playoff runs and a Super Bowl. Armed with one of the best in the league at WR, and RB in Antonio Brown and Bell, it’s hard to see the Steelers not progressing through to the Divisional round, especially when they’re playing at home - somewhere Big Ben has been lights out this season.
Giants @ Packers
Kickoff: Sunday January 8th 2017, 4:40pm ET
- Winner: Packers 7/15, Giants 7/4
Now, here is where the wild card rounds gets really interesting. This is by far the best matchup of the four-game card. The Packers’ win last week against the Lions gave them the higher seed, and therefore a home game against the Giants, as opposed to having to travel on the road to face Seattle. But was that really a benefit? The Giants are one of the hottest teams in football at the moment. They have what is probably the best defence in the NFL at the end of the season, and have an offense that is able to create enough production to grind teams down and get the win. The Giants have very quietly been getting their job done week in and week out. They finished the season with an 11-5 record, but have won eight of their last nine and are currently riding a six game winning streak. They are also the only team other than the Eagles to beat the NFC number 1 seed Cowboys, and have done so not once, but twice.
The Packers however, have had a much more turbulent ride to the playoffs. They started slow, and seemed unable to do anything right, although they still managed to scrape some wins. With All-Star QB Aaron Rodgers struggling and key players getting hurt, it seemed like their season could be over before it began. However, later in the season they managed to find some production at the RB position, although not much, and Aaron Rodgers was able to return to doing what he does best; getting out of the pocket, extending the play, and utilising Jordy Nelson. This meant they too were able to ride out a six-game winning streak and storm into the playoffs.
With both teams boasting six-game winning streaks, both boasting Super Bowl-winning QB’s at the helm, and both having championship potential, this is an extremely hard game to call. The Giants have the upper hand on the defensive side of the ball without doubt, but Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have the home field advantage, something which is not to be taken lightly, especially not in Green Bay in January. The Packers are 6-2 at home, whereas the Giants are a less than convincing 4-4 on the road. This one certainly seems as though it is split down the middle and should be the game of the week.