What’s in store for the NFL’s wildcard-playoff round? Here’s a look.
Indianapolis (AFC 6th seed, 10-6) at Houston (AFC 3rd seed, 11-5), 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN. I remember a phone call with Frank Reich about 55 weeks ago, one late night last December. He was bummed. He thought his shot to be a head coach was slipping away, maybe forever. And as the musical chairs filled in January, and he was left without a job again, he accepted that maybe he’d never get that shot. Then, of course, Josh McDaniels backed out of the Colt job, Reich played a huge role in Philly’s offensive explosion in the playoffs with a backup quarterback, and Colts GM Chris Ballard noticed. “One of the greatest audibles of all time,” Al Michaels called the pivot to Reich, and of course he’s right. Reich has been the perfect coach for a revived Andrew Luck, and the perfect, patient coach for a young team that started 1-5 and won nine of its last 10 to earn the NFL’s last of 12 playoff spots Sunday night in Nashville. To beat Houston, a line that allowed only 18 sacks of Andrew Luck in 16 games will have to be that good again. Jadeveon Clowney has become as dangerous a defensive force as a healthy J.J. Watt, so the Colts can’t double just one guy anymore. On the other side, Deshaun Watson got sacked a league-high 62 times, and though he had an excellent year (68.3 percent, 103.1 rating), he may have to run more than the Texans want so he can escape the Colts’ improving pressure up front. It’ll be cool to see Luck in the playoffs for the first time since the Deflategate Bowl in Foxboro four years ago. Colts and Texans split their games this year. Composite score: 58-58. Should be fun.
Seattle (NFC 5th seed, 10-6) at Dallas (NFC 5th seed, 10-6), 8:15 p.m. ET, FOX. How strange. Dallas has the league rushing champion, but Seattle had the more productive run game this year. Hmmm. Ezekiel Elliott or Chris Carson. Who’d you rather have? But Seattle, after replacing Tom Cable with Mike Solari as offensive line coach, ran for a steamrolling 2,560 yards (4.8 per rush), compared to Dallas’ 1,963 (4.5 per rush). That could help Seattle take the Dallas crowd out of the game early. Running it so well has helped Russell Wilson have his best season (35 touchdowns, seven picks, 110.9 rating). Dallas’ two young linebackers, Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, will be vital against the run and in spying Wilson. Offensively, the Cowboys have developed enough weaponry to win without Elliott dominating, as they showed in the 36-point game at the Giants on Sunday, when Elliott was a healthy scratch. The difference here could be how much the Seattle front seven, led by veteran linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, can dent the Cowboys’ offensive line and pressure Dak Prescott, who was sacked a surprising 56 times this year. Seattle beat Dallas in Week 3, 24-13, in the Earl Thomas middle-finger game. Seems like 12 months ago, not three.
Los Angeles Chargers (AFC 5th seed, 12-4) at Baltimore (AFC 4th seed, 10-6), 1:05 p.m., CBS. The rematch of one of the best games of the NFL season, 15 days and 2,700 miles apart, should be compelling. Even though the Chargers led the game for only one minute, it felt a lot closer than 22-10, Ravens, when they met at the StubHub Center in California Dec. 22, a defensive duel that got broken up in the second half with a Lamar Jackson touchdown bomb and a late Antonio Gates fumble-turned-Ravens-TD. The Chargers are going to have to find a way to stop the flood of the Ravens’ running game. In the seven games quarterbacked by Jackson, Baltimore has rushed for 267, 242, 207, 194, 242, 159 and 296 yards. While the rest of the league is closer to 65-percent passing, the Ravens of the last seven weeks have been 65 percent runs. It’s like old-time football. When I spoke to Jackson on Sunday night, he wanted to be sure I understood he did more than just run. “I mean, we’re throwing the ball out there too,” he said. “I don’t know about back in the day. We are doing by design. We play a complete game.” The run is a weapon Baltimore didn’t have pre-Jackson, and it’s been a revelation to watch it. For the Chargers, playing Baltimore a second time in such a short window has to help the Chargers in recognition. Philip Rivers must play better than he did in the first meeting, when he threw a pick on the first Charger snap of the game and never had a drive longer than 35 yards. The NFL has become a mega-points league, but I doubt this will be a game with 40 points scored. The Chargers will make Lamar Jackson beat them with his arm (or try to), while the Ravens will try to zero-blitz pocket passer Rivers into mistakes. Not sure how much this comes into play Sunday, but the Chargers are a 7-1 road team this year. No other AFC team has more than five road wins.
Philadelphia (NFC 6th seed, 9-7) at Chicago (NFC 3rd seed, 12-4), 4:40 p.m., NBC. The heart says Nick Foles. The head says Khalil Mack. Watching the Chicago defense swarm around Kirk Cousins all day Sunday (albeit in a climate-controlled stadium in Minneapolis; who knows what the conditions will be Sunday afternoon on the shores of Lake Michigan), I wondered how any quarterback would have the time and space to dice up the Bears D. The presence of Mack allows Akiem Hicks and Leonard Floyd to take their star turns. Foles won’t be cowed by them, or by the noise that will make a silent snap count imperative. But if his ribs or chest affect him, that’s another distraction from playing a tight offensive game. The rise of the Bears has been more of a defensive story, but they’ll need the shifty Tarik Cohen to make plays against an oppressive Philly front that’s been dominant at times but also generous against the run. Three times in the season’s second half the Eagles allowed more than 140 rushing yards to a foe. Clearly that’s how the Bears will want to want to play this game, with an efficient and clock-eating run game. The Eagles are dangerous. They’ve played in many more bigger games than the Bears have over the past 13 months, and an early deficit won’t rock Philly. I’ve got a feeling this is a tight game late in the fourth quarter.