By Jason Keidel
The first playoff football buffet kicks off this Saturday, appropriately called Wild Card Weekend. Last year, the road teams won all four games. That’s not likely this year, with some hot teams and heavy favorites playing over the next 48 hours.
Oakland Raiders (12-4) @ Houston Texans (9-7)
Saturday, January 7, 4:35 p.m. ET
Teams with the league’s top-ranked defense have won their last eight home playoff games. Houston assumes that role this weekend.
Oakland would be in perfect position to end that streak if Derek Carr were starting at quarterback. Instead, Connor Cook, third-stringer, is squatting under center. It’s the first time in NFL history that a QB makes his first career start in the playoffs. This means a conveyer belt of carries for Latavius Murray against a team that already allows just under 100 yards per game.
Stats are pointless here, since two fledgling QBs are starting. If Oakland fans are worried about Cook, imagine the angst among Texans devotees. They dished out $72 million to Brock Osweiler, who has since been benched in favor of Tom Savage, who now toils in the concussion protocol. If the Texans want some good news, at least Jadeveon Clowney is finally playing up to his talent.
But Oakland has Khalil Mack.
Detroit Lions (9-7) @ Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1)
Saturday, January 7, 8:15 p.m. ET
Seattle is the chalk here. And if you need to know why, look beyond their current records. This game is also about historical streaks. The Lions haven’t won a playoff game since 1993, which is bad. But they haven’t won a road playoff game since 1957. Combine that with the fact that the Seahawks are 5-0 at home in the playoffs under head coach Pete Carroll.
But these aren’t your daddy’s Seahawks. Seattle no longer has Marshawn Lynch, a solid offensive line or all-world safety Earl Thomas, who suffered a broken leg on December 5. Are they the team that went into New England and beat the Patriots or that played the most soporific game of the season, a 6-6 tie at the Arizona Cardinals?
The Lions are the only NFL team with four players registering 50 catches and at least 500 yards. They will need that kind of patience and diversity to beat the 12th Man at Seattle. No doubt QB Matthew Stafford isn’t the same player since he injured a finger on his throwing hand on December 11. But if Lions fans would like a quirky stat to counter all the bad historical mojo, the last five times a team lost at least three games in a row entering the playoffs, they won their first playoff game. Still, it’s hard to go against Carroll, Russell Wilson and the 12th Man.
Miami Dolphins (10-6) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Sunday, January, 8, 1:05 p.m. ET
The double-digit spread in this game doesn’t make much sense. The Steelers are favored by 10 points despite the fact that Miami pummeled Pittsburgh, 30-15, in Week 6, part of Jay Ajayi’s 200-yard breakout party.
This will be the first time that Pittsburgh’s big three — Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell — will start in the same playoff game. For all the MVP talk swirling around Tom Brady despite his missing four games, Bell is making a similar case despite his three-game suspension. Bell is the first running back in NFL history to average at least 100 yards rushing and at 50 yards receiving. With all due respect to David Johnson, Bell is the best all-around back in the sport. The Steelers are also the hottest team in the sport, winning seven straight going into Sunday.
Miami has lost eight of their last nine road playoff games, and haven’t won any kind of postseason game since 2000. And, unlike Week 6, they will be without starting QB Ryan Tannehill. Some Dolphins fans think that’s a good thing. And if you’d like a stat to counter Miami’s woeful road record, Big Ben is just 1-4 in his last five playoff games. Is that enough to warm up a warm-weather team playing in the cold. Probably not.
New York Giants (11-5) @ Green Bay Packers (10-6)
Sunday, January, 8, 4:40 p.m. ET
The NFL literally saved the best for last.
No matter your allegiances, this game has to drain your adrenal gland, or at least tickle your sense of the NFL canon. These two monolithic franchises both have recent playoff history. While the Packers have the home-field, Lambeau mystique, the Giants are 2-0 on the Frozen Tundra. And we should remember those were also the two times the Giants won the Super Bowl under former coach Tom Coughlin.
This game is a classic case of strength-on-strength, with Aaron Rodgers playing at his sublime best. Over his last seven games, Rodgers has posted 18 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, leading Green Bay on a six-game winning streak into the playoffs. And since Week 6 the Giants are tied with the Patriots in fewest points allowed, first in third-down percentage and second in sacks.
Confidence has to matter in some measure. Eli Manning knows he can win at Lambeau because he’s done so twice. And perhaps the Giants unearthed a gem in rooking RB Paul Perkins, who broke out last week in Washington with 102 yards on 21 carries. Manning has the most explosive wideout in the sport in Odell Beckham Jr, though he must also realize he has other gifted receivers. If they don’t produce, then their “Love Boat” picture, replete with abs, chains and perhaps a bong, will haunt them all winter.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.