Story by Sport Editor Connor Ulrey and Assistant Sports Editor Caleb Luketic // Photo courtesy of NFL
With the regular season now over and the playoffs finally here, it’s Wild Card Weekend in the NFL. Sports Editor Connor Ulrey and Assistant Sports Editor Caleb Luketic give insight into the games this weekend and who might be advancing to the NFL Divisional Round.
Ulrey: Alex Smith has been one of the most solid quarterbacks in the league since escaping San Francisco, and the 2015-2016 regular season has been the same. Smith and the Chiefs started an abysmal 1-5 to start the season but rattled off 10 straight wins to finish the season.
Smith lead a balanced attack, led by the sixth best rushing offense in the league, averaging 127 yards per game, even after losing Jamaal Charles to injury. Look for the Chiefs to win their first playoff game in 22 years Saturday afternoon, even against one of the best defenses in the league in the Texans.
Luketic: Despite having four different starting quarterbacks, the Houston Texans were able to come away with the AFC South division title. The Texans survived their quarterback carousel mainly because of their highly touted defense manned by J.J. Watt. The Texans offense was mediocre, ranking 19th overall, but impressive considering the number of quarterbacks who started for the team.
The Chiefs play old-school, physical football behind mastermind Andy Reid. They run the football behind one of the best offensive lines in the game, they are second in the league in turnover margin, and they play bone-crushing defense, headlined by Eric Berry. Give me the Chiefs over the Texans easily on the road.
Ulrey: Andy Dalton is officially out for Sunday’s game, still battling a thumb injury he suffered against Pittsburgh late in the regular season. AJ McCarron gets the nod again Saturday, boasting a 2-1 record to close out the regular season, finishing strong against the Ravens in week 17.
The duo of Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill have been like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this season, with both being hot or cold depending on the week. If one, possibly both, backs show up Saturday night, with Deangelo Williams out with knee issues, look for the Bengals to finally get that elusive playoff win.
Luketic: The Cincinnati Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1991, the longest active winless playoff streak. Andy Dalton is out with a thumb injury, which means A.J. McCarron will start his fourth consecutive game against one of the lowest ranked passing defenses in the league. McCarron should have a field day throwing the ball to A.J. Green, but they will have to outscore the 3rd ranked Steelers offense.
The Bengals should have no problem beating the Steelers if the running back tandem of Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard performs to their potential. The Bengals are going to have to wait another season to end their winless streak; I’m taking the Steelers in a field goal game in Cincinnati.
Ulrey: The Packers haven’t looked like the Packers of late, and a lot of that has to be attributed to the fact that Jordy Nelson has been out this season. Nelson has been Rodgers go-to target for the past few seasons, and his presence is sorely missed. The offensive line has been non-existent for Green Bay, giving up a whopping eight sacks to the Cardinals in Week 16.
Kirk Cousins has been the breakthrough that the Washington Redskins needed this season, having a breakout year, and leading the league in completion percentage. Cousins has been phenomenal the past four weeks, a key four-game win streak to secure the NFC East for Washington, and the 3-seed in the playoffs.
If Cousins can stay on track, working well as he has with Pierre Garcon, look for the Redskins to walk away with a big home win. I believe that the Packers will show up Sunday, and show something they haven’t since they were 6-0. Look for Rodgers and Co. to get past Washington, but just barely.
Luketic: The Washington Redskins were able to win their final four games to win the weak NFC East. Kirk Cousins played phenomenal compared to his preseason predictions, as he led the league in completion percentage among starting quarterbacks. The Aaron Rodgers-led Packers have severely underperformed this season without Rodgers’ favorite target Jordy Nelson, who tore his ACL before the season.
The Green Bay Packers have been given the benefit of the doubt all season long, but I’m not giving it to them this week. The Redskins are going to run the football and play championship-caliber defense at home in front of their hungry fanbase. Give me Kirk Cousins and the Redskins over the banged-up Packers.
Ulrey: This matchup intrigues me the most, and it’s the one I’m looking forward to most this weekend. The weather looks frigid in Minnesota Sunday, with a wind chill in the negative 20s, and it’ll be a test for both teams if they want to move on.
Seattle finished the regular season with the highest scoring defense for the fourth straight year and were solid in week 17, demolishing the Cardinals, a team coming off a big win of their own over Green Bay. Russell Wilson did something that no quarterback has done in NFL this season, finishing with 4,000+ passing yards, 30+ passing touchdowns, and more than 500 rushing yards.
Minnesota seems to have found their guy with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm. Bridgewater had a great 2015-2016 campaign, throwing for over 3,200 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Vikings offense found balance with Adrian Peterson back in the lineup, another crucial piece to their run to win the NFC North. Minnesota took the North crown for the first time since 2009 last week with a 20-13 win over the Packers.
I’m going with Seattle this weekend, and it’s not an easy pick. Minnesota has been outstanding this year, and it’s a home game for them, but I look for the Seahawks defense to put the clamps on Bridgewater and Peterson. Look for Wilson to keep up his pace, even without Jimmy Graham, who went out earlier this year with a knee injury.
Luketic: These two teams will be playing in one of the coldest games ever recorded, with the wind chill believed to 20 degrees below zero. With hopes of playing in January, the Minnesota Vikings have built a team to play in the cold until their new indoor stadium is built.
However, the Vikings will be going up against the top-ranked rushing defense in Seattle. Both teams are going to struggle to throw the football, so this game will come down to who can win the running battle and turnover margin.
Adrian Peterson is has to be a workhorse, per usual, on Sunday night in frigid Minnesota. I like the Vikings to beat the defending NFC champions in a low-scoring contest.
To contact Sports Editor Connor Ulrey, email firstname.lastname@example.org.