Breaking down the NFLs first-round games
Will the Packers' Clay Matthews be roaring Saturday night when the Vikings invade Green Bay for a wild-card battle? Bob LeGere provides his prediction.
Teams fight all season for homefield advantage, but look for two road teams to spoil the fun this weekend and come away with victories in the first round of the NFL playoffs.
Bengals (10-6) at Texans (12-4)
TV: 3:30 p.m., NBC
Line: Texans by 4½.
History: This is a rematch of last year's wild-card-round game in Houston, which the Texans won 31-10 behind 153 rushing yards and 2 TDs from Arian Foster and a pick-6 by defensive end J.J. Watt.
Storyline: These two teams have been going in opposite directions. The Texans were 11-1 a month ago but were blown out by the Patriots 42-14 and then, with a chance to earn homefield advantage all the way to the Super Bowl, suffered double-digit losses to the Vikings and Colts. Not that anyone noticed, but the Bengals roared into the playoffs by winning seven of their last eight games — the only loss by 1 point. But if running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is slowed by a hamstring injury, the Bengals' running game will suffer.
Players to watch: Texans defensive MVP candidate Watt led the NFL with 20½ sacks and batted down 16 passes. Running back Foster has put up huge rushing numbers in the past, but he averaged just 4.1 yards per carry this season, below the NFL average. Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins had 13 sacks, easily the most by an interior lineman. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (97 catches, 1,350 yards, 11 touchdowns) has the ability to dominate.
Pick: Texans 20, Bengals 17.
Vikings (10-6) at Packers (11-5)
TV: 7 p.m., NBC
Line: Packers by 7½.
History: In the regular-season finale, the Vikings crashed the postseason party and bounced the Bears with a 37-34 victory over the Packers at the Metrodome. Four weeks earlier, at Lambeau Field, the Packers won 23-14.
Storyline: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is expected to be great, as he was last week with 4 TD passes and no interceptions, and as he has been all season (NFL-best 108.0 passer rating, 39 touchdowns, 8 picks). Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder is the great unknown. He was brilliant last week with 3 TD passes and no picks, and he's been intercepted just once in the last four weeks. Before that, he was a game manager at best and was intercepted twice in the first game vs. the Packers.
Players to watch: Vikings RB Adrian Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards, including 409 in two games against the Packers, even though every team he played was focused on stopping him. Defensive ends Jared Allen (11), Brian Robison (8½) and Everson Griffen (8) combined for 27½ sacks, and no quarterback was sacked more than the Packers' Rodgers. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews is the Packers' only impact pass rusher, and he had their only sack of Ponder last week. That wasn't enough.
Pick: Packers 30, Vikings 24
Colts (11-5) at Ravens (10-6)
TV: Noon, CBS
Line: Ravens by 7.
History: The Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis after the 1983 season. Baltimore was without an NFL franchise until Art Modell moved the Cleveland Browns there in 1996 and they were renamed the Ravens. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was the Ravens' defensive coordinator before he was hired in Indy.
Storyline: What provides more emotional ammunition, the ongoing story of Chuck Pagano's battle with leukemia or the announcement by Ravens future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis that this is his final act? The Colts have already penned a Cinderella story, transforming from 2-14 last season to the playoffs by winning nine of their last 11 games. The Ravens lost four of five down the stretch.
Players to watch: Ravens running back Ray Rice had a down year for him, but he still rushed for 1,143 yards, and he'll be facing a Colts defense that was 29th in rushing yards allowed and 31st in average gain per rush allowed. Colts defensive stars Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney are on the wrong side of 30, and they combined for just 13 sacks this season, 8 by Mathis. They averaged 21 in the previous four seasons. But they're still capable of making life miserable for quarterbacks, especially when facing the likes of Ravens offensive tackles Michael Oher and rookie Kelechi Osemele.
Pick: Ravens 23, Colts 20.
Seahawks (11-5) at Redskins (10-6)
TV: 3:30 p.m., FOX
Line: Seahawks by 3.
History: Any team that employs DeAngelo Hall has a trash-talk factor, with the emphasis on "trash." And the last time these two teams met, late in 2011, the Redskins' cornerback nearly precipitated a brawl — before the coin flip. The Redskins scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to win that game, 23-17.
Storyline: Only two rookie quarterbacks in NFL history have ever posted passer ratings of 100 or better, and both are playing in this game. The Seahawks' Russell Wilson (100.0) and the Redskins' Robert Griffin III (102.4), combined, threw just 1 more interception than Jay Cutler, and 27 more touchdown passes. Griffin, the second overall pick, and Wilson, a third-rounder, both possess game-changing running skills as well.
Players to watch: Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch had the most productive season of a beastly career, rushing for 1,590 yards. If the Seahawks get a lead and Lynch goes "Beast Mode," it's over. Because of the three rookie quarterbacks who took their teams to the playoffs, Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris was overlooked for much of the season. But the sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic outrushed Lynch by 23 yards.
Pick: Seahawks 30, Redskins 20.
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