Texans, Bengals, Vikings, Redskins to play host
Here's a look at the four wild-card round matchups this weekend in the NFL playoffs:
AFC: KANSAS CITY (11-5) at HOUSTON (9-7), Saturday, 4:30 p.m. EST, ABC/ESPN
The Chiefs might be the NFL's version of a family sedan. Practical. Efficient. Responsible. Occasionally boring. Still, Kansas City enters the playoffs as the NFL's hottest team, ripping off 10 straight following a 1-5 start, and the one early win was a season-opening 27-20 victory at Houston.
The Chiefs take care of the ball (they are plus-16 in turnover margin during their current run) and keep opponents out of the end zone. It's a formula as basic as coach Andy Reid's game-day demeanor, yet a style that has arguably made Kansas City the least-flawed team in an AFC where weaknesses abound.
The Texans have plenty of them. They captured the AFC South crown by being the best of a mediocre bunch. J.J. Watt did J.J. Watt things, finishing with a league-high 17 1/2 sacks while turning each celebration into a dance-off. Coach Bill O'Brien made an offense that couldn't seem to keep a quarterback healthy work anyway. The merry-go-round has come full circle, with Brian Hoyer back in control of the huddle as Houston seeks to improve to 3-0 in the wild-card round.
AFC: PITTSBURGH (10-6) at CINCINNATI (12-4), Saturday, 8:15 p.m. EST, CBS
A decade later, the AFC North champion Bengals have a shot at postseason payback. The resilient Steelers, meanwhile, are eyeing a familiar path to a frequent destination.
The Bengals were on the rise in 2005 when they hosted the Steelers in the wild-card round. Then Pittsburgh defensive tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen crashed into quarterback Carson Palmer's left leg in the first quarter, shredding Palmer's knee. Cincinnati struggled behind backup Jon Kitna and the Steelers rolled to a 31-17 victory on their way to a fifth Super Bowl title.
Cincinnati won the division with backup A.J. McCarron after Andy Dalton broke his right thumb in a home loss to Pittsburgh last month. McCarron is a respectable 2-1 in Dalton's absence, but he was three months old the last time the Bengals won a playoff game, a drought that turns 25 this month and includes six straight postseason losses. The Steelers haven't gone more than five years between playoff wins since Richard Nixon was president.
Pittsburgh has injury problems of its own with running back DeAngelo Williams nursing a sprained right ankle. The Steelers are already without star Le'Veon Bell, lost for the year after injuring his knee against Cincinnati in November. The injury stemmed from a hit by linebacker Vontaze Burfict that spurred a war of words with Steelers linebacker Vince Williams that spilled over into social media and pregame warmups last month.
The teams split in the regular season, with each winning on the road.
NFC: SEATTLE (10-6) at MINNESOTA (11-5), Sunday, 1 p.m. EST, NBC
The Vikings are the No. 3 seed in the NFC thanks to a victory at Green Bay Sunday that ended the Packers' four-year grip on the NFC North. But a game against the Seahawks is hardly a reward for their first division title since 2009.
Of course, the Vikings are more than happy to be at home, getting another chance to be an outdoor team before they move under a new roof next summer. The early forecasts are calling for a cold afternoon, with a temperature barely in the double-digits, conditions that ought to benefit a Vikings team built around NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson and a stout defense that racked up 14 sacks over a season-finishing three-game winning streak.
The Seahawks are the two-time defending NFC champions who were one play away last February from back-to-back Super Bowl titles. They finished strong, with six wins in their last seven games despite the loss of running back Marshawn Lynch and then his rookie lookalike Thomas Rawls. Russell Wilson took his performance to a new level, becoming the first player in NFL history to finish a season with at least 4,000 yards passing, 30 touchdown passes and 500 yards rushing. Along the way, he engineered a 38-7 victory over the Vikings in Minnesota on Dec. 6.
The Seahawks haven't lost their swagger, with a defense that gave up the fewest points per game in the league and ranked second in yardage. The Legion of Boom would like nothing more than to show the NFL they can reach another Super Bowl without that vaunted home-field advantage.
NFC: GREEN BAY (10-6) at WASHINGTON (9-7), Sunday, 4:30 p.m. EST, FOX
On the surface, the Packers got a decent consolation prize for losing to the Vikings with a game against Washington, the champions of the weak NFC East. The Packers had the same record on the road (5-3) as they did at Lambeau Field.
The Packers will take a lot of baggage with them to Washington (or, to be more accurate: Landover, Maryland), starting with their uncharacteristically punchless offense. Whether due to a depleted crew of wide receivers, an inadequate offensive line, off-kilter play calling or his own throwing, Aaron Rodgers has had the worst year of his career.
The Redskins, on the other hand, averaged nearly 33 points over a four-game winning streak to finish the regular season. Kirk Cousins has had quite the breakthrough, with 12 touchdown passes and only one interception while averaging close to 300 yards during the streak. They've got confidence and momentum, which are important assets this time of year.
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