Wild Card Lookahead: A year poised for a Cinderella story


Do not be fooled by the fact that the past two Super Bowls have been won by a No. 1 seed -- the Patriots last year, the Seahawks the year before. The most dangerous teams in this go-around of the NFL playoffs might well be the No. 6 seeds, the Pittsburgh Steelers and, yes, the Seahawks, both of whom enter the playoffs on hot streaks -- the Steelers having won six of their last eight regular-season games, the Seahawks eight of their last 10. Neither, though, is the hottest team entering the postseason. That's the Kansas City Chiefs, who have won 10 in a row and are also a wild-card team.

This weekend of games, then, should not be confused for a warm-up act for the Divisional Round. There is a real chance that a team playing this Saturday or Sunday could make a run, particularly in the AFC where there will be questions about how well Peyton Manning will hold up in Denver and about overall health in New England. In fact, the potential for a true Cinderella story is ripe this postseason. It's the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl, but five of the teams in the current field have never won one, including the top three seeds in the NFC, the Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings.

One other thing to note about the field: balance counts. Eight of the top 10 teams in scoring offense this year are in the field and 11 of the top 12 teams in scoring defense are in. The only teams not to fit into both categories: Denver, Minnesota, Houston, Green Bay and Washington. Of that group, only Denver has a bye this week.

A look at the first four games on the way to the golden Super Bowl:

Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans, Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN

These teams played in Week 1, in a game that will be remembered (although Bill O'Brien might prefer to forget) as being the one in which Texans' starting quarterback Brian Hoyer was benched in the fourth quarter. Hoyer survived that and will start this game -- and the Texans survived having to start four different quarterbacks this season -- but nobody should tune in expecting offensive fireworks. The Texans averaged the fewest points per game of any of the playoff teams. And even though the Chiefs ranked ninth in points scored per game this season, both teams have allowed an average of less than 13 points per game since Week 8 and each feature a top pass rushing duo, in the Chiefs' Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, and the Texans' J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus.

The Chiefs, though, have outscored opponents 278-128 during the 10-game winning streak to end the regular season, and they were especially potent in the fourth quarter, when they have outscored opponents 50-10. Expect to see a lot of tight end Travis Kelce, who had six receptions for 106 yards and two touchdowns in the first game against the Texans.

The question in this game is whether the Texans can summon whatever offensive firepower the Chiefs' defense will allow them. They did score at least 30 points in each of their last two games, but they also averaged just 5 yards per play this season, the second fewest in the league, despite the 111-reception year by receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Hoyer has been careful with the ball, not throwing multiple interceptions in any game this season. But the Texans' offensive plans will be complicated by the loss of left tackle Duane Brown, who was put on injured reserve this week with a quadriceps injury.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS

When last we left these two, they were engaged in one of the chippiest games of the season. And that Week 14 bout might have altered the course of the Bengals for good. The Steelers won that week, to split the season series, but it was an ill-advised attempt at a tackle on which Andy Dalton broke his thumb that endangered what had looked to be the year the Bengals would finally shed their postseason demons. Dalton hasn't played since and won't play in this weekend's game. It remains unclear when he will be fully ready to reassume his job, if the Bengals advance in the playoffs.

The Bengals' and Dalton's postseason futility have been well-documented -- Dalton is 0-4 in the playoffs, they are 0-6 under Marvin Lewis in the playoffs and there hasn't been a playoff victory at all since 1990. Backup AJ McCarron will try to break the dry spell, and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's head coaching résumé is getting bolstered by the fact that the Bengals are 2-1 under McCarron, who has thrown four touchdown passes and no interceptions in those games. Still, the Bengals are scoring an average of six fewer points per game with McCarron (21.7) and their third-down conversion rate has dropped by 6.6 percentage points.

That is no match for the Steelers' explosive offense, which averages 28.4 points per game when Ben Roethlisberger plays. But Roethlisberger has thrown at least two interceptions in each of his last three games and he struggled against the Bengals this year, throwing one touchdown and four interceptions. Keep in mind: The Bengals have the second-best scoring defense in the league, allowing just 17.4 points per game.

But the difference maker in this game might be the Steelers' defense, which gives up a lot of passing yards but has still managed to keep scoring down. The Bengals were fifth in red-zone touchdown percentage on offense this season -- most of it with Dalton, of course -- but the Steelers have the sixth-ranked red-zone defense and are tied for the lead in red-zone takeaways. If McCarron continues to limit mistakes, this might not be the lopsided matchup some anticipate.

Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, NBC

These teams played in Minneapolis a little more than one month ago and ... well ... yikes.

Seattle beat Minnesota 38-7 in the Seahawks' biggest win of the season and the Vikings' worst loss. The Seahawks took a 35-0 lead before the Vikings got on the board with a kickoff return. In other words, the Vikings' offense was a complete non-factor, with just 125 total yards, including 18 yards on eight carries for Adrian Peterson. And the Vikings' defense, which finished 13th overall, was completely overwhelmed by Russell Wilson in a virtuoso performance that resulted in three touchdown passes and one touchdown run. That game fell in the middle of the Seahawks' current run, in which they won six of their final seven regular-season games.

The running game likely will be critical on a day when the forecast calls for the temperature at game time to be near zero degrees with wind. Peterson led the league in rushing yards, but the Seahawks have the league's top-ranked run defense and were the only team that did not allow a 100-yard rusher this season. Even more alarming: Peterson is dealing with a back injury. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry this season, but in five of his past seven games, he averaged a full yard less than that per carry.

The thing to watch here might be how Seattle integrates running back Marshawn Lynch back into the offense. He has missed the last seven games with an abdomen injury. In his absence, though, Wilson has carried more of the offensive burden and has been spectacular, throwing 24 touchdown passes and just one interception in seven games.

UPDATE: The Seahawks have announced that Lynch has been downgraded to out for Sunday's game.

Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX

If you had asked at the start of the season, which team would enter the playoffs with the better offense, the happier quarterback and the most confidence, there might not have been anyone paying attention in America who would have picked Washington -- in large part because nobody would have picked Washington to be in the playoffs in the first place.

But here we are, with Kirk Cousins among the hottest quarterbacks in the NFL and Aaron Rodgers launching veiled zingers at his head coach in frustration over his sputtering offense. Since Week 10, Cousins has outshone Rodgers by a good margin in completion percentage, passing yards per game and passer rating. The Packers have lost six of their last 10 games, including their final two with the NFC North title hanging in the balance, scoring a combined 21 points in those final two games. No team has allowed more sacks since Week 9 and Rodgers has had particular trouble throwing downfield, averaging just 6.7 yards per attempt this season, 30th in the league, in large part because his receivers -- sans Jordy Nelson, of course -- have struggled to get open.

Washington, on the other hand, has scored 28.8 points per game since Week 10 and has scored at least 30 points in each of its last three games. Since Week 7, Cousins has thrown 23 touchdowns and three interceptions.

Here is the caveat that makes this game hard to predict: All nine Washington victories this season came against teams that finished .500 or less, and it prevailed over a wretched NFC East. Washington faced just two playoff teams this season -- New England and Carolina -- and were crushed, getting outscored 71-26. And the defense allowed an average of 454 yards in the last three games, while simultaneously racking up 14 sacks, the most in the league during that span.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.



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