Wild Card Weekend ... and this time, it's for real!
Sorry, going to the see "Rogue One" inspires a little extra drama where none is needed. The Wild Card Round has carried plenty of drama in recent times, coming a long way since the first wild-card teams (one per conference) were adopted with the AFL-NFL Merger in 1970. The league went to two teams starting in 1978. By 1990, there would be three, yet only once, from the concept's inception in '70 through 1996 would a wild-card team win it all: Tom Flores' 1980 Raiders.
As parity became more prevalent, these second-tier playoff teams started going farther. First, Terrell Davis and the 1997 Broncosran over the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Three years later, the wild-card Ravenstook home the Lombardi Trophy. Then there were the Steelers in 2005, followed by a couple of franchises going at it this weekend: the 2007 Giants and 2010 Packers.
Speaking of ...
Now, let's get to it!
Elliot Harrison went 12-4 on his predictions for Week 17, giving him a record of 170-84-2 thus far this season. How will he fare on Wild Card Weekend? His picks are below:
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS
Much has been made of Jay Ajayi's 200-yard running sprees, which kicked off when he bolted for 204 yards and two touchdowns in the Dolphins' win over the Steelers down in Miami earlier this season. But what does that mean? Can Ajayi, who has been visibly banged-up and -- save for one huge day in Buffalo -- has slowed down in the second half of the season, go off again?
He might need to. Because there are no indications that Adam Gase's defense will be able to hold the Pittsburgh offense down enough to win without rushing for over 100 yards and eating clock. Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph is garnering much attention in this cycle of the coaching carousel, but his unit ranks 18th in points allowed and 29th overall. Obviously, points are more important than yards -- the Dolphins often have held the fort without letting fall. That group faces its toughest task this weekend, and could really use Reshad Jones.
An 11-year-old could tell you the Big Three for the Steelers are the key to the game (... after he or she kicks your but in "Star Wars: Battlefront 3"). Yet, without disrespecting the other two, lately Pittsburgh's fortunes have been tied to the Big One -- and I'm not talking about Big Ben. Not everyone can tell you that Le'Veon Bell -- not David Johnson or Ezekiel Elliott -- led the league in scrimmage yards per game this season. Bell averaged nearly 160 yards per game this season. Joseph's D performed admirably in the October faceoff with Bell -- well, sort of, limiting the game's most dynamic back to "only" 108 yards on 16 touches and a two-point conversion. Game situation dictated that Bell only get 10 carries. Think his workload will double Sunday morning, with Miami's suspect run defense having no answers. #MIAvsPIT
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX
Giants at Packers rounds out one of the most fun football weekends of the year. This is also the third matchup of teams in the Wild Card Round that already faced each other during the regular season. Green Bay won the initial meeting, 23-16, in a game that really wasn't that close. New York's offense struggled to move the ball at all (shocker), totaling a paltry 221 yards on that Sunday evening. The Packers outgained them by 185 yards. The time of possession was even worse, with Green Bay holding the ball nearly 37 minutes.
But much has changed since then. Which leads me to the two most important developments that could lead to a Giants upset:
2) Big Blue's defense has been playing out of its mind for 10 games. They've only allowed 400 yards in a game once since that loss in Lambeau, and even that came two months ago.
So, can the Giants do it? Can they pull off the road playoff win at Lambeau, as they did in the 2007 NFC Championship and 2011 Divisional Round? I don't think so. Putting aside the fact that Aaron Rodgers has produced the most stunning six-pack of games from a quarterback in recent memory, there are other factors at play here. Only Rollins was healthy for that first meeting in Week 5, thus Green Bay wasn't playing with a full deck then. And Eli Manning isn't playing at the same level as he was in 2011. Are the offensive failures all his fault? Not even close. Yet, if his defense doesn't play a perfect game, Manning might be forced to put up 28 points to win -- something New York has only accomplished once this entire season. #NYGvsGB
All the talk swirling around this game is focused on Connor Cook and whether he will be good enough in his first career start for the Raiders to win. What about the Texans' quarterback? Tell you what: We'll get to that. As for Oakland's rookie third-string quarterback, how does anyone know he won't play well? Last Sunday, Cook was thrust into a matchup against one of the league's premier defenses, while the players on said defense were playing their hearts out for their retiring head coach. Oh, and it was on the road. Against a division opponent. Talk about a turd sandwich served up to Cook. Impossible to judge the 23-year-old on how he performed when tossed into that fire. There were those who thought Cook would go much higher than he did in the draft (100th overall pick), and it's not like he doesn't have Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree (both 1,000-yard receivers) and Latavius Murray playing with him.
For the Texans to capitalize on the inexperience of their opponent's QB, their goal(s) must be to pressure him, or at least confuse him. Both are relevant. Bear in mind, Oakland's offensive line gave up only 18 sacks all year. The unit was as solid in pass protection as any group in the league. If Texans pass rushers can't make it home (Houston only posted 31 sacks this season), then disguising coverages is a must. One big point of concern for the Texans: making sure they know their own assignments. Raiders RBs -- Murray, Jalen Richard and Jamize Olawale -- posted 199 yards receivingagainst the Texans in Mexico City. Lastly, Brock Osweiler can't go all Osweiler with dirtballs, throwing passes on the inside shoulder when they are supposed to be on the outside shoulder and/or turning it over. His passer rating (72.2) is 44.9 points lower than NFL leader Matt Ryan. I think Oakland will score enough points to win on the road, whether people believe in Cook or not. #OAKvsHOU
Run the football. Even if it doesn't work. If the Lions are going to upset the Seahawks, they must utilize Zach Zenner while maintaining some semblance of balance. Constantly airing it out would be analogous to only doing biceps at the gym -- which, judging by Twitter avatars, is still all the rage in 2016. The body of the offense must be used, from power runs to bubble screens to Golden Tate. Getting the former Seahawk involved early makes too much sense. He's an emotional player who can ignite the offense. That, coupled with Zenner, can keep the Seattle pass rush at bay. Or, at the very least, provide a moment's hesitation -- Is this a draw play? -- and so on.
The Seahawks can ill afford to dilly-dally, like in San Francisco last week. Matthew Stafford won't be providing many freebies to the secondary -- especially a secondary that's sans the uber-rangy Earl Thomas. Thus, getting off to a fast start offensively is key. Come out aggressive, get Russell Wilson out of the pocket early and take at least one vertical shot to Jimmy Graham down the seam or Paul Richardson on a classic go route. The longer the Lions hang around in a 10-7 ballgame, the more they will believe they can win.
Remember earlier this season when Stafford kept winning games in the fourth quarter, including on the road in Indianapolisand Minnesota? Better yet, remember when the winless Lions came within a foot of upsetting the Seahawks in Seattle last season? All that said, Detroit was 0-5 versus playoff teams this year, and the Seahawks haven't lost a home playoff game since the 2004 Wild Card Round against the Rams. Trivia: Anyone remember who dropped the potential game-tying touchdown pass in that game? #DETvsSEA