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 Giants (2007) and Packers (2010).
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:
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 it 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
But much has changed since then. Which leads me to the two most important developments that could lead to a Giants upset:
**1)** The Packers' secondary is a M.A.S.H. unit right now. Sam Shields is on IR. Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, the team's top two corners this season, are both looking dicey for this game. Their absence -- or limited effectiveness -- could kickstart the New York offense.
**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
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 receiving against 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
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 Indianapolis and 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