NFL Wild Card Weekend: Keys and predictions for all four games
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, at Paul Brown Stadium, Pittsburgh - TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phill Simms, Tracy Wolfson
*Keys to the game: There is a great amount of familiarity between the AFC North rivals - and nearly just as much contempt between the two. The teams split two hotly contested games this season, the Bengals winning 16-10 in Pittsburgh in November and the Steelers returning the favor in this stadium, 33-20, six weeks later.
The status of RB DeAngelo Williams (foot) will dictate part of Pittsburgh's game plan. They have expressed confidence in Fitzgerald Toussaint publicly, but the reality is the second-year player out of Michigan averaged just 2.3 yards on 18 carries during the regular season and did not have a single catch. Williams brings experience and versatility that are key to the offense running smoothly and providing QB Ben Roethlisberger with an outlet when his downfield receivers are covered up.
Roethlisberger has thrown multiple interceptions in three consecutive games, and with a directive to protect the ball better will likely look often to trusty TE Heath Miller, who had 10 catches in each of the regular-season meetings.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton suffered a fractured thumb in the rematch, hasn't played since and will again watch AJ McCarron take his place Saturday night. Cincinnati ideally keeps the game close and pecks away with RBs Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard in more of a ball-controlled attack. But the reality is the game will hinge on McCarron's arm - and his decision making. Pittsburgh had the league's 30th-ranked pass defense during the regular season and the Bengals must take advantage. McCarron wasn't sacked in the last meeting, but did throw a pair of picks and will be tested in reading the various blitz packages Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler will bring.
*Matchup to watch - Steelers WRs Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant vs. Bengals CBs Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick: Brown was held to six catches for 47 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting and 7-87-0 in the second. That marked two of only four regular-season games that Roethlisberger started that Brown failed to top 100 yards. Meanwhile, Bryant was called out by Big Ben this week to toughen up after he faded down the stretch. The Bengals can't match the speed of the Steelers' receivers, but they do have a veteran unit led by Hall and Kirkpatrick, who twice left last week's game with a twisted ankle. Veterans Terence Newman and Adam Jones also figure into the mix.
*Player spotlight - Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict: Burfict was assessed with nearly half of the $150,000 in fines levied out by the NFL for illegal hits following last month's meeting. Roethlisberger believes Burfict took a cheap shot as his knee, and the Steelers also took offense to Burfict's reaction to RB Le'Veon Bell writhing on the ground with a season-ending knee injury in the first meeting. The officials will be watching carefully and the Bengals need Burfict to remain in control as a key cog in their seventh-ranked run defense.
*Fast facts: The Steelers finished the regular season with 48 sacks, their most since 2010 and 15 more than last season. ... The Bengals have lost seven consecutive playoff games since their last postseason victory in 1991 at the old Riverfront Stadium.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Steelers took the back door into the playoffs and find themselves in a comfortable road setting against a rival they know intimately - and a rival leaning on a backup QB. If Ben Roethlisberger can avoid the turnovers that have plagued his play of late, Big Ben hands Cincinnati yet another playoff dagger to the heart.
*Our pick: Steelers 30-23
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, at NRG Stadium, Houston - TV: ESPN/ABC
*Keys to the game: The Chiefs have an NFL-best 10-game winning streak and a Week 1 win in this stadium as feathers in their cap. Because the offensive line and QB Alex Smith are playing well, coach Andy Reid is in a definite comfort zone calling plays. Texans DE J.J. Watt and OLB Whitney Mercilus, who have a combined 29.5 sacks this season, could change that in a blink.
Kansas City will keep the ball on the ground to stay out of third-and-long spots where Watt wreaks havoc. WR Jeremy Maclin and TE Travis Kelce teamed up for the first time this season and Smith thrived with the ability to attack all levels of the field. The Texans can't sell out to get sacks. Reid will roll the dice once or twice, and Smith rushed for more than 500 yards during the regular season.
The Texans will try to get the football in the hands of WR DeAndre Hopkins to create yards downfield. They're committed to running the football and will incorporate Alfred Blue, Chris Polk, Jonathan Grimes and speedy rookie Akeem Hunt. Grimes came on late in the season and averaged 5.0 yards per carry. Kansas City's front seven is as solid as they come, and the return of OLB Justin Houston is reason for QB Brian Hoyer to perspire. He has been out twice this season with concussions and now takes the field without LT Duane Brown (torn quad).
*Matchup to watch - Chiefs CBs Marcus Peters and Sean Smith vs. Hopkins: On the first play of his NFL career, Peters picked off a pass by Houston QB Brian Hoyer, helping to set up the Chiefs' first touchdown of the game. Before the game was over, the Chiefs had their problems handling Hopkins, who caught nine passes for 98 yards and two touchdown passes. Hopkins finished the regular season with 111 receptions for 1,597 yards and 11 touchdowns.
*Player spotlight - Texans FS Andre Hal: One of the smallest safeties in the league at 5-10, 188 pounds, the converted cornerback is a physical tackler and a rangy center fielder who has smoothly adjusted to his new position. Last week, he picked Jaguars QB Blake Bortles for a third time this season.
*Fast facts: Reid is 5-0 all-time vs. Houston. ... The Chiefs led the AFC with a plus-14 turnover margin during the regular season. ... Watt led the NFL with 17.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss in 2015.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The healthier team with a more balanced offense, the Chiefs might not grab a three-score lead in this Week 1 rematch, but Kansas City gets its first playoff win in its past nine trips.
*Our pick: Chiefs 19-14
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, at TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis - TV: NBC
*TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
*Keys to the game: Both teams are built to handle winter weather conditions, and that will be put to the test with the temperature expected to hover around 0 degrees - at best, and potentially dip significantly lower.
When these teams met on the same field on Dec. 6, Seattle focused on shutting down RB Adrian Peterson, jumped out to a 21-0 first half lead and completely took Minnesota out of its comfort zone. QB Teddy Bridgewater improved in pushing the ball vertically the rest of December, but struggled again with his downfield accuracy in last week's victory over Green Bay. The Vikings need to keep the score within reach and remain committed to Peterson, who managed 18 yards on only eight carries in the field meeting.
Minnesota is a far better run-blocking team, and Bridgewater was clearly rattled by the pass rush when forced into a one-dimensional attack the first time he faced Seattle.
The Seahawks are set to get RB Marshawn Lynch back in the lineup for the first time since he underwent abdomen surgery on Nov. 25, and they need his physical presence. Rookie Thomas Rawls, who is now on injured reserve, rushed for 101 yards on 19 carries against the Vikings last month. Minnesota's defense is far healthier for the rematch, but Seahawks QB Russell Wilson also enters playing extremely well over the past six weeks. He was 21-for-27 for 274 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the first meeting.
With Wilson playing so well out of the offense that has been modified since Lynch last played, it will be interesting to see how well he acclimates back into the lineup.
*Matchup to watch - Seahawks OLB Bruce Irvin vs. Vikings RT T.J. Clemmings: Irvin racked up a sack, a QB hit, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble in the first meeting, and afterward claimed Bridgewater was "scared" of the Seahawks' pass rush. Meanwhile, rookie Frank Clark added a pair of sacks and two deflections. On an offensive line that struggles in projection, the rookie Clemmings is a prime target, as is RG Mike Harris working largely against DT Michael Bennett.
*Player spotlight - Vikings SS Andrew Sendejo: Sendejo missed the first meeting with a knee injury while FS Harrison Smith left the game early and Wilson proceeded to put on a passing clinic. Both starting safeties are healthy now, and Sendejo will also play a significant role in run defense.
*Fast facts: Only nine games in NFL history have been played where the temperature never rose above 0. The coldest recorded game in NFL history was the "Ice Bowl" between Dallas and Green Bay in 1967 where the teams played in minus-13 degrees with a wind chill that dipped as low as minus-48. The Vikings' coldest playoff game was played in 9 degrees in 1970 against San Francisco at Met Stadium.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Don't expect a repeat of the Seahawks' 38-7 romp in Minnesota last month. The Vikings are healthier on defense and the first game simply snowballed on Minnesota. But this is still an excellent matchup for Seattle, which packs the league's top-ranked run defense that will eventually put Teddy Bridgewater into the pass-first mode he's not ready to handle in his first playoff game.
*Our pick: Seahawks 23-16
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, at FedEx Field, Landover, Md. - TV: FOX
*Keys to the game: The Packers' offense is a mess resembling nothing close to the machine-efficient iteration of playoffs past. For the sixth game in a row, QB Aaron Rodgers isn't sure who'll line up as his wall of protection -- six offensive linemen are on the injury report. Conservative looks, especially in the first quarter, with two tight ends and FB John Kuhn on the field, are likely to be the norm.
The Redskins are not deep at cornerback. But based on recent results, the Packers are not able to exploit that weakness. Rodgers' receivers aren't gaining separation off the line and that's allowing for blitz packages and man coverage. Grinding Washington's defense with long drives and mixing of short throws and Eddie Lacy runs would open the field to what Rodgers does best.
Redskins QB Kirk Cousins, who has 23 touchdowns and three interceptions the past 10 games, has been flappable when teams rattle him with inside pressure. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers figures to dial up plenty of pressure for the Packers to create havoc in the pocket, disrupt timing on pass routes and try to become an opportunistic bunch in coming up with a critical takeaway or two.
Green Bay has two of the league's premier pass rushers in Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. They must be unleashed for the Packers to have success in slowing down Washington's prolific downfield passing, especially with the prospect of Green Bay being short-handed on the back end if veteran CB Sam Shields can't play again because of a concussion. Green Bay has been effective limiting big pass plays all season but play-action to tight ends was a weakness.
*Matchup to watch - Redskins TE Jordan Reed vs. Packers LB Jake Ryan: Teams repeatedly used their tight ends late in the season to expose Ryan in coverage. Reed is well suited to take advantage of that weakness with 87 receptions in just 14 games.
*Player spotlight - Shields: Expected to play for the first time in nearly a month and sorely missed, Shields is Green Bay's top cover man and has the speed and agility to match any Washington wide receiver.
*Fast facts: In 2010, the Packers entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed and won the Super Bowl. They are the No. 5 seed this year. ... The Redskins are averaging 32.8 points during their current four-game win streak.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Postseason football is a different beast, and Aaron Rodgers knows his way around these parts. Rodgers and the Packers find a way to advance on the road.
*Our pick: Packers 24-23