It’s Wild Card weekend in the NFL, time for the four games that begin the choreography which will eventually lead us to the Super Bowl.
Here’s a look at a storyline from each game we believe will play a major role:
Watt’s return bolsters Texans
There’ s little doubt J.J. Watt is one of the best players in the NFL. In fact, he’s one of the top players in his generation. But he means more than that to the Texans. He’s their security blanket, a player whose presence makes everyone on the team feel a little more confident in what they do and what they might be able to accomplish.
Good news, Texans fans. You’re getting him back on Saturday against the Bills.
To be honest, it’s a bit of a minor medical miracle. Watt tore a pectoral muscle in Week 8 and that’s usually enough to keep a player sidelined for the remainder of the season.
But the Texans medical staff has slowly nursed Watt along. And their patient has responded better than could have been expected to treatment. A few weeks ago, we began to hear for the first time that he might he ready to return when the playoffs rolled around. Now here he is.
Still, Watt will not be rushed back full-time. His snaps will be closely monitored and likely limited to specific situations where his skills can be put to best use.
“Well, he’s a pretty good pass rusher, so I would like to get some pass-rushing reps out of him. So, you’re looking at third- own, two-minute and then we’ll see after that,” defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said earlier this week.
“I think that we’ll have to kind of measure to see where he is and how he’s doing, because he hasn’t played in eight games. Even though he’s been working with the strength and conditioning people, the football condition when you’re playing a big game, your adrenaline gets picked up and you get winded a little bit faster. We’ll have to measure that to see how that goes, and then I think that will impact how much he plays. But I don’t think that we want to expose him too much if he’s not able to go at a good level.”
Watt is a three-time defensive player of the year. Whatever he’s able to contribute will be a major help to a defense that’s had trouble this season getting to the quarterback.
“I think we have a good plan,” Watt said. “I think we have a good plan for how we’re going to utilize the game and how we’re going to go throughout the game. I think today was a good day for me. Today was my first day in pads. We were in pads out there on the field and it was good. I went through a lot of tests that I wanted to go through personally. Just mentally, when you’re coming back from — you’ve got to go through some tests mentally to make sure that you can do the things you want to do, and today was a really good day for that. I felt really good out there, did a whole bunch of different stuff to try and simulate what’s going to happen in the game and felt very good in all of those things. So, very pleased with where it’s at.”
Is this it for Brady? It might be up to Henry.
Time to be a little melodramatic. Since the third-seeded Patriots did not secure a first-round bye, that means their game at Gillette Stadium Saturday night against the Titans most likely will be their only one at home in the postseason.
What that also means is it could be the final home game of Tom Brady’s career with the Patriots. We’re certain you’ve heard his contract expires after the season ends and the team is not allowed to assign him the franchise tag.
“I’m not much for nostalgia. I’m just pretty focused on what I need to do. This week has felt pretty much like every other week for the last 20 years,” Brady said Thursday. “I haven’t thought about those things. I wouldn’t be thinking about those things anyway. It’s felt like a normal week for me. I just approach practice like I always have, and try to do the best I can do. That’s what I’m going to do this weekend as well.”
If the Patriots win, it’s likely going to be because they found a way to contain Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher. He’s simply been dynamic down the stretch, gaining 211 yards in last week’s regular season finale against the Titans.
“I think in the playoffs you have to be able to run the ball to get to the Super Bowl,” Henry said earlier this week. “I think running the ball effectively is the key to winning games in the playoffs.”
Henry, who has been dealing with a tender hamstring the last few weeks, has gained 896 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns over his last six games.
“I think we are really just locked in, so we are focused on what we need to do,” Henry said. “We know what type of game this is, we know who we are playing, so we are trying to be focused on each aspect of the game.
“I’m happy to be in the playoffs. It’s a good opponent, it will be a hostile environment. It’s playoff football.”
According to NFL.com, since 1970, the rushing champion is 2-3 in playoffs versus the No. 1 scoring defense. The last running back to win was LaDainian Tomlinson in the 2007 Divisional Round at the Colts.
Vikings will need Cook against the Saints
The Vikings have limped into the playoffs, losers of their last two games. Last week, aware they could not improve upon their No. 6 seed, they rested many of their important components in a 21-19 loss to the Bears.
Their problem on Saturday in New Orleans is figuring out a way to regenerate their energy in a such a way they can win what likely will be a shootout against a Saints team that has averaged 40 points over their four games.
One of the best ways they can do that is by controlling the ball on the ground. Not only will that help open up the passing game for quarterback Kirk Cousins, it will keep the ball out of the hands of Drew Brees.
To do that, the Vikings are going to require a great effort from running back Dalvin Cook. And after missing the last two games after bruising his left shoulder/chest area, Cook said he’s ready to go against the Saints.
“I wouldn’t put a percentage on it,” Cook said. “If I were whatever percent, I’d be out there on Sunday. So I’m gonna be ready to go, I’m gonna be at full strength, and I’m looking forward to a good football game. I definitely feel refreshed.”
To be honest, Cook’s absence hasn’t been the only one that’s hurt the Vikings. Their best receiver, Adam Thielen, has basically been off his game since Week 6 when he injured his hamstring. He’s only been back at full strength the last two or three weeks.
Cook was hurt in the Chargers game in Week 15. And until this week, he hadn’t participated in a full practice. That was particularly hard on the Vikings last week because his backup, Alexander Mattison, has also been dealing with a high ankle sprain. He also returned to practice for the first time this week since Week 14.
“We’ve got two different things going on, but I’ve been encouraging him [Mattison], and he’s been encouraging me,” Cook added. “Being in the training room a lot, it can kind of take a toll on your mind and mess with your mental a little bit. I know Alex is a young guy, so I kind of push him through it and make sure he’s here every day. Alex has been doing a great job of getting on top of his rehab.”
Banged-up Eagles hoping for the best
No team’s journey to the playoffs has been more perilous than the Eagles. When the history of the 2019 season is told, the depths of this team’s difficulties due to injuries will be one of the major stories.
Still, the Eagles prevailed, winning their final four games – three against the Giants and Redskins – to sneak past the Cowboys to win the NFC East. That earned them the four seed and a date on Sunday against the Seahawks. Seattle has already defeated the Eagles in Philadelphia this season: 17-9 in Week 12.
The Eagles come into this game knowing Alshon Jeffery, Ronald Darby, Darren Sproles and All-Pro guard Brandon Brooks are out for the season.
Right tackle Lane Johnson has missed the last three games. Running back Mike Sanders has a sprained ankle, star tight end Zach Ertz is questionable with a fractured rib and lacerated spleen, defensive end Daeshon Hall tore his ACL against the Giants last week and receiver DeSean Jackson likely won’t be ready until next week – if the Eagles make it – because of his core injury.
How have the Eagles survived? They’ve relied on the production of three-deep and practice squad players. Last week against the Giants, it was halfback Boston Scott, only on the active roster since October. Scott is coming off a three-touchdown performance that led to his selection as the NFC offensive player of the week.
“Shoot, guys have been making plays,” Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz said. “I’ve said that over and over now: It’s someone different every week.”