After wondering for 17 weeks about who might have the stamina to make it to the postseason, the NFL begins the postseason with its four Wild Card games.
Tiebreaker.com takes a look at the games that will lead to next week’s Divisional Round.
Indianapolis (10-6) at Houston (11-5)
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN
This is such an intriguing game, a matchup between two of the league’s comeback kids and division rivals.
We all remember the Texans began the season 0-3 and were on the canvas. Then it all changed. The losing stopped in Week 4, momentum built and they won nine straight and the AFC South for the third time in four seasons.
The Colts recovered from the loss of a prospective head coach, Josh McDaniels, who decided at the very last minute he didn’t want the job. So, the team turned to Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who teamed with healthy Andrew Luck (4,593 yards passing, 39 touchdowns), who helped Indy get to the playoffs with a 33-17 Week 17 win at Tennessee. The Colts haven’t been the playoffs since 2014.
Some point to the Week 4 regular season meeting between the teams, in terms of helping set Houston’s postseason compass. With the game tied 34-34, Reich went for the first down on fourth-and-4 from his 43 with 36 seconds to play in overtime. He could have punted to save a tie.
Instead, he decided to go for it and failed. With three seconds to play, Ka’imi Fairbairn’s field goal won the game and teams were tied at 1-3. At that point, the demise of the Jacksonville Jaguars was just beginning and it seemed like a death knell for both. And that only seemed more evident for the Colts when they lost their next two – including one to the miserable New York Jets – to drop to 1-5.
“At the end of the day, what we did is a pretty good feeling,” Reich said. “To be 1-5 and do something that only two teams in the history of this league … to make the playoffs after a 1-5 start is quite an accomplishment. Real credit to the guys, and we talked about there’s three things. There’s trust, there’s toughness and there’s team, and that’s what the foundation is. That’s what the culture is. That’s what the belief is, those aren’t just words. We lived that this year.”
Luck has been Johnny Unitas as the Colts won eight of the last nine to become just third team in league history to make the postseason after starting 1-5. Luck has been dealing to T.J. Hilton (76 catches, 1,270 yards) and tight end Eric Ebron (66 catches, 750 yards), but Hilton has been hurt and has only practiced twice since Dec. 9.
And who stopped the Texans’ winning streak? The Colts.
Both teams can run. Marlon Mack (908 yards) leads the Colts, Lamar Miller the Texans. Miller gained 973 yards and scored five touchdowns while missing two games with a bad ankle. Mack gained over 100 yards four times, the first Colt to do that since Joseph Addai in 2007. If he fails, it seems possible Luck can save the Colts with his big arm and powerful offensive.
If Miller stalls, its uncertain Deshaun Watson (4,165 passing yards, 551 rushing) can do the same, simply because he’s depended on too much already and has been sacked 62 times, fifth most in league history. That’s a lot of road wear on a guy who needs to figure out how to pierce the Colts 11th-ranked defense. But he always has DeAndre Hopkins (115 catches, 1,572 yards) to lean on. The Colts have the league’s top tackler in linebacker Darius Leonard.
But let’s not get too carried here. When Luck looks at the defense, he will see menacing guys like J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. They have tortured QBs this season, coming for 102 pressures and 34 tackles for a loss. Let’s see if the Colts vaunted offensive line can deal with that.
Seattle (10-6) at Dallas (10-6)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, FOX
These teams met September 23, but neither team now resembles what they looked like or how they played that day. The Seahawks dominated the Cowboys, controlling the Dallas offense by forcing three turnovers. It would be a few more weeks before the Cowboys offense would turn things around and save their season.
Of course, the change came nine weeks ago, when the Cowboys traded next year’s first-round pick to Oakland for receiver Amari Cooper (53 catches, 725 yards). His speed gave quarterback Dak Prescott (3,885 yards passing) another valuable weapon to occupy defenses and soon both he and Ezekiel Elliott (1,434 yards rushing) were getting the ball downfield. The Cowboys won seven of their last eight and won the NFC East for the second time in three seasons.
After last season, the Seahawks “Legion of Doom” defense dissipated with the departure of four players. And then safety Earl Thomas, who was in the middle of a rift with the team, was lost for the season with an injury. What commenced was more gloom than doom.
But like the Cowboys, the Seahawks turned their season around. After losing five of their first nine, they won six of their last seven to earn their Wild Card. But it wasn’t defense that saved them.
Aside from the Baltimore Ravens, who have come alive with Lamar Jackson in control, no team runs the ball better than the Seahawks. Everyone knows Russell Wilson can scramble (3,448 yards passing, 32 TDs), but now there is more to it and the running game, led by Chris Carson (1,151 yards), has gained at least 150 yards in nine of their last 10 games.
Carson, Mike Davis, Rashaad Penny and Wilson all gained at least 375 yards this season. Only eight teams since the NFL-AFL merger have had four runners do that in the same season.
To counter this, Dallas will depend on its physical defensive to stop things at the line of scrimmage and linebackers Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch to contain it beyond that point.
Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) at Baltimore (10-6)
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS
Let’s face facts. It’s going to be a shame that one of these teams has to lose.
The Chargers are the NFL’s version of the New York Yankees, who won 100 games and were relegated to Wild Card status because the Boston Red Sox won 108 and the division. Well, the Kansas City Chiefs are the Chargers version of the Red Sox. At least, they have a role model.
The Ravens have been the most exciting team down the stretch, led by the mobile (and that’s understating it) Jackson, once the least talked-about first-round QB next to Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen. Well, what do you know? They are all out of the playoffs and Jackson is in.
The Chargers know all about Jackson. He beat them 22-10 on Dec. 22. His defense held the Bolts to their fewest points of the season for a team that averaged 26.8. While this may seem to favor Baltimore, it might work against them.
The offense Jackson runs is tough to handle the first time around, like a cagey Ivy League basketball team against a second seed in the NCAA Tournament. Once you take a breath and watch some film, it’s easier the second time. It better be. Baltimore had 2,441 yards rushing and a franchise-best 5,999 total yards. During Jackson’s seven-game reign (6-1), halfback Gus Edwards has 654 yards rushing and Jackson 556.
Philip Rivers is in control of the Chargers and his play this season has been Fouts-ian. His QB rating is 105.5. He looks even better when Melvin Gordon (1,375 scrimmage yards) and receivers Mike Williams (66 catches, 10 TD) and Keenan Allen (97 catches, 1,196 yards) around him. But all have been banged up lately.
Baltimore’s defense is stout. It has allowed a league-low 292.2 yards per game and just 17.9 points.
Philadelphia (9-7) at Chicago (12-4)
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, NBC
Just imagine how crazy it would be if Nick Foles can lead the Eagles to a second straight Super Bowl championship. He did it last year after Carson Wentz was injured in Week 14. And with Wentz hurt again, he has already led the Eagles to the three straight wins that catapulted them to an improbable Wild Card.
You’d think someone would name a cheesesteak after him, at least. Ah, but here’s the rub: Foles (1,413 yards passing) has a rib injury and one never knows how much that will impede him. Who’s next in line? The great Nate “Suds” Sudfeld.
The Bears, the NFC North champ, have had a more even season, one which glimmered at times. They are a six-point favorite because QB Mitchell Trubisky (3,223 yards, 24 TD passes) and his defense were already getting it done while the Eagles were napping.
One of Philadelphia’s biggest problems this season was injuries to its secondary. And although that’s improved a bit, it’s not like Deion Sanders and Ronnie Lott are back there. And they still are last in the league against the pass.
Then again, what’s Trubisky going to do if injured Allen Robinson (55 catches, 754 yards) and Anthony Miller can’t play (and they might not). We know he will likely turn more to one of the league most exciting players, halfback Tarik Cohen (71 catches, 725 yards). Jordan Howard leads the Bears with 935 yards rushing.
Foles is going to have to deal with one of the best Bears defenses in the last two decades. You might have heard of linebacker Khalil Mack. He’s the B-12 shot the unit needed and they were the first league defense since 2006 with at least 50 sacks and 25 interceptions. That might stick to Foles’ ribs.
But Foles has the best tight end in the NFC in Zach Ertz. He broke Jason Whitten’s league record for catches (116, 1,163 yards).