With that, the 2016 NFL regular season is done. Where the heck did that go? As we enter January do-or-die football, there are stories aplenty for the 12 teams in the tournament. Miami are in for the first time since ’08, the Raiders will make their first appearance since 2002. Brady and the Pats are in once more, as the #1 seed of course, and Big Ben and the Steelers will look to make amends after two seasons in a row dampened by injuries to offensive stars.
In the NFC, there’s the been there, done that duo of Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers (who’s teams will meet in the final game of Wildcard weekend), and the #1 seed Cowboys who have ridden their two incredible rookies to a first round bye, a record equalling 13-3 season and the teams most successful since the 2007 season (also 13-3, where they lost in the Divisional round to, guess who? The Giants). Atlanta, somewhat “flying” (pun intended) under the radar, have ridden their MVP-candidate QB Matt Ryan to the second seed in the NFC. Then there’s Seattle, coming off a hot and cold season, who nobody will want to play at CenturyLink Field (sorry Detroit fans, that’s you).
So with playoff football finally here, let’s get dissecting. (Games are in order of which they will be played).
8:35am, Sunday Jan.8 (AEDT)
How the Texans win :
Houston are back in the play-offs in 2017 after winning the weakest division in the NFL (the AFC south) for the second straight season. Despite finishing 9-7, the Texans have had major issues at QB all season, and that looks to be the case next Saturday afternoon (US time). Tom Savage looked as though he would lead the team into the playoffs after Osweiler was benched in week 16, however Savage suffered a concussion in the week 17 win over Tennessee and now looks set to miss. The Texans have had an exceptional season on defence this year, even without superstar JJ watt, finishing 12th in run defence (99.7 ypg), and second in pass defence (201.6 ypg) behind only the Broncos (185 ypg). The blueprint for a Texans win is simple: Lamar Miller must show up and run for good yardage on the ground, whilst the offensive line must keep Khalil Mack and co off the Texans QB’s back (whoever that is). If Jadeveon Clowney and the Houston front 7 can get in the Raiders face, and the secondary can provide a vice-like grip on the dangerous Oakland relievers, there is hope for a Houston franchise that are desperate to atone for an embarrassing blowing in the same playoff game last year to the Chiefs.
Key Injuries: QB Tom Savage (concussion, doubtful), DE JJ Watt (IR), RB Lamar Miller (ankle, questionable) DE Jedeveon Clowney (elbow/wrist, questionable) WR Braxton Miller (IR), WR Jaelon Strong (IR), OT Derek Newton (IR), CB Kevin Johnson (IR)
How the Raiders win:
The silver & black are back in the play-offs for the first time in 14 years, finishing with the equal second best record in the AFC at 12-4, but having to settle for the 5th seed after the Chiefs clinched the division on Sunday. A gut wrenching broken leg to gun young QB Derek Carr, coupled with the recent shoulder injury to back-up Matt McGloin, leaves the Raiders in the nightmare position of likely having to start a rookie QB in Connor Cook in what would be his first career start, and in the franchise’s biggest game in over a decade. Regardless of who plays QB for either team in this match-up, both defences are going to be asked to do a lot. Khalil Mack, in his first playoff game, will have to have his biggest game of the year. Oakland’s rush defence has been generous this season, allowing an average of 117.6 yards per game (23rd in the league), so pressure from Mack and co from the edge and up the middle will be crucial. Despite being a charitable rush defence, the Raiders are running on opponents themselves for an average of 120 ypg (6th in the league). If they are to make their long awaited return to the playoffs a memorable one, Osemele, Hudson and the big boys up front must pave the way for a big day for the Raider running backs (led by Latavius Murray who has rushed for a mere 788 yards this season, with 12 rushing TD’s).
Key Injuries :
QB Derek Carr (out), QB Matt McGloin (shoulder, doubtful), S Nate Allen (concussion, questionable) CB DJ Hayden (IR)
12:15, Sunday Jan. 8 (AEDT)
How the Seahawks win:
The Seahawks are in the playoffs for a franchise record equalling 5th straight time, and have a frenzied home crowed at CenturyLink field waiting to welcome the visiting Lions. Having won the NFC West with a record of 10-5-1, the somewhat hot and cold Seahawks will enter this years tournament with two key things missing that they’ve had in the past: 1) All pro safety Earl Thomas broke his leg in week 11 and the Seahawk defence has not looked the same since, and 2) no Marshawn Lynch, and no ground game even close to resembling what Seattle have boasted in the past. If the Seahawks are going to beat the Lions and make some noise in the playoffs, it all starts with the offensive line. The Seahawks have spent very little on their O-line, and it shows. They’ve rushed for the 25th fewest yards in the league (99.4 ypg) and have allowed Russel Wilson to be sacked 42 times (6th most in the league this season). Even though Detroit’s defense is not a beast when it comes to gaining sacks itself (equal second last with just 26), the O-line playing solid will result in Wilson having more time to scout the situation downfield against a shaky Detroit secondary (just 10 picks this season, equal with the Browns, 49’ers and Rams), and will aid Wilson in picking up yards with his legs and making up for the lack of a star RB.
S Earl Thomas (leg, out), WR Tyler Lockett (leg, out) RB CJ Prosise (shoulder, out)
How the Lions win:
Detroit’s run to the playoffs has been nothing short of stunning, coming from behind in the last quarter in 8 of their 9 wins, and also 8 of their 9 wins coming by 1 score or less. Detroit’s offense is 11th in passing yards per game (256.9), however they are 30th in rushing yards per game (81.9). Though missing all-pro safety Earl Thomas, this is still a vaunted Seahawks secondary that enjoys when QB’s attack them, knowing full well it’s not a matter of if but when the next interception will come, so leaning on Matt Stafford and throwing the ball 40-50 times in front of a rocking Seattle home crowd is not a recipe for success. With both Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick on Injured Reserve, Zach Zenner is going to have to take some of the heat off Stafford if the Lions are any chance to move the ball down the field against Seattle’s D. One player that has to get going on defense is DE Ziggy Ansah, who has had a disappointing season with just 2 sacks. This is a Seattle O-line that is ripe for the picking (having allowed 42 sacks this season, 6th most) and if Ansah and the other Detroit edge rushers can nullify Wilson’s impact, or even put him in the Seattle dirt, it will go a long way towards earning Detroit just their second playoff victory in team history, and the first since 1991.
CB Darius Slay (hamstring, questionable), RB Ameer Abdullah (IR), CB Quandre Diggs (IR), RB Theo Riddick (IR)
5:05, Monday Jan. 9 (AEDT)
How the Steelers win:
The Steelers will kick-off their journey to a record 7th Superbowl at home against a Miami team that beat them in Miami by a score of 30-15 in what was a surprise to everyone who follows the NFL and has a brain. The Steelers have been riding Le’veon Bell through their recent 7 game win streak, and both player and team are hitting their straps at the right time. The key for the Steelers in this game will be to get Bell going early and often, but perhaps more importantly stop Miami’s run game. When these teams met in week 6, Jay Ajayi run all over the Pittsburgh defense to the tune of 204 yards and 2 TD’S, while Bell ran for a measly 53 yards and didn’t get in the endzone. Even though the Dolphins will be playing a backup QB, if Shazier, Timmons, Hargrave and the boys up front for the black & gold don’t get on top of Miami’s run game early, it could be a long day for the Pittsburgh defense, and by extension, the offence. A good showing by the D and the offensive line keep Big Ben upright, allowing him time to find the 406 weapons he has at his disposal, should spell a win for the Steelers.
DE Cam Hayward (IR), DE Ricardo Matthews (ankle, questionable), DE Stephon Tuitt (knee, questionable) WR Marcus Wheaton (IR) TE Ladarius Green (concussion, questionable)
How the Dolphins win:
Miami snuck up on everyone this season, beginning the season 1-4 before winning 9 of their next 11 to finish 10-6 and pinch a playoff berth for the first time since 2008. There was no secret as to how the Dolphins did it, either, rushing for 1,824 yards on the season (9th in the league) and having second year RB Jay Ajayi run for 1,272 of those yards (4th most in the league). The Dolphin defense has been terrible against the run this season, ranking 30th (140.4average per game), and that’s not good news for a defense that will be looking across the line of scrimmage at the hottest RB in the league in Le’Veon Bell. Pittsburgh have the capacity to kill you both on the ground and through the air, so if Miami’s DB’s can hang tough with Pitt’s WR’s down field when the defence stacks the box, and avoid an offensive shoot-out, Miami may be in with a shot (Miami’s pass defense is 18th in the league giving up 242.2ypg). As far as backup QB’s go, Matt Moore is one from the upper echelon, but if this game turns into an offensive shootout, the Dolphins are in BIG trouble.
QB Ryan Tannehill (knee, out), TE Jordan Cameron (IR), S Reshad Jones (IR), S Isa Abdul-Quddus (IR), C Mike Pouncey, CB Byron Maxwell (ankle, doubtful)
New York Giants@Green Bay
8:40am, Monday Jan. 9th (AEDT)
How the Packers win:
What a turn around it has been for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. After being annihilated by the Redskins on Sunday Night Football in week 11, the Packers have sured up the their woes on the offensive line and defense to storm home, winning their final 6 games with a total points differential of +73 in that stretch. Now that the Packers O-line is healthy, they are going to earn their money this postseason, beginning with a tough match-up against one of the leagues best defensive lines (and a top 10 defense overall). The Giants defense has 17 interceptions on the year (tied for 4th) but have conceded the 10th most yards through the air this season (251.1 ypg), so there is an opportunity for Aaron Rodgers to have a big game through the air in front of a huge home crowed at Lambeau Field (A-Rod has thrown for 4,428 yards this season, 4th in the league). It’s shaping up to be a game where Rodgers puts the Pack on his back, thanks to an anemic Packers running game (20th in the league at just on 106.3 ypg) “running” into a Giants rush defense boasting the equal 3rd fewest yards on the ground this season (88.6 ypg). On defense, the Packers main objective will be to stop Giants WR Odell Beckham from producing those 1 or 2 big plays that have killed opposing defenses all season (Beckham is 3rd in the league this season with a total 1,367 recieving yards, and 5th with a total 10 TD receptions). This will be easier said then done, however, with the Packers secondary being picked apart through injury the last few weeks (Green Bay had 2 starting cornerbacks on IR before Quinten Rollins went down in week 17 with a neck injury), and a secondary that has allowed the second most yards through the air this season (4,308, second only to New Orleans).
CB Quinten Rollins (neck, doubtful), CB Sam Shields (IR), CB Demetri Goodson (IR), RB Eddie Lacy (IR), OT Bryan Bulaga (shoulder, questionable)
How the Giants win:
The Giants return to the playoffs five years after their most recent appearence in 2011 where the team went on an amazing run, defeating New England for what was Big Blues fourth Lombardy trophy. Off the back of an exceptional season defensively, New York will be hoping they can ride their defense all the way to Houston for Superbowl 51. One thing is for certain, if the Giants wish to go on a magical run once more, it all starts with stopping Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson at Lameau. Rodgers and Nelson have connected for the most TD’s through the air this season (14), whilst the Rodgers-Devonta Adams combination is tied for second (12 TD’s). It’s up to the emerging secondary of the Giants to take care of Nelson, Adams, and perhaps Randall Cobb (who has sat out the Packers last 2 games with a lingering ankle issue), and let the sensational (and expensive) defensive line get after the most elusive QB in pro football (the Giants have 35 sacks on the season, however the Packers have allowed Rodgers to be hit just 76 times, 9th fewest in the league). The Giants offense, surprisingly to some, is ranked 25th in total yards this season (5,291) and 7th fewest in total points (310), having not put up a score of 30+ points this season. After not having a 100 yard rush game until the final game of the season, it’s clear where the G-Men are going to win this game. Manning must attack the second worst pass defense in the league, and count an Landon Collins (5 picks), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (6 picks), and Janoris Jenkins (3 picks) making the Packers pay when they decide to take shots down the field. Do that, and this could be the beginning of another New York Giants magical run to the Superbowl.
CB Janoris Jenkins (back, questionable), Jason Pierre-Paul (core muscle, out), S Nat Berhe (concussion, questionable)
So as we embark on what will hopefully be another awesome month of playoff football, it may be a good idea to use the upcoming 4 or 5 days or so to start growing our fingernails. It looks as though they will be required.