Can the Texans turn it around?
Two weeks ago, Houston had the AFC's top spot all but sewn up. I mean, there's no way this team was going to lose at home to Minnesota or finish the regular season with one touchdown in nine quarters, right? Somehow they managed to collapse, and instead of planning for two home games that would lead them to the Super Bowl, they instead have to host a wildcard before possibly going through both New England and Denver to play in February. Not quite what everyone pictured a few weeks ago, when the Texans were sitting at the top of many experts' power rankings.
Of course, being a wildcard certainly doesn't mean the Texans can't advance to New Orleans for Super Bowl 47. Since 2000, four wildcard teams have advanced and won, included the Packers just a couple of years ago. The bigger challenge for the Texans is not only stopping their recent free fall, but turning it around completely with only a week to remedy their problems. The Packers were on a roll before their run of two years ago, and their playoff streak was just a continuation of how they played towards the end of the season. The Giants of 2007 lost two of three heading into the playoffs, but that final game was a 38-35 loss to the mighty 15-0 Patriots that gave them the confidence to beat those same Pats in the Super Bowl. The Texans, on the other hand, have looked completely flat and lacking in confidence to wrap up the regular season.
So, do they have a chance? Of course they do, but it's not likely. For the second straight season they will host the Bengals to open the playoffs. They beat Cincinnati handily last year, but this season brings a Bengals group with an improved pass rush, a solid running game behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and the dangerous Dalton-Green combination. For a team that has been shredded by the powerful Packers and Patriots' offenses, the Bengals' balanced attack could be trouble. Giving the benefit of the doubt to the Texans and assuming that they manage a victory, it's tough to imagine them winning at Foxboro and Denver in January. The Texans' best chance was to rule in Reliant, and the loss to the Colts this past weekend is likely to be fatal.
Will we see another Manning-Brady battle?
There was a lot of mystery last year surrounding Peyton Manning's neck, with conflicting reports about how many surgical procedures he underwent and plenty of speculation about what the effect would be on his arm strength. It would be unfair to speak for everyone, but there were definitely fans and analysts who felt Peyton's best days were behind him. So to say that Manning has proven the cynics wrong might be a slight understatement. In fact, he's been so great that Tom Brady has somehow managed to remain below the radar despite throwing for over 4,800 yards with an incredible 34/8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. What hasn't changed is having the AFC's two best quarterbacks lead their teams to division titles, and providing NFL fans with the possibility of a tantalizing AFC championship matchup.
Having these two meet in Denver is not a foregone conclusion, but it’s easy to see happening. Assuming the home teams win the wildcard matchups this weekend, the Broncos would host a struggling Ravens team that they beat at Sports Authority a few weeks ago. The Broncos should be heavily favored, but the Ravens are a tough team to figure out. They've lost four of five, but they have a great deal of playoff experience. The Patriots may have the easier game hosting the Texans, especially since Houston has been battered badly at times in the passing game and hasn't looked the same since giving up 37 to Jacksonville.
There's always the risk of upsets, especially if something happens in the wildcard round and the Patriots end up having to face their nemesis from Baltimore. However, the odds point pretty heavily to another Brady-Manning battle. And it's likely a safe bet that every fan, even if they don't cheer for either of those teams or the legends each have under center, will be glued to their television for that matchup. If this game happens and the two quarterbacks play like everyone expects, the Super Bowl two weeks later may almost be a letdown.
Can Matt Ryan get over the playoff hump?
Some quarterbacks find immediate and repeated playoff success. Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger are recent examples, both quarterbacks leading their teams to Super Bowl appearances and victories early in their careers before repeating the feat. Others struggle. Peyton Manning is arguable the greatest quarterback of his generation, but the argument against him right now would include his 9-10 playoff record (by comparison, Brady is 16-6 and Big Ben is 10-4). Of course, the quarterback is not always the one who deserves the most blame for a loss or the most credit for a victory, but with the importance of winning Super Bowls and the talk of individual legacies, this is often what happens in the NFL. So to that end, Matt Ryan comes into the playoffs with a monkey firmly entrenched on his back.
This will be Ryan's fourth trip to the playoffs, and he currently sports an 0-3 record. In all three cases he has lost to teams that went on to the Super Bowl (Cardinals, Giants, Packers), but his performances have certainly not been up to his regular-season standards. In three starts he has only three touchdowns, and his most recent performance saw him unable to put up a single point against the Giants last year in an embarrassing 24-2 loss. Of course the Giants last year proved to be unstoppable in the playoffs, but Ryan's performance was awful. It's difficult to think of any player with as much to prove as Ryan this playoff season.
Assuming Green Bay takes care of Minnesota this weekend, the Falcons will be hosting either the Redskins or Seahawks in a divisional playoff. Both teams will present challenges, but neither possesses the pass rush the Giants had last season and the Falcons have the advantage of playing at home in a controlled environment. Granted, the Packers thumped them badly a few seasons back in Atlanta but the Falcons stand a much better chance of winning indoors in a place where they went 7-1 than they would outdoors. Until that win happens the doubts of Ryan will remain. Manning was once 0-3, and he’s done okay for himself. Ryan hopes to follow that trend.
Can the 49ers win if Justin Smith doesn't play?
Von Miller, Aldon Smith and J.J. Watt are the three defensive players who will get the most attention when it comes to MVP voting this season, but nobody means more to his team heading into the playoffs than Justin Smith. It was the regular double-teaming of Justin that opened up lanes for Aldon on the pass rush, and Justin Smith was also a force against the run. On top of that, he hadn't missed a game in about a dozen years and is the leader of the 49ers' defense. After his injury, the 49ers finished off a victory in which they allowed 34 points to the Pats, then followed with an ugly loss in Seattle. These were easily the two worst defensive performances San Francisco put up all season, and it's not coincidental that they occurred after Smith's injury.
If Smith doesn't return, the 49ers are looking at being shorthanded while hosting an Aaron Rodgers-led offense that can light up the scoreboard. Trying to defend that offense with an aging defensive line missing its leader would be next to impossible, especially because of the chain reaction effect Smith's injury creates. Not only would they miss his own pass-rushing abilities, but the Packers could double-team Aldon Smith to give Rodgers more time in which to pick the 49ers' secondary apart. Colin Kaepernick has certainly been impressive since taking over for Alex Smith, but if he's forced into a shootout against Aaron Rodgers the 49ers are not likely to come out on top. It's a tough road to hoe even at full strength, but without Justin Smith the 49ers could easily be one and done.
Can the Seahawks win on the road?
The Seahawks were the only NFL team with a perfect regular-season home record, but their 3-5 road record prevented them from taking their division. Even one of those road wins is suspect, since the game against the Bills was played in Toronto. They did have a dramatic victory at Soldier Field against a 10-win Bears team, but for the most part they've been an average team on the road. Now, they take their rookie quarterback and travel to play the red-hot Redskins. So what can we expect?
Just as the Seahawks were great at home and average on the road, so was Russell Wilson. He put up a 17/2 TD/INT ratio at home with a 123.6 quarterback rating. Those numbers would be MVP-worthy if he could have replicated them on the road, but instead he has a 9/8 and 83.6 rating. Certainly respectable numbers, but it's difficult to overstate how much the home advantage of CenturyField meant to Wilson and the Seahawks this season. Now, to continue their season they need to improve on their road performance to beat a team that has won its last seven games.
If you look at records and trends, the Redskins seem like an easy choice. However, the Seahawks stand a good chance in this game. Their running game has been outstanding this season, and the 'Skins struggle against the run. Alfred Morris and Robert Griffin III lead an excellent Redskins rushing offense, but Seattle has done a much better job than Washington of defending the run. If Seattle can establish their run game, and if they can force Griffin into throwing the ball to put up points, they have a chance. RG3 is an emerging star, but the Seahawks have a strong secondary. Also, while Wilson doesn't get the same love as Griffin (playing in the Pacific Northwest will do that), he's had a great season and his composure should serve him well in his first playoff game. The sportsbooks have had this game at or close to a pick-'em all week, and it's one of those games that could truly go either way.