The 100th regular season of the NFL has concluded. And this weekend the biggest matchups of NFL Wild Card weekend are set.
Two out of the 12 teams clinched a playoff spot on Dec. 29, including the Philadelphia Eagles, who clinched the NFC East and the fourth seed with a 34-17 win over the New York Giants in Week 17, and the Tennessee Titans, who clinched the sixth seed of the AFC with a 35-14 win over a Deshaun Watson-less Houston Texans in the same week.
And those are the teams we will start with in this preview.
1. Eagles (NFC fourth seed, 9-7)/Seahawks (NFC fifth seed, 11-5): Sunday at 3:40 Central, 4:40 Eastern in Philly
The Eagles roll into the NFC playoffs having won their last four games (wins over the Giants, Redskins, Cowboys and the Giants again). They needed every win to punch their ticket. Their wins can be attributed to the high-level play of one-time Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Wentz, who is the only quarterback in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards while not having a receiver catch for 500 yards; he even has the longest active streak in the NFL with 19 straight games with a touchdown pass.
The Eagles enter the playoffs suffering recent travails of injuries, including lineman Brandon Brooks (out for the season), tight end Zach Ertz (questionable), lineman Lane Johnson (questionable), wide receiver DeSean Jackson (injured reserve) and Nelson Agholor (out). Agholor and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery are likely out for the season.
Still, playmakers such as Greg Ward Jr., Boston Scott, Joshua Perkins, Deontay Burnett and Dallas Goedert ‑‑ practice squad players with the exception of Goedert ‑‑ stepped up and filled their shoes well versus the Giants in a 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) base offense.
But Russell Wilson and the Seahawks won’t trundle into Philly feeling sorry for the Eagles. While Wilson is 2-4 in career road playoff games, he has won a Super Bowl and has been to the Pro Bowl five times in his career, not to mention he is 4-0 versus a Doug Pederson-led Eagles team. We know he can play the game with the best of them, as the quarterback from Richmond, VA is eighth all-time in career game-winning drives with 18, and more recently, was the MVP front runner before Lamar “Action” Jackson secured that award with historical performance after historical performance.
Philly head coach Doug Pederson said he is duly aware Seattle is a darn good football team.
“This is a good football team. …,” Pederson said to reporters in Philadelphia. “Obviously knowing Russell and knowing his capabilities outside he pocket as well. And they’ve had some good defenses. It just comes down to our lack of execution I think, especially when you play good teams like this. And we did the same thing a couple weeks ago. The five turnovers and things that were a little uncharacteristic of us. We just got to make sure, and that comes from me, making sure the guys are focused in this week and having the right mix of tempo in practice and things of that nature to prepare and get ready for another opportunity.”
The Seahawks come into the playoffs losing three out of their last six, including the loss on Sunday night versus the 49ers that decided a higher NFC seed. San Francisco is the No. 1 seed, while the Seahawks are now the fifth seed.
Seattle is dealing with a litany of injuries as well, though both safety Quandre Diggs and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney are expected to play on Sunday.
Their starting running back in Chris Carson, who rushed for 1,230 yards and seven touchdowns, is out for the season after suffering a fractured hip Week 16 versus the Cardinals; running back Rashaad Penny‘s season is over with a torn ACL; and running back C.J. Prosise is on IR, too, after breaking his arm.
In replacing their core of running backs, the Seahawks signed “Beast Mode” Marshawn Lynch last week. Lynch hasn’t played in over a year, but he has familiarity with the Seahawks’ system ‑‑ Beast Mode played for the Seahawks from 2010 to 2015 ‑‑ and will help the Seattle rushing attack in short yardage situations, as well as moments when viewers will least expect it.
Injuries aside for both teams, the Seahawks won the first game (Week 12 game in Philly) versus the Eagles because of a stout running attack. Seattle rushed for 174 yards, the second most gained by the Seahawks this season.
But Penny, who rushed for 129 yards, and Carson will both be out. What’s more, tackle Duane Brown did an exceptional job in blocking for these backs, but he will be out due to a knee injury.
The Eagles, though, are ranked third against the run in the league at 90.3 yards per game ‑‑ and this is thanks to defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham ‑‑ so with the Seahawk weapons down, look for Wilson to improvise to make plays with his arm and legs.
A player who could benefit from this is wide receiver Tyler Lockett. Lockett, who had a shin injury leading up to the first contest versus the Eagles, produced just one catch for 38 yards in Week 12 versus the Eagles.
Last week versus the 49ers, however, Lockett racked up six catches for 51 yards and a touchdown.
Stats, injuries, and players to watch for out the window, last year the Seahawks ran well versus the Cowboys in the regular season, before laying an egg in the Wild Card game. Ezekiel Elliott ran the ball down the Seahawks’ throat with 26 carries for 137 yards and a touchdown in the rematch in the playoffs.
So the Eagles might just run the ball with a healthy Miles Sanders and Scott. Or they might throw a bunch of screen passes that could open up the field. Only time will tell what Doug Pederson calls for his franchise quarterback in Wentz, who is eager to show what he can do in his first official playoff game as an Eagle.
Wentz said nothing changes in this weekend’s approach, despite this game being the first official playoff game in Wentz’s career.
“Nothing, as far as how we prepare and approach the game nothing changes,” Wentz said to reporters in Philly on Thursday. “It’s another game. Obviously we know what’s on the line and to some extent, we’ve felt that way the last few weeks. We’ve kind of had our backs against the wall, and it’s a one game season. And we’re excited about it, and it’s going to be fun on Sunday afternoon at home (Philadelphia), and we are thankful for that.”
Prediction: Eagles games have been a roller coaster the last few years ‑‑ playoffs and regular season. Three of the last four regular season games have come down to a touchdown drive. Last year versus the Bears in the Wild Card round, the game came down to the “Double Doink” missed kick by then-Bears kicker Cody Parkey. Two seasons ago a Divisional round game was decided on a failed last minute drive by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
As much as my Eagles’ heart can’t take it, this game will be decided by a touchdown or less. And there is full confidence the Eagles can pull it off.
2. Patriots (AFC third seed, 12-4) /Titans (AFC sixth seed, 9-7): Tonight 7:15 Central/8:15 Eastern game in Foxborough
We know the history of the Patriots over the last two decades. And that history includes six rings and three straight trips to the Super Bowl in the last three years. Tom Brady is a first ballot Hall of Famer and the greatest quarterback in the history of the game, but he doesn’t have Rob Gronkowski, and the offense is ranked 16th in total offense, as the entire world sees the offensive struggles the Patriots have.
Yes, their offense isn’t the best, but the Pats impervious defense is ranked first in total defense. The Titans come into the playoff game winning five out of their last eight games, which has been led by rushing title winner Derrick Henry (Alabama product) with 1,540 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. Ryan Tannehill has been playing pretty well but, expect Bill Belichick to key on Henry and leading receiver Corey Davis. Patriots win 23-16.
3. Texans (AFC fourth seed, 10-6) /Bills (AFC fifth seed, 10-6): Today 3:35 Central/4:35 Eastern
The Texans go as Watson goes. The prime time quarterback has made it to his second-straight Pro Bowl for a reason: a big one is hurtling the pigskin to four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Still, the Texans have been up and down all season. One week they expose the Patriots, and the next they play putridly to the Denver Broncos at home. What can help with consistency is the return of five-time Pro Bowler J.J. Watt after injuring his pectoral muscle earlier in the year.
The Bills have been a good team all year with the defense playing exceptional and quarterback Josh Allen making just enough plays to lead his squad to 10 victories for the first time since the 1999 season. Houston, however, will win this game 31-20.
4. Saints (NFC third seed, 13-3)/Vikings (NFC sixth seed, 10-6): Sunday 12:05 Central/1:05 Eastern
The Saints have been playing well all year despite future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees being out for six weeks because of an injured hand. Two reasons, amongst several others, the Saints offense is so explosive is because of three-time Pro Bowl receiver Michael Thomas and two-time Pro Bowler Alvin Kamara. And of course, defensive players such as Cameron Jordan, Marshon Lattimore, Vonn Bell and Marcus Davenport have anchored the New Orleans defense.
While the Minnesota Vikings have made it to the playoffs for the first time in two years, which is largely due to the play of quarterback Kirk Cousins, the running of Dalvin Cook and the playmaking of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, the one-time Pro Bowler is 0-2 in the playoffs and doesn’t perform his best when the stakes are the highest. Saints in that Superdome are tough to stop. The Saints will win 38-24.