Kansas City Chiefs @ Houston Texans
4:35 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Kansas City -3, Over/Under: 40
Get used to hearing the term rematch this weekend, as three of this year’s Wild Card Weekend tilts are rematches from earlier in the regular season. In the case of the first of today’s contests, the Chiefs and Texans will meet again after their encounter on Opening Day. At one point, it would have been rather hard to fathom Kansas City (11-5, 2nd in AFC West) advancing to this point, particularly given their 1-5 start to the campaign, which included a dreadful five-game losing streak. However, Andy Reid and his charges managed to circle the wagons, and enter the postseason hotter than anyone, riding a torrid ten-game winning streak. Reid and his staff have done a tremendous job of rounding the troops, particularly given Pro Bowl Tailback Jamaal Charles’ torn ACL suffered in Week Five. While initially thought to have been cataclysmic to their postseason hopes, his team eventually went on to prove that they didn’t need him, becoming the first club in NFL history to qualify for the Playoffs after enduring a losing streak of as many as five games. Now they’ll be looking to snap a very different streak; the franchise is currently mired in a seven-game postseason skid that dates all the way back to 1994, when the Joe Montana-led Chiefs upended the Oilers in Houston, which is ironically the location of today’s clash. The names Montana and Oilers should give you an idea of just how long ago that was, but don’t be fooled by their habitual ineptitude in January folks, for these Chiefs are primed to break that streak, if not for nothing than the reason that they’ve already defeated their opponent once already. Granted, a lot has changed over the past four months, particularly for the better in regards to Houston, but the same goes for Reid and Co. The defense has fueled their charge over the last ten games, allowing a mere 12.8 points on 303.2 total yards per game, marked by twenty-three turnovers, for a healthy differential of plus-sixteen. This unit also cranked up the pressure on opposing Quarterbacks, logging a total of forty-seven sacks (4th Overall), with as many as nine players registering at least three sacks, and that was with Edge Rusher Justin Houston (7.5 Sacks), who had a league-high twenty-two last year, on the mend for the final five games with a knee injury. Furthermore, Marcus Peters made one hell of an impression at Cornerback with eight interceptions, returning a pair for touchdowns, and should be the front-runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. However, it’s a valid argument that this team simply doesn’t advance to this point without the steady hand of Alex Smith, who has really raised his level of play in 2015. Though he has plenty of detractors who claim that his overly cautious nature on the field can be a detriment to the team, Smith did something uncharacteristic this season… he was attacking downfield. The tenth-year veteran completed 65.3% of his passes for 3,486 yards (7.4 y/a), twenty touchdowns and just seven interceptions, with a QBR of 66.5, the highest of his career. While on the surface, his performance looks to be closely aligned to that of previous campaigns, a deeper look will reveal some inner truths; his twenty passing touchdowns were the second-most of his career, while his Net Yards per Attempt (6.31) also set a career-high, besting his previous term (5.96) by a significant margin. Basically, the 31-year old is finally starting to stretch the field. Of course, personnel plays a role here, as Jeremy Maclin (87 catches, 1,088 yards, 8 TDs) has finally given him a reliable threat on the perimeter. Oh, and Smith also set another a career-best of a different sort, rushing for 498 yards and another pair of scores. Look for his feet to be a major factor against the Texans’ aggressive Defensive Front.
Meanwhile, Kansas City wasn’t the only team to rebound from an inglorious beginning, as Houston (9-7, 1st in AFC South) overcame a disappointing 2-5 start to put forth a furious second half of the season, culminating in their second Division Title in the last four years. As much as poor Quarterback play had to do with their woeful start, the Texans’ Defense had much to answer for as well, relinquishing 28.4 points on 370.9 total yards through the first seven contests, including 330 yards in a 27-20 defeat at home to the Chiefs in the Opener. Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel has made a number of adjustments on that side of the ball, propelling the team to the top of arguably the most winnable division in the NFL. After a 44-26 drubbing at the hands of Miami on October 25th (all but three points came in the First Half), their play raised considerably, permitting just 12.7 points on a scant 251.9 total yards. In fact, they held five of their final nine opponents to exactly six points. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt spearheaded the resurgence, piling up seventy-six tackles, three forced fumbles, eight deflected passes, and a league-high 17.5 sacks, with four of that total coming in the last two games alone. It should be interesting to see how he performs against the Chiefs the second time around, given the fact that he posted a pair of sacks and nine tackles in their previous meeting back on September 13th. However, what really makes this team’s success so remarkable has been the situation under Center, where Head Coach Bill O’Brien has seen four different Quarterbacks start in 2015. Ryan Mallett (1-3, 53.1%, 770 yards, 3 TDs 4 INTs) won a nip-and-tuck camp battle only to lose his job to Brian Hoyer (5-4, 60.7%, 2,606 yards, 19 TDs 7 INTs) midway through the Opener against Kansas City, before alternating back-and-forth over the following four weeks. Benched midway though a loss to the Colts on October 8th, Mallett was realeased altogether two weeks later, leaving Hoyer the unquestioned starter. With that said, a pair of concussions would sideline him for a few games, leaving T. J. Yates (2-0, 28/57, 370 yards, 3 TDs 1 INT) to fill the void, only to see Yates succumb to a season-ending ACL tear. Ironically, it was none other than ex-Cowboy Brandon Weeden (1-0, 26/42, 305 yards, 3 TDs, 1 Rush TD) who surprisingly guided Houston to a pair of crucial victories over division brethren Indianapolis (16-10) and Tennessee (34-6), before Hoyer returned to close out Jacksonville (30-6) in the Season Finale. With veteran Tailback Arian Foster out for the season with a torn Achilles, it’s imperative that O’Brien’s charges get good production from their Quarterback, with Hoyer the clear choice. It was the oft-traveled 30-year old who sparked the Texans in the second half of the Opener against the Chiefs, completing 18-of-34 passes for 236 yards, a touchdown and an interception. His presence also allows for DeAndre Hopkins to be far more productive on the flanks; the dynamic Receiver reached career-highs in Receptions (111), Receiving Yards (1,521), and Receiving Touchdowns (11), posting six 100-yard games despite the revolving door at Quarterback. The 23-year old reeled in nine passes for ninety-eight yards and a pair of scores versus Kansas City this season, with his team winning four out of the six games in which he had amassed over 100 yards.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals
8:15 PM EST, NBC – Line: Pittsburgh -3, Over/Under: 45.5
In the second half of Saturday’s Wild Card parlay, yet another rematch takes place as the Cincinnati Bengals meet the Pittsburgh Steelers for the third time this season. Of course, this matchup comes with one HUGE caveat: Bengals’ Pro Bowl Quarterback Andy Dalton has been pronounced out this week as he continues to rehab the torn ligaments in his thumb located on his throwing hand that he suffered in the most recent encounter between these teams, a 33-20 Steelers’ victory. So that leaves A.J. McCarron to step under Center, in what is easily the biggest game of his professional career. The former Alabama Quarterback won a pair of National Titles in Tuscaloosa, so pressure shouldn’t be a problem, but it goes without saying that the NFL Playoffs represent a significant increase in difficulty from the realms of the SEC. Fortunately for Cincinnati (12-4, 1st in AFC North), he’s had a number of games to get acclimated to the position; in a little over three games this season, McCarron has completed 66.1% of his passes for 208.0 yards (7.2 y/a), six touchdowns and two interceptions, despite sustaining a dozen sacks and a crucial lost fumble late in an overtime loss to the Broncos two weeks ago. Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson has gone to great lengths to tailor the offense to his strengths, devising a very run-heavy gameplan over the past two weeks, averaging 126.5 yards over that span. However, it’s become rather obvious just how less dynamic this unit is without Dalton pulling the trigger; the fifth-year gunslinger out of TCU has significantly raised his game in 2015, logging career-highs in Completion Percentage (66.1%), Touchdown Percentage (6.5%), Interception Percentage (1.8%), Yards per Attempt (8.4), Net Yards per Attempt (7.71), and QBR (73.11). The biggest difference between this season and years past is that he has enjoyed a wealth of success pushing the ball downfield, evidenced by the 1.3-yard advancement in Yards per Attempt. Part of that is Jackson’s aggressive play-calling, but it’s really just been a case of Dalton being more confident in his arm on deep throws. And that is what makes his absence such a cruel blow to this team. Since drafting Dalton back in 2011, the Bengals have gone to the postseason in four consecutive years, and in each instance met defeat with nary a victory to show for it. Despite their success in 2015, all anyone cared about was what they would do in the Playoffs. And just when they looked poised to prove all their detractors wrong… their Quarterback bites the dust. Now, there is a possibility that he could return for next week’s contest, but there is no guarantee that they will even make it that far. Cincinnati was humbled in their previous loss to Pittsburgh, yielding 354 total yards and committing three turnovers, tilting the odds for tonight’s matchup squarely in favor of the Steel Curtain.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh (10-6, 2nd in AFC North) must be relishing the fact that they get a third crack at their hated division rivals, particularly given their situation at Quarterback. A number of Steelers even proclaimed after their last meeting that they hoped to see the Bengals in the Playoffs, where they always choke. With that said, they came very close to never even making it to this point; after a disappointing 20-17 loss at Baltimore two weeks ago, Mike Tomlin’s charges stood on the outside looking in on the final Wild Card in the AFC, needing a Jets’ loss coupled with a victory at Cleveland to earn a second consecutive postseason birth. For their part, they pummeled the inept Browns for the second time this season in a sloppy 28-12 win, but still needed New York to fall short in a matchup with the Buffalo Bills. Fortune shined on them Sunday, as Gang Green couldn’t overcome a triplicate of turnovers in a 22-17 defeat, effectively sending the Steelers through to Wild Card Weekend. However, let’s not get these guys fooled with their predecessors from years past, for these Steelers are a very flawed group, that will only go as far as their three-time Pro Bowl Quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, can take them. Describing the offense as one-dimensional may be too kind, as Tomlin has seen this unit evolve into a mad bomber-esque attack revolving around the deep ball, which over the last few weeks opponents have begun to wise up to. During a three-game stretch upon returning from injury, Roethlisberger completed 64.6% of his passes for a whopping 399.7 yards per game (9.4 y/a), eight touchdowns and three interceptions, but since then No. 7 has seen much stiffer coverage, throwing six touchdowns to seven interceptions over the final quartet of contests. It’s virtually certain that the gameplan won’t change tonight, for Pittsburgh will be without veteran Tailback DeAngelo Williams, who suffered a foot injury midway through the finale at Cleveland. Then again, Tomlin and his Staff have grown accustomed to performing with a limited Backfield; Pro Bowler Le’Veon Bell (692 Total Yards, 3 TDs) suffered a torn MCL in the first meeting with Cincinnati on November 1st, and that was AFTER he was suspended by the league for the first two games of the term for an offseason marijuana citation. To his credit, Williams has performed admirably in his stead, rushing for 907 yards and eleven touchdowns on a solid 4.5 yards per carry at the ripe age of thirty-two, the twilight years of a Running Back, which helped the offense remain somewhat balanced, averaging 107.8 yards on the ground (16th Overall) on 4.4 yards per attempt (8th Overall). But with all that said, when you have the weapons that they have in the passing game, why wouldn’t they bomb the hell out of the opposition? Antonio Brown has once again turned in an All-Pro caliber campaign, compiling 136 receptions for 1,834 yards and ten touchdowns, while Martavis Bryant (50 catches, 7565 yards, 6 TDs) and Markus Wheaton (44 catches, 749 yards, 5 TDs) have each emerged as lethal targets in the NFL’s third-ranked passing attack (301.4 yards per game). While the offense has garnered the headlines, Tomlin’s defense will play a significant role in their fortunes moving forward, for while nobody would confuse these guys with the historically great defenses of years past, they have managed to show a great deal of improvement. While they’re still very susceptible against the pass, Pittsburgh has stiffened mightily against the run (91.2 yards, 5th Overall) and reignited their previously dormant pass rush (48, 3rd Overall), which has led to a wealth of turnovers (30, 3rd Overall), which puts the ball right back into Big Ben’s hands. Look for them to bring a world of pressure against postseason neophyte, McCarron…