A quick preview of all four games on NFL Wild Card Weekend, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Bengals (9-7) at Texans (10-6)
Saturday, Jan. 7, 4:30 pm ET, NBC
Two rookie quarterbacks go head-to-head in an unlikely playoff matchup. Cincinnati second-round pick Andy Dalton took over for disgruntled longtime starter Carson Palmer, while Houston fifth-rounder T.J. Yates rose from third-string to starter following season-ending injuries suffered by starter Matt Schaub (Lisfranc) and backup Matt Leinart (collarbone). Both young signal-callers have the luxury of elite talent at wide receiver and running back. Bengals rookie A.J. Green is one of the rising stars at any position, while Texans perennial Pro Bowler Andre Johnson is arguably the best in the business, when healthy. In the backfield, Cincy’s Cedric Benson rushed for 1,067 yards — his third straight 1,000-yard season — and six TDs; Houston’s Arian Foster posted 1,224 yards and 10 TDs in only 13 games this season. Defensively, Texans first-year coordinator Wade Phillips may have been the best free-agent pickup of the offseason. Houston’s hybrid 3-4 scheme ranks No. 2 in total defense (285.7 ypg), No. 3 against the pass (189.7 ypg) and No. 4 against the run (96.0 ypg).
Texans by 2
Lions (10-6) at Saints (13-3)
Saturday, Jan. 7, 8:00 pm ET, NBC
The Saints march into the postseason on an eight-game winning streak, thanks to a record-setting offense led by Super Bowl XLIV MVP quarterback Drew Brees. This season, New Orleans set single-season records for offensive yards (7,474), passing yards (5,347) and first downs (416), while Brees broke Dan Marino’s single-season passing yards record (5,476) and his own 2009 completion percentage mark (71.2). The onus will be on the Lions’ 22nd-ranked pass defense — which allowed Packers passers Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn to throw for a combined 787 yards, eight TDs and one INT in two division losses this season. Much-maligned defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will need to terrorize a New Orleans O-line whose sum is greater than its parts. Detroit’s tag-team duo of quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson will need to bring their A-game against an aggressive Saints defense that ranked 30th against the pass (259.8 ypg). After making the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the Lions want to hang around the tourney long enough to earn their first postseason win since 1991.
Saints by 9
Falcons (10-6) at Giants (9-7)
Sunday, Jan. 8, 1:00 pm ET, CBS
The Big Blue Wrecking Crew defense destroyed Dallas’ dreams of a postseason berth and now turn their attention to Falcons signal-caller Matt Ryan, who has been excellent in the friendly confines of his home Georgia Dome — or any other indoor facility, for that matter — but has struggled to a 2–3 record outdoors in the elements this season. Ryan is 0–2 in the playoffs, still searching for that elusive first win after losing to the eventual champion Packers last year and to the eventual NFC champion Cardinals as a rookie. “Matty Ice” will have a tough time against a New York pass rush featuring Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Ryan’s old college buddy Mathias Kiwanuka. Since starting his career 0–2 in the postseason, Giants signal-caller Eli Manning has gone 4–1, with an incredible run to win Super Bowl XLII following the 2007 season. The G-Men are on a roll similar to that this year.
Giants by 4
Steelers (12-4) at Broncos (8-8)
Sunday, Jan. 8, 4:30 pm ET, FOX
The walking wounded from Pittsburgh limp into Denver with a battle-tested but injured roster. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger brings a 10–3 career playoff record and two Super Bowl wins; but Big Ben is also dragging around a swollen left ankle. Since injuring his foot in Week 14 against the Browns, Roethlisberger has thrown zero TDs and three INTs, while taking five sacks and losing one fumble in two games. The Steelers won’t be able to lean on their run game, either, as tailback Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale at Cleveland. It will be up to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s stop-unit — which will be without safety Ryan Clark, who will sit out due to a sickle-cell illness whose risks increase at higher altitudes — to stop Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who has a 7–4 record as a starter since taking over in Week 7. Tebow, however, is only 2–3 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Denver’s D has been underrated this season, but crucial to the Tebow-fueled fourth-quarter comebacks that have become the team’s signature style. During the Broncos’ six-game winning streak, the team allowed just 17 points per game, including four games of 13 or fewer points.
Steelers by 8