(Ben Roethlisberger photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers)
(A.J. Green cover photo courtesy of the Cincinnati Bengals)
By Clark Judge
BEST OF THE WEEKEND
PITTSBURGH @ CINCINNATI, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. (EST)
The line: Steelers by 3
The story: This is all about history … Cincinnati’s history … and the pressure the Bengals face in January. They haven’t won a playoff game since 1991 … with coach Marvin Lewis 0-6 in the postseason and quarterback Andy Dalton 0-4. Nevertheless, everyone says this is a different team in a different year.
And maybe they’re right.
All I know is Cincinnati just drew the short straw. The one opponent it didn’t want to face is this opponent. Pittsburgh knows what the Bengals know, and that’s that it can beat them. The Steelers did it in Cincinnati last month, and they should’ve beaten them in Pittsburgh in October. Plus, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 11-2 in Cincinnati, including a defeat of the Bengals in the 2005 playoffs when Pittsburgh was … uh-huh, the sixth seed.
Ah, right, Bengals’ fans counter. But what was he this year when the two teams met? He had one touchdown pass and four interceptions. Plus, running back DeAngelo Williams is sidelined, and that’s an issue. Like everyone else, Pittsburgh is much better when it can back off pass rushers, allowing its quarterback throw … which Roethlisberger does better than almost anyone out there.
Correct. But Cincinnati is handicapped, too. It won’t have Dalton, with AJ McCarron taking first-team snaps this week – and I’m not sure how that goes. Dalton was terrific this season but has stunk in the playoffs, so you won’t have that element to deal with. McCarron is talented but raw, so he may not feel the pressure Dalton would. One problem: The Steelers beat him when he relieved the injured Dalton in December.
“We’ll be ready,” said cornerback Adam Jones. “Trust me.”
I don’t know. This one sure looks like an ideal draw for the Steelers. They were lucky to get in, and they know it. So they’re playing with house money. Cincinnati, on the other hand, has to listen to people like us ask them what happens first: A playoff win or a quarterback in Cleveland? We’re about to find out.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Bengals are one of only two teams to have two players with 11 or more sacks each. They are Carlos Dunlap (13.5) and Geno Atkins (11).
THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR WALL-OF-FRAMING
(J.J. Watt photo courtesy of the Houston Texans)
KANSAS CITY @ HOUSTON, Saturday, 4:35 p.m. (EST)
The line: Chiefs by 3
The story: The Texans are hot. The Chiefs are hotter. Both teams run. Both teams play defense. But only one has a bona-fide quarterback. Uh-huh, Kansas City, one reason the Chiefs are the favorite here. Alex Smith does a lot of good things, including not commit mistakes … and the envelope, please. In three playoff games, he has nine touchdowns and no interceptions.
OK, so the Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since 1994. But they’re on a roll, winning their last 10 games after losing star running back Jamaal Charles and outscoring opponents by 150 points during that stretch. Plus, coach Andy Reid is 5-0 lifetime vs. Houston, including a victory in Week One where the Chiefs scored 27 first-half points.
I can’t imagine that happening again. The Texans’ defense has been on a tear lately, allowing an average of 10 points over its last 10 starts … and now that the cast is off, J.J. Watt is a one-man demolition derby. His teammates aren’t so bad, either. In five of its last eight starts, opponents haven’t scored more than 6 points each.
But the problem with the Texans isn’t the defense. It’s an offense that just lost left tackle Duane Brown. Combine that with the return of Kansas City star pass rusher Justin Houston, and it could be a minefield that quarterback Brian Hoyer — who’s had two concussions this season — has to cross. Even if Hoyer stays upright, it will be difficult for him to solve Kansas City’s secondary. The Chiefs held opposing quarterbacks to a rating 76.0, second lowest in the league, while putting up 22 interceptions — second best in the NFL.
Hall of Fame worthy: Houston allowed only 102 second-half points, or roughly a touchdown per game and never allowed more than 14 in the second half of any game.
SEATTLE @ MINNESOTA, Sunday, 1:05 p.m. (EST)
The line: Seattle by 5
The story: The weather. Reports have temperatures at or near zero around kickoff, and that doesn’t take into account the wind chill. So tell me: Whom, exactly, does that favor? Answer: Nobody but the oil companies.
“You’ve got be comfortable being uncomfortable,” said Vikings’ wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
Then that bodes well for Minnesota. Yes, the Vikings finished the season with impressive defeats of Chicago, the Giants and Green Bay, outscoring them 107-47, but, no, they did not beat Seattle when the two met here in December. In fact, they were crushed 38-7, and while that shouldn’t happen again oddsmakers don’t like their chances of extending the season.
And I get that. Seattle not only is white-hot; the Seahawks have a quarterback playing at a different level than everyone right now. That would be Russell Wilson, who won the league passing title and who, over his last seven starts, is 6-1, with 24 TDs and one interception. With injuries to Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls, Wilson had to carry the offense … and he aced the final. Which means the absence of Lynch … who has been declared out for this game … shouldn’t have an impact on Seattle.
And Minnesota? Well, its star running back, Adrian Peterson, returned to practice Friday after missing two days of workouts. He’s listed as “probable” and says he’s OK, which means he plays. My only question is: How can he be OK if he missed two days of practice? And what does it mean for a team that sets up the pass with the run? Stay tuned.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Seattle has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 22 consecutive regular-season games, the longest current streak in the NFL.
GREEN BAY @ WASHINGTON, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. (EST)
The line: Redskins by 1
The story: The Redskins are the only home favorite this weekend and for good reason: The needle is pointing up in Washington, whereas in Green Bay … uh, not so much. Washington won its last four and scored 34 or more points in the past three. Green Bay, on the other hand, was 4-6 down the stretch and would’ve been 3-7 were it not for that Hail Mary in Detroit. Worse, the Packers this week had 18 players show up on the injury report.
In short, the Packers are a mess. They can’t run, they’re hurt and Aaron Rodgers is having trouble finding anyone to throw to other than Richard Rodgers. That’s a problem. He’s their tight end. Randall Cobb, James Jones and Davante Adams are not. But they can’t gain separation, and it’s causing disintegration in Green Bay – with Rodgers sacked 35 times (including eight vs. Arizona) the past 10 weeks as the Packers circle the drain.
Nevertheless, Rodgers has the playoff experience that Washington – and quarterback Kirk Cousins – do not. And when Rodgers says, “You have to learn how to win in the playoffs,” that’s what he’s counting on.
Except … except since taking Green Bay to the Super Bowl in 2010, Rodgers has been remarkably average in the postseason – with a 2-4 record, 10 TDs and four interceptions. Cousins, on the other hand, has been electric down the stretch … especially at home … and that’s what decide this game. Cousins won six of his last seven there, with 15 touchdowns and no interceptions – and that, not playoff experience, is a reason to like the Redskins here.
Hall of Fame worthy: Rodgers has a 104.1 playoff passer rating, the highest in postseason history.
FIVE GUYS ON THE HALL-OF-FAME RADAR
(Kirk Cousins photo courtesy of the Washington Redskins)
Kansas City QB Alex Smith. In three playoff starts he completed 57.9 percent of his passes for 873 yards, with 9 touchdowns and no interceptions. With two more passing attempts without an interception he surpasses Jeff Hostetler (115) for most passes without a pickoff to start a postseason career.
Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson. He’s run for 367 yards and five TDs in four playoff games.
Seattle QB Russell Wilson. He’s 3-0 lifetime vs. Minnesota, with eight touchdown passes, no interceptions and one rushing TD.
Washington QB Kirk Cousins. He completed 74.7 percent of his passes in home games this year, with 16 TDs and no interceptions. His 74.7 completion percentage is the best in NFL history for a home season. Moreover, in Cousins’ last seven home starts he threw for 15 touchdowns, 0 interceptions and a 123.7 passer rating.
Cincinnati WR A.J. Green. Over his last five games vs. Pittsburgh he has 45 catches for 649 yards and three TDs.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
Winners of wildcard weekend games have won nine Super Bowls, and in seven of the past 10 years at least one wildcard winner has been a Super Bowl participant.
With two sacks Saturday, Houston’s J.J. Watt would join Hall-of-Famer Richard Dent and Lamar Woodley as the only players to have seven or more sacks in their first five playoff games. Dent and Woodley each had nine. Watt has five.
Washington’s DeSean Jackson has 21 career touchdowns on 60 or more yards.
This is the third time Pittsburgh and Cincinnati met this season. The Steelers are 9-1 all-time in third-game matchups.
The Bengals and New York Jets were the only NFL teams this year to rank in the top five in offensive and defensive red-zone TD percentage.
Seattle has a streak of 86 consecutive games where it either led or within one score in the fourth quarter.
Cincinnati’s AJ McCarron is 2-1 as a starter and produced a rating of 100 or better in those three games.
Green Bay’s Mason Crosby made his last 16 field-goal attempts in the playoffs.
Seattle is the first team in the Super Bowl era to lead the league in fewest points allowed in four straight seasons.
Kirk Cousins has not thrown an interception in his last 232 passing attempts at home.
Cincinnati finished with a plus-11 in the takeaway/turnover differential, which had them ranked third in the league – its best finish since 2005, when it met the Steelers in the playoffs.
Washington is 12-2 in home playoff games during the Super Bowl era.