NFL Wild Card weekend features plenty of storylines, rematches

As riveting as it is to watch your favorite team play a heart-stopping playoff game, a stress-free sports weekend is just as great.

Fans of the New England Patriots have gotten accustomed to relaxation over the first week of the postseason during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, as the Patriots will be sitting at home waiting their divisional round opponent for the sixth consecutive season.

The bye week is essential this year perhaps more than ever for the reigning Super Bowl champions, who have been ravaged with injuries but expect to get receiver Julian Edelman, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and defensive stalwarts Chandler Jones and Donta Hightower back for their divisional round game in Foxborough on Jan. 16.

The Patriots’ opponent will, of course, be determined by the end of the night Saturday, with both AFC Wild Card games on Saturday with the NFC to follow on Sunday.

Postseason football would not be fun without making predictions, so here’s my quick breakdown of all four Wild Card games, three of which feature regular-season rematches.

KANSAS CITY at HOUSTON, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., ABC:

Six games into the season, coach Andy Reid’s Chiefs were left for dead, enduring a five-game losing streak after a season-opening victory in Houston.

Kansas City has turned the corner and then some, finishing the regular season on a 10-game winning streak, while Houston won arguably the AFC’s weakest division, taking the South with a 9-7 record.

Even though this game is in Houston, Kansas City has to be the favorite. Defensive back Eric Berry has to be the inspirational story of this season, overcoming cancer to record a Pro Bowl season with 61 tackles and two interceptions. Quarterback Alex Smith does have postseason experience with San Francisco and Jeremy Maclin had a 1,000-yard receiving campaign with eight touchdowns.

Houston has been and up-and-down team throughout the year and has not found a lot of consistency at the quarterback position. Former Patriots backup Brian Hoyer is a solid game-manager, and DeAndre Hopkins is a dangerous vertical threat, having amassed over 1,500 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns this season.

The X-factor will be whichever team’s defense can step up. The Texans are strong up front, led by JJ Watt, while the Chiefs have a formidable secondary. Alex Smith will manage the game better and the Chiefs will win a close, low-scoring game.

PREDICTION: Kansas City 20, Houston 17


These AFC North rivals split their regular-season meetings, each winning on the other’s home field.

The Bengals managed to eke out a division title despite losing quarterback Andy Dalton to a broken thumb in a Week 14 loss to Pittsburgh, while the Steelers managed to squeak into the postseason thanks to a Week 17 romp in Cleveland and Buffalo’s win over the New York Jets.

Aside from the Patriots and maybe the Cardinals, the Steelers have the most formidable offense in the postseason. Ben Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl wins to his credit and two of the NFL’s most dangerous receivers in Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.

Look for Pittsburgh to air it out with tailback D’Angelo Williams out with a foot injury.

The Bengals will be hard-pressed to keep up without Dalton, who was having a breakout season before his injury. Tyler Eifert has emerged as one of the top tight ends in the game and A.J. Green is one of the best deep threats in football, so A.J. McCarron won’t be without weapons.

Cincinnati will have to win this game with its secondary and pass rush and McCarron will have to play mistake-free football. While this isn’t your father or grandfather’s Pittsburgh defense, the Steelers’ offense will make enough plays to win unless Roethlisberger makes a bunch of mistakes.

PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 31, Cincinnati 20


A lot of the talk heading into the NFC playoffs has centered around Cam Newton, and the Seahawks are just fine with that, having represented the conference in the last two Super Bowls.

The Seahawks are playing their best football at the right time, and quarterback Russell Wilson is having an MVP-type season with 34 touchdown passes. Of course, Seattle has one of the best defenses in the league, anchored by Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Michael Bennett.

Minnesota is playing its first outdoor playoff game in nearly four decades, and went into Lambeau Field and knocked off the Packers to claim the NFC North. The Vikings and Seahawks met in the regular season, with Seattle cruising to a 38-7 victory in Minneapolis.

The Vikings have found their franchise quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, and tailback Adrian Peterson has looked like Adrian Peterson after being suspended for the 2014 season.

This game will certainly be closer than the first meeting between the teams, and while I’m tempted to pick Seattle because of their playoff experience, the weather will be an X-factor with temperatures expected to be well below zero. Minnesota gets an upset in a defensive battle. Again, it’ll boil down to the quarterback who makes less mistakes.

PREDICTION: Minnesota 17, Seattle 16


Six weeks into the year, the Packers were 6-0, and many prognosticators like myself were penciling in a Patriots-Packers matchup in the Super Bowl.

A preseason injury to receiver Jordy Nelson finally started to show its wear as the season went along, as Green Bay finished 4-6 and the offense finished in the middle of the pack in scoring, averaging 23 points per game, unheard of for an Aaron Rodgers-led squad.

The Redskins won the weak NFC East with a 9-7 record, but they quieted a lot of prognosticators who felt that Washington would be closer to the No. 1 overall pick as opposed to hosting a postseason game.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins was efficient during the regular season, throwing for 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, likely spelling the end of the Robert Griffin III era in the nation’s capital.

While I’m tempted to pick the Packers in this game, Green Bay would not be in the playoffs had it not been for a Hail Mary against Detroit which wouldn’t have happened if not for a Lions’ penalty on the prior play. Plus, the Redskins are 6-2 at home this year. The Packers will score, but the loss of Nelson has been too much.

PREDICTION: Washington 28, Green Bay 20

Ryan McLaughlin

About Ryan McLaughlin

BDN sports reporter Ryan McLaughlin grew up in Brewer and is a lifelong fan of the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins. In "The Boston Blitz" he'll be sharing his perspective with BDN readers about what's happening on the Boston professional sports scene.