Stars Will Shine: An AFC Wild Card Weekend Preview

Kansas City at Houston Saturday 4:30pm

Alex Smith and the Chiefs entering the playoffs on a 10 game winning streak. (Getty Images)

Alex Smith and the Chiefs enter the playoffs on a 10 game winning streak. (Getty Images)

Both Wild Card Weekend and my preview starts with the most lackluster game of the opening weekend of the playoffs. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting storylines to examine here. Both of these teams have had odd seasons that parallel each other in certain ways: both lost star running backs for the season due to injury (Arian Foster for Houston, Jamaal Charles for KC); each had horrible starts to the season (Houston started 2-5, KC 1-5) before finishing strong (Houston was 7-2 down the stretch, KC finished the year on a remarkable 10 game winning streak). Each team’s turnaround was sparked by their dominant defense returning to form (Houston gave up 13 points per game during their 9 game run to end the season, KC gave up 13 per game during their 10 game streak), and a dominant receiver making just enough plays on the outside to get each offense going (DeAndre Hopkins for Houston, Jeremy Maclin for KC).

These teams diverge when you get to the quarterback position. Kansas City has been paced as always by the always steady but never spectacular Alex Smith. The God of Game Management had his usual top 5 interception percentage, only getting picked on 1.4% of his passes. Smith was a little more aggressive this year than usual, a change in his game perhaps necessitated by the loss of Charles early in the season, however his yard per attempt are still only slightly above average at 7.42, and it remains to be seen if/when the game falls on Smith’s arm if he can make the necessary plays down field to win. For Houston their QB position has been apocalyptic, and yet they’ve somehow survived. They set a record this year by being the first team to win games started by 4 different QBs. While Brandon Weeden, TJ Yates and Ryan Mallett have done their parts to get Houston to this point, the task of winning this game falls on Brian Hoyer. In the games Hoyer has started he’s done a pretty successful Alex Smith impression this year. He’s been careful with the ball, sporting a top 10 interception percentage and but conservative, throwing for a paltry 7.1 yards per attempt.

Nuk Hopkins has been unstoppable regardless of who throws him the ball this season. (Getty Images)

Nuk Hopkins has been unstoppable regardless of who throws him the ball this season. (Getty Images)

However, Houston’s mediocre QB play hasn’t been able to slow down the receiving dynamo that is DeAndre Hopkins. The model of consistency in an inconsistent offense, Hopkins has had 100 yards or a touchdown in 10 out of 16 games this season, including a 9 reception day with 2 TDs against KC in the season opener. I think Hopkins is one of two key men in this game. With KC having a 10 game winning streak to end the year the common perception is that they are the obvious favorite in this game, and while I agree that I’d give them a slight edge as a more well rounded team, this matchup is closer than most realize. In a matchup this close give me the team that has two of the most dominant players in the league, Hopkins on offense, and a name I’ve waited far too long to mention in this section, JJ Watt on defense. As long as Hoyer plays a mistake free game, Hopkins and Watt will make enough plays to give Houston the win and extend the Kansas City playoff winless streak to 23 years.

Give me Houston 26 Kansas City 21


Pittsburgh and Cincinnati Saturday 8:15pm 

Big Ben and Antonio Brown lead one of the leagues best offenses. (Getty Images)

Big Ben and Antonio Brown lead one of the leagues best offenses when both are healthy. (Getty Images)

The second AFC Wild Card game features the always fun 3rd matchup of the year between divisional rivals. Both of these team’s seasons have been marred by quarterback trauma, but in the NFL in 2015 who wasn’t? For Pittsburgh, their season had a common refrain.

“Wow our offense is awesome. I don’t see how anyone could slow us down.”

Followed by:

“OMG OMG OMG Big Ben is hurt, we’re screwed.”

Followed by:

“What? Big Ben is back already? That injury looked horrible!”

On two separate occasions this is the stressful roller coaster the Steelers and their fans have had to go through. The 3rd game of the year Ben looked like he suffered the classic season ending knee injury. And yet somehow he was able to escape an ACL tear and come back only 5 weeks later. Later in the year vs Oakland Ben suffered a foot injury that knocked him out of the game and at least the next few weeks. But lo and behold he was ok enough to be a backup the next week vs Cleveland, and in one of the most perfect examples of bad Browns luck, starter Landry Jones gets hurt early, “backup” Ben Roethlisberger comes in and torches the Browns as usual.

And the luck doesn’t end there. Despite surviving all of these injuries to their star, a horrible loss to the injury riddled Ravens in week 16 left them out of the playoffs and needing a win from the Bills over the Jets to get them in. And don’t you know the Bills were able to pull that win out of their ass. And now here they are as potentially the most dangerous team entering the AFC playoffs.

The Steelers are dangerous because of their dynamite offense that features one of the best sets of receivers in the league. They gained a stellar 6.3 yards per play, tied for best in the league with Arizona. This is mostly because of the play of the incredible Antonio Brown. Brown led the league in receptions, tied with Julio Jones at 136. He and Ben have incredible chemistry, and Brown has the rare ability to get open in almost every situation when he is called upon. Fantastic downfield threat Martavis Bryant would be a number 1 receiver on a lot of teams in the league and Markus Wheaton is one of the best 3rd options in the league as well. Ben has a lot of options to go to when he goes back to pass and a very solid offensive line in front of him for once, a rarity in Steeler Country. However it’s a good thing their passing is so dynamic. DeAngelo Willams, who’s already filling in for an injued Le’Veon Bell at running back is not expected to play Saturday so expect 40 to 50 passes from Roethlisberger. One of the key matchups in this game is can a revitalized Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap get a consistent pass rush and force Pittsburgh into  some turnovers. Big Ben, while he has been prolific, threw interceptions at a higher than normal rate this year. His 3.4% interception percentage is 3rd highest in the league, ahead of Blake Bortles who led the league with 18 overall interceptions.

Following the injury to Andy Dalton, Marvin Lewis is forced to go into a playoff game with AJ McCarron under center. (Getty Images)

Following the injury to Andy Dalton, Marvin Lewis is forced to go into a playoff game with AJ McCarron under center. (Getty Images)

For Cincinnati, it looked like they were having a dream season. They started 8-0. Andy Dalton finally looked like the inconsistency that had marred his career up to this point had faded into the distance and he was starting to put it all together. Their talented defense looked like it had got the last piece it needed when Geno Atkins returned to his pre-injury form. AJ Green was still great, 1st round pick Tyler Eifert had blossomed into a mini-Gronk clone and Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill gave them enough from the RB spot to have a well balanced offense. The stage appeared to be set for not only the Bengals to win their first playoff game in 25 years, but actually having a real shot at making the Super Bowl as well.

Until Andy Dalton decided to be a hero. In Week 13 the Bengals played the Steelers. A big game no doubt, a win would’ve basically sealed the division for the Bengals. Early in the game Dalton threw a pick in the red zone and tried to make a play on the returner and broke his thumb.

Bye bye Bengals as Super Bowl contenders.

Now that might be a bit too harsh of an assessment, perhaps if the Bengals somehow get out of this game and move on Dalton will be able to come back. But this play highlighted one of my biggest pet peeves, QBs who try to make a tackle after an interception. Look we get it, you’re upset, you made a mistake and you want to help clean it up. That’s admirable. But let me issue a quick PSA to NFL quarterbacks out there:

You’re way too valuable and irreplaceable to risk getting hurt on a play like this. Do not, I repeat DO NOT try to make a tackle after you’ve thrown a pick unless the season is literally on the line.

If Dalton doesn’t try to make that tackle maybe the returner gets tackled maybe he doesn’t, maybe you give up an embarrassing pick-6. But you can come back from that. Almost no team can survive having to start their backup QB for extended periods of time.

And yet the Bengals will try. They enter their playoff game with AJ McCarron as starter. And while McCarron’s numbers aren’t bad, he has very clear limitations. Luckily for the Bengals and McCarron, the Bengals may have one of the most QB friendly offenses in the league featuring a great offensive line, multiple big receiving threats that can make a play for you on the outside and good enough running backs. When you combine this with an average Steelers defense, Cincy should be able to score a bit. While Cincinnati’s defense has held up well enough against the Steelers in their previous two meetings this year, I don’t think they’ll be able to slow down the Pittsburgh aerial circus enough for McCarron to keep up. However if the Pittsburgh offensive line has trouble early, without a solid running game to fall back on their offense could stagnate. Cincinnati has better all around team, but the difference at QB will be too much to overcome.

I like Pittsburgh 29 Cincinnati 17.

evan– Evan Sally (@Evan_Sally)



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