It’s great to make the playoffs and get a home game in the wild-card round. Not so great is being an underdog for that game.
That’s the situation for the Redskins, Bengals, Texans and Vikings this weekend.
Considering that the four visitors have never swept in the opening round of the playoffs since the current format was adopted for the 1990 season, one of those teams, at the least, might escape.
Still, the prevailing opinion is that the Chiefs should be favored at Houston, the Steelers at Cincinnati, the Seahawks at Minnesota, and the Packers at Washington.
Doesn’t matter, Texans star receiver DeAndre Hopkins said.
“I’m not going to go out there and change the way I play or the way I think because it’s a playoff game, honestly,” he said.
“I’m going to go out and do what I’ve been doing. I feel like a lot of guys think like that. It’s just the outside people. They put more emphasis on the playoffs. But in the locker room, guys are going to do what they have to do.”
Same approach for the guys those “outside people” seem to have more faith in.
“It doesn’t matter what we did last week, not to mention four weeks back, five weeks back,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said.
“We wiped the slate completely clean. We approach them like a new team, we’re going to study them, do what we can, find our indicators, find our adjustments, then go out there and play a ballgame.”
Here’s a look at all four wild-card ballgames.
Kansas City (11-5) at Houston (9-7), Saturday
The Chiefs won at Houston in the season opener, then blew a game late to Denver the next week and went into a funk. But after losing five straight, they made one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history, sweeping the final 10 games.
It only got them the fifth seed, but it also got them an opponent they have defeated.
“They’re more patient, they’re careful with the ball — no turnovers,” Chiefs standout linebacker Justin Houston, who plans to return from a knee injury that cost him the last five games, said of the Texans. “So we’ve got to create turnovers to give us a chance to win.”
That’s been a Kansas City specialty: The Chiefs led the AFC with a plus-14 turnover margin. Houston was at plus-5.
Key Matchups: Kansas City’s secondary against Hopkins; Texans’ offensive line against KC’s Houston and Tamba Hali.
Pittsburgh (10-6) at Cincinnati (12-4), Saturday
One franchise’s history is filled with postseason success and Super Bowl triumphs: six Lombardi Trophy celebrations.
Yep, that would be the Steelers.
The other franchise has a terrific recent regular-season record, making the playoffs for the fifth straight year. It’s last postseason victory: Jan. 6, 1991.
Yep, that would be the Bengals.
The numbers are overwhelmingly in Pittsburgh’s favor: 18-7 overall against the Bengals since 2004; winning 21 of the past 26 at Riverfront or Paul Brown stadiums; a 33-20 victory in Cincinnati last month.
The QB matchup also favors the Steelers, whether it’s Ben Roethlisberger vs. Andy Dalton or AJ McCarron (more likely). But remember that the Bengals had the stingiest scoring defense in the AFC and are plus-11 in turnover differential, second to Kansas City in the conference.
Key Matchups: Cincinnati trying to slow down WR Antonio Brown; Pittsburgh getting pressure on whoever is at quarterback for the Bengals.
Seattle (10-6) at Minnesota (11-5), Sunday
It could be bitter cold in Minneapolis, which Sherman said has never entered his mind. The Seahawks don’t appear to be the type of team that lets the elements matter.
What will matter is how effective each team is in the ground game. The first priority against the Vikings always is to slow down the league’s top rusher, Adrian Peterson. That usually is the main challenge against Seattle’s offense, but Marshawn Lynch’s status is uncertain after he sat out the last seven games (abdominal surgery). He’s expected to go, but in his absence Russell Wilson has really cranked up the Seahawks’ passing attack.
Both defenses are good enough to turn the game in their team’s favor.
Key Matchups: Seattle running the ball on the Vikings; Minnesota running the ball on the Seahawks.
Green Bay (10-6) at Washington (9-7), Sunday
Washington won its final four games to take the weak NFC East as its offense came alive and it finally had some road success. Kirk Cousins was among the league’s top quarterbacks in December as the offense got dynamic.
Can’t say the same for the Packers, who despite the presence of Aaron Rodgers have stagnated with the ball. Their defense isn’t good enough to carry a sporadic attack, either.
But the Pack has tons of playoff experience, and the Redskins did not beat a team that finished with a winning record all season.
Key Matchups: Green Bay’s sputtering offense against a mediocre, but improving defense; Cousins versus the Packers’ so-so secondary.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL
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