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NFL Playoff Preview – Wild Card Weekend

Drew Brees
Chris Graythen, Getty Images

The NFL playoffs start Saturday. Four division champions host first-round games this weekend, while Green Bay, San Francisco, New England and Baltimore enjoy a bye week and wait to begin their Super Bowl quest.

Here’s a preview of this weekend’s games:

Saturday, Jan. 7

Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans

Reliant Stadium, Houston; 4:30 p.m. (ET); TV: NBC

Houston (10-6) plays host to its first-ever playoff game in franchise history. Despite a separated left shoulder suffered last week against Tennessee, rookie quarterback T. J. Yates is expected to start. Yates was superb in the Texans’ 20-19 win over the Bengals in Cincinnati on Dec. 11. He led two late scoring drives of 80-plus yards to rally Houston from a 19-10 deficit in the fourth quarter. Yates will have Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson as a downfield target, as well as Arian Foster, the NFL’s fifth-best rusher, in the backfield. Houston figures to use Foster and Ben Tate to control the ball and the time of possession, while using Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels as pass targets. The Bengals counter with the NFL’s seventh-ranked defense, one that recorded 45 sacks, the fifth-highest total in the league. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is their most productive pass rusher, but linebacker Rey Maualuga sets the tone for the defense.

Though he missed Wednesday’s practice with the flu, rookie quarterback Andy Dalton is expected to start for Cincinnati (9-7). It’s the first time since 1970 that two rookie quarterbacks will start a playoff game against one another. Dalton’s favorite target is rookie A.J. Green, who caught a team-leading 65 passes for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns. The performance of Bengals running back Cedric Benson will be a key barometer of the offense. They’ll need him to help establish an effective running game so that Dalton isn’t forced into obvious passing situations. The Texans have the NFL’s second-ranked overall defense, which allowed an average of just 17.4 points per game, the fourth-lowest total in the league. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips wants to get pressure on Dalton and hope that his defense can contain Benson on the ground. Linebacker Brian Cushing led the team with 114 tackles during the regular season.

Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints

Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans; 8 p.m. (ET); TV: NBC

Detroit (10-6) returns to New Orleans to face a Saints team that defeated the Lions 31-17 in the Superdome on Dec. 4. Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw for 5,038 yards this year, guides an offense that finished fourth in the league in scoring at 29.6 points per game. The Detroit running game is weak, with no running back rushing for 400 yards this season. Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson, who led the NFL with 1,681 receiving yards on 96 catches, is nearly impossible to cover one-on-one. Johnson scored 16 touchdowns, while teammate Brandon Pettigrew accounted for five more from the tight end position. The Saints pass defense ranked 30th in the league, giving up an average of 259.8 yards per game. New Orleans cornerback Jabari Greer draws the assignment of covering Johnson. The Saints were fortunate to get several key penalties against the Lions’ offense in their earlier meeting.

With an NFL-record 5,476 yards and 71.2 completion percentage, Drew Brees is the key to a New Orleans (13-3) offense that gained more yardage this season than any other in league history. Tight end Jimmy Graham, who caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns, presents matchup nightmares for linebackers and safeties of Saints’ opponents. The New Orleans running game, which ranked sixth in rushing with 132.9 yards per game, is underrated. Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas are capable of big games. Sproles also sets up the Saints’ offense with punt and kick returns. Detroit’s defense ranked 23rd against the run. They must be more effective in stopping the Saints from setting up better passing situations with the running game. Lions’ defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh missed the teams’ first meeting while serving a suspension, but he’ll be counted on to pressure Brees and draw double-teams so that others can create problems for the Saints’ QB.

Sunday, Jan. 8

Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants

MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ; 1 p.m. (ET); TV: FOX
Atlanta (10-6) is more comfortable indoors, but Sunday’s forecast for MetLife Stadium doesn’t indicate weather to be a factor. Few teams have as many weapons as the Falcons, who averaged 25.1 points per game, seventh-best in the league. Quarterback Matt Ryan passed for 4,177 yards, while receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez combined for more than 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns. Atlanta running back Michael Turner finished third in the NFL with 1,340 yards rushing. He’ll be key in helping keep the Giants’ talented pass rushers from attacking Ryan, especially Jason Pierre-Paul. New York’s defense ranked 29th against the pass this season. If Ryan gets time to throw, they’ll need to rise to the challenge of covering all those targets.

Quarterback Eli Manning had a very solid season for New York (9-7), throwing for 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns. His 20 regular-season turnovers, however, were the most of any quarterback on a playoff team. Receiver Victor Cruz was third in the NFL with 1,536 yards, a franchise record. He and teammate Hakeem Nicks seem to get open whenever the Giants need a big play. The New York running game finished last in the league with 89.2 yards per game. Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs must provide some challenge against a Falcons’ defense that ranked sixth against the run. Atlanta linebacker Curtis Lofton is a tackling machine. He can help force Manning into third-and-long situations.

Denver Broncos at Pittsburgh Steelers

Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver; 4:30 p.m. (ET); TV: CBS

Denver (8-8) hosts the opening round of the playoffs after losing its final three regular season games. Quarterback Tim Tebow completed just 30 of 74 passes for 439 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions in those games. He was also sacked nine times. Tebow, and his protection, must improve against the Steelers, the NFL’s top-ranked defense, which allows a league-low 14.2 points per game. Broncos running back Willis McGahee is critical to their success. If McGahee and Denver’s top-ranked rushing attack can manage long, time-consuming drives, Steelers like James Harrison won’t get shots at Tebow.

Despite aggravating his sprained left ankle on Sunday, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger starts for Pittsburgh (12-4). His 4,077 passing yards and 90.1 passer rating are accented by his 10-3 postseason record and two Super Bowl rings. However, Roethlisberger was sacked 40 times, fourth-most in the league, and he isn’t very mobile. Steelers wide receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown are downfield threats. With leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall out with a knee injury, Isaac Redman will start at running back for Pittsburgh. The Broncos, especially rookie linebacker Von Miller, would love to shut down the Steelers running game and tee off on Roethlisberger. Denver cornerback Champ Bailey will be tested by the Steelers’ speedy receivers.

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