NFL 2019 - Wildcard Playoff Round
NFL 2018 – Wild Card Weekend So, another 17 weeks of NFL action are in the record books and we’re already into the playoffs. Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun? While there were a fair few teams with something still to play for last weekend, just one game had direct implications for both teams, but our all-AFC South Game of the Week only briefly looked like lighting up the night as Marcus Mariota’s absence cost the Tennessee Titans a true shot at the final wild card spot. Instead, the visitors to Nashville won out, meaning it’s the Indianapolis Colts who will be in action again this weekend. The AFC playoff race could still have been tweaked by results elsewhere, but it would have required a few upsets along the way. Instead, the Patriots claimed their usual bye week, albeit as the #2 seed behind Kansas City, whose win over hapless Oakland secured top spot in the West division at the expense of the Chargers who, despite having a better record than their hosts, must now go on the road to Baltimore this Sunday. The Ravens held off a feisty Cleveland Browns team to ensure that they topped the North and kept Pittsburgh out of the post-season, while Houston – already certain of a playoff spot – cemented the South title. Over in the NFC, New Orleans had already wrapped up their division and the #1 seed, and consequently went down at home to Carolina as they rested their key players. The Panthers’ win was not enough to get them into the post-season, however, as Seattle were already ensconced in the #5 spot, leaving Philadelphia and Minnesota to fight out the remaining wild card ticket. The reigning champions did all they could to cling on to their Lombardi, shutting out Washington in the capital, but still needed a Chicago Bears win over the Vikings to progress… which they duly received! The Eagles thus join East division champions Dallas and new kings of the North, Chicago, in making the playoffs, with the Los Angeles Rams progressing from the West, ahead of Seattle.
Game of the Week – Seattle Seahawks @ Dallas Cowboys With just four games this weekend, the field for Game of the Week was thinned somewhat, featuring a third AFC South meeting between Houston and Indianapolis, a rematch of the Week 16 encounter between the Ravens and Chargers that we featured in this column, and the Eagles heading to Chicago. The game that stands out, however, is Seattle’s trip to Big D to take on the mercurial Cowboys… Like two of the other wild card weekend games, this is also a rematch of a fixture seen earlier this season, with the Cowboys going down 24-13 at Century Link Field in Week 3. This one, however, takes place at AT&T Stadium, where Dallas have lost just once this season and where they beat the streaking Saints in late November. That these two sides are meeting at this point of the season is rather apt as, at times, neither appeared on course for the post-season. Both, however, have rallied in the second half of the campaign to finish at 10-6, and deserve their spot in the playoffs. There are further similarities too, with both teams possessing a mobile quarterback capable of making telling passes on the run, powerful run games able to eat up the clock and emerging defensive units that can frustrate even the most prolific offenses.
Players to watch? The Seahawks have reinvented themselves offensively through the course of the 2018 season, with a running game that barely got going last year now an integral part of the gameplan, taking some of the weight off the shoulders of quarterback Russell Wilson. The diminutive field-marshal is still enough of a key to have thrown 35 touchdowns this season – becoming the most prolific passer in Seahawks’ history along the way – but the emergence of a league-leading backfield corps led by Chris Carson and Mike Davis (and with rookie Rashaad Penny in reserve) has made Seattle a multi-dimensional threat, adding to an air game that has regained Doug Baldwin from injury to pair with Tyler Lockett, who has been on fire in recent weeks. And, despite losing rookie tight end Will Dissly to injury just as he was poised to break out, Nick Vannett and veteran Ed Dickson appear capable of picking up the slack when Wilson needs an outlet. There is more good news for the offense too, with DJ Fluker’s return from injury allowing Germain Ifedi to return to his usual right tackle role and George Fant to resume as the extra tight end that has so benefited the run game. On defense, the Legion of Boom is no more following the departure of Richard Sherman, retirement of Cam Chancellor and injury to Earl Thomas, but a new unit is rapidly emerging from their shadow, led by linebackers Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright, and emboldened by a new backfield combination featuring Shaquill Griffin, Tre Flowers and Bradley McDougald. Griffin and McDougald have been banged up of late, but both are expected to play their part on Saturday. Dallas also enjoyed a defensive renaissance in 2018, growing from a team where the D was a weakness to one where it is potentially its most influential unit. In the wake of captain Sean Lee’s annual brush with injury, a new youth movement has taken up the baton, led by Lee’s fellow linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch and bolstered by a backfield almost entirely made up of recent draft picks. Pro Bowl-bound cornerback Byron Jones and undrafted free agent safety Jeff Heath are the elder statesman of that group, but the addition of Chidobe Awuzie and Xavier Woods has had the added effect of allowing the D-line to go about its business, with sack leader DeMarcus Lawrence backed up by the additional threat of Randy Gregory and aided by the likely return of Tyrone Crawford. On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys have struggled to replicate the offensive juggernaut that carried the rookie seasons of quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Zeke Elliott, but has been more effective in recent weeks – if you conveniently ignore the shut-out in Indianapolis! With the addition of former Raider Amari Cooper to the receiving corps, and the gradual emergence of tight ends Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz, there are now more threats for Prescott to exploit out wide, with Cole Beasley again a safety valve from the slot. Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin should also be back in action for wild card weekend, bolstering an offensive line beset with injury this season. Special teams on both sides are just as well-matched, with Dan Bailey’s replacement, Brett Maher, proving a steady contributor for the Cowboys, and Sebastian Janikowski bringing veteran experience to Seattle. The two punters, Cowboys’ Chris Jones and Seattle rookie Michael Dickson, are also amongst the league’s best this season.
Best of the rest? With the NFL entering its playoff phase, all remaining games will be televised and, while not every fan is going to have a team to root for, more than most will find one to root against, so there’s plenty of reasons to stay tuned! The post-season kicks off in Texas, with the Seahawks-Cowboys game preceded by the AFC South rematch happening in Houston. The Texans and Colts have a win apiece from their previous games this campaign, so there is pride on the line as well as the chance to progress to the next round of the playoffs. Houston, as division winner and thus higher seed, plays host this weekend but, if anything, Indianapolis have been in better form of late, winning nine of their last 10 games to end the season 10-6 after starting at 1-5. Andrew Luck is hitting top form as well as primary receiver TY Hilton, while Marlon Mack spearheads an improved run game and rookie Darius Leonard fuels a quietly dangerous defense. Houston, meanwhile, is running – literally – with quarterback Deshaun Watson who, despite being banged up again this season, is a threat both rushing and passing. DeAndre Hopkins remains amongst the league’s elite wideouts, but injuries to Will Fuller and mid-season trade acquisition Demaryius Thomas leave a few question marks over the Texans’ offensive strength. On the D, however, JJ Watt, Jadaveon Clowney, Zach Cunningham and Whitney Mercilus continue to cause problems, as do Tyrann Mathieu and Jonathan Joseph in the secondary. The Chargers and Ravens clash for the second time in 14 days, having been our Game of the Week just a fortnight ago. Baltimore came out on top in that one, despite the game being in Los Angeles, and there is good reason to believe in the same outcome this time around. While Philip Rivers and Co can’t possibly have as bad a game as they did in the StubHub encounter, the likes of CJ Mosely, Eric Weddle, Terrell Suggs and Marlon Humphrey give Baltimore the best defense in the NFL, capable of stifling almost any opposition. The Chargers aren’t exactly devoid of defensive weapons, with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram leading the pass rush and the trio of Casey Hayward, Derwin James and Desmond King patrolling the secondary, but it has been the offense, with Rivers throwing to Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Antonio Gates, and Melvin Gordon exploding out of the backfield, that has caught the attention this season, one way or another. Wild card weekend is wrapped up by the reigning champions heading to the Windy City to take on another impressive defensive unit. The Eagles are again being helmed by Nick Foles following another injury to starting QB Carson Wentz, and the hero of Super Bowl LII has wasted little time in re-establishing a rapport with receivers Alshon Jeffrey, Nelson Agholor and tight end Zach Ertz. On defense, Philadelphia still relies on Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Jordan Hicks and Malcolm Jenkins, but with the addition of end Michael Bennett to that already strong core. The Bears, however, now boast Khalil Mack as their defensive centrepiece and the former Raider has wasted no time in becoming both a fan favourite and the team’s biggest weapon on a D already boasting the likes of Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, Kyle Fuller, Roquan Smith and Eddie Jackson. On offense, things are a little less explosive under the guidance of second-year QB Mitchell Trubisky, but has still managed to rack up points courtesy of receivers Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller, as well as the running back combo of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. The game is also notable for former Eagles TE Trey Burton facing his old team, the one for whom he threw a TD pass to Foles in that famous Super Bowl success. Enjoy!
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