The Wild Card weekend preview


The Wild Card weekend preview

God I love the NFL playoffs.

It may drag on for almost a month, but the whole thing is really only six days.

11 games.

12 teams on a collision course for the crown.

In the words of Jean Valjean: "The NFL playoffs & RULE!"

As we get ready for the Wild Card Round, the Patriots are in a familiar place. At home on the couch, watching four teams beat each other up for the opportunity to play in Foxboro.

I imagine they'll be hoping to face the Colts, while expecting to play the Texans, but either way, I'm going to hold off on any official Super Bowl predictions until we see which teams emerge. After all, so much can change over Wild Card Weekend; match-ups are so important.

So instead of predicting out the long term, here are four picks for this weekend. If I don't nail three out of four, I'll get a tattoo of Peyton Manning wearing lingerie on my right bicep.

The Game: No. 6 Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at No. 3 Houston Texans (12-4)
The Time: Saturday at 4 pm, on NBC.

The Background: Houston lost three of its last four games to fall from AFC favorite to the subject of a Wild Card Weekend preview. The Bengals won seven of their last eight games (including victories over the Giants, Ravens and at the Steelers) on their way to clinching the No. 6 seed.

The Spread: Houston (-4.5).

(Note: Im not including this for gambling purposes, but instead for some perspective. And also, for gambling purposes.)

The Texans were favored in 14 of 16 games this season, but were only 9-7 against the spread. The Bengals were underdogs in seven of 16, and went 9-6-1 against the spread. This year, in games refereed by Gene Stenatores crew, the home team is . . . nah, that's ridiculous.

The Experience: Andy Dalton is 25 years old and in his second NFL season, with only 32 career starts under his belt. Matt Schaub is 31, in his ninth season, and has played in nearly 120 games. But on Saturday, Dalton is the more experienced playoff QB.

In fact, this is the first playoff start of Schaubs career, and considering how he carried himself in that big Monday Nighter against the Pats, its fair to wonder how hell handle the pressure. And then you factor in how poorly he's played down the stretch. Do you know that Schaub has thrown only one touchdown in the last four games? He threw for as many TDs as Greg McElroy did over the last four weeks. Only one more than Rory Mcllroy did.

Meanwhile, Dalton hasnt been quite as good (or consistent) as his numbers suggest, but theres no doubt that he can make plays. At least as long as A.J. Green is around.

Speaking of which . . .

The Playmakers: When you look at the Bengals roster, I'd say that Green is the only guy you really fear. Probably Green and Geno Atkins. And maybe Michael Johnson. But that's it.

When I look at the Texans, despite their recent struggles, I still see a team with too much talent to be denied. At least not at home, in the first round. I see Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, JJ Watt and Jonathan Joseph. Impact players. Guys who typically make the difference when everything is on the line.

The Pick: Texans 27, Bengals 21

JJ Watt's strip sack and fumble recovery seals a victory late in the fourth. Watt celebrates by tearing the football in half and shoving the remnants down Andy Dalton's throat.

The Game: No. 6 Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at No. 3 Green Bay Packers (12-4)

The Time: Saturday at 8 pm, on NBC.

The Background: The Packers could have avoided this by taking care of business last week, but they're still in pretty good shape with wins in four of their last five, and nine of their last 11 games. They'll also benefit from the return of Charles Woodson, who's been out since Week 7 with a broken collar bone.

The Vikings have won four straight games; impressive victories over the Bears, at St. Louis, at Houston and then last Sunday against Green Bay. They're powered by a generally reliable defense and the NFL's beastliest and most unstoppable running back since Bo Jackson.

The Spread: Green Bay (-7.5)

It would have been easy to get carried away after last week's Vikings victory, but Vegas isn't having it. They set this thing at 7.5 points and they're just daring you to take Minnesota. Taunting you. "You won't do it. You don't have the guts." Or if that doesn't work: "Oh, so you're the moron who's going to bet against Adrian Peterson?"

The King: Here's something I wrote about Aaron Rodgers back in Week 15

I don't know if it's because he's not putting up the same ridiculous numbers he did last year, or if he's just been overshadowed by Peyton's resurgence, Brady's continued dominance and a crop of headline-stealing rookies, but Aaron Rodgers has been somewhat under the radar this season. In the meantime, he's lost his running back for the year . . . he's been without Greg Jennings and a healthy Jordy Nelson . . . his defense has been decimated by injury . . . he had a win literally stolen from him on that Monday night in Seattle . . . yet Rodgers continues to keep Green Bay afloat.

He's been so good this season. I'd almost say underrated. And here are four more Rodgers-related points:

1. He also spent the season playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Only the Cardinals allowed more sacks this year than the Packers. (For what it's worth, the Vikings finished the season with 44 sacks, which tied them for the fifth most in the league).

2. According to STATS INC, Rodgers has completed 74.7 percent of his passes while throwing 16 TDs and one interception in his last five games against Minnesota. That's a 132.5 passer rating.

3. Saturday night will mark the first time since Week 5 that Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are all active for the same game. (Random stat: Green Bay is 2-4 in the last six home playoff games.)

4. There are a lot of interesting QB story lines in the NFC. You've got Matt Ryan, still trying to break through. You've got Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin and Colin Kaepernick as the young, up and comers. You've got . . . Christian Ponder? But with Drew Brees and Eli Manning both sitting at home, Rodgers is the undisputed king of the NFC playoff picture. It's going to take a lot to beat him.

The Super Freak: Adrian Peterson told reporters this week that he wants to play special teams on Saturday. That he wants to try and block field goals, return kicks and do anything he possibly can to improve the Vikings chances of upsetting Green Bay.

If I'm Leslie Frasier, I let Peterson do whatever he wants. Let him block kicks. Let him play linebacker. Let him perform karaoke at halftime. It doesn't matter. Just let him loose.

The Pick: Packers 35, Vikings 17

Christian Ponder may be an after thought in the Vikings offensive attack, but at some point he's going to have to make a big play a few big plays for Minnesota to advance. In other words . . . look for the Packers to pick up at least two interceptions and run away with the game late.

The Game: No. 5 Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at No. 4 Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
The Time: Sunday at 1 pm, on CBS

The Background: The Colts have won nine of their last 11 games and are riding high on the return of Chuck Pagano who just happened to have spent the last four seasons coaching the Ravens defense.

Baltimore limps into the postseason with losses in four of their last five games, and an offense that's scored more than 20 points only twice in its last seven games.

Adding to the incest of this match-up, the Ravens offense is led by former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell. Also, the Colts are originally from Baltimorehead explodes.

The Spread: Baltimore (-7)
This one looks and feels (and tastes) even stranger than the Vikings game. Seven points for one of the hottest teams in the AFC, against a squad that's looked dead for more than a month? What do you know, Vegas? Why are the Colts getting so many points?

Have the Ravens just been screwing with everyone? Will the conditions get to Andrew Luck? Is Jim Caldwell actually going to give the ball to Ray Rice?

The answer will have to be yes on all three if the Ravens have any shot to cover.

The Skeptic: There's a small part of me that doesn't buy the Ray Lewis retirement party. I mean, it's so rare that any retirement is genuine these days. Especially for a guy who loves the game as much as Lewis does. Will you be shocked if a month from now, he's back home, working out every day, with his body feeling fresher than it has in years, and decides to give it one more try? I won't be.

But either way, if this is the end, we should appreciate every second. It's going to be weird living in a world where Ray Lewis doesn't play football.

The Average Joe: Joe Flacco is the first quarterback in NFL history to make the playoffs in each of his first five seasons. That's pretty remarkable, but more than anything, it's a testament to the strength and consistency of Baltimore's legendary defense.

However, that legendary defense doesn't exist in 2012. The Ravens finished the year ranked 12th in points allowed. It's the first time since 2007 that they've even been out of the Top 3. Bottom line: They can't dominate a game like they used to. That puts more pressure on Flacco to do more than just "not make mistakes"; he has to make plays. (Cue a pair of Ed Reed pick sixes.)

The Pick: Colts 21, Ravens 20.

I don't think Flacco will get it done. I think that with Pagano's knowledge of the Ravens defense, combined with the stale Baltimore offense and a ChuckStrong narrative that isn't quite ready to end the Colts will pull off the upset.

Then they'll move on to play the Broncos, but will do so without Reggie Wayne, who's out for the year after taking a cheap shot from Bernard Pollard.

The Game: No. 5 Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at No. 4 Washington Redskins (10-6)

The Time: Sunday at 4:30 pm, on FOX

The Background: The two hottest teams in the conference, Seattle has won five straight, including a game at Chicago and a blowout victory over the 49ers. Meanwhile, the Redskins have won seven straight, highlighted by victories over the Ravens and Giants, plus a late-season sweep of the Cowboys.

The biggest factor in this game is the location. If they were playing in Seattle, it would be a no-brainer. The Seahawks would win by 20. But on the road, it's a different story.

The Spread: Seahawks (-3)

This game actually started as a pick'em, so apparently the majority of gamblers are betting on Seattle. Everyone remembers that they were 3-5 away from home this year, right? That they lost at St. Louis? At Detroit? At Miami?

The Rookies: This year, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson became the first trio of rookie QBs to lead their team to the playoffs. And on Sunday, Wilson and Griffin will become the first full-time rookie starters to face off in a playoff game.

But as exciting as it will be to watch those two work, the ground battle between Alfred Morris and Marshawn Lynch may ultimately decide the game. They were the No. 2 and No. 3 leading rushers in the NFL this season, and the players most capable of taking the added rookie pressure off their young quarterbacks' shoulders.

The Revenge Factor: The Redskins have only made the playoffs twice in the last 13 years, and both times they were eliminated by the Seahawks. I'd say this would be a major motivating factor for the Redskins if not for the fact that RGIII was still in high school the last time the two teams met in the postseason. Or if anyone remotely cared.

The Pick: Redskins 24, Seahawks 17

Russell Wilson has only thrown 10 interceptions this year, but eight of them have come on the road. He's throw 26 touchdowns, but 17 of them have come at home. For now, he's a different player away from CenturyLink Field, and he's up against a quarterback who can't help but rise to the occasion. You really think RGIII will let this one slip away?

So, there you have it. And here are your match-ups for next week.

Houston at New England
Indianapolis at Denver
Green Bay at San Francisco
Washington at Atlanta.

Enjoy the games. And just in case, let me know if you know a good tattoo place.

Rich can be reached at Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Friday Bag: What might the Patriots get for Garoppolo in a trade?


Friday Bag: What might the Patriots get for Garoppolo in a trade?

FOXBORO -- Every Friday we take your Patriots questions on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or a Friday Bag, as we call it. Typically Tom E. Curran and Mike Giardi join me in this endeavor, but I'm flying solo as those two get ready to head down to Pittsburgh. 

If you ever have any questions for us, feel free to tweet at us using the hashtag #FridayBag, and we'll get to as many as we can. 

On to the Bag...

PP: Roberts has been kind of a revelation. It began with his performance against the Browns, when led the team in tackles, and it continued against the Bengals as he was a crucial piece in the Patriots' second-quarter goal-line stand. Not bad for a sixth-round pick who Bill Belichick hadn't even heard of until he popped in the tape of last year's Houston-Navy game and noticed the undersized linebacker making impact plays. I think his future usage will be based on 1) the health of Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, and 2) the types of offenses the Patriots face moving forward. On Thursday, I wrote about just how infrequently the pair has been on the field. If that trend continues, the No. 3 linebacker in New England will essentially see starter snaps even though the team has moved to what is primarily a two-linebacker defense. Against run-heavy teams (like Cleveland, or probably Pittsburgh without Ben Roethlisberger), Roberts could see more time, whereas pass-happy clubs may get a heavier does of Barkevious Mingo. Roberts has been on the Patriots injury report this week with an ankle issue.

PP: It's an interesting question, John. For a couple of reasons, actually. The first -- and maybe you had this in mind -- is the fact that Stephen Gostkowski has become less-than-automatic this year. If the extra point isn't a given, why not go for two? At least I could see that being your logic. The second is that the Steelers are known to be a team that is as willing to run two-point plays as often as any other team. Bill Belichick said this week, that his team will prepare more for that play than they would normally, which in and of itself, other than the obvious scoring advantage, is an argument to run more two-point plays. If it makes your opponent's work week a little more difficult, go for it. The reason I think the Patriots have not tried more two-point plays under Belichick is twofold: They trust their kicker, and I don't think they'll shy away from using Gostkowski moving forward, despite his recent struggled; I also think they might like to hold onto the two-point plays they do have drawn up to save them for critical situations. 

PP: I do think there will be some kind of trade made, Miguel. The Patriots have obviously been willing to wheel and deal during what is otherwise a pretty monotonous trading deadline when compared to the other three major sports in this country. The position? That's tough. It will depend on the team's overall depth at that point in time, which will be based in large part on whatever injuries they incur between now and then. If I had to guess right now? I'd say tight end. Specifically a blocking tight end. They obviously love to stock up on that position, and it's one that isn't all that deep on the current roster. After Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, there's AJ Derby and...that's it. The team recently placed tight end Greg Scruggs on injured reserve -- after choosing to keep him on the active roster over guard Jonathan Cooper, mind you -- and haven't filled his roster spot with another player at that position. 

PP: Thanks for the question, Paul. If you listen to what Devin McCourty has said on Quick Slants over the course of the last few weeks, he'll tell you that third down comes down to matchups. The Patriots are primarily a man-to-man team, and I think their defensive backs could do a better job of plastering to their receivers in those situations. But coverage and pass-rush are always linked, and the Patriots pass-rush has to come into focus when discussing third down because -- particularly in third-and-long situations -- that's when they should be creating havoc in opposing backfields. The Patriots have pressured less of late as they've gone up against athletic quarterbacks who are dangerous outside the pocket, but sooner or later they're going to need more from their front. Jabaal Sheard (24 total quarterback pressures this season) and Chris Long (20) have been consistent, but as a team the Patriots are tied for 19th in the league with 11.0 sacks.

PP: When considering a Patriots trade involving Jimmy Garoppolo, I think a good place to start might be the Sam Bradford deal executed between the Eagles and Vikings. Minnesota sent a 2017 first-rounder and a 2018 conditional fourth-rounder in order to pick up the former No. 1 overall pick. Garoppolo doesn't have near the game experience Bradford had at the time he was traded -- he had thrown for 14,790 yards, 78 touchdowns and 52 interceptions in 63 career starts -- but even in just six quarters of play, it was relatively apparent that Garoppolo could successfully run a complicated scheme. I would not be surprised if another team was willing to cough up a first and a third or better in order to acquire Garoppolo as their next franchise guy. Teams are that hungry. If it works out, and if a team finds someone it can trust for the next 10 years, that's a small price to pay. If the Patriots decide to deal Garoppolo, when they do so -- will it be with a year left on his deal, will it be with Garoppolo on the franchise tag, will it be mid-season? -- will impact the price. As far as Belichick's eventual retirement impacting the quarterback decision . . . I don't think it will. I think even after Belichick is gone, he'll want the franchise to be in good shape because he knows that will be a reflection on his work and therefore a part, however small, of his legacy. I don't see him selling out -- ie trading Garoppolo to get value now -- if he doesn't think that's the best decision for the team. 

PP: Given the offensive output the Patriots have posted over the course of the last two weeks, and given the players around him, I'd say James White has been more than enough. If the Patriots needed more from that position, having a healthy Lewis would be their best option. He can simply do things that neither White nor most other backs in the league can when he's at his best. But right now? With Gronkowski, Bennett, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan around to see the bulk of the targets, Lewis would be more of a luxury than a necessity. For that reason, not only is White enough, but I'd imagine that the Patriots would be incredibly cautious about bringing Lewis back. He's been in and around the locker room of late, but the six-week window for Lewis to begin practicing only just opened, and I would not be surprised if the team wanted to use most of it to buy Lewis as much time as possible. Once he begins practicing, the Patriots will have three weeks to decide if they want to activate him, meaning it could be as late as Week 15 when he makes his return. If healthy, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better end-of-season addition. 

PP: I had a chance to speak with Jones at length earlier this week and he's a player who clearly understands that he needs to show the coaching staff more in order to re-gain a role. He said he didn't know if his ejection in Cleveland had anything to do with the decision to make him a healthy scratch, and so I don't know if it did, either. It couldn't have helped his chances at more playing time, though. Jones admitted he needed to be the bigger person in that scenario, even though Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins lunged at his legs. For Jones to come from Alabama, get to this level, and not contribute off the bat has been a bit of a surprise for Jones, I think. While he's frustrated he hasn't been able to do more, he understands he's not where he needs to be. From a locker-room standpoint, his teammates like him, and he's saying all the right things. I'm not sure that's enough to make him active for this week -- Eric Rowe played well in his debut, and Edelman and DJ Foster showed up as returners -- but it's a sign he's approaching his situation with a positive attitude and trying to do the right things. 

PP: Hey, David. Just based on recent history, and based on which team I think has the better defense right now, I'd have to say Denver. Mile High has been this team's own personal house of horrors for a long time. Players will tell you Buffalo is a little underrated in terms of how difficult it can be to play there, but I don't see the Patriots getting swept in the regular season by Rex Ryan's club.

PP: I think what we're seeing from Edelman is simply what should be expected from a player coming back off of multiple foot surgeries. He may not be quite as sharp getting in and out of breaks, but keep in mind he was doing that at an elite level before he went down last season. Even if he's negatively impacted by the procedures he's undergone, he's still been able to get open and make plays with the ball in his hands. He was highly-effective as a punt returner against the Bengals, returning a free kick 16 yards, and taking back three punts for an average of 16.3 yards. His receiving statistics over the last couple of weeks have looked a off (nine catches on 16 targets for 65 yards), but Brady has misfired to Edelman on a couple of notable occasions -- once over the middle last week, and once deep down the middle of the field in Cleveland -- when he was open. Connections on either of those plays could've made for bigger numbers and resulted in fewer concerned Patriots fans. Edelman's not exactly himself -- he was added to the injury report on Oct. 6 and has been limited in practices ever since -- but he's still a viable option in the passing game and an effective blocker. He's played in 117 of 144 snaps (81 percent) since landing on the injury report. 


Blount, Edelman, Gronkowski each fined $9,115 for actions in Bengals game


Blount, Edelman, Gronkowski each fined $9,115 for actions in Bengals game

Patriots LeGarrette Blount, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski were each fined $9,115 by the NFL for their actions in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals, won by New England 35-17 on Sunday in Foxboro.

The fines were first reported by ESPN’s Mike Reiss. 

Earlier this week, Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was fined $75,000 by the NFL for stomping on Blount after Blount’s touchdown late in the game. Gronkowski was given a 15-yard taunting penalty for his altercation with Burfict earlier in the game. 

Blount's fine was for unnecessary roughness and Edelman's was a result of a facemask penalty. 

Burfict was not fined for what appeared to be an intentional dive at the legs of Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett earlier in the game. 

Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was earlier fined $9,115 by the league for his unnecessary roughness against the Patriots.