Sports

NFC Wild Card Previews: Red Hot Rodgers or More Giants Magic?

Which Russell Wilson will show up on Saturday? Can Aaron Rodgers keep up his stellar play?
January 5, 2017, 5:45pm
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Lions @ Seattle Seahawks -- 8:15 ET, Saturday

Season Stats:

Reasons to Doubt the Season Statistics:

The Seahawks have had an awkward roller coaster of a season where quarterback Russell Wilson alternates between looking like a scared child and a Hall of Famer, sometimes in the same game. He's had happy feet at times this year, and it's cost Seattle a couple of games (such as, say at Tampa), which could have led to them having a bye. Seattle's also light a couple key cogs in running back C.J. Prosise and wide receiver Tyler Lockett, who were supposed to make the passing attack more effective.

Advertisement

But more importantly, Seattle's defense isn't remotely close to what it was earlier in the season, because Earl Thomas is gone after breaking a bone in his leg, which is a devastating loss. The Seahawks have been depressingly exposed without him. They went from fifth in pass defense DVOA from Week 1-11 to 26th in Weeks 12-16. Combine these two things and you have a recipe for a very beatable team, albeit a very beatable team with one of the best homefields in the NFL.

Unfortunately, the Lions are also a bit of a statistical anomaly. They beat exactly one team with a winning record (Washington, who finished 8-7-1), and went 1-2 in games decided by more than a touchdown. They do happen to have an edge in this game in that accused JFK-killer Matthew Stafford has been made into one of the most refined game-managers in the NFL by offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. But Theo Riddick (hand/wrist) is done for the season, and that means the Lions aren't going to be able to use their most effective red zone weapon. Additionally, the health of tackle Riley Reiff (hip) is in question, and he might miss this game.

The biggest reason to believe the Lions can hang in this game is the play of star cornerback Darius Slay. Should defensive coordinator Teryl Austin opt to have him shadow Seattle's best receiver, Doug Baldwin, the Lions can create the formula they whisked together to beat the Saints in New Orleans: tight coverage on the most effective receiver, and scrappy play across the field to force unproven receivers like Jermaine Kearse and Paul Richardson to beat them.

Advertisement

By the way, if there's an offensive pass interference penalty in this game, it will probably be Jermaine Kearse's fault.

One Key Statistic: Detroit's pass rush versus Seattle's offensive line

Wilson's play is going to define a lot about how this game winds up. Seattle's offensive line has some solid cogs, but also big weaknesses. Guard Germain Ifedi simply can't block players coming at him from different directions on stunts. Mostly every player the Seahawks have had playing tackle has been bad. As a result, in 2016, there was no offense whose quarterback was under as much pressure than Seattle's. Wilson was under pressure, per Sports Info Solutions, on 29.6 percent of snaps.

The problem is, well, Detroit hasn't shown it can take advantage of this. They are sixth-to-last in pressure rate on the season. For the Lions to win, they are going to need the Ezekiel Ansah of 2015 — the 14.5-sack phenom — to show up instead of the two-sack perpetually injured Ansah who has played this year.

My read: I like the Lions to keep this game close. They tend to play a pretty conservative offense, even when they do have to pass, and there should be plenty of space to complete passes on the non-Richard Sherman secondary.

I hesitate to pick them outright because, at the end of the day, I believe in Wilson against what has mostly been a poor defense this season. I'm nervous about the Lions converting in the red zone. I think Jimmy Graham has himself a day against a Detroit defense that has had problems defending tight ends. And I think Seattle escapes in a game that's a little more high-scoring than Lions coach Jim Caldwell is comfortable with.

Advertisement

Seahawks 33, Lions 28

Stafford and Wilson will largely determine Saturday's game. Photo by Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

New York Giants @ Green Bay -- 4:40 ET, Sunday

Season Stats:

Reasons to Doubt the Season Statistics:

Aaron Rodgers spent the early part of this season looking lost and, frankly, not playing up to his talent at times. Some of it was about the receivers, sure, but he also missed some throws he usually makes. Recently, this has not been the case. You may remember Rodgers from the clinic he put on against the Minnesota Vikings, or perhaps the butt-kicking he delivered to the Lions to clinch the division title. He's been flat-out dealing over the past couple of weeks, getting hot at the best possible time. And I expect the national inclination will be to expect that to continue.

But, as we've noted, the Green Bay receivers have been bad at times this season. Jordy Nelson in particular has not shown his old speed, and Randall Cobb may miss this game. They are facing one of the best sets of cornerbacks in the league between Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Eli Apple, with Landon Collins backing them up in the slot against any sort of tight-end shenanigans. Among qualified cornerbacks, Rodgers-Cromartie and Jenkins finished first and third in Sports Info Solutions' success rate. If this sounds to you like another game in which Rodgers is going to have to absolutely raze the ground with his throws to succeed, well, we're in alignment there.

The Packers, on the other hand, are quite susceptible to star receivers. With corner Sam Shields missing most of the year with a concussion, the Packers have been left with Damarious Randall, Ladarius Gunter, and Quinten Rollins (questionable for this game), none of whom have produced better than a 54 percent success rate. This is good news for the Giants, because they happen to have exactly one star wide receiver. Look for this to be a big game for both Odell Beckham and his image, though I don't expect him shirtless in frigid Lambeau.

Advertisement

New York's offense has been mindnumbingly dull, and not in an efficient way. Eli Manning's struggled through a season where Beckham appears to be his only real option at times. If you liked dumpoff passes to Will Tye and Rashad Jennings, this was the offense for you this year. Green Bay under Dom Capers has been pretty exploitable over the past five years or so, though, and outside of whoever tackle Ereck Flowers will be failing to block, there's not much in the way of bad matchups for the Giants.

One Key Statistic: The variance of the Green Bay running game

Outside of James Starks producing little, the Packers have had a wildly inconsistent year on the ground. Eddie Lacy had six good-to-decent games before his season ended. Without Lacy, the Packers often seemed to be trying to do anything but let Ty Montgomery touch the ball. A receiver-to-running back convert, Montgomery torched the Bears for 162 yards on 16 carries in Week 14. While he's been effective out of the backfield as a receiver either way, that was Montgomery's only game over 60 yards rushing this year.

And that matters a lot for this particular game because having a little something extra to keep the New York pass defense from teeing up on Rodgers will do wonders for his workload. Rodgers is already going to be dodging a good Giants pass rush left and right and running for first downs. He's already going to be trying to throw to open receivers who haven't been terrific this year. To make him do all that from second- and third-and-long might be asking too much.

My read: In a sport where the quarterback is the most important player on the field, and with the Packers having the best one and are playing at home, I'm still going to pick the Giants to win the game.

I just think this is a nice matchup for the Giants. They should have edges outside on both sides of the ball. Eli Manning always seems to catch a little magic in the playoffs, and I don't see anything but an A-plus Rodgers effort — the kind he's put up the last two weeks — keeping them from advancing here.

Giants 24, Packers 23