Wild Card Weekend Playoff Preview Capsules

There will be the urgency of elimination action upcoming this weekend during the NFL's first-round Wild Card playoffs, and our insiders take an extensive early look at this weekend's four games, including Lions at Saints and Falcons at Giants, with the highest remaining seed traveling to San Francisco to play the 49ers in the divisional round at Candlestick Park on Jan. 14.


Cincinnati at Houston



Kickoff: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, at Reliant Stadium, Houston - TV: NBC

TV announcers: Tom Hammond, Mike Mayock

Keys to the game: These teams met four weeks ago in Cincinnati, with the Texans pulling out a 20-19 victory and rookie QB T.J. Yates throwing for 300 yards. Whether Yates (shoulder) or 36-year-old Jake Delhomme is under center come game time, Houston's offensive recipe is pretty straightforward. The Texans threw 44 times while playing from behind most of the game at Cincinnati, but they want to establish RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate early – they combined for 108 yards on 23 carries in the first meeting. Foster and TEs Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen will also be heavily involved in the screen and underneath passing game the Texans use to combat stacked fronts against the run. WR Andre Johnson returned to the lineup last week and provides the deep threat the Bengals' secondary must respect. Cincinnati isn't nearly as potent on the ground and will have to do more with far less time of possession. RB Cedric Benson remains an important setup to the passing game despite recent fumbling issues, but the offense now runs through QB Andy Dalton. TE Jermaine Gresham is an emerging weapon who is helping Dalton move the chains with opponents focused on rookie WR A.J. Green.

Matchup to watch: Bengals WR A.J. Green vs. Texans CB Johnathan Joseph: The Texans lured Joseph away from Cincinnati with a five-year, $48.75 million deal after the lockout ended, and were upset he wasn't voted to the Pro Bowl after an excellent season. Green was targeted seven times in the first meeting, pulling in five catches for 59 yards, but remains the big-play threat Joseph is primarily responsible for.

Player spotlight: Texans OLB Brooks Reed: The rookie out of Arizona doesn't have a sack in the past four games after racking up six filling in for injured Mario Williams. On the flip side, he has improved against the run.

Fast facts: This will be Houston's first playoff game in franchise history. ... The Bengals have reached the playoffs for the third time in coach Marvin Lewis' nine seasons with the team.

Who will win and why: Both teams can rightfully feel thankful for landing this matchup in the first round. Despite Houston's issues at quarterback, the Texans can pound away on the ground and limit turnovers by avoiding long passing downs.

Our pick: Texans 20-19

WHO HAS THE EDGE

When the Bengals run the ball: Cedric Benson is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry and has five fumbles the past three weeks (two lost). But he's generally reliable with the ball and the Bengals still try to chip away on the ground to set up play-action. Backup Bernard Scott has more speed, but Cincinnati's ground game is pedestrian. Houston allows just 96 yards per carry and can back offenses into uncomfortable down and distances. Edge: Texans

When the Bengals pass the ball: Andy Dalton's M.O. is efficient without being flashy. He was exactly that in the first meeting, throwing for just 189 yards, but avoiding turnovers. The Texans can really get after the passer with a rotation of pass rushers. The game could well be determined by how much heat Houston can apply vs. whether Dalton can connect with A.J. Green on a few deep shots. Edge: Even

When the Texans run the ball: Houston averages 153.1 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry despite a very sporadic passing attack. The Texans use the screen game and play-action to keep defenses honest, but this is the classic zone blocking scheme coach Gary Kubiak brought over from Denver. Cincinnati allows a respectable 104.7 rushing yards per game and did hold RB Arian Foster to 2.7 yards per carry in Cincinnati. Edge: Texans

When the Texans pass the ball: The Bengals quietly racked up 45 sacks during the regular season, including five to go along with 10 quarterback hits in the first meeting. WR Andre Johnson wasn't in the lineup that day and provides Houston with a much-needed downfield threat, but Cincinnati will still be expected to attack the line of scrimmage with plenty of blitz packages against the rookie T.J. Yates or Jake Delhomme, who is still learning the offense. Edge: Bengals

Special teams: The Texans have a pair of longtime veterans in PK Neil Rackers and P Matt Turk, while PR Jacoby Jones can be electrifying. But the Bengals uncovered a big-time return specialist in Brandon Tate who set team records this season and can have a big impact on field position. Edge: Bengals

Coaching: The biggest difference maker on either sideline – or potentially the coaches' box depending on his health – is Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. He flipped the league's worst unit into one of the best with his vaunted 3-4 scheme. Edge: Texans

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Detroit at New Orleans


Kickoff: Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET, at Mercedes-Benz Superdome - TV: NBC

TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya

Keys to the game: A Lions defense fresh off allowing 480 yards and six touchdowns to a backup quarterback must contend with Drew Brees, who finished the regular season with an NFL-record 5,476 passing yards. New Orleans averaged 38 points in 11 games indoors during the regular season, including 41.1 at home, and will enjoy mismatches all over the field. Like the Packers' Jermichael Finley last week, Saints TE Jimmy Graham demands attention and creates more one-one-one matchups for the wideouts. Detroit must get an outstanding effort from its defensive line in terms of stuffing the run, applying heat and trying to force Brees into a few mistakes to earn extra possessions. Lions QB Matthew Stafford enters the game red-hot as well. He'll see a wide array of blitz packages from the Saints in Detroit's one-dimensional attack. If he can stand in the pocket and deliver with precision the Lions' only hope is to go toe-to-toe in a track meet.

Matchup to watch: Lions LDE Cliff Avril vs. Saints RT Zach Strief: Playing for a big payday in the offseason, Avril has 11 sacks as one of the league's most underrated pass rushers. Strief has taken over and played well for Jon Stinchcomb this season, and can expect help on obvious passing downs.

Player spotlight: Lions FS Louis Delmas: He missed the past five games with a knee injury, and Detroit has seen why Chicago cut Chris Harris loose midseason. Delmas status will likely be uncertain until late in the week, but the Lions desperately need his athleticism in the back end.

Fast facts: This will be the first playoff meeting between the teams. The Saints lead the series 10-9-1 and have won seven of nine meetings in New Orleans. ... Detroit makes its first playoff appearance since 1999. ... The Saints were 8-0 at home during the regular season.

Who will win and why: Lions QB Matthew Stafford can sling it with the best of them and Detroit is seemingly never out of a game. But the Saints' offense is trucking over every defense in sight with a bevy of playmakers, while Detroit's defense lacks secondary playmakers to bait Drew Brees into mistakes and generate turnovers.

Our pick: Saints 41-34

WHO HAS THE EDGE

When the Lions run the ball: The Saints are hardly a dominating run defense, but Detroit gives only a token nod to the ground game at this point. If Kevin Smith can help convert a handful of third-and-short situations, Detroit will consider it a good day on the ground. Edge: Saints

When the Lions pass the ball: Lions QB Matthew Stafford has averaged 357 passing yards the past eight games. He has a trio of wideouts and a pair of tight ends to keep secondaries off balance with. New Orleans gives up yards in chunks and gambles on blitzes and aggressive coverage seeking big plays. Edge: Lions

When the Saints run the ball: The "wide-nine" sets of the Lions' front four leaves Detroit vulnerable between the tackles, similar to the issues Philadelphia dealt with this season. The ground game is an underrated component of the Saints' offense, with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory sharing the workload. Edge: Saints

When the Saints pass the ball: Film study might leave some Lions defenders with queasy stomachs this week. Saints QB Drew Brees had 13 300-yard passing games during the regular season and 46 touchdowns. He has playmakers at every skill position to keep Detroit's secondary in constant bail mode. Edge: Saints

Special teams: Both teams have reliable veteran kickers, but the Saints have legitimate weapons in P Thomas Morstead and RB Darren Sproles, one of the league's most dynamic return men. Edge: Saints

Coaching: The Saints' coaching staff has a wealth of playoff experience and Sean Payton is a brilliant play-caller who, along with Drew Brees, keeps pressure on opponents for four quarters. Lions coach Jim Schwartz will get some coach of the year votes for good reason, but inexperience can be a significant hindrance in the heat of a tight playoff game. Edge: Saints

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Atlanta at New York


Kickoff: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. - TV: FOX

TV announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver

Keys to the game: The Falcons will watch the game film of the Giants' victory over Dallas on Sunday night and quickly realize the importance of establishing RB Michael Turner early. Atlanta has a potent passing attack that can do serious damage against the Giants' secondary, which lost several players during the regular season to injury. But New York also has Osi Umenyiora back in the lineup to utilize along with Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and others to tee off on QB Matt Ryan if the Falcons are stuck in long passing situations. The Giants' offense won't fear the Falcons' pass rush in nearly the same way. But the ground game has been the weak sister to the Giants' passing attack much of the season. RB Ahmad Bradshaw is healthy and capable of providing some balance, but its Atlanta's pass defense that has the bull's-eye on its back. With Manning likely to have sufficient time, the Falcons will be hard-pressed to keep tabs on a pair of excellent route-runners in WRs Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.

Matchup to watch: Falcons LT Will Svitek vs. Giants DEs Jason Pierre-Paul/Osi Umenyiora: Svitek has generally been very strong since taking the starting blind-side job from Sam Baker, but he draws a tough assignment Sunday. Pierre-Paul is the starter and plays with a relentless motor. He often kicks inside on obvious passing downs to get Umenyiora in the lineup. Umenyiora had a pair of sacks in his first game back from an ankle injury last week.

Player spotlight: Falcons OLB Spencer Adkins: The 2009 sixth-round pick was thrust into the starting lineup last week following Mike Peterson's torn triceps. He'll play a critical role in run defense while also keeping his special teams duties.

Fast facts: Manning set an NFL single-season record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes during the regular season. ... The teams have split 20 previous meetings, but this will be the first in the playoffs.

Who will win and why: The Giants had to win consecutive games to reach the playoffs and rose to the challenge. Throw in home-field advantage, a fierce pass rush and the fact Falcons QB Matt Ryan has yet to step up big in the postseason and it equals a narrow Giants victory.

Our pick: Giants 31-27

WHO HAS THE EDGE

When the Falcons run the ball: The Giants had some issues during the course of the season when forced to shuttle through several linebackers. The unit has stabilized since, especially with MLB Michael Boley healthy. Falcons RB Michael Turner is coming off a huge game against woeful Tampa Bay, but averaged just 3.1 yards per carry over the previous five games. Atlanta's offensive line isn't as physical as in years past, but Turner is still very effective and a crucial short-yardage and red-zone presence. Edge: Falcons

When the Falcons pass the ball: Atlanta boasts one of the league's most dynamic tandems with rookie WR Julio Jones healthy opposite Roddy White. Throw in TE Tony Gonzalez working the seam and always being a red-zone threat, and QB Matt Ryan will be very difficult to stop. If he has time to let routes develop in the face of the Giants' strong pass rush, he'll play easy pitch and catch against the secondary. Edge: Falcons

When the Giants run the ball: New York averaged a hair under 3.5 yards per carry during the regular season and really struggled to mount much of a threat on the ground. This is a very pass-reliant team, although RBs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs do have the ability to move the chains. Atlanta allowed just 97 rushing yards per game and MLB Curtis Lofton is a tackling machine. Edge: Falcons

When the Giants pass the ball: Giants WR Victor Cruz has gone from fighting for a roster spot to doing his touchdown salsa dance en route to a record-setting season. More important, Cruz's emergence gives the Giants two strong route-runners, Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, who have the full trust of QB Eli Manning. With the Falcons' inconsistent pass rush and underwhelming secondary, this is where the Giants are most dangerous. Edge: Giants

Special teams: A pair of veteran place-kickers could play a significant role in a tight game. The edge has to go to the Giants playing at home in winter conditions that often features a tricky wind. Falcons P Matt Bosher has enjoyed a strong season, but he's also a rookie in his first playoff game. Edge: Giants

Coaching: The Falcons have their fourth winning season in as many years under Mike Smith and their third trip to the playoffs, but he is 0-2 in the postseason. Giants coach Tom Coughlin has seen it all, including an 8-7 postseason record highlighted by the Super Bowl XLII victory, and the discipline he demands pays dividends come playoff time. Edge: Giants

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Pittsburgh at Denver


Kickoff: Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver - TV: CBS

TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms

Keys to the game: A strong, well-disciplined defense certainly isn't the ideal playoff ice breaker for Tim Tebow. The Steelers have fought off critics who claimed their defense was aging to have yet another outstanding season. Pittsburgh is assignment sound and won't be easily confused by Denver's zone read-option offense. For the Broncos to be competitive, Tebow is going to have to take advantage of one-on-one matchups on the outside and stretch out the defense with a few vertical completions to WRs Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker. Denver's best bet is to control time of possession with the ground game and hope to wear Pittsburgh down late. The Steelers' offense has morphed into a pass-heavy attack with a slew of three- and four-wideout sets, and the ground game will struggle to be a viable threat with Rashard Mendenhall (knee) out. QB Ben Roethlisberger's sprained left ankle is clearly not close to 100 percent as he sailed several passes last week. If the Broncos can apply constant heat, they may be able to force the big plays they'll need.

Matchup to watch: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Broncos S Quinton Carter and David Bruton: Denver would sorely miss the presence of SS Brian Dawkins if the 16-year veteran isn't able to return after missing most of the past four games with a neck injury. Carter impressed the coaching staff as the last line of defense, but isn't as experience on the strong side. Bruton has been battling an Achilles injury, but started last week as the coaching staff appears to have lost confidence in rookie Rahim Moore.

Player spotlight: Steelers S Ryan Clark: Clark has a red blood cell condition that can be triggered by playing in high altitude. He became seriously ill after a game in Denver in 2007 and sat out a game at Denver in 2009. He would likely be replaced by Ryan Mundy.

Fast facts: This will be the seventh postseason meeting. ... Tebow has a fumble in six straight games, and has lost six of 13 on the season overall.

Who will win and why: The Steelers will play tight man-to-man defense on the outside, with OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley preventing Tim Tebow from making big plays out of the pocket. Denver simply can't bring enough offense to the table.

Our pick: Steelers 23-9

WHO HAS THE EDGE

When the Steelers run the ball: Denver's run defense has been one of the team's weaknesses much of the season. But Pittsburgh's ground game is almost strictly limited to runs between the tackles, and the loss of Rashard Mendenhall to a knee injury really cripples the threat. The biggest key is how effective Isaac Redman is in short yardage. Edge: Broncos

When the Steelers pass the ball: Ben Roethlisberger is still bothered by his left ankle sprain, and accuracy is a serious concern, especially with a pair of veterans in CBs Champ Bailey and Andre' Goodman. But offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will spread the field and attack the nickel and dime backs. Expect Roethlisberger to rely on mostly short, quick drops and quick passes out of the shotgun to avoid Denver's strong pass rush. Pressure combined with Roethlisberger's questionable accuracy on the bum ankle is the one real danger spot for Pittsburgh. Edge: Steelers

When the Broncos run the ball: Steelers SS Troy Polamalu will live around the line of scrimmage against Denver's run-dependent offense. Polamalu's ability to diagnose and blow plays up in the backfield could wreak havoc with the Broncos' option looks. Denver also suffered injuries to FB Spencer Larsen and OG Chris Kuper last week that could affect blocking. RB Willis McGahee continues to run hard – and run a lot – but the Steelers aren't as concerned about giving up yards as they are about limiting big plays. Edge: Steelers

When the Broncos pass the ball: When forced to beat a defense with rapid, good decisions the past few weeks, Tim Tebow has struggled badly. Pittsburgh has a veteran defense that can handle the Broncos' receivers in man coverage as long as there aren't busted plays that lead to a few big completions over the top. Tebow's penchant for dramatic theater will be hard to come by while he's trying to avoid OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, and Tebow struggles inside the pocket. Edge: Steelers

Special teams: Broncos PK Matt Prater already has a 59-yard field goal in the high altitude this season and P Britton Colquitt is one of the league's best at pinning opponents inside the 20. The Broncos' Eddie Royal and the Steelers' Antonio Brown are dangerous return men who could well play a big role in a field position game. Edge: Broncos

Coaching: Both coaching staffs have a wealth of playoff experience. Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin has a way of challenging his players to rise to the occasion, and his track record is difficult to argue with: a 5-2 postseason record while leading the Steelers to the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Edge: Steelers


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