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The Keys to Every NFL Wild-Card Game

Is this the end of the road for the Patriots? How can the Vikings handle Michael Thomas? And can the Eagles’ rag-tag group survive another week?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The playoffs are here, and the theme of them is so two years ago. The Eagles are banged-up and hosting a playoff game, but everyone is counting them out. New Orleans gets a rematch with Minnesota just two years after the Minneapolis Miracle doomed the Saints. The Titans play the Patriots two years after New England whupped Tennessee so badly that the Titans fired head coach Mike Mularkey, hired former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, and went about building their team in New England’s image. If all of that wasn’t a direct enough reference to January 2018, Buffalo made it back to the playoffs for the second time in the 21st century. To top it all off, Dallas lost the division to the Eagles but Jason Garrett is still employed. (Or is he?) The more things change, the more everything remains the same. Here is what to watch for this weekend.

Saturday, January 4

Buffalo Bills (10-6) @ Houston Texans (10-6)

Kickoff time: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
Channel: ABC/ESPN
Announcers: Joe Tessitore, Booger McFarland, Lisa Salters (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Houston -3
Over/under: 39.5
Weather forecast: Dome

Key Bills injuries and absences: Tackle Ty Nsekhe (ankle), defensive end Shaq Lawson (hamstring), cornerback Levi Wallace (ankle), punt returner Andre Roberts (foot)

Key Texans injuries and absences: Receiver Will Fuller V (groin), receiver Kenny Stills (knee), left tackle Laremy Tunsil (ankle), right tackle Tytus Howard (knee, injured reserve), tight end Jordan Thomas (illness), defensive end J.J. Watt (pectoral), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (hamstring), cornerback Bradley Roby (hamstring), safety Jahleel Addae (Achilles), safety Tashaun Gipson (lower back, injured reserve)

What to watch: Deshaun Watson’s deep passing

The last time the Buffalo Bills won a playoff game, neither Josh Allen nor the Houston Texans had been born. On Sunday, Allen will lead the Bills to their second playoff game in the past 20 years, but defense will be the key to victory in Houston. The Bills are the sixth-most-efficient defense according to Football Outsiders and have held 10 opponents to 17 or fewer points this season. Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White might be the best cornerback in football and will likely spend a lot of Saturday stuck to Houston star receiver DeAndre Hopkins. That puts a lot of pressure on the pass catchers behind Hopkins, especially receiver Will Fuller V, who has a groin injury and will be a game-time decision.

Fuller is essential to Houston’s offense. The Texans average 297 passing yards per game when Fuller is on the field but just 158 passing yards per game when Fuller isn’t, according to ESPN Stats and Info. With Fuller this season, Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson was perhaps the league’s best passer on throws that traveled more than 20 yards downfield. Without Fuller, he was one of the league’s worst. Here are Watson’s numbers with and without Fuller, according to Pro Football Focus. The sample size without Fuller starting is admittedly small—just five games, including Week 7, when he got injured after three snaps—but the difference is huge.

Watson With and Without Fuller

Deshaun Watson's Deep Pass Rankings Among QBs Rank With Fuller Rank Without Fuller
Deshaun Watson's Deep Pass Rankings Among QBs Rank With Fuller Rank Without Fuller
Games 10 5
Deep Pass Attempts No. 3 (55) No. 20 (19)
Deep Passing Yards No. 1 (894) Tied-No. 18 (217)
Deep Passing Touchdowns Tied-No. 1 (10) Tied-No. 20 (1)
Adjusted Completion Percentage No. 2 (61.8%) 32 (31.6%)

Using Pro Football Focus’s adjusted completion percentage, which counts drops as completions but does not count quarterback throwaways as pass attempts, Watson had a 61.8 percent mark on deep passes to Fuller, the second-best mark in football. With the fourth-year wideout, Watson is like Steph Curry from 3: He takes as many deep shots as anybody and hits them as efficiently as anyone, too. But without Fuller this year, Watson’s adjusted completion percentage on deep balls cratered to 31.6 percent. Across the whole season, that number would rank no. 32 among qualifying quarterbacks, one spot ahead of Josh Allen.

Even if Fuller does suit up—and if we make the generous assumption that he will be at 100 percent—Buffalo will be a tough matchup. The Bills defense is the best in football at limiting big plays. As Bill Barnwell wrote for ESPN, Buffalo has allowed the fewest plays of 30-plus yards since the beginning of 2018.

Houston will have J.J. Watt back for the game; the star defensive end missed the final eight games of the regular season while on injured reserve with a pectoral injury. Watt will likely be limited to passing downs, but he won’t alter this defense by himself. Houston was ahead of only Miami in pressuring quarterbacks this year, and the team has given up 58 plays of 20-plus passing yards, the eighth most in football and more than Houston gained on offense.

Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ New England Patriots (12-4)

Kickoff time: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson (sideline reporter)
Opening line: New England -5.5
Over/under: 41.5
Weather forecast: 41 degrees, 83 percent chance of precipitation

Key Titans injuries and absences: Receiver Adam Humphries (ankle), tight end Delanie Walker (ankle, injured reserve), right tackle Jack Conklin (knee), pass rusher Cameron Wake (injured reserve), linebacker Daren Bates (shoulder), cornerback Malcolm Butler (wrist, injured reserve), cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (foot), kicker Ryan Succop (knee, injured reserve)

Key Patriots injuries and absences: Receiver Julian Edelman (knee/shoulder), tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle), linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. (shoulder), cornerback Jonathan Jones (groin), cornerback Jason McCourty (groin)

What to watch: Tennessee’s red zone offense vs. New England’s red zone defense

If the goal of football is to score more points than your opponent, New England began this season as the best pro team in 99 years. The Patriots outscored their competition by 175 points in their first seven games this season, giving them an average margin of victory of 25 points. Through seven games, the only team with a bigger point differential than the Patriots was the Buffalo All-Americans in the NFL’s first season. (If you think the Patriots’ first-half schedule was weak, the All-Americans scheduled two other teams that played in Buffalo.) New England’s stretch was nuclear, and the defense was the fuel in the reactor. Remove opposing extra points and field goals and the Patriots defense outscored opposing offenses 20-18 in the team’s first seven games.

Flash-forward to 2020, and the Patriots are reeling after a 27-24 loss to the Dolphins, their first to Miami at home since the Fins unveiled the wildcat in 2008. The loss cost them their 10th consecutive first-round bye, forcing them to play on wild-card weekend for the first time since the Ravens shellacked them 33-17 in January 2010. After allowing four offensive touchdowns in September and October of this year, New England has allowed 16 in November and December. New England outscored its opponents by just 20 points in its final nine regular-season games, the 13th-best mark in that stretch—a far cry from the best figure in a century.

While New England’s offensive issues are well documented (Tom Brady is too old, his receivers are too young, and his offensive line is too banged-up), the Miami loss laid bare everything New England had been trying to hide on defense. The pristine health on that side of the ball has been shaken by nagging injuries to cornerbacks Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty plus linebacker Jamie Collins’s shoulder issue. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate whose shutdown coverage has fueled New England’s defensive success, was shredded by Miami’s DeVante Parker in Week 17. Making matters worse, they’re facing the Titans, who have one of the league’s hottest offenses. Since Ryan Tannehill became Tennessee’s starter in Week 7 ...

  • He leads all quarterbacks in passing yards per attempt (9.6) by a full yard, ranks second in completion percentage, ranks third in touchdown passes, and is the highest-graded quarterback on Pro Football Focus.
  • Derrick Henry leads all running backs in rushing yards (1,124), rushing yards per attempt (5.9), rushing yards after contact per attempt (4.8), and rushing touchdowns (12). None of the running backs in second place in any of those four categories are remotely close.
  • Rookie A.J. Brown ranks first among all receivers in yards per route run, first in yards after the catch per reception (9.0), second in yards per reception (20.5), and tied for fourth in receiving touchdowns (six).
  • The Titans offense leads the league in yards per play (6.9) and is second in touchdowns with 42, just one behind Baltimore.

The Titans have scored a touchdown on three out of every four red zone chances this year, by far the highest rate in football. Meanwhile, the Patriots are one of five teams that allow a touchdown on less than half of their opponents’ red zone trips. The Patriots are the only team to allow their opponent into the red zone fewer than 40 times (they allowed just 29 trips past their 20-yard line).

The Titans offense is the league’s unstoppable force, but logic says it will eventually slow down. The Patriots defense is the immovable object that is already wobbling. We’ll see what happens when they collide.

Sunday, January 5

Minnesota Vikings (10-6) @ New Orleans Saints (13-3)

Kickoff time: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews (sideline reporter), Chris Myers (sideline reporter)
Opening line: New Orleans -8
Over/under: 46
Weather forecast: Dome

Key Vikings injuries and absences: Running back Dalvin Cook (shoulder), running back Alexander Mattison (ankle), center Brett Jones (MCL), inside linebacker Eric Kendricks (quadriceps), outside linebacker Ben Gedeon (concussion), cornerback Mackensie Alexander (knee), safety Andrew Sendejo (illness)

Key Saints injuries and absences: Defensive end Marcus Davenport (foot, injured reserve), defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (ankle, injured reserve), cornerback Eli Apple (ankle), safety Marcus Williams (groin), safety Vonn Bell (knee)

What to watch: How the Vikings cover Michael Thomas

When these teams met in the playoffs two years ago, Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs went 61 yards for the Minneapolis Miracle. That’s great for Vikings fans, but to quote one of my Ringer colleagues, what do you call a miracle when you’re on the wrong side of it?

After that loss, New Orleans licked its wounds, marched to the NFC championship game the following year, and had an even more heartbreaking loss to the Rams after a missed pass-interference penalty seemed to cost them the game and a Super Bowl appearance. Two of the most inexplicable football losses of the 21st century happened to the same team in back-to-back seasons, but the Saints have not folded. In the past 90 years, just 10 teams have won 13 games or more in two consecutive seasons. Nine of those teams made a Super Bowl. The 10th is these Saints. This squad is as Super Bowl or bust as it gets, and they still have not caught a break. The 2019 Saints are just the third 13-3 team in NFL history to not earn a bye. One of those other two teams was the 2011 Saints.

If Minnesota needs a miracle this time around, it might be to keep a receiver out of the end zone instead. When these teams played in that Miracle/Curse game, New Orleans’s Michael Thomas had 85 yards and two touchdowns. He might outdo himself on Sunday. Thomas led the NFL with 1,725 receiving yards this year, the seventh-highest single-season mark ever, and set the record for receptions with 149.

Thomas is facing a Vikings cornerbacks group that has struggled against opposing no. 1 receivers all year. Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill, Dallas’s Amari Cooper, and Denver’s Courtland Sutton all had their second-best game of the season by yardage against the Vikings, and they came in back-to-back-to-back games from Week 9 to Week 11. In Week 16, the Vikings’ last meaningful game of the year, Packers receiver Davante Adams tied his own franchise record for catches (13) and finished with 116 yards. Not guarding opposing no. 1 receivers is a big problem considering Thomas is the no. 1 receiver in football. Of the 120 cornerbacks to play 300 or more snaps this year, the Vikings don’t have any graded in the top 50 at the position by PFF. Minnesota’s former top cornerback, Xavier Rhodes, is having the worst season of his career. Their best cornerback right now is Mackensie Alexander, but he mostly handles the slot. That leaves the task of dealing with Thomas to Trae Waynes and Mike Hughes, neither of whom appears particularly well equipped for the job.

Making matters worse is the fact that the Vikings may not have starting middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, who is questionable with a quadriceps injury. Kendricks is the no. 1 graded linebacker on PFF (just ahead of New Orleans’s Demario Davis). On Thursday, Kendricks practiced for the first time since his Week 16 injury, so he is likely much less than 100 percent healthy. Even if he plays, he will be diminished, and that’s a big problem for the Vikings defense. The plays the Saints thrive on—slants and option routes to Thomas and tight end Jared Cook, dump-offs to running back Alvin Kamara in space—are the short- and intermediate-range plays where the Vikings need Kendricks. Without him, the Vikings will have to pick their poison, and quarterback Drew Brees will likely make it hurt.

Seattle Seahawks (11-5) @ Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)

Kickoff time: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
Channel: NBC
Announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya (sideline reporter), Heather Cox (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Philadelphia -1
Over/under: 45.5
Weather forecast: 36 degrees, windy

Key Seahawks injuries and absences: Running back Chris Carson (hip, injured reserve), running back Rashaad Penny (ACL, injured reserve), running back C.J. Prosise (arm, injured reserve), tight end Will Dissly (Achilles, injured reserve), tight end Ed Dickson (knee, injured reserve), left tackle Duane Brown (knee/biceps), center Justin Britt (ACL, injured reserve), center Joey Hunt (fibula), guard Mike Iupati (neck), interior lineman Ethan Pocic (core, injured reserve), defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (core), linebacker Mychal Kendricks (hamstring), cornerback Shaquill Griffin (hamstring), defensive back Quandre Diggs (ankle), safety Tedric Thompson (labrum)

Key Eagles injuries and absences: Running back Miles Sanders (ankle), running back Darren Sproles (hip, injured reserve), tight end Zach Ertz (ribs/lacerated kidney), receiver Alshon Jeffery (foot, injured reserve), receiver DeSean Jackson (abdomen, injured reserve), receiver Nelson Agholor (knee), right tackle Lane Johnson (ankle), guard Brandon Brooks (shoulder, injured reserve), defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (triceps), defensive end Derek Barnett (ankle), linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill (back, injured reserve), cornerback Ronald Darby (hip flexor, injured reserve), cornerback Jalen Mills (ankle), cornerback Sidney Jones (back), cornerback Avonte Maddox (abdomen)

What to watch: Philadelphia’s practice squad vs. the Seattle Seahawks

The Eagles’ injury report could be used in a filibuster. So many injuries have pressed so many anonymous players into duty—Josh Perkins? Deontay Burnett? Robert Davis?—that this Philadelphia team has garnered a love that’s possible only when an entire city must learn five new names in a two-week stretch. (The only name everyone has down is that of Darren Sproles clone Boston Scott, who had three touchdowns in the team’s division-clinching win last week.)

The Eagles likely to play through and/or return from injuries are Miles Sanders at running back, Fletcher Cox and Derek Barnett on the defensive line, and cornerbacks Jalen Mills, Sidney Jones, and Avonte Maddox. Everyone else has either been ruled out or is a question mark. Zach Ertz is questionable with a lacerated kidney. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about this Eagles season, this will: Philadelphia is the first team in NFL history to have 4,000 passing yards but no wide receivers with 500 receiving yards. For all of Philadelphia’s weaknesses, the Seahawks may not have the personnel to take advantage. Seattle safety Quandre Diggs has been the glue holding a banged-up secondary together, and if he misses this game or is less than 100 percent, the Eagles may be able to do just enough damage in the same way they chipped away at the Giants, Dallas, and Washington each of the last four weeks. The Seahawks also don’t have the pass rushers to take advantage of Philly’s injured line. Jadeveon Clowney has been hurt and ineffective for the second half of the season, and few players behind him have made much of an impact. Seattle’s defense is ranked in the bottom six teams in quarterback knockdown rate, bottom four in quarterback pressure rate, and bottom four in sacks. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell pointed out, 132 teams have made the playoffs since 2009, and the Seahawks’ 4.3 percent sack rate ranks no. 129. Seattle’s defense isn’t much better than the defenses of the teams Philadelphia beat in December.

In addition to the Seahawks’ defensive struggles, their offense may not be able to take full advantage of the Eagles’ defensive deficiencies. When these teams met in Week 12, the Seahawks won 17-9 in a windy game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Russell Wilson, who has struggled in subpar weather in his career, completed just 13 of 25 passes for 200 yards and took a season-high six sacks. Sunday’s game is expected to have similar amounts of wind. It could also be even closer than the first matchup. The Seahawks have played 11 games decided by seven points or fewer this season and gone 9-2 in those games. This could be the week their luck runs out.