Wild-card weekend might be the most fun two days of football all season long. This year's edition should be even more fun, given that we have four relatively close games on the docket. No team is favored by more than five points as we head toward the weekend. There's a super-cold-weather game. There are backup quarterbacks starting, superstar quarterbacks who don't look like their usual selves and game-changing monsters on both sides of the football waiting to break out. It should be a very fun set of games.
It's not hard to find a wild-card preview. What it is difficult to find, though, are things you don't already know about these eight teams and the way they match up versus their opposition. That goes double when you watch an unhealthy amount of football, as I do on an annual basis. I went looking for one piece of information about each team that I didn't already know, and after running through the numbers, I was able to find eight interesting factoids. Let's run through them, starting with something that which goes totally against everything I thought about Houston's defense.
1. The Texans don't necessarily need J.J. Watt to have a dominant game to win.
When you think about the Houston defense and why it finished seventh in the league in points allowed this season, you probably think about Watt swooping through the line, tossing would-be blockers aside like so much flotsam and laying waste to terrified opposing quarterbacks. It happens a lot: Watt led the league in both sacks (17.5) and quarterback knockdowns (50) for the second consecutive season.
Houston's pass defense was excellent. The Texans posted the league's fourth-best QBR on defense this year at 44.0. With Watt at the forefront of their rush, they pressured passers 29.2 percent of the time, the seventh-best rate in football. When Watt doesn't annihilate the guy with the football, though, you would also probably figure that the Texans lose a lot of their defensive effectiveness.
That surprisingly is not true. When the Texans did not get pressure on the opposing quarterback, they actually posted the league's best QBR, at 59.6. They lost less of their effectiveness when they couldn't get Watt or anybody else in the opposing passer's face than any other team in football.
Of course, there's little reason to think that Watt will do anything but have his usual monster game, especially now that he has removed the cast from his hand. The Texans also moved Watt around more than usual last week, even lining him up as a middle linebacker in a "mug" look to hint at and then bring pressure up both A-gaps, on either side of the center. Given how effective he was against the Jags, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Romeo Crennel keep Watt moving around against the Chiefs.
2. The Chiefs are about more than avoiding turnovers on offense.
The formula for Kansas City's success during its ongoing 10-game winning streak often comes down to a combination of great defense and an inoffensive, relative anonymous offense. Alex Smith & Co. are the significant other you're taking to meet your parents for the first time. As long as they stand there and smile and don't say anything horribly offensive, they've done their job.
Well, the Chiefs' offense is better than that, but it's hard to see what they do well. It's true that they avoid giveaways, with just 15 on the year, but the 49ers had just 17 giveaways this season and their offense scored all of 238 points. There's more to it than simply avoiding turnovers. We know that the Chiefs don't produce a lot of big plays, so there's more to it there. They're 14th in red zone touchdown percentage, so the Chiefs aren't a force in the red zone. And their 38.2 percent conversion rate on third downs is just 19th in the league, so they're not notably great at extending drives. So what is it that they actually do to get an offense that ranks sixth in DVOA going?
Quietly, the Chiefs are doing serious damage on first down. One of my favorite measures of a team's offense is what it does on first-and-10 while the game is within 14 points; it's not a foolproof metric, but it's a quick-and-dirty way to figure out what a team likes to call and how effective it is in its base offense. And by that measure, the Chiefs are wildly impressive. They average 6.3 yards per play across that split, the third-best figure in football, behind the Cardinals and Buccaneers.
Interestingly enough, given how Andy Reid was constantly berated in Philadelphia for not running the football, most of that comes on the ground. The Chiefs run the ball 47.2 percent of the time in those situations, the 10th-heaviest run ratio in the league. Meanwhile, Chip Kelly's Eagles threw the ball 54.7 percent of the time in those same spots, which was the sixth-heaviest pass ratio in football.
3. A.J. Green is a nightmare matchup for the Steelers secondary.
OK, maybe you already had an idea that Pittsburgh was going to struggle to stop Cincinnati's star receiver. Most everybody else does too. Looking at the numbers on how Pittsburgh has performed against top wideouts, though, makes it pretty clear that Green may be in line for a game-changing performance against the opportunistic Pittsburgh defense.
Football Outsiders notes that the Steelers are allowing a 12.1 percent DVOA on passes to the opposing team's top wide receiver. That's the sixth-worst rate in the league. In terms of yardage, they're allowing 86.9 receiving yards per game to those wideouts. That's the third-worst rate in football. Only the Raiders and Chiefs (hello, DeAndre Hopkins) have been less successful at keeping top wideouts from getting chunks of yardage than the Steelers this season.
If the Steelers are hoping that the likely presence of AJ McCarron as Cincinnati's starting quarterback would protect them from Green as a downfield weapon, that doesn't appear to be much more than wishful thinking. On deep passes, which the NFL defines as throws that travel 16 or more yards in the air, Andy Dalton posted a 99.2 QBR on 78 attempts this season. That was second in the league behind Russell Wilson. During his limited time as a starter, McCarron posted a 98.7 QBR, which would be the third-best figure in the league if he had more than 24 deep attempts. He has thrown three touchdowns on deep throws, one of which was a touchdown to Green against these very Steelers.
4. The Steelers may want to load up with wide receivers to move the ball on Cincinnati.
If you were going around the league and ranking each team's respective set of wide receivers, Pittsburgh wouldn't be far from the top. Antonio Brown is Antonio Brown, and the strides made by Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton this season leave Ben Roethlisberger's trio of weapons as one of the league's most dangerous combinations. Nobody in football has a great fourth wide receiver, and the Steelers are no exception to that rule. Darrius Heyward-Bey is a known quantity at this point, combining speed with all-too-frequent drops.
Based on an admittedly small sample, though, the Steelers might want to get DHB onto the field for a few extra snaps this weekend. Pittsburgh threw 11 passes out of a four/five-wide set this year, and on those throws, their quarterbacks went 9-of-11 for 104 yards. That's good, but that alone wouldn't be enough to justify more four-wide looks from offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
The other reason it may make sense is that the Bengals seem to struggle when teams spread them out and go with four or more wideouts. When teams run three or fewer wideouts onto the field, as is often the case, Cincinnati allows a QBR of just 41.3. Only Denver's pass defense is better. With four or more wideouts on the field, though? Again, it's a small sample, but the Bengals have been a mess. Teams have gone 15-of-22 for 241 yards with a touchdown and a pick on those plays, with Cincinnati allowing a QBR of 98.3. That's the second-worst rate in the league, just ahead of the Vikings. It could just be a tiny sample, but if I were Haley, I would throw one or two more four-wide sets into the game plan and see what happens.
5. The frigid temperatures in Minnesota may take away one of the Vikings' best offensive weapons.
The kickoff temperature in Minnesota for Sunday's Seahawks-Vikings game is expected to be somewhere around 1 degree, which seems as if it will just make everybody on either sideline unhappy. The natural speculation is that it will favor the Vikings because they would theoretically be more used to the frigid conditions, but that doesn't make much sense. By virtue of having played in the Metrodome for 31 years, the Vikings haven't had a home game kick off at a temperature of under 10 degrees since 1981. And Terence Newman wasn't even on the roster back then.
One place it should hinder both teams, though, is in the kicking game. Cold-weather games like this one are rare, but when they happen, field goal kickers have drastically less success. Since 1990, when the kickoff temperature for a game has fallen under 10 degrees, kickers have gone a combined 52-for-78 on their attempts. That's a 66.7 percent success rate, well below the 79.5 percent conversion rate they've hit on when the temperature is into the double digits. There are other factors contributing to the success rate, notably the presence of snow and/or wind, but it certainly seems logical that kickers wouldn't be as effective in frigid conditions.
Of the two teams, that should hurt the Vikings more than it does the Seahawks, if only because Minnesota is far more dependent upon Blair Walsh than Seattle is upon Steven Hauschka. In fact, Minnesota relies more on its kicker than anybody left in the postseason. There are five teams who produced more field goals than offensive touchdowns this year. The Vikings are one of those teams, with Walsh kicking 34 field goals and Teddy Bridgewater's offense generating 32 touchdowns from scrimmage. Walsh was the league's fourth-most valuable kicker this year, but if he isn't his usual self because of the cold weather, the Vikings may find it even harder to score on Sunday.
6. To beat the Seahawks, the Vikings may need to enter into uncharted waters on offense
Much has been made about Bridgewater's ineffectiveness throwing downfield, which is admittedly a hindrance for a Norv Turner-led offense with Mike Wallace and Stefon Diggs at receiver. Bridgewater succeeds without throwing bombs, but it's certainly an issue. The Vikings haven't thrown many deep passes downfield; just 60 of Minnesota's throws have traveled 16 or more yards in the air, the second-lowest figure in football. Their 77.6 QBR on those throws ranks only 23rd in the league.
It's not necessarily the smartest thing for Bridgewater and the Vikings to attack the Seahawks by going downfield. Split out Seattle's defensive QBR by pass distances and you're going to see exactly where the Vikings need to hit Kris Richard's defense:
Seems pretty clear, right? The problem is that Minnesota simply doesn't throw the ball in that intermediate range. The Vikings attempted a league-low 454 passes this year, but they really steer clear of passes around the sticks. Just 74 of their passes traveled eight to 15 yards in the air. That's 16.3 percent of their passes, when the typical team threw 21.8 percent of its passes on intermediate routes. Given how physical Seattle can be when playing against teams who throw routes around the line of scrimmage -- ask the 2013 Broncos about that -- and how much Minnesota struggles throwing deep, the Vikings will simply have to work near the sticks to move the ball come Sunday.
7. Can the Packers hold onto the football against Washington?
While it has it into the playoffs, Washington's defense isn't much better than it was a year ago. After ranking 27th in defensive DVOA during the 2014 campaign, Joe Barry's unit has improved all the way to ... 21st this year.
Much of that improvement comes down to a trend that may be difficult to keep up. No defense has benefited more from recovering fumbles this season than Washington, which has ended a league-high 8.9 percent of opposing possessions by recovering a fumble. Washington is tied for the league lead in forced fumbles with 22, but it has managed to recover a league-high 16 fumbles, producing a 72 percent recovery rate.
The fumble recovery rate is random and has little predictive value. Forcing fumbles, though, tends to be a meaningful ability, which may worry Green Bay fans. The Packers have been struggling to hold onto the football this season, with James Starks notably fumbling in back-to-back games during December. They've fumbled 24 times on offense this season, the 10th-highest total in football. The only remaining playoff team who coughed up the ball more on offense? Washington.
8. Can Washington stay out of third-and-long?
While Kirk Cousins' offense has looked incredible over the past two months, the improvement exhibited by the passing game hasn't done much to get a dead-on-arrival Washington rushing attack going. Since the "You like that?!" game against the Buccaneers, Washington's rushing attack has averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. It is 28th in the league over that time frame. Things are bad.
It's worse because the obvious way to attack the Packers is to go after them on the ground. Green Bay has the sixth-best pass defense DVOA in football, thanks to one of the league's deeper, more talented secondaries. The Packers are just 19th in DVOA against the run, having allowed 100 yards or more to opposing teams in six consecutive games. The Vikings hit them for 151 yards last week, even if 41 of those yards came from Minnesota's fake punt on the opening drive.
You remember that first-and-10 inside 14 points split I mentioned earlier? When Washington runs the ball in those situations, it is averaging 3.4 yards per carry. The only teams who have been worse in those same spots are Oakland and New Orleans. The Packers have allowed 4.5 yards per carry on those same plays, the ninth-worst figure in the league. If Washington can't run the ball early, it's going to play right into Green Bay's hands.