Top 10 storylines for NFL Wild Card weekend

The backstories heading into this year’s NFL Playoffs are just too good. From the injuries that have shaped the postseason to quarterbacks playing at historically high levels, a lot has changed between September and now.

How will the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders AFC Wild Card game turn out with Brock Osweiler taking on rookie Connor Cook? Does the winner of this game stand a chance in the divisional round of the playoffs?

Can Matt Moore put up a career-defining moment against Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger? If so, how will that shape his career moving forward?

Over in the NFC, the games seem to be even more intriguing. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson must escape what promises to be a plentiful Detroit Lions pass rush in order for his team to defend its home field. Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers takes his ridiculous recent performance and puts it to the test against a suddenly elite New York Giants defense.

In the meantime, the Pittsburgh Steelers are just relaxing knowing that they are playing the best football in the AFC. Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t concerned about his team’s previous struggles. He now has them playing tremendous football. What does that mean for the Steelers game against Miami?

These are among the top-10 storylines for NFL Wild Card weekend.

1. Battle of the backups in Houston

It now looks like Brock Osweiler and Connor Cook will be doing battle when the Raiders travel to Houston to take on the Texans on Saturday. This might be the complete antithesis of what we expect from a playoff matchup, but it definitely brings a lot of intrigue.

Throughout the duration of the 2016 regular season, no one really had the Texans pegged as a legit Super Bowl contender. After all, they were missing all-everything defensive end J.J. Watt and continued to struggle under center with first-year starter Brock Osweiler.

On the other hand, it became readily apparent throughout the regular year that Derek Carr, a true MVP candidate, had his Raiders on the brink of Super Bowl contention. As the team continued to win close games with multiple fourth quarter comebacks, it looked like Oakland would be the Patriots’ top competition for the conference title.

That came to a crashing halt in Week 16 when Carr fractured his fibula in the midst of a win over the Indianapolis Colts. He was then replaced under center by Matt McGloin, who found himself injured in his first start of the season. Now, the Raiders are left having to go with rookie fourth-round pick Connor Cook under center.

That’s the dramatic difference between these two teams. Houston already knew it had a less-than-capable starter in Osweiler after signing him to an absurd free-agent contract. It has had to navigate throughout the entire season with him and Tom Savage under center. Now that Savage himself is sidelined with a concussion, Osweiler is back under center. This could play a role in the outcome of Saturday’s game.

Then again, Osweiler himself is a known commodity. We know he isn’t that good. If he were, he wouldn’t have been benched in favor of Savage. On the other hand, there’s virtually no NFL tape on Cook. He excelled at Michigan State, but only saw action in the Raiders’ season finale. He’s not a known commodity. This provides even more intrigue for the Raiders as they embark on their first playoff appearance since 2002.

2. Time for Dolphins pass defense to step up

The Miami Dolphins are heading into the playoffs with a less-than-stellar matchup against Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s pretty much the last AFC team Miami wanted to play in the wild card round after struggling so horribly in terms of its pass defense over the final two weeks of the regular season.

After performing at a relatively high level against the pass throughout the majority of the season, the Dolphins absolutely stunk it up against the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots to conclude the regular year. All said, Tyrod Taylor and Tom Brady combined for 600-plus passing yards to go with six touchdowns and zero picks.

Though, as we mentioned in our matchups article detailing this game, the majority of the past two weeks have been played without Byron Maxwell. To fans in Seattle and Philadelphia, this might not seem like a big deal. But Maxwell has reinvented himself in his first season in South Beach.

He yielded a sub-80 quarterback rating when targeted while defending 15 passes and picking off two more. This is one of the primary reasons Miami gave up just eight more touchdowns than interceptions in the first 14 games of the season. With Maxwell back in action, the Dolphins better hope he doesn’t revert to last season’s form, because Brown will be more than ready to take advantage of it should that happen.

If Miami is going to come out on top here, it needs to at least contain Brown. This means no more than six catches for 100 yards. Should Brown go off with one of his patented huge performances, it will force Miami to push help to Maxwell’s side. At that point, Bell will be free to run loose on the ground, setting into motion a potential Steelers blowout victory.

3. Keys for Detroit at CenturyLink Saturday night

Detroit faces the unenviable task of having to head into Seattle to take on the Seahawks on Saturday night. The place will be hopping with boisterous Seahawks fans prepared to make Matthew Stafford’s life hell. They will be doing so with the Lions heading into the playoffs having lost three in a row, all to playoff teams. So what does Jim Caldwell’s team need to do here in order to come out on top?

The first order of business has to be to see Stafford revert to earlier-season form after he closed out the regular year in less-than-stellar fashion.

This won’t be easy against a Seahawks defense that yielded an 85.0 quarterback rating and the eighth-fewest passing yards in the NFL during the regular season. Though, it must be noted that the Legion of Boom did put up its worst regular season since the 2011 season. That’s one key for the Lions — take advantage of an Earl Thomas-less secondary that hasn’t been as dominant as in the past.

Some of this must come the way of Golden Tate, who is going to look to prove his former team made a mistake by letting him walk in free agency prior to last season. Tate will be going up against former teammate Richard Sherman a majority of the time. Should Sherman shut down Detroit’s No. 1 receiver, that could force Stafford into making a mistake here.

The second order of business has to be getting to Russell Wilson. Seattle’s mobile signal caller was pressured at a higher clip than any quarterback outside of Cam Newton during the regular season. This led to multiple injuries and what has to be considered a substandard overall performance from Wilson himself. Should Ziggy Ansah, A’Shawn Robinson and Co. take advantage of a weak Seattle offensive line, it will likely force the Seahawks into the dink and dump game.

On the same note, shutting down a lackluster Seattle rushing attack could put Wilson in the situation where he’s facing pressure on a consistent basis. Such is the nature of the beast when an offense becomes one-dimensional in today’s pass-first NFL. Seattle finished in the bottom eight of the NFL in rushing while Detroit’s defense finished in the middle of the pack against the run.

These are the biggest keys for a suddenly struggling Lions team as it embarks on playing in Seattle Saturday night. Should Jim Caldwell’s squad take care of business in these areas, it stands a good chance of upsetting the Seahawks at CenturyLink.

4. Assistants in line for head coaching jobs

We already know that Josh McDaniels of the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan are hot commodities on the coaching market. Both will get to interview this week with their teams on byes.

It’s the coordinators and assistants on squads playing this week that will have to wait for interview opportunities. This is the nature of the beast in an NFL where assistants are penalized for doing well at their jobs.

With that said, there are multiple coaches taking part in this weekend’s festivities that have been mentioned as potential head coaches around the NFL.

Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has been a candidate for multiple openings in the past. Should his defense put up a strong performance against Russell Wilson and Co. Saturday night, it will give him a good feeling heading into interviews next week.

On the same note, Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Jospeh is currently considered the top candidate for the Denver Broncos opening after the resignation of Gary Kubiak. Joseph has an opportunity to show those interviewing him next week that he’s a top-end candidate.

After all, his Dolphins take on an extremely dangerous Pittsburgh Steelers offense on Sunday. A solid performance there will go a long way in cementing Joseph’s status as the Broncos’ front runner.

None of this takes into account the possibility that New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo should be considered a candidate to get another head coaching job. Spags has done a tremendous job with a previously struggling unit and has an opportunity to prove his worth against MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers this weekend.

While a vast majority of the focus during Wild Card weekend will be on the players taking to the field, there are a ton of coaches that have a lot on the line here. These are just a few examples.

5. Derek Carr’s MVP argument

In their first game without him under center this season, the Oakland Raiders put up a grand total of six points and 221 total yards in a blowout loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 17. This forced the Raiders to have to play in the wild card round instead of receiving a first-round bye.

It’s unfortunate news for a Raiders team that now needs to move forward with rookie Connor Cook under center. It also tells us a story of a player in Carr who should now be in serious consideration for the NFL MVP award.

While nothing that happens this upcoming weekend should impact the vote on the regular season award, what we saw from Oakland in Week 17 should surely have an impact. And honestly, recency bias sure does play a role in the voting process.

If we’re comparing apples to apples here, look at how the Patriots performed in the four games without Tom Brady under center. Prior to having to go to rookie Jacoby Brissett in Week 4, the Pats posted a 3-0 record while averaging 27 points per game. In fact, they beat two AFC Playoff teams, Miami and Houston, during that span.

The MVP award should not be about the best player. If that were the case, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers would rotate between winning it every season. It’s about the most valuable player, hence the name of the award. Based on his fourth quarter success, his importance to the team and how the Raiders fell apart with him sidelined, Carr should definitely be in the mix for the award, even if he has to take to the podium in crutches. That will only be magnified should Oakland struggle on Saturday.

6. How the rushing attacks will decide weekend’s outcomes

With some questionable quarterbacks slated to start this week, the onus is likely going to be on how well running backs perform in the wild card round. Lamar Miller has to put up a big performance to help offset Brock Osweiler’s likely struggles under center.

In the very same game, there’s no reason to believe the Raiders won’t rely on Jalen Richard and Latavius Murray with a rookie making his first NFL start.

Over in the NFC, where quarterback play really isn’t as questionable, is it possible that the rushing attacks of the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks will dictate the outcome of that game? How will Ty Montgomery fair in his first postseason start as an actual running back?

These are huge questions, and they will likely help dictate the outcome of the four games set to take place during Wild Card weekend.

It’s more than likely that running backs will play the largest role in the outcome of the Texans-Raiders game on Saturday. For Houston, we’ve seen just how shaky Osweiler has been under center when he’s asked to do too much. In the eight games that Osweiler was forced to throw the ball more than 35 times, Houston boasted a 2-6 record. In the six games that he tossed it 35 times or less, the Texans were a perfect 6-0.

This is where Miller comes into play. As we mentioned in our matchups piece, Miller was solid in his first regular season action as a member of the Texans. Though, he went for 100-plus yards just three times. This, despite the fact that he attempted 20-plus rushes seven times. This tells us a story of a Texans team that needs Miller to both handle the rock on a consistent basis and put up a strong performance in the process.

Unlike the teams mentioned above, both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins seem to be in good hands at running back. Le’Veon Bell put up an otherworldly 1,884 total yards in just 12 regular season games. For his part, first-year Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi finished with over 1,400 total yards.

This might be the biggest key in what promises to be an otherwise interesting game for the Dolphins and Steelers. Whoever comes out on top here will be in good position with a solid rushing attack when the divisional playoffs come calling.

It’s the other teams that have tremendous question marks here. And in reality, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one or two of the running backs on said teams put up surprising performances en route to leading their squads to victories. It just remains to be seen who it will be.

7. Matt Moore’s career-defining moment

Moore has been nothing but a career backup to this point. Sure he’s had stretches of success as a starter with the Carolina Panthers and these very same Dolphins earlier in his career. But none of that led to the potential of Moore being considered anything more than an injury replacement or stopgap option.

With the NFL quarterback situation the way it is today, that could change drastically should Moore impress in the playoffs. Even with the door being left ajar that Ryan Tannehill could return in time for this weekend’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s looking highly unlikely. If so, Moore will get his first postseason start in what has been a largely unassuming 10-year career.

Let’s say Moore somehow finds a way to win a playoff game or two while performing at a high level, it could set off a surprising bidding war for his services come March. That would come in the form of Miami finding trade partners, as Moore is still under contract next season.

It all starts against a favored Pittsburgh Steelers squad this weekend. It might be Moore’s last chance to prove he’s capable if being more than a injury fill-in or stopgap quarterback option.

8. Injuries marred what could have been a tremendous weekend

There’s not a single person outside of Houston that would have preferred to see the Texans play this weekend instead of an up-and-coming Tennessee Titans squad. That much is already known. Unfortunately, due to the injury Marcus Mariota suffered and the Titans’ ensuing loss to Jacksonville in Week 16, this failed to come to fruition.

Instead, we’re left wondering just how poorly Brock Osweiler will play under center against Oakland. It’s the same Raiders team that will be without the aforementioned Derek Carr, instead having to rely on a rookie in Connor Cook that has no NFL starting experience. This pretty much deprived us of one of the best stories from the 2016 NFL regular season.

It doesn’t end at the quarterback position either. Some of the top players at their respective positions will also be forced from the postseason. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant and all-everything Seahawks safety Earl Thomas all come to mind first.

It happens every year. Certain top-end players find themselves sitting out the playoffs after putting everything into getting their teams to the second season. Unfortunately, it also seems like this has been magnified even more as we enter the playoffs this January.

9. Will Seattle’s offensive line be its downfall?

It’s by now well known that the Seattle Seahawks have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. If it weren’t for the amazing escapability of one Russell Wilson, who knows just how bad it would have been during the regular season. Relying on former defensive players to play on the offensive line is never a good thing.

That’s, unfortunately, what the Seahawks have had to deal with under offensive line coach Tom Cable this season. It’s led to questions about Cable’s coaching abilities, the Seahawks success rate in grooming offensive linemen and Wilson’s own health under center.

Wilson found himself sacked 41 times for a league-leading 293 yards during the regular season. He was also pressured an NFL-high 31 percent of the time he dropped back to pass. Needless to say, this isn’t a winning formula. It most definitely isn’t a formula that’s indicative of success in January.

The biggest key here for Seattle’s offensive line will be containing Lions EDGE rusher Ziggy Ansah, who struggled to the tune of just two sacks during an injury-plagued 2016 regular season. Ansah, a former first-round pick, has returned to form recently. If he’s on top of his game, it will make Wilson’s night that much longer.

Though, Detroit itself packs a pretty tremendous punch from the interior of its defensive line. That comes in the form of rookie A’Shawn Robinson and future Hall of Famer Haloti Ngata. Should the Lions force Wilson out of the pocket, it will then be up to Ansah and Co. to maintain the edge. Based on their tremendous athleticism, this will likely force Wilson into either throwing the ball away or going with his checkdowns.

That would be huge the Lions, as Seattle has continually failed to move the ball down the field on time-consuming drives this season. This is also where Seattle’s offensive line must step up if it wants to defend its home turf.

10. Aaron Rodgers’ ridiculous recent run

It could be said that Rodgers is playing the best football of his career. If that is true, it could also be said that Rodgers is playing the best football of any quarterback in the modern era. It’s a riddle that isn’t too difficult to figure out, so we will leave you to it.

Okay, done? If so, just check out how dominating Rodgers was during the final seven games, including a six-game winning streak that enabled Green Bay to win the NFC North.

There’s absurd. And there’s this. How in the world can we even come close to comprehending how dominant Rodgers has been for an otherwise struggling Packers team over the past two months? It’s performances like this that lead us to believe the Packers might be the most-dangerous team in the NFL heading into the playoffs.

Rodgers himself will have a heck of a time against an aforementioned Giants defense that’s made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks during the very same span Rodgers has been dominating. But we really can’t discount Rodgers. When he’s playing at his best, there’s not another quarterback in the modern history of the NFL, Joe Montana and Tom Brady included, who is better than him.