Washington Post NFL reporter Mark Maske took a closer look at each of the four wild-card weekend matchups in advance of the first week of the NFL playoffs. The first round features a pair of tantalizing matchups featuring the high-octane New Orleans Saints hosting the resurgent Detroit Lions and Tim Tebow leading the Denver Broncos against banged-up Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here’s what each team must do to advance to the second round.
Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Reliant Stadium, NBC (WRC-4)
How the Bengals can win… They went 5-3 on the road during the regular season and are facing the Texans at the right time, with Houston on a three-game losing streak. The Bengals were winless in four games against the Steelers and Ravens but went 9-3 against the rest of their schedule. They lost by a point to the Texans on Dec. 11. The Bengals ranked seventh in the league in total defense and ninth in scoring defense during the regular season. Rookie QB Andy Dalton faces his first playoff game but has been unusually poised all season. Dalton needs to get rookie WR A.J. Green re-involved in the offense after Green totaled only four catches in the final two regular season games.
How the Texans can win… The Texans play the first postseason game in franchise history but limp into the playoffs after a 10-3 start became a 10-6 final regular season record. Rookie QB T.J. Yates suffered a bruised non-throwing shoulder during Sunday’s loss to the Titans but is on track to start. For the Texans to right themselves, they might need to rely on Arian Foster the league’s second-ranked running game and second-ranked defense.
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Saturday, 8 p.m., Superdome, NBC (WRC-4)
How the Lions can win… Detroit has a chance because of its offensive firepower with QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson. Stafford joined the Saints’ Drew Brees and the Patriots’ Tom Brady in topping 5,000 passing yards during the regular season, getting there with a 520-yard performance in Sunday’s loss to the Packers. Johnson led the league in receiving yards. The Lions will be familiar with the environment, having lost at New Orleans in early December. But they certainly need their defense to play better than it did Sunday at Lambeau Field when the Lions lost to the Packers, 45-41. Detroit had no answers for Green Bay’s backup QB Matt Flynn, who threw for 480 yards and six TDs. The Lions will need a few stops against Brees and the Saints.
How the Saints can win… The Saints enter the playoffs with an eight-game winning streak and a 13-3 record, and they were 8-0 at home during the regular season. They have the league’s top-ranked offense built around Brees, who set NFL single-season records for passing yards and completion percentage. The Saints’ plan is simple: turn Brees loose and let him outscore any opponent. Few teams can keep up. TE Jimmy Graham and RB Darren Sproles create major matchup problems for virtually any defense. The question is whether the Saints can continue to get by with a defense that ranked 30th against the pass and 24th overall during the regular season. New Orleans did fare better in scoring defense, ranking 13th in the league.