While Wild Card Weekend always springs its fair share of stories and surprises, this coming weekend has subplots deeper than Drew Brees’ pockets. Today will see the Cincinnati Bengals visit the stuttering Texans in a repeat of last year’s Wild Card matchup, in which the Texans triumphed 31-10. Then the Minnesota Vikings play the Green Bay Packers for the second week in a row, this time at Lambeau, with the Adrian Peterson-led Vikings hoping to repeat last week’s last-second win. The previous two Superbowl champions have triumphed from a Wildcard playoff spot, and there’s no reason to say the same won’t happen again this year. Here’s what to look out for in Houston.
#6 Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) @ #3 Houston Texans (12-4)
The Houston Texans have somewhat stumbled into the playoffs after a 11-1 start. Maybe they felt comfortable having secured a playoff spot back in Week 13, but they have since lost to the Patriots, Vikings and Colts. Meanwhile, the Bengals have brushed aside their AFC North rivals with wins over Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the last weeks of the season, proving they are more than worth the weight in that division.
The Texans will no doubt feel confident having won 31-10 in an identical playoff matchup last season. In that win, Arian Foster carried the Texans through with a majestic 153-yard, two-touchdown performance. It took all the pressure off the shoulders of backup quarterback T.J. Yates and the Bengals were never able to get going.
But Cincinnati are far from the team of last season. Then rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are now a year older and a year better. Their defense is hugely underrated (ranked Top 10 in both yards and points allowed) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis has found his feet at running back, giving them an extra dimension both on offense and in terms of managing the clock.
The Texans will start favourites, especially at full strength with the likes of Matt Schaub (who missed the playoffs last season), Andre Johnson, Foster and J.J. Watt, arguably the best defensive player in the league and Defensive Player of the Year favourite. Despite their recent defeats, the Texans will view the playoffs as a new challenge and will back themselves to go all the way to the Superbowl.
While still trying to clinch a first round bye in the playoffs, the Texans slipped up with losses to the Vikings and the Colts, who were quarterbacked by Christian Ponder and Andrew Luck respectively. Andy Dalton is a better QB than both Ponder and Luck. The whole Bengals outfit is more experienced and more balanced than last year and after going 4-1 in the month of December, don’t be surprised if they spring an upset.
Bengals 27 - Texans 24
After his imperious 243 yard, 2 TD debut against the Chicago Bears last week, Colin Kaepernick appears to have earned himself the starting job in San Francisco. 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t letting much on, but indications suggest that Kaepernick will start ahead of incumbent QB Alex Smith when the Niners face the Saints in New Orleans this Sunday.
It is unclear whether Smith will be fully fit to play by Sunday after suffering a concussion two weeks ago, but reports suggest that any decision to start Kaepernick, if true, is not based on health. Tough break for a guy who went 18 of 19 with 3 TDs on Monday Night Football just three weeks ago.
This could all be mind games from 49ers head coach Harbaugh, who has been known to keep matters of the team close to his chest. Nevertheless, the 49ers ‘QB controversy’ has been a prominent topic since Kaepernick’s performance on Monday night, and here’s how the week has played out since.
Monday November 19th - 11.24pm ET
The 49ers wrap up a 32-7 victory at home to the Chicago Bears, Colin Kaepernick throwing 16-23 for 243 yards and two touchdowns in place of injured starter Alex Smith.
Monday November 19th - 12.35am ET
During the postgame press conference, head coach Jim Harbaugh responds “We’ll see” when asked who will start next week, going on to state they’ll go with “the guy who’s got the hot hand” (0:35).
Wednesday November 21st - 3.00pm ET
Jim Harbaugh does not officially name a starter in a noon (PT) press conference.
Wednesday November 21st - 4.33pm ET
Alex Smith talks openly and honestly about Colin Kaepernick’s performance on Monday night, stating “…if you can’t be happy for your teammate’s success you’re playing the wrong sport — go play tennis or golf or something”. He goes on to say that the competition between himself and Kaepernick is “…good thing for this team. This is a good problem.”
Wednesday November 21st - 10.16pm ET
BREAKING: Jim Harbaugh has informed Alex Smith that Colin Kaepernick will start Sunday, per source. Said decision not based on health.— Jim Trotter (@SI_JimTrotter) November 22, 2012
Per a source, Harbaugh reportedly told Smith, “I’m going with Kaepernick. Alex, I’m sorry”. This was not corroborated but reports suggest that both Smith and Kaepernick were indeed informed of this decision at the time. In a press conference earlier in the day, Colin Kaepernick said he had not been informed of the starter.
Thursday November 22nd - 3.09pm ET
Smith continues to wear black in practice for no-contact reps, suggesting his lingering concussion could still keep him out of Sunday’s game regardless of Jim Harbaugh’s decision on the starting role.
Thursday November 22nd - 6.38pm ET
49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman says “no decision has been made” on the starting role for Sunday’s matchup against the Saints.
Friday November 23rd - 1.01pm ET
On The Dan Patrick Show, 49ers safety Donte Whitner suggests that the 49er players are working towards and expect Colin Kaepernick to be the starter on Sunday.
Friday November 23rd - 5.16pm ET
Alex Smith is officially listed as questionable for Sunday vs. the Saints.— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) November 23, 2012
Friday November 23rd - 5.23pm ET
ESPN reports that Alex Smith has been cleared medically of the concussion he suffered against the St. Louis Rams two weeks ago.
Friday November 23rd - 6.28pm ET
Email from the San Francisco 49ers. Subject - “Harbaugh Not Announcing Starting QB”.
Friday November 23rd - 8.39pm ET (Now)
In conclusion: Nobody knows anything. But to drop Smith, who is 20-6-1 under Harbaugh, for Kaepernick after just one impressive outing is jumping the gun. If healthy, Alex Smith should start for this team on Sunday. End of story.
With just six teams currently above .500 in the AFC, it’s hard to look past those same six teams to make the playoffs. Yet, in the NFC, there might be ten legitimate contenders for a playoff place come January. The NFC has become the NFL’s toughest conference in recent years, the transformation of the NFC West into one of the league’s most competitive divisions indicative of such a shift in power. After Week 11, the NFC playoff picture is starting to take shape, but there’s plenty of time for things to change.
NFC East - Dallas on November charge?
The Nick Foles era in Philadelphia may have come about a little sooner than anticipated, but after the Dallas Cowboys 38-23 win over the Eagles last Sunday and their overtime win against the Browns, Dallas are now only one game back of the division-leading New York Giants. The Cowboys love November, with a record of 24-5 in November since 2006. In New York, things aren’t looking quite as rosy as they once did. Before their bye, Eli Manning’s line in his last three games reads 532 yards, 0 touchdowns, 4 interceptions. The Eagles and Redskins are cooked playoff-wise, but both can spring a divisional upset between now and Week 17. Unfortunately for Dallas, the Giants have swept them already this season, ruling out a late-season decider, but the Giants need to pick it up if they’re to hold on.
NFC North - Rodgers holds the upper hand
The San Francisco 49ers and Colin Kaepernick humbled the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. The Bears, who had led the NFC North on the back of a defense ranked No.1 in the league, now find themselves trailing the Green Bay Packers, and just a one game lead over the Minnesota Vikings. The Packers have weathered early injury troubles to 7-3 while the Vikings are the division’s surprise, riding Adrian Peterson to a 6-4 record. But as with most things in the NFL, in the end it will come down to the quarterback. Whereas the Packers have Aaron Rodgers, the Bears’ Jay Cutler is sidelined with concussion and in Minnesota, while Christian Ponder has stopped his slide of late, inconsistency is still an issue. Advantage Green Bay.
NFC West - 49ers back it up
Two seasons ago, the NFC West was won by an 8-8 Seattle Seahawks side that, despite knocking the New Orleans Saints out of the playoffs, was nowhere near a playoff calibre team. Now the NFC West boasts two if not three of the league’s best defenses. The 49ers sit atop the West after their mauling of the Bears, with a game and a half over the Seahawks. The 49ers haven’t run away with the division like many thought they would; Seattle are unbeaten at home with a fearsome secondary and the tireless Marshawn Lynch. The Arizona Cardinals have fallen away off after their unbeaten start to the season, but as they showed Sunday against the Falcons, there are no pushovers out West.
NFC South - Atlanta sitting pretty
No matter how many games the Atlanta Falcons win in the regular season, even a 15-1 finish will mean nothing without a playoff victory. The Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era has never registered a playoff win but at 9-1, the task to home field advantage is half complete. So far so good. Fortunately, the normally competitive NFC South has been less than so this season. Surprisingly, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lie second 6-4 having won 4 straight, while the Sean Payton-less Saints are 5-5 after an 0-4 start. Cam Newton’s sophomore slump continues in Carolina; even when they win they’re not happy. But despite their slow start, the New Orleans Saints might pose the biggest threat to the Falcons, especially having handed them their first loss of the season last week. Pole position Atlanta, but they need to win the race.
Week 8 in the NFL saw the return of the International Series to Wembley Stadium, where the St. Louis Rams hosted the New England Patriots. In its 6th season, the game attracted more than 84,000 fans to London, a sign that the UK remains worthy of the NFL’s annual export.
The Patriots returned to the States with a 45-7 victory, Tom Brady delivering Wembley-goers a 4-touchdown performance including a 7-yard TD pass to Rob Gronkowksi that inspired a royal celebration.
With Wembley set for two games in 2013, including the first in a series of homes games for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday delivered the spectacle the NFL hopes for with their overseas project. Here’s a round up of the other games in Week 8 of the National Football League, including a last word on another successful International Series.
New England Patriots 45 - 7 St. Louis Rams, Wembley Stadium
The New England Patriots second visit to Wembley stadium proved an equally fruitful expedition, rolling over the St. Louis Rams 45-7. Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes, two each to TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Brandon Lloyd. St. Louis, the ‘home’ side, were convincingly outplayed on the day, which may have taken a little shine off the Wembley experience, but as long as the NFL can keep sending its best players to British shores, interest will seldom wain. Next year Wembley sees the Minnesota Vikings host the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Jacksonville Jaguars entertain the San Francisco 49ers in the first of four annual visits for the Jaguars.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 34 - 17 Minnesota Vikings
If the Vikings were to legitimately compete in the NFC North, they had to beat the 2-4 Buccaneers at home. Instead, rookie RB Doug Martin racked up 214 total yards and two touchdowns and the Vikings couldn’t keep up.
Carolina Panthers 23 - 24 Chicago Bears
Start Cam Newton good. Jay Cutler bad. Then. Steve Smith slips, Tim Jennings profits. Again. Momentum shift. Robbie Gould kicks last-second field goal to win. Finish.
San Diego Chargers 6 - 7 Cleveland Browns
Trent Richardson scored the only touchdown as the Browns edged the Chargers. It seems a different Chargers team turn up each week (or each half) while the Browns are more than competitive with Richardson and that defense.
Seattle Seahawks 24 - 28 Detroit Lions
Only in the NFL does Megatron beat Optimus Prime. But he needed plenty of help from the rest of his Detroit Deceptacons. The Lions are still all over the shop, but a win is a win, especially against a good Seattle side.
Jacksonville Jaguars 15 - 24 Green Bay Packers
Blaine Gabbert, 303 passing yards, loss. Aaron Rodgers, 186 passing yards, win. With no Maurice Jones-Drew, Gabbert did well in carrying the Jaguars but inevitably came up short. It’s hard to see a way out for the league’s worst team.
Indianapolis Colts 19 - 13 Tennessee Titans
The Titans aren’t great, but every win is another step forward for Andrew Luck. The Colts QB registered his first overtime victory with a 16-yard TD pass to Vick Ballard, to take his rookie win tally past predecessor Peyton Manning.
Miami Dolphins 30 - 9 New York Jets
No matter whether it’s Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow, the Jets’ problems run far deeper than who’s under center. Most annoying is the smack talk and bravado that they can’t back up.
Atlanta Falcons 30 - 17 Philadelphia Eagles
Michael Vick vs. Atlanta will always go beyond the game. But with the Falcons unbeaten and Vick’s starting role on the line, Sunday had far more at stake. Vick better, defense worse. Matt Ryan and the Falcons march on.
Washington Redskins 12 - 27 Pittsburgh Steelers
If you want to see what a rookie quarterback is really made of, send him to Pittsburgh in late October. Dick LeBeau’s defense kept RGIII in check as the Steelers quietly edge to 4-3. 10 drops though? Not good enough.
Oakland Raiders 26 - 16 Kansas City Chiefs
When Romeo Crennel doesn’t know why Jamaal Charles only had five carries, you’ve got to think something’s not quite right. The Raiders might meander to 8-8, but both teams have little to shout about.
New York Giants 29 - 24 Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys do make it hard for themselves. But 3rd and 1, 1.19 remaining, Giants 19-yard line, three timeouts. Run it, get a fresh set of downs and go for the end zone. Not Jason Garrett. End up 4th and 1, with Romo running for his life and throwing his fourth pick. Victims of their own stupidity these ‘Boys.
New Orleans Saints 14 - 34 Denver Broncos
On a Sunday night in Colorado, Peyton Manning prevailed. The Saints are done, there’s no catching the Falcons, but the Broncos remain a dark horse. They’ll win the AFC West, it’s just where they can go from there.
San Francisco 49ers 24 - 3 Arizona Cardinals
Two weeks ago, Jim Harbaugh messed about with Alex Smith, flitting Colin Kaepernick in and out of the huddle in a 24-3 loss to the Giants. On Monday Night Football, Colin Kaepernick didn’t take the field once and Smith was near perfect, going 18-19 for 232 and 3 TDs. Smith is a confidence player; have faith in him, Jim.
With the Falcons, Texans and Cardinals flying high at 3-0, here’s the second half of Week 3.
25. For Tennessee, almost losing a game after being up 14 with 40 seconds left is unacceptable. Titans linebacker Akeem Ayers demonstrated exactly why you catch Hail Mary passes and don’t bat them down. And don’t even get me started on CJNOWAY.
26. For Detroit, the manner in which they conceded points is unacceptable. 6 plays over 60 yards each, albeit two special teams and one defensive fumble recovery, resulted in 6 Titans scores. That’s crazy. But the Music City Miracle? What is this, 2000?
27. Both teams seemed to struggle with the fundamentals but wider issues were also apparent. Jake Locker, although impressive, isn’t being helped by Chris Johnson’s on-field disappearing act, while Detroit don’t seem to have the same defensive threat as last year. Like New Orleans, Matthew Stafford can only carry them so far.
28. The Cardinals’ defensive line is hot. Darnell Dockett and co. are constantly pressuring opposing QBs (5 sacks Sunday) and are a big part of the reason they’re 3-0.
29. It seems the Philadelphia Eagles inadequacies have caught up with them. After two lucky wins, the Eagles couldn’t put anything together against Arizona.
30. Kevin Kolb could slowly be winning himself a starting job. The Cardinals are 2.5-0 under Kolb following John Skelton’s Week 1 injury, and he threw for 222 yards and 2 TDs Sunday, with a 70+% completion rate.
31. Perhaps expected but nonetheless impressive road win for the Bengals, who will need to go to places like Washington and win to stand a chance of making the postseason.
32. The Bengals set the tone on the opening play, calling a pass from rookie WR Mohamed Sanu to A.J. Green which went for an 73-yard touchdown. Andy Dalton doesn’t seem to be be suffering from any sophomore blues, going 19/27 for 328 yards and 3 scores.
33. In Alfred Morris and RGIII, the Redskins have got two rookies who can hold their own in a tough division. Although they might fall short on occasion this year, Washington will be confident about their future.
34. Matt Ryan and these Falcons look very, very good.
35. San Diego will be disappointed with what they showed Sunday. To put up just 3 points at home after a 2-0 start was surprising, and maybe a true reflection of where they stand against some of the better teams in the NFL.
36. The only concern for the Falcons might be the running game, where Michael Turner seems to have slowed, at least on the field. In close games where they need to run hard and manage the clock, they might have some issues.
37. Very rarely would you bet on Matt Schaub outplaying Peyton Manning.
38. The Texans are a complete team. They are the best team in the league right now, with the best running back in Arian Foster, one of the best receivers in Andre Johnson and arguably the best defense. Good place to be.
39. On the other hand, the Denver Broncos just aren’t clicking. The defense that lead them to the playoffs last year (not Tim Tebow) has seemingly regressed and Peyton Manning is yet to find his feet. Although frequently pressured by J.J. Watt on Sunday, Manning seems hurried in general, overthrowing receivers on plays that in the past have been easy 10, 15 yard gains.
40. At 1-2, this Pittsburgh Steelers team is far from that of season’s past. From a run-first team a few years ago, they’re now wholly reliant on Ben Roethlisberger.
41. It’s used to be that nobody ran on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Darren McFadden ran for 113 yards including a 65-yard touchdown last Sunday, and it’s clear the Steelers are missing James Harrison and Troy Polamalu.
42. Although the Raiders were much improved, including Carson Palmer and Darren McFadden, they’re still poor on defense. They were able to nudge past the Steelers, but they won’t put up 30+ points every week.
43. “…the Patriots have to find room to get Welker on the field.” Check.
44. A well-rounded offensive performance from the Ravens, with Ray Rice and Joe Flacco contributing equally impressively. Flacco continues to grow as a big-game player, aided by the likes of Torrey Smith, who played incredibly despite the passing of his brother less than 24 hours previous.
45. The Patriots can’t be too disheartened (bar the controversial field goal decision) but at 1-2, they’re in an very unfamiliar position.
46. Fortunately, the Golden Tate call was the last straw for the replacement referees; a horrible decision that was rightly scrutinised.
47. The Packers were denied a win as a result of that call but only the play of their defense against a rookie quarterback kept them in the game. Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times in the first half alone, and the score-a-minute antics of 2011 seem far off.
48. The fortress of CenturyLink Field is Russell Wilson’s best friend right now. With the scalps of Green Bay and Dallas under their belt, the Seahawks join the 49ers and the unbeaten Cardinals in making the NFC West a tough division to visit.