NFL Wildcard Preview – Two National Anthem Kneelers Left Standing

Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Green Bay Packers throws quarterback Aaron Rodgers a pass in the second quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field on December 24, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin

The NFL’s second season is here with the Wild Round Playoff Weekend upon us.

For you patriots out there, only two national anthem kneelers remain, Miami’s Michael Thomas and wide receiver Kenny Still. So if the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Dolphins on Sunday, you won’t have to deal with this anymore.

Of the four games this weekend, the best one might be the last one, the New York Giants battling the Green Bay Packers at 4:40 PM on Sunday.

Here is a breakdown of the Wildcard match-ups . . .

Oakland Raiders (12-4) at Houston Texans (9-7)

Saturday, January 7, 4:35 PM on ESPN
NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas

With their top two quarterbacks (Derek Carr and Matt McGloin) injured, the Raiders have to start third-string rookie Connor Cook.

Watch Cook for great theater in his first ever NFL start. Nobody really knows what to expect. He certainly looks the part at 6-4, 230 with a rocket arm, and is used to playing in pressure-packed situations as a four-year starter for Michigan State in the Big Ten Conference. Playing road games at places like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State has certainly thickened his skin.

And the Raiders don’t have the only intriguing QB situation entering this game. The Texans will start Brock Osweiler, who they signed to big-money last off-season, but then benched late in the regular season due to ineffectiveness. Now he’s back in the saddle after his replacement, Tom Savage, got concussed in Week 17.

Perhaps Osweiler put too much pressure on himself trying to live up to his 4-year, $72 million contract, so this time around, he’s just going to enjoy himself.

“I told myself, ‘If you get an opportunity to go back in, just go have fun,'” Osweiler said “Get back to the joy of football. Get back to what drew you into this sport at such a young age.’ I think when you’re able to play for the fun of the game, for the love of the game, passion comes with that.”

Anybody who thinks they can pick this game is nuts.

Nobody knows what to expect from either quarterback.

So this game has to be considered a toss-up.

Detroit Lions (9-7) at Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1)

Saturday, January 7, 8:15 PM on NBC
CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Washington

The Lions enter the playoffs losers of three straight.

The Seahawks have proved wildly inconsistent, and their vaunted defense certainly misses superstar safety Earl Thomas. Before his season ended in Week 13 with a broken leg, Seattle was giving up 15.6 points per game. In the games that followed the injury, they’re yielding 24.5.

And facing Lions rocket-armed QB Matt Stafford will be no easy chore for the Thomas-less secondary.

The Lions also have secondary issues, coming off a torching at the hands of Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers. In early December, Deroit lost slot cornerback Quadre Diggs, and last week they lost his replacement Asa Jackson, so expect Seahawks QB Russell Wilson to target whoever is playing nickel back for Detroit.

The Seahawks, with perhaps the loudest NFL stadium, are 7-1 at home this season, and should make that 8-1.

Miami Dolphins (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

Sunday, January 8, 1:05 PM on CBS
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

In Week Six, the Dolphins beat the Steelers 30-15. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger hurt his knee and had to leave the game for a stretch, so that certainly hurt Pittsburgh a great deal. But “Big Ben’s” injury had nothing to do with the Steelers’ run defense that day, which surrendered 204 yards to British tailback Jay Ajayi. While the Steelers defense has improved since then, Ajayi could still be a problem for them. First of all, standout Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward is on injured reserve, and his replacement, Ricardo Mathews, is sidelined with ankle injury. Combine the Steelers D-Line issues with Miami having one the NFL’s best offensive lines, Ajayi could be poised for another big day.

But while the Dolphins should be able to run on Pittsburgh, what could lead to their downfall is their pass defense. Led by Roethlisberger, the Steelers finished the regular season as the NFL’s fifth-ranked passing attack, and the Dolphins have major secondary issues. They gave up six touchdown passes in the last two weeks, and will be without starting cornerback Byron Maxwell.

Led by Roetlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and their potent passing attack, the Steelers should win this game.

New York Giants (11-5) at Green Bay Packers (10-6)

Sunday, January 8, 4:40 PM on FOX
Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is coming off a remarkable season, tossing an NFL-high 40 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.

He is the NFL’s best QB at extending plays to create extra throwing time.

“It’s almost like a second play during the play,” said Jets linebacker Jonathan Casillas.

The Giants’ defense might be the best equipped in the NFL to deal with Rodgers, because they’re loaded at cornerback with Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Eli Apple, three top-shelf cover guys.

Speaking of cornerbacks, the Packers are painfully thin at the position with starter Quinten Rollins out, and two other key corners on injured reserves, so Giants QB Eli Manning should be able to have success throwing at Lambeau Field.

This should be a great game, but the Packers will probably win a close game since they’re at home, and Rodgers is playing much better than Manning right now.