What Patriots Fans Should Watch For During Wild Card Weekend

Patriots fans have grown accustomed to the team having a second bye week around this time of year.

An important reminder that someday we won’t be kicking back in our Tom Brady ugg slippers and under armour pajamas waiting to see who the Pats will welcome to Gillette Stadium in Weekend 2 of the NFL postseason.

Even the great 49ers dynasty, the benchmark for long term NFL success, came to a screeching halt after concussions forced Hall of Famer Steve Young into retirement after the 1999 season.

The Niners went 16 straight seasons from 1983-1998 with double-digit wins, and it all went up in flames when their second All-Time great quarterback succumbed to injuries. In the next two seasons following Young’s retirement the 49ers won a combined 10 games. The mighty had fallen.

That day may eventually come for Bill Belichick and company, but for now Belichick will be a scout this weekend preparing himself and his team for one of the three possible opponents the Patriots could face a week from Saturday.

So what exactly will he be looking for? Let’s take a look:

Raiders at Texans

By far the worst game of the weekend, but for Patriots fans it’s really a must watch. In all likelihood the Patriots will face the winner of this star studded quarterback matchup of Brock Osweiler vs Connor Cook. That is if the Dolphins don’t pull off the upset in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Although Houston has never had a quarterback and Oakland’s MVP worthy signal caller Derek Carr will more than likely miss the entire postseason, this is the NFL and anything can happen.

The scariest of the two teams is still the 12-4 Oakland Raiders despite not having their quarterback. The question is whether or not the silver and black can overcome the absence of Derek Carr and potentially starting left tackle Donald Penn. The way to do so will be relying on a three headed monster at running back that has been effective (6th in NFL in rushing) running behind the second best offensive line in football (behind Dallas).

All three Oakland running backs (Latavius Murray, DeAndre Washington, and Jalen Richard) bring something unique to the table. Murray has had a similar season to LeGarrette Blount, as he has been a touchdown machine with 12 scores on the season. Like Blount, the majority of Murray’s trips to the end zone have come in the red zone (11). Richard is a promising rookie from Southern Mississippi. Richard has only carried the ball 83 times this season, but his 5.9 yards per rush is the highest among running backs with a minimum of 80 carries. DeAndre Washington is another good looking rookie out of Texas Tech. Washington led the team in rushing over the final two weeks of the season, averaging over seven yards a carry in Weeks 16 and 17.

With Connor Cook at quarterback the Raiders will have to rely on their running game and offensive line to move the ball. Things don’t bode well in the black hole regardless of their quarterback situation. The Raiders would be the worst ranked defense in yards allowed in NFL history to win the Super Bowl (26th).

For Houston this is more about picking out ways to make them look good than bad. We already know how awful Brock Osweiler and the Texans offense has been this season (T-28th in PPG), but defensively Houston has been able to play at a high level despite J.J. Watt’s absence. The Texans have the #1 total defense in the NFL this season (301.3 YPG) and only the Denver Broncos have allowed fewer pass completions of 20+ yards (38). Although it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Texans beat the Pats in Foxborough, they are 7-1 at home this season, which could mean we are looking at Houston instead of Oakland traveling to face the Pats next Saturday.

Dolphins at Steelers

Another rematch from the regular season (3 out of 4 Wild Card games are rematches) as the Steelers try to reverse the script as they suffered one of their worst losses of the season in Miami Week 6. Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi rushed for over 200 yards in that contest as Miami shocked us all doubling up the Steelers 30-15.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the most hyped teams of 2016 during the preseason. It’s understandable given their talent on offense and championship pedigree at quarterback and head coach. Although the Pats can’t face Pittsburgh until the AFC Championship Game, it does feel like we are headed for Pats vs Steelers with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

Since we already know what the killer B’s of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown bring to the table so let’s take a look at an improved Pittsburgh defense. The offense might get the headlines, but from a Pats prospective I’m watching to see if this Steelers run defense can hold down Ajayi after allowing him to run for 204 yards and 2 TDs in Week 6. That’s because if the Steelers run defense proves to be weak once again against Miami, that might be the Patriots best path to victory against Pittsburgh. Since Week 11, the Steelers pass defense has turned things around with a bolstered pass rush and the assertion of rookie defensive back Sean Davis into the lineup. In their last 7 games, the Steelers have the most sacks in the NFL (25) and allowed the 2nd-fewest pass yards per game (197.0).

We are already familiar with the Miami Dolphins and first-year head coach Adam Gase at this point. Although it didn’t show up much in the Patriots Week 17 victory over Miami, the Dolphins offensive line has been one of the best units in football since they solidified their current starting lineup. With Matt Moore at quarterback the Dolphins would be wise to lean heavily on Jay Ajayi and the running game, but the Steelers don’t necessarily have a defensive back that matches up with Miami’s slippery wide receiver Jarvis Landry either. This is the first playoff game for many of these young players on Miami. It will be interesting to see how they handle the spotlight.