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NCAA Tournament appearances by Temple’s Fran Dunphy, tied for most by Big 5 head coach

Wild weekend preview

Posted by Eric Fisher On January 5

The teams participating in wild card weekend are hot. Of the six teams involved (not including the Eagles-Bears game), five of them made dramatic turnarounds during the season.

After an 0-3 start, the Texans reeled off nine straight wins. The Colts have nine victories in their past 10 games. The Cowboys were 7-1 during the second half of the season. The Seahawks and Ravens each won six of their final seven games.

There is a lot of momentum heading into this weekend’s playoff games, but that momentum can’t continue for all of the teams. What also makes this weekend’s games interesting is that, except for the Eagles and Bears, all of the playoff matchups are rematches from regular-season games.

How have the teams changed since their earlier meetings? What adjustments will they make from their earlier games? The answers may determine the winners this weekend.

COLTS (10-6) at TEXANS (11-5)

(Saturday, 4:30 p.m.)

Meetings this season: Texans 37, Colts 34 in overtime (Week 4), Colts 24, Texans 21 (Week 14)

Story lines: In some ways, the Week 4 meeting between these teams was crucial to both their fortunes. The Texans were 0-3 entering the game. The Colts were 1-2. First-year head coach Frank Reich, the former Eagles offensive coordinator who should be NFL Coach of the Year, decided to go for it on fourth-and-4 from the Colts’ 43-yard line with 36 seconds left in overtime. The attempt failed, and the Texans moved into position to kick the winning field goal, starting a string of nine straight victories. The Colts dropped all the way to 1-5, but the belief Reich had in his team and his aggressive nature eventually caught on, and the Colts won 9 of their final 10 games.

COLTS

After a 1-5 start, the Colts have been terrific, winning 9 out of 10 games. Their four-game winning streak entering the playoffs includes wins over the Texans (24-21), the NFC East-champion Cowboys (23-0), a comeback win over the Giants (28-27) and a victory over the Titans (33-17) on the last night of the season to earn a playoff spot. Quarterback Andrew Luck has had a bounce-back season, completing 67.3 percent of his passes and throwing 39 touchdowns. The one negative for Luck is he has thrown 15 interceptions. Luck’s top target is T.Y. Hilton (76 receptions for 1,270 yards, 6 TDs), but in the red zone the man to watch is tight end Eric Ebron (66 catches for 750 yards), who has 13 touchdowns. Running back Marlon Mack has the quietest 195 yards and nine touchdowns in the NFL. One reason for Luck’s resurgence is a terrific offensive line, anchored by All-Pro rookie guard Quenton Nelson, who was drafted sixth overall out of Notre Dame. The rest of the line, consisting of tackles Braden Smith and Anthony Catanzaro, guard Mark Glowinski and center Ryan Kelly, is pretty darn good. The defense has been much better than expected, in part due to rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, who made 163 tackles and earned All-Pro status after being selected 36th overall out of South Carolina.

TEXANS

The Texans rebounded from an 0-3 start with nine straight wins to take command in the AFC South. They held on for the title despite going 2-2 during the final four weeks, with victories over the Jets and Jaguars and losses to the playoff-bound Eagles and Colts. The Texans’ last victory over a playoff-bound team was a 19-16 overtime win over the Cowboys in Week 5. The Texans’ top weapon on offense is All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins (115 receptions, 1,572 yards, 11 TDs). Running back Lamar Miller (210 carries, 973 yards, 5 TDs) keeps defenses honest, which is important because the Texans’ offensive line struggles to protect quarterback Deshaun Watson. Some of the blame for the 62 sacks allowed this season goes to Watson, who extends plays by running around in the backfield, but a lot of the responsibility goes on the offensive line. Watson has rebound well after suffering a season-ending ACL injury last season. He completed 68.3 percent  of his passes for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns. Watson also has run for 551 yards. The defensive is anchored by All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt (61 tackles, 16 sacks) and defensive end/standup linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (9 sacks).

Prediction: One of the key matchups will be the Colts’ excellent offensive line against pass rushers Watt and Clowney. If Luck has enough time to throw, the Colts’ odds of winning improve. The Colts, with nine wins in their last 10 games, are playing with a lot of confidence. The Texans won the first meeting this season by three points. The Colts won the second meeting by three points. Why not another 3-point game? Colts 23, Texans 20

SEAHAWKS (10-6) at COWBOYS (10-6)

(Saturday, 8:15 p.m.)

Meetings this season: Seahawks 24, Cowboys 13 (Week 3)

Story lines: Both of these teams turned around their seasons at the midpoint. The Cowboys were 3-5, with rumors swirling about head coach Jason Garrett being fired, before a Monday night win against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field kicked off a 7-1 record during the second half of the season. The Seahawks were 4-5 after consecutive losses to the Los Angeles teams (Chargers and Rams), but rebounded with six wins in their final seven games, including a 38-31 win over the Chiefs two days before Christmas. The quarterbacks will receive a lot of attention in this game, but the running game fuels the offense for both teams.

SEAHAWKS

The Seahawks turned around their season with their running game, rushing for at least 150 yards in nine of their last 10 games. Chris Carson (247 carries for 1,151 yards, 9 touchdowns) leads a rushing attack that also has featured Mike Davis (112 for 514, 4 TDs) and Rashaad Perry (85 for 419, 2), not to mention quarterback Russell Wilson (67 for 376). The Seahawks don’t have an elite receiver, but Tyler Lockett (57 receptions for 965 yards, 10 TDs) and Doug Baldwin (50 for 618, 5 TDs) are battle-tested and reliable. Wilson has completed 65.57 percent of his passes and 35 touchdowns while throwing just seven interceptions. His 110.87 quarterback rating is terrific. All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner (138 tackles) anchors the Seahawks defense, but it has to be a concern that safety Earl Thomas, who only played four games this season, is tied for the team lead in interceptions. The defense, with Frank Clark (13) and Jarran Reed (10½) leading the team in sacks, doesn’t make many game-changing plays.

COWBOYS

The Cowboys’ seven wins in their final eight games included a 13-10 triumph over the Saints and a pair of victories over the Eagles. Their lone loss during the second half of the season was on the road against the Colts. Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL in rushing (304 carries for 1,434 yards, 6 TDs), but the underrated part of his game is his pass receiving (77 for 567, 3 TDs). The difference in the passing game, however, has been the addition of Amari Cooper (75 receptions for 1,005 yards, 7 TDs), who looks like he’s worth the first-round draft pick the Cowboys gave up to get him from the Raiders. Cole Beasley (65 for 672, 3 TDs) is an effective possession receiver, and rookie Michael Gallup (33 for 507, 2 TDs) can’t be ignored. Quarterback Dak Prescott (67.8 completion percentage, 22 TDs, 8 interceptions) certainly has plenty of targets to choose from. Young linebackers Leighton Vander Esch, a rookie who was selected to the All-Pro second team, and Jaylon Smith lead the defense with 140 and 121 tackles, respectively. If Sean Lee, who returned from a lingering injury, to play in the regular-season finale, can be added to the mix, the Cowboys’ linebacker corps will be even better. Don’t overlook cornerback Byron Jones, who joined Vander Esch on the All-Pro second team defense. Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence leads the team with 10½ sacks.

Prediction: The key matchup should be the Seahawks’ running game against the Cowboys’ linebackers. If the Cowboys can contain the running game, it forces Wilson to try to win the game through the air. Wilson is a dangerous quarterback, but the problem for the Seahawks would be for their receivers to get open before the Cowboys’ pass rush can get to Wilson. The Cowboys are an effective blitzing team, which could be an issue for the Seahawks’ average offensive line. The Cowboys’ offensive line isn’t as good as it once was, but All-Pro guard Zack Martin anchors a pretty good unit. Both teams are better at home than they are on the road. Cowboys 27, Seahawks 19

CHARGERS (12-4) at RAVENS (10-6)

(Sunday, 1 p.m.)

Meetings this season: Ravens 22, Chargers 10 (Week 16)

Story lines: After Lamar Jackson became the starting quarterback, the Ravens won six of their final seven games, including a 22-10 win over the Chargers, to overtake the Steelers, capture the AFC North crown and make the playoffs. The Ravens’ only loss during that stretch was an overtime defeat at Kansas City. By contrast, the Chargers have been pretty good all season. After losing two of their first three games, to the Chiefs and Rams, the Chargers went 11-2, with a one-point loss at Denver being their only loss to a team that didn’t win a division title. The obvious story line is whether the Chargers can counter what the Ravens did to them two weeks ago.

CHARGERS

Philip Rivers completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 4,308 yards and 32 touchdown passes; however, he has thrown 12 interceptions, with six of them coming during the final weeks of the regular season, including two against the Ravens. Rivers’ worst game of the season came against the Ravens. It was the only game in which he didn’t throw a touchdown pass. The Rams’ offensive line isn’t very good at pass protection, so one of the keys against the Ravens’ attacking defense is to effectively run the football. Melvin Gordon (175 carries for 885 yards, 10 TDs and 50 receptions for 490 yards, 4 TDs) left the regular-season finale with an ankle injury, but he was a full participant in practice this week. On the other hand, Austin Ekeler (106 carries for 554 yards 3 TDs and 39 receptions for 404 yards, 3 TDs), who missed the loss to the Ravens due to a neck injury, is listed as questionable due to a groin injury. If their running backs aren’t healthy and effective, it would make the Chargers one-dimensional on offense, which would be a major problem against the Ravens. Keenan Allen (97 catches for 1,196 yards, 6 TDs) is the Chargers’ top receiver. With all of the focus on offense, it’s easy to overlook that safety Derwin James and cornerback Desmond King, each with three interceptions, were selected to the All-Pro team. But the Chargers will be without linebacker Jatavis Brown (ankle), and starting nose tackle Brandon Mebane is listed as doubtful (non-injury reasons). King also made the All-Pro second team as a punt returner, and Adrian Phillips made the All-Pro first team for special teams, so special teams could be crucial for the Chargers.

RAVENS

The Ravens were in trouble, with rumors about head coach John Harbaugh’s job security, after losing three straight games to the Saints, Panthers and Steelers to drop to 4-5. The Ravens used their bye week to make the switch to Jackson at quarterback and put a heavy emphasis on the running game. Another midseason change the Ravens made was promoting undrafted free agent running back Gus Edwards from the practice squad. With Edwards and Jackson in the lineup together, the Ravens averaged 229.6 rushing yards during their final seven games, with their total (1,607) more than 400 yards more than the next-closest team (Seahawks). Jackson rushed for 695 yards and Edwards for 694 during the final seven games. The Ravens can also use Kenneth Dixon (60 carries for 333 yards) in their multi-back attack. The Ravens use their running game to control the clock and wear down opponents. When forced to pass, Jackson completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 1,201 yards and six touchdowns. He threw three interceptions. Linebacker C.J. Mosley (105 tackles), a second-team All-Pro selection, anchors the defense. Safety Eric Weddle (68 tackles), who used to play for the Chargers, provides some unique insights about defending Rivers. All-Pro kicker Justin Tucker could be the difference if the game comes down to a field goal.

Prediction: The Ravens scored a late touchdown on a 62-yard fumble return to put away the Chargers, 22-10, two weeks ago. If you take away that late defensive touchdown, it’s a five-point win for the Ravens. It’s difficult to believe that Rivers could play worse than he did against the Ravens. Assuming the Chargers figure out how to protect Rivers a little better, the Chargers should fare better in the rematch. The Chargers limited the Ravens to 159 yards rushing, with Jackson only gaining 39 yards. The Chargers need to prevent the Ravens from playing keep away, which is why the health of running backs Gordon and Ekeler is so importantThe Ravens want to control the clock, keep the ball out of Rivers’ hands and put pressure on the Chargers’ sub-par offensive line. . If the game is put in the hands of the quarterbacks, Rivers has an edge over the 21-year-old rookie. Furthermore, the Chargers are 7-1 on the road this season (with a “home” win in London making them 8-1 away from their home stadium). An interception or big special teams return could alter the dynamic of this game, forcing the Ravens to play from behind, which would play into the Chargers’ favor. Chargers 20, Ravens 16

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Side angle of Cody Parkey's missed field goal