Both of the wild-card games on Saturday, Jan. 7 are rematches of games we've seen in the last month, which gives us some pretty good indicators of how things will go. That said, some things have changed since then, so here's a basic read on the Saturday games, with the Sunday ones to follow. We'll have advanced stat studies and tape breakdowns for all the games later in the week.
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans — 4:30 PM ET (NBC)
The first thing the Bengals need to do before they take on a Texans pass defense that is as good as any in the league is to figure out what has been up with Andy Dalton in the second half of the season. The only rookie quarterback since the merger to start all 16 games of his rookie season despite not being drafted in the first round may have hit a bit of a rookie wall. In his first eight games, Dalton completed 158 passes in 257 attempts for 1,696 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In his last eight games, 142 completions in 259 attempts, eight touchdowns and six picks. Dalton has been limited to less than 200 passing yards in four of his last five games.
Cincinnati has the advantage when it comes to quarterbacks, though — rookie T.J. Yates is still getting the hang of things in his role as Matt Schaub's replacement, and he could have used the experience of a full game in the Texans' regular-season finale against the Tennessee Titans. But Yates separated his left (non-throwing) shoulder with just four attempts in that game, and though he's expected to go against the Texans, he might miss some practice reps.
The good news for the Texans is that Yates out-dueled Dalton when these two teams met in Cincinnati on December 11. In a 20-19 win, Yates completed 26 of 44 passes for 300 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. Dalton managed just 189 yards on 16 completions (28 attempts) and a single touchdown. Tight end Owen Daniels was the star for the Texans, grabbing seven balls for 100 yards with Andrew Johnson out of the game. Houston's high-powered rushing attack amassed 144 yards on 28 attempts, while the Bengals managed just 101 yards on 28 attempts.
In that game, Yates led the Texans on a huge fourth-quarter drive as the Texans scored 10 unanswered points in the final 10 minutes, going 13 plays and 80 yards starting at the 2:33 mark. Yates threw the winning score to Kevin Walter with two seconds left in regulation.
Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints — 8 PM ET (NBC)
If recent games are any indication, this could be the most high-scoring of the four wild-card games. Both the Saints and Lions are ripping it up on offense, and New Orleans will hope that the final result will be more like it was when these two teams met at the Superdome on December 4. In that game, it was Drew Brees that was on fire, while the fading Lions didn't score a single point until they were down, 17-0 in the second quarter. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford actually threw for more yards than Brees — 408 to 342 — but many of those were desperation yards and it was Brees who lit it up when it counted. He threw three touchdown passes to Stafford's one, and Stafford threw the pick that Brees didn't.
That said, the Lions did outscore the Saints, 10-7 in the second half, and Stafford has been the equal of any quarterback in the league. In the four games since that Saints loss, he's completed 114 passes in 176 attempts and 1,511 yards, 14 touchdowns, and just two interceptions. The Lions won three of those games and just barely lost their regular-season finale to the Green Bay Packers in a frantic 45-41 shootout.
"We're going to use this as motivation," Stafford said after the Green Bay game. "We had a chance and didn't get it done, so we've got to get out there and start making it happen. We've got to get on a run here. That's what it's all about in the playoffs, [getting] hot and hopefully we can get that going."
Over that same four-game stretch, Brees is 119 of 161 for 1,445 yards, 16 touchdowns and three interceptions. The Saints are 4-0 in that stretch, primarily because if you want to beat the Saints, you have to be near-perfect on offense AND find a way to stop New Orleans' passing game. Easier said than done.