3 players to watch, and other thoughts on NFL wild-card weekend

The Texans managed to give the Patriots a decent fight in the season opener at Gillette Stadium.

Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans earned the No. 3 seed.
Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans earned the No. 3 seed. –Eric Christian Smith / AP File Photo

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Welcome to Season 7, Episode 17 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs . . .

For all of the relative ups and downs during this Patriots season, they’re pretty much where we expected them to be back in September — resting up during wild-card weekend, with a first-round bye and at least some hope (mostly based on the defense and Tom Brady’s most recent performance) that perhaps they are about to peak at the right time.

Sure, it would be better to own the No. 1 seed since they’re 8-0 at home, but that’s something only a dynasty laments. The journey might have been tougher than expected, but no complaints about the result. It’s probably underestimated how much of an advantage it is to have a first-round bye. The Patriots snagged one, so they are in the good place right now, waiting like the rest of us to discover their opponent for next week.

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Wild-card weekend is one of the best sports weekends of the year, and this year’s slate of games is particularly appealing. The Texans host the Colts and the Ravens host the Chargers in the AFC games, and all four of those teams are more than capable of not just advancing but winning next weekend as well. (OK, maybe not the Colts.) Meanwhile, the NFC has the most anticipated matchup of the weekend — Seahawks at Cowboys — while the defending champion Eagles take on the Bears in Chicago.

With the Patriots on their hard-earned hiatus, here’s a look at the wild-card round.

Kick it off, Vinatieri, and let’s get this thing started . . .

THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY, SINCE HE HAS THE WEEKEND OFF:

Lamar Jackson, Ravens: Don’t count me among those who look at Jackson’s success in his seven starts in place of the never-was-elite Joe Flacco and lament that the Patriots didn’t spend one of their two first-round picks on the former Heisman winner from Louisville. I’m good with the Sony Michel pick — he has at least one 100-yard game in his immediate postseason future — and we cannot judge the Isaiah Wynn pick right now since he got hurt.

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But there’s no doubt Jackson is a dynamic player, perhaps a superstar of the future. It’s just that at the moment he’s much more dangerous when he runs the ball than when he throws it. The Ravens’ run-run-and-run-it-again approach to their offense since he took over doesn’t look that far removed from what the Broncos did with lefthanded knuckleballer Tim Tebow in 2011.

Check out Jackson’s numbers through his seven games, extrapolated over a full 16: 210 completions in 361 attempts (58.3 percentage), 2,546 yards, 11 touchdowns, 7 interceptions . . . oh, and 272 rushing attempts for 1,271 yards, 9 touchdowns, and 23 fumbles.

He’s soon going to make the mistakes of a young quarterback, if not this week then next, and they’re the kind the Ravens won’t be able to overcome.

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Derwin James, Chargers: Actually, it probably will be this week that Jackson struggles. Yes, the Ravens beat their wild-card opponent, the Chargers, two weeks ago by a 22-10 score. The Chargers did a fine job containing Jackson on the ground, limiting him to 39 yards, but he did strike them for 204 passing yards on just 12 completions.

I suspect the Chargers will take their chances with Jackson trying to beat them with his arm rather than his legs again — and James, a rookie safety who was named first-team All-Pro Friday after tallying 105 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 3 interceptions, will play a major role in containing him.

The recent familiarity with Jackson should benefit a Chargers defense that ranked eighth in the NFL in points allowed per game (20.6, a spot behind the Patriots). James is especially familiar with Jackson, who faced him three times in college.

Deshaun Watson, Texans: I know, we’re supposed to mock the Texans around here, what with their goofy letterman jackets all those years ago and their 1-10 all-time record against the Patriots. I have to admit it, though: I’d be wary of a matchup with them this time around.

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The Texans managed to give the Patriots a decent fight in the season opener at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots controlled the game for the most part from the get-go; the Texans scored a late touchdown for the final score of 27-20.

Watson, the superb second-year quarterback, struggled that day, his first game since tearing his ACL during a November 2017 practice. He has shaken off all the rust since then, finishing the regular season with a 68.3 completion percentage — up almost 7 percent from his rookie season — with 4,165 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, and another 551 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground.

Remember, the Texans gave the Patriots a decent battle in the playoffs two years ago with punch-line Brock Osweiler at quarterback, trailing just 17-13 at halftime before the Patriots pulled away for a 34-16 win. A healthy Watson makes them a completely different team than they were then — or during the first game of this season. Here’s to a Colts upset.

GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK

Not much to complain about this week, friends. Since I’m contractually obligated to fill this spot, though, I’ll give you a pre-grievance: Ty Law is going to get passed over by the Pro Football Hall of Fame again, isn’t he?

He’s one of 15 finalists that were revealed earlier this week, with five ultimately making the cut during the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Law is a two-time finalist already, and he made the top 10 the last two years before being pared out in the final round.

A three-time Super Bowl champion and a ballhawk and dependable tackler who played his best in big games (he should have been Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXVI), Law should already be in.

This year’s class has three locks among new candidates — Ed Reed, Tony Gonzalez, and Champ Bailey — which leaves Law to battle it out with the likes of Edgerrin James, Tony Boselli, and John Lynch for the final spots. The strong hunch here is that Boselli and Lynch get in, with Law the final omission.

Hope I’m wrong, but I’m already annoyed thinking about it. Oh, well, at least Richard Seymour – a versatile force during the Patriots’ first three championships – made the final 15. That was a pleasant surprise.

PREDICTIONS FOR WILD-CARD WEEKEND, OR HERE COME THE TEXANS AGAIN:

Chargers 17, Ravens 10: Philip Rivers is sixth all-time in touchdown passes (374) and eighth in passing yards (54,656), but this will be just the future Hall of Famer’s fifth playoff win.

Texans 34, Colts 31: You know I’d love to predict a Colts win on a 46-yard field goal by 46-year-old Adam Vinatieri, but the Texans hang on.

And since we probably should acknowledge that the NFC is also participating in this postseason . . .

Bears 24, Eagles 9: Khalil Mack and friends bring a vicious end to the age of Nick Foles magic.

Seahawks 31, Cowboys 30: Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner are so good that they’re able to lift the Seahawks above the deterioration in talent and discipline that often happen to Pete Carroll-coached teams.