HOUSTON — J.J. Watt was a rookie in the 2011 playoffs when his spectacular performance against the Cincinnati Bengals led the Houston Texans to the first postseason win in franchise history.
The spotlight will be on Watt again today, when he’ll return to the field a little more than two months after surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle when the Texans host the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the playoffs.
After sitting out since October, it’s unclear how much impact Watt will have on the game. But coach Bill O’Brien said Thursday that Watt would play “quite a bit,“ which should help a pass rush that ranked 26th in the NFL with just 31 sacks.
Titans at Patriots: TODAY
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Patriots will face one of the hottest teams heading into the postseason. The Titans won seven of their final 10 games to earn their second playoff berth in three seasons and first under Mike Vrabel.
New England’s loss to Miami in its regular-season finale relegated it to the wild-card round for the first time since 2009, when it lost 33-14 to Baltimore. The Patriots are 2-1 in wild-card games under Belichick and that “best quarterback,” Tom Brady, but have never made it to the Super Bowl when opening the playoffs as a wild-card team during their era.
“We have a chance to go on a revenge tour,“ Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. “What better way than to start out with Tennessee, who we lost to last year. It’s a big motivation. We weren’t happy about our performance. They’re coming into our house. What better way to get it started for the playoffs.”
Vikings at Saints: SUnday
NEW ORLEANS — The Dalvin and Alvin show is coming to the Superdome.
And the stakes are a lot higher than the last time they shared the stage as NFL debutants three seasons ago.
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook and Saints rusher Alvin Kamara look primed to play pivotal roles when New Orleans (13-3) hosts Minnesota (10-6) on Sunday in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs.
They are two of the most dynamic running backs in the league capable of breaking off big gains as runners or receivers.
Saints coach Sean Payton said Cook, who is returning from a shoulder injury that sidelined him the last two weeks of the regular season, has a “substantial” influence on Minnesota’s offense.
“He has extremely good balance. He’s a strong runner and has outstanding speed,” Payton said. “You watch countless 15- to 25-yard gains by him and that’s hard to do.”
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer sounds as if he could be talking about Cook when he is in fact discussing the challenge Kamara presents to Minnesota’s defense.
“He’s extremely shifty in the way he runs, but he’s a physical runner as well,” Zimmer said. “Catches the ball out of the backfield, runs good routes. The thing that impresses me is that not very often does one guy bring him down. He slips and steps up out of tackles. ... He can go the distance at any time.”
Cook had the better NFL debut, gashing the Saints for 127 yards rushing in a 29-19 Vikings victory to open the 2017 season.
But while Cook’s rookie campaign was ended prematurely by a major knee injury, Kamara blossomed into the offensive rookie of the year, with 1,554 yards and 13 TDs from scrimmage in 2017.
This season was Kamara’s least productive because of nagging knee and ankle ailments that sidelined him for a couple midseason games. But Kamara increasingly regained form as the playoffs approached, rushing for four touchdowns in the past two weeks.
Kamara also is a playoff veteran, having played four postseason games.
Cook is making his playoff debut after fulfilling the promise he showed before tearing up his knee in October of 2017. In 14 games this season, he gained 1,135 yards and scored 13 TDs rushing while catching 53 passes for 519 yards.
“You’ve seen the kind of football that we play with him,” Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs said of Cook. “He definitely changed the game.”
Cook said he feels “refreshed” and that the Vikings’ relative good health puts them in position to compete with a Saints squad that tied for the top record in the NFC, but missed out on a bye in a three-way tiebreaker with San Francisco and Green Bay.
“No matter what they did during the regular season, new season, new start,” Cook said. “Everybody’s going to be ready to go. It should be a fun matchup.”
Seahawks at Eagles: Sunday
PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Eagles have been playing must-win games for a month to get to this point.
Now, it’s win or go home.
The Eagles (9-7) will host the Seattle Seahawks (11-5) in an NFC wild-card playoff game Sunday after winning four straight games to secure their second division title in three years.
Pressure won’t be new. Many players on Philadelphia’s roster faced it during the 2017 Super Bowl run. For the new guys, they got to experience it throughout December when one loss in any of the last four games would’ve cost the team a playoff berth.
“The last month, they have been playoff-type games for us,“ coach Doug Pederson said. “This team is battle-tested that way and we prepare that way.”
While the Eagles claw their way into the playoffs, the Seahawks enter on a two-game losing streak. Seattle would’ve clinched the NFC West and secured a home game this weekend with a win in Week 17 but lost 26-21 at home to the 49ers.
On the bright side, the Seahawks were better on the road this season, going 7-1. They beat the Eagles in Philly, 17-9, on Nov. 24.
“They finished great,“ Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the Eagles. “They know us. We know them. We game plan all over again and they do, too.”
Russell Wilson is 4-0 against the Eagles, including a win in Seattle over the eventual Super Bowl champions in December 2017 when Philadelphia came in at 10-1.
Carson Wentz will make his first career playoff start after missing the Super Bowl run because of knee surgery and last year’s wild-card win due to a back injury.
“We know what’s on the line and to some extent we’ve kind of felt that way the last few weeks,“ Wentz said. “We’ve kind of had our backs against the wall. It’s a one-game season, we’re excited for it. It’s going to be a fun one.”