For 20 NFL teams, the 2015 season is over. But for the lucky 12 postseason participants, the beat marches on for at least one more game.
Eight of the 12 clubs will start preparing to play during the NFL’s Wild Card round next weekend.
Here is a brief rundown that ranks the best matchups in the postseason’s first round:
4. Green Bay Packers (10-6, 5-seed) at Washington Redskins (9-7, 4-seed)
After a 6-0 start, the Packers finished just 4-6 over the final 10 games, including two straight losses to NFC playoff teams. The Minnesota Vikings came into Lambeau Field in Week 17 and stole away the NFC North crown, sending Green Bay to Washington in the first round.
Despite a 9-7 record, the Redskins will be a popular pick to beat the playoff-tested Packers. Kirk Cousins arguably produced a better overall year than Aaron Rodgers, and Washington finished the season with four straight wins. These two teams haven’t met in the playoffs since 1972.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5, 5-seed) at Houston Texans (9-7, 4-seed)
The Chiefs are a potential Super Bowl team, but the long road there will first start on the road. Kansas City won a franchise record 10 straight games after a 1-5 start, setting up an away matchup with the Texans, who won the AFC South at 9-7. Houston and Kansas City met way back in Week 1, with the Chiefs winning by a 27-20 final. Alex Smith threw three touchdowns, including two to tight end Travis Kelce.
Houston’s defense recovered in a big way down the stretch, allowing 10 or fewer points six times over the final nine games. Can J.J. Watt and company provide more postseason pain in Kansas City? The Chiefs are currently riding an 8-game postseason losing streak.
2. Seattle Seahawks (10-6, 6-seed) at Minnesota Vikings (11-5, 3-seed)
The Seahawks just dismantled the Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium in Week 13, but there’s still plenty to savor in the rematch. While Seattle won eight of its last 10 games, the Vikings are enjoying their own kind of roll. Minnesota has secured victories in three straight games to complete 2015, including Sunday night’s win over the Packers at Lambeau Field. The win handed the NFC North title to Minnesota for the first time since 2009.
Many will like the Seahawks to go into the Twin Cities and win again, but the Vikings are getting healthy and gaining confidence every week. Two similarly constructed teams should provide far better theatre this time around.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6, 6-seed) at Cincinnati Bengals (12-4, 3-seed)
The Steelers and Bengals split their season series, so the two AFC North rivals will decide everything with a third showdown. After Cincinnati won in Pittsburgh in early November, the Steelers came back a month later and knocked off the Bengals in Cincinnati.
One storyline leading into the game will be the health of quarterback Andy Dalton, who missed the majority of the second meeting with Pittsburgh and the last three games of the 2015 season after breaking his hand. He seems unlikely to be ready to play by this weekend. If Dalton can’t go, backup AJ McCarron would make his first career playoff start. He threw two interceptions during his first significant NFL action against the Steelers in December. Can McCarron end Cincinnati’s seven-game postseason losing streak? The Bengals and Steelers will determine that and more during the Saturday night primetime slot.