By Steve Silverman
(CBS DFW/CBS Local) — It’s playoff time in the NFL, so only the League’s top teams will be in action going forward. But wildcard week finds the top two teams in the AFC and NFC — the Chiefs, Patriots, Saints and Rams — with a bye. So Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Todd Gurley will all be unavailable. That’s a lot of talent resting up for the divisional round.
With four games this weekend, featuring seeds three through six in each conference, the selection of players at the skill positions is obviously reduced. But you still have options, including some of the NFL’s hottest players.
1. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis at Houston, FD Proj. – 25.6 points
The Colts come into the playoffs as the hottest team in the NFL, having won nine of their last 10 games. And one of those victories was on the road against the Texans. Luck has improved his game dramatically from Week 1 through 17, and he has the decisiveness to come through against one of the most talented defenses in the league. His 39 TD passes were second in the league to Patrick Mahomes, and he builds on that total here
2. Deshaun Watson, Houston vs. Indianapolis – 24.4 points
Watson has the confidence to help his team overcome a history of disappointing efforts in the postseason. Watson makes excellent decisions with the ball, and his 26-9 TD-interception ratio helped the Texans build a nine-game winning streak during the season. He has built a game-changing relationship with elite wideout DeAndre Hopkins.
3. Russell Wilson, Seattle at Dallas – 23.3 points
The backstory for Wilson is an interesting one, because he has been a consistent winner though out his career with the Seahawks, and few quarterbacks are more effective in the fourth quarter of close games. Wilson is very accurate and has thrown 35 TD passes during the season.
4. Dak Prescott, Dallas vs. Seattle – 22.8 points
Prescott is not an elite-level passer, but he can give the Cowboys a boost when he makes a key play that results in a significant gain or a touchdown, and then goes on a hot streak. Prescott is as dangerous with his legs as he is with his arm, and he works extremely well with superstar running back Ezekiel Elliott.
5. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore – 22.2 points
The Chargers are the team that can play the “No Respect” card with greater legitimacy than any other team in this year’s playoffs. Rivers has thrown for 4,308 yards and 32 touchdowns, and while his team must play across the country against the No. 1 defense in the league, Rivers is capable of stringing passes together and coming up with a winning effort.
1. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas vs. Seattle – 19.8 points
If the Cowboys are going to have success in the postseason, Elliott may be more important than any other player on the roster. Elliott comes out of the gate with his motor revving at more than 100 MPH, and if he can get going early, he can dominate a game. Elliott rushed for 1,434 yards in the regular season, and he is also a threat as a receiver. If the Seahawks slow him down early, they can limit the Dallas offense.
2. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore – 18.8 points
Another player who can change the game with his ability to make tacklers miss and string together big plays. Gordon has had injury issues in the second half of the season, but he rushed for 885 yards, a 5.1 yards per carry average and 10 touchdowns. He can break open any game.
3. Chris Carson, Seattle at Dallas – 17.4 points
The Seahawks are a throwback to old-school football, because they are all about punishing their opponents with a nasty and hard-hitting defense and a power running game. Carson has emerged as their best running back, with 1,151 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. Carson is not going to get tackled on first contact.
4. Jordan Howard, Chicago vs. Philadelphia – 16.8 points
Howard did not seem to be a major part of the Chicago gameplan at the start of the season. However, he is a power runner who can punish opponents, and head coach Matt Nagy has started to depend on him in this crucial part of the year. His physical play will set the tone here for the Bears.
5. Marlon Mack, Indianapolis at Houston – 15.4 points
The Colts are not just a high-powered team that can zip the ball around through the air. Mack has had a shocking impact for head coach Frank Reich’s team, and he has the ability to bleed the life out of opposing defenses. Mack has rushed for 908 yards and nine TDs, and he will play a vital role for the Colts in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
1. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston vs. Indianapolis – 16.2 points
The Steelers and Antonio Brown did not make the playoffs, so Hopkins comes into the postseason as the best wideout who is still competing this season. Brown and the Steelers appear to be at an impasse, so Hopkins could emerge as the best wideout in 2019. No receiver in football has better hands than Hopkins, and he caught 115-1,572-11 this season.
2. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis at Houston – 17.4 points
Hilton has the quick-striking suddenness to turn a game around for the Colts. His speed after making his cuts allows him to break open by college-type margins. That’s the big advantage he has in this game, and he could cause problems for the Houston secondary.
3. Keenan Allen, L.A. Chargers at Baltimore – 16.8 points
Allen is Rivers’ top receiver, and he has the sideline footwork of a top ballet dancer. He comes into the playoffs with the ability to build his reputation dramatically. Allen has caught 97-1,196-6 this season, and he could cause quite a few problems for the Ravens.
4. Amari Cooper, Dallas vs. Seattle – 15.8 points
The Dallas offense received a dramatic face-lift when Cooper joined the team prior to the trade deadline after being acquired from the Raiders. Cooper makes Prescott a much better quarterback, and he excels after making the catch because he is difficult to bring down.
5. Golden Tate, Philadelphia at Chicago – 15.2 points
Tate is familiar with the Chicago defense, because he had played against the Bears twice a season during his tenure with the Lions. He has yet to show he is a breakout receiver with the Eagles, but he could be the most important player in Philadelphia’s gameplan against the defensively powerful Bears.
1. Eric Ebron, Indianapolis at Houston – 11.4 points
Ebron is not the most athletic player at his position, but he has come through with the best year of his career. He is a game-changing player because of his ability to come through in the red zone. Ebron led all tight ends with 13 TD catches in 2018.
2. Zach Ertz, Philadelphia at Chicago – 10.6 points
The Bears have quite a bit of work to do if they are going to slow down the Eagles’ medium-range passing game. Ertz has proven he can get open, and he caught 116 passes for 1,163 yards and eight touchdowns. He is a very difficult match-up for any defense.
3. Trey Burton, Chicago vs. Philadelphia – 8.8 points
Burton’s greatest strength is his versatility, and while he had tremendous success for the Eagles in the Super Bowl last season, it seems he has landed with the right head coach in Matt Nagy. Look for Burton to make one or two game-changing plays against the Eagles.
4. Jordan Thomas, Houston vs. Indianapolis – 6.6 points
Thomas is almost certainly the least-regarded player on this list, but he can he has shown he can be a red zone factor. Four of his 20 receptions went for touchdowns, and he could become a playoff factor for the Texans.
5. Mark Andrews, Baltimore vs. L.A. Chargers
Another unheralded player, but Andrews caught a spectacular 74-yard TD pass from Lamar Jackson against the Chargers in Week 16, and the rookie quarterback clearly likes throwing to him. Look for Andrews to make at least one big play in this game.