NFL wild-card matchups to watch: Can Connor Cook revive Raiders?

When the Oakland Raiders ended Connor Cook's draft tumble in April, neither the franchise leaders nor the quarterback likely envisioned themselves in their present situation.

A fourth-round pick out of Michigan State, Cook was a depth addition and developmental option for a team already set with Derek Carr as its starter and Matt McGloin as its backup. But after a broken leg ended Carr's season in Week 16 and McGloin was sidelined by a left shoulder injury in the regular-season finale, Cook now steps in as the first quarterback of the Super Bowl era to make his starting debut in a playoff game, one that ends a 14-year postseason drought for the Raiders.

And the Houston Texans' top-ranked defense awaits the rookie.

“We’ll do the best we can to prepare him,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said in a conference call with reporters upon announcing Cook's promotion. “The great thing about it is he’s been here, been in our system, mentally been engaged in what we do and how we do it all year.

"There’s only so much you can catch up all at once.”

Cook almost assuredly will be working with a limited version of the offense, but playing the caretaker role might be an adjustment. At Michigan State, he developed a reputation for forcing balls downfield into tight coverage.

The Texans might be counting on him to do just that in Saturday's wild-card contest.

"I hope we blitz him all game," Texans defensive end Jadveveon Clowney told reporters this week. "I don’t know, that’s up to the coaches. We just have to put a lot of pressure on him, make him throw some bad balls, force some turnovers and try to get our offense in good field position."

The Raiders topped the Texans 27-20 earlier in the season in Mexico City, but they needed fourth-quarter rally sparked by Carr. With McGloin and Cook in last week, Oakland sputtered to just 221 yards in a 24-6 loss to the Denver Broncos.

Oakland could ramp up its already screen-heavy attack to ease Cook's burden while trying to quickly get the ball into the hands of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. But leaning on a strong supporting cast might not be so simple against a Texans defense that boasts standouts at every level with Clowney, outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus and cornerback A.J. Bouye. Oakland's stellar offensive line is also hurting, as left tackle Donald Penn and left guard Kelechi Osemele have both been hampered by knee injuries.

Here are four more matchups that will define wild-card weekend:

Packers receivers vs. Giants secondary

The New York Giants' "NYPD" secondary handled its first assignment against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bayy Packers' passing game in October, but policing them again could make for a difficult reprisal.

Rogers threw two interceptions and completed a season-low 51.1% of his passes in Green Bay's 23-16 win earlier this season. That offense, however, is far removed from the one that ended the season with Rodgers completing 71% of his passes with 15 touchdowns and no interceptions in six straight wins.

The Giants' secondary might have to hold its coverage longer than usual if Rodgers isn't corralled by defensive end Olivier Vernon and the pass rush. New York ranked just 23rd in total pass defense, but Pro Bowl selections Janoris Jenkins and Landon Collins highlight a deep group. Tight end Jared Cook looms as a threat for the unit after emerging late in the year.

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson vs. Lions pass rush

While managing high-ankle and knee sprains he suffered in September, Wilson has slogged to career lows in rushing with just 72 carries for 259 yards. That facet of his game may remain on the backburner as he continues to heal, but Saturday could provide an opportunity for a return to form by the Seattle Seahawks star quarterback.

The Detroit Lions have struggled both to pressure opposing quarterbacks and contain them from extending plays. Rodgers took off 10 times for 42 yards in the Packers' win last week, and Wilson is a bigger threat as an open-field runner. Seattle's 25th-ranked rushing attack may need him to provide a boost.

Selling out for the rush may not be optimal given Wilson's evasiveness, but his patience could be problematic, too. The Lions allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete an NFL record 72.7% of their passes, and Wilson could be content to pick apart the defense from the pocket.

Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi vs. Steelers front seven

The Miami Dolphins' breakout back took the NFL by surprise with his 204-yard, two-touchdown outburst in a 30-15 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this season. But coach Mike Tomin said this week that game was no "lightning strike," and Pittsburgh is on alert to prevent another big outing from Ajayi.

The Steelers have reason for confidence after allowing just 64.6 rushing yards per game in the first five wins of its seven-game streak to end the year. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt and nose tackle Javon Hargrave will be counted on to control the line of scrimmage, and the defense may load the box with Ryan Tannehill out and Matt Moore in at quarterback for the Dolphins.

Ajayi's ability to keep the offense moving and on the field will be all the more important for a Miami team looking to limit an explosive Pittsburgh offense. This will be the first time the Steelers will have Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown all starting together in a playoff game.

Texans LT Duane Brown vs. Raiders DE Khalil Mack

The Houston Texans' problems with quarterback Brock Osweiler at the helm were evident throughout the season. Now with their once-benched starter returning to his starting role after Tom Savage's concussion, a jolt is needed for an offense that ranks as the worst of any playoff team.

Protecting Osweiler will be critical after the line allowed eight sacks and 15 quarterback hits in the last two weeks. The clear priority will be stopping Mack, the main force on a sub-par Oakland Raiders defense, from creating havoc up front. The potential defensive player of the year had 11 sacks, though none in the last three games, and five forced fumbles.

If Mack and linebacker Bruce Irvin are unable to generate pressure, Oakland's defense could be at serious risk. The unit finished with an NFL-low 25 sacks despite the duo's combined 18, and Del Rio bemoaned the 20 missed tackles in the regular-season finale. The Raiders ranked second with 30 takeaways this season, so a strong pass rush could help force Osweiler into errors for easy scoring opportunities.

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Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz


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