Now that the wild-card round games are set, let’s take a quick look at what next weekend will bring.
SATURDAY, JAN. 5
AFC: 4:30 PM ET Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans
These two teams faced off in last year’s playoffs, and the Bengals would probably prefer to forget that day. Houston beat the daylights out of Cincinnati, 31-10, but at this point, it’s easy to see the Bengals as the team with the momentum advantage. Marvin Lewis’ team ended their regular season with a three-game winning streak, including vital divisional victories over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Meanwhile, the Texans went from the No. 1 seed to the AFC’s No. 3 with their Sunday loss to the Indianapolis Colts, not to mention wins by the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots. Houston has scored one offensive touchdown is its last 11 quarters, and a formerly dominant defense has started to fall apart. The Bengals will counter that offense with a formidable front seven, and their star is defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who is the most intimidating and productive interior lineman in the game today. Of course, the Texans have their own not-so-secret weapon — J.J. Watt, who lines up all over the front, and has been just about unblockable all season.
NFC: 8 PM ET Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers
Didn’t we just see this movie? Yes, we did, when the Vikings beat the Packers at the Metrodome to close out their regular season and bag a playoff appearance. Quarterback Christian Ponder, who has run hot and cold all season, threw three touchdown passes against Green Bay’s inconsistent defense. But the Packers know where the Vikings’ bread is buttered — it all begins and ends with Adrian Peterson, who gained 409 yards on the ground against the Pack in two regular-season games. In addition, the Vikings’ defense has improved, thanks to the efforts of unsung players like Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith and Antoine Winfield. The Packers present their own set of challenges, especially at Lambeau Field, and especially when Aaron Rodgers is on point. When these two teams met in Green Bay, however, Rodgers completed 27 of 35 passes for 286 yards, but he managed only one touchdown and threw a pick. Atypically, Green Bay gained 152 yards on the ground in that 23-14 win, and Ponder threw two interceptions to keep the Vikings at bay. If Ponder can repeat more recent successes, this game could be a lot closer than people think.
SUNDAY, JAN. 6
AFC: 1 PM ET Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens
The Mayflower Bowl pits the inspirational story of the 2012 season against a team that has to feel a bit unsure of its position despite hosting this game. The Colts roll into Baltimore with all the zing in the world, but the Ravens have serious issues. Once 9-2, John Harbaugh’s team has dropped four of its last five games, fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and is trying to find any manner of consistency on offense and defense. The Colts, headed by Bruce Arians and now Chuck Pagano, have been a juggernaut of late, winning nine of their last 11 games and getting contributions from all sorts of unexpected places. The Ravens should be favored in this one, but don’t be surprised if the Colts continue their hot streak.
NFC: 4:30 PM ET Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins
While there’s been a lot of talk about Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, this game features the NFL’s two most exciting — and potentially most impactful in a single-play sense — rookie quarterbacks. When he’s healthy and running track like he can, Robert Griffin III presents an almost insurmountable series of problems in conjunction with running back Alfred Morris. Meanwhile, the Seahawks bring Russell Wilson to the table, and Wilson — like Griffin — combines a mobile attack with an underrated ability to fling the ball with great accuracy and productivity. It was Wilson, not Griffin or Luck, who tied Peyton Manning’s record for touchdown passes by a rookie, and Wilson has his own rushing backup in the ultra-violent Marshawn Lynch. This game could come down to which defense handles the opposition’s read-option, zone-option and Pistol packages.
We’ll have much more on these games through the week, but that’s a quick primer. Are you ready for some playoff football? We are …