The NFL’s Wild Card round kicks off the league’s playoffs this weekend with some of the most interesting and compelling story lines in recent memory: a division game, a rematch from last year’s playoffs, a battle of rookie quarterbacks, and two teams riding on waves of emotion.
Bengals at Texans
Saturday 4:30 p.m.
Cincinnati travels to Houston for the second year in a row, as the Bengals seek revenge for last year’s 31-10 loss at the hands of the Texans. That game featured the first-ever NFL playoff game with two rookie starting quarterbacks in Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and Houston’s T. J. Yates, who was the Texans third-string quarterback at the time.
This year, the Bengals will face a Houston offense that features six Pro Bowl selections including quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster, and wide receiver Andre Johnson.
Cincinnati is arguably the hotter team right now having won seven of its last eight games, while Houston has won only one in its last four. The Bengals, however, have only beaten two playoff teams this year in the Washington Redskins and the Baltimore Ravens.
They beat the Redskins by a touchdown in what was rookie sensation quarterback Robert Griffin III’s third-ever NFL start. Cincinnati also beat the Ravens Sunday, but that seemed to be a meaningless game for both teams. The Bengals only won by six points despite Dalton playing three times as many offensive series as Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Texans have beaten three playoff teams, the Broncos, Ravens and Colts, by a combined total of 48 points.
Bottom line-the Bengals will have to play a near-perfect game to beat the Texans and I don’t think they’ll be able to do it.
Texans win by 12.
Vikings at Packers
Saturday 8 p.m.
This game is likely to be the snoozer of the weekend despite being a division matchup.
While Minnesota beat Green Bay Sunday, the Packers were without several key players.
After sitting out last week, safety Charles Woodson, receiver Jordy Nelson and the team’s leading receiver/return specialist Randall Cobb will all be returning for Saturday’s game against the Vikings.
The Packers’ ninth-ranked passing offense will simply be too much for the Vikings’ 24th-ranked passing defense, especially with the game being played at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc.
While running back Adrian Peterson might have carried the Vikings to victory in Minnesota last week, he’s lost five of the six games against the Packers in Green Bay during his career.
Packers win by 14.
Colts at Ravens
Sunday 1 p.m.
Both Baltimore and Indianapolis will enter the contest riding emotional highs in what is likely to be one of the closest Wild Card games.
Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck has led the Colts from a two-win season a year ago, to the playoffs this year and one of the NFL’s biggest turnarounds ever.
Most of those wins came with interim coach Bruce Arians at the helm, as Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was sidelined battling leukemia. Indianapolis turned the emotional situation into their advantage, beating powerhouse Green Bay in their first game without Pagano.
When Pagano returned to the sidelines last week, the Colts again turned in an inspired performance defeating Houston 28-16 in a game that could have secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the Texans.
All that emotion, though, may not be good for Indianapolis’ chances on Sunday.
Following the Colts win against the Packers on Oct. 7, a struggling New York Jets team embarrassed them a week later, 35-9.
The Ravens will also be fired up for the game. Future Hall-of-Fame linebacker and team leader Ray Lewis announced the will be retiring this year after 17 seasons in Baltimore.
Lewis, who has missed the last 10 games with a torn right triceps muscle, announced his decision Wednesday saying this would be his “last ride.”
While Lewis’ injury might hinder his individual performance in the game, the team is sure to rally around him in what will almost certainly be his final game in Baltimore in his NFL career.
Due to the team’s low seeding, Baltimore will only play another home game if they face the Bengals in the AFC Championship game.
With two evenly matched teams this game is a tough call. The Ravens, however, are 2-4 against playoff teams this year and the Colts are 3-2 so I’m going out on a limb and making Indianapolis my upset pick of the week.
Colts win by three.
Seahawks at Redskins
Sunday 4:30 p.m.
This is set to be one of the most intriguing matchups of the weekend and could be the most wild and unpredictable game. It will only be the second time in NFL history that two rookie quarterbacks are starting a playoff game, and that means just about anything can happen.
Washington and Seattle are eerily similar. Both the Redskins and the Seahawks have standout-rookie quarterbacks, incredible running games, enter this particular contest on winning streaks and throw the ball less than just about any team in the NFL.
Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III made the Pro Bowl roster and posted the best-ever passer rating for a rookie with a 102.4.
Seattle quarterback and former Wisconsin signal-caller Russell Wilson posted the second best ever passer rating for a rookie with a 100.0.
Washington had the best rushing offense in the league and the No. 2-ranked running back, while Seattle had the third-best rushing offense and the No. 3-ranked running back.
Washington has won seven games in a row, and Seattle is riding five-game winning streak going into the playoffs.
The Redskins and Seahawks are also 30th and 32nd, respectively, in passing attempts.
The matchup will also be the only game of the weekend that will feature two of the top-ten scoring offenses in the NFL.
For all their offensive similarities, the two teams are worlds apart on the defensive side of the ball.
Seattle has the fourth-best defense in the NFL and Washington has the fourth worst.
Ultimately, this game will come down to how those two rookie quarterbacks handle the pressure and whether or not Griffin can overcome the one of the league’s best defenses. Griffin may be the better quarterback of the two, but that probably won’t be enough to win, even at home.
Seattle wins by seven.