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2013 NFL Wild-Card Weekend preview

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Finish the following statement: The 2012 NFL regular season was defined by …

Not an easy answer, right?

Was it Peyton Manning submitting one of the best seasons of his career following four neck surgeries and a year away from the game? How about Adrian Peterson coming within a first-down run of breaking the all-time single-season rushing record on the one-year anniversary of tearing his knee apart? Could it have been the replacement refs? Or the No. 1 overall pick turning a two-win bottom-feeder into an 11-win playoff team while not even finishing as the second-best rookie quarterback? Was it the rise of Colin Kaepernick? The fall of the Giants? The rise and fall of the Texans?

Then there’s ChuckStrong, whose story was an Oscar-caliber sports movie that all but wrote itself in Indianapolis.

Indeed, no matter how you dice it, the subplots were numerous and rich. Not to mention unresolved.

What we do know is the field has been reduced to 12, with roughly half of those teams boasting the credentials for a potential run to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII. But credentials alone do not a title team make. We need only look back to championship weekend last year, when both the Patriots and Giants were beneficiaries of key bounces of the ball late in tight games. Anyone who remembers those clashes knows how close we came to a Ravens-49ers Super Bowl.

Talent, coaching, chemistry and a dash of good fortune: the cocktail that when mixed properly can give way to a Lombardi Trophy. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. First up is wild-card weekend, so let’s delve into the matchups.

Bengals (10-6) at Texans (12-4)

This is a rematch of a wild-card game from last year in the same location and occupying the same Saturday afternoon time slot, but pitting two teams seemingly going in opposite directions. On one side are the Texans, who as recently as early-December enjoyed a multiple-game cushion over everyone in the AFC. Despite dropping two of three after an 11-1 start, Houston remained in pole position for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs until a Week 17 loss to the Colts. Now they must play a Round 1 game they never envisioned against a Cincinnati team that lost only once in the second half of the season (20-19 to the Cowboys).

The Bengals have a lot going for them. They can rush the passer (51 total sacks, third in the NFL), are solid against the run (107.2 yards per game, 12th in the league) and create turnovers (30 takeaways, second in the AFC). They are also a good road team, having won their last four. A.J. Green is one of the most explosive playmakers in the playoffs and is a home run threat every time he touches the ball. If Marvin Lewis can only find a way to glue his challenge flag to the inside of his pocket in the first half of the game, Cincinnati will have a chance.

The Texans are built to beat a team like the Bengals. With Arian Foster spearheading the league’s eighth-ranked rushing attack and J.J. Watt anchoring a formidable pass rush, it’s tough to come from behind against Houston. They also take care of the ball as well as any team in the league (only 17 giveaways all season). On the flip side, they have struggled when getting down early. Can Matt Schaub be trusted to bring them back from a deficit after he routinely missed open receivers and threw just one touchdown against three interceptions during Houston’s 1-3 finish? And can the Texans turn it back on after playing mediocre football over basically the last seven weeks? Don’t forget they weren’t too inspiring in back-to-back overtime wins over the Jaguars and Lions in late November (the former requiring a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback and the latter being aided by a boneheaded move by Jim Schwartz.) The word at the time was Houston was proving it could gut out close games. But given the way they finished, it looks like those performances simply marked the beginning of a sustained stretch of subpar play.

In the first playoff meeting between the teams, Houston won, 31-10, but the game was closer than the score indicated. A classic “rookie mistake” interception by Andy Dalton late in the first half of a 10-10 game was returned for a touchdown by Watt, which shifted the momentum. This time around, Dalton should be better prepared for the stage, considering he’s familiar with Reliant Stadium in January and now knows how one ill-fated throw can be the difference between winning and going home. That makes him the playoff veteran when compared to Schaub, who will be tasting postseason football for the first time after being injured last year.

The Texans are the more talented team and Lewis has distinguished himself in all the wrong ways as a playoff coach, but I keep coming back to the state of shell-shock in which Houston must find itself. The Texans know they should not have to be playing this game. Will that affect their week of preparation and subsequent level of focus come game time? I say yes.

Prediction:
Bengals 20
Texans 17

Vikings (10-6) at Packers (11-5)

Like Bengals-Texans, this is also a rematch of a playoff game. Only for Minnesota, however. Although a first-round bye was on the line for the Packers when these teams met in Week 17, the stakes were far higher for the Vikings, who would have been eliminated with a loss. They played like it inside a charged Mall of America Field, with Adrian Peterson’s pursuit of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record adding to the drama. Peterson didn’t disappoint, trampling the Packers defense for 199 yards to fall nine yards short of history.

To say Peterson carried Minnesota to the playoffs on his reconstructed knee would be an understatement. On the morning of Dec. 9, the Vikings were a middling 6-6 outfit facing a daunting schedule and needing to leapfrog a handful of teams to have a shot at the postseason. Peterson proceeded to churn out 651 yards on the ground and score five touchdowns while willing Minnesota to wins over the Bears, Rams, Texans and Packers, and into the playoffs.

But back to Green Bay. In two games against his division rivals this year, Peterson ran for 210 and 199 yards. In other words, he was the constant. Yet when the teams met at Lambeau Field in early December, Green Bay won, 23-14. What was the difference in the two outcomes? The play of Christian Ponder. In the first game, Ponder completed just 12 of 25 passes for 119 yards. He also threw two killer interceptions, both in Green Bay territory (and one in the end zone).

In Round 2, however, Ponder was phenomenal, throwing for 234 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. With Aaron Rodgers leading Green Bay back from a pair of 13-point deficits to twice knot the game, Ponder made every throw he had to down the stretch to stave off the comeback. Two in particular were flat-out Rodgers-esque: a 65-yard bomb to Jarius Wright, which set up a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter after Green Bay had tied it for the first time; and a crucial 25-yard sideline connection to Michael Jenkins on a third-and-11 on the game’s final drive to set up the winning field goal. By all measures, it was Ponder’s best game of the season.

So do the math. In a contest that was of vastly more importance to the Vikings and played in Minnesota, with Peterson up to his usual and Ponder submitting his finest effort of the year while out-slinging Rodgers in the process, the Vikings still just barely squeaked by the Packers, 37-34. The odds of a similar occurrence taking place a mere six days later, at Lambeau and in a game of equal value to both teams are very slim.

While it’s certainly not a wise game plan to “let” Peterson get his 200, the fact that he has already done that twice – with Minnesota losing one of those games by two scores – is telling. As dominant and transcendent as he is, AP is not the Vikings X-factor. Ponder is. That is not a good sign for Minnesota heading into Round 3 against their NFC North rivals.

Prediction:
Packers 27
Vikings 16

Colts (11-5) at Ravens (10-6)

Without a doubt, this game will feature the two most emotionally-charged teams of wild-card weekend. The Colts are playing for Chuck Pagano. The Ravens are playing for Ray Lewis. Beyond that, it’s impossible to gauge how Indy’s in-remission coach and Baltimore’s soon-to-retire franchise icon will impact their teams’ play on the field. What is quantifiable are the teams themselves. And neither is as good as its record would indicate.

The Colts became the first team to win 11 games with a negative scoring differential. They played a schedule rife with soft competition (the Browns, Bills, Lions and Chiefs, along with two games apiece against the Jaguars and Titans). Nine of their wins came by one score or less, which was both indicative of their consistent struggles to beat mediocre opponents as well as Andrew Luck’s undeniable clutch gene. The rookie quarterback led four fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives.

The Ravens surged to a 9-2 start, but included in that run was a 31-30 win over the Patriots capped by a disputed field goal, a 31-29 win over the Cowboys in which Jason Garrett shot himself in the foot with awful clock management, and a 16-13 win over the Chargers highlighted by Ray Rice’s fourth-and-29 conversion. Baltimore proceeded to crash and burn against stiffer competition in December, dropping four of their final five to limp into the playoffs.

So what gives? First, Luck was a different quarterback and the Colts were a different team on the road. Luck threw 12 touchdowns against just five interceptions in leading Indianapolis to a 7-1 record at home. Outside of Lucas Oil Stadium, however, Luck was intercepted 13 times and lost four fumbles as the Colts managed only a 4-4 split of their road slate. Moreover, the four road games the Colts won came in Tennessee, Jacksonville, Detroit and Kansas City (combined record of 14-50), and their margin of victory in three of them was one score or less. Conversely, Indy’s four road losses to the Bears, Jets, Patriots and Texans were by an average of over 23 points. The pattern is pretty clear. The Colts labored in road victories over some of the worst teams in the league and were blown out by tougher opponents.

The Ravens may not be the Super Bowl contender many had them pegged as early on, but they still have the best player on the field and one of the league’s elite playmakers in Rice, along with a quarterback who, like Luck, plays far better at home. Joe Flacco threw 15 of his 22 touchdown passes at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens were 6-2.

Despite the Ravens’ 1-4 December, they remain a proud and veteran-laden outfit that has feasted on inferior teams in this round of the playoffs throughout the Flacco era (Dolphins in 2008, Patriots in ’09, Chiefs in ’10). Luck won’t roll over, but he will make at least one big mistake in the first half, which combined with a healthy dose of Rice against an overmatched Indy defense will stake Baltimore to a big lead that the Colts won’t be able to overcome.

Prediction:
Ravens 31
Colts 20

Seahawks (11-5) at Redskins (10-6)

Because NBC opted to select Vikings-Packers as the primetime game on Saturday night, Seahawks-Redskins drops back to the last game of the weekend. In some ways it’s fitting, because this one figures to be the main course of Round 1. It features the two hottest teams – Seattle enters on a five-game win streak, Washington having won seven straight – a pair of quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III who will likely finish 1-2 in Rookie of the Year voting, along with the return of playoff football to the nation’s capital for the first time since 1999.

There’s also the added intrigue of a rare road favorite in the playoffs, as Seattle enters the game as three-point favorites nearly 3,000 miles from home. Be it by employing advanced metrics (the Seahawks finished the regular season No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ total DVOA ratings) or the eye test (they scored a record 150 points over a three-game stretch from Weeks 14-16), the Seahawks are the real deal. But has their stock been inflated due to an overwhelming home-field advantage that is almost certain to be non-existent throughout the second season? Perhaps.

By all accounts, Seattle is the most complete team in the field. They have the league’s third-ranked rushing attack, fourth-ranked defense, excellent special teams and a rookie quarterback who simply does not get rattled. With that said, while they were unstoppable at home this year (8-0 with an average margin of victory of 18.5 points), they were a pedestrian 3-5 on the road. Let’s dig deeper.

Two trends have emerged for the Seahawks. The first is that despite boasting the league’s 10th-ranked rushing defense, over their last three losses (all, obviously, on the road), the Seahawks have given up an average of 149.3 rushing yards per game (for some perspective, the Saints had the worst rushing defense in the NFL this year, allowing an average of 147.6 yards per game). Second, when they have found themselves in a close game, Wilson has absolutely proven to be a closer. As for the Seattle defense? Not so much.

In a 28-24 loss to the Lions in Week 8, after Wilson led a 12-play, 87-yard touchdown drive to give the Seahawks a 24-21 lead with just over five minutes remaining, the defense couldn’t get off the field, as the Lions marched 80 yards in 16 plays to score the winning touchdown with 20 seconds left. Then against Miami in Week 12, the defense surrendered scoring drives of 80 and 65 yards inside the last six minutes as the Dolphins scored the game’s final 10 points for a 24-21 victory. Furthermore, in the other tight game they played over the second half of the season (Week 13 in Chicago), the Seahawks pulled out a 23-17 overtime win in spite of the defense’s poor play in the clutch. Trailing 14-10, Wilson led the offense on a 12-play, 97-yard touchdown drive to give Seattle a 17-14 lead with 24 seconds remaining. Yet the D somehow managed to give up a 56-yard catch-and-run to Brandon Marshall on the first play of Chicago’s ensuing drive, which set up an improbable game-tying field goal as time expired. The Seahawks won the coin flip in overtime and Wilson never allowed his defense to step back on the field.

Now let’s spin those two trends into the context of this playoff game against the Redskins. Seattle’s front seven has been run over in the team’s last three losses. Washington, meanwhile, features the league’s No. 1 rushing attack, led by Griffin and sensational rookie Alfred Morris, who has run for an average of 117 yards and eight total touchdowns during the Redskins’ seven-game win streak. Advantage: Washington.

As for the Redskins’ defense, look no further than a pair of key stops it recorded against the Giants late in a season-altering (for both teams) 17-16 win on Monday night in Week 13. Or the three-and-out the unit forced from Baltimore to begin overtime the following Sunday, which set the stage for Kirk Cousins to help lead Washington to a 31-28 win in relief of Griffin. And finally, last Sunday night in the de facto NFC East championship game against the Cowboys, when Tony Romo took the ball with 3:33 remaining in a 21-18 game and both teams’ seasons hanging in the balance. On the first play of the drive, Rob Jackson picked off Romo to seal the game and set the stage for the Redskins’ return to the playoffs.

There is no disputing the numbers when it comes to the Seahawks. They have been a phenomenal team all season and have been in every game they lost until the very end. But more often than not, the playoffs come down to which defense can get a stop in crunch time. In a game that figures to go down to the wire, and one that features two quarterbacks with a knack for coming through in the clutch, the outcome will likely boil down to which defense can rise up and make that one critical stop. Judging from each unit’s track record, the choice seems clear.

Prediction:
Redskins 19
Seahawks 16

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