Thursday, January 03, 2013

Lots to Ponder: NFL Wild Card Weekend Offers Tantalizing Matchups and Opportunity for Riveting Television

If the zebras let ‘em play, the coming weeks of NFL playoff football should be great. This is one of those years where it’s even less clear how much separates division winners and wild-card entries, and as the recent past has taught us, home field isn’t always the advantage it’s presumed to be.

There’s a ton of youth on these squads, with six of the 12 quarterbacks either rookies or second-year players (Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick). Meanwhile, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady—old guys who can use their rest—will be couch-potato-ing it for the opening weekend, biding their time and scoping out their opponents for the divisional round.

Here’s how we see Weekend #1 going down. Place your bets accordingly in relation to the point spreads provided by your favorite bookie. (As always, we are not responsible for lame-o, last-minute, outcome-changing pass interference calls or dubious personal fouls.)   

Cincinnati (10-6) at Houston (12-4)
After looking like a good early bet for the Super Bowl, the Texans lost their mojo down the stretch. They dropped three of their last four, and their offense went on semi-sabbatical, including world-class RB Arian Foster, who had a brief, but apparently ultimately irrelevant, heart concern, and gained over 100 yards in only one of his last five games. Meanwhile, after a 3-5 start, the Bengals won 7 of their last 8, including defeating the Giants, Steelers and Ravens, and yielding only 11.7 points per game in victory. Bengals need their running game to step up against J.J. Watt & Co. The trending is all toward Cincy, but...
Prediction: Texans 20, Bengals 17
Minnesota (10-6) at Green Bay (11-5)
A rematch of last week’s exciting playoff clincher for the Vikes. Only now, we’re in an outdoors venue (Lambeau Field, aka Frozen Tundra), and that doesn’t seem like a good deal for the Minnesotans, who are, strangely enough, accustomed to the indoors, climate-controlled comfort of their home dome. The Packers looked plenty competitive in that loss, but Adrian Peterson ran wild on ‘em, and their defense in general still has a lot to prove. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers remains a wizard with the football, and assuming Pack DC Dom Capers can find a scheme to stem the Peterson Tide, the Vikings should freeze up. The game’s at night, BTW. In the open air. In Green Bay, Wisconsin. In January. Who scheduled this?? Game-time temperature: mid-teens. No snow is forecast.
Prediction: Packers 24, Vikings 16

Indianapolis (11-5) at Baltimore (10-6) 
The Ravens are the AFC North’s answer to the Texans: They started 9-2, then crumbled at the end, dropping 4 of 5. If it’s any consolation, they lost to good teams, but they also let Denver dominate them in Baltimore and they simply have looked flat. Ray Lewis announced his impending retirement and maybe that’s supposed to give the team an inspirational jump-start. Of course, their opponent, the Colts, have an equal inspiration with the return of head coach Chuck Pagano from leukemia treatments. The surprising Colts have won 9 of their last 11 games—mostly against lesser teams, yes, but clearly this squad keeps improving. First-year QB Luck is the real deal, and the mostly anonymous Colts defense always hustles. Indy could be poised for the big upset, but the head-over-heart analysis gives this one to Baltimore.
Prediction: Ravens 23, Colts 19 

Seattle (11-5) at Washington (10-6)
Two exciting rookie quarterbacks square off in what could be the game of the weekend. The Seahawks’ season got a highly publicized early lift in Week 3 when an incorrect referee call handed them a squeaker 14-12 over the Packers. They limped around a bit after that, then went crazy wild, winning 7 of their final 8 games, putting up huge offensive numbers and pounding bottom-feeders like Arizona and Buffalo, while also taking it to the 49ers, 42-13, and threatening to wrest from them the NFC West title. The ‘Hawks defense has allowed an average of 12 points in their last five games, and they are a hungry, swarming bunch of young athletes who look hellbent on winning. That goes for QB Russell Wilson, too. He’s too heady for words, in fact. His sharp passes and precocious leadership have made long-distance stars of wide receivers Golden Tate and Sidney Rice, and RB Marshawn Lynch can be a beast, having racked up 1,590 rushing yards. 

The Skins are another hot team, riding a seven-game win streak. They counter with their own brilliant first-year signal-caller, RG3, who’s probably not yet as instinctually aware as Wilson but has incredible physical gifts that make every play an adventure and every positive outcome possible. Even so, the truly unsung rookie of the year is the Washington running back, Alfred Morris, a relative unknown out of Florida Atlantic who has gained 1,613 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. Only 5’9” and packing 218 pounds, Morris runs “big,” has carried the rock a manly 335 times, and has yet to be slowed down. He punishes opposing defenders and chews up yardage and the clock—and has been a godsend to his fellow rookie Griffin. As for the Skins' defense, they play stoutly enough against the run (ranked #5 in the NFL) but are porous versus the pass (#30). They lost first-stringers DL Adam Carriker and LB Brian Orakpo early in the season and have made adjustments under DC Jim Haslett, but of all the teams that made the playoffs, the Skins have yielded the most points. Tough, tough call, especially since the Seahawks have to travel cross-country to the East Coast, where—statistics prove—West Coast teams usually come to die. It’s a case of who succumbs to the jitters, probably—or gets the ball last.
Prediction: Seahawks 26, Redskins 24

We'll be back next week with divisional round sizeups. Meanwhile, we're on Twitter now: @BRADY1M. Join the conversation.

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