Wild Card weekend is finally upon us, and the first slate of games contains some extremely appealing matchups. As New England, Baltimore, Green Bay and San Francisco eagerly await their opponents, the other eight qualified teams will eagerly strive to survive another week.
Down in Houston, an equally struggling Texans team will take on the young upstart Bengals, led by a very surprising rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton.
The NFC offers a pair of tantalizing matchups. Atlanta travels to New York. Both teams could potentially win a few games, but both have also been frustratingly inconsistent throughout the year.
Finally, Detroit travels to New Orleans in a matchup that arguably has the potential to be the most exciting and high scoring game of the first round.
There are a plethora of storylines that could develop over Wild Card weekend, but each game promises to provide its own source of entertainment and drama.
In the opening game of this potentially enthralling Wild Card series, the third team to qualify for the postseason from the AFC North travels to Reliant Stadium to take on the AFC's third seed in Houston.
While at first glance this game may not seem to be as exciting as some of the other matchups, this game has the potential to deliver one of the better games of the entire weekend.
Rookie QB Andy Dalton has had a great rookie season, and has brought Cincinnati to the playoffs that many considered to be a team in the rebuilding stage. Granted, the team went 0-4 against their biggest rivals in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, but their 9-3 record otherwise is nothing to sneeze at.
Despite a 7-3 start before their bye week, the Texans have seen a considerable drop off in the second half of the season, losing their last three games and finishing at .500 after their bye week.
You couldn't really blame them though. They have lost each of their biggest offensive stars Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster at various points throughout the season for extended periods of time due to injuries, the former being gone throughout the playoffs.
Johnson is likely to start the game, but his two hamstring injuries should make Texans fans nervous. While the club held Johnson out of the season finale against Tennessee to give him ample time to heal, hamstring injuries tend to be very touchy, and the slightest wrong move could cause Johnson to re-injure either one his legs.
Even if Johnson is able to go for a full four quarters, Cincinnati and their defense will have something to say about the result. It's hard to trust rookie QB TJ Yates, who is the team's third QB on the depth chart and who was shaken up last week versus Tennessee.
While Houston did dominate a rather weak division with a pathetic Colts team, bad Jaguars team and an inconsistent Tennessee team, Andy Dalton should be able to have some success against a hurting Texans team.
I expect this game to go down to the wire and Houston to come out flying, as it is the team's first ever playoff appearance. But I also expect Cincinnati to show off the experience that they have gained as a young team playing in the NFL's toughest division.
In the end, I believe in Cincy, and I think they'll make the trip to Foxborough to take on the Pats next week, holding on 27-21 to beat Houston.
Ah, the matchup that everybody who loves offensive football has been waiting for. Matt Stafford will lead a hot Detroit offense into the Superdome to take on an even hotter Saints offense lead by new single season passing record holder, Drew Brees.
Both teams lack desirable defenses, but have more than desirable aerial threats. Many people are predicting a game in the mid to high 40's, but I think that we're gonna be a bit surprised by the offensive output.
Being the first playoff game of 2012 for both of these teams, and the first ever for much of the Lions' young roster, expect both offenses to come out a little slower than anticipated. There will still be a high offensive output by the time that the game finishes, but not nearly as high as you might dream of.
Drew Brees will continue his red hot passing surge, and I don't see anybody in the Lions secondary that can hang with the size, strength and athleticism of Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston.
Which game are you most looking forward to this Wild Card weekend?
Similarly, there isn't anybody in the Saints' secondary who can cover Calvin Johnson. Matt Stafford is coming off a 500-yard performance in a loss, and is motivated to cement his place as one of the NFL's best young QBs. Both QBs are going to steal the show Saturday night, but it will also be important to establish a ground game as well to supplement the passing attacks.
The Saints have their home field advantage, experience and a more complete offense to work with. They're going to show it all off in their first playoff game. In the end, a double digit win for the Saints, 37-28.
Despite a rather inconsistent season from both teams, the Giants won two big games in weeks 16 and 17 over their rival Jets and Cowboys, to grab a deserved NFC East bid.
The Falcons hit their stride later in the year to finish with a 10 win season. Both teams can boast dominating offenses at times, but the Giants have the edge in defense, far and away.
Home-field advantage will play a huge role in this matchup. While New York has been somewhat inconsistent in The Met, Atlanta is a dominating force in the Georgia Dome.
This is good news for the Giants, as they will be able to neutralize Atlanta's advantage. Their dominant defensive line will be hoping for lots of chances to tee off on Matt Ryan and limit his time to pick out Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.
The Falcons defense has their hands full with Eli Manning. In order to have any hope of winning the game, they will have to do something that not a ton of teams have done this year; contain Victor Cruz.
In the end, I expect a big game of out Eli, Cruz, and Hakeem Nicks. The newly reunited tandem of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw will be too much for the Falcons to handle in East Rutherford.
Expect another close game, but the Giants offense and dominant defensive line are going to make the difference. Giants pull it out at home to continue their win streak, 28-23.
This matchup is the only game that I don't see as finishing with a relatively close score line. There have been differing opinions about this one. Some see a hobbled Big Ben and the subtractions of Ryan Clark and Rashard Mendenhall as a recipe for a close game.
Others have finally come to realize how mortal Tim Tebow is. He is not a consistent, legitimate passing QB in the NFL. Count me in as a member of the latter, as I fully expect Pittsburgh to come into Denver and lay the beatdown.
Tim Tebow and the Denver offense laid a giant egg when it mattered most, putting up a measly three points against a decimated, yet motivated, Kansas City Chiefs team. John Fox should be sending a fruit basket to both Oakland and San Diego, as Oakland laid an even bigger egg of their own.
Norv Turner was able to motivate his team to fight back from a six game losing streak to claw their way back to a disappointing .500 record. Norv Turner should consider sending a fruit basket of his own to the San Diego ownership for retaining him, but that's another article for another time.
Tim Tebow surely cannot repeat his pathetic six completion night if the team has any chance to prevail on Sunday, but I wouldn't expect it to get that much better. A hobbled Big Ben gives any team a much better chance to win than an inconsistent Tebow, and I fully expect the Steelers to come out and dominate both sides of the ball and score over 20 points on a Denver defense.
The Broncos may score an early TD as they ride the emotion of the crowd and being in the playoffs. But after that, Matt Prater is going to be his usually busy self, accounting for a majority of the team's offense as he has done on many occasions this year.
It's been a nice ride for Denver and Tim Tebow, but it's going to end on a four game losing skid. This will give the Broncos ample time to consider prospects for the 2012 NFL Draft that will help them rebuild further. Perhaps they'll look at a complete QB in the draft, but again this is another issue for another article. I'm taking the Steelers 27- 13.