NFL Playoff Picture 2013: Analyzing Division Winners' Ideal First-Round Opponent

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistDecember 25, 2012

December 9, 2012; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) runs with the ball against the Baltimore Ravens at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Despite being a mere week away from the beginning of the NFL playoffs, there are still an infinite amount of implications heading into Sunday's slate of games.

The Atlanta Falcons have clinched home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, but that is the only division winner guaranteed a first-round bye. Each of the seven remaining division winners or leaders will have to play their starters this week to have a shot at a bye or to lock up the championship in the Washington Redskins' and San Francisco 49ers' cases.

Nevertheless, it's hard not to look forward. Assuming that all division leaders get the job done and take home their respective divisions, there are some potential Wild-Card opponents specific squads should be hoping to matchup against.

Which teams do division winners want to face? Here is a complete breakdown of the ideal opponents for each of the NFL's division leaders eligible for Round 1 play.


San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins

Ideal Opponent: Minnesota Vikings

For both Washington and San Francisco, their desire to play Minnesota over Seattle comes from the exact same place. 

First and foremost, no one wants to play the Seahawks at this point. 

Over the past three weeks, Seattle has outscored its opponents 150-30. Those three games alone would give them the third-best scoring ration in the NFL, behind only the Broncos and Patriots.

While two of those matchups came against lowly cellar-dwellers, the Seahawks absolutely eviscerated San Francisco on Sunday night. Working Jim Harbaugh's team like a speed bag, Seattle used both the run and pass effectively in a game that had to be a little disconcerting for the team's Super Bowl hopes.

There isn't a squad still alive in the playoff chase that would welcome the Seahawks to their stadium with open arms.

On the other hand, the Vikings are the least intimidating Wild-Card contender. Yes, Adrian Peterson is a cyborg and we're all his minions, but there's a recently married Kryptonite by the name of Christian Ponder who has both the Redskins and 49ers salivating.

By virtue of his sheer mediocrity, San Francisco and Washington could both load up the box against the run and try to stop Peterson without truly sacrificing much in coverage. The Texans employed such a strategy last week and Ponder responded with a sterling 174 yards. Minnesota won, so it didn't matter, but you get the point.

Ponder's presence is especially helpful to the Redskins, a team that's struggled mightily all season against the pass. With both Chicago and Seattle having the defensive wherewithal to stick with Robert Griffin III and the Giants having already seen the young quarterback twice this season, the Vikings may be the only team Washington can feel truly comfortable against. 


Green Bay Packers

Ideal Opponent: Any team that's not the New York Giants or Seattle Seahawks.

While the Packers may have some slight preferences about which team they play if they fail to get a first-round bye, avoiding the Giants and Seahawks is far more important to their playoff livelihood.

Make all of the "Fail Mary" jokes you want, but Seattle matches up very well against Green Bay. Brandon Browner will be back for the playoffs and if Richard Sherman is able to win his appeal, the duo has the ability to lock down the Packers' receivers. Even if Sherman is suspended, the Seahawks have shown they can handle one of their brilliant corners being out of the lineup already and could do it again. 

What's more, it was the Seahawks' front seven who took down Aaron Rodgers eight times in the first half in Week 3. And considering how much better this version of Pete Carroll's bunch is, it would be an interesting matchup to say the least. 

The Packers not wanting to play the Giants is even more straightforward. Green Bay's only loss in its last 10 games came at the hands of New York in what can only be deemed an utter embarrassment. Tom Coughlin's squad blew the Packers off the ball from the opening whistle, sacking Rodgers five times en route to a 38-10 victory. 


Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens

Ideal Opponent: Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are a heartwarming story, but there is a ton of mitigating evidence that shows they're a massive overachiever. Heading into Week 17, Indianapolis has actually given up 42 more points than it has scored. According to the Pythagorean Theorem, the Colts should have six or seven wins through their first 15 games, meaning (at minimum) they have overachieved by three wins already.

And you're not going to believe this, but teams like that historically don't do well in the postseason. There are obviously exceptions (last season's Giants gave up more points than they scored), but this Indy team doesn't feel like one of them.

Football Outsiders' DVOA metric ranks the Colts as the 28th-best team in the NFL. While that's unquestionably harsh and probably overdoes it a little bit, there is plenty of simple evidence that suggests they are closer to mediocre than playoff worthy.

In winning eight of its last 10 games, Indianapolis has beaten exactly zero playoff teams. And only one of those wins in the past 10 were by more than a touchdown. What's more, the Colts are 9-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Some of that is due to the late-game heroics of Andrew Luck, but a regression to the mean is coming.

Yes, a win is a win and all that good stuff, but some victories mean more. The Seahawks' thrashing of the 49ers on Sunday night means exponentially more than even their 58-0 victory over the Cardinals. The fact that Indianapolis has just two quality wins all season and that nearly all of its victories were close matters. Context matters.

When contrasting this Indianapolis team with a Bengals squad that has playoff experience and a 6-2 road record on the season, it's really no contest. 



 No. 1 Seed Atlanta Falcons (13-2) Clinched NFC South & Home-Field Advantage
 No. 2 Seed Green Bay Packers (11-4) Clinched NFC North
 No. 3 Seed San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1) Lead NFC West; Clinched Playoff Berth 
 No. 4 Seed Washington Redskins (9-6) Lead NFC East


 No. 5 Seed Seattle Seahawks (10-5); Clinched Playoff Berth
 No. 6 Seed Minnesota Vikings (9-6)


 Chicago Bears (9-6)
 Dallas Cowboys (8-7)
 New York Giants (8-7)



 No. 1 Seed Houston Texans (12-3) Clinched AFC South
 No. 2 Seed Denver Broncos (12-3) Clinched AFC West
 No. 3 Seed New England Patriots (11-4) Clinched AFC East
 No. 4 Seed Baltimore Ravens (10-5) Clinched AFC North


 No. 5 Seed Indianapolis Colts (10-5); Clinched Playoff Berth
 No. 6 Seed Cincinnati Bengals (9-6); Clinched Playoff Berth



Atlanta: vs. Tampa Bay

San Francisco: vs. Arizona

Green Bay: at Minnesota

Washington: vs. Dallas

Seattle: vs. St. Louis

Minnesota: vs. Green Bay

Chicago: vs. Detroit

Dallas: at Washington

New York: vs. Philadelphia



Houston: at Indianapolis

Denver: vs. Kansas City

New England: vs. Miami

Baltimore: at Cincinnati

Indianapolis: vs. Houston

Cincinnati: vs. Baltimore



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