NFL wild-card weekend is finally here, and it should prove to be the most volatile and entertaining in recent memory. Just take a look at the signal-callers who are in action.
Three dynamic rookie quarterbacks that don't play like rookies, two rather inconsistent second-year quarterbacks, a Pro Bowl QB with no playoff experience and a Super Bowl MVP.
Translation: don't rule anything out—even a rookie leading his team to the Super Bowl for the first time. With that in mind, here are the winning predictions for the opening round of pro football's postseason.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Houston Texans
Now this one is tricky. It is a total dream revenge scenario for the Bengals, who were defeated in Houston in the 2011 Wild Card Round. But in pre-game warmups just ahead of their season finale on Sunday, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis suffered a hamstring injury.
Not having the Law Firm in the fold would really hurt the Cincinnati offense, which has thrived in the second half of the season thanks to the improved play of Green-Ellis.
But the Texans' running game is suffering lately as well.
Other than strong performances against the Indianapolis Colts' shaky rush defense, RB Arian Foster has struggled to find his form. Not to mention quarterback Matt Schaub has less playoff experience than Andy Dalton—or even his backup, T.J. Yates.
One discouraging statistic: Schaub has thrown one touchdown pass in the past month in the midst of a 1-3 finish for Houston. That's not exactly considered "surging into the playoffs."
This should ultimately be a defensive battle. J.J. Watt is sure to make an impact play at some point—whether it's a strip-sack fumble or batting the ball up in the air and generating an interception.
However, the Bengals also have playmakers on the defensive line, most notably Geno Atkins.
I don't really trust either of these quarterbacks, but their jobs are made easier throwing to some of the best receivers in the league. Both A.J. Green and Andre Johnson should have huge games.
This really is an even matchup when you break it down. Go for the Bengals to avenge their loss from a season ago in an upset.
Prediction: Bengals 17, Texans 14
Indianapolis Colts vs. Baltimore Ravens
For the Colts to continue their inspiring season, they couldn't have asked for a better matchup.
Although Indy did beat the Texans in head coach Chuck Pagano's return, it was at home—where the Colts went 7-1 this year. Houston would be a much tougher opponent in Reliant Stadium.
There's hope for the Colts against Baltimore because Pagano was the Ravens' defensive coordinator just prior to taking the gig in Indianapolis. That familiarity will be invaluable for the Colts as Andrew Luck tries to solve the Baltimore secondary.
The matchup of QBs between Luck and Joe Flacco is going to be mighty interesting. Any pressure on Luck to succeed immediately has been brushed aside, as he has thrown caution to the wind in leading the Colts to 11 wins in his first year under center.
Flacco is very talented and has one of the better arms in the league, but he is also inconsistent. Pagano knows every one of his tendencies.
Baltimore's play-calling tends to put the ball in the hands of Flacco far too often, and Jim Caldwell's short track record isn't enough to determine whether that trend will manifest itself in the postseason.
Here's the biggie: the Ravens' defense is not even close to what it's been in years past. The secondary is thin, and the Colts' running game has been improving lately with RB Vick Ballard becoming the workhorse.
Luck hasn't turned it over in three weeks—which means he might be due to be baited into a pick against legendary Ravens safety Ed Reed.
That said, Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians used to call the shots for the Pittsburgh Steelers and is well-acquainted with how to beat Baltimore. Those factors should allow Luck to make enough plays and push the Colts into the next round.
Prediction: Colts 27, Ravens 26
Seattle Seahawks vs. Washington Redskins
Both teams are coming off of extremely physical Week 17 wins over division rivals at home. That could play a factor in this one after such physically grueling contests.
But Seattle is better equipped to handle it. If any unit can stop Robert Griffin III and the Redskins' dynamic pistol offense, it's the Seahawks' tough, hard-hitting D.
Not only do the Seahawks have the best secondary in the NFL—which will be at full strength with Pro Bowl CB Brandon Browner's return—but they also have the fastest front seven in the NFL.
Certain star players may garner most of the attention, especially rookie QB Russell Wilson, who is of the same mold as Griffin minus the height and the Olympic-caliber speed. But another rookie that is overlooked is Seahawks MLB Bobby Wagner.
As the team leader with 140 combined tackles in 2012, Wagner has incredible speed and plays wise beyond his years. Not to mention that the incredibly deep defensive line has a wonderful combination of size and speed and will pose serious problems to the Redskins' No. 1 rushing attack.
What a running back battle it's going to be, too. Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch and electric Redskins rookie Alfred Morris are sure to captivate.
RGIII is not quite 100 percent and still running relatively slow from that sprained LCL ligament in his knee. That said, he did manage 63 yards on just six carries and a big touchdown in the NFC East-clinching win over the Dallas Cowboys.
It is clear who the better all-around team is between the Redskins and Seahawks, though. This is simply a bad matchup for Washington.
It's too bad that one of these two teams—arguably the most exciting in the NFL at the moment—has to lose in the first round. But this will be a statement game for the Seahawks, who have yet to convince doubters that they can win away from home.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, Redskins 20
Minnesota Vikings vs. Green Bay Packers
Well, picking every road team to emerge victorious would be a little bit too wacky. That's why that run ends here at Lambeau Field.
As much of a beast as Adrian Peterson has been for the Vikings (running for an average of over 200 yards in two meetings with the Packers), Green Bay will finally find a way to at least contain him.
Minnesota's 37-34 victory in the Metrodome in Week 17 was amazing, especially Peterson's agonizingly close pursuit of the single-season rushing yards record. He wound up just nine yards short, with his last scamper putting rookie kicker extraordinaire Blair Walsh in position for the 29-yard game-winner.
Rodgers destroyed the Vikings on Sunday with 365 yards and four touchdowns, and should do more of the same this coming Saturday.
The mobility of Vikings QB Christian Ponder posed some problems for the Packers' pass rush, who only managed to sack him once. Ponder also played well to his credit, but is a much different player on the road than at home.
This will mark the third game between these two NFC North rivals, and all bets are truly off. It's hard to believe we'll get another inhuman performance from Adrian Peterson. Then again, who's to doubt him? This is the same guy who came back with one of the best seasons ever after blowing out his knee.
The Packers are determined to best last year's one-and-done performance after a 15-1 regular season, and they will do enough to give their fans something they haven't seen in a while: a postseason home victory.
Prediction: Packers 31, Vikings 23
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