Usually, the teams that end up doing the most damage in January (and February) are the teams that enter the playoffs with the most momentum. There are exceptions, of course, but that tends to be the case.
And that credo could make life hard for the teams entering this year's postseason festivities on the heels of late-season slides.
There is always room in the playoffs for surprises, but chances are, the teams playing their best football right now are going to be the teams moving on past their first playoff game. Alternately, here's a look at the teams that will crumble in their first and only opportunity. Losing team in bold.
You can see a full playoff schedule here.
No. 3 Houston Texans
vs. No. 6 Cincinnati Bengals
Saturday, Jan. 5 at 4:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Like a few of the other teams that were once considered the very best of the AFC, the Texans sure did lay an egg or three at the end of the 2012 season. And that doesn't bode well as they prepare to face a hot Bengals team whose only two losses since the bye week have come against top-seeded Denver and, somewhat disturbingly, Dallas.
The Bengals certainly aren't infallible. But they are far less vulnerable than the Texans, who have been exposed to the max in December. Ever since a Week 13 win over lowly Tennessee, the Texans have lost three of four—and all three of those losses came against playoff-bound teams. Particularly problematic were losses to New England (42-14) and Minnesota (23-6), games in which the Texans highly-touted offense struggled mightily.
In the loss to the New England Patriots, Houston couldn't score until there were about six minutes left in the third quarter. In the loss to Minnesota, Houston couldn't get into the end zone at all and fumbled twice. The Bengals had a losing streak of their own this year, but the difference is, theirs didn't come in December.
No. 4 Baltimore Ravens
vs. No. 5 Indianapolis Colts
Sunday, Jan. 6 at 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Talk about backing into the playoffs. At the beginning of December, the Ravens were still in the mix for a first-round bye. Now, after losing four of their five games that month, they just barely made it in at all.
Baltimore peaked early in 2012, and most problematic of all is the fact that they have beaten just two playoff-bound teams this season—and both of those wins came in the first three weeks of the season. Needless to say, the Ravens have done very little to prove themselves since then, and after losing to the likes of Pittsburgh, Washington, Denver and Cincinnati in the final five weeks of the season, they're going to have to work very hard to merely maintain their confidence.
A total dearth of momentum, coupled with the fact that it is facing one of the league's hottest teams in the first round, could spell doom for a team that has fooled people into thinking it is a lot better than it really is in 2012.
No. 4 Washington Redskins
vs. No. 5 Seattle Seahawks
Sunday, Jan. 6 at 4:30 p.m. ET (FOX)
Many of us don't want to see Robert Griffin III and the Redskins lose in the first round. Their—or his—journey has been too magical in 2012. The Redskins have shown tremendous character in the face of some very tough challenges over the last month or two, but when you're facing the Seattle Seahawks and their stellar defense in the first round—even at home—the magic can run out pretty fast.
Washington's offense has been good over the last seven weeks, but it hasn't been spectacular, and it has only had to face a single playoff-bound team—and that team was Baltimore (yikes). Prior to embarking on that seven-game post-bye winning streak, the Redskins had dropped three straight to non-playoff teams.
No one is trying to say that the Redskins are bad. You don't win seven straight games down the stretch when you're bad. But did the Redskins face the toughest of opponents over those seven weeks? No. Not by a long shot.
The Seahawks, on the other hand, have really hit their stride over the last five weeks. No, they haven't faced the toughest of opponents, either—but their offense has been unstoppable, outscoring opponents 170-43 over the last four weeks. Then there's the fact that their fourth-ranked defense has been there to pick up any leftover slack. Defense wins in the playoffs, and it doesn't hurt when your offense has been pretty good, too.