The NFL playoffs are once again upon us, and the opening round of competition has provided some fascinating and certainly enthralling matchups.
From the Andrew Luck-led Indianapolis Colts' journey to Baltimore to the battle of the rookie quarterbacks when the Seattle Seahawks play the Washington Redskins, the slate for the first round of the playoffs is set to provide one heck of a start in the race for the Super Bowl.
Read on to see which matchups—both at a team and individual level—are shaping up as the best matchups from the opening week of the 2013 NFL playoffs.
Both Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have had spectacular debuts for their respective teams. Now they find themselves in the NFL playoffs in a winner-take-all scenario, in which few would have predicted they'd be at the start of the season.
RG3 already played his first knockout game in Week 17 against the Dallas Cowboys and came up trumps. Now he'll be looking to make it two in a row when he faces the Seahawks.
The former Baylor quarterback threw for over 3,000 yards this season and tossed just five interceptions, the fewest from any rookie QB this year. Combine that with his 20 passing touchdowns and handful of rushing touchdowns and there's definitely an argument to be made for Griffin being the best rookie in the league this season.
Having said that, Wilson has continued to impress this season in his own right—particularly in the second half of the year—and has been very strong under center for Seattle.
He too has chalked up over 3,000 passing yards for the year and finished by tying Peyton Manning's record for most passing touchdowns by a rookie quarterback in history with 26, which Manning set in 1998.
The pair sit in the top four (Griffin No. 1) in terms of average yards per pass and have both been incredibly strong throughout the regular season. But who will win when they square off in the playoffs this week?
Predicted winner: Robert Griffin III
The last time the Houston Texans played the Cincinnati Bengals, it was at home on January 7, 2012, in the Wild Card Round. Almost exactly a year later, we have the same matchup in the same venue.
Houston comes into this one after slumping down from the No. 1 seed with consecutive losses, knowing that it'll need to improve against one of the best defensive fronts in the league. Arian Foster is unlikely to get as much room to operate as he would like, and Matt Schaub will need to have a strong game—keeping the turnovers low and moving the ball downfield.
Having said that, expect the Texans defense to also put up a strong fight here—they're averaging just 21 points against per game this year and are a dominant force at home. It was the defense that stopped Andy Dalton in his tracks last year during the playoffs; can it repeat its success again this time around?
Predicted winner: Houston Texans
In years gone by, the Baltimore Ravens defense was always one of the toughest to break down—either through the air or on the ground. It was hungry from the defensive line all the way to the secondary, and you had to be perfect if you were going to defeat Baltimore, especially on its home ground.
However, this year, whilst the Ravens still remain very strong, their dominance in defense has dwindled a bit—slipping from where they have stood over the past few seasons.
They have allowed more points and yards per game than in any season in the past decade (see below), and though a lot has obviously changed in that time—personnel, injuries, tactics—there is no doubt that the Ravens have dropped off defensively this year.
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That, then, presents a great opportunity to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who has been strong in his first season in the National Football League.
Luck, another rookie, has averaged a staggering 39 passes per game during the regular season—chalking up over 4,300 passing yards in the process. His 23 touchdowns on the year are strong numbers, though the biggest question mark has come on his 18 interceptions—the highest from any rookie QB this year.
Expect Luck to throw the ball well and often against the Ravens, with the Colts QB likely to chalk up a fairly consistent game against John Harbaugh's side.
The real difference will therefore come from the Ravens defense, which will be the deciding factor here. A strong performance and a couple of takeaways will likely yield in a victory; conversely, another mediocre performance without good pressure and defensive stops should end Baltimore's playoff campaign.
Predicted winner: Ravens defense
One year back from his terrible knee injury, Adrian Peterson has had (dare I say it) an MVP-caliber season for the Minnesota Vikings in 2012.
The running back came within whiskers of breaking Eric Dickerson's record for the most rushing yards in the season—totaling 2,097 rushing yards for the season and propelling the Vikings into the playoffs in the process.
Minnesota will play archrival Green Bay in the Wild Card Round, and after watching Peterson's performance against the Packers in Week 17, you'd have to expect that he is primed for another big night here.
Peterson totaled 199 yards on a season-high 34 carries against Green Bay—numbers that could well be repeated if the Packers cannot close down those running lanes this week.
The Packers run defense hasn't been completely horrendous this year, but given the form that Peterson's currently in, it's hard to see anything getting in the way of another big night from him this week.
Predicted winner: Adrian Peterson
The Seattle Seahawks enter the NFL playoffs riding a great wave of momentum and self-belief, having won their last five games to finish with an 11-5 record for the year.
Pete Carroll's men have picked up wins over Chicago, Arizona, Buffalo, San Francisco and St. Louis—averaging 38.6 points for and just 12 points against in that time.
However, their biggest enemy in the NFL playoffs might very well be themselves, with the Seahawks playing away from home against the Washington Redskins to start the playoffs. As good as it has been in the past month or so, Seattle has struggled away from home this year and could very well face similar problems against the 'Skins this weekend.
Granted, they might have won their past two, but prior to that, the Seahawks had won just one match away from home all season—finishing with a 3-5 road record for the year.
They lost games in Arizona, St. Louis, San Francisco, Detroit and Miami this year and scored an average of just 21.1 points on the road—a number that drops to below 20 points per game if we are to exclude that big win against Buffalo.
Seattle's passing game isn't as strong, its running game isn't as strong, and it generally is just nowhere near the team it is when playing at home. And playing against a team that hasn't lost since the bye week, Seattle will be hard-pressed to stop its away form from creeping in this week.
Predicted winner: The Road
The final matchup to watch this week comes from the all-NFC North showdown between Minnesota and Green Bay once more, with the focus squarely on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense.
There is no doubt that the reigning MVP and former Super Bowl MVP is one of the most talented players in the game and one of the strongest quarterbacks in the history of the game. His numbers this year have been outstanding, albeit not as strong as last year, and he has led the Packers to another divisional title and playoff berth—which is all you can really ask of him.
Having said that, Rodgers has been severely hindered and crippled this year by his offensive line, which has given up far too many sacks and hits, forcing the quarterback to leave the pocket far too many times per game.
Rodgers has been sacked more than any other quarterback this year (51 times) and has been forced to throw the ball away 20 times this year, ranking him seventh in the league. When under pressure, Rodgers is forced to take the sack nearly 30 percent of the time (per ProFootballFocus (subscription required)).
The Packers also rank among the bottom five teams this year in run-blocking efficiency, proving that their offensive line inabilities have severely hindered their offensive production. Compare that then to the Minnesota Vikings pass rush, led by Jared Allen, which ranks fifth across all teams this year in pass-rush efficiency and sacks for the season.
Last week against Rodgers, the Vikings totaled five sacks, three hits and 13 hurries en route to victory. And if they can post similar numbers again this week, expect the result to once again go down to the wire between these two NFC North teams.
I'd say that the Vikings pass rush beats the Packers offensive line but that it doesn't quite restrict Rodgers as well as it did last week. So the pass rush gets the win in this battle here, but I can't quite see the Vikings winning the war come Saturday night.
Predicted winner: Minnesota Vikings pass rush
What matchups are you most looking forward to this week?
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