The NFL regular season may serve as a setup for the postseason, but it doesn't really tell us much about where a team is at. Wild Card Weekend provides the first, and best, opportunity for teams to prove that they are true Super Bowl contenders.
Last year, the New York Giants snuck into the playoffs, then used a dominating defensive effort against Atlanta in the Wild Card Round to capture their second Super Bowl in five years.
We don't yet know if there is a team like the Giants playing this weekend, but we have an idea of which teams could make that big run in the postseason.
In anticipation of the wild-card matchups, here are our bold predictions for what will happen this weekend.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Houston Texans (12-4)
These two teams are trending in opposite directions. The Texans spent most of the season thinking they would be the No. 1 seed in the AFC, only to lose three times in the last four weeks and have to play on Wild Card Weekend.
The Bengals have won seven of their last eight games to make it into the postseason for the second consecutive year. The biggest adjustment has been on defense, where the team finished third in the league in sacks, seventh in pass defense and 12th in run defense.
The Texans have many problems, and none of them appears to be an easy fix. Matt Schaub is struggling to throw the ball down the field; he was constantly throwing off his back foot against Indianapolis. Their secondary is giving up a lot of big plays.
Even though the Texans were all but guaranteed a game next weekend as recently as two weeks ago, their run will be over before it really gets started.
Bengals 24, Texans 21
Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (11-5)
In this rematch from Week 17, the Packers have the benefit of playing at home in the frigid temperatures of Lambeau Field.
Everyone knows what the Vikings game plan will be: Let Adrian Peterson run wild, which he has done with incredible results against the Packers this season. Doing that will allow Christian Ponder to find options on the outside to hit, just as he did in Week 17.
The Packers don't have any answer for Peterson—not that many teams do. But the fact that this will be the third time they have played the Vikings gives them a better look at what Ponder can do in order to cause him problems.
Despite what we saw from the Vikings in Week 17, I just don't see a way for them to stick with the Packers in this spot. Aaron Rodgers picked apart that secondary in the second half last week with three touchdown passes.
The Vikings' best course of action in this game will be to create pressure on Rodgers with their defensive line. They finished fifth in the league with 44 sacks, and the Packers allowed the second-most sacks in the league this year.
Packers 34, Vikings 24
Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
These two teams match up very well against each other. Neither defense does many things that make you take notice. The offenses aren't incredible dynamic, but they both have playmakers who can do spectacular things.
The Colts shocked the world by winning 11 games one year after having the worst record in the NFL. Andrew Luck's overall stats, other than yards, aren't incredibly impressive. He had 23 touchdowns and 18 interceptions with a completion percentage of 54.1.
But for a rookie quarterback playing on a young, rebuilding team who threw the ball 627 times, Luck has been terrific.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Ravens are getting older and breaking down. The defense, which has been the calling card for this franchise since the turn of the century, looks more vulnerable than ever.
Joe Flacco still has those moments of brilliance, like he did against Cincinnati in Week 1 with 299 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He is also prone to making a big mistake that destroys any momentum the team is building, like he did against Pittsburgh in Week 13.
The late news (via the Ravens' official Twitter) that Ray Lewis will be retiring following the postseason could serve as a huge emotional jolt for the Ravens, who are looking for some kind of spark after losing four of their last five games to close the season.
Ray Lewis told the team today "this will be my last ride."— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 2, 2013
I do think the Ravens have more talent and will win this game. Whether or not that is because of Lewis, his career will continue at least one more week.
Ravens 27, Colts 17
Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at Washington Redskins (10-6)
The Redskins are wildly overrated coming into these playoffs. Their seven-game winning streak sounds great, in theory. But when you look at the competition, you can poke a lot of holes in how much momentum they really have.
They beat Philadelphia and Dallas four times during the streak, as well as a victory over Cleveland, a one-point win over the New York Giants and an overtime win against Baltimore. Where is the really good team in that group? Baltimore is a playoff team, but no one is afraid of them.
On the other hand, Seattle looks like a dangerous team right now. The Seahawks have won their last five games, including that blowout of division rival San Francisco in prime time two weeks ago.
But three of the Seahawks' last four games were at home. Take this team away from CenturyLink Field, and they look different. They were just 3-5 on the road this season, and their only wins were against Carolina, Chicago and Buffalo.
While the Bears were a good team this season, the Seahawks didn't beat one playoff team away from home.
All that being said, the Seahawks have the defense that can dominate a finesse team like Washington. Robert Griffin III still looks limited with the knee injury he suffered against Baltimore on December 9.
If the Redskins don't give the Seahawks a reason to respect their play-action passing, this game will get out of hand in a hurry. It also doesn't help that the Redskins have the 30th-ranked pass defense and are tied for 29th with 31 passing touchdowns allowed.
Seahawks 27, Redskins 20
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