The first week of 2013 heralds the beginning of the NFL playoffs, and Wild Card Weekend is shaping up to be exceptionally intriguing.
The Cincinnati Bengals travel to face the Houston Texans, where they'll attempt to exorcise the demons of last year's dismal loss.
The Green Bay Packers will host the Minnesota Vikings for the third matchup between these two teams in six weeks.
The upstart Indianapolis Colts will head to Baltimore to try and knock off the Ravens—perennial contenders in the AFC, but a team that has backed into the playoffs, having lost four of five games to end the season.
Finally, the Seattle Seahawks will hit the road to face the Washington Redskins in a battle between two rookie phenom quarterbacks, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III.
Follow along as we take a closer look at each Wild Card matchup, and feel free to debate our findings for each game in the comments section below.
These two teams enter the playoffs heading in two opposite directions: The Cincinnati Bengals have been on a tear of late, winning seven of their last eight games, while the Houston Texans have backed into the postseason, having lost three of their last four.
The regular season doesn't matter much in the playoffs, though, and it'll be tough for the Bengals to come away victorious.
The Texans will rely on Arian Foster to soften up the Bengals' ferocious defensive front, and if he gets going early on, Houston will have a chance to dictate the pace of the game.
I expect J.J. Watt to have a big game at home against the Bengals offensive line—the same group that allowed 46 sacks in 2012 (the seventh-worst mark in the NFL).
If, by some miracle, the Bengals are able to block Watt, establish a strong rushing attack and make big plays downfield to A.J. Green, they'll have a chance to pull off the upset.
Prediction: Texans win 24-17
The Minnesota Vikings have played their best football at the end of the season, winning their past four games. They've beaten four quality teams during this stretch, including the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium and the Green Bay Packers at home in Week 17.
Minnesota's streak will come to an end this Saturday at Lambeau Field, where the Packers haven't lost a game since Week 1, when the San Francisco 49ers stunned them to open the season.
The main reason for my doom-and-gloom prediction for Minnesota is that Christian Ponder is a different quarterback on the road, where he's thrown just seven touchdowns and six interceptions in eight games in 2012.
Adrian Peterson's been unstoppable—especially against the Packers, rushing for 409 yards and two touchdowns in the two games against Green Bay this year—but he won't be able to score often enough to keep up with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense.
Prediction: Packers win 31-20
The NFL will say goodbye to a legend at the conclusion of this postseason.
According to the Baltimore Ravens:
Ray Lewis told the team today "this will be my last ride."— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 2, 2013
Unfortunately for Lewis, his ride will end on Sunday when the Indianapolis Colts beat the Ravens.
While I'm sure Lewis' expected return to the starting lineup will energize the crowd and his team, the Colts are primed for an upset—especially considering the way the Ravens have tanked down the stretch, losing four of their last five games.
The Colts, on the other hand, are riding a hot streak, having won five of their last six games, and nine of their last 11. Head coach Chuck Pagano is back on the sidelines, and the way the Colts humbled the Houston Texans under his watchful eyes in Week 17 spells doom for the Ravens on Sunday.
Prediction: Colts win 28-24
The Seattle Seahawks have gotten all the press of late for their insane three-game stretch where they scored 150 points, but there isn't a hotter team in the NFC than the Washington Redskins—a team that has won its last seven games.
Rookie quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III will certainly both get their chances to shine, but this game will be won by the team that can establish a strong running game.
Alfred Morris and Marshawn Lynch both enter this contest on hot streaks, but both defenses are adept at stopping the run.
The Seahawks have the edge on defense, as Seattle features arguably the best defense in the NFL, but the Redskins will have the home crowd in their favor.
If you can't tell, I'm having a difficult time deciding which team has the edge...
Whatever the outcome, I can't wait to watch this game unfold.
Prediction: Redskins win 27-24
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78