Playoff time has arrived in the NFL. As always, that means the intensity is about to skyrocket and every possession takes on an even greater meaning. Making things even more interesting is the fact all eight teams can make a strong case they will advance.
Since all four games are expected to be close, it's up to the star players on each team to come through in the clutch. The ones that do will lead their teams to the next round, and the ones that don't will hear about it for the entire offseason.
With that in mind, let's analyze one player from each conference that is going to dominate the Wild Card Weekend headlines with a terrific performance. Their teams can't affording anything less.
AFC: Ray Rice (Baltimore Ravens)
As if the Ravens needed any extra motivation as they prepared to face the Indianapolis Colts, Ray Lewis announced he's going to step aside after the season. That means the Ravens will be playing to keep the legend's career alive, at least for another week.
Lewis will surely deliver a passionate speech to his teammates on Sunday. Rice, who already runs with a nearly unmatched level of force, will probably be ready to run through a brick wall for Lewis. That's bad news for the Colts defense.
Indianapolis ranks 29th against the run, giving up nearly 140 yards per game. Rice should be well-rested after taking just three carries last week, putting him in position to take full advantage of the running lanes that will surely be available.
Add in the contributions Rice always makes in the passing game and he should approach 150 yards of total offense with a couple touchdowns to help the Ravens survive the opening round.
NFC: Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers)
Rodgers has already faced the Minnesota Vikings defense twice over the past month, including last week's narrow loss that allowed Minnesota to earn a playoff spot. Getting that many looks at a secondary is always an advantage for a top-notch quarterback.
It's not like Rodgers needs any added advantages, though. In those two previous meetings, he's racked up 651 passing yards and five touchdowns. He clearly understands what to expect from the divisional rivals and how to exploit it.
The other piece of good news for the Packers QB is that his entire arsenal should be available. Green Bay's receiving group has dealt with a lot of injuries throughout the season, but is getting healthy at the perfect time.
Even though the Vikings were able to escape with a victory last week, it's hard to imagine their shaky secondary holding up in the second half with Rodgers having a full compliment of options to work with. Expect a monster game en route to the divisional round for No. 12.
Wild Card Weekend Schedule
|Road Team ||Home Team||Date||Time||TV Info|
|Cincinnati||Houston||1/5/13||4:30 p.m. ET||NBC|
|Minnesota||Green Bay||1/5/13||8 p.m. ET||NBC|
|Indianapolis||Baltimore||1/6/13||1 p.m. ET||CBS|
|Seattle||Washington||1/6/13||4:30 p.m. ET||FOX|