Wild Card Weekend starts today and for eight teams, it's time to prove they belong in the playoffs. There's nothing more frustrating than exerting all this energy and failing to win even one postseason game.
Yet four teams are destined to be one-and-done, possibly more if the teams who got byes aren't careful. The four losers will see a brutal ending to their promising seasons while the other four face long odds as the remainder of their postseason run will likely take place on the road.
That's the beauty of the NFL playoffs. Every playoff team has the belief that if they just "get hot," they can win four games in a row and become Super Bowl Champions. With recent teams like the 2010 Green Bay Packers and the 2011 New York Giants backing that theory up, hope is at an all-time high for teams that landed in the Wild Card round.
Will one of these teams win the Super Bowl? It's too early to prognosticate that far, with 29 days left till the Super Bowl. For now, let's look at the Wild Card games and determine which teams have the best chance of advancing.
The first game of the weekend is a playoff rematch from last season. The Cincinnati Bengals will again travel to Houston and face the Texans for the right to advance to the divisional round.
In this game, we have two teams trending in opposite directions. The Texans just choked their way out of home-field advantage in the AFC, with three losses in their final four games. The Bengals earned the final spot in the AFC by winning seven of their final eight games.
Clearly the Bengals have the hot hand, yet the 12-4 Texans are favored for a multitude of reasons. One, the Bengals have not won a playoff game since 1990. Two, the last three times a repeat matchup occurred in the wild-card round, the team that won the first time won again.
Add in the Texans' superior record and home-field advantage, and it's clear they should be the favorites for this game. Recent struggles aside, Houston is still a very complete team with a balanced offense and a stingy defense.
That defense includes NFL sack leader J.J. Watt, who could have a field day attacking Andy Dalton. Dalton was sacked the third-most times of any quarterback this season. With the Texans coming after the Bengals and a run game that disappears too easily, the Bengals could fall behind quick.
It's tempting to predict close scores for NFL playoff games. That's what people want and close games put up the big numbers.
This game will not be one of those.The Bengals playoff appearance came virtue of a soft schedule that saw them beat only two playoff teams, and both of those wins were very close. The Texans will expose the Bengals for the frauds they are and have their first dominant win since their home win against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 7.
The Minnesota Vikings are only going to get as far in the playoffs as Adrian Peterson can take them.
Peterson's out-of-this-world play over the last few weeks is what keyed their four game winning streak to close out the season. Defenses know he's going to get 24 or more carries a game yet they still can't stop him.
This is why I think that Peterson should be the MVP this season, since there is no debating that the Vikings miss the playoffs without him. Peterson also has to deal with the frequent struggles of Christian Ponder, who is in my opinion, the worst quarterback in the playoffs.
Lambeau Field may be a magical place full of wonder and awe for Cheeseheads. For Ponder and the Vikings, it's a nightmarish location for their playoff game.
You would think a run-heavy Vikings team would play well outside. That has not been the case, with all four of their games outdoors ending up as Vikings losses by nine or more points. This includes the regular season match in Lambeau when Green Bay won by nine.
Some of you may have noticed that I haven't yet talked about Green Bay in this preview. Since the controversial ending in Seattle, it's been a surprisingly quiet season for the Pack.
Aaron Rodgers would normally be in the MVP conversation with 4,295 passing yards and 39 touchdowns. Instead Peterson and Peyton Manning jockey over who had the more superhuman recovery while Rodgers continues dominating with a group of wide receivers as deep as any in the NFL.
The Packers' defense will also come to play as they are tired of being embarrassed by Peterson. He's run for 409 yards against them in two games. Expect this to stop as the Packers do a better job containing Peterson and pull off a comfortable win against their division rival.
The game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Indianapolis Colts will likely go down as one of the more emotional wild-card games in recent memory.
One team is preparing to say goodbye to an all-time great in Ray Lewis, who could be playing in his final home game ever. The other team is celebrating the emotional return of a coach who recently won a battle against cancer.
It'll be interesting to see how the teams handle the emotion. The Colts have done an admirable job so far despite being a very young team. The Ravens have an advantage, since they are a veteran team used to winning, with lots of playoff experience.
Not to take away from the Colts' great season, but a case could be made for them being the worst 11-5 team of all time. The Colts are the first team with 11 or more wins and a negative point differential. They also benefited from an easy schedule and playing in a weak division.
Whether it's because he's a natural winner or just by chance, Andrew Luck has been great in close games this season. The Colts are 9-1 this year in games decided by one touchdown or less.
But this means that the other four games were ugly losses. All four of these Colts losses came on the road and all were by double digit points.
Home-field advantage is huge in this one with both teams finishing merely 4-4 on the road. Earlier this season, the Ravens enjoyed a 15-game winning streak at home.
M&T Bank Stadium is already an intimidating place to play. The fact that it is probably Lewis' last game there makes it that much more intimidating. The atmosphere will be electric, and the playoff-tested Ravens will be fired up by their soon-to-be-gone leader.
It doesn't hurt that the Ravens quite simply beat up on their opponents in wild card rounds. They've won their last three wild-card games by double digit points. Considering how awful the Colts defense is, this game has the potential to get ugly.
I think the Colts will make a game of it but the Ravens will pull out a win by double digits.
The final game of Wild Card Weekend is to many fans the most anticipated. The Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Redskins match up with each other very well, and this has the potential to be the game of the week.
If going hot into the playoffs is necessary for winning the Super Bowl, the Seahawks and the Redskins are in a good place. The winner of this game will have the longest winning streak of any NFC playoff team. Currently the Redskins' winning streak is slightly longer at seven games, but the Seahawks are no slouches with a five-game streak of their own.
The focus of this game will be the rookie quarterbacks and deservedly so. Both Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III have been playing at paces that could get them nominated for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Wilson probably has the slight edge, thanks to Griffin's knee injury that has limited him in recent weeks. Wilson and the Seahawks' offense has been on fire in recent weeks, with an astounding 170 points in their last four games.
It doesn't seem to matter if it's Beast Mode carrying the ball or Wilson throwing to Sidney Rice. Seattle's offense has lit teams up, and given that Washington has the NFL's 28th ranked defense, it seems likely we'll see more of the same this week.
Not so fast.
Washington doesn't win the NFC East without improvements by its defense during the winning streak. They've forced more turnovers, allowed fewer big pass plays and even found a suitable replacement for the injured Brian Orakpo in Rob Jackson.
It also helps Washington that the Hawks are a mere 3-5 on the road. The plan is pretty straightforward for the Redskins. Run the ball in their pistol formation, keep the Seattle offense off the field and dictate the pace of this game.
If the Redskins can do this and make sure not to make mistakes against an opportunistic defense, I like them to win this game. It'll be close, but the Redskins and RG3 will be the team continuing their unlikely playoff run, not the Seahawks.