NFL Playoffs 2013: Most Critical Matchups in Sunday's Wild-Card Clashes

Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIIJanuary 6, 2013

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 23: Running back Ray Rice #27 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates after catching a first half touchdown pass against the New York Giants at M&T Bank Stadium on December 23, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

With one day of NFL playoff action in the books, it's time to look ahead to Sunday's slate featuring two unique wild-card showdowns.

The Indianapolis Colts travel to take on the Baltimore Ravens in a battle of teams linked in many ways, while the Seattle Seahawks march into FedExField to take on the NFC East champion Washington Redskins.

Here is a breakdown of the most critical matchups that will determine the outcome of each game.


Indianapolis Colts vs. Baltimore Ravens

Colts Rush Defense vs. Ray Rice/Bernard Pierce

It remains to be seen what sort of play-calling and game plan Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell will devise. If he is wise, he will let Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce do most of the work.

They each ran for over 100 yards in a blowout victory in Week 16 against the New York Giants, and Pierce got the majority of the carries in the season finale while Rice rested.

Even slowing down Baltimore's running game will take an extraordinary effort by the scrappy Indy defense, which should benefit from the return of safety Tom Zbikowski to help in run support.

Should Baltimore gash the Colts early, it will be extremely difficult for the road team to overcome.

Edge: Ravens


Andrew Luck vs. Ed Reed

Rarely does a No. 1 overall pick live up to the hype so soon, but he has truly been a difference-maker in his first season under center in Indianapolis.

He has led the Colts on seven game-winning drives this season, and he has amassed some very impressive statistics: 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns.

Despite having 18 interceptions on the year, Luck hasn't thrown a pick since Week 14. He will definitely need to be careful with ball-hawking safety Ed Reed on the prowl.

The legendary Ravens safety is notorious for baiting young QBs into throws, and once he gets his hands on the ball, Reed has a knack for taking it to the house.

A pick-six or critical turnover deep in Baltimore territory could be detrimental to the Colts' cause in pulling off the road upset. The veteran gets the edge here.

Edge: Ravens


Colts Offensive Line vs. Ravens Front Seven

Indianapolis definitely has the advantage with its receiving options matching up against Baltimore's back end. The problem is whether Luck will get enough time to throw the ball.

Thankfully, Luck is mobile. If not, he would have gotten sacked even more than 41 times in 2012. That figure could help explain why Luck turned it over so frequently in the first 13 games and why his accuracy is down.

No matter what kind of mobility he has, though, it will be absolutely critical for Luck to be able to operate out of a clean pocket.

Paul Kruger will provide some pass-rushing off the edge in the Ravens' 3-4 scheme, where he leads the team with nine sacks. So will Terrell Suggs, who is still working his way back into the lineup from injury.

In order to establish the run with the improving Vick Ballard, the Colts must block well up front, particularly DE Haloti Ngata, who almost always requires a double-team.

If the Ravens force the Colts into being a one-dimensional team, they will win in the friendly confines of M&T Bank Stadium.

Edge: Ravens


Seattle Seahawks vs. Washington Redskins 


Pierre Garcon vs. Richard Sherman/Brandon Browner

When Garcon has been in the lineup, the Redskins offense has been dangerous. There is little to suggest that he isn't a surefire No. 1 receiver now after playing in the shadow of Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis to start out his career.

This will be his toughest test yet, though. Sherman has emerged as arguably the best cover corner in the game in 2012, and he figures to be lined up against Garcon the majority of the time.

Going to the other side of the field doesn't exactly help either. Browner, a 2011 Pro Bowler, is back after a four-game suspension and figures to see Garcon across from him several times on Sunday.

The concern about Browner is that he may be rusty, having not played in a month. That could work to Garcon's advantage, but Sherman has simply been sensational no matter who the competition has been.

Garcon definitely has his work cut out for him, and unless the running game is firing on all cylinders, it will be difficult for him to generate explosive plays.

Edge: Seahawks

Bobby Wagner vs. Robert Griffin III

A lot will be made of the quarterback matchup in this one, but what about the quarterback of Seattle's No. 1 scoring defense against the highly touted Redskins franchise QB?

Both Wagner and RGIII are rookies, but they don't play like it. Wagner was sandwiched between Bruce Irvin and Russell Wilson in the draft, but he has proven to be a huge hit, leading the Seahawks with 140 tackles.

This matchup is all the more critical because of Wagner's sub-4.5 speed. He is one of the few linebackers in the game with the range to chase down Griffin if he leaves the pocket.

It will be up to Wagner to keep RGIII in check on the ground and to match wits with him at the line of scrimmage.

Whether that's on pre-snap adjustments or figuring out what Griffin will do on the zone-read option plays, Wagner must be fundamentally sound and stick to his assignments. He will have the help of a deep front four and outside linebackers LeRoy Hill and K.J. Wright, but the calls go through Wagner.

As phenomenal as Seattle's defense has been, it hasn't faced the likes of RGIII and Alfred Morris on the road. Especially if Griffin is in fact healthier than he looked last week—when he still ran for 63 yards and a touchdown on six carries—it could spell trouble for the Seahawks.

Edge: Redskins


Russell Wilson vs. Washington Secondary

The Redskins have the 30th-ranked pass defense in the NFL, and Wilson shouldn't have much trouble tearing it to shreds.

Receivers Sidney Rice, Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin can all win jump balls, and they can also run finesse routes and help Wilson get into a rhythm early on. Tate's improvement in particular has been a crucial development for Seattle's relatively thin receiving corps.

Combine that trio with the vertical threats of tight ends Zach Miller and Anthony McCoy, and the Seahawks have a strong arsenal of weapons for Wilson to distribute the ball to.

It will be important for Washington CB DeAngelo Hall to take away at least one of the receivers, and he will likely be matched up with Rice for the majority of the contest.

Wilson has a knack for creating something out of nothing when everything breaks down, and Washington's pass-rushers will have an extremely difficult time containing him. That will lead to opportunities for huge gains, as the Skins won't be able to cover up the Seahawks playmakers for extended plays.

Edge: Seahawks