The opening weekend of the NFL playoffs provided plenty of captivating storylines, but each winning team in the Wild Card Round proved to be rather dominant in its own way.
Twenty-four was apparently the magic number, since three of the four winners reached that point total.
There was just one game decided by one possession, which indicates that in most cases the unquestionably better squad won. That sets up a slew of epic clashes in the divisional playoffs, where the top two seeds from each conference will play host to several upstart, hot underdogs.
Here is a breakdown of this weekend's results, and a look ahead to the impending action when the eight surviving teams push one step closer to the Super Bowl stage.
Wild Card Results
Texans 19, Bengals 13
This was a pretty ugly game. Houston ironically relied on four field goals from former Cincinnati kicker Shayne Graham to pull out a victory. The lack of production in the scoring zone is a big red flag, especially with the Texans taking on the high-powered New England Patriots next week.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton went just 4-for-13 in the first half, throwing for a grand total of three yards. He picked up his play slightly, but failed to guide his offense into the end zone. He had stud WR A.J. Green open deep in the last few minutes, but overthrew him by about three yards.
Arian Foster was the star of this game for the Texans, shouldering the load with 140 yards on 32 carries, including the game's only offensive touchdown from one yard out in the third quarter.
This marks yet another postseason appearance where the Bengals come up empty—and where it's unclear how they even got there in the first place. It was the second consecutive year Cincy lost to the Texans in the Wild Card Round in Reliant Stadium.
But as ESPN Stats & Info points out, the revenge factor doesn't have a very good playoff track record:
Bengals-Texans was 4th time since 1990 two teams met in Wild Card round 2 years in a row. All 4 times, winner of 1st game won 2nd game.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 6, 2013
Houston didn't look all that impressive, but Gary Kubiak's bunch will take the "W" after losing three of its last four games to close out the regular season.
Packers 24, Vikings 10
About 90 minutes before kickoff, everyone found out that Minnesota would be without starting quarterback Christian Ponder due to a right elbow injury.
That thrust in backup Joe Webb, who hadn't thrown a pass during the regular season and has had sort of an identity crisis as far as what position he plays between his college days at UAB and in the pros. It was difficult to tell that Webb was a QB based on his performance, and it may cause him to move back to wide receiver yet again.
Bleacher Report's official Twitter page pointed out the interesting adjustments someone made to Webb's Wikipedia profile:
After a promising first drive that resulted in a field goal and showcased Webb's athleticism, it was clear that this was possibly the biggest QB mismatch in playoff history.
Reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers was under center for the Packers. It showed, as Rodgers threw for 274 yards and a nine-yard TD to John Kuhn that put the Pack up 24-3, and essentially put the game out of reach in the third quarter.
Even the best efforts of Adrian Peterson couldn't compensate for the lack of cohesion in the Vikings' passing game with Webb at the controls. Peterson gained 99 yards on the ground, but it wasn't nearly the 200-plus yard average he had logged in two previous 2012 meetings with Green Bay.
Considering how well Ponder played against the Packers in Week 17, his absence definitely changed the complexity of the game. Still, the Packers took care of business and avoided a second consecutive home playoff loss.
Ravens 24, Colts 9
The retirement tour of legendary Baltimore LB Ray Lewis will keep rolling after a decisive victory in M&T Bank Stadium.
Unfortunately, Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was hospitalized and had to miss the game, which is just the latest event of adversity Indy has had to overcome this season.
Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was the Ravens' defensive coordinator in 2011, but he and his staff had no answer for Anquan Boldin on Sunday.
All Ravens QB Joe Flacco had to do was lob it up somewhere in Boldin's vicinity, and he would come down with it. That happened on several occasions, including on a key 18-yard TD grab in the fourth quarter despite airtight coverage from Colts CB Darius Butler.
The team's official Twitter page documented how good Boldin felt about the matchup with Indianapolis before the kickoff:
Before the game, Anquan Boldin went up to Joe Flacco and "told him I felt like 200 yards today."— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 6, 2013
He didn't quite get there, but five catches for 145 yards isn't bad at all.
The dynamic duo of Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne couldn't muster quite enough offense for the Colts, who settled for field goals rather than touchdowns on multiple deep drives into Ravens territory. Lewis still has something in the tank, and it could spark Baltimore to a deep playoff run.
Seahawks 24, Redskins 14
Seattle's Twitter page captured a simple postgame remark from head coach Pete Carroll that summed this game up very well:
Carroll: "It's not about how you start. It's how you finish." #SEAvsWAS— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) January 7, 2013
The Redskins came out on fire in FedEx Field, scoring touchdowns on their opening two possessions to open up a 14-0 lead. From there, unfortunately, a knee injury to Washington QB Robert Griffin III ultimately crippled the Redskins' chances of winning.
That's not to discount how good the Seahawks defense is, though, because Griffin can still be lethal from the pocket.
But Griffin's re-injured knee also dimmed the hype on the rookie quarterback battle between RGIII and Russell Wilson, who devastated the Redskins with both his arm and legs. The running back battle was highly anticipated, too, with Marshawn Lynch from Seattle and counterpart Alfred Morris.
Grabbing the upper hand in those battles was a big key to the game, and the Seahawks clearly did that. Although Lynch fumbled at the Washington 1-yard line at a critical juncture, he bounced back to scamper for the winning touchdown in running for 132 yards on just 20 carries.
Kirk Cousins came in late to try to rescue the Redskins, but went just 3-for-10 for 31 yards as the Seattle defense flexed its muscles again.
Divisional Round Projections
Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos: Saturday, Jan. 12 at 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS
Peyton Manning led Denver to 11 straight victories to close out the regular season, and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has turned the Broncos into one of the best defenses in the NFL.
To say the least, the Baltimore offense faces a much sterner test, and it will come on the road. The Ravens also faced a very unbalanced offense dependent on a rookie QB without his offensive coordinator at his disposal.
Funnily enough, Manning can enhance his legacy with the Colts by beating the team that knocked the inspiring Chuckstrong bunch out of this year's playoffs, and his chances of doing so are very good.
With Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside and familiar faces in TE Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley, there are plenty of weapons for Manning to work with.
Meanwhile, Ravens QB Joe Flacco will have to contend with the pressure screaming in off the edge from Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. Flacco lacks the adequate mobility to get away from elite pass-rushers, and will likely be in significant trouble.
This should be a decisive Broncos victory because they are playing arguably the best football of any team in the league at this point and have had a week to rest up. That is critical for Manning especially, who is 8-2 in his career against Baltimore with a 95.5 passer rating.
Prediction: Broncos 27, Ravens 13
Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers: Saturday, Jan. 12 at 8 p.m. ET on FOX
This is a matchup of a Week 1 clash, where the Niners went into Lambeau Field and pulled out a hard-fought, 30-22 victory. But this is going to be a totally different type of game with Colin Kaepernick under center for San Francisco instead of Alex Smith.
Kaepernick brings a rocket arm, massive size and explosive athleticism that Smith simply can't provide, and it will be the Niners who have the home-field advantage this time around.
It will take another extraordinary performance from Aaron Rodgers to carry his team to the NFC championship game, because the Packers are clearly at a disadvantage in terms of the strength of their running game and defense.
San Francisco returned every starter from the 2011 defense that came this close to playing in the Super Bowl and has only improved on the other side of the ball.
The only caveat is that DL Justin Smith may not be able to go for San Francisco, and the defense has struggled significantly against playoff teams without him in the lineup—as evidenced in New England and Seattle.
But the power rushing attack led by Niners RB Frank Gore and the dual-threat capabilities of Kaepernick should be just enough to push Jim Harbaugh's team to its second straight conference championship matchup.
Prediction: 49ers 31, Packers 28
Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons: Sunday, Jan. 13 at 1 p.m. ET on FOX
Think about this for a second: the only playoff team the Falcons played all year besides the Redskins was the Denver Broncos, whom they beat by six points in Week 2.
On the other hand, Seattle has to be considered the hottest team in the NFC at this point—and the Seahawks just dispatched the conference's second-hottest team on the road. Although Robert Griffin III's injury played a part in the Washington's downfall, Seattle still earned that win.
Even with home-field advantage, the pressure is squarely on the Falcons to not blow it in the postseason again. Matt Ryan has a horrible track record in three previous one-and-done ordeals.
The Seahawks are much more balanced on offense, with Atlanta RB Michael Turner's production falling off and Jacquizz Rodgers unable to generate a spark on the ground either.
With the corner duo of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner matching up with the Falcons' wide receiver tandem of Roddy White and Julio Jones, this will be a heck of a game to watch. But this Seahawks team is too good on defense and too explosive on offense to be held in check.
Prediction: Seahawks 35, Falcons 24
Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots: Sunday, Jan. 13 at 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are on a mission for Super Bowl No. 4. There is no way that the Texans will stand in their way, especially if the Pats' prior 42-14 victory over Houston in Foxboro is any indication.
And it is an indication, because this game will play out similarly on the scoreboard.
Brady and Co. will be unstoppable with superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field. RB Stevan Ridley has given the Pats much better balance on offense, too.
The bye week was huge for the second-seeded Patriots, with pass-rusher Rob Ninkovich and top CB Aqib Talib each nursing nagging injuries. The defense is truly the key for New England to make a title push, because their No. 1 scoring offense isn't likely to be stifled especially with Gronk back in the fold.
As long as the Pats' stout run defense keeps Arian Foster in check—he ran for just 46 yards on 15 carries in the first meeting—they should have no problems closing out Houston at Gillette Stadium.
Prediction: Patriots 45, Texans 20
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