This might be the best week in the NFL playoff schedule, and possibly the entire NFL season. The best eight teams in the NFL will play one another this weekend in four games. Four of those teams will move one step closer to the Super Bowl. Four will go home. All are must-watch games.
Some of these games promise to be more exciting than others, of course. Let's take a look at how these games compare, ranking them from can-miss to can't-miss.
4. Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons
On paper, there is a lot to like about this matchup. A young up-and-comer at quarterback in Russell Wilson versus an MVP-candidate in Matt Ryan; two stout defenses and two bright coaches promise an exciting affair.
Unfortunately, I still have real concerns about Matt Ryan's ability to perform in the playoffs. Ryan has a career rating of 71.2 in the playoffs, along with an 0-3 record. The past two performances were especially bad, with the Falcons losing by 27 in 2010 and 22 in 2011.
With those numbers in mind, I can't help but wonder how Ryan will compete against a Seattle defense that dominates against the pass. Ryan is certainly capable of meltdown games, with throwing at least three interceptions in two games this season. The Seahawks have the ability to force a third such game.
To be fair, though, Ryan has never played at a higher level than he has this season. This is his best chance to finally overcome the burden of winning a playoff game. It will be fun to watch him try, especially considering that the Falcons have been actively disrespected by the media heading into this game.
3. Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos
This game will be one of two things: a massive blowout or a brilliantly close battle. Both results are equally likely.
On one hand, Denver is clearly the superior team. The Broncos possess an advantage at literally every position—except running back—and they are at home. The Ravens were just 4-4 on the road this season, and they still struggle to stop the run and throw the ball efficiently.
There are a few reasons for optimism in this matchup, though. For one, the Ravens simply don't get blown out in the playoffs. Only once under John Harbaugh have the Ravens lost by double-digits in the playoffs. Even then in a 20-3 loss to the Colts, the Ravens were competitive until the bitter end.
Likewise, even though the Broncos blew out the Ravens earlier in the season, the Ravens are welcoming back Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe, Bernard Pollard and Marshal Yanda—all of whom did not play in the first matchup.
If nothing else, this game will be worth watching to see what could be Ray Lewis' last game. Either way, it could be more exciting than expected.
2. Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots
This game, on paper, has a lot in common with the Ravens-Broncos matchup. One team largely dominated 2012, the other stumbled late and this matchup already resulted in a blowout earlier in the season. Yet, this game also promises to be quite different from the first matchup.
The Texans are starting to get their game back after a dominating win over the Bengals in the Wild Card Round. The score was only 19-13, but the Texans were held back by a conservative game plan. Don't think they'll make that mistake twice.
Meanwhile, bye-week teams have historically been unspectacular out of the gate in the playoffs. The first quarter for those teams is often about sorting out the kinks rather than setting a real tone for the game. That could give the Texans a fighting chance.
Watching J.J. Watt try to swat Tom Brady's passes will promise to be exciting regardless of the final score. Both teams have some elite players, and as long as they both come to play, this should be a good one.
1. Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers
This is one intriguing matchup, characterized most by the battle of Aaron Rodgers versus the 49ers elite defense. Rodgers lost the matchup earlier in the season, but he has never been one to make the same mistake twice.
On the other side of the ball is Colin Kaepernick, an unproven second-year quarterback who was lost in the hullabaloo of all the successful rookies this season. He will be forced to compete against a talented secondary that includes the now-healthy Charles Woodson.
This is the most evenly matched game in these playoffs, with two teams that have historically produced great football in the playoffs.
Both teams feature tremendous talent in all phases of the game. Clay Matthews and Aldon Smith highlight the pass rushers. Randall Cobb and Michael Crabtree are just two of the many talented receivers in this game. Kaepernick and Rodgers are two exciting quarterbacks. And don't forget about Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and A.J. Hawk—three of the best inside linebackers in the NFL.
The talent in this game is enormous, and I'll go out on a limb and say the winner of this game is going to the Super Bowl. That makes this a must-watch game.
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