This is where the rubber meets the road.
The juxtaposition in the world of football between college and the pros is never more obvious than in the first week of January, as great college teams match up against one another in flashy bowl games under bright lights with no hope of anything further. Winning a Rose Bowl might be great for a team like Michigan State, but finishing second or third in the final polls is a far cry from finishing first and being handed the crystal football.
In the NFL, a team like the Kansas City Chiefs doesn't need to worry about pollster bias as it jumps from being the worst team in the NFL and having the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft to playing a playoff game the very next season.
In the NFL, a team like the San Diego Chargers can sneak into the postseason, and rather than have fans worry about which nonsensical bowl matchup they're going to have to lose money traveling to for little more than a bit of extra recognition, it can still have a shot at a Super Bowl.
In the NFL, there's no loafing to protect bodies for the draft or blowouts thanks to coaches jumping ship before the postseason. There are no parades until the games are actually over and no concerns that friends and family won't be able to find the game buried on a back corner of the local cable provider.
No, this is the pros. Every game matters during the regular season, and now every game matters that much more in the postseason.
Wild Card Weekend is proof positive that even the underdogs deserve a shot at greatness.
Time: 4:35 PM EST, Saturday, January 4.
Place: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN.
B/R Consensus Pick: Colts
Key Matchup When Chiefs Have the Ball: Branden Albert (OT Chiefs) vs. Robert Mathis (OLB Colts)
Albert has been outstanding for the Chiefs this season after many wanted to jettison him following the No. 1 draft selection of tackle Eric Fisher, who has been disappointing. Yet, as good as Albert has been, Mathis has been an absolute stud for the Colts and one of the best defensive players in the entire league.
This matchup went in favor of the Chiefs in Week 16—even though Albert didn't play and was replaced by right tackle Donald Stephenson. Although Mathis collected a sack and two QB hurries, that represents one of the slowest days of the season for Mathis. If Albert is able to match his backup's production against Mathis, it could be a rough day for the pass-rusher.
Key Matchup When Colts Have the Ball: Andrew Luck (QB Colts) vs. Chiefs Pass Rush
Speaking of pass rush, the Chiefs got it...and they're getting more of it.
Outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are both expected to play against the Colts this weekend, and Houston especially has been a game-changer for the Chiefs this season. His ability to rocket past even the most athletic and polished of pass-blockers has reinforced his status as one of the most fearsome sack men in the game.
The Colts offensive line has struggled (at times) this season, and Luck has not always made the best decisions with the football. If the pass rush can knock him into some poor decisions, it could create turnovers that swing the momentum in the Chiefs' favor.
Player of the Game Prediction: Jamaal Charles (RB Chiefs)
Look for 2013's best running back (1,287 rush yds, 19 total TDs) to extend his solid play into the new year and pace the Chiefs en route to a victory.
Final Score Prediction: Chiefs 23, Colts 20
Time: 8:10 PM EST, Saturday, January 4.
Place: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA.
B/R Consensus Pick: Eagles
Key Matchup When Saints Have the Ball: Jimmy Graham (TE Saints) vs. Bill Davis (Eagles Defensive Coordinator)
Graham is one of those players who simply can't be single covered by most teams, tallying 1,215 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns this season. The old adage of "he keeps opponents up at night" is true, as defensive coordinators like the Eagles' Bill Davis burn the candle at both ends trying to devise schemes to keep Graham locked down.
While the Eagles defense has taken huge strides forward this season against the run, Graham could embarrass their defense through the air in a hurry. The Eagles ranked dead last against the pass at 290 yards allowed per game. The Saints will try to match Graham up on the inside and get the ball out quickly to mitigate the Eagles' rush. If the Eagles can keep Graham locked down—even just for a moment or two—it could be enough to get to Brees.
Key Matchup When Eagles Have the Ball: Evan Mathis (OG Eagles) vs. Saints Defensive Line
Mathis has been the best guard in football for a while and has been so without a lot of recognition.
Against the Saints defensive line, however, he's going to have his hands full with the likes of Brodrick Bunkley and Cameron Jordan. The Eagles are going to want to run the ball with the NFL's leading rusher LeSean McCoy against the Saints' 19th-ranked run defense, and they're going to want to run it behind Mathis.
Perhaps more importantly, if this game turns into the shootout fans (and network executives) are hoping for, Mathis and his fellow linemen will need to keep Nick Foles clean in the pocket. The second-year passer has been outstanding and surprising this season (27 TDs to just two interceptions), but the playoffs are a whole new animal, and the Eagles shouldn't be looking to take any chances.
Player of the Game Prediction: LeSean McCoy (RB Eagles)
McCoy racking up 150 yards rushing in this game wouldn't surprise me in the slightest. Let's add two touchdowns and call it a good day.
Final Score Prediction: Eagles 30, Saints 28
Time: 1:05 PM EST, Sunday, January 5.
Place: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio.
B/R Consensus Pick: Bengals
Key Matchup When Chargers Have the Ball: Keenan Allen (WR Chargers) vs. Adam Jones/Terence Newman (CB Bengals)
Allen might be the most exciting part of the Chargers offense, but there's plenty to see even if he gets locked down. Quarterback Philip Rivers has been outstanding this season, and San Diego finally has a nice, balanced offense thanks to the emergence of running back Ryan Mathews to support him.
That said, Allen leads the team in both receiving (1,046 yards) and big plays (16 plays of 20-plus yards) for a reason. He is as explosive as he his dependable, and the Chargers count on him to loosen up defenses and move the change.
The Bengals cornerbacks don't need to shut him down. They just need to keep him from absolutely going off against them. Keep him in front and make the tackle.
Key Matchup When Bengals Have the Ball: Anthony Collins/Andrew Whitworth (OL Bengals) vs. Corey Liuget (DE Chargers)
One of the most underrated moves of the 2013 season has been the move of Whitworth inside to guard from the left tackle position. It's one of those "lunch pail"-type stories that epitomizes the selflessness of the Bengals star—he was a Pro Bowl selection at left tackle last season—and will be pointed to as a wonderful example of chemistry the further the Bengals go in the playoffs.
The move has allowed Collins to shine, as he's proved to be a capable pass-blocker.
Liuget is the most physical and best player on a much-maligned Chargers defense and stepped up big in Week 17 when the Chargers faced a "win-and-you're-in" situation against the Chiefs. He had a sack, a hurry and three quarterback hits. Against QB Andy Dalton, he could be looking for an even bigger day if the Bengals tandem doesn't slow him down.
Player of the Game Prediction: Andy Dalton (QB Bengals)
Dalton is a different kind of guy at home, but he'll have to answer the "playoff monkey" question on the field after posting an 0-2 record in his first two playoff appearances. I expect him to do so, as he has more weapons—including 6'4'' receiver A.J. Green—than the Chargers will be able to match up with.
Final Score Prediction: Bengals 28, Chargers 17
Time: 4:40 PM EST, Sunday, January 5.
Place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI.
B/R Consensus Pick: 49ers
Key Matchup When 49ers Have the Ball: Vernon Davis (TE 49ers) vs. Morgan Burnett (S Packers)
Like I said earlier with Saints TE Jimmy Graham, it's impossible to line up single coverage against Davis and expect Davis not to win that matchup. No, defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have to come up with some inventive ways to stop Davis, but the burden is going to have to fall on the shoulders of embattled Packers safety Burnett, who has had a down year.
The 49ers love running similar looks that have Davis either busting up the seam or dragging across the field behind the linebackers. Either way, Burnett will need to keep his wits about him and stay on his toes, or Davis will find himself wide open and in the end zone.
Key Matchup When Packers Have the Ball: Eddie Lacy (RB Packers) vs. 49ers Run Defense
The biggest storyline surrounding the Packers may be the Week 17 return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers from a broken collarbone, but this game is going to be settled both in the trenches and between the tackles.
The 49ers finished the season ranked fourth against the run, allowing fewer than 100 yards per game. The Packers, meanwhile, relied on Lacy in recent weeks to pace the offense without Rodgers.
What does success look like against the 49ers defense? It might not be 100 yards or a bunch of touchdowns. Instead, if Lacy can simply be productive and keep the 49ers from pinning their ears back on a bunch of 3rd-and-long situations, it will have been a good day—regardless of the final numbers on the stat sheet.
Player of the Game Prediction: Vernon Davis (TE 49ers)
The Packers don't have a single player who can cover him. Heck, they might not be able to do it with all 11.
Final Score Prediction: 49ers 27, Packers 23