After a compelling finish to the NFL season (well, at least in one conference), it is time to evaluate each match-up and make picks.
There are several compelling stories entering this post season:
Both games in the NFC Wildcard are rematches from Week 17, and the Packers and Cowboys blew out the Cardinals and Eagles, respectively.
The AFC went down to the wire, with the Steelers and Texans on the outside looking in with 9-7 records.
The Jets started hot, faltered, then finished strong; they too are in a rematch from week 17 with the Bengals.
Tom Brady is denying reports of a broken rib, and will have to find a way to win without favorite target Wes Welker, who tore his ACL and MCL Sunday against Houston.
What will the repercussions be for the Colts and Saints, whose pursuit of perfection were ended and each lost their final two games?
Will Brett Favre go out on top?
Many of these stories will be addressed in the following slideshows, as well as the predictions for each game this weekend.
Be sure to check back in each week for the next round's predictions!
The Green Bay Packers lost in week 9, inexplicably, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At that point, many people thought their season was lost due to issues with the defense and the offensive line.
They responded by winning seven of eight, with the lone loss coming on a miraculous last-second play in Pittsburgh.
They hammered the Cowboys and Ravens along the way—both playoff teams—as well as destroying the Cardinals on their home field on Sunday.
But there is something I failed to mention in the overview of this slideshow—the Cardinals played their backups in the game.
It is hard to get a read on this game when this is the case, but I still think the Packers have the better chance to win. Oddly enough, the Cardinals were better on the road this year, and were only 4-4 at home, three of those wins coming against Houston, Seattle, and St. Louis.
Also, the Cards struggled against the 3-4 defense this year, getting whupped by San Francisco twice and scoring a combined 25 points in those games.
They will continue to struggle against Green Bay, who has the No. 2 total defense, No. 5 passing defense, and No. 1 rushing defense.
I got Green Bay riding a wave of momentum into Arizona and taking down the Cardinals.
Packers over Cardinals: 24-17
The Cowboys physically and mentally dominated the Eagles in a battle for the NFC East crown. With everything at stake, the Eagles laid flat on their faces and let the Cowboys waltz all over them.
Everything seems to be going the Cowboys' way at the end of the season. Their defense is suffocating, their offense is clicking, and they have all the confidence in the world after beating the Saints in New Orleans.
Maybe it is just my personality, or maybe it's because the Cowboys have never beaten a team three times in one season (Cardinals in 1998-99, Giants in 2007-08), but I'm going against everything I just said and picking the Eagles.
Under Andy Reid, the Eagles have had success in the playoffs, only they've never won a Super Bowl.
Since 1999 (when Reid took over), the Eagles have never lost their first playoff game, whether it be Wildcard or Division round. They only missed the playoffs three times in 11 seasons.
I like those odds.
In a game where statistics mean nothing due to the magnitude of the rivalry, the team who wants it more will prevail. I believe that will be the Eagles, despite their week 17 plunder.
Eagles over Cowboys: 31-27
On Sunday Night Football, I watched the Jets erase any hope for the Texans for the second straight week.
Also for the second straight week, I saw a team just give up and let the Jets win (The Bengals gave up before it started, unfortunately), keeping the Texans out of the playoffs.
I couldn't understand it, especially since defense usually prevails in the cold weather post season, and the Jets have the No. 1 defense. If I were the Colts and Bengals, I would have done all I could to keep them out.
Anyways, while I don't think the game will be quite so lopsided, I still like the Jets chances. They only allow 252.3 yards per game and 14.8 points per game—both are ranked No. 1 in the NFL.
A premier defense usually doesn't have a hard time stopping teams in the cold, but with all of the Bengals' defensive starters coming back, they probably will not be able to dominate offensively like they did on Sunday night.
That being said, I'm still going to go with the Jets in this one, due to their dominant defense and the momentum they have of beating two straight playoff teams, including the previously undefeated Colts.
Jets over Bengals: 17-13
I was one of many who thought the Ravens got hosed in the regular season match-up with the Patriots. The refs were protecting Tom Brady a little too carefully and it got out of hand with the roughing the passer penalties.
Hopefully they won't be so blatantly protective this time around.
The Patriots usually play very well at their home stadium in January, but the Ravens aren't exactly a warm weather team themselves. They are built for cold weather with a good defense and a dominant run game.
Ray Rice and Willis McGahee are one of the best duos in the league and fullback Le'Ron McClain just made his second straight pro bowl appearance. Not to mention the help they got on the offensive line by drafting Michael Oher this year.
I think the loss of Wes Welker will have a huge affect on what the Patriots do offensively. They basically have a short passing game that almost replaces their lack of ability to run the ball consistently.
They showcased this against the Texans with several screen passes that worked almost every time, but the Ravens defense is much more disciplined up front and will be able to make plays on these screen passes.
Julian Edleman is a great athlete, but he is no Wes Welker, despite the 10 catches he had replacing him against the Texans.
I expect this game to be a bit more high scoring then people think given the cold weather, but the Ravens will come out on top.
Ravens over Patriots: 30-24