The NFL playoffs will kick off Saturday with a pair of Wild Card games, including a showdown between the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers that will capture a lot of attention.
Both teams boast an elite quarterback and an explosive offense, but both Michael Vick and Aaron Rodgers have battled injuries in recent weeks. If one or the other shows up with lingering effects of those maladies, their team will be in trouble.
Overall, there are plenty of story lines to watch as the playoffs get rolling, and all four games could be great ones. Read on for a breakdown and prediction on each game, as well as the most important player for every team.
Last week, as Green Bay beat Chicago to earn their spot in the playoffs, Charles Woodson spent seemingly half the game in the Bears' backfield.
He blitzed at least two or three times in every series and the Bears had no answer for him. He recorded five tackles and had one of the team's six sacks on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
If the Packers hope to contain Michael Vick this week, Woodson will need to have as good a game. While Clay Matthews must stay disciplined and keep Vick inside with his rush off one edge, Woodson will be responsible, at times, for keeping Vick from escaping to the other edge.
Woodson is not a crucial cog in the team's deeper coverages against DeSean Jackson: Tremond Williams matches up much better with the speedy Jackson anyway. Woodson should be asked to stay home, check underneath routes and occasionally even spy Vick as would a linebacker. For the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year, none of that should be a problem.
By all indications, Vick is fully healthy and ready to go this week after sustaining a thigh bruise in Week 16 that led coach Andy Reid to hold him out of the final game of the season. Vick will get his chances to pick apart the Packers' secondary from inside the pocket early on, as Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers will deploy a number of usual pass coverage personnel to contain him.
If Vick seems hesitant to vacate the pocket, though, or seems at all limited by the stiffness in his leg, Capers will begin moving guys like Woodson and A.J. Hawk back off the line more and allow them to run with receivers and tight ends who would otherwise run free. The Green Bay defense features a number of very talented and versatile athletes, so if Vick is less than 100 percent, he could be in for a long day.
This game is all about matchups.
The Eagles are explosive and have a well-balanced offense. If they are smart enough to use LeSean McCoy liberally and gash the Packers' weak run defense, they have an excellent chance to win this one. If, however, they try too hard to burn the Pack with Vick and Jackson as the primary weapons, they will get a rude awakening from Nick Collins, Tremond Williams and the team's ball-hawking secondary.
The Packers are much more one-dimensional on offense, but then, the dimension in which they operate (passing) is exactly the one in which the Eagles are grossly vulnerable. Rodgers could have a big day, and the Packers might just surprise some people.
Prediction: 28-27 Packers
In Weeks 1-5, LaDainian Tomlinson looked like he had found a fountain of youth in the New Meadowlands Stadium. A season after looking aged and slow in San Diego, Tomlinson broke out for 435 rushing yards on only 76 carries in the first five games of the year. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry and scored three rushing touchdowns.
Thereafter, though, Tomlinson managed only 479 yards in 10 games to close the season. He scored only three more times all year. He became a dependable receiver out of the backfield, but did not make big plays in that capacity.
He looked aged and slow again.
After sitting out Week 17, Tomlinson might be a bit more rested and perhaps he will be eager to use whatever remains in the tank for one last desperate run toward the Super Bowl. If he can find some of the old magic, it will go a long way for the Jets.
The inevitable decline that comes with age, that looks nearly complete in Tomlinson, may finally have begun for Peyton Manning this season. Tasked with doing more for the offense than ever before, Manning struggled at times, throwing 11 interceptions in one three-game stretch.
He did set a new career high for passing yards, and tossed 33 touchdowns, so he remains an excellent all-around quarterback. In the face of the Jets' supremely talented secondary, though, he had better prepare his best game.
One thing to keep in mind: Manning was actually much, much better this season on the road. He threw 20 of his 33 touchdowns and only eight of his 17 picks on the road this season. This game is at home, of course, but perhaps Manning would prefer to take it outside.
This game rematches last year's AFC Championship Game, one a much less depleted Colts team won.
This time around, the Jets are likely to go off as the favorites, but they have shown gross vulnerabilities at times this season. The Jets offense is stall-prone and if Indianapolis can prevent the receivers from making huge plays for New York, Mark Sanchez and company are not going to have a ready answer.
Manning is good enough and smart enough to pass right through the daunting secondary, and the Colts' defense always seems to step up in games like this one. This one might surprise some folks, but the Colts are not to be underestimated.
Prediction: 24-20 Colts
Reggie Bush had a rough season. He got hurt in Week 2, missed substantial time and came back to find himself in a three-man rotation at running back. It may be that, even at 25, he is running out of time to prove himself a truly dangerous play-maker out of the backfield.
He did look fully healthy in Week 17 though, lighting up the Buccaneers for 125 all-purpose yards and averaging eight yards per touch. The Saints need that kind of volume and production from him to keep their offense, which has spun its wheels at times this season, balanced and well-spaced.
Five of the Seahawks' seven wins this season came at home, and it is no coincidence: Even with the knowledge that their team is not especially good, Seahawks fans come out en masse and get rowdy before the ball even gets into the air on the opening kick.
Seattle needs to feed on that energy, and use it. A surprise onside kick, a trick play or an early takeaway would get the crowd excited and could work to the Seahawks' long-term advantage. Crowd noise may have a better chance of disrupting the Saints' offense than the Seattle defense does.
The defending champions are not satisfied with merely reaching the postseason, and they certainly will not allow themselves to fail against a team that did not even scratch its way to .500 this season. Drew Brees should be able to carve up the secondary, focusing on the outside as opposed to challenging highly talented safeties Earl Thomas and Lawyer Milloy.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks continue a shell game that just is not going to fool anyone. Coach Pete Carroll has yet to name his starting quarterback, with Matt Hasselbeck apparently returning to full strength and Charlie Whitehurst, who led the team to its playoff berth in a Sunday night win, trying to retain the gig. The thing is, unless Carroll's plan is to somehow fuse the two men and create a competent and useful NFL quarterback, it does not matter much which one takes the field.
Prediction: 31-13 Saints
Michael Oher, the Ravens' big and talented young left tackle, sprained his right knee during the final game of the season Sunday. He says he fully intends to play, but it is fair to speculate about whether or not he will be fully effective.
If he is, the Ravens are in business. The Chiefs defense is easy enough to move through once the quarterback is able to settle in and look for weaknesses, or once a running back reaches the line of scrimmage.
If he is at all slowed, though, or loses some lateral movement, Tamba Hali of the Chiefs will ruin the Ravens' day. Hali racked up 14.5 sacks this season, and he will smell blood if Oher lacks even a bit of his usual agility.
This year's Chris Johnson was Charles, who broke out and has taken over the majority burden of the Chiefs' league-leading ground game. It took a while, which is why he had a relatively small number of carries, but if he had racked up even 275 carries, he might have led the league in rushing yards.
As it is, he will have to content himself with being perhaps the most dangerous unheralded offensive-stud in these playoffs. He makes plays in the passing game and on the ground, and in the cold of January, a running back who can take over the offense has extraordinarily high value.
The Ravens went 12-4 this year and are the more balanced team overall. Yet, the Chiefs went 7-1 at home this season. They are younger and healthier.
Matt Cassel wins the battle, albeit narrowly, between these two talented young quarterbacks, and Charles will pose problems even to the vaunted Baltimore defense. This pick will also surprise many, but Kansas City's Sea of Red will swallow up the Ravens.
Prediction: 23-17 Chiefs