The wait is over: Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints are ready to take on Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks in the first game of the 2011 NFL Playoffs.
Later this evening, Rex Ryan's New York Jets will cruise into Indianapolis to face Peyton Manning and the Colts. Both games feature a number of interesting storylines, and both will be on national television on NBC.
The Saints are the heavy favorites even on the road in Seattle, as New Orleans finished the regular season 11-5 while the Seahawks backed into the postseason at 7-9. It should be no problem for New Orleans to dismantle their first opponents as they seek to defend their title as Super Bowl champions.
The other game is a good deal trickier to predict. New York is an obviously talented team, but occasionally lacks as much discipline on the field as it lacks off of it.
Meanwhile, Manning and the Colts have recovered from a shaky start that almost cost them their chance to play on into the winter, and now look highly formidable.
Still, with a lagging defensive unit and injuries that have decimated the offense, they are far from unbeatable. Read on for a breakdown of each of today's matchups, including five keys to victory in each.
Although Seattle allowed the sixth most passing yards in football this season, they actually have a talented and diversely skilled secondary.
Lawyer Milloy brings a physical veteran presence at safety, while his companion in the defensive backfield, rookie Earl Thomas, is a speed demon and ball hawk.
Thomas is the true key to the team's pass defense, but unfortunately he has struggled with consistency as the season has worn on.
Thomas did record an interception of Drew Brees during Seattle's loss to the Saints during the regular season, but his other four interceptions all came within the first six weeks of the year.
Thomas is too vulnerable to big plays not to make some himself, and became largely ineffective once the picks dried up.
Seattle needs him to be on his game to have a chance of slowing New Orleans' ruthless passing attack.
Pete Carroll took his sweet time before announcing his starting quarterback for this contest.
His choices were the aged and banged-up Matt Hasselbeck and the generally younger but not more appealing Charlie Whitehurst, so maybe his hesitation was out of some vague hope that a third option would present itself.
It didn't, so Hasselbeck will be under center this afternoon. It may be the last time he dons an NFL uniform, so the steady passer will be eager to make an impression.
However, it is crucial that Hasselbeck stay within the confines of the offense.
He should focus on spreading the ball around, after opponents adjusted to Hasselbeck's propensity to focus on Mike Williams and shut the receiver down for the final stretch of games.
The Saints defense lacks balance. They are excellent against the pass but lack much in the way of run-stopping muscle.
That should spell relief for the Seahawks, whose running game has been miserable this season and have suffered from their dependence upon the pass.
Yet, Marshawn Lynch has been so bad that the Saints have every chance of slowing him down, even with their crummy defense.
Neither side is impressive in this dimension, but whoever covers their weaknesses better will be in good position to win. Bet on the Saints there.
The Chicago Bears had little in the way of good reason to cut Alex Brown this preseason, other than that he stood to cost them money they preferred not to spend and that they did not care for his preseason conditioning.
Brown caught on quickly after being released, signing with the Saints in September and never looking back.
He hardly set the world on fire for Sean Payton's squad, but he proved himself a capable edge rusher and run stopper, and that has been highly valuable to the Saints this year.
Seattle was one of only two teams this season to return three kickoffs for touchdowns, all by the electric Leon Washington.
The Saints, who were missing return guru Reggie Bush for the bulk of the season, did not score at all on special teams, though they did have a few big plays in the return game.
Seattle is going to get squashed in this game, but if one thing can swing the momentum, energize the crowd and give Seattle a collective confidence boost, this is it.
Special teams will be crucial to any hope of a Seahawks upset.
In an off-beat, off-color story that would not seem to go away, Jets coach Rex Ryan felt the sting of public scrutiny after video surfaced depicting what reports alleged was his wife, engaged in borderline actions involving her own feet.
This pseudo-scandal never needed to distract the Jets, and one can hardly imagine it will linger with them as they prepare for such a critical game.
Still, it's always something with Ryan, who called this rematch with the team that beat New York last season in the playoffs "personal."
Peyton Manning had a down year...you know, for him. He still managed to lead the league in passing yards and fire 33 touchdown passes, but this season, it came at the price of 17 interceptions and his lowest passer rating since 2002.
Manning's top-rated passing attack must try to penetrate what the Jets believe is an elite pass defense, anchored by Darrelle Revis (who has never gotten Manning) and Antonio Cromartie (who once picked him off three times in a game).
He has carved up pretty well everyone else, as 11 of his 17 picks came over a three-game span, but Manning might have to resort to more liberal deployment of his tight ends and running backs.
Just a rookie in a meaningless final game of the regular season, Joe McKnight was nonetheless impressive, as he raced for nearly 160 yards on 32 carries in Week 17. That all came from a guy who ranks third on the team's depth chart behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, but McKnight may get a much longer look and possibly a heavier workload during this game.
The Colts struggle badly against the run—they rank 25th in yardage allowed per game on the ground. Therefore, the Jets should attack their opponent's weakness with a steady diet of all three runners, keeping their legs fresh and the Indy defense off-balance. The problem for Tomlinson and Greene, and there was unequivocally a problem as the season wore to its close, seemed to be fatigue. Perhaps mixing in McKnight more often will allow the other backs to create a bit more space in which they are comfortable.
The Jets racked up 40 team sacks this season; Indianapolis recorded only 30. Both teams have good pass rushers, but neither has been better than average for most of the season when it comes to the critical question of disrupting the offense with penetration and hurrying the passer.
The best sack man on either side may be Dwight Freeney of the Colts. If he can consistently get into the backfield and cause problems for the Jets and Mark Sanchez, Indianapolis is going to win some very important battles this evening.
The Jets had a plus-nine turnover differential this season. The Colts stood at minus-four. As evidenced by their many dramatic wins, the Jets are the kind of team that likes to toy with opponents, keep the game close, then make the huge play (key takeaway or last minute touchdown, either works) that defines the game.
For a solid decade now, though, the Colts have made their living by forcing opponents to play just the opposite style. Manning rarely makes crucial mistakes, and Reggie Wayne is so consistent at catching the ball and keeping efficiency high that the team can control the clock even without a strong running game.
The Jets will try to pressure Indianapolis into playing the sort of frenetic football New York prefers, but if the Colts can hold out and make the game all about possession and execution, Indy will win this one.