The NFL Playoffs are finally upon us. From the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets (who barely sneaked in) to the Indianapolis Colts (who were in since Week 10), the field is set and ready to go.
Despite our solid picks throughout the season, however, we (like any writers) tense up a bit when having to pick playoff games. It's do-or-die time, and once you're wrong once, you can't go back. There isn't another week of 16 games to rescue you from being wrong.
But almost worse is how the Wild Card round can check analysis at the door and make you re-think everything you thought about any given team.
Just look at the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2006, or the Arizona Cardinals from last season. Who saw those teams coming?
Regardless, each matchup deserves a good, hard look, as well as a prediction. Here's a look at the four games for this weekend:
New York Jets (9-7) @ Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
The Jets just did their damage in a 37-0 crushing of the Bengals last week, and with Chad Ochocino gimping on one leg, it looks like Rex Ryan and co. have a decent chance at doing so again.
However, this time it will be on the road, and Cincy will undoubtedly be ready this time around.
Both teams have the ability to run the ball extremely well, while both pass defenses should be able to limit the scoring and game-breaking ability of this game. The Jets have more healthy playmakers (never thought I'd be saying that), especially with Ochocinco hurting, while the matchup with Darrell Revis also doesn't do number 85 any favors.
Throw in the ineffective play of both the rookie Mark Sanchez, as well as the supposedly seasoned Carson Palmer, and you've got one ugly game on your hands.
No one said it'd be pretty, and considering how both teams have won several of their games, it's only fitting.
Cincinnati has a better track record with solid wins over Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and should ride Cedric Benson into the second round.
Bengals 23, Jets 10
Baltimore Ravens (9-7) @ New England Patriots (10-6)
The big story here is that New England has possibly lost their offensive swagger with Wes Welker being placed on the shelf with a devastating knee injury.
That hurts the Patriots' pass offense, no doubt, but to think that it kills them is being a bit premature. New England still has Randy Moss (remember him?), an improving (and healthy) running game, and a little guy by the name of Julian Edelman, who filled in quite nicely for Welker in Week 17 (10 catches, 103 yards).
The Ravens should pound the ball with their impressive (and explosive) running back duo of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, while Joe Flacco should be polished enough to handle anything the Patriots have to throw at him.
The last meeting between these two teams came down to the final play, so with everything on the line, do you really expect this one to be much different?
Ravens 20, Patriots 17
Green Bay Packers (11-5) @ Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
The Packers are red-hot after winning seven of their last eight, and even own a 2-0 edge over the Cardinals on the road this season (one in pre-season). That has their confidence booming, especially the way they throttled the Cardinals last Sunday, 33-7.
Kurt Warner didn't play the entire game, though, and despite the several injuries Arizona suffered (Anquan Boldin and others), there's little doubt the Cardinals will come to play.
While there is no arguing that the Packers are the better team by the numbers, and are on a torrid pace, look no further than the 2007 Indianapolis Colts to see that a hot winning streak doesn't guarantee a team playoff success.
It's difficult to win on the road in the NFL, much less three times in one season, and twice in back-to-back weeks.
There isn't much statistical backing for this pick, but with a quarterback playing his first playoff game going up against last year's NFC champions, my gut says to go with the more experienced squad.
Cardinals 31, Packers 27
Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) @ Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
The Eagles face the same fate as the Packers, in a sense, as they travel to Dallas for the second straight week, and get a third crack at Dallas, who own the season series edge, 2-0.
This is a division battle in the playoffs, which is great for the NFL, and will particularly be interesting because of the team's philosophies.
Yes, Philadelphia has explosive options and can change the face of a game by using DeSean Jackson in a number of ways, but so too, can Dallas with Miles Austin and Felix Jones.
The thing the Eagles can't (or won't) do, however, is commit to the ground game and make it happen, especially on the road against a strong Dallas run defense. The Cowboys have pitched two straight shutouts, and are riding a three-game winning streak that landed them a division title.
While a third straight shutout isn't in the cards, a third straight win over the Eagles just might be.
Cowboys 24, Eagles 16