Thanks to the NFL’s playoff format, with the top two seeds getting a bye in the first round, it is not uncommon for a wild-card team to advance deep into January.
This season, however, might just be the first year for all wild-card teams to advance. No divisional team (especially within the third and fourth seeds) appears dominant at this point in the year, and several of the wild-card teams have a momentum advantage over their division-winning matchups.
As the wild-card team "most likely to succeed", Green Bay faces an Arizona team that has been Jekyll and Hyde all year. Green Bay is possibly the most dangerous team in the NFC with New Orleans and Minnesota both showing cracks in the armor across the final quarter of the season.
The Packers boast the NFC’s top defense (and are the only top-five defense in the NFC) along with a powerful passing game led by Aaron Rodgers. Arizona has proven to be up for a challenge before, dominating Minnesota on both sides of the ball in Week 13, but overall they have a softer defense (20th overall) and a limited running game.
If Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald don’t have another transcendent playoffs, this team could easily bow out to a hot Packers team that has only lost one game across the entire second half of the year. That lone loss came by only one point to a resurgent Pittsburgh Steelers that could easily have made the playoffs had they sharpened their game a week earlier.
The Eagles have a slightly more daunting task as the NFC’s other wild-card game. The Dallas Cowboys swept Philly in the regular season and are riding a three-game winning streak entering into the playoffs.
Aside from momentum, what Dallas also has is pressure, having not won a playoff game since 1996. With obtrusive owner Jerry Jones eager to remind Cowboys players of their duty, this team could easily enter the playoffs tight and nervous. Philadelphia will have to strike early to get Dallas thinking of their troublesome history late in the year.
The Eagles are also looking to avenge the Week 17 drubbing that allowed Dallas to overtake them to win the division. Until that point, the Eagles had been the NFC East leader and were not thinking of themselves as a wild-card team at all.
Andy Reid’s team has given McNabb the most offensive weapons he has ever had to work with, and the Eagles have spent much of the year as a trendy pick to upset Minnesota or New Orleans in the NFC Championship.
In the AFC, neither wild-card team put up the impressive 11-5 records of the NFC wild-cards, but both have momentum on their side going up against the third and fourth seeds—the Patriots and Bengals, respectively
New York fares as the most likely of the two AFC wild-card teams to see some postseason success. They hold the playoff tested formula of a strong running game and superior defense (first in the NFL by almost 30 yards per game). The weakness of rookie Mark Sanchez—and his 20 interceptions—is tempered by the playoff opponent they'll face on Saturday.
Cincinnati comes into the playoffs playing its worst football of the year. A 7-2 start has cooled to a 10-6 overall record that included three losses in its last four games. It mimics New York in its physical defense and strong running game, but falls short of the Jets on both fronts.
The one chief advantage of Cincinnati, veteran quarterbacking from Carson Palmer, will be limited by a slowed Chad Johnson (injured but likely to play) and the tragic loss of deep threat wideout Chris Henry. Palmer has a strong past resumé, but essentially put up game manager numbers (barely over 3,000 yards in a pass-happy year) this season.
If New York’s top ranked pass defense can keep the Bengals one dimensional, then the Jets should be able to come out of Cincinnati with an upset. If Week 17’s 37-0 drubbing was any indicator, the Jets should be able to handle the Bengals in the playoffs.
The final wild-card matchup is quite interesting. In Week 16, this would have weighed much stronger in New England’s favor. The Baltimore Ravens hold the sixth seed, but have not established any particular momentum entering the playoffs (winning against a 5-11 Raiders team in the season finale after falling to Pittsburgh the week before).
The Ravens, however, boast consistency, having not been dominant in any one area but playing the run game strong (both fifth in rushing offense and defense), while putting up respectable numbers in the passing game.
Their one defensive liability, defending the pass, will be helped considerably by the unexpected self-destruction of Wes Welker’s leg. This injury changes the entire dynamic of a Patriots offense that burned teams underneath and across the middle with Welker’s fearless receiving out of the slot.
New England is battle-tested and helmed by one of the best clutch players in Tom Brady, but also has to be disheartened by the loss of Welker, and nervous about an underwhelming defense that had been one of the Patriots' greatest assets.
The NFL has always prided itself on the ability for “anything can happen on any given Sunday” across the years. This year could easily prove to be a prime example of this, where little really separates the four wild-card teams from their division-winning counterparts.
With chinks in each division champ’s armor, it would not be at all surprising for all four of these wild-card teams to make it out of the opening round of the playoffs, and potentially drive all the way to a Super Bowl. The 2009 NFL season may just prove to be the "Year of the Wild Card."