And so it begins — the journey to the Super Bowl in New Orleans and a chance for the victors to hold the Vince Lombardi Trophy aloft like a conquering Roman legion. All 12 remaining teams go into the post-season with the same thought: why not us?
Saturday’s game will mark the third time that these two teams have played each other since Dec. 2. The Packers won the first meeting at Lambeau Field and the Vikings won last week in Minnesota to clinch a playoff spot.
The Packers win if…
They can tackle Adrian Peterson.
In their two meetings this season Peterson has run roughshod over the Packers defence. Peterson gained a whopping 409 of his league leading 2,097 yards this season against the Packers, averaging 7.4 yards per carry.
With Aaron Rodgers running the offence the Packers know they are going to score their fair share of points. It is up to their defence to do a far better job containing Peterson than they’ve shown this year. The return of safety Charles Woodson to the lineup will certainly help the Packers in that regard.
The Vikings win if…
Christian Ponder can keep up his pace from the past four weeks.
During the Vikings season ending four-game winning streak, Ponder threw for 590 yards, four touchdowns, one interception and has a quarterback rating of 84.93. Now those are not great numbers but they are a vast improvement over his weak performances in losses to the Seahawks and the Buccaneers earlier this season.
With so much focus on stopping Peterson there will be opportunities to make some plays down field. It is up to Ponder to make those throws and keep the Packers defence honest. Ponder did exactly that last week as he put together his best game of the season.
Keep an eye on: Jared Allen
When facing a quarterback like Rodgers, it is imperative that Allen and the Vikings’ front seven put some sustained pressure on the 2011 MVP.
In their two previous meetings this season Rodgers has burned the Vikings defence for 651 yards and five touchdowns. The Packers also allowed 51 sacks this season, more than any other team in the post-season.
Allen led the Vikings with 12 sacks this year and it will be up to Packers left tackle Marshall Newhouse to keep him out of Rodgers’ face. If the Vikings are going to have a shot at winning they can’t allow Rodgers to sit back and pick apart their secondary.
Vikings rookie kicker Blair Walsh is a stone cold assassin from 50 yards out. Walsh is a perfect 10 for 10 from 50 yards out and a remarkable 35 of 38 (92.1 per cent) on the season. Meanwhile, Green Bay’s Mason Crosby was a disappointing 21 of 33 (63.6 per cent) this season and a wonky 2 of 9 from 50 yards out.
Witnessing Peterson’s historic season was a real treat for football fans across North America. Along with their young kicker Walsh and a tough defence, Peterson and the Vikings have defied the odds by even getting this far.
The problem for Peterson and the Vikings is that I don’t think they will be able to score enough to keep pace with Rodgers. Since 2010, Rodgers has thrown 18 touchdowns against the Vikings. You could make a strong argument that Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL right now and ultimately that will be the difference in this game, no matter how well Peterson plays.
The last time the Vikings faced the Packers in the playoffs Daunte Culpepper threw four touchdowns as he badly outplayed Brett Favre back in 2004.
Packers 30, Vikings 24
For the first time since 1999 the Redskins go into the playoffs as NFC East champions. Now the real work begins.
Led by their outstanding rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III, the Redskins will be feeding off the energy of a massive crowd at FedEx Field. The Seahawks come into town with some major swagger and an equally dynamic rookie quarterback of their own in Russell Wilson.
The Seahawks win if…
They can stop Alfred Morris.
As great as RG3 has been this season, Morris has been equally important to the team’s success. Morris was second only to Peterson in rushing (1,613 yards) and is a major reason why the Redskins are ranked No. in the NFL at running the football.
During the Redskins’ season ending seven-game winning streak, Morris carried the ball at least 20 times every game, so the Seahawks know full well what is about to hit them. If the Redskins can get Morris going early and keep RG3 out of third and long situations, the Seahawks could be in trouble.
The Redskins win if…
They can control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Led by their fabulous rookie linebacker, Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks allowed the fewest points of any team in the NFL (245). The Redskins are going to find out in a real hurry that the Seahawks are one of the most physically punishing teams in the NFL.
On the other side of the ball, Pete Carroll has assembled a massive offensive line (average weight of 310 points) that, along with Marshawn Lynch, wears down opposing defences. If the Seahawks gain control of the line of scrimmage and start pounding Lynch down their throat then Wilson will carve them up with the play-action passing game.
Keep an eye on: Richard Sherman
With the injury to Darrelle Revis Sherman as emerged as the best cover corner in the NFL. Sherman led the NFL with 24 pass knockdowns, was tied for second with eight interceptions, forced three fumbles and scored a touchdown.
Standing 6-foot-3, Sherman has the height and physical ability to run and jump with any receiver in the NFL. More importantly, he has the swagger and self confidence to cover any receiver thrown his way.
The Redskins have some solid receivers, but they don’t have anyone that Sherman wouldn’t be able to handle one-on-one.
When speaking to the media this week Seahawks coach Pete Carroll made it very clear what he thinks of Griffin.
“When he’s on, he’s as good as you can get.”
It will be up to Sherman and the ‘Legion of Boom’ to not allow RG3 to be “on.”
As an example of the level of frenzy surrounding the Redskins right now in the greater D.C. area, a pair of tickets in the ‘Dream Seats’ section of FedEx Field will set you back US$6,600.
The Seahawks are one of the most physical teams in the NFL and in Lynch they have a running back that was made for playoff football. Unlike the injury ravaged Cowboys defence, the Seahawks defence will prove to be a far stiffer challenge for RG3 and the Redskins.
It has been a nice run for the Redskins but the Seahawks are a better team, with a much better defence and an excellent power running game. Wilson isn’t RG3 but he’s still an excellent young quarterback and more than capable to leading the Seahawks to victory in a hostile environment.
Seahawks 34, Redskins 27
The two teams battled each other in the wild card last year with the Texans beating the Bengals 31-10 at Reliant Stadium. One year later, the Texans stumbled down the stretch, losing three of their final four games. The Bengals ended the season winning three straight and seven of their final eight games.
The Texans win if…
They can play tighter defence.
The Texans started the season 8-1 and allowed an average of 15.9 points per game. In their final seven games, the Texans went 4-3 — with two of those wins coming in overtime against the Lions and the Jaguars — and allowed an average of 26.8 points per game.
J.J. Watt had 20.5 sacks and knocked down 16 passes this season and has been a force of nature along the Texans’ defensive line. Unfortunately, Watt doesn’t play in the Texans’ secondary.
After only giving up 13 touchdown passes the first nine weeks of the season, the Texans were burned for 16 passing touchdowns over their final seven games. Bengals offensive co-ordinator Jay Gruden has seen the film and you can bet he’s going to unleash A.J. Green upon them in an effort to test Houston’s struggling secondary.
The Bengals win if…
They continue to follow the game plan of Gruden’s balanced attack.
Despite what many think, there is more to the Bengals offence than just Andy Dalton and Green. The Bengals went 7-1 in the second half of the season largely because they were able to compliment the aerial attack with an effective running game featuring BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
The man known as the ‘Law Firm’, Green-Ellis was a more productive running back over the final five games of the season than Arian Foster. The Bengals will need to get Green-Ellis going for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it will keep Watt honest and stop him from spending all day trying to get after Dalton.
Keep an eye on: Geno Atkins
When the Texans were terrorizing teams through the first two months of the season, Foster was one of the most effective running backs in the NFL. Speaking to reporters this week Foster made no secret of the Texans’ desire to run the football.
“I think that’s the core of what we do, is running the ball. And I think when we’re effective running the ball, it opens up our offence. It keeps our defence off of the field. That’s what we like to do.”
Atkins is the key to the Bengals run defence, and how well he plays at the point of attack will go a long way to determining whether or not Foster can be contained. Atkins also had 12.5 sacks this year, more than any other interior defensive lineman in the NFL.
No quarterback likes pressure up the middle and Atkins will be looking to get in Matt Schaub’s face early and force him into making some bad throws. Schaub isn’t the best quarterback in the AFC but given time he’s more than capable of throwing deep to the excellent Andre Johnson.
Schaub has the exact same number of post-season wins as Andy Dalton, zero. Schaub was hurt last year when the Texans beat the Bengals and there is no question he has a lot to prove to skeptics around the NFL. There are a lot of people who view the Texans as a team capable of winning it all. To do that Schaub is going to have to do something he’s never done before in his career, win a playoff game.
If Brian Cushing was healthy I don’t think the outcome of this game would be in doubt. But injuries to Cushing and other key players have hurt the effectiveness of the Texans defence. While the Texans defence still boasts a special talent like Watt, he can’t rush the passer and drop back into coverage all at the same time.
Led by Atkins the Bengals defence is far healthier than the Texans D and just as effective in a number of categories (total defence, points allowed etc.). In Dalton and Green the Bengals have a good counter to Schaub and Johnson. On top of that the Bengals have a running game nearly equal to the Texans’.
Assuming Marvin Lewis doesn’t screw things up with some untimely challenges or strange in-game decisions, the Bengals will win their first playoff game since 1990.
Bengals 23, Texans 21
Because he has been such a fixture with the Ravens franchise for so long it is difficult to believe this will potentially be the final home game of Ray Lewis’ superb Hall of Fame career. On Wednesday, Lewis announced to the team that his would be his last hurrah so motivation will not be an issue for John Harbaugh and the Ravens.
Of course the Colts have been playing inspired football of their own. The plight of head coach Chuck Pagano (#Chuckstrong) in his fight against leukemia has galvanized the Colts in a way nobody thought possible when the news of his illness first broke.
The Ravens win if…
Joe Flacco plays like a champion.
Flacco has led the Ravens to the brink of the Super Bowl twice before and has three playoff wins on his resume. But even though Flacco led the Ravens to the AFC Championship game twice he’s fallen short both times. With his contract expiring at the end of the season what better way to earn a healthy pay raise than to take his game to another level and lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl. To do that Flacco will need to get the ball in the hands of his deep threat, Torrey Smith, and his reliable safety blanket, Anquan Boldin.
If Flacco can find a nice balance between his passing game and his running game then the Ravens should be able to score enough points to win.
The Colts win if…
The score is still close late in the fourth quarter.
Seven times this season Andrew Luck has led the Colts to victories either in the fourth quarter or overtime. The kid is special and has already displayed a real knack for being at his best when the Colts need him the most.
As the season evolved Luck stopped relying totally on Reggie Wayne and as a result fellow rookie T.Y. Hilton emerged as a key cog in the Colts’ passing game. If the score is close late in the game, the Colts have total confidence that Luck can lead them to victory.
Keep an eye on: Ray Rice
If there ever was a game to feed the ball to Ray Rice, this is it.
The longer the Ravens can control the clock and keep the ball out of Luck’s hands the better. The banged up Ravens defence has struggled this year and will need all the rest they can get. For that to happen the Ravens offence needs to extend drives and control the clock. Too many three and outs will wear down their defence and play right into the Colts’ hands. No matter who is running the Ravens offence, the more times Rice touches the ball the better chance they have to win.
This will be the 18th playoff game in the remarkable career of Lewis. Oddly enough this is only the fifth time in his 17-year career that he’s been part of a home playoff game. To put that into perspective, Colts receiver Wayne has played nine home playoff games in his 12-year career.
It might be a long time before we see another middle linebacker the likes of Lewis. For almost two decades he’s been the best of the best and the unquestioned leader of the Ravens.
Luck is a remarkable talent for a rookie quarterback, there’s no denying that, but he tossed 13 of his 18 interceptions on the road as the Colts compiled a 4-4 record away from home.
Inspired by Pagano and his top lieutenant Bruce Arians, the Colts ended the season with a 5-1 record and will give the Ravens all they can handle. But with Lewis, and possibly Ed Reed, playing his final game in Baltimore the Ravens will be playing inspired football before a rabid crowd. As long as Flacco doesn’t throw the game away the Ravens will be able to gut out a tough win.
Ravens 27, Colts 24