(5) Indianapolis Colts vs. (4) Baltimore Ravens
In a season no one saw coming, the Colts finished the year 11-5. I'll let you read that again, and then maybe it will sink in. A franchise that completely started from scratch after the Peyton Manning saga of the last two years in which they got the number one overall pick (Andrew Luck) in last April's draft finished 11-5. Even in Manning's rookie year, he struggled to a 3-13 record and threw 28 interceptions. But with the play of the rookie quarterback Luck as well as a team that came together after first year head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with cancer, they strung together an impressive season and earned a match up against the 10-6 Baltimore Ravens. Try and watch Pagano's rallying post game speech to his team from a few weeks ago and not get choked up. I doubt you can. After a humiliating loss to the second seeded New England Patriots on November 18th, the Colts went 5-1 to end the season. The lone loss came in week fifteen against the rival Houston Texans. The numbers tell one story (7th best pass offense, 22nd best rushing offense, 21st against the pass and 29th against the run) but the eyeball test tells another. When you watch the Colts play, you see a young team hungry to prove themselves. The entire franchise yearns to step out of the shadow cast by the legacy of Peyton Manning. Luck will always be compared to him, which he seems comfortable with as well as capable of stepping up to the challenge.
On the other side of the field, the Baltimore Ravens back in to the playoffs 10-6, losing four of their last five. Part of this is due to the simple fact that their defense is one of their weakest in years. They allowed 122.8 rushing yards per game which is almost unforgivable if you are a Ravens fan. The other reason for being the least convincing team in the playoffs is that they have no offense outside of star running back Ray Rice or tight end Dennis Pita. Quarterback Joe Flacco is in his fifth season and put together a typical Joe Flacco season. He threw 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, against averages of 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions during his whole career. He has yet to break the four thousand yard mark in any of his five seasons. For all his talk of being an elite quarterback, he has yet to prove to any football fan that he has the capability of putting together a kind of season even remotely close to the average season of Drew Brees, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Ray Rice was the workhorse once again, as none of the receivers on the team broke the thousand yard mark. Neither Torrey Smith or Anquan Boldin established themselves as consistent threats. Had they done so, Ray Rice would have been able to put up even better numbers.
Based on the evidence presented to me, and the eyeball test, I believe the Colts will "upset" the Ravens on the road, with a little help from "Chuckstrong."
Colts 27, Ravens 21
(6) Cincinnati Bengals vs (3) Houston Texans
"Sneaking in" would be an understatement for how quietly the Cincinnati Bengals made it into the postseason. In a division where its Pittsburgh, Baltimore and.....not much else, the Bengals have made it to the playoffs (albeit through the wildcard) for the second straight year. Led by second year players Andy Dalton (QB) and A.J. Green (WR) and a surprisingly stout defense, the Bengals are looking to upset Houston Texans and their high powered offense. Cincinnati has won four of its final five heading into the playoffs with the one loss being by a point to the Dallas Cowboys. If they look to win on the road against such a talented team on both sides of the ball, it'll take a superb effort from the Dalton/Green duo in order to keep up with the scoring ability of a team that has both Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. Green lead the AFC North this season with seven drops. He can't let those chances slip away on the road. Their running game with BenJarvus Green-Ellis won't be a factor as it will have to go against the staunch defensive line anchored by J.J Watts who led the league in sacks (20.5). It's the eighth best defense in the Bengals versus the eighth best scoring offense in the Texans; something has to give.
The only other thing that could happen to allow the Bengals to pull off the upset is Schaub throwing costly interceptions while Foster has a lackluster effort. The Texans know what is at stake. After constantly hearing they are overrated and can't beat the big dogs (they got crushed by both the Patriots and Packers), Foster and company are looking to prove the doubters wrong. Also like Baltimore's Flacco, Schaub looks to prove his worth as the field general. He's been a question mark during some of the games in terms of being able to handle the pressure against good defenses.
I don't see the Texans letting this home field opportunity go to waste, as Foster will be his usual self and Johnson will be a threat downfield, making Schaub look better. After ending the regular season on a two game skid, Houston looks to have a solution for Cincinnati.
Texans 31, Bengals 20
(1) Denver Broncos
After a rocky 2-3 start, Peyton Manning and the Broncos really began to gel, ending the season on an eleven game win streak. In the NFL, that is almost unheard of, especially if your quarterback is coming off an offseason where he had more questions surrounding him than Alex Trebek during a week's worth of Jeopardy episodes. Can he still throw the long ball? What happens if he gets hit? Will his neck break again? Is this the same old Peyton who won multiple MVP's and a Super Bowl? Manning himself even admitted at time during the season that he pondered retirement on the offseason. When I heard the news of him signing with the Broncos, I thought how odd it would be to see him with anything else but a horseshoe on his helmet. After a few weeks though, he looked right at home with his new team, connecting with Demarius Thomas and Eric Decker for 23 of his 37 touchdown passes. On the year he has 11 interceptions, which means 2006 stands alone as the only season where Manning didn't throw double digit interceptions. Veteran back Willis McGahee played well for someone who is a nine year vet, but eventually went down in late November with a knee injury. You would think that would doom their season or slow them down, but they simply plugged former Georgia standout Knowshon Moreno in and he played some of the best football of his career to help the Broncos finish 13-3. I foresee at least an AFC title game for the Manning-led crew, possibly against Tom Brady and the Patriots. Speaking of which.......
(2) New England Patriots
Another NFL season means another winning one for the Patriots. Its almost like going through the motions isn't a bad thing- if you are Tom Brady. With Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning dominating the MVP talks, Brady is fine to play third fiddle with his 34 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, as well as over 4,800 yards passing. If you look in the dictionary, Brady's picture is next to the word efficiency. He spreads the ball around, whether you are a star receiver, slot receiver, tight end, running back or full back. He is one of only a handful of quarterbacks (Brees, Rodgers, Manning) who many who watch the NFL feel could win the game on the final drive without question. Tight end Rob Gronkowski had an encore performance of last season up until he got hurt, oddly enough on an extra point attempt when he broke his forearm. The other star tight end (only the Patriots would have two star tight ends, from the same draft no less) Aaron Hernandez struggled to get on the field due to a lingering ankle injury. The one weakness this team has is it's secondary, who contributed to a defense that was 29th best against the pass this season. Regardless, you can almost pencil them in for an AFC title game.
NFC(6) Minnesota Vikings vs (3) Green Bay Packers
By virtue of their 37-34 victory over the Packers in week 17, the Vikings won the right to....face the Packers again- in Lambeau. And not just ANY Packers team. This is one with a chip on its shoulder. Minnesota played spoiler to any hopes Green Bay had at being the second seed and getting a first round bye. You better believe a quarterback with the talent such as Aaron Rodgers is going to be looking to snuff out the Vikings upset hopes from the first snap. 2012 was the breakout year for receiver Randall Cobb who provided a dual threat- receiving and kick returning. Greg Jennings was lost for most of the season, so there was an obvious void and Jordie Nelson is not a primary option, as good as he is. Their defense is great against the pass, but struggles against the run and has allowed over 400 yards to the Vikings' Adrian Peterson.
Without any consistency under center in Christian Ponder, teams loaded up the box in attempts to slow down or stop the Vikings' running attack. Some of Ponder's inadequacies were mitigated by wideout Percy Harvin until he went on injured reserve late in the season. Tight end Kyle Rudolph became Ponder's favorite target, especially in the red zone. Even with teams targeting Adrian Peterson all season, he ran right through them, narrowly missing Eric Dickerson's all time single season rushing record by nine yards. He finished with 2,097 on a run last Sunday with twenty four seconds left in the fourth quarter against the Packers which led to the game winning field goal by rookie kicking phenom Blair Walsh.
If there is any hope that Minnesota can pull off an almost impossible upset, it rests on the shoulders and legs of one Adrian Peterson, and relies on Christian Ponder not turning the ball over. Their defense has shown it can get stops when it needs to, but even the Packers' offense at full health could be too much on the road for the Vikings. I'm going with my heart here, though. The Vikings are very hungry for a win here, and a player as motivated as Peterson could be that x-factor which pushes them over the edge.
Vikings 24, Packers 23
(5) Seattle Seahawks vs. (4) Washington Redskins
This game is the battle of the streaks. The Seahawks ended the season winning five in a row, while the Redskins finished on a seven game win streak. Both are on incredible highs, and headed on a collision course this Sunday.
This game will be a battle of the running offenses, as Washington leads the league in rushing yards per game thanks in part to rookie sixth rounder Alfred "WHO?" Morris and D.C. demigod Robert Griffin III, and Seattle is third mainly because of Beastmode, Marshawn Lynch.
The fact that this game is at Fedex Field and not Qwest Field cannot be understated enough. To go from the best home crowd in the NFL in Seattle, to a town that hasn't won a playoff game since 2005 is a major deal. The last time the 'Skins won in 2005, they were eliminated the very next round against who else? The Seattle Seahawks. Granted it was a different time with completely different personnel, but the revenge factor for Washington against Seattle does play a part...if only because Seattle eliminated them in their last playoff appearance the very next year in the wild card round.
Russell Wilson has been nothing short of spectacular this season. It all started in the off season when Wilson came out of nowhere as a rookie to upstage big free agent signing Matt Flynn to earn the starting job. He looked very sharp in the preseason as well, and carried it into the 2012 season. The Seahawks first entered the national stage on Monday Night Football when they beat the Packers when the replacement refs made the worst call in football history to decide a football game. Wilson went on to achieve a passer rating of 100 for the entire season, and tied Peyton Manning for the record of touchdown passes by a rookie with 26. His uncanny ability to avoid the sack and extend plays has provided his team with more chances to win games. The Seahawks were eight points away from having three games in a row of 50 or more points.
Seattle can certainly score, but Washington will look to snuff the running game. They really need a solid effort from a defense that is 30th in the league against the pass. The difference in this game will be the quarterback play. If RGIII can stay on the field and be effective running and throwing the ball, this will allow -in my opinion- the second best play action in the NFL to be more threatening and effective. The 'Skins will have the home crowd roaring, and they'll look to get first downs and wear down the Seattle defense on the way to their first playoff win in seven seasons.
Redskins 28, Seahawks 21
(1) Atlanta Falcons
In his four years as an Atlanta Falcon, quarterback Matt Ryan has yet to win a playoff game. Does this still mean he deserves the nickname "Matty Ice"? The pressure is not just on him, but the Falcons as a whole to come through and deliver a win, and show they aren't a front runner in the regular season. They have home field advantage- but these aren't the dirty birds of years ago with Jamaal Anderson.
They have the sixth best passing offense in the league, but will need bigger efforts from Michael Turner and Jaquizz Rodgers in order to get that ever elusive first playoff win for Ryan. Julio Jones and Roddy White have been huge all year for Ryan, as well as star veteran Tony Gonzalez. Jones does need to cut down on his drops though. This might be the year they put it together and make a run. Then again, would anyone be surprised if they failed to live up to their own hype? Prove me wrong, Matty.
(2) San Francisco 49ers
Lastly we have the 49ers. After a daring midseason quarterback switch, the dynamic Colin Kaepernick seemed to pay off at first. Then they ran into the Seahawks, losing 42-13 in a blowout no on could have foreseen, regardless of the game being in Seattle. Their marquee win came in New England in a back and forth contest which saw them pull away 41-34. Frank Gore has been their anchor all season, with a speedy receiving corps that extends the field. The corpse of Randy Moss occasionally runs good routes and gets into the end zone from time to time. Aside from their weak passing offense, San Francisco ranks 4th across the board in rushing, as well as yards allowed. Time will tell what the rookie quarterback is made of. If need be, Alex Smith is still on the bench.
It is one thing to be successful in the regular season as a rookie (Wilson, RG3, Kaepernick, Luck) but the post season is a different animal. Players like Manning, Brady and Rodgers all know what it takes. Others like Ryan, Flacco, Ponder and Schaub are unproven.
Predictions and forecasts rarely hold any weight. The time for speculation and prediction will soon cease, and the real fun will begin- on the field.