With a tough transition back from Christmas break, miserably cold weather, and midterms coming up, January could easily be the worst month of the year. But fortunately, the NFL playoffs are around to provide excitement and entertainment throughout these dark mid-winter days. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be breaking down each matchup and predicting all the action. To start, here are my picks for Wild Card Weekend.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Houston Texans (12-4)
Kickoff: 4:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 5
Both of these teams were solid but unspectacular throughout the regular season, and the Texans especially have struggled down the stretch after starting 11-1. Cincinnati has a star wide receiver in A.J. Green, a star on the defensive line in nose tackle Geno Atkins, and no other dominant players. Houston has a star wide receiver in Andre Johnson, a star on the defensive line in end J.J. Watt, and no other dominant players. In a quarterback-driven league, both Andy Dalton of the Bengals and Matt Schaub of the Texans have ranged from average to mediocre.
Because of the similarities between these two teams, I would expect them to have similar game plans. Cincinnati’s running game isn’t great, but it will probably establish its presence early on to help Dalton challenge Houston’s subpar secondary with deep play-action passes. Houston will likely do the same with Schaub, although running back Arian Foster may break off a few big runs. In the end though, the Bengals have the hotter defense and a slight edge at quarterback. I see them prevailing in the sort of old-school defensive struggle that has become all too uncommon in the modern NFL.
Bengals 17, Texans 10
Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Kickoff: 1:00 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 6
It’s amazing that the Colts are even here. They finished 2-14 a year ago. They started the most hyped rookie quarterback in the past decade at quarterback, top draft pick Andrew Luck, as well as less heralded rookies at running back and tight end. They have the league’s worst run defense, a leaky secondary, and a one-dimensional offense that relies way too heavily on the passing game. And to make matters worse, first-year head coach Chuck Pagano missed most of the season while battling leukemia. From a logical standpoint this should be an easy win for the Ravens. Then again, from a logical standpoint the Colts shouldn’t even have had a winning record, and yet they’re still standing in January.
Even though Baltimore halfback Ray Rice will shred the Colts’ defense and head coach John Harbaugh is one of the league’s best, it’s become impossible to bet against Indy on its inspirational run. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some mistakes by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and another miraculous game-winning drive by Luck in the final minutes.
Colts 31, Ravens 27
Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (11-5)
Kickoff: 8:00 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 5
When these teams met in Minnesota last week, the Vikings won a dramatic close game on the strength of the best running back in the league, Adrian Peterson. That’s pretty much been the formula for the Vikings this season: win dramatic close games by handing the ball off to Peterson. Quarterback Christian Ponder has had hilariously bad moments, and playing at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field will only make him worse, if such a thing is even possible. Plus, the injury-riddled Minnesota defense has been inconsistent throughout the year.
Green Bay, on the other hand, is a team on the rise and even a dark horse Super Bowl contender. Safety Charles Woodson should return from injury to stabilize the secondary, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers will tear apart the Vikings with receiver Jordy Nelson returning to the lineup. Peterson may be unstoppable, but his team isn’t.
Packers 41, Vikings 20
Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at Washington Redskins (10-6)
Kickoff: 4:30 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 6
As a diehard Redskins fan, I’ve probably gone through this game thousands of times in my head already. Sadly, there aren’t too many scenarios in which they actually win. Although two phenomenal rookies, quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris, have led them on a seven-game win streak and their first playoff appearance since 2007, the Redskins still have significant problems. None of their wide receivers are good enough to match up with Seattle cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, and for most of the year their pass defense has looked like the 33rd-best in the 32-team NFL. Although the unit has improved of late, it’s hard to see it stopping Seahawks’ rookie Russell Wilson, who’s been just as dominant as Griffin under center.
While the matchup between these two top-flight rushing attacks and stout run defenses will be interesting, Seattle has a far superior secondary and a scorching-hot offense that scored a whopping 150 points over a three-game span in December. The only hope for Washington is that the Seahawks, who finished undefeated at home but with a losing record on the road, leave their A-game behind in the Pacific Northwest. I’m hoping that happens, but it doesn’t look too likely.
Seahawks 28, Redskins 17
Record to date: 0-0
Tentative Super Bowl favorite: Denver Broncos