Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have the luxury of a week off, but eight other NFL teams will put their playoff fates on the line on Saturday and Sunday. Luke Hughes presents your winners, losers and more for Wild Card weekend.
Bill Belichick stood inside the warm and cozy media room at Gillette Stadium on Thursday afternoon, answering - well more like dodging - questions and exploring the Patriots' variety of options for next week's Divisional Round game in Foxboro.
While Belichick and the Patriots are afforded the luxury, as has been the case in six of BB's 12 seasons in New England, of taking an extra week out to rest and plan, eight other NFL teams prepare to put their playoff fates on the line this weekend.
The Hoodie and his staff are primarily concerned with four of those eight teams as a number of Divisional Round scenarios could still play out for the Patriots depending on this weekend's outcomes.
No team is safe on Wild Card weekend. It seems that each year fans just expect the favored teams to pull out an easy win and move onto the next round. Not quite that simple.
In fact, over the past five years as many as eight underdog teams have pulled out Wild Card weekend victories, including two who have gone on to win Super Bowls in the same season (2007-Giants, 2011-Packers).
Last season there was the obvious upset of the 6th seeded Packers taking down the white hot Eaglesin Philly and of course over in the AFC 6th seeded Rex Ryan and the Jets dropping Manning and the Colts for a one point defeat. But, even given the ultimate Super Bowl champion Packers, the biggest upset of all last year had to be out in the Great Northwest.
Thankfully for the Saints, this season, Beast Mode Lynch and the Hawks will be viewing Saturday's playoff action from the comfy confines of the living room couch. But, while Drew Brees can breathe easy knowing Kerry Skittles (Lynch) and Co. won't be ruining his playoff run, the presence of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson on the opposing sideline certainly doesn't present much in terms of relief.
Now, with less than 24-hours until a wild - both literally and figuratively, of course - weekend of football begins, let's breakdown the matchups, make some predictions and see how the outcome could impact the Patriots' Super Bowl push.
Breakdown: Head coaches Marvin Lewis and Gary Kubiak square off on Saturday afternoon as the Bengals head into Houston for the first ever playoff meeting between two rookie quarterbacks.
The decisive storyline won't come down to which premiere defense ultimately outperforms the other - both are ranked in Top-10 of yardage and points per game, but rather which impressionable rookie signal caller can make the plays necessary to win.
The pressure bearing down on both Andy Dalton and T.J. Yates as they make their playoff debuts will be enormous, especially for two franchises who haven't seen much in terms of postseason success over the past few decades - or ever in the case of the Texans.
But, aside from the inexperience and some early game jitters, in actually breaking them down the two players couldn't be in a more different position.
Dalton, an early second round pick in the 2011 Draft, won the starting job out of training camp and now has a full season under his belt and plenty to show for it. Big Red completed 58% of his passes, threw for 20 touchdowns and nearly 3400 yards on the season while leading the Benglas to their first playoff appearance since 2006.
Yates, in quite the opposite spot, was drafted late in the 5th Round of 2011 as a project QB with possible future potential. Sitting firmly behind both Matt Schaub and experienced backup Matt Leinart, Yates was never intended to see the field at all in 2011. But season-ending injuries to both QB's sent Yates into early action and he performed admirably.
Yates completed better than 61% of his passes and threw for nearly 1,000 yards with an even 3-3 TD-INT ratio in his five starts under center. A slight shoulder injury, suffered in Week 17, shouldn't be an issue as he's been cleared to play, so expect to see Yates continue to grow throughout this game.
Dalton's season-long chemistry with Bengals primary wide receivers A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson is near flawless in comparison to Yates continued struggle to find a rhythm with Texans top man Andrew Johnson, which could prove costly in a tight game late.
Key Matchup: Establishing the running game should set the tone for either quarterback and could provide the opportunity for one to make the big play. While the Texans boast a more dynamic group in the backfield, with Arian Foster and Ben Tate running the show, Cedric Benson is no slouch either and can kick it into high gear anytime.
Contrary to popular belief, Dalton's experience and composure should help counteract Foster's explosiveness from the backfield and Cincy's defense will make a few more plays and limit many Houston scoring chances to Field Goals.
Prediction: Cincinatti 26, Houston 23
Breakdown: Drew Brees threw for more than 3 miles worth of yards this NFL season, that's more than 16,000 feet of passing yards. His new single-season mark of 5,476 yards is an astounding number when looking at it in comparison to other league leaders in years past.
While Brees and the Saints celebrated his landmark accomplishments with post-game cheering circles and chants of "Who Dat", Lions QB Matthew Stafford was quietly putting together his own memorable campaign. Stafford nearly topped Marino's mark in just his first full NFL season, becoming the youngest player ever to join the 5K passing club (5,038).
Just taking a brief glance over the matchup and this has to be shaping up as the most exciting game of the weekend. You can certainly expect plenty of points on the board by night's end and if there's any real quality defense to be discussed, it will likely result in a score anyways.
Everyone knows about the Saints arsenal of offensive weapons -- Mark Ingram, Lance Moore, Marquez Colston, Robert Meachem, Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and let's not forget Jimmy Graham - but the Lions have themselves a good young core on offense as well.
In his own chase for 5K, throwing to arguably the league's best receiver, Calvin Johnson, certainly didn't hurt Stafford's chances. Early in the season, Johnson was hauling in balls like a range cart at a golf course. He was even on pace to shatter Randy Moss' single-season receiving TD total (23) at one point, scoring eight times in just the first four games of the season.
By season's end, Johnson may have lost track of the end zone but the 6'5" 230-pound freak never cooled off, reeling in 96 balls for almost 1700 yards and 16 touchdowns by season's end. The blossoming of tight end Brandon Pettigrew, fellow wideout Titus Young and the late season addition of tailback Kevin Smith certainly helped to neutralize the isolate Megatron gameplan and created more scoring opportunities for the Lions offense.
Key Matchup: The game may ultimately be won in the trenches. Ndomakoang Suh and Sedrick Ellis will be both X-factors for either side as the pass rush will be key to either team's victory. Whoever wins the battle up front and keeps their quarterback up right consistently should come out on top in this one.
Prediction: New Orleans 37, Detroit 28
Breakdown: A late season collapse by the Dallas Cowboys and a few turns of luck found a place for the Giants in the playoffs. The last time Big Blue backed their way into the postseason, they not only pulled an upset on Wild Card Weekend, but they bashed their way through the playoffs and unseated the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Repeating that feat is surely a long shot. The Giants have the talent to compete with anyone but continuing defensive problems has been a concern all season and could be their ultimate Achilles heel. The Giants boast the leagues fourth worst pass defense at over 255 yards per game and ranked 25th in scoring defense, giving up 25 points on average, eye popping stats that should be of great concern for Tom Coughlin in these playoffs.
True, Big Blue has finally appeared to begin the mending process in past weeks - 14 points against both the NY Jets and Dallas Cowboys - but those numbers may be skewed given the obvious inabilities of Mark Sanchez as a passer and Tony Romo's ugly performance on a bum wrist.
Credit where it's due, New York's front four, led by Jason Pierre-Paul's 16.5 sacks, have been menacing for opposing offenses all season - even giving Aaron Rodgers fits in week 13. The secondary is just filled with too many unproven commodities, especially in sub packages, and lined with unreliable youngsters - Tyler Sash, Will Blackmon even Prince Amukamara.
Give a very precise Matt Ryan time in the pocket to find passing lanes within a porous secondary and the Falcons could run away with this game early in the second half. The combination of Julio Jones and Roddy White on the outside with a seemingly ageless Tony Gonzalez over the middle should re-open old wounds on a band-aided Giants defense.
Atlanta's very physical offensive line, even receiving some criticism recently for their "dirty play", should help protect against JPP and the G-Men up front but it will be establishing the ground game with Michael "The Burner" Turner that will be key to Ryan's success through the air.
Key Matchup: Watch for JPP and Justin Tuck in the pass rush against an aggressive but inconsistent Falcons front five. If the Giants get to Ryan early enough and give Eli Manning a chance to find breakout receiver Victor Cruz, then Big Blue could be salsa dancing their way into San Francisco next weekend.
Predicition: Not so Fast. Falcons 24, Giants 20
Breakdown: Ben Roethlisberger's foot injury will be under a microscope all day on Sunday. The towering QB re-aggravated the problem in practice this week and if he performs anything like he did in the 49ers game then the Steelers may be in some serious trouble.
Luckily for Mike Tomlin, the Broncos don't feature quite the same ball-hawking defense as in San Francisco and Roethlisberger may be able to get away with a few errant passes. As good as they have been in certain weeks, Denver's defense ranks near the bottom of the league in turnover rate, posting a -12 and forcing just 18 takeaways for the season, good enough for fourth worst in the NFL.
Still, at least in recent weeks, the Steelers had a quality rushing attack they could rely on to do the heavy lifting. Now, with leading tailback Rashard Mendenhall out with a torn-ACL, the Black and Yellow will have to settle for the unproven attack of Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore to take care of business.
Denver's offense will need to pace itself on the afternoon. Establishing the ground game will be essential to any success Tim Tebow will have through the air -- Wow, I made it three whole paragraphs without a mention of Tim Tebow.
The workhorse Willis McGahee, 250 rushes for 1200 yards in 2011, will have to carry the load and open up opportunities for Tebow and the Wild-Horse to take effect.
John Fox knows exactly what he has in the Broncos' offense and has certainly game planned accordingly. Although, I wouldn't be surprised to see Denver run a few more quick slant routes, giving Tebow the chance to balance out what will expectedly be a run-heavy Steelers D early on.
It will be interesting to see how Tebow reacts if the Broncos are behind late in this one. The Steelers defense are far more rigid than that of Oakland, Kansas City or Minnesota - three places where his late game heroics won out.
The Steelers can finally put a healthy Lamaar Woodley and James Harrison out on the field again this weekend and even without Ryan Clark, Pittsburgh's secondary should be sound given complex looks and Tebow's inability to read coverages.
Key Matchup: The outcome is going to be a lot closer than people may think. With a hobbled Big Ben struggling to power the juggernaut offense, a patchwork Steelers rushing attack could bear the load on offense. An aggressive Broncos' front seven, led by Von Miller, may cause fits for Redman and crew, keeping this one interesting until the final drive.
Prediction: Steelers 21, Broncos 17
If these matchups turnout as expected, the impact for the Patriots will be minimal. The Bengals making a visit to Foxboro is certainly a huge step up from an appearance from a Steelers team, who has beaten New England once already.
Cincinnati would prove a nice test for the Pats and at least offer an opportunity to beat a foe with a winning record for once this season. However, the Bengals will be more than just a cake walk on a visit to New England.
An inexperienced bunch, yes, but a solid team nonetheless. As already mentioned, Andy Dalton is a gamer with a big arm and A.J Green can certainly beat you deep, especially against this miserable Patriots secondary. Marvin Lewis' defense will certainly pose a threat to Tom Brady and company, even if only early in the game.
Devin McCourty's trial run at Safety may turn into a full time gig in the playoffs, in hopes of preventing the big play over the top, but the run defense may also be a concern.
Either way, a visit from Cincy offers the Patriots possibly their easiest road to the Super Bowl. A visit from either Pittsburgh or Baltimore is nearly inevitable en route to Indianapolis, but the opportunity of facing just one should help ease the aches and pains of a Patriots team on the mend -- Logan Mankins, Sebastian Voellmer, Brandon Spikes and others.
Give Belicheck two weeks to prepare for any opponent and he'll likely crush you, just take a look at his prefect record off a Bye week. Last year's playoff loss to the Jets game is certainly the exception to the rule, but if we've learned anything about Belichick over the past 12 seasons it's that he is not one to be made a fool of.
So, apologies to all you Texans, Lions, Giants and Broncos fans but that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Either way, enjoy the weekend, grab some buds and of course Happy Footballing!