Seventeen weeks of the regular season has reduced the NFL down to 12 teams. Only two of those 12 will play in the Super Bowl.
Of those two teams only one team can lift the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl Champions. After everything is all said and done, 31 fan bases will feel the season ended on a sour note.
Before we can even get to that picturesque scene of triumph, we must get past Wild Card Weekend.
By early Sunday night, four teams will see their chances of a title ended. Watching all the action will be the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots.
Waiting for those four teams with a bye will be four battle tested teams. Those four found a way to keep their dreams alive for one more week.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Houston Texans (3:30 NBC)
It might sound strange but these two teams and fan bases should feel happy about their season even if they lose this weekend. Everything that has gone on this season should leave the loser feeling good about the future.
The Bengals entered the season with a disgruntled quarterback (Carson Palmer) who wanted out of town. Cincinnati had to turn to a rookie quarterback (Andy Dalton) and rookie wide receiver (AJ Green) to lead the way.
Dalton & Green were helped by a sound running game lead by Cedric Benson who had over 1,000 yards rushing this season. The ground game has took pressure off Dalton to do it all by himself.
Cincinnati has done a good job in the draft and it is showing. Not just Dalton and Green but Jerome Simpson and Jermaine Gresham have become offensive weapons.
Offensively, the Bengals rank 20th in total offense and 19th in rushing and 20th in passing. In turnover margin Cincinnati is even with 22 takeaways and 22 giveaways.
The Bengals are very good on defense and have a nice rotation of defensive line players who can make an impact on the game. Cincinnati is the ninth best defense (total yards allowed) in the NFL.
Cincinnati in ninth in the NFL in passing yards allowed at 212 yards per game with 45 sacks and 10 interceptions. The Bengals are only allowing 104.7 yards per game on the ground.
Some big names are injury concerns this Sunday. The Bengals need Carlos Dunlap to play well on the defensive line but he is fighting a hamstring injury.
On offense, Dalton has the flu and been to the hospital. AJ Green is playing through a shoulder injury and Cedric Benson is nursing a foot injury.
All four should play but could be limited. The Bengals are about as healthy as a team can be entering the playoffs.
Houston on the other hand is not very healthy. Still the Texans finally broke through and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
This team took advantage of a division with no Peyton Manning (injured), a rookie in Jacksonville (Blaine Gabbert) and a Tennessee in flux. No knock here for Houston.
The Texans were the sexy pick for years to burst on to the playoff scene and they finally did. Houston did so in a year they suffered injuries to major players nearly every week.
Injuries have cost the Texans quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, linebacker Mario Williams, safety Dominique Barber for the season. Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels, Johnathan Joseph, and TJ Yates are all battling injuries heading into the playoffs.
Even if the Texans loose this week they still have to think this season was a success. Even with the injuries this team found ways to win football games.
Houston is 13th in total offense but it was the passing game hurt by all the injuries. The Texans were 18th in the passing yards per game with 219 yards but second in the NFL in rushing 153 yards per game.
On defense the Texans even with injuries are 2nd overall in the NFL. Houston is 3rd in passing defense with 44 sacks and 17 interceptions, allowing just 190 yards per game.
The Texans only allow 96 yards per game on the ground for the 4th best rushing defense. Houston is second in the AFC at plus seven in turnover margin. This team has 27 takeaways and 20 giveaways.
Injuries will play a part in this game. Houston is the walking wounded and having made it this far is an accomplishment.
Cincinnati needs to run the ball to control the game and if Green is healthy take shots down field. Houston might be one dimensional on offense with the injury to Yates.
I do not feel either one of these teams will make a long run in the playoffs. The Bengals are too young and the Texans are too injured.
In the playoffs, healthy teams tend to do better. Even though the Texans won a regular season matchup (20-19) I will give the nod to the Bengals win this matchup.
Detroit Lions @ New Orleans Saints (7:00p.m. NBC)
Link to story available here.
Atlanta Falcons @ New York Giants (12:00p.m. FOX)
Two teams in the NFC in my mind could be able to derail a Saints/Packers NFC Championship meeting. One of those teams, San Francisco because of what they have been all season (tough defense and good running game).
The other team is the New York Giants for what they could be (tough defense and balanced offense). New York is one of the three teams in the NFC with a Super Bowl winning quarterback.
This season reminds me of the Giants last Super Bowl winning team. Just getting into the playoffs and not expecting much from them.
If New York can find three straight games of consistency, this team will be tough to beat. The Giants laid some eggs but can play with anyone when they come out and play their best.
There is no question; Eli Manning is having one of his best seasons as a pro. He has led the Giants to the fifth best passing offense at 296 yards per game.
On the downside for New York is that the offense is ranked 32nd (last) in the NFL in rushing with just 89.2 yards per game. If Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw start running hard for big yards, the Giants will become really dangerous.
Even if the Giants running back duo decides to stay in witness protection for the post season. Manning has Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nick to help him score points in the passing game.
Both Cruz and Nicks went over 1,000 yard receiving this season. Jacobs and Bradshaw could barely muster over 1,100 between them.
Defense is where the Giants can be really scary. New York is not scary on in the secondary but on the defensive line.
Players like Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora can rush the passer on every down. This defensive line can cause havoc if they win the battle in the trenches.
Linebackers Michael Boley and Mathis Kiwanuka are good in the run game and can rush the passer. Nearly every Giants defender in the passing game is a liability.
Defensively overall the Giants are ranked 27th in total defense. New York is ranked 19th in rushing defense allowing 119 yards per game.
The Giants pass defense is ranked 29th allowing 260 yards per game with 48 sacks and 20 interceptions. New York plays its best when their defensive line plays in their opponent’s backfield.
This Giants team is plus seven in turnover margin. New York has 31 takeaways and 24 giveaways this season.
New York has injuries to Bradshaw, Nicks, Umenyiora, and tight end Jake Ballard. None of these injuries should keep these players out of the lineup.
Atlanta gave up a ton in the draft to get wide receiver Julio Jones. The Falcons in a win now situation, hoped that Jones would give them a deep threat to put them over the top in the Super Bowl race.
Michael Turner again went for over 1,000 yards and was strong in the rushing game for Atlanta. Rookie Jacquizz Rodgers was a nice addition as a third down change of pace back. The Falcons were 17th in rushing with 114.6 yards per game.
Matt Ryan was strong leading the Falcons to the 8th ranked passing game with 262 yards per game. Roddy White and Jones lead the way in the receiving corps.
White had over 1,000 yards with 100 catches and Jones had nearly 1,000 yards on just 54 catches. A big knock on the Atlanta receivers is that they drop a lot of passes.
Atlanta is great on defense against the run for 6th in the NFL and allowing only 97 yards per game. The Falcons weakness is in pass defense ranked 20th in the NFL and allowing 237 yards per game with 33 sacks and 19 interceptions.
This Atlanta team has several nicked up players heading into the playoffs. Turner, White, Jones, tight end Tony Gonzalez, wide receiver Harry Douglas, linebackers Curtis Lofton and Stephen Nickolas, defensive end Ray Edwards and cornerback Brent Grimes are banged up heading into the playoffs.
The Falcons are plus eight in turnover margin this season. Atlanta has 29 takeaways and 21 giveaways.
The Giants are a dangerous team and even more dangerous with this game at home. Atlanta was built to play in the Georgia Dome but will have to survive on the road this post season.
If the weather in New York is bad this weekend it has to be another plus for the Giants. Eli Manning knows what it takes to lead a team to a victory in the playoffs.
Matt Ryan is still trying to find his way. This game will be decided by the New York defensive line. If they can get to Ryan and make his day hard, it will go a long way to a Giants victory.
New York can’t allow the Falcons run game to get going. If the Giants can get production from their run game it would take weight off Eli’s shoulders.
I believe that this Giants team can make a deep run. I am not sure about the Falcons. At home I have to give the G-Men the edge.
Pick: New York
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos (3:30p.m. CBS)
The Steelers enter the playoffs with nearly as many injuries (if not more) as the Texans. Pittsburgh lost running back Rashard Mendenhall for the post season with a knee injury.
Ben Roethlisberger is nursing an ankle injury and has limited mobility. Roethlisberger should play but might be a sitting duck in the pocket.
Isaac Redman will take over the duties at running back for Mendenhall. The Steelers had the 14th ranked rush offense at 118.9 yards per game.
Pittsburgh finished the season ranked 10th in passing offense at 253 yards per game. Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown both had over 1,000 yard receiving and can be deep threats.
On defense the Steelers will be without Ryan Clark due to sickle cell trait. Clark had trouble with blood clots playing in the high altitude in Denver.
Several Pittsburgh defenders are banged up. Linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are battling injuries.
Even safety Troy Polamalu is fighting through a calf injury. Without Clark the Steelers will need all their other defenders as healthy as possible.
The Steelers have the best pass defense in the NFL allowing just 172 yards per game with 35 sacks and 11 interceptions. Pittsburgh hits the quarterback on passing downs either legally or illegally.
Pittsburgh is ranked 8th in the NFL in rush defense allowing just 99.8 yards per game. If the Steelers have any more injuries these rankings might not matter much.
The biggest stat to watch is turnovers. Pittsburgh is one of the worst team in the NFL in turnover margin.
During the season the Steelers were minus 13 in turnover margin. Pittsburgh had 15 takeaways and 28 giveaways.
This game could be billed as “the sinner vs. the saint” but the nation might be turning on the saint. Tim Tebow has been a lightning rod this season over his play and his religion.
Tebow can’t win. If the Broncos win it is in spite of him and if the Broncos lose it is all because of him.
Everyone knows fans are fickle but even the Denver fans are starting to turn on Tebow. How easy they forget that they were going nowhere fast before Tebow took over. Now they are AFC West champions and in the playoffs.
Even if head coach John Fox or John Elway won’t admit it. They do not want Tebow to succeed. Go back and watch the play calling in the final game of the season against Kansas City.
Denver’s offense was constantly in a hole due to uncreative and predictable play calling. If it continues against the Steelers, Tebow will have no chance to win this game.
Offensively the Broncos are the best rushing team in the NFL with 164.5 yards per game. Willis McGahee led the way on the ground for Denver with over 1,000 yards and was followed by Tebow.
Denver is 31st in passing offense averaging 152 yards per game. Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas were the Broncos top receivers this season.
Defensively Denver must have Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil come out of witness protection this postseason. Miller and Dumervil need to stuff the run and rush the quarterback. It would also help if Robert Ayers becomes the pass rusher Denver hoped he would be when they drafted him.
In the secondary the Broncos need Champ Bailey and injured Brian Dawkins to make big plays. Dawkins is the heart and soul of the Denver defense and his being on the field is a huge plus.
Denver has the 18th ranked pass defense allowing 232 yards per game. The Broncos allow 126.3 yards on the ground and are ranked 22nd in the NFL.
Much like Pittsburgh, the Broncos are terrible in turnover margin. Denver has forced 18 takeaways and 30 giveaways.
Everything about this game says the Steelers should win. The Broncos backed into the playoffs thanks to an Oakland loss.
Pittsburgh is banged up but the Broncos offense has been predicable and stagnant. Denver will need an all-around game from their offense and defense to beat the Steelers.
Injury riddled Pittsburgh cannot afford any more injuries even with a win. The Steelers will hope to put the game away early and escape with no major injuries.
My heart says go with the feel good story of Tebow and the Broncos. My head says all signs point to a Pittsburgh win.
I am going with my head and the Steelers. I still expect this game to be close and a chance for Tebow Time in the fourth quarter.