Unfortunately, this weekend Bears players will be watching the playoffs from their couches along with us, the fans. Chicago missed out on the postseason after finishing 10-6 based on their division record. The Bears did, however, play a large role in getting other teams to the playoffs, and they generated momentum for their opponents.
For the most part, you will hear a lot of perennial postseason names throughout the weekend, with the exception of three special players: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Three rookie quarterbacks will be starting playoff games for their teams. It's nearly inconceivable to imagine one in the playoffs let alone three, and the games they are in are the marquee match-ups of the weekend.
Other surprises start with the return of Peyton Manning to the postseason as a one-seed, only this time he's in Denver. Adrian Peterson is back in the playoffs after notching one of the best regular seasons from a running back in NFL history. And finally, the Cincinnati Bengals make it to the playoffs for a second-consecutive year, under the radar, possibly ready for a big upset this weekend.
Saturday, 4:30 PM ET, Bengals vs. Texans (-4.5)
Most fans, I would think, have this game at the bottom of their playoff list. It’s a rematch from last year's postseason, only this time with Matt Schaub running the show for Houston instead of T.J. Yates. This is a game that will be dictated up the middle of the field, and it will come down to which team can generate more pressure and stop the opposing team’s running game. Of the four games this weekend, this one might turn out to be the best and closest match-up.
The Texans are falling backward into the playoffs, forfeiting their number one seed to the Denver Broncos. The Bengals have won seven of their last eight and have been playing extremely good football. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green both progressed and gained momentum from spectacular rookie seasons. The experience they gained from their first trip to Houston last season might do them well here.
The game will ultimately come down to the defensive lines. Texans’ DE J.J. Watt and Bengals’ DT Geno Atkins were two of the more effective pass rushers in the League this season, and for either team to win, these players will have to stay grounded and stop the run.
Arian Foster can hurt the Bengals on the outside, and he'll have to be huge in the Red Zone. Cincinnati needs to stay away from turnovers, and stay disciplined in their offense.
Saturday, 8:00 PM ET, Vikings vs. Packers (-8.0)
Directly after the thriller in the Metrodome these two teams will duke it out again at Lambeau Field. Last week's game turned into a slug fest and came down to some big, well executed Vikings’ plays to separate themselves from the Packers. For Green Bay, it's stop Adrian Peterson at all cost. In the first matchup between these two, Peterson had 210 yards; in the second meeting he had 199, which was probably more than the entire Packers’ RB unit combined.
Aaron Rodgers should be the Aaron Rodgers that we know. He struggled in Minnesota, but at home he should be able to beat this defense, especially with a weakened Antonie Winfield. The Packers are extremely banged up, which bodes well for the Vikings, who are riding a four-game winning streak. In the end, it should come down to productivity of the star players. Both teams are one-dimensional; one passing, one running. If Rodgers can throw for 300+ and a couple touchdowns, the Packers can win. If the Vikings get 200+ and two TDs, Minnesota should win. Simple as that.
Sunday, 1:00 PM ET, Colts vs. Ravens (-7.0)
The Colts were 2-14 a year ago, now they are a five-seed and in the playoffs. Andrew Luck has revitalized a franchise that had been owned by one of the game's best—Peyton Manning—for the last decade. Baltimore has been consistent in getting into the playoffs with Flacco at QB. He's five for five in his first five seasons and has nine starts, which is more than all the other Wild-Card QBs combined.
Flacco and the offense have played off the momentum gained by the defense, but this year, with an aging unit, Flacco will have to generate his own momentum to win games.
Indianapolis has found ways to win games late this season. The cardiac Colts need to stay in range and not let the home crowd overwhelm them. If this team can stick around long enough, Luck has proven he can dominate in the fourth quarter. Flacco will have the advantage in experience coming into this game, and the Ravens should stress getting up early and possibly flustering the young QB. The Ravens have the more efficient running game with Ray Rice and one of the best home field advantages to back them.
Sunday, 4:30 PM ET, Seahawks (+3) vs. Redskins
The only road team favored this weekend is the Seattle Seahawks, who have been one of the hottest, more impressive teams in the League. The Seahawks are deep and solid in almost every aspect of the game. Even the rookie QB Russell Wilson has progressed well throughout the season. The Seahawks will be up against a crowd of rowdy Redskins fans and the dangerous RGIII. This game is my must-watch match-up of the week, and it should come down to the wire.
The running game will be a huge factor, both stopping and running the ball. Marshawn Lynch has become a fierce weapon, and when he runs well the Seahawks succeed. Russell Wilson uses the threat of Lynch to run the play fake. Wilson on the roll out is one of the scariest passers in the NFL. The Seahawks need to make Alfred Morris beat them. The Skins have a knack for making big plays, and Seattle has to contain RGIII inside the pocket; make him beat you from there.
The run game will dictate the pace, and the team that controls the pace will most likely be advancing.