The NFL Playoffs are set. While this means that there are fewer games to watch this weekend, it also means that the stakes - and level of competitiveness - will be ratcheted up. A Super Bowl victory is now a legitimate possibility for the twelve teams who made the playoffs.
Let's take a look at this weekend's first-round games to see who I think will move one step closer to hoisting the coveted Lombardi Trophy.
First-round byes: Broncos (13-3) and Patriots (12-4). See you both next round.
Bengals (10-6) at Texans (12-4): Saturday 4:30pm
To say that the Texans have stumbled heading into the playoffs would be an understatement. The Texans were 11-1 before losing three of their last four, along with the top seed and a first round bye. In order to make a serious super bowl run, you usually want to be playing well going into the playoffs, and the Texans certainly appear to be doing the exact opposite. The Bengals, on the other hand, have won three of their last four games and as they secured the sixth and final playoff position in the AFC.
Despite the recent trends for these teams, I just don't see the Bengals winning this one. Arian Foster will lead the way on the ground and help control the clock. This will only help to open things up for Schaub and the aerial attack to Andre Johnson as well as his other talented receivers and tight end. JJ Watt will wreak havoc on the defensive side of the ball, and the Texans will win this one handily, 31-20.
Colts (11-5) at Ravens (10-6): Sunday 1pm
Anyone who said that they saw the Colts finishing this season at 11-5 and earning a playoff berth is probably not telling the truth. The team looked completely lost last year and essentially dismantled much of the team while at the same time saying good-bye to Peyton Manning. They took Andrew Luck with the number one overall pick and managed to grab some other talented rookies who have produced in a big way. The Ravens have Ray Rice who should have a big game against the Colts' flimsy run defense. The other Ray - Ray Lewis (maybe you've heard of him?!) - has announced his retirement for next year which will likely inspire his team to play with some extra emotion to help him make one last run in the playoffs.
Despite the Colts' youth versus the Raven's seasoned veteran team, I am picking with my heart on this one and saying that the Colts will find a way to win this game. That's really not that far of a leap as the Colts have been finding ways to win close games all season. Luck has looked like anything but a rookie as he has led the team to an incredible seven fourth-quarter comeback victories. Add another notch to his belt as the Colts win in a close one, 23-17.
First-round byes: Falcons (13-3) and 49ers (11-4-1). See you next round.
Vikings (10-6) at Packers (11-5): Saturday 8pm
Adrian Peterson managed to put the Vikings on his back and run them straight into the playoffs as the sixth seed in the NFC. Along the way, he managed to come within nine yards of breaking the single-season rushing record. He deserves the League MVP Award for doing this on a team that clearly lacks any sort of passing threat. The Packers have somehow managed to fly just under the media radar this year as they got off to what some would say was a shaky start. Perhaps not going 15-1 with huge pressure and expectations will pan out this time.
These two teams met twice in the regular season with each team winning a game. Peterson ran all over the Packers both games. Unfortunately for the Vikings, this one-sided running assault won't be enough to keep up with Packers' playoff passing attack. Packers win, 35-17.
Seahawks (11-5) at Redskins (10-6): Sunday 4:30pm
This match-up featuring two rookie quarterbacks (which makes three playoff teams with starting rookie quarterbacks) is the most difficult pick of the weekend. Both quarterbacks have minimized mistakes while leading their respective teams to impressive seasons. Wilson's ascension has been slightly more gradual and he has been able to lean heavily on the running game featuring Marshawn Lynch. The Seahawks defense as well have proven to be one of the most tenacious in the league. RGIII's success was a bit more immediate and has certainly garnered the lion's share of the media attention. However, it is hard to say that this team would have had this kind of success without the efforts of another rookie on that team, Alfred Morris, running the football effectively all year.
Again, I have the most difficulty picking this one. These teams didn't meet in the regular season, and it's hard to pick Russell Wilson over RGIII in a big playoff game. But that Seahawks defense has looked stout. And the final stretch of the season they showed that they were capable of putting points - lots of points - on the board. I give the slight edge to the Seahawks on this one, 24-20.