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Saturday, January 5, 2013

2012 Wild Card Weekend Preview - Special Saturday Edition

This is a special edition of the Daily Hat Trick. But it is playoff time and that is pretty special too. The 2012 NFL Playoffs are underway today with two Wild Card round games today and two more tomorrow. Without further adieu, here are my two cents on the Wild Card games.


Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Houston Texans (12-4)

A little deja vu in the Space City.... This is the same matchup in the same place in the same round of the 2011 NFL Playoffs, but the mood in Houston is very different. Last year, the Houston Texans won the AFC South and played their first playoff game, ever, before their home crowd. The Texans suffered injury after injury after injury but continued to truck on. "Next Man Up" became the rallying cry among Texans fans as the Texans celebrated their first playoff win in franchise history under the direction of third string rookie quarterback T.J. Yates.

This year is different. The Texans are sputtering into the playoffs, having lost three of their last four games and blowing opportunities in consecutive weeks to skip the first round and secure home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The Bengals are on fire, having won seven of their last eight games. Josh Innes of KILT Sportsradio 610 in Houston is a personal friend of mine and I tune into his afternoon show almost daily. The tone and tenor of the sports talk hosts and the fans calling in sound more like people planning for the imminent death of a loved one rather that a city hosting its second NFL playoff game in the last 20 years.

Both teams are solid on both sides of the ball. But gravity is real. The Bengals are on the way up while the Texans are free falling faster than space junk returning to the atmosphere from outer space. Vegas has the Texans favored by four points. My barometer says otherwise.

Advantage: Bengals

Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

There are two compelling stories at play here. One is of the resurgent Indianapolis Colts. The Colts were the worst team in the NFL and said goodbye to future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning due to uncertainty over an injury, Manning's age, and salary cap constraints. The Colts appeared to be a team in turmoil.

Making matters worse, Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia early in the season and was forced to turn his duties over to assistant Bruce Arians. Arians has since, in my opinion, earned the Coach of the Year award and their rookie quarterback, Andrew Luck, the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, has completely exceeded all expectations to vault the Colts into the playoffs with their best regular season record since their AFC Championship winning season of 2009.

The Ravens were heavy favorites in the AFC coming into the season. However, an injury in the offseason to star outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and an injury during the season to defensive captain and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis made the Ravens appear to be moving through the season at a pedestrian pace, as opposed to that of a sprinter.

That brings us to the second story: Ray Lewis announced that he is retiring at this season. The Colts won 11 regular season games, but, several times, pulled a rabbit out of the hat in the waning minutes against inferior competition. Baltimore is simply better. They are at home. They are going to be fueled by a rush of emotion rarely seen in the playoffs.

Advantage: Ravens

Could tomorrow be the last time we see this pregame ritual? 3

Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (11-5)

The Vikings are the biggest overachiever of the playoffs. Their defense is average. Their passing game is abominable. But they have a very a special running back in Adrian Peterson. Peterson recovered from reconstructive knee surgery to run for over 2,000 yards, coming just 9 yards short of breaking Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson's single season rushing record of 2,105 yards set in 1984. Great story...but the Vikings are truly a one man show.

The Packers stumbled out of the gates to start the season, but have since won  9 of their last 11 games. While the Pack did lose the regular season finale last week in Minnesota, there is much more at stake this week and the game is being played at Lambeau Field. I can count on one hand the number of playoff games that the Packers (est. 1920) have lost at Lambeau. In addition, the Viking funeral may be underway already as multiple reports have surfaced that career backup Joe Webb will start at quarterback in place of the injured Christian Ponder (elbow). I don't plan on running out of counting fingers any time soon.

Advantage: Packers

Can Peterson pull off an encore? 2
Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at Washington Redskins (10-6)

The Redskins exceeded everyone's expectations this season under the leadership of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin, III, the second pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Washington went from being the NFC's worst team in 2011 to the 2012 NFC East division champions, returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and hosting its first playoff this century.

The Seahawks, under third year head coach Pete Carroll, missed the playoffs in 2011 after winning the division in 2010. They attempted to upgrade the quarterback position by signing free agent Matt Flynn to a lucrative deal. However, the shocker was that third round draft pick Russell Wilson would rise to the top of the depth chart in training camp and steal the job from Flynn. After taking baby steps in the first half of the season, Wilson and the Seahawks surged, winning seven of eight in the latter half of the year and reaching the playoffs.

The Redskins are a great story, but they are a two man show with Griffin and running back Alfred Morris. The Seahawks are a solid team that simply needed a boost at the QB position to step up to the next level. Their defense is very good. Running back Marshawn Lynch is a one man wrecking crew. And Wilson is coming into his own at the best time of the season: the postseason.

Advantage: Seahawks

Earlier this season I posted this picture and said it was a bit premature. While very unlikely, it isn't impossible for this season...yet. 1
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