Typically, Wild-card Weekend is a dud with one great game. Steelers-Broncos was an instant classic a year ago, but the other three games were decided by 17, 21 and 22 points. The year before, the Seahawks beating the Saints was a shocking upset, and Jets-Colts (Peyton Manning’s final game in Indy) wasn’t too far behind, but the better action was a round later. Three of the four wild-card games from the 2009 postseason were decided by two scores, with Cardinals' 51-45 overtime victory over the Packers the only exciting game.
But it would be an upset if this wild-card round doesn’t deliver the goods. Saturday’s first game — Bengals at Texans — might not titillate the soul, but the other three are whoppers. Adrian Peterson and the Vikings come to Titletown Saturday night. Chuck Pagano and the Colts are in Baltimore in what might be Ray Lewis’ swan song to kick off Sunday. And we close the weekend with the second and third rookie quarterbacks of the day, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III, trading darts in Seahawks-Redskins.
What a slate.
Here is an early look at the 12 biggest story lines in this weekend’s games, chronologically by game:
1. Hard to believe, but Texans QB Matt Schaub will be making his first postseason start. He was hurt during the team’s postseason run last year and will have the pressure raised with the Texans blowing the top seed and playing poorly since losing at New England. Schaub and the offense really haven’t been the same since, and even the defense appears to be way too J.J. Watt-dependent right now. Schaub has one touchdown pass and has been sacked 12 times in the past four games. He has been inaccurate, and even when his passes are on target, the receivers have let him down, too. The entire offense has scored three TDs over the past four games.
2. Like Schaub, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis sure could use a victory in the postseason. He’s 0-3 in his nine-plus seasons, and though Lewis signed an extension in the offseason and has earned job security as the Bengals have lost only one game since Nov. 4, the locals are getting antsy. He had some questionable coaching moments in the Week 16 victory over the Steelers and barely saw his team finish off the Ravens (without most of their starters) last week. Bengals QB Andy Dalton and the offense are struggling. Dalton was ice cold until a brief hot flash in the second quarter last week, and the run game was nonexistent. Maybe the return of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is questionable with a hamstring injury, will help. Lewis knows he can’t count on winning more if his team’s play doesn’t improve. "Momentum finished (Sunday)," Lewis said Monday. "We've earned the opportunity to go into the playoffs and we have to be ready to go. You don't get any points for momentum nor do they subtract points from Houston over what they did down the stretch."
3. If the Bengals can win this game, they probably will have to lean on a big performance from their defensive line. The Bengals finished second in the league with 51 sacks, four of which came last week. DT Geno Atkins is maybe the best three-technique in the league right now. DE Michael Johnson has 11½ sacks. Sure, the run defense needs a little fine-tuning — the Ravens rushed for 206 yards last week and RB Arian Foster (24 carries, 153 yards, two TDs) ran wild against them in the playoff loss a year ago. But the right side of the Texans’ line has been bad lately, the small interior is a concern against the Bengals and even Texans OLT Duane Brown, their best lineman, was whipped against the Colts.
4. We know how well RB Adrian Peterson has run against the Packers this season, but QB Aaron Rodgers also has torn up the Vikings. He was a little off in the first half of Week 17, but Rodgers cranked it up after halftime with an array of live bullets. In two games against Minnesota this season, Rodgers has thrown for 651 yards, five TDs and one interception. That second half featured a Vikings secondary without CB Antoine Winfield, and the wheels appeared to come off completely. It looked more like a 2011 performance for the team. Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams said he can’t see a way Winfield will not play. Otherwise, it could be trouble. Marcus Sherels (who was great as a punt returner) struggled badly in Winfield's place at cornerback, and A.J. Jefferson was not much better. Give Rodgers a third look at your defense, and he’s going to have an idea where the holes are.
5. Peterson, meanwhile, is a freak. Real newsflash, eh? He has averaged 28.5 carries in the four games leading into this one and twice has set career highs for carries in a game (31 at Chicago in Week 14 then 34 last week vs. these Packers). Coming off knee reconstruction and an abdominal injury in recent weeks, it appears that Peterson is playing at a superhuman level right now. "I can say I feel good,” he said this week. “My body feels great. I could play for 12 more games if I had to. Seriously." And now he’s lobbying for — no joke — special-teams duty: kick return, punt block, whatever they’ll let him do. The Packers have had little success stopping him as a runner this season but are getting DE C.J. Wilson and OLB Clay Matthews more healthy at the right time, and S Charles Woodson is back in the lineup for the first time in weeks.
6. It’s obviously a great rivalry. Frankly, it had lost some sizzle with the Vikings’ fall, the Packers’ ascent and the departure of Brett Favre in recent seasons. The home team has won each meeting this season, and they have not met in the postseason since 2004 when Randy Moss soiled the Packers on their turf. Interesting that the Vikings had more Pro Bowlers (four) than the Packers (three), and one of Green Bay's (Jeff Saturday) is a benched center. But this game could come down to Vikings QB Christian Ponder, riding a nice little string of confidence here, playing far more like he did last Sunday than he did back in Week 13 at Lambeau Field, when he struggled mightly. Two second-half turnovers — one of which was in the Packers' endzone — really tilted the game Green Bay’s way.
7. Ray Lewis told his Ravens teammates that this would be his “final ride.” If the Ravens — losers of four of their last five games entering the postseason — play the way they have of late, their run will be short. Sunday’s wild-card game against the Colts is chock-full of amazing story lines. Or Chuck-fill. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano coached the Ravens’ “D” — and Lewis — a mere 11 months ago and has ridden his own fantastic ride, through Leukemia treatment and back to the sideline, to lead the Colts to a nine-win improvement over last season’s disaster.
8. Although there’s the Baltimore-Colts narrative, it feels secondary in this matchup. Lewis’ impending retirement and Pagano’s return to face his former team cranks the Emotion Meter way past 10. "We talk every other day,” Lewis said of Pagano. “Even though his (ailment) is more serious than mine, it’s amazing that because of the things we have shared as men, it was amazing we went through adversity at the same time.” Lewis remains an injury concern. He has not played since Oct. 14 because of a triceps tear and remains a question mark for Sunday. But Lewis said he and the staff have an understanding about his health. “There is no reason for me not to be playing Sunday,” Lewis said.
9. There is plenty of motivation for others in this intriguing battle, such as Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell facing his former team, John Harbaugh trying to win at least one playoff game for the fifth season in a row and Joe Flacco trying to avoid being upstaged by Andrew Luck in Luck’s playoff debut. But Lewis and Pagano are the fantastic individual stories on two intriguing teams. Just wait until Lewis comes out of that tunnel pregame, perhaps for the final time at M&T Bank Stadium.
10. So who ya got for Rookie of the Year? All three QB candidates will be playing Sunday, and two — Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III — will go head-to-head as the Seahawks travel to Washington to face the Redskins. Travelling has not been super kind to the Seahawks this season, as they are 3-5 on the road with losses to the Cardinals, Rams and Lions, or historically, with a 1-9 franchise road postseason record. But that feels like ancient history. Their last two road games have been wins at Chicago (in overtime) and vs. Buffalo at Toronto (by 33 points), and the Seahawks’ confidence is just sky high right now. You get the feeling they would play any team anywhere right now — even a Redskins team that has won essentially seven consecutive elimination games to get to this point.
11. Mike Shanahan has a better win percentage (.615) in the postseason than in the regular season (.572) and has two Super Bowl rings on his ledger. But this is his first postseason appearance with the Redskins and first for Shanahan since the 2005 season. And it’s obviously a first for Griffin, who a year ago at this time was leading Baylor to 777 yards of offense in the Alamo Bowl. And Wilson, his rookie counterpart, was coming up just short with Wisconsin a few days later in a Rose Bowl shootout against Oregon. Since then, both young men have been outstanding and you can make the argument for either — or Luck — winning the rookie hardware. But no matter who wins, the winner of this game will have bragging rights and move on.
12. Look for Seahawks CB Richard Sherman to be very aggressive in Sunday’s game against Griffin. Sherman (eight INTs, 24 PBUs) has avoided suspension and is playing with a lot of confidence now. You can assume that DeAngelo Hall on the other side will feel the same way. He helped hold Cowboys WR Dez Bryant in check last week and has a nose for the ball — and an arrogance — that should serve him well. There are similarities with these teams across the board, and RBs Marshawn Lynch and Alfred Morris might end up being the best offensive players on the field Sunday. But the biggest differences in the secondaries are at safety. The Seahawks have rangy Earl Thomas and thumper Kam Chancellor, both of whom have made Pro Bowls. The Redskins’ safeties have played better of late, but the Seahawks know they have to exploit the middle of the field where they roam.