This Week in: The NFL – Wildcard Weekend

Tony Romo throws his 3rd interception against the Redskins
Tony Romo throws his 3rd interception against the Redskins

Week 17 Roundup

Only 9 of the 16 NFL fixtures in Week 17 had anything riding on them and two of those – the Giants 42-7 demolition of the Eagles, and the Bears’ 26-24 win in Detroit – were rendered irrelevant by Minnesota’s 37-34 victory over Green Bay, which clinched the 6th seed for the Vikings and eliminated New York and Chicago in spite of their successes.  The Packers loss opened up the 2 seed for either San Francisco or Seattle if either of them could win – which they both did, as the 49ers overcame the Cardinals 23-17 and the Seahawks ended up with a perfect home record, but had to settle for the 5 seed, as they beat the Rams 20-13.  The results earlier in the day meant that Sunday night’s matchup between the Cowboys and Redskins would give the victor the NFC East title, while the losers would be done for the year.  Washington prevailed, 28-18, with a big hand from Dallas QB, Tony Romo, who threw three interceptions, the last of which clinched the game for the Redskins.

In the AFC, Indianapolis won Chuck Pagano’s first game back after receiving treatment for leukemia – his cancer thankfully now in remission – and in the process ended the chances of Houston of gaining a first round bye.  The defeat for the Texans allowed Peyton Manning’s Broncos to claim the 1 seed, as they beat Kansas City 38-3 for their 11th victory in a row, and the Patriots grabbed the 2 seed with a 38-0 whitewash of the Dolphins in New England.  With all of the other playoff places and positions confirmed, the rest of the games were largely irrelevant – the Bengals defeated an understrength Ravens team in Cincinnati; the Jets lost in Buffalo; Tampa Bay inflicted Atlanta’s only home loss of the year, despite the Falcons not resting their starters having clinched top spot in the NFC; the Titans overcame the Jaguars; New Orleans had their first losing season since 2007 after falling at home to the Panthers; the Steelers beat the Browns; and the Chargers edged the Raiders.  The day after the regular season had ended, seven coaches were fired (including Andy Reid from the Eagles, Lovie Smith from the Bears and Norv Turner from the Chargers), while five General Managers also lost their jobs.  In contrast, the Saints signed Sean Payton to a long-term contract and will welcome him back next year after he was suspended for all of 2012 following the bounty scandal.

Weekend Preview and Predictions

Last week, 10-6; Regular Season, 135-120

6. Cincinnati Bengals @ 3. Houston Texans – Saturday 4:30pm ET

The Bengals have become the popular upset pick this week, as the Texans stumbled into the playoffs and missed out on a first round bye after they lost three of their final four games.  By contrast, Cincinnati won seven of their last eight, their only defeat being by a single point against the Cowboys in week 14, thus they appear to be the team with momentum heading into the postseason.  Nevertheless, the four losses that Houston did suffer this year were all against teams that made the playoffs – the Packers, Patriots, Colts and Vikings – and in this same matchup on Wildcard Weekend last season, the Texans overcame the Bengals 31-10, despite being forced to start their third string quarterback, T.J. Yates.  The AFC’s third seed also has the NFL’s premier defensive player of 2012 in JJ Watt, who recorded 20.5 sacks during the regular season and whose interception of Andy Dalton that he returned for a touchdown last year, swung the game in Houston’s favour.  If the Texans can contain wide receiver AJ Green, the Bengals will struggle to move down the field and I can see them making another early exit from the playoffs.  The pick: Houston -4.5 over Cincinnati

6. Minnesota Vikings @ 3. Green Bay Packers – Saturday 8pm ET

A repeat of last weekend’s matchup in Minnesota, these two NFC North teams have taken one game apiece in the regular season, but now meet up at Lambeau Field with the stakes raised.  The Packers needed to win to gain a first round bye, the Vikings were playing to keep their year alive and their star player, Adrian Peterson, ended up just 9 yards shy of the all-time single season record, despite having had ACL surgery 12 months ago.  Stopping Peterson will be the primary focus of the Packers defence, as they will not fear Minnesota’s QB, Christian Ponder, throwing on them outdoors in January.  Things that appear to be in Green Bay’s favour are: their 7-1 home record – with the only loss coming in Week 1 against the 49ers – while the Vikings were 3-5 away; Minnesota’s only win outside of a dome was in Houston, they will face much tougher conditions in Wisconsin this Saturday; and if Aaron Rodgers plays as well as he has been in recent weeks, he can be unstoppable.  However, if the Packers fall behind early – they have been deferring the kick-off all season so are likely to be defending the first possession – the game could play into Minnesota’s hands, as they would be able to use Adrian Peterson to eat up time from the clock and prevent Aaron Rodgers getting into a rhythm on the field.  The other big advantage the Vikings have is in the kicking game, where their man Blair Walsh has been completely reliable, while Mason Crosby has been anything but.  As a Packers fan, I should be confident going into this game, yet I fear Peterson and just feel that not securing the bye with a win last week – which Green Bay would also have got should the bad decision in Seattle not gone against them in Week 3 – will come back to haunt them. The pick: Minnesota +7.5 over Green Bay

5. Indianapolis Colts @ 4. Baltimore Ravens – Sunday 1pm ET

The most obvious storyline of this game should have been the Colts returning to Baltimore, a city that the franchise left in the middle of the night back in 1983, yet instead it has been on the extraordinary season that Indianapolis have enjoyed whilst their head coach, Chuck Pagano – who until last year was on the coaching staff of the Ravens – has battled successfully against leukemia.  The “Chuckstrong” movement has united the team and fans, but at the same time, has slightly overshadowed the excellent rookie season Andrew Luck has had replacing Peyton Manning at quarterback.  The Colts have are statistically the weakest of this year’s playoff teams, despite finishing with an 11-5 record, but that shows in part the spirit this team have shown to win games, when they have not always had the best players.  When this momentum is combined with Baltimore’s recent travails – they lost four of their last five to slip down to the number 4 seed – Indianapolis will be a popular pick to win this game outright.  However, the Ravens comprehensively beat the Giants before resting most of their starters for their encounter last week in Cincinnati, meaning they have been able to get healthy, are playing at home and facing a rookie QB in the playoffs.  Everyone is of course delighted about Pagano’s recovery and the impressive performances his team made in his absence – and the idea of the Colts facing Peyton Manning next week in Denver is a great potential storyline – I picked Baltimore to win the Super Bowl before the season (albeit against the Cowboys…) and think this will be the end of the road for Indianapolis.  The pick: Baltimore -7.5 over Indianapolis

5. Seattle Seahawks @ 4. Washington Redskins – Sunday 4:30pm ET

This is another fixture in which the road team are the popular favourite to advance, with the Seahawks end of season form – in which they won 7 of their final 8, including consecutive blowout wins against the Cardinals, Bills and 49ers – has everyone believing they could make it all the way to the Super Bowl.  The game features a matchup of two rookie quarterbacks who have been impressive in their first season: Russell Wilson, who tied Peyton Manning for most touchdown passes for a first year QB; and Robert Griffin III, who has led his team to a seven game winning streak after a 3-6 start.  Both Wilson and RG3 are able to gain yards with their feet as well as their arms – though the latter has been hindered by a sprained ankle he sustained against Baltimore in Week 14 – and can play an option offense, meaning both defenses may be better prepared than those who do not see that style on a regular basis.  Away from the two quarterbacks, Washington will be hoping for continued production from their fifth round draft pick, running back Alfred Morris, who was second behind Adrian Peterson in rushing yards this season; while Seattle have one of the best young corner backs in the league, Richard Sherman, available after he won his appeal against a suspension for using performance enhancing drugs.  The Seahawks may be favoured, but they only won 3 road games this year and two of those were against the Bills (in Toronto) and the Panthers, neither of whom were close to making the postseason.  The pick: Washington +2.5 over Seattle


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