This is the wild card round, and, as the name would imply, there are a few surprises in the mix. Take the Bengals. After Week 9, they were 3-5. They’d lost to, among others, Cleveland, Miami, and Pittsburgh, three teams whose seasons are now over. Against the Steelers, fiery-haired QB Andy Dalton threw for a piddling 105 yards. BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for a mediocre team high of 69 yards. Ryan Whalen—who has seven catches and 53 yards on the season—snapped up a grand total of 31 yards; he was the Bengals’ leading receiver.
But then the Bengals went on a four-game winning streak, which began with a victory at home against the Giants in which Dalton threw (a career-high) four touchdowns to four different receivers. With the exception of a hiccup against Dallas, they wouldn't lose again all season.
Between now and the Super Bowl, the Bengals—and the other teams who snuck into the playoffs under the wire—will almost certainly be eliminated. If you’ve bet your savings on a Colts-Seahawks showdown, you’re probably headed off your own personal fiscal cliff. But for the next month, a football fan can still dream: of a Redskins team that goes all the way; of Adrian Peterson, Super Bowl MVP; of Russell Wilson, holding the Lombardi trophy.
Bengals at Texans: Last year, the Texans met the Bengals in the first round; it was Houston’s playoff debut, and they easily defeated Cincinnati, 31-10. It was a boring blowout, with one exceptional moment: J.J. Watt’s one-handed interception. Watt plucked the ball from the air with an ease that suggested he wasn't bound by laws of gravity or time, then muscled his way into the end zone. But if the Texans were underrated underdogs in 2011, this year they have the opposite problem: They’re hiding some serious weaknesses behind Watt’s terrifying defensive theatrics and their 12-4 record. The famed Texans defense isn’t ranked in the top five in the league by points, yards, pass yards, or rush yards allowed, and they’ve fallen behind the Bengals in overall defensive rank. In Week 11, they allowed the Jaguars to score 37 points—though to be fair, without disaster QB Blaine Gabbert, who in 10 games turned the ball over 10 times (six interceptions, four fumbles) and only threw for nine touchdowns, Jacksonville does resemble an actual NFL team—and in the past four weeks, they’ve lost three times. Bill Barnwell claims that the Texans have no one to fear in the post-season, but I'm sticking with my previous assessment. They’re a superficial success hiding a hollow core, and I believe Andy Dalton has matured into the QB who can split them open to reveal it.
Vikings at Packers: If there’s a recipe for NFL Films-ready magic, this game has all the ingredients: two bitter division rivals, facing off for the second time in two weeks—the Vikings beat the Packers in Minnesota last weekend to earn this playoff berth—on “The Frozen Tundra” otherwise known as Lambeau Field. In their Week 17 matchup, the Vikings sacked poor, battered QB Aaron Rodgers five times—the Packers offensive line still isn't ready for prime time—and the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson rushed for 199 yards, bringing his total to 2,097 on the season, just nine shy of Eric Dickerson’s record, set in 1984. The Packers’ problems this season extend beyond the difficulties they’re having protecting Rodgers. Troubling losses against the 49ers, the Seahawks (however illegitimate the game-winning touchdown that decided the game), and the Giants have proven that the Packers’ offense is hardly unstoppable against solid defenses. As a fan, I’m probably spoiled—when Rodgers and his offense are on, they’re so fluid one dropped pass looks catastrophic—but watching them this season, my heart rate has too often increased because of anxiety, rather than excitement. Still, throw home field advantage and Christian Ponder’s erratic arm in the mix and I’m inclined to go with Green Bay. Of course, the true underdog in this game is the ghost of the Chicago Bears. After the Vikings beat them out for a playoff berth, the team's general manager fired adorably named head coach Lovie Smith. From best in the league to not-good-enough in 11 weeks: the Bears are always finding new ways to break their fans’ hearts.
Colts at Ravens: This is the matchup I’m most likely to doze through this weekend. Sure, I’m charmed by Andrew Luck leading his team to the playoffs in his rookie season—but he’s got company this year: the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III and the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson are also first-year quarterbacks with post-season hopes. As for the Ravens, well, you know you know haven’t formed any kind of sentimental attachment to a team when your favorite player is actually the head coach—and John Harbaugh earns my love only because he’s 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh’s brother. Baltimore's defense has struggled with injuries this season—perhaps explaining their Week 13 loss against a crippled Steelers team starting 38-year-old Charlie Batch at QB; Ben Roethlisberger was out with painful injuries that may or may not have been reflective of God’s wrath—but strong safety Bernard Pollard, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, and middle linebacker Ray Lewis have all been cleared to play. Still, my lack of faith in Joe Flacco—is it the fact that he insists on being treated like an elite quarterback every season and then turns in a mediocre performance? Is it his name?—remains unshaken. Plus, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano is now back on the sidelines after being diagnosed with leukemia earlier this season. (The team’s motto throughout the season has been “Chuckstrong,” with more than 25 Colts players and one cheerleader shaving their heads in solidarity, as well as to raise funds for cancer research.) That’s hard to bet against.
Seahawks at Redskins: It took six weeks for the Seattle Seahawks to go from underdogs to bullies. That was the week of cornerback Richard Sherman’s “U mad bro” Tom Brady taunt, after the Seahawks mounted a come-from-behind victory against the Patriots. Did Brady deserve it? Probably. In any case, it’s hard to feel sorry for the Patriots; they’re not known for winning graciously. But then the Seahawks shut the Cardinals out 58-0 in Week 14. They followed that up with a 50-17 victory in Buffalo, then a 42-13 win against the 49ers on Jim Harbaugh’s birthday. The 49ers victory makes sense; they’re division rivals angling for post-season seeding. It’s the showy domination of the Cardinals and the Bills that perplexes: Both teams had long been knocked out of playoff contention. So as much as I like tiny quarterback Russell Wilson—at 5'11", I'm surprised he can see over his own offensive line—and am in awe of all-but-impossible-to-tackle running back Marshawn Lynch, I’m hoping RGIII and the Redskins offense find a way to poke holes in the Seahawks’ fourth-ranked defense. One thing missing from this game? Eli Manning’s sad face. The reigning champions were knocked out of the playoffs last weekend, meaning none of these wonderful expressions will grace television screens during the coming month. I’m a little sad, but grateful I won’t have to see the Giants eliminate the Packers from the playoffs yet again, a prospect which has had me looking like this all season.