Wild-card weekend is no longer about two long shots duking it out before facing the NFL’s elite in their building in the divisional round. Wild-card weekend is where winners are born. At least one Super Bowl participant has played on wild-card weekend in six of the last seven Super Bowls. Keep that in mind as you watch the games on Saturday and Sunday. You might want to also consider Peter Schrager's top 10 storylines:
Randall Cobb’s back. That’s scary
Though Manning and Peterson got all the MVP love this month, Aaron Rodgers put on one heck of a show in 2012. Without the services of Jordy Nelson or Greg Jennings for much of the season, and with Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson out on defense, the Packers still won 11 games and the NFC North Division title. Randall Cobb wasn’t in the lineup in last week's loss to the Vikings. He will be this weekend. Though he doesn’t get the press other receivers in the NFC do, he had arguably the most improved year for any wideout in the entire NFL. These playoffs may be his coming out party.
A different Andy Dalton than last year
Andy Dalton didn’t play well in his first career NFL postseason start in last January’s 31-10 playoff loss in Houston. In fact, he threw zero touchdowns and three interceptions in what was arguably the worst start of his two-year NFL career. But that was a different Dalton than the one we’ll see on Saturday. He was sick, drained and beat up last season at this time. Now, he’s no longer a rookie, he hasn’t lost weight this season, and he’s got a better team around him. Dalton’s not the same wide-eyed kid he was last January. He’s an NFL quarterback ready to lead his team through the playoffs. Expect a much better effort on Saturday.
The Bengals defensive line up against the Texans offensive line
All eyes may be on Matt Schaub and whether he can win his first playoff start, but I’ll be watching that ferocious Cincinnati defensive line against the big fellas on the Houston offensive line. Duane Brown and Wade Smith had huge years for the Texans, but they struggled against the 49ers and Packers pass rush this season. Cincinnati’s pass rush may be the best in the league. If Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and the rest of Cincy’s young front seven can get to Schaub early, his first start will be a memorable one … for all the wrong reasons.
Bruce Arians, the Colts, and the NFL coaching carousel
Though we’ve seen it time and time again in the NFL playoffs, the thought of an assistant coach who’s simultaneously interviewing for other NFL jobs has to be a bit unsettling for fans. Arians has been reportedly linked to the Bears and Chargers head-coaching jobs already. He had the flu and missed practice Thursday. Arians may win Coach of the Year. He was magnificent. But it’s fair to wonder if Sunday — with all this going on around him — is going to be the last time we see him in Colts’ blue and white.
The myth of Lambeau Field in January
It’s supposed to be 17 degrees on Saturday night in Lambeau, which on first thought, would make you assume Green Bay’s an easy favorite over a dome team like the Vikings. But, think again. Lambeau Field — a place no road team had won a playoff game from 1933 to 2003 — has become a bit friendlier to foes of late. Michael Vick and the Falcons beat the Packers at night in Lambeau in 2003. Randy Moss mooned the fans and the Vikings beat the Packers a few years later. And the Giants have won at Lambeau in January on their two recent Super Bowl runs. It’s not impossible to win at Lambeau Field in January. Especially the way the Vikings have been playing of late.
Gus Bradley’s defense doesn’t mess around
The Redskins have won seven consecutive games and have done so with two different quarterbacks, a host of formations and a bit of trickery along the way. They haven’t beaten any top teams or played any elite defenses in those wins, though. I’m not taking anything away from what Washington has done, but with just one win over a team with a winning record (Baltimore), it’s fair to say the 'Skins could be in for a rude awakening when they line up against the Seahawks defense on Sunday. Gus Bradley’s defense isn’t going to shake and shiver at the read option. It’s going to hit you. And it’s going to cover you. And it’s going to make you wish you were still going against Dallas and Philadelphia. This is going to be RG3’s toughest test yet.
Sunday will not only mark the second time two rookies will square off head-to-head in a playoff game, but it will mark the first day three different rookie quarterbacks are starting for teams in the same playoff weekend. Andrew Luck will try to beat veteran Joe Flacco in the early game, while Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III go at it on FOX in primetime. Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger all took teams as far as the championship game round in recent years, but no rookie quarterback has ever started a Super Bowl. At least one of these three will advance to the divisional round next week.
Momentum — real or imagined?
The Bengals enter Saturday’s meeting with the Texans as winners of seven of the last eight games, while Houston comes limping in as losers of three of its last four. Is momentum a real thing? Though we’ll never fully be able to prove it, we’ll sure be seeing two teams going in opposite directions on Saturday. In addition to Cincinnati, there are several NFC teams riding high coming into the playoffs, including Minnesota (winners of its last four), Washington (winners of its last seven), and Seattle (winners of its last five). There are just a couple of squads — Baltimore and Houston — which enter the postseason with more losses than wins in their final five weeks.
Six degrees of Ted Marchibroda
You’ll be hard-pressed finding two teams with more shared history than the Indianapolis Colts and the Baltimore Ravens. What started with a Mayflower truck in the middle of the night has led to so many shared moments, personnel and storylines in the past 30 years. The last time the Ravens lost a playoff game at home, it was to Peyton Manning and the Colts. In fact, after starting off 2-0 against Mr. Manning, the Ravens have lost their last eight games against Indianapolis. In this game, alone, there’s Chuck Pagano — the former defensive coordinator of the Ravens — coaching the Colts, Bruce Arians — the former offensive coordinator of the hated Steelers — calling plays for Indianapolis, and familiar foes and former ‘Canes Ed Reed and Reggie Wayne going at it for what could be the final time. Then there’s Ted Marchibroda, of course.
Ray Lewis — monster motivator
Though some may have viewed the timing of Ray Lewis’ retirement announcement — just five days before a playoff game — as peculiar this week, it’ll only help Baltimore come Sunday. As an NFL player told me on Wednesday, “Don’t get it twisted — Ray Lewis announcing this will propel the Ravens to new heights on Sunday.” It’ll also bring the crowd to new heights. Baltimore’s won 16 of its last 18 games at home and if a home playoff game wasn’t enough to get the crowd going, seeing Lewis come out of the tunnel for likely the last time of his 17-year career will certainly bring the house down. Another player? Maybe I’d scratch my head and ask, “Why not wait until the end of the season?” Lewis? He’s the heart and soul of that team. He’s the heart and soul of that city.