First look at wild-card matchups

BY Alex Marvez • December 30, 2012

The suspense surrounding the NFL playoffs is finally over.

Only three teams – Atlanta, Indianapolis and Cincinnati – were locked into their postseason seeding entering the final day of the regular season. After the Redskins won the NFC East on Sunday night, the rest of the field was set.

Minnesota’s 37-34 victory over Green Bay secured a wild-card spot for the Vikings and eliminated two teams – NFC North rival Chicago and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants – from contention.

Losses by the Packers and Houston Texans (to Indianapolis) will force both teams to play first-round games this weekend. Denver (13-3) and New England (12-4) leapfrogged the Texans into the AFC’s top two seeds with respective victories over Kansas City and Miami. San Francisco (11-4-1) secured the NFC’s No. 2 seed and NFC West title with a 27-13 home win against Arizona, which also relegated Seattle (11-5) to a wild-card berth.

Here is a look at how the first-round playoff matchups shape up:

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

When: 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Reviewing Week 17: The Bengals were already locked into the AFC’s No. 6 playoff seed, but Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis played most of his starters into the fourth quarter of a 23-17 home victory over Baltimore. The Texans dropped their second straight game with a 28-16 loss at Indianapolis. The loss combined with victories by Denver and New England dropped Houston into the No. 3 seed.

Last meeting: Houston drummed the visiting Bengals, 31-10, in an opening-round playoff game last season. With the Texans forced to start a rookie quarterback in T.J. Yates, running back Arian Foster carried the offense with 24 carries for 153 yards and two touchdowns. Defensive end J.J. Watt also scored on a 29-yard interception return in the first postseason game in Texans history.

Bengals player to watch: Wide receiver A.J. Green. He is the type of receiving threat who can cause major damage against Houston’s inconsistent secondary. Green built upon his outstanding rookie season with 97 catches for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012. If the Texans roll their coverage toward Green, it will create opportunities for targets like tight end Jermaine Gresham and a trio of other young wideouts (Marvin Jones, Brandon Tate and Andrew Hawkins).

Texans player to watch: Foster. The Texans are 7-0 in games this season in which Foster rushed for 100-plus yards and 5-4 in the others. Foster gained 96 yards against Indianapolis but had only 16 carries as the Colts enjoyed an edge in time of possession. A pass-heavy game plan isn’t the best way to attack the Bengals, which notched a franchise-record 51 sacks led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins (12.5).

Summary: In the span of a month, Houston slipped from having the AFC’s best record to squandering a first-round bye by dropping three of its final four games. Particularly alarming are the struggles of quarterback Matt Schaub, who has one touchdown pass and three interceptions in the past four games. For the first time since 1981 and 1982, the Bengals have reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons. The next goal will be winning in the postseason for the first time since 1990.

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

When: 8 p.m. ET Saturday

Reviewing Week 17: In one of the greatest games of this storied rivalry, the Vikings posted a 37-34 victory over Green Bay in the Metrodome to qualify for a wild-card berth and prevent the Packers from securing a first-round bye. Vikings rookie Blair Walsh hit the game-winning 29-yard field goal as time expired.

Last meeting: See above. Green Bay posted a 23-14 home victory over Minnesota in Week 13. Although the Packers surrendered 210 rushing yards to Adrian Peterson, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder couldn’t do enough in the passing game (125 yards, two interceptions) to help Minnesota keep pace with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers-led offense.

Vikings player to watch: Peterson. Green Bay’s defense again had no answer Sunday for Peterson, who rushed for 199 yards and one touchdown on a career-high 34 carries. Peterson finished the season with 2,097 rushing yards, which has just eight yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season NFL record. The need for defenses to account for Peterson is creating opportunities in the passing game that second-year Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder is finally starting to take advantage of.

Packers player to watch: Strong safety Charles Woodson. Both Packers-Vikings games were played without Woodson, who suffered a fractured collarbone in Week 7 against St. Louis. Woodson should be cleared to return for the playoffs. Although there’s a chance he will be rusty, Woodson gives Green Bay additional defensive flexibility through his ability to cover slot receivers and tight ends. Woodson, 36, also can provide on-field leadership to a young secondary outside of cornerback Tramon Williams.

Summary: The Vikings have won four consecutive games since their Dec. 2 loss to the Packers but must snap a three-game losing streak at Lambeau Field to advance. The Weather Channel forecast calls for temperature at kickoff at around 20 degrees but with no snow. The Packers can’t ask much more from Rodgers, who threw for 365 yards and four touchdowns without an interception Sunday. Rodgers, though, did lose a fumble that led to a Vikings touchdown and was sacked five times as rookie right tackle Don Barclay struggled in pass protection.

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

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

Reviewing Week 17: Baltimore was likely locked into the No. 4 playoff seed win or lose so the Ravens pulled quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice after two series to safeguard against injury in Cincinnati. Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap intercepted a pass by Flacco backup Tyrod Taylor and returned it for a touchdown to pace a 23-17 Bengals victory. The Colts entered Sunday’s game against Houston guaranteed the AFC’s No. 5 playoff seed but played inspired football in the return of head coach Chuck Pagano to the sideline after he missed 12 games following a leukemia diagnosis. Indianapolis rebounded from a Week 15 loss to Houston with a 28-16 home win against the slumping Texans.

Last meeting: Week 14 of last season. Dan Orlovsky was the starting quarterback for the Colts with Peyton Manning (neck) out for the year. The Ravens won, 24-10, behind 103 rushing yards and one touchdown from Rice.

Colts player to watch: Quarterback Andrew Luck. No rookie entered the NFL under more pressure as the draft’s top overall pick and immediate replacement for Manning. Luck has handled both with aplomb. He set the NFL’s rookie passing record with 4,374 yards and threw 28 touchdowns. Luck’s biggest weaknesses are occasional overthrows and tendency to force some passes that contributed to his 23 interceptions. Those kinds of mistakes against Baltimore, especially with a safety as savvy as Ed Reed lurking in the secondary, must be avoided.

Ravens player to watch: Inside linebacker Ray Lewis. Baltimore has played without its defensive leader since he suffered a torn triceps in Week 6 against Dallas. The 37-year-old Lewis wasn’t playing at an elite level when hurt, but the Ravens will be getting back a solid starter whose savvy from 17 NFL seasons carries weight in the playoffs.

Summary: There is plenty of familiarity between head coaches John Harbaugh and Chuck Pagano, who was Baltimore’s secondary coach from 2008 to 2010 and defensive coordinator last season before leaving for Indianapolis. Harbaugh has led the Ravens to an NFL-best five consecutive playoff appearances and is yet to lose an opening game since taking the reins in 2008. With negative differentials in turnovers (12) and points (30), the Colts are the NFL’s most improbable playoff team. Indianapolis, though, is among the league’s best when it comes to winning close games. Nine of 11 victories have come by seven points or less.

Seattle (11-5) at Washington (10-6)

When: 4:30 p.m. Sunday, FOX.

Reviewing Week 17: A one-yard touchdown run by Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson with 1:39 remaining gave Seattle a 20-13 home victory over St. Louis. Wilson was sacked a season-high six times with the Rams doing a nice job keeping him in the pocket. Wilson, though, didn’t commit a turnover and tied Peyton Manning’s rookie single-season record for touchdown passes at 26 with a 10-yard scoring pass to fullback Michael Robinson. The Redskins won their NFC-best seventh straight game behind the running of Alfred Morris (200 yards, three touchdowns) and an aggressive defense that applied consistent pressure to Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who threw three interceptions. Washington won its first NFC East title since 1999.

Last meeting: The Redskins beat Seattle, 23-17, in Week 12 last season but both teams have changed radically since then with the addition of Wilson and Griffin at quarterback.

Seahawks player to watch: Cornerback Brandon Browner. Unlike fellow Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, Browner was unsuccessful in his NFL appeal of a failed drug test for Adderall. Browner began serving his suspension in Week 14 and will be making his return against Washington. If Browner and Sherman can lock down Redskins wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan in coverage, the rest of Seattle’s defense could give more focus to stopping Washington’s strong rushing attack.

Redskins player to watch: Quarterback Robert Griffin III. Playing with a brace on the right knee he injured in Week 14 against Baltimore, Washington has curtailed Griffin’s rushing opportunities in the two games since his return. Another week of recovery time should bolster Griffin’s mobility.

Summary: The Redskins will provide a good test to see just how good the Seahawks are away from CenturyLink Field where Wilson became the first rookie starting quarterback in NFL history to post an 8-0 home record. The Seahawks won at Chicago (23-17 in overtime) and in Toronto against Buffalo (50-17) after losing five of their first six road games. The Seahawks’ cross-country trip to Washington will span 2,700-plus miles but at least Seattle doesn’t have to also deal with the challenges for West Coast teams that come with 1 p.m. ET kickoffs.