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NFL postseason kicks off with Wildcard Weekend

The Vikings and Packers go head to head in a massive playoff clash this weekend. Credit: Joe Bilawa/Flickr

The Vikings and Packers go head to head in a massive playoff clash this weekend. Credit: Joe Bielawa/Flickr

While January is traditionally a slow month for Aussie sports fans, for those into the gridiron and the National Football League, it’s one of the best times of the year.

The NFL postseason begins this weekend with four massive matches.

Check out The Sporting Journal’s breakdown and preview below.

 

How the NFL playoffs work:

-The 32-team league is split into two conferences: the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC).

– Each conference is then divided into four divisions of four teams each. (The conferences and divisions remain the same each year.)

– Six teams from the AFC and six teams from the NFC make the playoffs – the winner of each division and the two teams that didn’t win their division but have the next best win-loss records.

– Teams are seeded 1-6 in their conference according to their win-loss records.

– The number one and number two seeds from each conference have a bye in week one and automatically go through to the second round of playoffs.

– The first week of playoffs is known as ‘wild card weekend’ in which the third seed hosts the sixth seed and fourth seed hosts the fifth seed in both conferences.

– The wildcard winners from week one will go through to play one of the top two seeded teams, with the surviving teams progressing again to the conference championship game.

– The playoffs culminate in the Super Bowl, which pits the best AFC team against the best NFC team.

– The Super Bowl will be held on February 4 (Australian time).

 

The seeds:

AFC

1. Denver Broncos

2. New England Patriots

3. Houston Texans

4. Baltimore Ravens

5. Indianapolis Colts

6. Cincinnati Bengals

NFC

1. Atlanta Falcons

2. San Francisco 49ers

3. Green Bay Packers

4. Washington Redskins

5. Seattle Seahawks

6. Minnesota Vikings

 

Wildcard Weekend Games:

 

Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans

(Sunday morning Australian time)

With an 11-1 record in early December, Houston was one of the inform teams and hot Super Bowl favourites but have hit a stumbling block in recent weeks.

The Texans have lost three straight games, and will lean heavily on star running back Arian Foster, who rushed for the third most yards in the NFL this season.

The Bengals are looking for their first postseason win in 21 years.

While their record against fellow playoff teams makes for depressing reading (0-7), in an encouraging sign, six of those losses were by eight points or less.

These teams last met in week 14, with the Texans scraping a 20-19 win.

Coming up against a depleted Houston outfit, Cincinnati has a great opportunity to reverse that result this time around.

The key to this game is in the rushing yards.

For Houston, that means running the ball as often and as far as they can.

For Cincinnati, that means finding a way to stop them. Their run defence has been a weak link in the team this season, and will need to vastly improve for the Bengals to have a chance.

 

Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers

(Sunday afternoon Australian time)

This match is a replay of the final game of the regular season, where the Vikings pulled off a nail-biting 37-34 to earn a play off spot.

Green Bay has had the wood over their divisional rivals in recent years – last weekend was the first time the Vikings have beaten the Packers since November 2009.

Though home ground advantage is obviously important in the postseason, it might not have much of an impact in this contest.

Green Bay are 2-4 in their past six home playoff games, while Minnesota’s last away playoff win came in 2004 – against the Packers at Lambeau Field, the only other time the two teams have met in the playoffs.

The game will be driven by the performances of two of the game’s mega stars – Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

Rodgers, who threw four touch down passes last week but was unable to get his team over the line, will be looking to set the pace in an up-tempo game.

For the Vikings, Peterson rushed for 409 yards in two games against the Packers this season, and is likely the only thing standing in the way of a Green Bay playoff win.

However, if it comes down to kicking, it’s Minnesota that has the edge. Vikings rookie Blair Walsh is 35-38 on field goals this season and is 10-10 from 50 yards or more.

Expect this one to be a high scoring, free flowing, close affair.

 

Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens           

(Early Monday morning Australian time)

Win or lose this week, the season has been a remarkable one for the Colts, who last year lost their first 13 games to finish with a 2-14 record – the league’s worst.

The turnaround is largely due to first year quarterback Andrew Luck, who has delivered everything the organisation hoped for when they picked him at number one in the 2012 draft.

Luck has been the lynchpin of the Colts offense, setting the record for most passing yards by a rookie in a single season.

While Luck’s record this far has been outstanding, his inexperience could be a factor, especially in front of a brutally vocal Baltimore crowd.

For the Ravens, they have a big time playmaker in Ray Rice and a solid quarterback in Jo Flacco.

The test will be their ability to protect Flacco and let him go to work, and whether their less than imposing defence can rattle Luck.

Indy is riding an emotional high having welcomed back coach Chuck Pagano (himself a former Ravens defensive co-ordinator) last week after a leukaemia battle, while Baltimore have struggled of late, losing four of their past five.

Momentum counts for a lot in the playoffs, but so does home field – this one shapes as an intriguing contest and could genuinely go either way.

 

Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins

(Late Monday morning Australian time)

Without doubt the match of the round, this contest features two of the competition’s most exciting young players – Seattle quarterback Russel Wilson and Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III.

Both are candidates for offensive rookie of the year, both are on impressive winning streaks (five for Seattle and seven for Washington) and both are backed by running backs in the top five rushers for the season.

Wilson has been on fire in recent weeks, while the mobile RG III isn’t quite at full strength after suffering a knee injury late in the season.

Both teams will bring a heavy running package to the contest, with the ‘Hawks leaning heavily on Marshawn Lynch, and the ‘Skins giving the bulk of their carries to rookie revelation Albert Morris.

Home team Washington have the slight edge in contest purely based on location – the Seahawks are 8-0 at home this season but 3-5 away.

In addition, their away record in the playoffs is dismal. It’s been 28 years since Seattle’s last postseason win on the road.

You can bet on a grinding running game with moments of flashy brilliance from both QB’s.

And you can bet on it being a ripper game.

 

Looking ahead:

The 2012 season has seen a number of teams take on the title of “Super Bowl favourite”, but as we head into the postseason, there isn’t a clear standout team.

At various stages the 49ers, Patriots and Falcons have been the best team in the competition, but with an 11 game winning streak at their back, Denver has been picked by most as the team to beat.

However, the past two seasons have seen low ranked teams crowned Super Bowl Champions.

The 2011 champs, the New York Giants, got into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season with a 9-7 record, while the year before, the Packers were a sixth seed.

It’s about who gets hot at the right time, and right now, with so many teams on a roll, the race to the Super Bowl is wide open.

It shapes up as the most exciting postseason in recent memory.

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