Here in New England, the ramifications of this week's playoff games are simple: if the Houston Texans win on Saturday, they be returning to Foxboro on Jan. 13. If the Texans lose, the Patriots will face the winner of Sunday's game between the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts.
As such, here are one person's thoughts on the first-round matchups as we enter every football fan's favorite month on the calendar:
CINCINNATI AT HOUSTON
Time: Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
Line: Houston by 4 1/2
Overview: My, how the mighty have fallen, eh? When the Texans came into Foxborough on Dec. 10, they were 11-1. Wide receiver Andre Johnson called it the biggest game in Texans franchise history. Houston subsequently got shwacked by a 42-12 score and then dropped games to Minnesota (23-6) and Indianapolis (28-16) in Weeks 16 and 17.
While Matt Schaub was hurt late last year, now seems a good time to mention that the Texans lost their final three games of the 2011 season, too.
The Bengals, as we know, are headed in the opposite direction. Cincinnati went 7-1 in its final eight games, dropping only a 20-19 decision to Dallas that was decided on a final kick. The Bengals finished the season ranked fifth in the NFL in total defense and have budding talents at both quarterback (Andy Dalton) and wide receiver (A.J. Green).
OK, so it's not an upset if everyone is picking it. But Houston couldn't possibly look more ripe.
The pick: Cincinnati 23, Houston 20.
MINNESOTA AT GREEN BAY
Time: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Line: Green Bay by 7 1/2
Overview: The fantasy geeks all love Adrian Peterson - and he is a tremendous talent - but it's been a long time since a running back led a team through the playoffs. Peterson has averaged 204.5 yards in two games against the Packers this season, which is a silly number. One must believe that Green Bay will gear up to stop him, which could put the game in the hands of Christian Ponder.
And does anyone really believe Ponder can beat Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay?
The Packers are of obvious intrigue entering this postseason because their talent is elite. They have playmakers on offense and defense. The Packers missed the chance for a bye by losing at Minnesota last week, but the only real question in this game seems to concern the margin or victory. Next week will be a different question.
The pick: Green Bay 34, Minnesota 10.
INDIANAPOLIS AT BALTIMORE
Time: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Baltimore by 6 1/2
Overview: Quick, name the two ripest teams in the playoffs. Houston and Baltimore, right? Wrong. As much as everyone wants to write off the Ravens, who lost 4 of 5 to end the season, Baltimore is still a veteran, physical team playing at home. The Indianapolis defense allowed an average of 5.1 yards per rush this season and Ray Rice is still one of the best backs in the league.
Are the Ravens a Super Bowl threat in Ray Lewis' last season? No. But they're better than Indianapolis.
As for the Colts, they have been one of the truly great stories in the league this year. Nonetheless, Indianapolis is the only team in the playoffs with a negative point differential this season. Andrew Luck had just a 72.5 rating outdoors and, short of fading Houston in Week 17, the Colts didn't beat a team with a winning record after Week 5.
The Colts are a once again a team to be reckoned with for years to come, but their 2012 season is all but done. The Ravens are coming to Foxborough next week.
The pick: Baltimore 27, Indianapolis 14.
SEATTLE AT WASHINGTON
Time: Sunday, 4:30 p.m.
Line: Seattle by 3
Overview: The Year of the Rookie QB comes to a head in Washington, where Russell Wilson meets Robert Griffin III. Quite a story, eh? Once upon a time, it was preposterous to suggest that a first- or second-year quarterback could lead his team to the playoffs. This year alone, there are six in the postseason.
Here's a stat for you: thanks to a defense that allowed fewer points than any unit in the league, the Seahawks led the NFC in point differential. Seattle also won its last two games on the road. No one is suggesting the Seahawks can win three straight road games to get to the Super Bowl, but Pete Carroll has built an imposing team in the Northwest.
As for the Redskins, Griffin is hobbled by a knee injury. The cold weather and an attacking defense are not likely to help. America is in love with RG III, but Seattle looks like the more balanced and physical team - albeit not by much.
The pick: Seattle 24, Washington 20.
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