Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Houston Texans (12-4)
If this seems familiar, that's because it is. These two teams met in the same game at the same time last season, with the Texans, behind 3rd String Quarterback T.J. (Don't call me Tyler!) Yates. The Bengals made some mistakes and the Texans pulled away in the second half for a relatively easy victory. A lot of what I've been hearing this week involves the Texans (as an aside, I find the Houston Texans, currently the NFL's youngest franchise, to be rather cumbersome. Even typing this out, I find I instinctively will type Houston Titans, which never existed, although the team that is now the Titans used to be the Houston Oilers, the perennially lame-duck franchise that was rumored to move for years until they actually did. Houston got another team 6 years later, which baffled me, and they had to suffer through the stigma of having David Carr as their franchise Quarterback for too many years, but now they've gotten it together) slumping late in the regular season and the Bengals hungry for a playoff victory, not having won a Playoff game since 1990, when their Quarterback was the cranky Boomer Esiason. Some signs may point to Cincinnati having an edge here, but I can't say I see it. Houston got off to a really fast start before regressing later in the season, but by that point, their playoff spot, and a home game, were all well-assured. Cincinnati has been one of those annoyingly inconsistent teams all season; the fact that they're the #6 seed tells you that they basically just happened into a Playoff berth (this usually is the case with 1 or 2 teams each season, and it's almost always the #6 seed). Basically, they ended up being the best of a bunch of marginal teams (you can lump them in with non-playoff teams like Pittsburgh, San Diego, the Jets, etc that just flat out stunk), and were helped out by the fact that the AFC was full of bottom feeders this season. Teams like that tend not to last very long in the Playoffs, and usually they're long forgotten by the time Championship Weekend rolls around.
Prediction: Houston 27, Cincinnati 17
Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (11-5)
Have you heard about the Packers? Lemme tell you, they got a great Quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, he throws the ball all over the field and does a really cool dance whenever the Packers score a Touchdown. And on Defense, they have this awesome Linebacker named Clay Matthews (III) who has wild blonde hair and flexes his muscles on the field. These guys are the COOLEST!!! They're going to the SUPER BOWL!!! Packers, Packers, Packers! Lambeau Leap! Frozen Tundra! Vince Laahm-Baaah-Di!
Pardon me, I have to go vomit now.
Perhaps I could be accused of being somewhat bitter, and I can't say the Packers haven't earned some praise since they did win a Super Bowl two years ago, but the problem is that when you win a Super Bowl, and you're one of the NFL's staple franchises (see: Packers, Giants), what happens is you become pervasively annoying, so much so that many people, particularly that team's own fans, aren't even aware of it. The Packers won Super Bowl XLV, Aaron Rodgers started doing TV commercials, Clay Matthews, III (and it's time we made note of the fact that he's Clay Matthews, III., in deference to his father, an outstanding LB in his own right, and his grandfather, who also played in the NFL—if Robert Griffin, III can do it, so can he) was all over the place, even some of their lesser known players like Greg Jennings are on Commercials. Just be thankful Brett Favre isn't still around. And there's the whole Lambeau Field mystique and the cheeseheads...It's getting a little tired. I suppose knocking the Packers makes me somehow anti-American or something, but I don't care. I don't like them. The problem is, they're going to be playing this game at home, it's probably going to be about 20 degrees out in Wisconsin, they're pissed off because they think they should have had the #2 seed and a bye, and everyone is feeding into this.
They're playing a Vikings team that beat them last week, and while Adrian Peterson, who is simply a delight to watch, gashed them last week and may well gash them again, but their Quarterback, Christian Ponder, is, at best, middling, particularly when outdoors. There are ways that Minnesota could keep this game close, but it involves a lot of ball control and luck, and hope that Aaron Rodgers can be pressured into mistakes. It's possible, because of the Packers' general lack of a running attack, but I don't think the Vikings will be the team to do it tonight.
Prediction: Green Bay 33, Minnesota 20
Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Two teams that have sort of done it on smoke and mirrors. This is the one game I've had the hardest time figuring out. The Colts have sort of made it this far on Luck, both the literal luck and their Rookie Quarterback Andrew Luck, winning a number of close games in spite of an aging defense and a poor running game, combined with the Mojo of ChuckStrong, and how they've rallied around their Leukemia-stricken Head Coach Chuck Pagano. The result is one of the real feel-good stories in the NFL this season. On the other side, the Baltimore Ravens are more or less the Over-The-Hill gang on defense, as evidenced by their great linebacker Ray Lewis announcing this will be the last time he'll do his annoying dance (A word on Ray Lewis: Great player, yes. Hall of Fame Linebacker, yes. But let's not forget that he was almost sent to jail in 2000, and let's not even put him in the same ballpark as Lawrence Taylor as far as "Best Linebacker Ever" is concerned). They've had a season similar to Houston, where they started off hot and then came back to earth. They also have an erratic Quarterback in Waka Flacco, who's the kind of Quarterback who you may not often win because of, but you'll sure as hell lose because of (and as an aside on Flacco, I've gone on record as calling him the Ted Lilly of the NFL: He's got a modicum of talent, but he's incredibly wimpy-looking. He can blow up at any second, and he constantly looks like he's about to burst into tears and cry for his mother). They've also benefited from a good deal of luck. So, someone's luck is about to run out. I think it's Baltimore's turn.
Prediction: Indianapolis 23, Baltimore 20 (OT)
Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at Washington Redskins (10-6)
Bill Simmons wrote in his column yesterday that if the Seahawks could have stopped Kevin Kolb and the Cardinals in week 1, they would have been 12-4, won the NFC West and had the #2 seed and a bye this week. Well, they didn't, so they're on the road, away from their loud stadium and obnoxious fans. Lightly regarded at the beginning of the season, Seattle has sort of rode this groundswell of a hotshot Rookie Quarterback and a thundering running back, and a chippy Head Coach who skips around the sidelines and runs up the score, and an opportunistic defense that may or may not be full of cheaters. They hung around and hung around and won a few really close games, and then they started to believe it, and they started to rip up several opponents, including the 49ers. But I'm still not convinced. They've taken advantage of some pretty weak teams, and a 49ers team that was injured and unprepared. And on the road. Should they have to face the 49ers again, it'll be in San Francisco. Unlike the Packers, they're being anointed without actually having won anything, so I'm really hoping that someone steps up and puts them and their stupid coach in their place.
Unfortunately, I don't think the Redskins can do that. Though Washington has had a great season of their own, has won 7 games in a row, and boasts a team somewhat similar to the Seahawks (minus the annoying coach and cheating defenders), their defense isn't quite as good as Seattle's. They won't come out and start blasting people out of the box. But what I am interested in is to see just how Robert Griffin, III and Alfred Morris handle what's probably the toughest defense they've seen all year. To the Redskins' credit, they've eked out a number of close victories, but not against any teams that had a really good defense. What I do know is that this won't be a romp for Seattle. They've really walked over some lesser teams (the fact that Pete Carroll insistently continues to pass and fake punts when the game is out of reach may have something to do with it), and while they'll probably beat Washington, this will probably be more shootout than cakewalk.
Prediction: Seahawks 37, Redskins 31
So, there you have it. If this makes some sense, more power to me. Whatever happens, the 49ers will, I'm sure, be ready for whoever shows up in San Francisco next Saturday.