The Wild Card weekend preview

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The Wild Card weekend preview

God I love the NFL playoffs.

It may drag on for almost a month, but the whole thing is really only six days.

11 games.

12 teams on a collision course for the crown.

In the words of Jean Valjean: "The NFL playoffs & RULE!"

As we get ready for the Wild Card Round, the Patriots are in a familiar place. At home on the couch, watching four teams beat each other up for the opportunity to play in Foxboro.

I imagine they'll be hoping to face the Colts, while expecting to play the Texans, but either way, I'm going to hold off on any official Super Bowl predictions until we see which teams emerge. After all, so much can change over Wild Card Weekend; match-ups are so important.

So instead of predicting out the long term, here are four picks for this weekend. If I don't nail three out of four, I'll get a tattoo of Peyton Manning wearing lingerie on my right bicep.

The Game: No. 6 Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at No. 3 Houston Texans (12-4)
The Time: Saturday at 4 pm, on NBC.

The Background: Houston lost three of its last four games to fall from AFC favorite to the subject of a Wild Card Weekend preview. The Bengals won seven of their last eight games (including victories over the Giants, Ravens and at the Steelers) on their way to clinching the No. 6 seed.

The Spread: Houston (-4.5).

(Note: Im not including this for gambling purposes, but instead for some perspective. And also, for gambling purposes.)

The Texans were favored in 14 of 16 games this season, but were only 9-7 against the spread. The Bengals were underdogs in seven of 16, and went 9-6-1 against the spread. This year, in games refereed by Gene Stenatores crew, the home team is . . . nah, that's ridiculous.

The Experience: Andy Dalton is 25 years old and in his second NFL season, with only 32 career starts under his belt. Matt Schaub is 31, in his ninth season, and has played in nearly 120 games. But on Saturday, Dalton is the more experienced playoff QB.

In fact, this is the first playoff start of Schaubs career, and considering how he carried himself in that big Monday Nighter against the Pats, its fair to wonder how hell handle the pressure. And then you factor in how poorly he's played down the stretch. Do you know that Schaub has thrown only one touchdown in the last four games? He threw for as many TDs as Greg McElroy did over the last four weeks. Only one more than Rory Mcllroy did.

Meanwhile, Dalton hasnt been quite as good (or consistent) as his numbers suggest, but theres no doubt that he can make plays. At least as long as A.J. Green is around.

Speaking of which . . .

The Playmakers: When you look at the Bengals roster, I'd say that Green is the only guy you really fear. Probably Green and Geno Atkins. And maybe Michael Johnson. But that's it.

When I look at the Texans, despite their recent struggles, I still see a team with too much talent to be denied. At least not at home, in the first round. I see Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, JJ Watt and Jonathan Joseph. Impact players. Guys who typically make the difference when everything is on the line.

The Pick: Texans 27, Bengals 21

JJ Watt's strip sack and fumble recovery seals a victory late in the fourth. Watt celebrates by tearing the football in half and shoving the remnants down Andy Dalton's throat.

The Game: No. 6 Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at No. 3 Green Bay Packers (12-4)

The Time: Saturday at 8 pm, on NBC.

The Background: The Packers could have avoided this by taking care of business last week, but they're still in pretty good shape with wins in four of their last five, and nine of their last 11 games. They'll also benefit from the return of Charles Woodson, who's been out since Week 7 with a broken collar bone.

The Vikings have won four straight games; impressive victories over the Bears, at St. Louis, at Houston and then last Sunday against Green Bay. They're powered by a generally reliable defense and the NFL's beastliest and most unstoppable running back since Bo Jackson.

The Spread: Green Bay (-7.5)

It would have been easy to get carried away after last week's Vikings victory, but Vegas isn't having it. They set this thing at 7.5 points and they're just daring you to take Minnesota. Taunting you. "You won't do it. You don't have the guts." Or if that doesn't work: "Oh, so you're the moron who's going to bet against Adrian Peterson?"

The King: Here's something I wrote about Aaron Rodgers back in Week 15

I don't know if it's because he's not putting up the same ridiculous numbers he did last year, or if he's just been overshadowed by Peyton's resurgence, Brady's continued dominance and a crop of headline-stealing rookies, but Aaron Rodgers has been somewhat under the radar this season. In the meantime, he's lost his running back for the year . . . he's been without Greg Jennings and a healthy Jordy Nelson . . . his defense has been decimated by injury . . . he had a win literally stolen from him on that Monday night in Seattle . . . yet Rodgers continues to keep Green Bay afloat.

He's been so good this season. I'd almost say underrated. And here are four more Rodgers-related points:

1. He also spent the season playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Only the Cardinals allowed more sacks this year than the Packers. (For what it's worth, the Vikings finished the season with 44 sacks, which tied them for the fifth most in the league).

2. According to STATS INC, Rodgers has completed 74.7 percent of his passes while throwing 16 TDs and one interception in his last five games against Minnesota. That's a 132.5 passer rating.

3. Saturday night will mark the first time since Week 5 that Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are all active for the same game. (Random stat: Green Bay is 2-4 in the last six home playoff games.)

4. There are a lot of interesting QB story lines in the NFC. You've got Matt Ryan, still trying to break through. You've got Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin and Colin Kaepernick as the young, up and comers. You've got . . . Christian Ponder? But with Drew Brees and Eli Manning both sitting at home, Rodgers is the undisputed king of the NFC playoff picture. It's going to take a lot to beat him.

The Super Freak: Adrian Peterson told reporters this week that he wants to play special teams on Saturday. That he wants to try and block field goals, return kicks and do anything he possibly can to improve the Vikings chances of upsetting Green Bay.

If I'm Leslie Frasier, I let Peterson do whatever he wants. Let him block kicks. Let him play linebacker. Let him perform karaoke at halftime. It doesn't matter. Just let him loose.

The Pick: Packers 35, Vikings 17

Christian Ponder may be an after thought in the Vikings offensive attack, but at some point he's going to have to make a big play a few big plays for Minnesota to advance. In other words . . . look for the Packers to pick up at least two interceptions and run away with the game late.

The Game: No. 5 Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at No. 4 Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
The Time: Sunday at 1 pm, on CBS

The Background: The Colts have won nine of their last 11 games and are riding high on the return of Chuck Pagano who just happened to have spent the last four seasons coaching the Ravens defense.

Baltimore limps into the postseason with losses in four of their last five games, and an offense that's scored more than 20 points only twice in its last seven games.

Adding to the incest of this match-up, the Ravens offense is led by former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell. Also, the Colts are originally from Baltimorehead explodes.

The Spread: Baltimore (-7)
This one looks and feels (and tastes) even stranger than the Vikings game. Seven points for one of the hottest teams in the AFC, against a squad that's looked dead for more than a month? What do you know, Vegas? Why are the Colts getting so many points?

Have the Ravens just been screwing with everyone? Will the conditions get to Andrew Luck? Is Jim Caldwell actually going to give the ball to Ray Rice?

The answer will have to be yes on all three if the Ravens have any shot to cover.

The Skeptic: There's a small part of me that doesn't buy the Ray Lewis retirement party. I mean, it's so rare that any retirement is genuine these days. Especially for a guy who loves the game as much as Lewis does. Will you be shocked if a month from now, he's back home, working out every day, with his body feeling fresher than it has in years, and decides to give it one more try? I won't be.

But either way, if this is the end, we should appreciate every second. It's going to be weird living in a world where Ray Lewis doesn't play football.

The Average Joe: Joe Flacco is the first quarterback in NFL history to make the playoffs in each of his first five seasons. That's pretty remarkable, but more than anything, it's a testament to the strength and consistency of Baltimore's legendary defense.

However, that legendary defense doesn't exist in 2012. The Ravens finished the year ranked 12th in points allowed. It's the first time since 2007 that they've even been out of the Top 3. Bottom line: They can't dominate a game like they used to. That puts more pressure on Flacco to do more than just "not make mistakes"; he has to make plays. (Cue a pair of Ed Reed pick sixes.)

The Pick: Colts 21, Ravens 20.

I don't think Flacco will get it done. I think that with Pagano's knowledge of the Ravens defense, combined with the stale Baltimore offense and a ChuckStrong narrative that isn't quite ready to end the Colts will pull off the upset.

Then they'll move on to play the Broncos, but will do so without Reggie Wayne, who's out for the year after taking a cheap shot from Bernard Pollard.

The Game: No. 5 Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at No. 4 Washington Redskins (10-6)

The Time: Sunday at 4:30 pm, on FOX

The Background: The two hottest teams in the conference, Seattle has won five straight, including a game at Chicago and a blowout victory over the 49ers. Meanwhile, the Redskins have won seven straight, highlighted by victories over the Ravens and Giants, plus a late-season sweep of the Cowboys.

The biggest factor in this game is the location. If they were playing in Seattle, it would be a no-brainer. The Seahawks would win by 20. But on the road, it's a different story.

The Spread: Seahawks (-3)

This game actually started as a pick'em, so apparently the majority of gamblers are betting on Seattle. Everyone remembers that they were 3-5 away from home this year, right? That they lost at St. Louis? At Detroit? At Miami?

The Rookies: This year, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson became the first trio of rookie QBs to lead their team to the playoffs. And on Sunday, Wilson and Griffin will become the first full-time rookie starters to face off in a playoff game.

But as exciting as it will be to watch those two work, the ground battle between Alfred Morris and Marshawn Lynch may ultimately decide the game. They were the No. 2 and No. 3 leading rushers in the NFL this season, and the players most capable of taking the added rookie pressure off their young quarterbacks' shoulders.

The Revenge Factor: The Redskins have only made the playoffs twice in the last 13 years, and both times they were eliminated by the Seahawks. I'd say this would be a major motivating factor for the Redskins if not for the fact that RGIII was still in high school the last time the two teams met in the postseason. Or if anyone remotely cared.

The Pick: Redskins 24, Seahawks 17

Russell Wilson has only thrown 10 interceptions this year, but eight of them have come on the road. He's throw 26 touchdowns, but 17 of them have come at home. For now, he's a different player away from CenturyLink Field, and he's up against a quarterback who can't help but rise to the occasion. You really think RGIII will let this one slip away?

So, there you have it. And here are your match-ups for next week.

Houston at New England
Indianapolis at Denver
Green Bay at San Francisco
Washington at Atlanta.

Enjoy the games. And just in case, let me know if you know a good tattoo place.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

First impressions: Mitchell sees season-high in targets with Gronkowski out

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First impressions: Mitchell sees season-high in targets with Gronkowski out

FOXBORO -- Here are some quick-hit impressions from Sunday's matchup between the Patriots and Rams . . . 

* How will the Patriots offense look without Rob Gronkowski? With a week to prepare for life post-Gronk, the Patriots leaned heavily on their three-receiver sets. That meant plenty of work for rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who saw a season-high in targets with 10. Tom Brady seemed more than happy to throw to Mitchell at the line of scrimmage with the Rams playing off-coverage, leading to relatively short-but-productive gains. 

* Brady seemed to take exception with something he saw from Mitchell during a drive mid-way through the fourth quarter. On the sideline, Brady looked heated while looking over pictures of the drive with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Brady was later caught on the Fox broadcast speaking to Mitchell on the bench. As well as Brady's young lockermate has performed, it was a moment that indicated he isn't doing everything perfectly just yet. 

* McDaniels got creative early with Gronkowski gone. He used the two-back pony set to start the game and handed off to Dion Lewis for four yards. He also found success with LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots running game, using four running plays on the first five snaps of the game. McDaniels then had his offense go five-wide and he sent Julian Edelman in motion. On the subsequent drive, McDaniels turned to the screen game to try to catch Los Angeles' aggressive front off-guard. 

* The Patriots offense stalled at points thanks in part to the Rams' front: Aaron Donald blew up a run play in the second quarter and on the same drive Brady was pressured on back-to-back snaps, leading to a punt. It wasn't an immaculate day from the Patriots offense, but against a talented defensive line, and without their most dynamic offensive player, they'll take it. 

* The Patriots locked things down defensively in what was an all-around dominant performance. Malcolm Butler bounced back after a difficult game versus the Jets, allowing just two catches for 12 yards on five targets until allowing a 66-yarder to Kenny Britt. He broke up two passes and picked off a gift when tight end Lance Kendricks let a pass bounce off of his hands and into the air. Devin McCourty was sound in coverage, breaking up two passes to Britt, a fellow Rutgers product. Britt later got him back for a one-yard garbage-time touchdown. Eric Rowe appeared to play well until suffering a hamstring injury that knocked him from the game. 

* Up front, Alan Branch played with abandon fresh off of finding out that he will not be suspended four games this weekend. He had three hurries, a quarterback hit and a stuffed run to continue his strong season. Rob Ninkovich (two hurries, a hit and a sack), Trey Flowers (four hurries and a hit) and Chris Long (one hurry, three hits and a sack) were pains for rookie quarterback Jared Goff. 

* Stephen Gostkowski was a perfect four-for-four on his field goals, knocking down a 48-yarder and a 45-yarder from the right hash mark and a 45-yarder from the left hash on consecutive drives. He also made both of his extra-point attempts. 

* Some special teams notes . . . Cyrus Jones muffed a punt from "weapon," as Bill Belichick called him this week, Johnny Hekker. The punt-return job was Danny Amendola's until Amendola suffered an ankle injury that knocked him from the game. That could be a critical injury to the Patriots in the kicking game. Amendola has also been a key part of the offense on third downs and in red-zone situations. Jonathan Jones was flagged twice on special teams.