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

It's official: Patriots nab third-round compensatory pick in Collins trade

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It's official: Patriots nab third-round compensatory pick in Collins trade

The Patriots received a conditional fourth-round pick in 2018 from the Browns in return for Jamie Collins. That's how the trade was described on the league's transaction wire. 

The "condition" of that fourth-rounder? Well, if the Browns received a third-round compensatory pick in 2017, the Patriots would nab that pick instead. 

On Friday, the NFL announced that the Browns had in fact been awarded a third-round compensatory pick, which meant that almost three full weeks after Super Bowl LI, everything was still coming up Patriots.

In actuality, the odds were pretty good all along that the Patriots would get what they got

Cleveland lost Pro Bowl center Alex Mack in free agency last offseason when he opted to sign with the Falcons. Because compensatory picks are based on free agents lost and free agents acquired, and because the Browns did not sign any similarly-impactful free agents, there was a good chance Mack's departure would render a third-round comp pick that would be shipped to New England.

Had Mack suffered a significant injury that forced his play to drop off or limited his time on the field, a third-rounder may have been out of the question, but he played well (named a Pro Bowler and a Second Team All-Pro) and stayed healthy -- lucky for the Patriots -- missing just 17 total snaps in the regular season. 

The Browns comp pick that will be sent to New England is No. 103 overall. The Patriots were also awarded a fifth-round comp pick, No. 185 overall. That was a result of the league weighing the departures of Akiem Hicks and Tavon Wilson against the arrival of Shea McClellin.

The Patriots now have nine selections in this year's draft: One first-rounder; one second-rounder; two third-rounders; one fourth-rounder*; two fifth-rounders; two seventh-rounders.

The third-round compensatory pick acquired by the Patriots carries additional value this year in that it is the first year in which compensatory picks can be traded. A near top-100 overall selection may allow the Patriots to move up the draft board or build assets in the middle rounds should they be inclined to deal. And we know they oftentimes are. 

* The Patriots forfeited their highest fourth-round selection in this year's draft as part of their Deflategate punishment. They acquired a fourth-round pick from the Seahawks last year. Because that would have been the higher of their two selections, that's the one they'll lose. They will make their own fourth-round pick at No. 137 overall.

Gronkowski says he has 'no doubt' he'll be ready for start of next season

Gronkowski says he has 'no doubt' he'll be ready for start of next season

When it comes to projecting Rob Gronkowski's health, it's been best to steer clear of absolutes. There have been too many injuries, too many surgeries, to predict exactly how he'll feel months in advance. 

Still, in speaking with ESPN's Cari Champion recently, he said he had "no doubt" he'll be ready for Week 1 of the 2017 regular season. 

"Yes, for sure," he replied when asked if he expected to be good to go. 

Gronkowski also fielded a question about his long-term future in the sit-down. Lately it's been his coach Bill Belichick and his quarterback Tom  Brady who receiver all the life-after-football queries, but Gronkowski, 27, was asked how much longer he'd like to play. 

"I’m not really sure," he said. "I mean, I still love playing the game, and as of right now, I want to play as long as I possibly could play. My mindset is to keep on going."

Gronkowski landed on season-ending injured reserve in December after undergoing a procedure on his back -- his third back surgery since 2009. He's had nine reported surgeries -- including procedures on his knee, forearm and ankle -- since his final year at the University of Arizona.