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NFL Playoffs Preview: The road to the Super Bowl

Alex Dimond January 2, 2013
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The NFL Playoffs get underway this weekend, with a series of intriguing matches and storylines adding spice to what should prove - even detached from any context - entertaining games of a high quality.

In the AFC, legendary quarter-backs Peyton Manning and Tom Brady know that just one home win each will see them resume their great rivalry for a place in the Super Bowl - albeit with Manning, arguably the league's MVP this year, in the unfamiliar colours of the Denver Broncos.

Injury-affected and ageing (but not-so-rapidly), Manning was allowed to leave the Indianopolis Colts prior to the season as they drafted Andrew Luck, a composed young QB who has led the organisation back to the playoffs - with a visit to the often underwhelming Baltimore Ravens certainly winnable.

An emotional, and (for some Colts fans) conflicting, confrontation with Manning could then be in store.

Rookie quarter-backs are also the talk of the NFC, with a clash between Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III arguably the highlight of the opening weekend, as the Seattle Seahawks attempt to beat the Washington Redskins.

The other wildcard contest sees the Green Bay Packers take on divisional rivals the Minnesota Vikings - with the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers waiting in the wings. One of those opponents certainly looks more preferrable than the other.

How will the games pan out? We take a look:


AFC

Wildcard Round

Cincinnati Bengals (6) @ Houston Texans (3)

A repeat of one of last season's AFC wildcard matches, which on that occasion was won handily by the Texans, 31-10. The Texans (12-4) also go into the contest with the better record for this season against Bengals (10-6), but have been in awful form in recent weeks - after starting out the season looking certain to clinch automatic passage to the divisional round.

The Bengals, meanwhile, have booked their postseason berth without ever looking especially impressive - and failed to deliver 12 months ago in Reliant Stadium. But with Andy Dalton an above-average QB and AJ Green one of the most dynamic receivers in the game, they do have the ability to put up points with regularity.

Prediction: Defence tends to win playoff games, and in JJ Watt Houston have perhaps the best defensive player in the game right now. A 10-point win for the Texans.

Indianapolis Colts (5) @ Baltimore Ravens (4)

The No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft, Andrew Luck has immediately delivered on all the hype by dragging a talent-light Colts team to the playoffs. Luck's play has been so impressive (although less so over the closing weeks of the regular season), that fans have not even missed Peyton Manning - even as he put up one of the best statistical seasons in his illustrious career.

The Colts do not have much beyond Luck in the way of offensive talent, however, and the Ravens have been renowned for its defence for a number of years. Even if the likes of Ray Lewis (set to retire once Baltimore's season is ended) and Ed Reed are getting on a bit, the defence is still battle-hardened and likely to make life very hard for Luck.

The question, then, is whether Joe Flacco - an infuriatingly inconsistent QB who has seemingly failed to improve since his rookie season - can avoid doing something stupid, with running back Ray Rice perhaps set to take on most of the offensive responsibility.

Prediction: The Colts have had a remarkable season that has exceeded all expectations, but this is the end of the road. The Ravens to edge a low-scoring affair.

Divisional Round

Lowest winning seed @ Denver Broncos

Peyton Manning has been an inspired signing for the Broncos © PA Photos
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Eyebrows were raised last offseason, when the Broncos decided to offload Tim Tebow - a limited QB, but a hugely popular and inspired leader who had taken an unsettled squad to the playoffs - to draft in Peyton Manning, a future Hall of Famer recovering from a potentially career-ending neck injury.

But Broncos general manager John Elway knows what makes an all-time great quarterback, and his judgement has proven inspired as Manning has delivered a remarkable season to grab the Broncos the top overall seed in the AFC.

Prediction: Assuming our prior punts are correct, the Broncos will face the Ravens - a defensive match-up that Manning might perhaps prefer to avoid (but a foe he knows very well). A Colts match-up, however, is the one fans and media really want. Regardless of the opponents, Broncos win.

Highest winning seed @ New England Patriots

Another year, another playoff appearance for the ruthlessly consistent Patriots. Last year's Super Bowl losers have not looked as impressive as during that run, but they nevertheless remain among the classiest squads in the NFL and, in coach Bill Belichick, wrong-foot their opponents with regularity.

Quarter-back Tom Brady is the main man, and keeps getting better with age. Almost impossible to stop, you know he desperately wants a chance to go head-to-head with Manning again in the Conference Championships.

Prediction: Our tips have the Patriots in line to face the Texans, a contest that could see Arian Foster enjoy a good day's running. Brady is simply too good to fall to a shock defeat to the Colts, but the Ravens - old, old rivals of the Patriots - have the know-how to upset New England (if Flacco performs). Patriots to win unless they face the Ravens.


Will the 49ers' decision to bench Alex Smith pay off? © PA Photos
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NFC

Wildcard Round

Seattle Seahawks (5) @ Washington Redskins (4)

The undoubted tie of the opening weekend pits two players who have produced two of the finest individual rookie quarterback campaigns in the history of the NFL. Their stories could hardly be more different - for the Redskins there is Robert Griffin III, the second overall pick who Washington mortgaged their immediate future on in order to acquire. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have Russell Wilson - a third round pick who, undersized at less than six-foot, was expected to be the back-up to expensive free agent signing Matt Flynn.

Instead, Wilson won the starting job and has delivered every since - like Griffin, making the right decision time after time to engineer hard-fought wins. Both men have been ably assisted by their running backs, however, with Skins rookie Alfred Morris's bout against the 'Beast Mode' of the established Marshawn Lynch an intriguing subplot.

Prediction: RGIII looks set for an illustrious career, but a nagging knee injury may just hamper him this weekend. The Redskins, short of talent beyond Griffin, Morris and Santana Moss (and hardly reliable on defence), are easier to stop if Griffin is constrained. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have a dogged defence and can turn things over to Lynch if Wilson gets pressured. Seahawks win by the odd field goal.

Minnesota Vikings (6) @ Green Bay Packers (3)

The Vikings beat the Packers on a dying seconds field goal in the last week of the regular season, but little can be read into that as the Packers were already in the playoffs while Minnesota wrestled with a 'win and in' scenario.

What is certain is this - the Vikings will need Adrian Peterson, who finished the year nine yards short of the all-time rushing record, to run all over the Packers if they are to win, as Christian Ponder isn't really a QB of the required standard. The Packers need to avoid mistakes and in Aaron Rodgers, they have among the best - if not the best - QB going.

Few expected the Vikings to reach the postseason, and few will expect them to progress any further - especially against a Packers outfit that has many of the same pieces from the Super Bowl win two years ago. Packers win with some comfort.

Divisional Round

Lowest winning seed @ Atlanta Falcons

Will Roddy White get the right service from Matt Ryan © PA Photos
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The Falcons enter the playoffs with the joint best record of any participant, but Mike Smith's side look absolutely ripe for an upset. Matt Ryan is a great QB on the fringes of being elite, with a patchy playoff record that raises as many questions as it answers.

Home advantage is a boon for the team, however, with the synthetic indoor surface a venue that Ryan is very comfortable on and has a habit of piling on the points. But will the occasion throw him off his game and give the Falcons' opponents cause for optimism?

Prediction: Our 'guesses' have the Falcons facing the Seahawks, a match-up they might not be wild about even with home advantage. The Redskins would suit Atlanta, as would the Vikings, more than Wilson's momentum-carrying side. Atlanta to fall to the Seahawks.

Highest winning seed @ San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers might just be the team to beat in these playoffs - without question, they have the most imposing and destructive defence of the six teams involved, something that never goes down poorly in the post-season.

With Frank Gore a consistent presence at RB, the only real question is over the quarter-back. Visionary coach Jim Harbaugh made the decision to make a change midway through the season, as the previously impressive Alex Smith was benched in favour of the more athletic, but less experienced Colin Kaepernick.

The move has so far worked out - but can Kaepernick deliver immediately in the playoffs? That is the question, but Harbaugh made his gutsy move on the assumption that the answer is 'yes' (and few of his moves have been wrong so far).

Prediction: If they face the Packers (as we expect), they could be in trouble against Rodgers - a QB who never fails to put up points that Kaepernick may struggle to match. Which is annoying, as Harbaugh would expect his men to punish the inexperienced Wilson and Griffin III, should they be the opponent. 49ers edge Green Bay by a field goal.


Super Bowl

Tell you what, we'll predict that when we come to it.

But our tips have the Broncos facing the Patriots in the AFC and the 49ers meeting the Seahawks in the NFC. Forced to make picks from those two meetings, we'd suggest San Francisco are likely to meet the Broncos for the Vince Lombardi trophy.

Don't hold us to that, however.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk