The road to the 2013 Super Bowl begins on Saturday as wild card weekend gets underway.
Eight teams will compete in the first round of the playoffs for the right to advance to the divisional round of the postseason. Half of the teams playing on Saturday and Sunday missed the playoffs a year ago.
Having a first-round bye hasn’t helped teams win a championship in the last few years. The New York Giants and Green Bay Packers won the last two titles by winning four games in the playoffs.
Below are predictions against the point spread for all four wild card games.
(6)Cincinnati Bengals vs. (3)Houston Texans (-4.5)
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Of all the underdogs playing this weekend, the Bengals may have the best chance to pull off the upset. Houston won two more games than Cincinnati in the regular season, but the two teams have been heading in opposite directions over the past week.
The Bengals won their last three games, and seven of their last eight. The Texans have lost three of their last four, with each defeat coming against a playoff team.
If Cincinnati can shut down Arian Foster, Houston might find it difficult to score. Matt Schaub has thrown just one touchdown in his last four games, and doesn’t have many weapons outside of Andre Johnson.
Other than A.J. Green, the Bengals don’t have many playmakers on offense, either. Houston was one of the best teams in 2012 at shutting down opponents’ top receivers.
There’s a good chance this contest will be lowing scoring. The over/under of 43.5 at most Las Vegas casinos is the lowest among the four games. The Bengals have proven to have the better defense, and could hold the Texans off enough to advance.
Prediction: Cincinnati 17, Houston 13
(6)Minnesota Vikings vs. (3)Green Bay Packers (-7.5)
Green Bay is the biggest favorite of the weekend, but Minnesota has proven they can beat their division rivals. They defeated the Packers in Week 17 in a game that both teams needed for NFC playoff purposes.
The Packers are favored by more than a touchdown for multiple reasons. They have perhaps the best quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, and the Vikings have a below-average pass defense. Minnesota may have the worst quarterback in the postseason in Christian Ponder, and Green Bay can concentrate on stopping Adrian Peterson.
Still, the Vikings have played the Packers well this season. Peterson has totaled 409 rushing yards in two games against Green Bay, and could have another big night on Saturday.
Green Bay’s only loss at home came in Week One against the San Francisco 49ers. Minnesota has a chance to keep it close, but they’ll have a tough time coming from behind if they are forced to throw the ball. The Packers should get the win.
Prediction: Green Bay 31, Minnesota 20
(5)Indianapolis Colts vs. (4)Baltimore Ravens (-7)
The Ravens are expected to advance to the divisional round for the fifth straight year. However, much like the other AFC matchup, the underdog is playing much better than the favorite.
Indianapolis has won five of its last six games, while Baltimore has just one win since the start of December. The Ravens are playing at home because they won the AFC North, but the Colts finished the season with one more win as the wild card.
Baltimore is no longer the defensive force they once were, but they are much better than Indianapolis. The Colts finished 26th in the league in total yards allowed. Ray Rice could have a big day taking advantage of a defense that gives up an average of 137.5 rushing yards per contest.
Joe Flacco has made the postseason every year of his NFL career, while Andrew Luck is making his first playoff start. Despite his lack of experience, the rookie’s late-game prowess could help the Colts complete the upset. Luck led his team to nine wins by a touchdown or less.
Prediction: Indianapolis 31, Baltimore 28
Seattle Seahawks vs. Washington Redskins (+3)
The last game of the weekend might be the most highly anticipated of the first round. Two rookie quarterbacks will face off for a trip to the second round of the 2013 playoffs.
The Redskins' Robert Griffin III and the Seahawks' Russell Wilson have been among the most efficient quarterbacks this season. Both helped their respective teams become two of the best clubs in the second half of the year. The Seaahawks have won their last five games, while the Redskins have won seven straight.
It will be interesting to see how the signal callers play against each other, but they might not be the deciding factors in the contest. The Redskins are the only home underdogs this weekend, and it isn’t because Wilson is better than Griffin.
The Seahawks have the best defense in football, allowing 15.3 points per game. The Redskins are 22nd, giving up 24.3 points per game.
Griffin will have a tough time against one of the best pair of cornerbacks in the league. He can make plays with his legs, but looked hampered in Week 17 against the Dallas Cowboys because of a knee sprain. Wilson may not have to make many big plays for Seattle to advance.
Prediction: Seattle 23, Washington 10