Road To Super Bowl XLVI: Wild Card Weekend

(IndyStar Report) – Four weeks remain until Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium on Feb. 5, but eight of the 12 hopefuls will hit the road to Indianapolis this weekend. It’s wild-card weekend and game on in the NFL.

Cincinnati plays at Houston and Detroit visits New Orleans today. On Sunday, it will be Atlanta at the New York Giants and Pittsburgh at Denver.

The big dogs rest.

They are the top-seeded New England Patriots and second-seeded Baltimore Ravens in the AFC and Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers in the NFC.

The Packers (15-1), with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a squadron of outstanding receivers, are the NFC favorite despite a defense that yields yards in bunches but points in dollops.

The 49ers (13-3) rely on the old championship model. They run the ball and play defense. No one does a better job of protecting the football on offense and taking it away on defense.

New England (13-3) has Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, a warehouse of weapons and a painfully permissive defense, but one wonders who will show up: the team that was outscored 38-14 in the first half by Miami and Buffalo the past two weeks, or the team that won the second halves 62-7?

Baltimore (12-4) has a concussive defense, the artful Ray Rice at running back, the inconsistent arm of Joe Flacco and, they should be grateful, home field at least for next week’s divisional game. The Ravens are 8-0 at M&T Bank Stadium, 4-4 elsewhere.

If you want a shootout Feb. 5, pull for the No. 1 seeds. New England and Green Bay would bring the NFL’s 31st- and 32nd-ranked defenses to Indianapolis.

And brace yourself, Colts fans. The AFC champion will use the Colts’ facilities and practice fields Super Bowl week. That could mean Bill Belichick in the house.

Today

AFC: Cincinnati (9-7) at Houston (10-6), 4:30 p.m., WTHR-13.

Fifteen rookie quarterbacks have started an NFL playoff game since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, but never have two started the same game, until today. It will be Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton against Indianapolis native T.J. Yates of Houston.

Dalton is the more competent, but Yates figures to have the better support. Arian Foster and Ben Tate give Houston a two-fisted running game and the defense is rugged and has coordinator Wade Phillips back from medical leave. Rowdy Reliant Stadium will be in full roar for its first playoff game.

NFC: Detroit (10-6) at New Orleans (13-3), 8 p.m., WTHR-13.

Game 2 couldn’t provide a sharper contrast; it will feature two of the four quarterbacks who have thrown for 5,000 yards in an NFL season. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford (5,038) and New Orleans’ Drew Brees (5,476) both did it this year.

The Saints flexed their muscle 31-17 when the same teams met on the same field Dec. 4. Make it about 45-30 this time. The Saints offense is in a lather, its defense is the better and it will blitz Stafford mercilessly.

Sunday

NFC: Atlanta (10-6) at New York Giants (9-7), 1 p.m., WXIN-59.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning had an MVP-quality season and receiver Victor Cruz (five touchdowns of 65 yards or more) and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (161/2 sacks) are pure fun to watch. The Falcons are at their best when power back Michael Turner (1,340 rushing yards) is slamming and squirting.

New York is peaking and its front four is formidable. Atlanta has the running game and deeper storehouse of weapons. Give it to the Falcons. Kicker Matt Bryant has missed only twice in 29 field goal attempts.

AFC: Pittsburgh (12-4) at Denver (8-8), 4:30 p.m., WISH-8.

Colts fans will remember 12-4 at 8-8. That was the setup for the Colts’ 2008 wild-card trip to San Diego. A couple of mistakes, a big night for Chargers running gnat Darren Sproles and they came home 23-17 overtime losers.

It won’t happen this time. The game will be close because the Broncos and their defense almost unfailingly make it close, but quarterback Tim Tebow has broken down. After helping Denver to a 7-1 run with regular fourth-quarter heroics his first eight starts, he finished 0-3. Over that stretch, Tebow has looked panicky, completed 42.2 percent of his passes with one touchdown, four interceptions, 10 sacks and five fumbles.

That’s feeding time for the Steelers’ fierce defense.

News Source: IndyStar

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