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Wild Card Saturday: Five Things To Watch

Posted Jan 3, 2013

Compelling matchups in AFC and NFC to open the postseason.

All four teams playing Saturday on the first day of the 2012 NFL Playoffs are familiar with each other and have plenty of motivation to play hard. Of course the primary reason is to advance, but there also is the added emotion that comes with any rematch.

Starting things off at 4:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time is the Houston Texans hosting the Cincinnati Bengals from Reliant Stadium in Houston. These same two teams met in the AFC Wild Card round last year, with the Texans rolling to a 31-10 victory, and the Miami Dolphins faced both in the regular season, losing on opening day at Houston, 30-10, and winning at Cincinnati on October 7th, 17-13.

The nightcap features the Green Bay Packers against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field at 8. The NFC North rivals closed out the regular season six days ago in Minneapolis in a game that saw Vikings running back Adrian Peterson rush for 199 yards and fall just seven yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s rushing record. His team came out on top, 37-34, to secure the final playoff spot.

One game will be outdoors inside one of the most legendary venues in the National Football League while the other one will take place under a retractable roof deep in the heart of Texas. Based on what took place around the league during the regular season, both games could come down to the wire. Here are some things to pay close attention to.

Five Things To Watch:

1. Can the Texans regain their early season form and come up with another convincing playoff win over the Bengals – Heading into December it looked like Houston was a lock for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but losses in three of the last four games deprived the team of a bye as it fell to the No. 3 seed. Meanwhile, Cincinnati won four of its last five, including three in a row to end the regular season, and the only loss was by one point to the Dallas Cowboys. The Bengals have not forgotten the drubbing they took in Houston last year, so if they can get off to a fast start and quiet the Texans’ home crowd, they just might be able to pull off the upset.

2. How will Vikings running back Adrian Peterson attack the Packers defense outside in the cold of Green Bay – This has been one of those special seasons for Peterson that don’t happen regularly, especially for someone coming off of a torn ACL. His best performance of the season came at Lambeau Field in Week 13 when he exploded for 210 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in a 23-14 loss. That was the first Sunday of December so it was slightly warmer than it will be Saturday night (high of 27 degrees and a low of 14 degrees). Considering that Minnesota’s passing offense ranked 31st out of 32 teams, Peterson knows how much of the load he’ll have to carry – and so do the Packers, who also remember losing in the first round last year to the New York Giants as the No. 1 seed. So this will no doubt be the key battle of the night.

3. What will Cincinnati’s defense do to slow down Houston’s quick strike offense – It’s strength against strength in this match-up, as the Bengals’ sixth-ranked defense will try to stifle the Texans’ seventh-ranked offense. They made it through the tough and physical AFC North to snatch a playoff spot away from the Pittsburgh Steelers and with the physical powerhouse Geno Atkins anchoring that stout defensive line, the strategy will be to take Houston running back Arian Foster out of the game early. Cincy’s defensive backs feel they can handle the Texans’ receivers, including Andre Johnson, and will focus on pressuring quarterback Matt Schaub.

4. Will Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers find his rhythm again and be able to kick start another Super Bowl run like he did two years ago against a familiar foe – After a slow start highlighted by a controversial last-second loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the Packers won eight of their last 10 games behind the resilient Rodgers. While Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson grabbed more of the headlines, all Rodgers did was throw 39 touchdown passes to just eight interceptions and 4,295 yards for a league-best 108.0 passer rating. He’s at home in the elements and in front of the most passionate fan base in the league, cognizant of how last season’s 15-1 record was squandered in a first-round loss, so it’s a given that Rodgers will have his game face on and his offensive teammates fired up.

5. Is Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green capable of being the X-factor Texans running back Arian Foster was in last year’s game – Foster rushed for 153 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries to spearhead Houston’s 21-point route of Cincinnati in the 2011 AFC Wild Card Game, while Green was held to five catches for 47 yards. The speedster was a rookie at the time and this year he put together a Pro Bowl season, catching 97 passes for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns. So if he can take the top off of Houston’s 16th-ranked pass defense and get open deep for quarterback Andy Dalton that could be the difference.
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