Wild Card Sunday: Five Things To Watch

Posted Jan 4, 2013

Youth movement collides with cagey veterans making last stand.

Three of the four quarterbacks playing in Sunday’s conference wild card games are rookies, marking the first time that has happened in the history of the National Football League. The one who isn’t has two of the greatest defensive players at their positions on his side.

When things get underway in Baltimore at 1 p.m. between the Ravens and Indianapolis Colts, the M&T Bank Stadium will be rocking like it hasn’t in a long time thanks to the return of 17-year veteran middle linebacker Ray Lewis. He announced on Wednesday that he will retire at the end of this postseason and his fellow ex-Miami Hurricane, safety Ed Reed, could be right behind him.

Over on the other side of the line of scrimmage from Lewis and Reed will be Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, the first overall pick of last April’s NFL Draft out of Stanford. He helped engineer an incredible turnaround by his team, taking Indianapolis from 2-14 in 2011 to 11-5 and will try to keep the emotional run inspired by head coach Chuck Pagano going a little longer.

A few hours later and a little south of Baltimore, the upstart Washington Redskins will host the upstart Seattle Seahawks at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. Redskins rookie quarterback and the second overall pick behind Luck, Robert Griffin III, will square off against Seahawks rookie quarterback and third-round pick Russell Wilson. Washington is riding a seven-game winning streak and Seattle ended the season on a five-game winning streak, with its loss coming at Sun Life Stadium to the Miami Dolphins on November 25th by a 24-21 score.

Both of these matchups have intriguing storylines and all of the makings for dramatic finishes. Here are just a handful of things to pay close attention to.

Five Things To Watch:

1. Which will generate more inspiration, Ray Lewis’ triumphant return and farewell to Charm City or Chuck Pagano’s presence on the Indianapolis sideline – Lewis insisted during his Wednesday press conference that he was thinking of the fans when he decided to make his announcement. He said he did not want to short-change them by walking away after the season without giving them a chance to show their appreciation. Pagano put the headset back on last week at home against the Houston Texans after battling his leukemia into remission and his team responded with a dominant division win. Emotions are certain to run high both sidelines, with Ravens fans wanting to see Lewis get one more shot at a second Super Bowl ring and Colts fans and players wanting Pagano’s courageous fight to carry them further.

2. Who will win the other key offensive battle at FedEx Field between Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris and Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch – All of the publicity and hype surrounding this NFC Wild Card game involves RGIII and Wilson, but Morris and Lynch are equally important to the outcome. They finished the regular season ranked second and third, respectively, in the league in rushing yards behind Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson with 1,613 and 1,590 yards, respectively. The Redskins owned the NFL’s top rushing attack, with Seattle ranked third, and Morris set a new franchise record with his rushing total, doing it in style with 200 yards and three touchdowns last week against the Dallas Cowboys to clinch the NFC East. Seattle’s defense was No. 4 while Washington’s offense was No. 5, but the Redskins’ defense ranked 28th, so if Morris can keep that unit fresh by grinding it out on the ground that could be the edge his team needs to advance.

3. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco versus Colts cornerback Vontae Davis – This will be Flacco’s 10th playoff game and he owns a 5-4 record in the postseason so the big stage is like home to him. Davis has never been to the playoffs before, having spent his first three seasons in Miami before getting traded to the Colts at the end of the preseason. But he showed last week against Houston why he is looked at as a top caliber cover corner with two interceptions, earning him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. His closing speed enables him to bait quarterbacks into throwing his way and his toughness at the line works well in press coverage. The key for Davis is not to get caught gambling recklessly because Flacco is smart and accurate enough to make him pay, so if he can shut down his side of the field and force Flacco to hold the ball an extra half second, Colts pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis could make Flacco pay.

4. How will Seattle’s big and athletic secondary contend with the athletic Griffin’s arm and his legs – Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are two of the most imposing cornerbacks in the league and are effective in pass coverage and against the run. Of course they haven’t seen anyone run quite like Griffin when he does pull the ball down, which means they will face some critical decisions involving when to leave their receiver and go after the speedy and acrobatic quarterback. This also will depend on how worn down the front seven get by Morris, but Browner served a four-game suspension over the last four regular-season games so his legs will be fresh. Don’t be surprised to see the game be decided among these three players.

5. Can Luck continue to perform beyond his years against a battle tested Baltimore defense – Luck’s seven fourth-quarter comebacks were impressive by normal standards, much less for a rookie, and his leadership in the huddle and the locker room is unquestioned. The Colts were fighting for a playoff spot all the way up until the second-to-last game and then he led them down the field and into the end zone on the opening drive against Houston last week to set the tone. The playoffs are a different animal, especially with Lewis, Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata having their sights set on stopping the young gun and if there was one unsettling statistic for Luck in the regular season it was the 18 interceptions he threw. Reed has a nose for the ball and his 61 career interceptions rank 10th all-time in NFL history, if Luck isn’t careful the nine-time Pro Bowl safety could add him to the list of quarterbacks he has sent home early in the postseason.

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