NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 4: Calvin Johnson #81 of the Detroit Lions breaks the tackle of Scott Shanle #58 and Patrick Robinson #21 of the New Orleans Saints to score a touchdown at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 4, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Saints defeated the Lions 31-17. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
The 2012 playoff schedule is officially set. On Saturday the Texans host the Bengals while the Lions play the Saints. On Sunday, the Giants host the Falcons while the Steelers play the Broncos in Denver.
The NFL playoff field is set and we can officially start looking forward to the postseason. Wild Card weekend kicks off on Saturday with four games over two days.
Here's a look at the Wild Card weekend matchups, a few keys to remember and the early predictions on who will win.
Saturday, Jan. 7
AFC: No. 6 Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) at No. 3 Houston Texans (10-6), 4:30 p.m. ET (NBC): The Bengals somehow, someway stayed alive in the AFC playoff race despite losing their final game against Baltimore. Thanks to the Jets loss, the Bengals are still alive. They'll be traveling to Houston this weekend in a game that will have the Texans favored to win.
The Bengals are going to be a dangerous team in the playoffs because they don't have any glaring weaknesses. They have a solid offensive and defensive line, a quarterback who doesn't make a ton of mistakes and a receiver capable of making big plays. Plus, the Bengals defense is strong, overall.
The Texans are a terrific offense with one of the league's top ranked rushing attacks. Rookie QB T.J. Yates left Sunday's game against the Titans with an injury but he's expected to play on Wildcard weekend. If for some reason he can't then it'll be Jake Delhomme stepping in. The Texans, statistically, are one of the best teams in the AFC field but they've also lost three straight entering this game.
I'm still undecided on who my final pick will be but right now I'm leaning toward Cincinnati. The Texans quarterback situation makes me too nervous right now, even if they have the rest of the pieces in place for a serious run.
NFC: No. 6 Detroit Lions (10-6) at No. 3 New Orleans Saints (13-3), 8 p.m. ET (NBC): And you thought the Lions and Packers combined for a lot of points (86). The Lions and Saints could put up 100-plus. Each team is built similarly -- terrific offense and a defense that just needs to be good enough.
The Lions are the fourth ranked offense and much of what they do depends on the big play -- like going deep to Calvin Johnson. The Stafford-to-Johnson connection is one of the most dangerous in the NFL and it will be one of the keys for the Saints. Defensively, they Lions are just OK. They don't do anything incredibly good or bad on that side of the ball. They face a tough task against New Orleans, though.
The Saints are at the top of their game right now, and that's scary. They've won eight straight and seem to be on another level offensively. Drew Brees is having a terrific year and they're breaking offensive records left and right. The Lions are good but I think they're walking into some trouble against the Saints right now.
I don't think anyone in the NFL, including the Packers, can beat the Saints right now. That's how good they're playing right now. Plus, the Saints already have a 14-point victory over the Lions this year so I suspect they should be able to do it again.
Sunday, Jan. 8
NFC: No. 5 Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at New York Giants (9-7), 1 p.m. ET (FOX): The Giants took care of business on Sunday night against the Cowboys which gives them the right to host the Falcons next week. Meanwhile, Atlanta is coming off a thrashing of the Bucs, 45-24.
The Giants have been inconsistent this year. They had a four-game losing streak earlier in the year that nearly knocked them out of contention but they rebounded to beat the Jets and then the Cowboys twice in the final month of the season. They're a top 10 offense that can put up a lot of points if need be and the defense, while inconsistent, is capable of dominating the game. The Giants defensive line, in particular, is terrific when they need to be. Jason Pierre-Paul is a defensive player of the year candidate for a reason.
The Falcons are one of the most balanced teams in the league. They're not the best in the NFL in any one area but they're not the worst either. The Falcons are ranked 11th offensively and 16th defensively. Michael Turner's production is down slightly but he's still an important piece of the puzzle on offense, as is Matt Ryan.
This is a tough game to pick because neither team truly stands out. In the end. I'm leaning toward Atlanta.
AFC: No. 5 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) at No. 4 Denver Broncos (8-8), 4:30 p.m. ET (CBS): Tim Tebow and the Broncos are in the playoffs for the first time since 2005 and they did it despite losing their final three games of the regular season. The Steelers finish the regular season at 12-4 and, thanks to an equally impressive season from Baltimore, they are the wildcard and not the division champs.
The Broncos are the wildcard here (no pun intended) because of Tebow. Can he complete some passes to keep the Broncos in it? Can the Broncos defense play at a high level again? If the Broncos can keep it close, will Tebow pull it off at the end? Those are the types of questions we're looking at in this game. Tebow is so inconsistent from week to week that it's difficult to predict what he'll do.
The Steelers are a veteran team that's been here before. They represented the AFC in the Super Bowl last year and they have the tools in place to do that again. The defense should give Tebow fits all day and I would guess the Steelers defense will control this game.
The X-factor is whether the Steelers offense can put up a couple of touchdowns to pull away. The Broncos are capable of staying in and winning the game if it's a 10-7 type of situation late in the fourth quarter. That's what Tebow time is all about. But Pittsburgh doesn't have to give Denver that opportunity if they can put up 17 points or more. I don't see the Broncos scoring multiple touchdowns. Pittsburgh should win this game.