Last year, two No. 6 seeds not only won their Wild-Card Weekend game, but also advanced to the conference championships (Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles). So, is there a wild-card team poised to defeat a No. 3 or No. 4 seed this year? History would indicate that such an upset is going to happen.
Here are 10 things I will be looking at when these teams take the field:
1. Can the Jets' blitz package cage the Bengals?
It's no secret that the Jets like to blitz. In third-down passing situations, the Jets bring pressure close to 80 percent of the time. Surprisingly, the Jets don't have many sacks to show for all that heat, finishing tied for 18th in the league with 32.
When you study the Jets' pressure calls, you quickly realize what looks like a blitz also has coverage responsibilities for some of the rushers. Players such as Jim Leonard have to make sure the Bengals running backs they rush on don't sneak out on a check-down or screen pass. As one Bengals player said to me, "We've seen all of Rex Ryan's stuff when he was with the Ravens. We will block it, because we understand what they are trying to do."
We'll find out on Saturday.
2. Can a rookie really replace Welker?
Julian Edelman is a physical clone of Wes Welker. Edelman should catch a half dozen balls in the Patriots' game against the Ravens, but will Baltimore use the same inside-out double-coverage looks they would have used on Welker? Probably not, and that means more looks for Randy Moss.
As one Patriots player said to me, "We went 11-5 without Tom Brady last year and we know it's a team sport. We will adjust."
3. Will the Eagles rebound after sweep?
NFL athletes are not like those on high school or college teams. They don't get disheartened by a shutout loss.
I talked with two Eagles players who said the team looked at the game films against the Cowboys, made necessary corrections and feel they have a solid plan to rebound. The Eagles were much more focused on missed opportunities than the play of Dallas. I asked a player from the Giants and one from the Redskins about the Eagles' chances in Dallas, and both felt that the Eagles will rebound this week.
4. Which defense can stop these high-powered pass attacks?
The Jets bring a high-pressure package, but they don't have a lot of sacks. Dallas and Arizona are both at home, which stresses opposing offensive tackles to block the pass rush, and both defenses have over 40 sacks.
5. Can a rookie QB advance in playoffs?
Joe Flacco did it last season, and Ben Roethlisberger did it in his rookie year. Both had excellent defenses and good running games to support them. This week, Jets rookie QB Mark Sanchez has both things working for him.
Roethlisberger threw 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 13 starts in his rookie season with a 98.1 quarterback rating. Flacco threw 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with an 80.3 rating. Sanchez finished this season with 12 touchdowns, 20 interceptions wand a 63.0 rating in 15 games. Sanchez will have to eliminate mistakes in order for the Jets to advance.
6. Which wild-card QB is playing the best?
What follows is a look at the eight quarterbacks playing in Wild-Card Weekend over their last six starts.
Aaron Rodgers and Donovan McNabb have led their teams to 5-1 records, but that Cowboys' shutout of the Eagles last week really tarnishes the five wins preceding it. Tony Romo and Rodgers thew for the most touchdowns over their last six starts with 11 each, and both threw the fewest interceptions with two apiece.
7. What are the best matchups?
Every game has intriguing player matchups that will likely go a long way to deciding the outcome.
Here are the five that I will keep an eye on this weekend: Bengals WR Chad Ochocinco vs. Jets CB Darrelle Revis (edge goes to Revis); Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. Packers CB Charles Woodson (edge goes to Fitzgerald); Packers TE Jermichael Finley vs. Cardinals S Adrian Wilson (edge goes to Wilson); Ravens LB Terrell Suggs vs. Patriots LT Matt Light (edge goes to Light); and Eagles C Nick Cole vs. Cowboys NT Jay Ratliff (edge goes to Ratliff).
8. Which teams have the pass rush to get to the QB?
There will be around 70 to 75 passes thrown in each of the wild-card games. Seven of the eight teams playing Wild-Card Weekend throw the ball an average of 35 times a game, with the lone exception being Sanchez and the Jets. The Jets throw the ball the least of any team in the NFL, but in all other situations the amount of pressure that can be applied to the quarterbacks is critical.
Here's a list of the wild-card quarterbacks' sacks-to-attempts ratio and the amount of sacks the opposing teams generate:
9. What's the value of homefield advantage this weekend?
In the last five years, 10 of the 20 visiting teams on Wild-Card Weekend won on the road. The toughest assignment this week belongs to the Ravens, who head to Foxboro to take on Tom Brady and the Patriots. Brady has never lost a home playoff game (8-0). New England was also undefeated at home this season. The Packers have the best chance for a road win against the Cardinals, who have the worst home-field record of the playoff teams (4-4).
10. Which team has the biggest demons to overcome?
Do the Eagles have the biggest demons to overcome, having been swept by the Cowboys this year? Or, is it the Cowboys, who have lost six consecutive playoff games?
The Eagles know that 19 times since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 a team that was swept during the regular season met that same team again in the playoffs and came away victors seven times. That means history gives the Eagles a 37 percent chance of winning Saturday's playoff game. The Cowboys also remember all too well that they swept the Giants during the 2007 regular season, then lost at home to them in the playoffs. The Cowboys have a lot to be proud of this season, but their head coach did not get the vote of confidence from owner Jerry Jones heading into this game. A playoff win appears necessary for Wade Phillips to keep his job.
The six-game losing streak in the playoffs ties the Cowboys with six other teams for the longest such losing streak.