Matchups to Watch  


Breaking down the key battles of wild-card weekend


The mantra being cast in every NFL meeting room that's still occupied is that the playoffs are a tournament -- the finality of a loss is the finality of a season. Yet, a victory breathes another shot at a Super Bowl. All scenarios apply to all teams, regardless of regular-season records.

Some unsuspecting team will spoil a favorite's hopes. And a team that fought like crazy to secure home-field advantage will have it go to waste. That's just how things roll in the NFL playoffs.

Bengals at Texans

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET (NBC)

Both of these teams are backpeddling into the playoffs. Though the Texans are appearing in the franchise's first postseason game, hopes were higher than just making it before injuries left them with rookie T.J. Yates at quarterback.

Houston's running game has been enough to keep it afloat, but that won't be enough against a Bengal defense that can really mix it up. Yates will have to make some plays. Fortunately, wideout Andre Johnson is rounding back into form after a second hamstring injury.

A bigger issue for the Texans has been their defense. It hasn't been the same since coordinator Wade Phillips was hospitalized for kidney/gall bladder surgery. He's back, but is Houston's mojo?

The Bengals' offense has issues -- as evidenced by its No. 20 overall ranking -- but it offers plenty of dangerous weapons. The Texans will harass rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, but he's pretty steeled. If the Bengals establish a run-pass balance, they can put some points on the board. Cincinnati's defense is good enough to force enough three-and-outs to swing the time of possession in their favor, and the Texans' defense could get worn down after spending too much time on the field.

Lions at Saints

Saturday, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)

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The Lions enter this weekend's wild-card round as the feel-good story trying to embark on a civic-saving journey -- like the Saints did for New Orleans just a couple seasons ago. But Detroit immediately encounters the unenviable task of slowing down the league's hottest team.

New Orleans knocked off Detroit 31-17 in Week 13, but the game was much closer than the final score indicated. The Saints contained Calvin Johnson in that game, and they'll look to keep him out of the end zone once again, or at least minimize his scores.

Saints' corners Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter don't get enough credit for not only being solid cover men but also being fearless. To keep New Orleans' defense honest, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford will need to lean on tight end Brandon Pettigrew and wideouts Nate Burleson and Titus Young -- since those players will be frequently singled up.

The issue for Detroit is slowing down the Saints. The Lions were scorched by Green Bay's backups last week. Although their pride will bring about a better showing, New Orleans is more diverse. The Saints offer a much better running game, and tight end Jimmy Graham draws so much attention it frees up outside threats like Marques Colston, who is killing it right now.

And we can't forget about one of the toughest matchups in the NFL: Darren Sproles. No one has figured out a way to limit his impact thus far -- and neither will the Lions.

Falcons at Giants

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

The Giants have the worst home record among NFC playoff teams (4-4), while Atlanta has the same mark away from the Georgia Dome. Last week, before the seeding had been determined for Detroit and Atlanta, Giants players told me they can beat either dome team because Mother Nature can't be shielded by a roof.

The Falcons have lost the two playoff games they've played in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era, and it's hard to tell if they've really grown from either experience. Atlanta appear to have a matchup advantage in the passing game, with a bevy of explosive pass-catchers going against the Giants' suspect secondary. But when the Falcons air it out, they get away from their true offensive identity on the ground. Atlanta tends to abandon the run when it faces an early deficit, but this is a flawed approach. The Falcons must continue to feed Michael Turner.

The Giants can exploit Atlanta is if they spread the field like they did against the Cowboys and keep the Falcons in nickel packages. The Giants run the ball better against widely spread defenses, and Victor Cruz will be able to consistently beat the Falcons' nickel back. While this game isn't really being talked about for its big-play potential, that's what could determine the outcome.

Steelers at Broncos

Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET (CBS)

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The Broncos backed into the playoffs, finishing the regular season with three straight losses as the Tebow Magic went ka-poof. So the Steelers probably won't receive much praise when they do what they should do in this game.

That being said, there are some cracks in the Steelers: Rashard Mendenhall is on IR, Big Ben's ankle is still tender, and Ryan Clark won't play because the altitude could trigger major medical risks with his sickle cell trait. That aside, the Steelers are the Steelers. And when it comes to postseason play, they're really the Steelers. Pittsburgh plays through adversity as well as any team in the NFL. Its defense should really cause Tebow problems -- especially with outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley returning. Denver's trend of three-and-out possessions will continue in the postseason.

The Broncos' defense could keep them in the game, and if it can force turnovers deep in Steelers' territory, there is a chance points could be scored. If that doesn't happen, though, Denver's defense will get worn down once again and we can spend more time talking about whether Tim Tebow is an NFL-caliber starter.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89



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