The AFC West champion Chargers are the hottest team in the league, behind an 11-game winning streak, and have had the Colts' number in recent postseason meetings. The Cowboys look absolutely menacing, and they reversed their prior December malfunctions with a victory over then-unbeaten New Orleans in Week 15.
But how much can be put into that?
The argument of the hot teams vs. the ones that had the best record or of squads that had to play their way into the postseason vs. those that rested players down the stretch is an annual discussion that offers merit at each point.
Adding to things this season, three of the four wild-card matchups are rematches from Week 17 games in which two teams (Arizona and Cincinnati) didn't give it much of a whirl; two others (Dallas and Philadelphia) duked it out for the NFC East title; and two others (New England and Green Bay) played their starters for most of the game to maintain continuity, even though their playoff fates were secure.
Recent history has shown us this: Having a bye isn't always a good thing -- but it might not be a bad thing either.
However, the most recent team holding the trophy at the end was one that had a week off to rest, heal and re-charge. That could very well be the case this season as well.
Let's look at this postseason's top two seeds in each conference along with the wild-card matchups to see if any trends can glean some insight toward their playoff futures.
New Orleans (No. 1 seed NFC, will host
Philadelphia, Green Bay or Arizona)
No team could use a bye more than the Saints. The run to 13-0 seemed to be more stressful than fun as the regular season progressed. Injuries really impacted the defense, and some key players (Sedrick Ellis, Tracy Porter, Darren Sharper, Jabari Greer) could be at full strength when it's time to get going. Losing DE Charles Grant to a triceps injury was a major blow. The nicked up running backs also can heal. Quarterback Drew Brees is the ultimate leader, and coach Sean Payton is going to work players hard.
The potential divisional-round matchups don't look overly appealing for New Orleans, but a healthy, focused Saints team is a very dangerous one.
The bye shouldn't mean bye-bye.
The voluntary decision to rest players after going 14-0, which cost the Colts a shot to go unbeaten, has not set well with fans. But it was prudent, in terms of keeping players healthy. Indianapolis opted not to give a lot of starters, including Peyton Manning, too much rest, though, and played them partially in the season finale, a second loss.
Players should be healthy in body when the Colts play their first postseason game. But will they be healthy in mind? You would think this veteran team should be able to figure things out, but a physical team like the Jets, who handed the Colts their first loss, could be brimming with confidence. All of the teams they could play are physical, run-first teams that could either be a soft touch should the Colts get an early lead, or very problematic if Indy can't get its offense going right away.
Minnesota (No. 2 seed NFC, will host Dallas, Arizona or Green Bay)
The final six quarters of the Vikings' season displayed some of the most explosive offensive football they've played. The defense also got back some of its swagger in the finale against the Giants. Arizona used a similar Week 17 push to right some of its issues last season en route to reaching the Super Bowl.
The last two seasons, the Chargers have dominated in December but had to play in the wild-card round, advancing both times. After the 2006 season, they had a bye and hosted the division round and got knocked off by New England -- a possible foe at the same locale this season.
The Cowboys, more than anything, are glad to have gotten into the playoffs after flaming out in 2008 and feeling pressure to perform late this season. The recent bout of success -- and two wins over Philadelphia -- doesn't seem to have inflated their self-assurance heading into their third game against the Eagles. It better not, because there is still another ghost to conquer.
Dallas defeated the Giants twice in the 2007 season when it won the NFC East title. But New York came back to defeat the Cowboys in the divisional round. Dallas doesn't have a bye this time, and that could be a good thing because its opponent doesn't have a week to regain confidence -- and the Cowboys don't have a week for certain players to go on vacation.
The Jets are somewhat like the Eagles last season, who had to have a lot of things fall in place for them to get into the playoffs and win the regular-season finale to advance. New York doesn't have Donovan McNabb at quarterback, though. The Bengals have to show they can win a meaningful game and none is more meaningful than this.
The Cardinals finished the season much like the Giants did a year ago: splitting the final six games and making it tough to figure out if they were really ready. Well, New York lost in its first playoff game, but that was a divisional matchup with Philadelphia. Arizona is playing this weekend after pretty much conceding the season finale to Green Bay by resting several starters.
Arizona might be without WR Anquan Boldin for the rematch, and it has been far from dominant on the road (6-2 vs. 4-4 home). It is a team that plays well with a chip on its shoulder, and there is no reason to think the Cardinals can't repeat their own history by reaching the Super Bowl from the wild-card round it launched from last season.
The Packers, meanwhile, are hot, just like Atlanta was as a wild-card last season when it traveled to Arizona with a quarterback playing at a high level. The Falcons were scary on offense, like Green Bay, but unlike these Packers, they didn't have the defense to see things through. Green Bay's strong defense balances out the scales here.
The Patriots beat Baltimore at home in Week 4 but since then, New England, which won't have WR Wes Welker, hasn't had a signature victory over an upper-echelon team. The Ravens also changed their identity to a run-first team from a pass-happy unit the first time these guys met. The Ravens have shown in the past, including last season, that they are dangerous playing from the wild-card round.