The NFL calls its opening playoff round Wild Card Weekend, but this week's divisional round promises to be a lot more, well, wild.
Whereas three of the four Round 1 games were lopsided affairs, mismatches should be harder to come by as the top four seeds drop into the picture after a bye week to face opponents emboldened by their playoff victories.
A potential shootout awaits right off the bat in the Saturday afternoon opener between Arizona and New Orleans — the ideal sequel to the Green Bay-Arizona fireworks show that rescued the wild-card round from dullsville —followed by a primetime showdown between league MVP Peyton Manning's Colts and the bone-rattling defence of Baltimore.
On Sunday, Tony Romo's surging Cowboys clash with Brett Favre's Vikings, and there are signs of a potential shocker when the Chargers put their high-octane passing attack up against the Jets' top-ranked defence.
Here's a full preview of all four matchups:
NFC: Arizona at New Orleans (4:30 p.m. ET)
The line: Opened at Saints minus-7 and held steady
New Orleans was the darling of the season's opening three months, blowing opponents away with a high-octane offence orchestrated by innovative coach Sean Payton and executed to perfection by sublime quarterback Drew Brees. The defence, an Achilles heel in recent years, turned into a strength, making a slew of big plays with ball-hawking safety Darren Sharper at anchor. But it seems like the Saints' emotional Week 12 trouncing of New England in primetime was their Super Bowl, because since then, they've played with all the pep of a college kid nursing a Mardi Gras hangover. Sure, the Saints eventually ran their record to 13-0, but was anyone impressed by those field-goal wins over Washington and Atlanta? Then came a three-game losing streak to finish the regular season, though that wasn't enough to prevent New Orleans from securing the NFC's top seed.
Arizona looks like that vintage Cardinals team of the 2009 playoffs. If you can recall back that far, those were the guys written off by the public in their first-round matchup after limping into the post-season, only to rattle off three straight wins to reach the Super Bowl, where they took Pittsburgh to the wire. This year's Cards were expected to roll over to Green Bay in the wild-card round, but the incomparable Kurt Warner threw five touchdown passes and Carlos Dansby returned a fumble for the winning score in a dizzying 51-45 overtime win in Arizona.
Key number: 510. That's how many points the Saints scored this season — 40 more than any other team, and the ninth-highest total of all time. The Cards' passing game can score in bunches, but with their suspect defence, will 51 points even be enough this time?
AFC: Baltimore at Indianapolis (8:15 p.m. ET)
The line: Opened at Colts minus-7, but quickly fell to minus-6.5 at most books
Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell angered a lot of fans when he passed up a chance to erase the insufferable 1972 Dolphins from the record books, electing to rest several key players in the second half of an eventual 25-19 loss to the Jets in mid-December that dropped the Colts to 14-1 and ended any hope of a perfect season. Now the pressure's on because the rookie boss hung his hat on the idea that the extra rest gives his team a better chance to win its second Super Bowl in four years. With stars Manning, Reggie Wayne and Dwight Freeney rested and ready, top-seeded Indy is long on firepower and short on potential excuses.
Baltimore surprised almost everyone last year by rebounding from a 5-11 record in 2007 to make it all the way to the AFC championship game despite having rookies at the vital positions of quarterback (Joe Flacco) and head coach (John Harbaugh). The Ravens pulled off another stunner in the first round of this year's playoffs, forcing four Tom Brady turnovers and running the ball at will in a 33-14 cakewalk in New England. Could another upset be in the offing? The Ravens nearly beat the Colts in Baltimore in Week 11, falling 17-15 on a fourth-quarter field goal.
Key number: 34. That's how many yards Flacco threw for (on 4-of-10 passing) in last week's win over New England. Perhaps the youngster never had to go to the air (emerging tailback Ray Rice ran the opening snap 83 yards to paydirt and the Ravens never trailed), but if Baltimore falls behind early and needs to start airing it out, we may find out how much that rumoured leg injury is really bothering Flacco.
NFC: Dallas at Minnesota (1 p.m ET)
The line: Opened at Vikings minus-3, but quickly dropped to minus-2.5 in most books
Minnesota seemed to know something most didn't when it lured the grey-haired Favre out of supposed retirement to pair with all-pro running back Adrian Peterson on offence. Favre looked like a shell of his three-time MVP self down the stretch last year with the Jets, but off-season arm surgery apparently did wonders as Favre the Viking threw for 33 TDs (his highest total since 1997) with just seven interceptions (best ever by far) as he directed a balanced passing attack. Toss in a havoc-wreaking, if big-play susceptible, defence led by frenetic end Jared Allen, and you know why the Vikes started 10-1 en route to their second straight NFC North title. Minnesota lost its last three on the road, but that's of no concern this week at the Metrodome, where the Vikings went a perfect 8-0.
Dallas was purportedly the team that folds every December, but the Cowboys did the exact opposite this year, emerging as the NFL's hottest team over the last half of the last month of '09. The run started with a Week 15 win over New Orleans that knocked the Saints from their unbeaten perch, then gained momentum with a shutout of Washington and consecutive victories over rival Philadelphia, the last of those a 34-14 playoff victory last week. Romo, often knocked for faltering in the clutch, has 13 TDs and just two interceptions over the last seven games, and the defensive line has been blowing opponents off the ball.
Key number: 6. That's how many fumbles Peterson lost this year, the most by a non-quarterback. With the Dallas front seven playing ferociously and Team Romo more than capable of converting turnovers, AP could pay dearly if he puts the ball on the ground again.
AFC: N.Y. Jets at San Diego (4:40 p.m. ET)
The line: Opened at Chargers minus-9, but most books chiselled it down to minus-7
San Diego has won 11 straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL. But things didn't start out so hot for the Chargers, who opened 2-3 behind a shaky defence. They haven't lost since, mainly because of Philip Rivers, perhaps the most underappreciated quarterback in the NFL. Connecting with his skyscraping set of receivers with terrific accuracy, Rivers posted the third-best passer rating in the league, and tied for sixth with 29 TD tosses against just nine picks. The AFC West champs' fortunes will continue to rest on their QB, because the running game is almost non-existent with the sharply declining LaDainian Tomlinson as the featured back.
New York has the ability to take away the key to the Chargers' success. Not only do the Jets boast the league's top-ranked defence, they're also the stingiest against the pass. Aggressive coach Rex Ryan is expected to bring plenty of heat at Rivers, and sticky all-pro cornerback Darrelle Revis can shut down whichever receiver he's assigned to. Question is, can the offence put enough points on the board? Rookie Mark Sanchez is easily the worst quarterback in the playoffs, though he completed an efficient 12 of 15 passes in last week's 24-14 win in Cincinnati. And the Jets can pound the ball on the ground with the likes of underrated workhorse Thomas Jones and emerging battering ram Shonn Greene against a porous Chargers run defence.
Key number: 8. That's how many passing touchdowns the Jets gave up this year. The next-best teams allowed 14. With San Diego's inability to run the ball (and stop the run), this looks like the ideal matchup for the Jets. There's a decent chance that the biggest upset of the playoffs could happen in this weekend's final game.