AFC Wild Card Sneak Peek: Young Colts, Bengals Looking for Signature Playoff Win

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

A handful of young quarterbacks are searching for their first playoff win this weekend. In the AFC, can Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton lead their teams to the Divisional Round?

As Andrew Siciliano pointed out on Twitter, a year ago today, Adrian Peterson couldn't walk, Peyton Manning couldn't throw, and the Colts finished the season 2-14 to secure the #1 pick in the 2012 Draft.

What a difference a year makes...

As the 2012 season came to a close on Sunday, we saw the return of superstars to MVP form, record-breaking moment after record-breaking moment, goat-wrangling, dog-riding monkeys, and much more. Yet, the emergence of a new generation of superstars has arguably been the biggest story of 2012.

Andrew Luck racked up seven game-winning drives, bringing the Manning-less Colts to an 11-5 record. Robert Griffin III and the Redskins won their first NFC East title in over a decade, while energizing a fanbase that hasn't had much to be happy about in years. Russell Wilson, a guy that was labeled as too short, led the Seahawks to an 11-5 record, while tying Peyton Manning’s rookie touchdown record.

Yes, it’s quite apparent that we’re seeing the future of this amazing league, right now.

But now, the real fun begins: the postseason.

And this is where we will see what these new stars are really made of. Winning games as a rookie during the regular season is impressive, but now, that means nothing. Everyone is a simple 0-0. Win or go home and watch.

To get the road to the Super Bowl started, in the AFC, the Colts will travel to the Baltimore and the Bengals will travel to Houston in a re-match from last year.

The winners will meet the New England Patriots or Denver Broncos.

Indianapolis (#5) at Baltimore (#4)

The Chuck Pagano factor

The CHUCKSTRONG train keeps on chugging, but one has to wonder, is this the week it gets derailed?

The Colts really can’t keep this up, can they?

As if the Colts 2012 storyline needed any more fuel, Chuck Pagano, in his first playoff game as a head coach, will return to Baltimore to try to knock his former team out of the playoffs.

If anyone knows this Ravens' defense, it’s their former coordinator. I expect Pagano’s familiarity with Baltimore’s scheme to be a huge factor in this game, yet if we look past Pagano's contributions, schematically, it's evident that CHUCKSTRONG has been the real x-factor for the 2012 Colts.

Playoff games are a completely different atmosphere, and the Colts will be going into battle for a man who's passion and spirit has been the driving force of their already miraculous season. I know you hear it every week, but this cannot be overlooked as a real advantage for the Colts.

Does inexperience and momentum really matter?

These Colts are young and hungry, but they're also inexperienced and have consistently struggled to find their identity on the road.

In a juggernaut of a moment for the franchise, it will be the first playoff game post-Peyton Manning era, and while I’m confident that the Colts can upset the Ravens, traveling to a hostile environment with 28 players who have never experienced the playoff atmosphere is a legitimate concern.

Andrew Luck has played in big games, but this will be the biggest of his flourishing career. Will he rise to the challenge, as he has already done so many times this year?

John Harbaugh gave his wily ole veterans some much-needed time for recuperation, but they face the threat of the "momentum factor." Will the rest actually help, or will it set a struggling Ravens teams back even further?

If momentum is real, I'm afraid it belongs to the red-hot Colts. They arguably played their most complete game of the season against Houston on Sunday, and this is a prime example of why you don't rest your starters in a game like that.

All in all, all of these other factors won't matter if the Colts offensive line can't contain the Baltimore's pass rush. Also, you can't forget about Bruce Arians tendency to revert to the pass-or-nothing play calling, either.

Ray Rice needs more pigskin

Ray Rice is a monster. Just ask the Chargers.

He should always be the key to the Ravens game plan, but he’s been consistently underutilized (257 touches), which is ultimately one of the main reasons Cam Cameron was cut loose. If I’m the Ravens, I’m going to keep Andrew Luck on the bench and make the Colts stop the man from Rutgers 25+ times. Period.

The Colts managed to keep Arian Foster in check, at least until the latter part of the second half, but the Colts are easily one of the league's worst at stopping the run. As for the secondary, Vontae Davis was abused by Andre Johnson all day long. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin may not be on the level of Johnson, but does it really matter against this secondary?

Sure, Davis had two picks, but did you see those throws from Schaub? I'll talk about that soon, but yikes. Yes, the secondary is a liability, but what’s the point of letting Flacco get cute when you have Ray Rice?

My advice to former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell: Run, run, run, play action, run, run, run. Keep the Colts offense idle on the sidelines and resist all urges to quickly unleash the Flacco.

Cincinnati (#6) at Houston (#3)

Taking down big brother to clinch was big for Cincinnati

In Week 16, a young Bengals squad finally overcame their big brother, the Pittsburgh Steelers, clinching their second straight postseason berth and sending the big, bad boys of the black and gold home.

The Bengals had lost five straight to the Steelers.

I was skeptical of this Bengals team, not because of talent, but because they always found a way to lose games they should be winning. They also could not consistently beat quality teams, but it appears the culture is changing in Cincinnati. After going on a four-game skid, which included losses to the Browns and Dolphins, the Bengals beat the defending World Champion Giants and won seven of eight to close out the regular season.

They're winning, and winning consistently.

"Happy learned how to putt. Uh-oh."

The Texans are back in the playoffs, but they're sleepwalking

This year, the tables are turned. The Texans are backing into the postseason, yet again, losing three of their last four games, and looking like one of the least impressive teams in the playoff field. I’ve heard all year about how complete the Texans are, yet over the last six weeks, they have been anything but. Week 11 is when you started to see the preseason Super Bowl favorites essentially unravel.

This is a team that Chad Henne carved up, but the Texans slipped away with a win in overtime, and would do the same in Detroit on Thanksgiving. Luckily for the Texans, Jim Schwartz gave the game away with the controversial challenge flag penalty.

To make matters worse, Matt Schaub's inability to show up in big games has been a major thorn in the Texans' side. In the game that Andre Johnson called the most important in franchise history, Schaub posted a 68.8 rating and watched the Patriots humiliate his team on national television, 42-14. In other prime time games, Schaub has posted ratings of 71.9 (vs. Jets), 56.6 (vs. Packers) and 43.0 (vs. Bears).

Maybe the Texans should try telling Schaub that no one's watching because of a major blackout.

I still expect the Texans to wake up just in time for a win over the Bengals, but winning the Super Bowl? Not while Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are in the AFC.

Bengals defense deserves more respect

The Steelers and Ravens are known as the defensive giants of the AFC North, but the Bengals are quickly developing into the best unit in the division.

You won't hear that, though, at least not regularly, because they're the Bengals. I kind of get it, considering this team hasn't won a playoff game since 1990, but if Geno Atkins was playing in New York, he'd be on the tip of every analyst and commentator's tongue. This guy has had some absolutely dominating performances this year.

I actually like this Bengals team a lot, and no, it's not because I live 45 minutes from Cincinnati. Mike Zimmer was a name floating around Indianapolis after Jim Caldwell was fired, and for good reason. The Bengals are a top ten defense for the second straight season, lead by an absolutely brilliant year from the rising star Atkins. This is a mean front seven, which also features the likes of Michael Johnson and Vontaze Burfict, who, like Janoris Jenkins, was labeled as not worth the off-field trouble.

So much for that, eh?

The looming battle between Burfict and Foster is one of the more exciting elements to this match-up. If Burfict and crew can keep Foster in check, forcing Matt Schaub to throw could be the gold that Cincinnati needs to win their first playoff game in over 20 years.

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