When's the last time you recall all four wild-card games being so competitive you wouldn't be surprised to see the road team win any one? Two roadies won last year, and three won in 2005. This year, I don't care what Vegas says. It's even-steven across the board entering the weekend.
Picking the games on the third-best weekend of the NFL season (behind the Divisional Weekend and Kickoff Weekend):
New York Jets 23, Cincinnati 13.
I know the Bengals were vanilla Sunday night, but you saw what I saw -- 27-0 at the half, Cincinnati incapable of stopping the Jets on the ground and even worse at getting anything going on offense. Does home-field advantage mean a sea change in how a team plays? I don't see it. The Bengals have to hope the return of Domata Peko at the nose can slow the best running game in football. Slow? Yes. A little bit. Stop? No. I think the Bengals have to count on a couple of early three-and-outs so New York offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has to put the ball in rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez's hands. (For more, here's Ben Reiter's breakdown.)
Dallas 27, Philadelphia 20.
Everyone keeps asking, "What does Wade Phillips have to do to keep his job?'' Easy answer: Win this game. The two men in the NFL under the most pressure a month ago, Tony Romo and Phillips, seem almost bulletproof today because Romo has looked so polished in the Cowboys' three-game winning streak and because Phillips has Dallas on a two-game shutout streak. But they're smart. They know the good feelings will vanish and Jerry Jones will get get a wandering eye (for a coach) with a loss here. If I trusted Donovan McNabb to come up huge against a hot team after his tepid performance last week, I might pick the Eagles. But I don't. (For more, here's Damon Hack's breakdown.)
New England 20, Baltimore 17.
If there are game plans Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron would like to have back this year, I'm sure one would be the Patriots in Week 4. Baltimore ran 17 times for 116 yards ... and sent Joe Flacco back to pass 49 times in a 27-21 loss. It's not like it was a 47-21 game. Not a smart day for the Ravens.
In the past four weeks, they've morphed into a different team, running 40, 31, 38 and 35 times and becoming a Ray Rice/Willis McGahee team. Look for Vince Wilfork and Michael Wright to become the Patriots' key players in this game; they're going to be the run-stuffers New England will need to come up big to win. On the other side of the ball, I think New England becomes a grinding team too, with Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor the big keys. And for one week at least, I think Julian Edelman will play Wes Welker as well as Frank Caliendo plays George Bush -- a B-plus. That'll be good enough for 11 catches, 109 yards, and a win. (For more, here's Tim Layden's breakdown.)
Green Bay 30, Arizona 24.
A year ago, the Cards started their Super Bowl run in this Wild Card slot at home by ransacking the Falcons. And it could happen again -- the Cardinals seem to rise in January, especially on defense, and I don't doubt Karlos Dansby and Adrian Wilson can rally the troops for another inspired effort this weekend. But Aaron Rodgers is farther in his development than Matt Ryan was a year ago, and the Donald Driver/Greg Jennings/Jermichael Finley combo-platter of receivers is tougher to stop than Atlanta's unit last year. The Packers are averaging 32.7 points per game in their last seven -- winning six of those -- and I think they'll get enough pass-rush on Kurt Warner to force a couple of turnovers. This will be the most interesting, back-and-forth game of the weekend. (For more, here's Jim Trotter's breakdown.)
Domata Peko, DT, Cincinnati.
Almost put Julian Edelman here, and it'd be a smart choice. (That's what's great about the NFL -- can you imagine two months ago saying two of the most vital players in the league on wild-card weekend would be Julian Edelman and Domata Peko?) But the Bengals' only chance to win is to take the Jets' running game, the league's best, and stuff it immediately. Peko has missed five weeks following minor knee surgery, and without him in the past four, Cincinnati has allowed 148 rushing yards a game, which will be a formula for failure if repeated. Marvin Lewis said this week he expects Peko will be fine for this one. He'd better be.
1. The hot team getting a head start on a Super run. In two of the past four years a team from the wild-card round (Steelers 2005, Giants 2007) went on to win the Super Bowl. I think Green Bay has a real shot to be the surprise team this time.
2. Tom Brady to stay hot at home. He hasn't lost a home game since 2006, and he's never lost a playoff game at home. He'll also pass 4,000 yards (46 to go) for the year in his 18th career playoff game Sunday.
3. Randy Moss' health. Moss missed practice today and was seen limping around the locker room this week. Uh-oh. Why am I picking the Patriots again?
4. How the 1.7-Rating Man rebounds. On an unspeakably cold night (4 degrees wind chill) at the Meadowlands, Carson Palmer had an unspeakably bad game: 1 of 11, zero yards, one interception and, yes, a passer rating of 1.7. I hear he's ticked off, embarrassed, however you want to put it ... and he wouldn't be much of a competitor if he weren't.
5. The Saints going at it hard to try to regain their edge.Sean Payton gave his players the last three days off, and he told his coaches to get out of the building for some rest too. When they return Saturday morning, they'll practice hard for two days. The top seed in the NFC hasn't played a top-seed-like game since Nov. 30 in a rout of New England, and part of me thinks they wouldn't mind seeing Green Bay come to New Orleans next week. Why? Travel. The Packers played last Sunday in Arizona, traveled nearly 2,000 miles home; they get back on a plane Saturday to return to Arizona, travel back home again, arriving presumably at 2 or 3 in the morning Monday ... then would have to travel to New Orleans on Friday for their third straight substantial road trip in 14 days.
6. Aaron Rodgers as a playoff quarterback. He seems cooler than the weather in Wausau, but the playoffs, especially on the road, have a way of testing the best quarterbacks. Rodgers is on his way to becoming one of those.
7. The end, perhaps, of the incredible career of Kurt Warner. Last time I asked him about the future, a month ago, he said he hadn't decided, and was struggling with the decision. For some reason, I have a feeling this is it for him -- in part because of the head trauma he took this year and wanting to be whole for his seven children.
8. Buffalo. Not the weather. The coaching job. I don't know which way it's headed, though I'd keep my eyes peeled for Leslie Frazier, the Vikings' assistant head coach, and not San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.
9. The shaping of the Washington coaching staff. I get the feeling Mike Zimmer of the Bengals is not the leader in the clubhouse for the D-coordinator's job. But that could be close to the vest for a few days. Could there be a Bobby April hire to rejuvenate special teams?
10. The smoke signals out of Jacksonville. Is Jack Del Rio in trouble? I hear conflicting reports, but I'd be surprised if Wayne Weaver fired him and paid him off.