Thursday January 5th, 2012

Andre Johnson's season has been hampered by injuries, but expect him back in peak form for the Texans' first playoff game ever. (Getty Images)

Playoff record: 0-0

Ah, a fresh start. A new day. After a season full of missed predictions and embarrassing records, it's time to wipe the slate clean and start over anew for the postseason.

Which brings us to Wild-Card Weekend. There are four very different, very intriguing matchups that should provide an entertaining opening round. The action kicks off Saturday afternoon in Houston, as the upstart Bengals try to ruin the Texans' first-ever playoff berth.

But that game may just be the appetizer for what follows: Detroit at New Orleans, Atlanta at the Giants and Pittsburgh at Denver.

It's a terrific slate of games to kick off the playoffs. And here's what you can expect to see:

Andre Johnson will catch a touchdown pass

It was something of a lost regular season for Johnson, who missed nine full games and parts of others with multiple hamstring injuries. He jumped back on the field in Week 17 and made two catches for 21 yards.

Johnson could be the key to Houston's playoff hopes -- his presence gives T.J. Yates a game-changing threat to throw to and should keep prevent defenses from loading up against the run quite as much. Johnson hasn't caught a touchdown pass since Week 2 at Miami. Look for that streak to end Saturday.

• Cincinnati and Houston will combine for at least six sacks

Six is exactly the number of sacks these two teams piled up in their first meeting this season, a 20-19 come-from-behind Houston win. The Bengals actually recorded five sacks that afternoon, with the Texans managing just one. Don't be surprised if that number flip-flops on Saturday -- the Bengals were able to pin its ears back and pass rush in the earlier meeting because they raced out to a big lead.

The Bengals and Texans were fifth and sixth, respectively, in sacks produced this season. Cincinnati took down opposing QBs 45 times; Houston 44.

There will be more than 700 yards passing in the Lions-Saints game

Expecting two quarterbacks to average 350 yards between them in a playoff game, under normal circumstances, would be setting the bar pretty high. And yet, anything less than 600 total yards passing between Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees on Saturday night would be pretty surprising.

Both teams will air the ball out from start to finish, and that's especially true of the Lions if they find themselves trailing.

Detroit just coughed up almost 500 yards and six touchdowns to backup Green Bay QB Matt Flynn last week, while New Orleans finished the regular season ranked No. 30 in pass defense. This game may not end until early Sunday morning, but there will be plenty of reason to stay up for it.

Chris Ivory will be the game's leading rusher

That said about the passing attacks ...

Both the Lions and Saints would love to establish a little bit of a ground game Saturday night, if only to take some heat off their passing attacks. Detroit will lean on Kevin Smith, who has revived his career since rejoining the Lions midseason. But it might be the Saints' Ivory, who put up 127 yards in Week 17, that has the biggest impact. With Mark Ingram on injured reserve, Ivory should get ample opportunity to make his mark.

Jason Pierre-Paul will force at least one Falcons turnover

The Falcons' biggest challenge Sunday will be keeping Matt Ryan upright when he drops to pass. Between Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, the Giants' defensive line is a handful.

Will Svitek will be matched up with Pierre-Paul for much of Sunday's contest. Svitek has been steady for Atlanta since entering the starting lineup 10 games ago. Dealing with Pierre-Paul, however, is another issue. The Giants' emerging superstar might be the most dangerous pass rusher in the league, aside from Jared Allen. He'll get after Ryan -- and make his presence felt in a big way.

Julio Jones will score a TD of 50 yards or longer

Plenty of people seem ready to jump on the Giants' bandwagon because of how well Eli Manning and their wide receivers are playing. But Jones might make Atlanta an under-the-radar threat. The rookie WR has scored six touchdowns over the past four weeks, and now that he's healthy, looks every bit the first-round pick the Falcons made him in April.

New York's secondary has had all sorts of issues not just covering receivers but bringing them down after they make catches. That's an issue against a guy like Jones, who can turn on the after-burners in a heartbeat.

• Pittsburgh will run for at least 150 yards

Rashard Mendenhall's ACL injury, on the surface, looked like a death knell for the Steelers' run game. Not so fast.

First of all, Pittsburgh's no longer the run-first team that it was 10 or 20 years ago -- the Steelers' offense lives and dies with what Ben Roethlisberger can do through the air.

On top of that, Pittsburgh has a stable of capable backs ready to step up, led by Isaac Redman. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry this season and will be joined in the backfield by veteran Mewelde Moore and beefy rookie John Clay. For as well as Denver's defense played this season, it was only OK against the run, finishing 22nd in the league.

Tim Tebow will attempt 25 or more passes

In a perfect universe for the Broncos, they'd force a few turnovers Sunday, run for about 250 yards and Tebow would throw about five passes. Drawing Pittsburgh's complicated, aggressive defense in the wild-card round hardly landed Denver in that utopia. Either by choice (Denver opts to try to attack Pittsburgh through the air) or by necessity (the Broncos find themselves facing a second-half deficit), Tebow will drop back plenty Sunday afternoon. Whether or not he will find any success doing so is another matter entirely.

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