By Don Banks
January 02, 2013

Youth at quarterback has never been on display like this in the NFL playoffs. Three rookie quarterbacks made the field, and three second-year passers are in as well, meaning half of the league's 12-team Super Bowl tournament is led by young guns.

Maybe when it's all said and done, the Super Bowl comes down to Peyton Manning or Tom Brady against Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan. But for now, it's all about the young arms we get to watch the next two weeks. Seattle's Russell Wilson versus Washington's Robert Griffin III is the glamor matchup in this week's first round, but the Colts' Andrew Luck and the Vikings' Christian Ponder will be making their career playoff debuts as well. Cincinnati's Andy Dalton is back for another try at solving the Texans defense, and next week, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick will make his playoff debut in just his eighth career start.

In this week's four first-round games, the young talent at quarterback makes the road teams look very appealing. Luck against the Ravens, Wilson against the Redskins, and Dalton against the Texans are all good matchups for the visitor. Even Ponder and the Vikings have to feel good going into Green Bay, having beaten the Packers last week in the Metrodome and having played them tough in Week 13 at Lambeau, losing 23-14.

Here's how we rank the teams as the NFL's 12-team tournament begins, with a small satisfaction taken in the fact that our top 12 teams from last week all made the playoffs. Washington and Minnesota turned out to be the right teams to bank on, while Chicago, Dallas and the Giants were not.

1 Denver <a href=Broncos" title="Denver Broncos">
Last Week: 1
The Broncos haven't been in the AFC's pole position as the playoffs opened since 1998, which interestingly enough was John Elway's final season in the NFL and Peyton Manning's first. But with 11 wins in a row, all by seven points or more, they've richly earned the top spot, not only in terms of AFC seeding but in protecting their hold on the top rung in our power rankings for a third week in a row. Denver is playing so well Manning and Co. probably don't even want to take this weekend off. And a divisional-round pairing against the Ravens, Colts or Bengals isn't likely to slow them down all that much.
2 New England <a href=Patriots" title="New England Patriots">
Last Week: 4
How important was it for the Patriots to sneak past Houston and claim that No. 2 seed and first-round bye in Week 17? Unlike in the NFC, the top two seeds have really been a benefit of late in the AFC. The conference's Super Bowl qualifier has been either a No. 1 or No. 2 the past five years in a row, and nine of the past 11 seasons. Only the 2006 Colts (No. 3 seed) and the 2005 Steelers (No. 6) bucked that trend from 2001 on. No matter who New England gets in the divisional round, it'll be a rematch from earlier in the season (the Pats lost at Baltimore in Week 3, beat visiting Indianapolis in Week 11 and routed Houston in Foxboro in Week 14).
3 Atlanta <a href=Falcons" title="Atlanta Falcons">
Last Week: 3
The last time the Falcons earned the NFC's top seed, two years ago, they ran smack dab into the proverbial "hot team" in the playoffs, losing at home to eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay in the divisional round. Will that be their misfortune again? Atlanta will draw either Minnesota, a winner of four in a row, Seattle, which went 7-1 in the second half, or Washington, which owns the conference's longest active win streak at seven games. I would imagine that sounds a little too familiar for the comfort of Falcons fans. Atlanta is just 2-2 in the past four games after that 11-1 start, but remember the 2009 top-seeded Saints? They started 13-0, lost their last three in the regular season, and still cranked it back up for a 3-0 run to a Super Bowl title.
4 Seattle <a href=Seahawks" title="Seattle Seahawks">
Last Week: 5
Seattle's issues on the road make it difficult to imagine a long playoff run for Pete Carroll's club, but the Seahawks did win their last two away games after starting this year 1-5 on the road. Seattle hasn't won a road playoff game since the 1983 season, five years before Russell Wilson was even born. It'll be a fascinating duel between rookie quarterbacks and tremendous running games Sunday afternoon at FedEx Field, and the matchup should be cleanly played because Wilson and Griffin take great care of the football.
5 49ers">49ers/">49ers_50.png" alt="San Francisco 49ers" title="San Francisco 49ers">
Last Week: 6
49ers/">San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)
As much as any of the top two seeds in each conference, the 49ers should get a boost from their first-round bye. They need to get healthier, get their David Akers kicking problem figured out (Billy Cundiff, really?), and get as much preparation in as possible before young quarterback Colin Kaepernick makes his first career playoff start. San Francisco's final 10 quarters of the regular season were not its best, starting with that furious second-half comeback it allowed New England in Week 15. Time for the 49ers to catch their breath and hit the reset button a little bit.
6 Green Bay <a href=Packers" title="Green Bay Packers">
Last Week: 2
The Packers and Vikings go at it again, this time in Lambeau Field, where Green Bay beat Minnesota as recently as Week 13. Saturday night's playoff meeting will make it three games waged by these division rivals in the span of six weeks. This is the first time that Week 17 opponents meet again the following week in the playoffs since 2009, when it happened three times, including to the Packers and Cardinals. Green Bay won at Arizona in Week 17, then lost there in the first round of the playoffs. The Packers defense gets help in the return of Charles Woodson, but trying to stop Adrian Peterson yet again means a fresh round of bruises all around.
7 Indianapolis <a href=Colts" title="Indianapolis Colts">
Last Week: 9
Unlike in the first round of the past two years, there's no glaring example of a wild-card team with a vastly better record having to go on the road to play a so-so division champ (see 11-5 Saints at 7-9 Seahawks in 2010, and 12-4 Steelers at 8-8 Broncos in 2011, with both home teams winning). But I still think seeding on straight records makes the most sense and keeps everyone playing hard in Weeks 16-17. The Colts and Seahawks (both 11-5) would be hosting this weekend instead of traveling to Baltimore and Washington (both 10-6), respectively. But at least there's no four-game gap between first-round opponents, re-igniting the league's seeding debate.
8 Washington <a href=Redskins" title="Washington Redskins">
Last Week: 8
It seems impossible to comprehend, but since their most recent Super Bowl season in 1991, the Redskins have had exactly one home playoff game to savor, a first-round victory over Detroit in 1999. That's it in a span of more than two decades, which covers the entire 16-season era of FedEx Field (nee Jack Kent Cooke Stadium). But just look at what the Robert Griffin III pick has wrought. Not to mention the Alfred Morris selection, too. Playoff football back in the nation's capital has to be the highlight of the NFL's first round.
9 Houston <a href=Texans" title="Houston Texans">
Last Week: 7
The three losses in December have really brought out the Matt Schaub critics, because the Texans veteran quarterback didn't make much happen in Houston's biggest games this season. He was mostly dismal the past two weeks in losses to Minnesota and Indianapolis, when the Texans, with a win, could have locked down the No. 1 seed that seemed their birthright since late October. Schaub, of course, was injured last season when the T.J. Yates-led Texans beat visiting Cincinnati in their playoff opener. This Bengals team has a better defense to contend with, but nothing short of a solid win at home and a strong playoff debut from Schaub will placate the rattled Texans fans. If Houston doesn't at least reach the AFC title game, 2012 is going to wind up feeling like a major letdown for Gary Kubiak's club.
10 Minnesota <a href=Vikings" title="Minnesota Vikings">
Last Week: 11
The Vikings won't have the energy of the crowd to feed off this week in Green Bay, but Adrian Peterson running free in the secondary will serve to silence the Cheesehead contingent. If he can break a couple long-gainers, Green Bay's Lambeau edge could at least be mitigated a bit. Minnesota's best chance to pull the upset is to get another quality start from second-year quarterback Christian Ponder, whose three touchdowns and 234 yards passing against the Packers last week got lost a bit in all the justified focus on Peterson chasing history.
11 Baltimore <a href=Ravens" title="Baltimore Ravens">
Last Week: 10
With four losses in their past five games, the Ravens have less momentum in their favor than any team in the playoffs. This screams one-and-done for Baltimore, but I could see it rising up to put together a winning performance Sunday against the wild-card Colts if Joe Flacco is on his game. The Ravens at least are getting a little healthier, and while they were proven to be less than invincible at home in December, losing to both Pittsburgh and Denver, they're still a more confident and dangerous team at M&T Bank Stadium.
12 Cincinnati <a href=Bengals" title="Cincinnati Bengals">
Last Week: 12
It's the Bengals' defense that got them to the playoffs, and it'll be their defense leading the way if they are to advance. Cincinnati surrendered a league-low 12.8 points per game over the course of its 7-1 second-half run, and Mike Zimmer's guys even started putting some points on the board in recent weeks. If Geno Atkins and friends can pressure Houston's Matt Schaub early and often and coax him into some bad decisions, the Bengals might be able to quickly turn the Texans' crowd against the struggling home team.


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