NFL 2013 Wild Card Playoffs Preview: Best Matchups to Watch - AFC Edition - Including the Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens and Cincinatti Bengals at Houston Texans.
James Dudko previews...
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans
The AFC Wild Card playoffs begin on Saturday with a rematch from last year. The upstart Cincinnati Bengals again face the daunting trip to battle the powerful Houston Texans.
Marvin Lewis and his young team were manhandled in Houston last year. J.J. Watt and Arian Foster trampled all over the Bengals, keying a 31-10 win.
Things look a little different this year, as the Bengals enter the game with all the momentum. They went 7-1 during the second half of the season to clinch a playoff berth.
That's in contrast to the Texans, who endured a mild slump. That led to them losing top spot in the conference and slipping into the Wild Card round.
The following two matchups will decide if this game is a repeat of last year, or if the Bengals' run will continue.
Geno Atkins vs. Texans Offensive Line
The Texans offense is built on the play of their intelligent and mobile offensive line. The group is led by Pro Bowlers Duane Brown, Chris Myers and Wade Smith.
As good as Houston's front five is they will be challenged in this game by a rampaging Bengals front four. It is a defensive line that is built on a deep rotation, but the undoubted star is Geno Atkins.
The fleet-footed defensive tackle is the best interior pass-rusher in the NFL. Atkins terrorised offenses all season and finished 2012 with 12.5 sacks, a superb tally for a tackle.
He is ably supported by rush end Michael Johnson and his 11.5 sacks. Swing player Wallace Gilberry is also a useful situational pass-rusher.
If the Bengals hope to pressure Houston quarterback Matt Schaub and slow down Foster, they need Atkins and company to dominate.
A.J. Green vs. Jonathan Joseph
Cincinnati's best method of attacking the Texans' aggressive defense will be to go deep to A.J. Green. The second-year ace is the most dynamic young wide receiver in the game.
His long, loping stride, excellent hands and deceptive vertical speed can stretch any defense. But if Green hopes to enjoy a productive Wild Card weekend he will first have to outwit Jonathan Joseph.
The former Bengal is the Texans best cover man. Joseph is a cornerback who excels in man coverage. He can be physical at the line, but it his instincts, quickness and agility that really shuts down receivers.
Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips won't be shy about leaving Joseph isolated against Green. If he wins his battle, Cincinnati's offensive output will be minimal at best.
Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens
In the second AFC Wild Card contest, the Indianapolis Colts hope to add another chapter to their thrilling season, on the road against the Baltimore Ravens.
First overall draft pick quarterback Andrew Luck shocked everybody by inspiring the Colts to an 11-5 finish. His connection with a youthful supporting cast, aided by brilliant veteran Reggie Wayne, has been the Colts strength.
The Ravens don't possess the defensive prowess they have in previous years. But they can still rely on Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin on offense.
These two key matchups should settle things this Sunday in Baltimore.
Winston Justice vs. Paul Kruger
Paul Kruger is the Ravens best hope of getting pressure on Luck. Kruger has stepped up as the Ravens most prolific pass-rusher this season.
The high-effort 26-year-old has logged nine sacks and 42 tackles, forced a fumble and claimed an interception. He could enjoy a dominant performance against Colts right tackle Winston Justice.
The former Philadelphia Eagle is a competent starter, but nothing more. He has good size, but lacks elite agility and footwork.
If Kruger uses his first-step quickness and power to collapse the edge of the pocket, Justice will struggle to contain him. The Ravens cannot allow Luck time in the pocket, or the intelligent, strong-armed rookie will dissect their shaky pass defense.
Jerrell Freeman vs. Ray Rice
Rice is versatile and skilful enough to win the Ravens any game. If the Colts have a chance of containing him, they will need a big game from Jerrell Freeman.
The active inside linebacker is a key member of the Colts' new-look 3-4 defense. Freeman led the unit with 145 tackles, including 90 solo stops.
The former Canadian Football league star has a knack for flying to the ball. He is also not shy about delivering a hammer blow once he gets there.
Freeman will need to be quick and aggressive downhill, if he hopes to get to Rice. If Rice dominates, the Ravens will wear down the plucky Colts and advance.
The AFC Wild Card matchups do appear to favour the home teams. But the road participants are certainly entering the fray with major momentum on their side.
What are your predictions for the matchups?
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