With Wild Card Weekend in the books and the much-anticipated divisional round on the horizon, the NFL playoffs are in full swing, and already a few notable contenders have emerged.
Both the Houston Texans and the Green Bay Packers proved they are more than just division winners this past weekend, asserting themselves and looking like legitimate threats to the Lombardi Trophy in impressive home victories.
Say what you want about the Texans' narrow win and occasional sloppy play, or the Packers' weak and undermanned opponent, but wins aren't easy to come by in the playoffs, and both Houston and Green Bay each have one more in 2013 than their divisional round foes.
On that note, let's take a closer at two teams I like to march right into Championship Sunday this January.
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay earned its first home playoff win of the Aaron Rodgers era on Saturday night. But the Packers will play their next playoff game where Rodgers and company have been more comfortable in recent postseason matchups—on the road.
The Pack will visit San Francisco to take on the 49ers on Saturday night, bringing with them a four-game postseason win streak away from Lambeau Field.
While the Niners are rested, the Packers are firing on all cylinders on both sides of the ball. Just days after surrendering 37 points to the Minnesota Vikings on the road in Week 17, the NFC North champion Green Bay Packers held their rival to just 10 points on Wild Card Weekend, and likely would have held them to just three if not for a late, meaningless 50-yard touchdown pass.
In addition to keeping the Vikings off the board, the Packers forced three turnovers defensively and scored 24 points in a span of 21 minutes on offense. A game that Minnesota led 3-0 with seconds remaining the first quarter turned into a 24-3 Green Bay blowout with over nine minutes to play in the third quarter.
The Niners won't give up points as easily or quickly this weekend, but with the Packers defense beginning to get healthy and hit its stride at the right time, forcing turnovers and standing tall in big moments, I give Green Bay, with an MVP quarterback under center, the edge to advance to the NFC title game for the second time in three years.
Through the first three quarters of the 2012 season, the Houston Texans looked to be not only the best team in the AFC, but the best team in the NFL.
However, after a 1-3 finish to the year, Houston will travel to New England to play the Patriots on Sunday rather than hosting them. Although the Pats throttled the Texans in their regular season meeting in Week 14, winning 42-14 on the strength of Tom Brady's four touchdown passes, the first-ever playoff matchup between these two franchises promises to produce a different result.
Much like was the case in 2010 when the Pats fell to the New York Jets at home in the divisional round after routing them just weeks earlier in December, the Texans are coming to Foxborough for a divisional round clash one month after being shellacked there by New England.
ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss, aware of the similarities, even pointed out that 23 of the players who were on that 2010 Patriots team are still on the team's roster this January.
I'm not picking the Texans to upset the Patriots merely because of history, though. Instead, I'm picking them because of what I witnessed on Saturday in the Wild Card Round. Houston's defense dominated Cincinnati from start to finish, holding the Bengals to 198 total yards and just 13 points (seven of which came on a pick-six of Matt Schaub).
Last year's Texans team came up short on the road in the divisional round at Baltimore, but I believe they take the next step this winter, advancing to the AFC Championship Game for the first time in the franchise's brief history.
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