The big question for the wild-card round is whether any of the eight teams can get to the Super Bowl.
On paper, you can see it will be difficult. Seattle, New England, Green Bay and Denver stand out as the four teams with the strongest chances of getting to the Super Bowl. They are top seeds for a reason.
What about the rest?
Based on how teams did against opponents with .500 records or better, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys have the best shots. The Steelers were 6-1 against teams with .500 records or better, while the Cowboys were 4-3. The Arizona Cardinals are next at 6-4, but their quarterback situation will haunt them. The Cincinnati Bengals were 4-4-1, the Indianapolis Colts 4-5, Detroit Lions 2-4, Baltimore Ravens 2-6 and Carolina Panthers 1-5-1.
Dick Vermeil always used to say a team can be .500 against good teams and still be a Super Bowl champion -- just as long as it doesn't have a lot of games against good teams. Other than the Cardinals, none of the wild-card teams were overloaded with top teams on the schedule, but it sure helps to have wins against good teams to gain credibility for the playoffs.
Here are five trends heading into the wild-card round.
1. Different twist on what is now the league's best rivalry: Jim Harbaugh's departure from the San Francisco 49ers downgrades a Seahawks-49ers rivalry that was the best in football the past three or four years. That once again makes Steelers-Ravens the best rivalry. Over the past 16 years, they have evenly split their 32 regular-season meetings, with many of the games being close and physical. These two teams have been going at each other for more than a decade, and they don't like each other.
But here's the difference in this playoff meeting. Normally, these games are all about defense. Saturday's game should feature more offense. Both teams have major problems in the secondary. The Ravens have four cornerbacks on injured reserve. They are giving up 248.7 passing yards a game. In these teams' last meeting, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger threw for six touchdown passes and 340 yards. The Steelers, meanwhile, give up 253.1 passing yards a game.
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell will likely miss the game because of a knee injury. Although the Steelers may try to balance their offense with recently signed RB Ben Tate, Roethlisberger may have to win this game through the air. In that case, it could be a high-scoring game. Earlier this week, oddsmakers were putting the over-under at 47.5 points, very high for a Steelers-Ravens game.
2. Getting the more favorable matchup: Often, the playoffs are all about matchups. For whatever reason, the Colts match up better against the Bengals than they do against the Steelers. The Colts shut out the Bengals 27-0 in Week 7 but were blown out by the Steelers 51-34 in Week 8. So the Colts didn't complain when they found out the Bengals would be their first-round opponent.
The Elias Sports Bureau came up with an interesting stat that makes you wonder how successful the Bengals will be in closing that 27-point gap. Teams that lost a regular-season game by 21 points or more are 27-37 when they get a rematch in the playoffs. The last team to be blown out in the regular season and get revenge in the postseason was the 2010 New York Jets, who lost twice to the New England Patriots in the regular season, including a 45-3 thumping, but won 28-21 in the divisional round.
This game will test the importance of the running game. Bengals QB Andy Dalton has lost three consecutive playoff games, but Cincinnati was pass heavy in those three games. Over the past nine weeks, rookie RB Jeremy Hill has 929 rushing yards. Despite trading for Trent Richardson last year, the Colts have struggled running the ball. They averaged only 100.8 yards a game this season, and Richardson averaged only 3.3 yards per carry.
3. Don't underestimate teams with losing records: In 2010, a 7-9 Seahawks team upset the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs. I don't think the league should allow division winners with losing records to host playoff games against teams with better records, but the 7-8-1 Panthers appear to have a leg up on the 11-5 Cardinals. The Panthers are 6.5-point favorites over the Cardinals.
While the Cardinals' offense hit the wall after Carson Palmer blew out his knee, the Panthers have put together a four-game winning streak. Carolina coach Ron Rivera started to use some of his draft choices in the second half of the season, and it has allowed the Panthers to get younger and more athletic on both sides of the ball.
Since Palmer's injury, the Cardinals have only six offensive touchdowns in seven games. The Cardinals' defense has allowed 20 points or fewer in a league-high 13 games, but the team has scored an average of 12.2 points in its past six games. If the Cardinals get that kind of offensive production Saturday, it will be hard for them to win.
4. Test of wills: The Cowboys ranked second in rushing yards per game (147.1) this season. The Lions ranked second in stopping the run. Something's got to give in perhaps the most intriguing matchup in the wild-card round. The Lions got a break when the league overturned the one-game suspension of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Without him, DeMarco Murray would have an open path to a 100-plus-yard rushing game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Lions opponents average only 3 yards a carry when Suh is on the field. They average 3.8 when he's off the field.
The Cowboys returned to a Super Bowl formula on offense. The last team to have the league leader in completion percentage and the league's leading rusher was the 1993 Cowboys, who won the Super Bowl with Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. Expect a tough, physical game.
The surprise is how much the Lions have struggled on offense. They are 2-4 against teams with winning records, scoring only 88 points in those games.
5. Credibility battle: The big thing about this round of the playoffs is credibility. If success is judged by playoff victories, several teams, coaches and players will be under a lot of pressure. Dalton is 0-3 in the playoffs, while his coach, Marvin Lewis, is 0-5. Lions QB Matthew Stafford and Panthers QB Cam Newton haven't won a playoff game in their careers.
This is the eighth win-or-go-home game for Cowboys QB Tony Romo, and he's 1-6 in the first seven: 0-3 in Week 17 games with a playoff spot on the line, and 1-3 in the postseason. Since winning the Super Bowl after the 1995 season, the Cowboys have gone 2-7 in the postseason. The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season -- they are winless in their six postseason games since. The Lions' last playoff win came during the 1991 season -- they have lost seven since then.