It's January and while that means that the college football season is nearing its end, the NFL is about take to center stage as the march to Super Bowl XLV begins with four big games on Wild Card weekend.
Saturday's marquee contest is a prime-time showdown featuring two of the league's highest profile quarterbacks as Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts host Mark Sanchez and the New York Jets. The 10-6 Colts won the AFC South but were hampered by serious injuries on both sides of the ball all year and Manning looked something close to mortal for long stretches this season, throwing 17 interceptions, the third highest total of his career. But the Colts are a tough out at home and Lucas Oil Stadium will surely be rocking.
The 11-5 Jets have had a well documented roller coaster of a season, both with on (trip-gate, an ugly 45-3 loss to New England in early December) and off-the-field (Braylon Edward's DUI case, the evolving situation with Rex Ryan and his wife's foot-fetish videos) incidents. But Gang Green is undoubtedly talented, featuring a stout defense and an offense that can make big plays with running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, wide receiver Santonio Holmes and tight end Dustin Keller.
Saturday's other match up pairs the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks against last year champs, the 11-5 New Orleans Saints. Seattle, which punched its ticket to the playoffs in the regular season finale with a 16-6 win over the St. Louis Rams, became the first team with a sub.500 record to win its division. The Seahawks may be without starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck who injured his hip in the season's penultimate game, leaving backup Charlie Whitehurst to lead the team against the Saints.
New Orleans still features one of the NFL's most potent offenses, led by All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees and a versatile receiving corps. The Saints will severely test the Seattle defense, one of the worst in the league.
Sunday's headliner is actually a rematch of a Week One game that served as the launching platform for stage two of Michael Vick's career. Vick will lead his 10-6 NFC East division-winning Philadelphia Eagles against the 10-6 Green Bay Packers at Lincoln Financial Field. The Packers won the first contest 27-20, but Vick has come into his own since entering that game after starter Kevin Kolb went down with an injury. Since then, he's gone on to have one of his best statistical seasons and will face off against another young gun in the form of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has put up big numbers after coming off a series of late-season concussions.
The final contest of wild card weekend pits 10-6 Kansas City, the AFC West champs, against the 12-4 Baltimore Ravens. The Chiefs have been one of the Cinderella stories of the year, putting together a memorable season behind quarterback Matt Cassel and the speed/size rushing combo of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. The Ravens, as always, bring one of the best defenses in the NFL into the game, though it lost some luster after several fourth quarter collapses late in the season. Baltimore also brings a diversified offense into the game with quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and wide receiver Anquan Boldin able to put up points in bunches.
Waiting in the wings are the league's best team and odds on favorite for the title, the 14-2 New England Patriots, led by probable league MVP Tom Brady. The Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, and Pittsburgh Steelers - all recipients of bye weeks - also await their opponents in the divisional playoffs set for the weekend of Jan. 15-16.
Saturday, January 8
NFC: New Orleans at Seattle (4:30 p.m. EST, NBC)
AFC: New York at Indianpolis (8:00 p.m. EST, NBC)
Sunday, January 9
NFC: Baltimore at Kansas City (1:00 p.m. EST, CBS)
NFC: Green Bay at Philadelphia (4:30 p.m. EST, FOX)