Praising the NFL's Wild Card Games

By Paul Grossinger

Green Bay’s win over Minnesota was decided by halftime.

Well, at least it felt that way. The Packers steamrolled the Vikings, who were short quarterback Christian Ponder and several other impact starters, at Lambeau Field. Green Bay had to stay on the field for four full quarters but the Packers seemed en route to facing the San Francisco 49ers from the opening kickoff.

So much for Wild Card excitement.

The Houston Texans vs. Cincinnati Bengals game was better, though hardly a thriller for the ages. Texas escaped some sloppy play and an opportunistic Bengals front-seven to make it to the next round in a 19-13 victory. In the end, Cincinnati’s excellence in one facet of a football game – rushing the passer – simply was not enough to overcome their deficiencies in every other part of the game.

The Wild Cards left me thinking for just one moment: should we have the Wild Card at all? But then, on second thought, I disagreed with myself and, after reflection, think the Wild Card format is worth staunchly defending.

It’s true that the NFL’s Wild Card teams are not always the best. That was particularly true in 2012’s first set: Cincinnati is a nice story but the Bengals are really just an average football team and the Minnesota Vikings often resemble the 1990s Detroit Lions, their fortunes as closely tied to the legs of Adrian Peterson as the Lions’ were to those of Barry Sanders.

But, 2012’s second set of wild card teams should bring up the standard. The Indianapolis Colts are a surprisingly complete football team, with a capable offense led by – dare we say it – future Hall of Fame quarterback Andrew Luck. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have their own future star in quarterback Russell Wilson and one of the stealthiest but best defenses in recent NFL history. In fact, you could say that the Seattle Seahawks are similar to the Bengals – but with an offense that can really hum when it gets in a rhythm.

Praising the NFL's Wild Card Games
Jan 6, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) runs the offense against the Baltimore Ravens during the AFC Wild Card playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium. Photo Courtesy By Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports.

More important: maybe not in 2012 but the Wild Card is often the rising point for NFL Super Bowl champions. Last year’s New York Giants, who finished the season 9-7, rode Eli Manning’s clutch play to the Super Bowl title over the New England Patriots. The Baltimore Ravens, who regularly lost out to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North division before this season, regularly win at least one game out of the Wild Card slot. And, lest we forget, the Steelers themselves had a memorable 2006 Super Bowl victory coming out of – you guessed it – the Wild Card.

So, while this year’s Wild Card games have done little to inspire confidence so far, let’s not get down on the format. This is football and everybody has one game, one shot to get it done.

Anything can happen.

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