With Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson set to make playoff debuts, the year of the rookie continues in the National Football League.
But defense and experience win championships and few know the road to the Super Bowl better than longtime quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
The wild-card weekend kicks off on Saturday with the Cincinnati Bengals visiting the Houston Texans, followed by NFC North rivals the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings renewing hostilities on Lambeau Field’s famous frozen tundra.
Sunday’s games will be a rookie quarterback showcase. Luck, the number one overall pick in last year’s draft, will lead the resurgent Indianapolis Colts against the Baltimore Ravens, with Griffin, selected number two by the Washington Redskins, going against the Seattle Seahawks and their brilliant first-year quarterback Wilson.
More intriguing, however, is the possibility of a clash of the generations in the divisional playoffs the following weekend when Manning and the AFC top seeded Denver Broncos join the action along with Brady and the number two seeded New England Patriots.
In the NFC, the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons and number two San Francisco 49ers await their conference’s wild-card winners.
While NFL fans have been mesmerized by the dynamic talents of Griffin, Luck and Wilson, the old guard of Brady, Manning and the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers have trophy cases that contain Super Bowl rings and most valuable player awards.
Rodgers and Manning finished the regular season with the top two quarterback ratings, generating plenty of MVP buzz. They were followed by Griffin and Wilson.
Luck completed his first campaign by grabbing the single-season rookie passing yards record as the Colts went from last place to the playoffs in one year.
Wilson tied Manning’s single-season rookie record with 26 touchdown passes, leading an explosive Seattle offence that became to first in 62 years to register back-to-back 50 point games.
While the spotlight will be focused on the trio of rookies, the pressure will be on two other quarterbacks.
The apprenticeship and honeymoon is over for Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, the third overall pick in the 2008 draft, and the Ravens’ Joe Flacco, taken 18th overall in that same draft class. The two must prove they are finally ready to deliver a championship.
Texans veteran play caller Matt Schaub will also be under the microscope while San Francisco’s second year man Colin Kaepernick maybe the one true wild card, after taking over first string duties mid-season from Alex Smith.
In Minnesota, the Vikings’ offense does not revolve so much around quarterback Christian Ponder as bruising running back Adrian Peterson, who rushed for a staggering 2,097 yards, falling just nine yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season record.
The wild-card weekend will also feature the NFL’s top three rushers with Peterson, Redskins’ powerhouse rookie Alfred Morris (1,613 yards) who averaged over 100 yards a game and the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch (1,590).
Along with Lynch and quarterback Wilson, the Seahawks enter the postseason with the league’s top ranked defense, allowing just 15.3 points a game. They are followed closely by their West division rivals the 49ers.
With six wins in their last seven games, including five straight to close out the campaign, the NFC Seahawks carry considerable momentum, but no team is hotter than the AFC Broncos, who have reeled off 11 consecutive wins.
The Seahawks were the NFL’s best home team, winning all eight home dates, but must do something they have not done since 1983 — win a playoff game on the road.
Atlanta, the NFC’s number one seed, went 7-1 at home and will have home field advantage throughout the playoffs while second seeded San Francisco was nearly as dominant, going 6-1-1 on its own turf.
“It’s about consistency when you get into this opportunity,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said on the team’s website. “You’ve got to bring what you’ve got. Don’t show up without your stuff on that day.
“We know how to do that. Now we have to see if we can bring it to life and not get distracted by the fact it’s the playoffs.”