The end to the NFC's regular season on Sunday provided flashbacks to the end of the NFC playoffs back in January. The Minnesota Vikings were lifeless, while Nick Foles gave the entire city of Philadelphia life once again.
The surprising presence of the defending champions in the playoffs adds juice to a wide-open tournament. All six AFC participants won between 10 and 12 games. The teams earning byes in the NFC -- New Orleans and Los Angeles -- were far from dominant down the stretch. There are just 11 games left in the 2018 NFL season, and it's hard to imagine many featuring a heavy favorite. There isn't a team playing in the Wild Card Round that doesn't have a realistic chance to make the Super Bowl, and that's not usually the case.
Let's take a quick first look at each wild-card matchup before checking in with the teams earning a bye.
The best Saturday afternoon wild-card matchup in memory
Let's be real. The NFL usually puts the ugliest game of the playoffs in the Saturday afternoon time slot, before much of America is ready to sit down for three straight hours. This is the time slot that brought you Connor Cook vs. Brock Osweiler, Brian Hoyer's Texans getting shut out 30-0, Ryan Lindley throwing for 82 yards and two Texans-Bengals matchups few fans outside of Houston and Cincinnati remember.
The Texans are involved yet again this year, but Indianapolis-Houston is a different sort of Saturday afternoon matchup. The return of Andrew Luck to the playoffs after a three-year absence is nothing short of a relief. Deshaun Watson has quietly played as well as any quarterback in the month of December, and no wideout is more valuable to his team than DeAndre Hopkins. With J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney rolling into the playoffs, Houston is perhaps the most top-heavy, star-driven squad still left standing.
The Colts finished the season winning nine of 10 games, including a crucial Week 14 victory in Houston. Practically every aspect of the Colts, from the offensive line to their secondary to their rag-tag receiver group, is greater than the sum of its parts. Another win by the Colts in Houston would pit Andrew Luck against Andy Reid in a rematch of the Colts' 45-44 victory after the 2013 season, the first of Reid's playoff losses with the Chiefs. That was a Saturday afternoon game, too, so they certainly haven't all been bad.
The game most likely to come down to the final play
The Cowboys' one-point victory over the Giants was typical of their season. Only one of their 10 wins in 2018 came by more than one score (Week 6 against the Jags). Dallas' playmaking defense combined with a stagnant passing game and a conservative head coach invites close games, something very likely to happen next Saturday night against the Seahawks.
Seattle's 24-13 victory over Dallas in Week 3 was one of three games the Cowboys lost by more than one score. These teams are mirror images of each other: They have power rushing attacks and coaches who can be too hesitant to throw on early downs.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer also invite close games. In their final three games, the Seahawkslost by three to the 4-12 49ers, beat the 12-4 Chiefs by seven and narrowly escaped overtime Sunday with a late fourth-quarter field goal to down the 3-13 Cardinals. It's hard to imagine either the Seahawks or the Cowboys consistently grinding out yards in a matchup that will feature one of the best veteran linebacker tandems, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, and the best upstart linebacker tandem, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.
In the playoffs, the teams with the better quarterbacks and head coaches usually win. I'll take Carroll over Jason Garrett anytime, and Russell Wilson is playing at a far higher level than Dak Prescott, who has been erratic throughout the year. Amari Cooper, who energized a struggling Cowboys offense when he arrived in late October, has just 83 yards on 23 targets over the last three weeks. This game will probably come down to one play at the end, and no one is more likely to make it than Wilson.
The Chargers' worst nightmare
Did the Chargers' season peak in the Week 15 win over the Chiefs on "Thursday Night Football"? That has to be the concern of the Los Angeles coaching staff after the Bolts struggled on offense again during a win over the Broncos before drawing the Ravens in the first round of the playoffs.
Playing the Ravens twice in three weeks could be viewed through a few different prisms. On one hand, the combination of Baltimore's running game and blitz-heavy defense could be the toughest one-week preparation assignment in football. At least Chargers coach Anthony Lynn and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley have a head start and can try to learn from their first meeting, a 22-10 home loss.
The more logical way to view the rematch: The Chargers can't protect Philip Rivers lately, and no AFC team has a better pass rush than the Ravens. Rivers was held to 176 yards with two interceptions in Denver on Sunday after throwing for 181 yards with two picks against Baltimore. Pro Football Focus' offensive line grades for Sunday's game were a sea of red once again, indicating that Los Angeles' front continued its late-season struggles. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon also left the win over Denver with an ankle injury, although he said he'd be ready to go next week.
This is not mission impossible for Los Angeles. The Ravens were a few plays away from getting knocked out of the playoffs entirely Sunday against the Browns, a team with some of the big-play capability the Chargers possess at their best. But a road game against the AFC's best defense isn't much of a reward for a 12-4 season. If Rivers is going to author a sentimental playoff run, he'll have to do it the hard way.
The ultimate test of St. Nick's power
The Eagles heading to Chicago to wrap up Wild Card Weekend is the matchup I never knew I needed. It's a clash between the league's best defense and the league's most improbable phenomenon: Nick Foles' late-season magic. While Foles left Sunday's win over the Redskins with a rib injury, it's hard to imagine the injury keeping Foles out of the lineup in Chicago.
It's not just Foles who has improved in Philadelphia. The Eagles' front four has played better in December than it has all year, near the form that brought the team a title. Darren Sproles adds a different element to the offense, and the team has settled on two-tight end sets with Dallas Goedert as its most effective formation. Philadelphia's depleted secondary has settled down, with improved play by cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox. After being left for dead at 6-7, the Eagles have played their best three games of the season in succession, not unlike the last magical Foles run.
This is the most intriguing matchup in a weekend without any weak links, partly because the Bears are so rock solid. No high seed was more consistent down the stretch, and Chicago's takedown of the Vikings was the most impressive Week 17 performance by any team. The Bears didn't have to beat Mike Zimmer on Sunday in Minnesota while using Zimmer's Platonic ideal for a game plan. They did it because they could.
See you in the Divisional Round
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (NFC No. 1): It will be tempting for the Saints and their fans to pretend Sunday's loss to the Panthers never happened. New Orleans sat a number of key offensive starters, such as Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara. Then again, New Orleans' starting defense played the entire first half, when Panthers third-string quarterback Kyle Allen put up 23 points in a 33-14 rout. You try telling Marshon Lattimore and Cameron Jordan they weren't competing Sunday.
I don't have serious concerns about the Saints because of this result, but it didn't come out of nowhere. New Orleans' offense wasn't the same throughout December as it was the first three months of the season. Sean Payton's team needed a lot of breaks -- including a phantom PI call -- to beat the Steelers in the Superdome in Week 16. The Saints are the best NFC team on paper and earned the No. 1 seed, but they haven't played like a dominant powerhouse for a while.
LOS ANGELES RAMS (NFC No. 2): The Rams got their mojo back over the last two weeks, with easy wins in the division to give them a clean sweep of the NFC West. The best sign for Sean McVay's crew has been the increased playmaking by the defense, with Cory Littleton intercepting two passes (taking one for a touchdown), Mark Barron forcing a fumble and Dante Fowler creating another turnover in Sunday's 48-32 win over the 49ers.
Todd Gurley will have enjoyed three weeks off to get ready for the Divisional Round. Also worth noting: Left tackle Andrew Whitworth -- who, according to Next Gen Stats, had played in 98.4 percent of the team's offensive snaps leading into Week 17 -- left Sunday's game with a knee injury.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (AFC No. 1): The Chiefs did what they were supposed to against Oakland, clinching the AFC's No. 1 seed while Patrick Mahomes put up a final argument for MVP consideration. Crucial slot cornerback Kendall Fuller returned to the lineup and undrafted rookie cornerback Charvarius Ward took advantage of his second straight start, getting valuable snaps before the playoffs. Eric Berry, who was inactive for the game with heel and calf injuries, now has another week to get healthy. With six straight home playoff losses, no team has more pressure in the Divisional Round than Kansas City.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (AFC No. 2): Throttling the Billsand Jets by a combined score of 62-15 over the last two weeks didn't solve all of the Patriots' problems. But the results helped ensure New England's ninth straight playoff bye, perhaps the most ridiculous stat from a franchise full of them. That said, the Pats have never needed the week off more.
The bye allows some of the team's elder statesmen -- Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and safety Devin McCourty, who left Sunday's game with a head injury -- to get some rest. The Patriots were the only undefeated team at home this year and could avoid traveling on the road in the AFC playoffs if the Chiefs slip up in the Divisional Round. After two down weeks, Brady finished his season in style with four touchdowns.
The Patriots were fortunate to get a bye and the AFC's No. 2 seed with "only" 11 wins this season. Circumstances around this team aren't unlike the 2001 squad, when Brady first came on to the scene. Brady is not a top-five quarterback now, but no one viewed him that way from 2001 to '04, when the Patriots won three Super Bowls. While Bill Belichick doesn't have nearly the same defense he had back then, it would be folly to completely discount the greatest coach of his era from coming up with a few choice game plans to get his team back to another unlikely Super Bowl.