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Rookie quarterbacks face first NFL playoff tests

Published: 1:35PM Wednesday January 02, 2013 Source: Reuters

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 (NFL).

But defence and experience win championships, and few know the road to the Super Bowl better than long-time quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

The wild-card weekend kicks off on Sunday (NZT), 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.

Monday'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 No 2 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 second-seeded New England Patriots.

In the NFC, the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons and No 2 San Francisco 49ers await their conference's wild-card winners.

Old guard

While NFL fans have been mesmerised 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 may be the one true wild card, after taking over starting duties mid-season from Alex Smith.

In Minnesota, the Vikings' offence does not revolve so much around quarterback Christian Ponder as bruising running back Adrian Peterson, who rushed for a staggering 2097 yards, falling just nine yards shy of Eric Dickerson's single-season record.

Top rushers

The wild-card weekend will also feature the NFL's top three rushers with Peterson, Redskins powerhouse rookie Alfred Morris (1613 yards), who averaged over 100 yards a game, and the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch (1590).

Along with Lynch and quarterback Wilson, the Seahawks enter the postseason with the league's top-ranked defence, 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 top 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."

Playoff schedule

The playoff schedule for National Football League postseason beginning with wild-card games on Sunday (NZT):

January 6

AFC wild-card game - Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Houston Texans (12-4)

NFC wild-card game - Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (11-5)

January 7

AFC wild-card game - Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

NFC wild-card game - Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at Washington Redskins (10-6)

January 13

AFC divisional game - Wild-card game winner at Denver Broncos (13-3)

NFC division game - Wild-card game winner at San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)

January 14

NFC divisional game - Wild-card game winner at Atlanta Falcons (13-3)

AFC divisional game - Wild-card game winner at New England Patriots (12-4)

January 21

AFC championship game - Teams and site to be determined

NFC championship game - Teams and site to be determined

February 4

Super Bowl, New Orleans - AFC champion v NFC champion