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NFL Playoffs: Last dance for Lewis

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Ray Lewis (52) has been a fixture in the middle of the Baltimore Ravens defense for 17 years. (Source: elfidomx/Flickr) Ray Lewis (52) has been a fixture in the middle of the Baltimore Ravens defense for 17 years. (Source: elfidomx/Flickr)

(RNN) – It took 17 weeks of regular season, 512 games and 63,721 Manning facial expressions, but we are finally here: the NFL playoffs.

Kick it, Jim Mora!

The weekend's Wild Card matchups feature excellent pairings of teams who stand better than a puncher's chance of making Super Bowl XLVII – in the NFC.

The junior conference, on the other hand, features four lambs playing for the honor of getting slaughtered by the top-2 seeds. Yes, the AFC Championship is set. It will be New England at Denver. Pats-Broncos. Peyton "Product Endorser" Manning vs Tom "My Model Wife Dresses Me" Brady.

That last paragraph was written Wednesday. Silliness was about to ensue.

Then, the greatest middle linebacker of all time announced he would retire. NFL landscape, meet the landscaper. Things are about to change.

"I talked to my team today, and I talked to them about life – life in general," the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis said at a news conference. "And everything that starts has an end. It's just life. For me, today, I told my team that this would be my last ride."

The last ride for the Greatest Middle Linebacker of All Time. That sounds odd, right? To say someone's career is that historic, even before it finishes unfolding.

It's even odder that it's not that controversial a statement. No player at his position has ever meant more to his team and franchise than Lewis.

"One of the hardest things in the world is to walk away from my teammates, because that's my brotherhood," he said, "The only thing I ever played for was to be right there, and to raise Ed [Reed] and to be with [Terrell Suggs] for so long and sit next to him, and we are so much on the same path – does that part hurt? Absolutely.

"You can never rebuild those bonds. Those bonds are forever."

He is the greatest. Period. He is also:

  • playing in his first game back since getting injured.
  • one of the league's premier motivators – before games, during games, in-season and offseason.
  • a tireless worker who leads by example.
  • a mentor to many of his teammates, including Reed, Suggs and Ray Rice.
  • a career Raven.
  • one of the organization's first-round draft picks the year it moved to Baltimore.
  • even at 37 years old, still an elite football player.
  • not retiring for injuries or declining skills; it's to be with his kids more.

It is not always the best NFL team that wins the Lombardi trophy; often it's the one that catches fire at the right time. Lewis's retirement could provide the fuel his team needs for a playoff run.

Listen to what an emotional Ray Rice had to say after the announcement:

"He's raised me over the last couple of years," he said. "My locker is right next to his. I just can't picture Baltimore without him. It's sort of like – he has kids but – I was one of his kids, and it's like he's passing the torch down and saying ‘I got to let you go.' But I know he's always going to be there.

"It's just one of those days where you don't prepare for these kinds of things. Emotions, everything, we could talk about all that. No added pressure, but we will give all we got Sunday for Ray. We owe it to him; we owe it to the organization."

It's not certain who the Ravens would face if they move on to round 2 (No. 1 Denver will play the lower-seeded victor of the AFC games). But it's hard to imagine either team wants to see this enter from the visitor's locker room next weekend:

AFC: Cincinnati Bengals (6) at Houston Texans (3), 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday

What do you get when you combine a high-powered offense with one of the league's best running backs, one of the best wide receivers and a good quarterback with a tough defense anchored by a monstrous pass rusher and a shutdown cornerback?

If you're the Texans (12-4), you get a team that lost three of its last four games.

Houston could not finish strong after looking like the best in the NFL at 10 weeks into the season. Part of it could be attributed to the lack of touches for RB Arian Foster – he had 19 or more carries through the first 11 games (10-1) but 16 or fewer all but once in the last five (2-3).

Guess who has won seven of their last eight? Guess who has a defense giving up fewer than 13 points a game on average since early November? Guess who has fans old enough to drink that never experienced a postseason victory? Guess who has … OK, it's Cincinnati.

The Bengals (10-6) rather quietly became one of the hottest teams in football down the stretch. Cincy's run defense has become one of the strongest in the league, and its defense against the pass was already good.

The second-year duo of QB Andy Dalton and wideout A.J. Green has cooled off a bit lately, but they are never more than one long toss away from finding the end zone.

If the Texans can get the ball to WR Andre Johnson and use Foster effectively, they will win. If defensive end J.J. Watt can disrupt Dalton, it will be a blowout.

But while Houston has more talent, Cincinnati works better as a team.

Prediction: The Bengals' defense and momentum carries them past the flailing Texans and earn the city's first NFL playoff win since 1990.

NFC: Minnesota Vikings (6) at Green Bay Packers (3), 8 p.m. Saturday

It's last year's MVP award winner against this year's most valuable player, by far.

Adrian Peterson came within nine yards of breaking the single-season rushing record, finishing with 2,097. His accomplishment is even more incredible after tearing his ACL nine months before the season started.

Those yards had to be even harder while carrying an entire team on his back. The Vikings (10-6) are not a terribly good team.

With a below-average passing attack, opponents focused on the Minnesota run game, and a middle-of-the-pack defense was not good enough to shut down opposing offenses. The team's only other offensive playmaker, wideout Percy Harvin, went down with an injury in November.

Green Bay's (11-5) offense is one-dimensional, but when the signal caller is Aaron Rodgers, one may be all they need.

The 2011 MVP was one away from 40 touchdown passes again this season, had a 67 percent completion rate and only threw eight interceptions, all without a solid run game to balance the offense.

The defense has not dominated this season, but some of that can be attributed to teams forced to throw a lot to keep up. Only four teams scored more points per game than the Packers.

The Vikes beat the Pack in Minneapolis on Sunday, 37-34. But QB Christian Ponder had his best performance of the year; he's unlikely to repeat that on the road.

Prediction: Peterson walks away with some individual hardware for his efforts this year. The Packers walk into San Francisco next week for a classic offense vs. defense matchup with the 49ers.

AFC: Indianapolis Colts (5) at Baltimore Ravens (4), 1 p.m. Sunday

The Colts (11-5) entered the season thinking the biggest hardship would be bouncing back from the league's worst record in 2011 and relying on a rookie quarterback. Then, head coach Chuck Pagano got diagnosed with leukemia.

While Pagano spent most of the year in treatment and off the sidelines, his team rallied around the theme of "Chuckstrong" and exceeded all expectations. Their coach returned to his post for the final game of the season, his cancer in remission.

Oh, and rookie QB Andrew Luck broke the record for most passing yards by a first-year player with 4,374. And he led four game-winning drives. No big deal.

The Ravens (10-6) have been synonymous with defense since 2000, the season they won their lone Super Bowl. However, with their leaders – Lewis and Ed Reed – battling injuries and father time, the shield began to splinter, and they dropped to the middle ranks in yardage and points allowed.

Lewis has not been officially announced as active for the game, but it might take an army to keep him off the field Sunday.

Rice had a solid year running the ball but wore down near the end. Joe Flacco could not find his receivers consistently enough, and the team lost four of its last five games.

Baltimore gets the home game for winning its division, and the crowd could be near rabid in its support. Win or lose, this will likely be Lewis's last game in the city.

If all that wasn't enough, Pagano was an assistant for Baltimore last year. The mixed emotions will be rampant in this one.

Prediction: The Ravens looks superior on paper, and the players will have no lack of desire to win one for No. 52. Lewis gets to dance (at least) one more time.

NFC: Seattle Seahawks (5) at Washington Redskins (4), 4:30 p.m. Sunday

As usual, the NFL showcases its most exciting action last. This one features the second and third of the three rookie QBs leading their teams into the playoffs – the first time that's happened since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

The Seahawks' (11-5) Russell Wilson played the part of game manager well most of the season. He learned the offense, throwing sparingly, as his team used RB Marshawn Lynch and a top-tier defense to contend.

With four weeks left in the season, Seattle went on a scoring frenzy. The squad posted totals of 58, 50 and 42 in consecutive weeks, with the last coming against the 49ers' top-ranked defense.

Wilson threw four touchdowns against the Niners, showing he has far more than a working knowledge of the game plan.

The team's two starting defensive backs, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, were suspended the final games of the regular season for positive tests on banned substances. However, Sherman's successful appeal means both are available for the playoffs.

The Redskins' (10-6) postseason hopes begin and end with one name. Actually, you only need two letters and a number: RG3.

Robert Griffin III has been everything a rookie quarterback shouldn't be, in a good way. In 15 games (he missed one for injury), he completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns, as well as more than 800 yards rushing with seven scores.

And five interceptions. Five. Interceptions.

Call him RGInfinity; that's how many years you'll wait before a starting rookie QB only throws five picks again.

And he handed the ball off to another rookie, sixth-round pick running back Alfred Morris, all season. Morris routed the Dallas Cowboys in a must-win game the last night of the regular season (single-handedly winning thousands of fantasy football leagues) with 200 yards rushing and three TDs.

Both teams can move the ball down the field, although Washington has the most dynamic playmaker in RG3. However, Seattle's defense is among the best in the NFL, while Washington's is near the bottom of the rankings.

Prediction: Look for Lynch to tear through the ‘Skins D early and often. The Seahawks move on to meet the 49ers or Atlanta Falcons.

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