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Preview -Intense rematches kick off wild-card playoffs

By Larry Fine

(Reuters) - A rugged defensive battle could be contrasted with a free-wheeling scoring spree when the National Football League kicks off the postseason on Saturday with a pair of wild-card playoff games.

The Houston Texans (12-4) host the in form Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) in a battle of top-10 defenses to launch the Super Bowl tournament, followed by the Green Bay Packers (11-5) against the Minnesota Vikings (10-6) under the lights at Lambeau Field.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the division champion Packers will be renewing hostilities with NFC North rivals Minnesota one week after a 37-34 last-second road loss to the Vikings that deprived them of a first-round bye.

Waiting in the wings, will be Sunday's wild-card playoff participants, with the Indianapolis Colts (11-5) visiting the Baltimore Ravens (10-6), and the Washington Redskins (10-6) entertaining the Seattle Seahawks (11-5).

AFC South champion Texans were riding high with the NFL's best record before a late-season slide in which they lost three of their last four games.

In contrast, Cincinnati came on strong in the second half going 7-1, boosted by a defense that led the league in sacks and the dangerous combination of quarterback Andy Dalton and explosive wide receiver A.J. Green.

"We were playing really good when we were an 11-1 football team. We struggled the last month," acknowledged Houston coach Gary Kubiak. "We understand that, but we have a lot of confidence in what we can do and what we're capable of doing."

For Houston and Cincinnati, the showdown will be a rematch of their clash on the same playoff stage last season when the Texans tamed the Bengals 31-10.

TIPPED BALANCE

Defensive end J.J. Watt, who led the league with 20.5 sacks, tipped the balance in last year's meeting, deflecting a Dalton pass, catching it and carrying it 29 yards into the end zone for a second-quarter lead the Texans would never relinquish.

Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said Watt has been even better this season.

"He has had the best year I've ever seen out of a defensive lineman, bar none," Phillips said about the second-year player. "He had 10 tackles for loss in the last three games. He is playing at a tremendously high level."

Lapses in the secondary have made Houston vulnerable to the deep pass, and quarterback Matt Schaub, who missed last year's playoffs due to injury, has struggled to generate points in an attack that leans on running back Arian Foster.

The Texans averaged just 12 points in their three late-season losses.

Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga said Cincinnati was prepared to turn the tables on the Texans this time at Reliant Stadium.

"We know that they're going to come in with their bread and butter, which is try to run and get to the perimeter," Maualuga said. "This is a different team than we were last year going into the playoffs. We're a lot more familiar with the situation, and we're comfortable."

CHOREOGRAPHED SCRAMBLE

The NFC clash pits a superb passer in Packers' quarterback Rodgers against a brilliant runner in Minnesota's Adrian Peterson with neither team noted for their defensive prowess.

Peterson, a sublime combination of power, speed and elusiveness, ran roughshod over Green Bay in the season finale, gaining 199 yards to finish the campaign with 2,097 yards, nine yards shy of Eric Dickerson's 28-year-old single-season record.

Rodgers passed for four touchdowns against the Vikings giving him 10 in his last three games.

Green Bay, hoping to take charge early to force Minnesota to rely on inconsistent quarterback Christian Ponder, will have all their receivers available for the first time since early this season with Randall Cobb expected to join an arsenal that includes Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, James Jones and tight end Jermichael Finley.

"(We) create mismatch problems for the defense, and you can't just key on one person," said Jones. "Aaron will spread the ball around and hopefully we'll make some plays."

Minnesota defensive coordinator Alan Williams said Rodgers' ability to dodge pass rushers and buy time was a big problem.

"He stays alive,," said Williams. "We have to stay alive, we have to keep hustling, make sure you don't turn receivers loose.

"They do a fantastic job of the deep guys working short, the short guys working deep. It seems like...it's choreographed because he always finds an open guy."

(Reporting by Larry Fine, Editing by Steve Keating in Toronto.)

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