(Reuters) - Rookie quarterbacks will command center stage on Sunday with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson extending superb National Football League (NFL) seasons in wild-card playoff games.
At least one from the extraordinary rookie class of 2012 will reach the second round of the postseason as Griffin leads the NFC East champion Washington Redskins against the visiting Seattle Seahawks and signal caller Wilson.
Sunday’s Redskins-Seahawks showdown featuring two of the new breed of run-and-gun quarterbacks follows a game between Luck’s Indianapolis Colts and the AFC North-winning Baltimore Ravens and concludes the first-round of the playoffs.
Grizzled Ravens veteran Ray Lewis aims to weigh in for the older generation. The inspirational, 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker tries to come back from a torn triceps for one last postseason run after announcing he will retire following the playoffs.
Age and injuries have slowed the vaunted Ravens defense, which ranked 17th this season in total defense, but they made their way to the playoffs with help from multi-talented running back Ray Rice and big-armed quarterback Joe Flacco.
Indianapolis (11-5) have inspiration on their side as well with the recent return of head coach Chuck Pagano, a former Baltimore defensive coordinator, who was sidelined early in the season to undergo treatments for leukemia.
Lewis and his cohorts are making their fifth successive trip to the Super Bowl tournament, while the Colts are capping a sensational turnaround campaign after going 2-14 in 2011.
That woeful season, logged with quarterback Peyton Manning sidelined for the year after neck surgery, turned out to be a blessing for the Colts, who used the number one overall pick of the NFL Draft to select Luck.
More of a classic pocket quarterback than Griffin and Wilson, Luck has thrown 23 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions and has shown his mettle by leading Indy to an NFL record seven fourth-quarter and overtime comeback wins this season.
With Luck coming on board, Indianapolis believed they would be instantly competitive again in the AFC.
“Coach Pagano told us before the season that we are not in a rebuilding phase. It’s more like reloading, because we’re here to play now,” Indianapolis tight end Dwayne Allen said.
Momentum could favor the Colts, who have won five of their last six games, while the Ravens (10-6) lost four of their final five.
Luck, however, is wary of Baltimore’s ball-hawking skills safety Ed Reed, who has eight career postseason interceptions.
“He seems to have an unbelievable feel for the game of football, almost to know what you are doing before you know what you’re doing,” Luck said.
The NFC clash pits two of the league’s new look offenses.
The arrival of Griffin, who the Redskins traded up to take number two in the draft behind Luck, moved coach Mike Shanahan to install a new offense to utilize the jaw-dropping running speed possessed by RG3 along with his strong, accurate arm.
Using an option-style rollout out of an abbreviated shotgun formation called the pistol, the threat of Griffin helped open up holes for hard-running Alfred Morris, a sixth-round draft pick who set a club record with 1,613 yards rushing.
Griffin, often the fastest player on the field, set an NFL rookie quarterback record by rushing for 815 yards to go along with 20 touchdown passes and just five interceptions.
The exciting Griffin, however, has been hampered by the effects of a strained knee and will face a swarming Seahawks defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFL with a secondary led by Richard Sherman, with eight interceptions.
Wilson, less highly touted in the draft because of concerns he was too short at 5-foot-11, was drafted in the third round but has come up big this season.
Producing a similar one-two punch with the complementary rushing of Marshawn Lynch (1,590 yards), Wilson tied an NFL rookie mark by tossing 26 TD passes and showed a gift for dodging pass rushers and throwing on the run.
“I knew my height doesn’t define my skill set,” said Wilson, who passed for four TDs in one game and ran for three in another.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll foresees a special game.
“They have just been amazing to take their teams into the playoffs,” he said of the rookie quarterbacks. “It’ll be great to see how it goes, and we hope our guy does really well.”
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue