By Steve Silverman
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It’s a difficult weekend to be a New York football fan during wild-card weekend.
The pain of not having a participant is palpable.
Forget about the season-ending victories over the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins — the Jets are simply a .500 team, treading water with a coach who specializes in coaching defense.
The Giants couldn’t even reach that level, as their star quarterback has become a liability. The offensive coordinator has decided to retire, and perhaps that will allow Tom Coughlin to bring in a magician who reconfigures Eli Manning and turns him into a top-level performer once again.
But wild-card weekend is more than just the start of the NFL playoffs. In recent years, wild-card weekend winners have had the best chance to go on to win the Super Bowl. Five of the last seven Super Bowl champions have played in the first round of the playoffs.
The Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers fought hard all year to earn a bye in the first round of the playoffs, but recent history says none of those teams will lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy at MetLife Stadium in February.
Each of those teams have at least one weakness that could prove disastrous in the coming weeks. Take the Broncos, who have had a record-setting offense throughout the year. Quarterback Peyton Manning set records with his yardage and touchdown totals, and no team can score like the Broncos.
However, if Manning and his offensive mates turn the ball over two or three times in a game, the Broncos could have big problems. The Denver defense is not championship-caliber. They ranked 19th overall on defense, and a pitiful 26th against the pass. If Shaun Phillips, who had 10.0 sacks during the regular season, doesn’t get to the quarterback, the Broncos’ defense is in trouble.
The Patriots have been operating out of weakness on defense since Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo went down with injuries. The Pats can’t stop the run and cornerback Aqib Talib is their only legitimate cover guy. New England’s offense has a major weakness because of Rob Gronkowski’s ACL injury.
It would be a shock to see the Patriots get to MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2, even with the presence of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
The Seahawks have looked like the best team in the NFL for the majority of the season. Unlike the two AFC representatives, they play exceptional defense. They are competent up front, but they are spectacular on the back-end with cornerback Richard Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas playing dominant football.
Head coach Pete Carroll has had a solid but not spectacular offense throughout the majority of the season. It’s hard not to fall in love with second-year quarterback Russell Wilson, who has completed 63.1 percent of his passes and has a 26-9 TD-interception ratio.
Wilson has the kind of leadership skills that are rarely seen, but there’s one word of warning. He has been fairly spectacular through his first two seasons, but he comes into the playoffs struggling. He has thrown four TD passes and three interceptions in the last four games. That’s not championship-level quarterbacking.
That could also be the issue for the upstart Carolina Panthers. Cam Newton has gotten plenty of kudos for leading the Panthers to 11 wins in their last 12 games. Newton can always tuck the ball and run and he has the kind of arm strength to go deep. But his accuracy on short- and medium-range passes is questionable.
He could have the ball in his hands in the second half with a chance to close out Philadelphia or San Francisco, and it would not be surprising to see him throw a couple of interceptions that cost the Panthers the game.
So, while the top four seeds in the NFL playoffs all look like elite teams based on their regular-season performance, it’s quite possible none of them will be standing at the end.
The San Francisco 49ers may have the toughest opening playoff assignment of all, as they go into subzero Green Bay on Sunday to battle the revenge-minded Packers.
The environment will be brutal, but the Niners will survive. Once they get out of the frozen tundra, Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick won’t stop until they are crowned as Super Bowl champions in February.
Remember, it’s not the best team that wins in the NFL, it’s the hottest. No team fits that description better than the Niners, who go into the weekend with six wins in a row.
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