By Jason Keidel
Most fans and media consider this weekend pro football nirvana, the best buffet of NFL edibles.
Wild card weekend is fun, but also a way to weed out the pretenders, which, sadly, included my beloved black & gold. No one doubts that every team this weekend belongs, except, perhaps, the Carolina Panthers, who have sprung from the mediocrity that ensnared the NFC South. It bugs most of us that a 7-8-1 team reached January, then got to play a team on its third-string quarterback – at home, no less.
But such are the occasional quirks of pro sports. We love the NFL because it’s mostly a meritocracy, which brings us to the divisional round, the top shelf of football delicacies.
Baltimore Ravens (11-6) @ New England Patriots (12-4)
This one hurts. Baltimore strolled onto Heinz Field and whipped my Steelers. Sure, the injury to Le’Veon Bell stung, but there are no excuses for our putrid performance at home.
Now the Ravens travel to another familiar venue, and play a team they’ve already beaten there twice in the playoffs. And they bring with them a sizzling playoff quarterback in Joe Flacco, who, as the world knows, has thrown 13 touchdowns since his last playoff pick.
But these aren’t the generic Patriots, who have been Tom Brady and a bunch of afterthoughts for years. Bill Belichick finally got the iconic quarterback some reinforcements. Especially on defense, where New England has the best bookend cornerbacks in the NFL, in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. They will test Flacco’s lust for the long ball.
Ravens fans still have much reason to flex their chests this weekend. According to the Baltimore Sun, Brady has completed just 56 percent of his passes, with three touchdowns and seven interceptions against the Ravens in the playoffs. So if Brady wants to avoid another solemn offseason at the hands of their postseason nemesis, they will have to run the ball more, which they did this year, surely in preparation for January. The Pats also have a healthy Rob Gronkowski, which makes the offense exponentially more venemous.
New England is favored by a touchdown in deference to their quarterback, coach, and home turf. But few will be shocked if Baltimore sneaks out with a win. This is as close to a coin-flip game as New England will face before the Super Bowl. Indeed, Flacco is 10-4 in the playoffs, with seven road victories.
But something about this Patriots season feels charmed. They’re playing with a confidence and momentum that can’t be thwarted this far down the playoff mountain. Baltimore is as live an underdog as any this weekend. But it says here they don’t survive one more run from the sacred, Brady/Belichick duet.
Carolina Panthers (8-8-1) @ Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
This is probably the only game with complete consensus. Unless you’re Ron Rivera’s sibling or Cam Newton’s cousin, it’s nearly impossible to predict an upset with a straight face.
Seattle is the defending Super Bowl champion yet playing with the rabid hunger of a team still seeking its first title. Call it an epiphany, trading eternal malcontent Percy Harvin, or just Bobby Wagner’s return, something snapped or clicked or called Seattle into form. Their heralded defense is back to the bruising form that landed it the Lombardi Trophy last year. They are ranked first in the league in almost every salient category, and are the first team since 1976 to win its final six games while surrendering fewer than 40 points.
Russell Wilson hasn’t always played with his charmed football persona and intuition, but he, like the team, has gotten exponentially better in the second half of the season. That also includes Marshawn Lynch, who may not be loquacious enough after the game, but he’s summoned his patented Beast Mode just in time for a deep playoff run.
Carolina is a nice enough narrative. Once 3-8-1, they survived a train wreck on the field and a car wreck off the field. Cam Newton somehow got better after he broke two bones in his back. If their fans want some statistical lifeline, Carolina has played Seattle three times over the last three years and only lost by four, five, and four points, respectively. (Those games, however, were played at home.) Their defense is ranked second in the NFL in points allowed over their last five games, and they’ve won both West Coast games they’ve played with Cam Newton under center.
Carolina won their final four games and then beat the enervated Cardinals in the first round. The game counts, but now they play the big boys, on the road, in the loudest stadium in the league, against the most violent defense in the sport, with a rookie (Kelvin Benjamin) as their biggest downfield threat.
Dallas Cowboys (13-4) @ Green Bay Packers (12-4)
Big city arrogance against Midwestern hardihood. Ten gallon hats against cheese heads. The opulent, iron arena of AT&T Stadium vs. the ancient charm of Lambeau Field. Romo vs. Rodgers. Landry vs. Lombardi.
Forget stats for once. This game is hardwired into the football fan’s soul.
There are more layers here than in the Matrix. So summon the Philadelphia Philharmonic, crank up some John Facenda, and watch at least five hours of NFL Films before watching this classic clash.
The two Ice Bowl teams, playing in Green Bay, for the first time since the actual Ice Bowl? On the very field of the Ice Bowl? If you can’t get fired up for this game, then there’s nothing the NFL can offer you. This game has every historical prerogative in the book.
And is proof of pro football’s eminence. Only the NFL can plant its flag in a town that barely has enough people to fill its local stadium. We can cackle about the Cowboys’ campy handle as America’s Team, or Pittsburgh’s six rings, but in truth the Packers play on the most sacred soil in the sport, and happen to employ the sport’s preeminent player.
No one doubts Dallas’ talent or temerity. Tony Romo has finally silenced those who say he can’t win a big game. Though we know his more unhinged critics will never show Romo any love, there’s lots to love about his game right now. Between Romo, DeMarco Murray, and Dez Bryant – the nouveaux Triplets – Dallas has the most balanced attack in the NFL. And Romo has earned his place in the MVP debate.
Unfortunately, he’s playing the one man who’s hotter and had a better season. Forget the nuance of passer ratings, all you need are two eyes and common sense to see that Aaron Rodgers is a savant in his prime. Not to mention he hasn’t lost at home since 2013 or thrown a pick at Lambeau since 2012.
The problem, of course, is Rodgers may well be playing on one leg. As of Thursday morning, he hadn’t practiced since December 28. He’s hopping on the most precious and precocious calf in America. Rodgers is sneaky mobile and relies on sudden spurts of movement to find receivers. A healthy dose of Eddie Lacy could go a long way to protect their golden-armed quarterback.
If there weren’t enough delicious timing or tension to this contest, this is the first time in NFL history a team that went 8-0 at home played a team that went 8-0 on the road. And since they already beat the titleholders (Seattle) on the road, it’s not likely the Cowboys will be intimidated in Titletown.
This is not a blowout. Dallas has the best offensive line and running back in the league, which they will use to keep Rodgers on the sideline. The more time Rodgers spends on the pine, the more time he has to think about his ailing leg and less time he has to shred Dallas’ dubious defense.
If Rodgers were at his nuclear best, the Packers would be the pick. But the image of a hobbled Rodgers hopping across the gridiron is haunting.
Someone has to win on the road this weekend. So why not the league’s best road team?
Indianapolis Colts (12-5) @ Denver Broncos (12-4)
The subplots are obvious but also delicious. Andrew Luck is trying to supplant Peyton Manning as the most prolific passer in the league. Which is fitting considering the Colts let the legendary QB walk so they could draft Luck.
Pundits assert that Manning can’t spin a pigskin the way he used to. Yet just last year he set every salient passing record in the sport. And Manning is hardly ornamental this season. Only someone of his heft can pass for 4,727 yards and 39 touchdowns and have his year overlooked.
People think Denver ran the ball more this year to appease Peyton’s weak arm. More likely, they did it with last year’s Super Bowl in mind, when they were shredded by the Seahawks. And for all the concerns over the Broncos’ bona fides in 2014, they lost only four games, and two of them were at Seattle and Foxborough.
Luck is the league’s next star. He’s got the mojo and monolithic dedication to his craft to run the NFL for fifteen years. His neck beard and dubious taste in flip phones aside, he’s someone anyone short of a fashionista can admire. The fact that he threw 40 touchdowns with a geriatric Reggie Wayne and inconsistent T.Y. Hilton speaks to Luck’s gifts and guile.
The problem is, Luck doesn’t have a running game. According to MMQB.com, Luck threw the ball on 20 of his first 25 snaps against the Bengals. That kind of passing addiction is dangerous against Denver, which has a potent pass rush, led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, who combined for 24 sacks this season.
Some of us are tired of hearing what a choke artist Peyton Manning is. The man has thrown for 6,589 yards in the playoffs, most in NFL history, and has played in three Super Bowls. When you’ve played over 20 games in January, you will lose more than a few. Just ask his comrade in New England, who is considered Mr. Clutch yet hasn’t won a ring in a decade.
The biggest difference between these teams is not In quarterbacks, but rather the players around them. Denver is built for the hurdles of playoff football. The Colts are still little more than Luck lugging his minions across the NFL map.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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