Time for the best weekend of the NFL season, when the elite eight pair off in four must-see divisional-round playoff games. Here are eight of the best storylines still looming:
1. The Colts didn't record a perfect season, but will the rest help them win the "rest'' of their games? Well here we go. Time to find out if Indy's strategy of eschewing the drive for 16-0 was the smart move, setting the stage for their second Super Bowl title run in four seasons. The Colts (14-2) have stumbled in this position before in the Peyton Manning era, losing three times at home in their divisional round opener after earning a first-round bye (2007, 2005, 1999).
The only way this storyline could be any richer would be if the Jets were Indy's opponent this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was New York, of course, that came to Indianapolis in Week 16, winning in comeback fashion after the Colts had pulled Manning and a healthy collection of starters in the middle of the third quarter.
But the Ravens are always an interesting foe for Indy, too, because some Baltimore fans still seethe about losing the Colts to Indianapolis almost three decades ago. Indy has won seven in a row against the Ravens, ratcheting up the pressure to win just a little bit more. And it's entirely fair to say that Baltimore (10-7) comes in as the hot team, having won four of its past five, including elimination games in Week 17 at Oakland and in last weekend's first round at New England. And the Ravens are fearless on the road in the playoffs, having gone 3-1 away from home over the past two postseasons.
2. There's nothing like the first time. With the Patriots, Steelers and Giants not making it to the NFL's great eight this season, you can cross off six of the decade's first nine Super Bowl winners right there. That means we have a great chance for a parade to be held in a fairly new spot on the Tuesday after Super Bowl Sunday.
Four of the remaining eight teams have never won a Super Bowl: The Saints, Vikings, Cardinals and Chargers have come up empty in their first 171 combined seasons of play in the Super Bowl era, but they all have some legitimate reasons to believe this will be their year. New Orleans has never even been to a Super Bowl, while Arizona and San Diego have made just one trip each. Minnesota remains 0-4 in the game, but after going four times in eight years between 1969-76, the Vikings haven't been back in 33 years.
Of the other four remaining playoff contestants, the Jets have been trying to follow up on Super Bowl III for a mere 41 years now, and the Cowboys are working on a 13-year Super Bowl drought, tying their longest in franchise history. Only the Colts (2006) and Ravens (2000) have won rings this decade, and both teams have changed head coaches since their championship seasons.
3. Wither the weather? If you're a fan of football in the winter elements, you can pretty much skip the rest of this postseason and start working on your fantasy baseball draft. This weekend's divisional round includes three games in domes (in New Orleans, Minnesota and Indianapolis) and a fourth in perpetually sunny San Diego.
No Snow Bowl is forthcoming. No wind-swept day at Soldier Field, with Sean Landeta whiffing on a punt. No Norman Rockwell painting tableau at Lambeau Field. Just boring climate-controlled temperatures, and highs of around 70 degrees in Southern California.
And when you consider that five of the possible six sites for the conference title games are either indoor stadiums or in mostly sun-splashed locales (New Orleans, Minnesota, Indianapolis, Dallas and San Diego), we're almost assured of more of the same next weekend. And don't forget, the Super Bowl is in South Florida again this season.
You want weather with your playoff football? Then root for the No. 6 seed Ravens to upset the top-seeded Colts and the No. 5 Jets to knock off the No. 2 Chargers, setting up an AFC title game of Baltimore at New York, in what we promise will absolutely, positively be the last game ever played in Giants Stadium. (We're sure this time).
4. The Year of the Quarterback (Playoff version). With hot quarterbacks everywhere you look, the divisional round should be even better than the wild-card round, when Arizona's Kurt Warner, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Dallas's Tony Romo and even Jets rookie Mark Sanchez lit it up (albeit in a training-wheels-still-on sort of way).
Now we get to add into the mix the guy who just won a record fourth league MVP award (Manning), and the three quarterbacks who finished second, third and fourth in the voting (New Orleans' Drew Brees, San Diego's Philip Rivers, and Minnesota's Brett Favre). And like we earlier noted, they'll all be playing in good weather this weekend, so the passing games could be in for the playoff showing of all-time in these four pressure-packed matchups.
The only quarterback who's struggling right now is Baltimore's banged up second-year veteran Joe Flacco, whose hip problem is more bothersome than the Ravens are acknowledging. It's not likely John Harbaugh's club can win again with Flacco completing only four of 10 passes for 34 yards, but taking the air out of the ball and relying on the running game worked like a charm at New England, so look for Baltimore to give that game plan another try against the Colts.
5. Two rings are better than one. Three of the eight remaining quarterbacks in the divisional round are on a quest to win their second Super Bowl ring: Favre, Warner and Manning. For quarterbacks, a second Super Bowl ring puts you in a different class and almost assures your Hall of Fame induction at career's end.
Ten QBs have started and won at least two Super Bowls: Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Jim Plunkett, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. Plunkett is the only retired quarterback not yet enshrined, and Brady and Roethlisberger are well on their way to Canton.
I'm pretty sure Favre, Manning and even Warner are all going into the Hall at this point, without or without a second piece of shiny jewelry. But it would represent a career-capping accomplishment for Favre and Warner, and further cement Manning's legacy as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
6. The Mojo readings. You can consider this a version of my up-to-the-minute elite eight power rankings, as we attempt to divine the all-important momentum factor heading into the divisional round:
1) San Diego -- By the time the Chargers take the field Sunday afternoon against the Jets, it'll be two days shy of three months since their most recent loss. That says it all.2) Dallas -- Monkey removed from back, the Cowboys look hungry for more of this playoff success stuff. Now don't get cocky, Cowpokes.3) Baltimore -- Nothing breeds confidence more than road wins in the postseason. These Ravens are starting to corner the market on them in the NFL.4) New York Jets -- This is the big step up in weight class for the Rex-Men. No more getting mail-in jobs from the likes of the Colts and Bengals. But the Jets really do believe at this point.5) Arizona -- The Cardinals are doing it again, turning it on in the postseason. Can they possibly win another shootout this week, in noisy New Orleans?6) Indianapolis -- The Colts will be 30 days removed from their most recent win when they hit the field Saturday night against the Ravens. That would make me very nervous if I rooted for the Horseshoe Heads.7) Minnesota -- Yeah, yeah, I know they blew out the Giants in Week 17, right before New York blew out its defensive coaching staff. But the last time everything looked all-systems go in Minny was late November.8) New Orleans -- Any way you cut it, three straight losses to enter the playoffs is your textbook case of reverse momentum. Time to get it cranked back up in the Superdome, but can the Saints do it?
7. Oh, those kickers. We've got a little bit of everything to choose from when it comes to the sub-plots involving the kickers who are left in the NFL playoffs. The Colts' Matt Stover has already beaten the Ravens once this season, but now he gets to drive the ultimate stake through his old team's heart, making it live all offseason with its regret of letting him go.
Jets' ironman Jay Feely looks like he'll only have to kick this Sunday at San Diego, rather than handle Steve Weatherford's punting duties as well, as he did last week in Cincy when his teammate had an irregular heart beat. Cardinals fans were the ones with heart problems after Neil Rackers missed that 34-yard field goal attempt late in regulation, nearly costly Arizona its season. Better get that case of the yips looked at, Neil.
Two other playoff kickers remain firmly under the gun as well. The Saints switched from John Carney to Garrett Hartley in Week 16, and Hartley promptly lost a game for New Orleans when his 37-yarder with five seconds remaining sailed wide left at home against Tampa Bay. In Dallas, Shaun Suisham has made four of five field goals since joining the Cowboys in Week 16, but we all know he's capable of missing a chippie at any moment, just like his predecessor, Nick Folk, did in Week 15 at the Saints. Suisham missed his own chip-shot against the Saints, in Week 13, for Washington.
8. Fresh legs. With all those prolific passers at work this weekend, will those youngster-led running games have any chance to show up like they did last weekend? Baltimore's a safe bet to give the ball to Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. The Ravens hung 234 rushing yards on the Patriots, and I don't believe Baltimore wants to get into a shootout with the Colts and Manning. They'll try to shorten the game by running left, right and up the middle.
Minnesota has been heavily reliant on Favre and the passing game late in the season, making Adrian Peterson seem like something of an afterthought. And the Cowboys winning formula right now is to mix in a big dose of the running game, so look for Dallas to run it with Felix Jones and Tashard Choice (who helped lead the Cowboys to 198 yards on the ground last week), even against Minnesota's No. 2 ranked run defense (87.1).
The Jets have the best ground game in the NFL, and rookie Shonn Greene had a breakout performance last week at Cincinnati, producing 135 of New York's 171 running yards. He and Thomas Jones figure to pound away at a Chargers defense that has surrendered a troubling 4.5 yards per carry.
Even Arizona got in on the act last week on the rushing front, finding time to churn out 156 yards on just 23 carries (a gaudy 6.8 average), while Warner was completing 29 of 33 passes for 379 yards and five touchdowns. Rookie Beanie Wells had 91 yards on 14 carries for the Cardinals, and keeping the ball on the ground might be the best way to keep it away from Brees and the Saints' high-powered offense.