Sunday January 16th, 2011

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we dig into the results and juiciest storylines of the first three games of the NFL's divisional round ...

• It's never entirely fair, but it is reality: The white-hot postseason spotlight magnifies everything it falls upon in the NFL and can either make or break you in terms of reputation. If you don't buy that, consider the wildly divergent playoff plights this weekend of quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco and Jay Cutler.

Class of 2008 draftees Ryan and Flacco suffered severe body blows to their good names in the divisional round, with shaky showings that raised troubling questions and made us ponder whether the games might have been too big for them. They've both won some important games and had clutch performances before, but for the time being, we'll only remember their latest glaring loss on the biggest of stages.

As for Roethlisberger, Rodgers and Cutler, they improved their postseason resumes considerably this weekend, all three turning a playoff game (or at least the second half of one) into their personal playgrounds. Pressure? What pressure? Roethlisberger added to a legacy of postseason success that's approaching Hall of Fame caliber, and Rodgers, playing in just his third career playoff game, had one of the greatest postseason showings any NFL quarterback ever put together in Green Bay's demolition of top-seeded Atlanta. Cutler took a star turn, too, having a hand in four Bears touchdowns in Chicago's 35-24 win, the first playoff game of his five-year pro career.

Games like this weekend's tend to separate the great quarterbacks from the merely good. Obviously our perceptions can change from year to year, just ask John Elway or Peyton Manning. But for now, Ryan's got a painful 0-2 career playoff record (with six turnovers in those games) to contend with and Flacco must live with the realization that he can't beat Baltimore's biggest rivals, the Roethlisberger-led Steelers, when it really matters (2-6 against Pittsburgh, 0-6 against Big Ben).

The career trajectory of Rodgers has taken on a sky's-the-limit feel to it in light of his two consecutive road playoff wins, and his postseason success seems to only confirm and validate the stellar play we've seen from him since he replaced Brett Favre in the lineup three regular seasons ago. In short, Rodgers has started to live up to the hype in ways that both Flacco and Ryan have yet to. There's still time for Flacco and Ryan to reverse those trends, but their stories have been written for this season.

Rodgers, Flacco and Ryan are all three-year starters who are at a varying points on the playoff-success spectrum, but Roethlisberger proved once again that he deserves mention on the short list of the game's best postseason quarterbacks of any era. The signature moment of his latest playoff masterpiece was that 58-yard bomb to Antonio Brown on third-and-19 inside the game's final two minutes, a play that he suggested and then executed to perfection, essentially winning the game and sending the Steelers to their fourth AFC title game in the past seven years.

As for Cutler, he and his Bears will play host to Green Bay and Rodgers in Sunday's NFC title game in Chicago. After a disappointing first season in town, Cutler has put together a memorable second act, and no one in the Windy City doubts the wisdom of trading for him now.

This weekend reminded us of one reason why we love the NFL playoffs. Some players step up and deliver when the pressure is the greatest, and some regress. Quarterbacks especially can make or break their name at this time of year, because the glare of the spotlight is so unforgiving. We learned that lesson all over again this weekend in the NFL, in vivid and contrasting detail.

• Maybe the NFL doesn't need to worry about playoff re-seeding this offseason after all, because seedings don't seem to mean much any more. Not only have lower-seeded road teams won five of eight playoff games this season, but also the phenomena of a No. 1 seed being toppled by a No. 6 seed is growing positively common.

In the first 15 seasons (1990-2004) after the league expanded its playoff field to 12 teams and started seeding qualifiers from No. 1 to No. 6, no top seed had ever lost to a bottom seed. But now, with No. 6 Green Bay laying waste to top seeded Atlanta 48-21 Saturday night, and the Jets knocking off New England, it has happened five times in the span of the past six postseasons.

The list includes the 2005 Steelers upsetting the No. 1 Colts in the divisional round, the 2008 Eagles beating the top-seeded Giants in the divisional round, and the 2008 Ravens besting the No. 1 Titans in the divisional round. Though not quite as impressive, the No. 5 Giants beat the No. 1-seeded Cowboys in 2007's divisional round, and the No. 4 Patriots shocked the top-seeded Chargers in the 2006 divisional round.

That settles it. Until further notice, I'm putting the NFL's playoff seedings on my all-overrated list.

• Wasn't it taken for near gospel last offseason that the Bears' tight end position would be the big loser in Chicago's hiring of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator? Martz never throws to tight ends, and the Bears might as well trade fourth-year starter Greg Olsen, went the thinking.

So much for that theory. Olsen led the way for Bears pass-catchers against Seattle on Sunday, gathering in three passes for 113 yards and the game's tone-setting first touchdown, a 58-yard bomb from Cutler.

And just for good measure, Chicago reserve tight end Kellen Davis scored the Bears' fifth and final touchdown, on a beautifully thrown 39-yard strike from Cutler. Davis finished with two catches for 42 yards, giving Chicago's tight ends five receptions for 155 yards and two scores on the day.

I'd say Martz deserves the last laugh. He said he would use the Bears' tight ends this season, and he has.

• Good thing the Ravens went out and vastly improved their receiving corps last offseason, trading for Anquan Boldin and signing T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Sheesh. Both of them committed inexcusable fourth-quarter drops when the game was on the line in Pittsburgh, and what is it about the receiver position that continues to bedevil Baltimore? Nobody but tight end Todd Heap ever seems to create any separation in the Ravens' passing game.

It looks like Seattle head coach Pete Carroll knew exactly what he was doing when he sent Houshmandzadeh packing late last preseason, keeping Mike Williams on the roster instead. Houshmandzadeh sealed the Ravens' fate with that fourth-down drop on Baltimore's final desperation drive. (Williams meanwhile caught two more touchdown passes Sunday for Seattle).

Even the normally reliable Boldin came up small in the clutch for Baltimore. He butter-fingered that potential go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown reception, forcing the Ravens to settle for a 24-yard Billy Cundiff field goal and a 24-24 tie. It's going to be a long and bitter winter for Baltimore fans trying to put those two devastating drops out of their minds.

• Strike another blow for the legitimacy of the NFL's Pro Bowl balloting. The league's going to hold another one of its almost-painful-to-watch all-star games this year, back in Honolulu, where it belongs, and Aaron Rodgers wasn't elected to play in the game. But Matt Ryan was. That's all you need to know about the Pro Bowl this year.

If the Packers quarterback isn't one of the three best at his position in the NFC -- or the NFL, for that matter -- then the game's a bigger joke than ever. Rodgers' showing Saturday night in Atlanta was superb, as Green Bay recorded its highest-scoring playoff game in team history and Rodgers threw for more yardage (366) than Brett Favre ever did in the postseason.

Rodgers finished 31 of 36 for three touchdowns, and a 136.8 passer rating, and he also tackled on a rushing touchdown. After the Packers' opening possession ended on a Greg Jennings fumble, Rodgers led five consecutive touchdown drives, from 81, 92, 80, 80 and 50 yards. One more ARod note: The 10 touchdown passes he's thrown in his first three career playoff games is an NFL record.

• Speaking of Pro Bowl snubs, Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams won't be in Hawaii either, which makes you wonder what games the Pro Bowl voters were watching this season. Williams has been dominant all season in pass coverage, and now has three huge interceptions in the Packers' two playoff wins. He iced last week's win against the Eagles with an end-zone pick, had another end-zone interception of Matt Ryan with the Packers and Falcons tied at 14-14 in the second quarter, and then effectively finished off Atlanta with that back-breaking 70-yard interception return for a score on the final play of the first half.

That's OK, the Packers might be busy the week before the Super Bowl any way.

• On the flip side of the receiver story in this weekend's divisional round, who was that masquerading as Green Bay's James Jones in Atlanta? The guy who couldn't hang on to the ball in Philadelphia caught everything but the Swine flu in the Georgia Dome. On his leaping second-quarter touchdown catch in heavy traffic in the right front corner of the end zone, Jones showed some positively Moss-like skills in going up to snare the ball. He finished with four catches for 75 yards and that 20-yard touchdown, and he was only the team's fourth-leading receiver.

• That was Seattle safety Lawyer Milloy trailing Olsen in coverage on Chicago's early 58-yard touchdown pass, and he looked every bit of his 37 years on the play. If Milloy can't cover a tight end deep these days -- and Olsen is no blazer -- then it might be time to start lining up his first post-playing career gig.

• Just in case you're not keeping track, Atlanta's Matt Ryan has now lost more games in the Georgia Dome in the past 19 days (two) than he did in most of his first three NFL seasons (one). Ryan was 19-1 at home entering the Week 16 Monday-night showdown against New Orleans, a game he and the Falcons lost. Atlanta beat Carolina at home in Week 17, then lost its playoff opener to visiting Green Bay.

• The Ravens' loss at Pittsburgh can be filed strictly under the heading of self-destruction, with all those turnovers and dropped passes killing Baltimore in the second half. Not to mention Baltimore's defense giving up that third-and-19 Ben Roethlisberger-to-Antonio Brown bomb. But what a bogus holding call by referee Jeff Triplette on that Lardarius Webb punt return touchdown that would have given the Ravens the lead late in the game.

Baltimore special teamer Marcus Smith got flagged for the hold, which I never quite saw on repeated replays of the kick return. I saw the Steelers cover man throw his arms out and take a swoon when coming in contact with Smith -- like a punter who gets grazed in mid-kick -- but I didn't see a clear-cut hold, which is what you would hope for on a call that wound up taking points off the board for Baltimore.

If I ran the NFL, Triplette would be about the last referee I would want assigned to a playoff game. He's brutal and never seems to have a smooth night of work when the spotlight is the brightest.

• Cory Redding wasn't one of Baltimore's high-profile acquisitions last offseason, but he was one of their best. The Ravens had that 21-7 halftime lead in part because Redding was the only one on the field with the presence of mind to pick up that Ben Roethlisberger fumble and run it into the end zone -- just in case. All those seasoned veterans on Baltimore's defense, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs included, and Redding made the smartest play of the day for the Ravens.

• As it turns out, the Cinderella slipper didn't really fit Seattle this postseason, even if the Seahawks did make something of a game of it after falling behind 28-0 in the third quarter at Chicago. Seattle punted on each of its first seven possessions. The 35-24 Bears win sets up the NFC's first title game to feature a pair of division opponents since San Francisco routed the Los Angeles Rams 30-3 in the 1989 game at Candlestick Park.

I suppose the NFC North champion Bears have to be favored at home against the surging Packers, but Green Bay would be the one giving the points if anyone asked me to set the Vegas line.

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