The best weekend of the NFL season is just ahead, with the league's elite eight colliding in a burst of divisional-round playoff football. Here are eight of the best storylines that provide a backdrop for the action to come:
FULL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
1. Houston, you may not have a problem: The struggling Texans look doomed in New England on Sunday thanks to that 42-14 drubbing the Patriots handed them on Monday night of Week 14 in Foxboro. But the obvious blueprint for Gary Kubiak's team is what happened in 2010, when the Patriots humiliated the Jets 45-3 at home on Monday night in Week 13, and then lost 28-21 to New York six weeks later in the divisional round. History might repeat itself.
And there's more than just that to hang your hopes on, Texans fans. In the Belichick era, the Patriots are 8-0 in the playoffs against teams they didn't face in the regular season that year. Against teams they did face (like Houston), they're just 8-6, and just 3-6 from 2005 on. Baltimore (2009), the Jets (2010) and the Giants (2007) are teams that have recently beaten New England in the playoffs after losing to them in the regular season.
Not that I think it's going to happen again. But it could.
2. One more run at No. 4: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady go back to work this weekend, trying to push the rock up the hill once again and finally win that Chuck Noll-Terry Bradshaw-tying fourth Super Bowl ring together. It's been eight years since the Patriots' Hall of Fame coaching-quarterback duo won their third Super Bowl, and who could ever have dreamed it'd be this hard to get another one?
In the past seven seasons, the Patriots have lost twice in the Super Bowl (both to the Giants, as New England fans might recall), lost once in the AFC title game (to the comeback Colts in 2006), lost twice in the divisional round (at Denver in 2005, home against the Jets in 2010), lost once in the first round (home against Baltimore in 2009) and missed the playoffs altogether at 11-5 (without Brady) in 2008.
If the eighth time is the charm, it'd be the longest gap between Super Bowl wins for any coach and quarterback since Dallas' Tom Landry and Roger Staubach had to wait six years between winning ring No. 1 (1971) and ring No. 2 (1977) together.
But don't sketch out that parade route just yet, because since going 14-2 in the playoffs together from 2001 through their 2007 AFC title game win over San Diego, the Patriots are just 2-4 in their most recent six postseason games. To slice the facts a different way, New England went 9-0 in the playoffs in winning their three Super Bowls, but have gone just 7-6 in the postseason since. A 16-6 playoff mark is still something to behold, but while it took Belichick and Brady just four years to win their first three Super Bowls together, the quest for No. 4 has now taken them twice that long.
3. What's old is new again: Feel like you've seen this AFC divisional round foursome before? Well you have, but you haven't. I'll explain.
In Baltimore at Denver on Saturday and Houston at New England on Sunday, we've got the same final four in the AFC as we did last season, with slight modification. In 2011's divisional round, the Texans lost at the Ravens and the Broncos were eliminated by the top-seeded Patriots.
That's never happened before. Since the 1970 merger, neither conference had advanced the same four teams to the divisional round two years in a row. But this year, we had four repeat division winners in the AFC, and four repeat divisional-round qualifiers. It's the do-over playoffs in the AFC.
And things look pretty familiar in the NFC, too. Green Bay and San Francisco were both in last year's NFC divisional round, with a third playoff repeater, Atlanta, being eliminated by the Giants in the first round of the postseason. With one change, this year's NFC field is the same as it was in the 2010 divisional round. Green Bay, Atlanta and Seattle all made their conference's semifinals that year, along with Chicago. San Francisco replaces the Bears this time around.
Who said this was an unpredictable league?
4. It's lonely, and dangerous, at the top: I don't even remember any more if this passes as original research or I gleaned it from something I read along the way, but I'm going to once again point out that being a No. 1 seed is often a disappointment waiting to happen. Atlanta and Denver fans might want to ignore this particular historical trend, but recent playoff results point to one of the top seeds losing this weekend in the divisional round, and the other losing in the Super Bowl.
It happened again last year, for the eighth time in 12 seasons. No. 1 Green Bay lost in the divisional round (at home to the Giants), and No. 1 New England lost in the Super Bowl. I even warned both franchises last January, but to no avail.
Here are the other examples of the pattern, from 2000 on:
-- In 2000, the No. 1 Titans lost in the divisional round, and the No. 1 Giants lost the Super Bowl to Baltimore.
-- In 2001, the No. 1 Steelers lost in the AFC title game, and the No. 1 Rams lost the Super Bowl to New England.
-- In 2002, the No. 1 Eagles lost in the NFC title game, and the No. 1 Raiders lost the Super Bowl to Tampa Bay.
-- In 2004, the No. 1 Steelers lost in the AFC title game, and the No. 1 Eagles lost the Super Bowl to New England.
-- In 2005, the No. 1 Colts lost in the divisional round, and the No. 1 Seahawks lost the Super Bowl to Pittsburgh.
-- In 2006, the No. 1 Chargers lost in the divisional round, and the No. 1 Bears lost the Super Bowl to Indianapolis.
-- In 2007, the No. 1 Cowboys lost in the divisional round, and the No. 1 Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.
See, No. 1 seeds just don't pay. The past four years have seen five No. 1 seeds lose their playoff openers: the Giants and Titans in 2008, the Patriots and Falcons in 2010, and the Packers in 2011. The 2009 postseason is the big aberration here. Both the No. 1 Colts and No. 1 Saints made the Super Bowl, the first time since 1993 that both top seeds survived.
And don't get too comfortable with yourselves, San Francisco and New England, the No. 2 seeds. The last time all four divisional-round games were won by the home teams -- or the top two seeds in each conference -- was in 2004, when Philadelphia and Atlanta held serve in the NFC, as did Pittsburgh and New England in the AFC.
5. Only the best and brightest invited: Since no team with nine wins or fewer made the playoffs this season for the first time since 2005, that should make for having the best of the best squaring off in the divisional round. The only division champ that didn't make the elite eight was Washington in the NFC East, and the 10-6 Redskins didn't have a better record than the 11-5 wild-card Seahawks anyway.
For four years running, we've had a party crasher in the NFL's final eight: Last season, the 8-8 Broncos were still hanging around. In 2010, the 7-9 Seahawks made the NFC's final four. In 2009, Rex Ryan's Jets finished 9-7 and then went all the way to the AFC title game. And in 2008, the underdogs were everywhere. The 9-7 Cardinals made the Super Bowl. The 9-6-1 Eagles, sixth-seeded, reached the NFC title game. And the 8-8 Chargers won a game and qualified for the divisional round.
This year, the only team still alive after winning as few as 10 games in the regular season is Baltimore, which has a tough task in getting past No. 1 seeded Denver this week. Every other elite eight qualifier went 11-5 or better in the regular season. The last time the NFL's final eight included just one team with as few as 10 wins was 2003, when everybody but 10-6 Green Bay was 11-5 or better.
6. The heat is on in Hot-lanta: You want to talk pressure? Nobody has pressure on them this weekend like the NFC top-seeded Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta's Mike Smith (0-3) is the only head coach in the NFL's elite eight that doesn't own at least one career playoff win. And then there's Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Other than Ryan and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, who will be making his playoff debut as a starter Saturday night against Green Bay, every other quarterback who will play this weekend has at least one career postseason victory. Ryan is 0-3, just like Smith.
And the Falcons haven't really been competitive in the playoffs in the Smith-Ryan era, losing their three games by a combined 55 points, or 18.3 per game. The closest Atlanta came to victory was in that 2008 first-round loss at Arizona, a 30-24 Cardinals' triumph.
The state of Georgia has always been football-crazed, but the Falcons, still searching for their first Super Bowl ring 47 seasons into the franchise's history, have never captured the hearts of Georgians like other in-state programs. The University of Georgia and Georgia Tech both own national championships. Georgia Southern, Valdosta State and that football factory known as Valdosta High all have national titles hung on the wall. Six, in fact, in the case of Valdosta High. But not the Falcons. Their highwater mark was that improbable Super Bowl run in 1998, which ended with a blowout loss to Denver in South Florida.
Everybody in the playoffs this weekend wants to win. But the Falcons have to win. There's pressure everywhere in the NFL, and then there's Atlanta's plight in these playoffs.
7. It's always nice to have a Manning around the playoffs: After missing out on the divisional round fun for two years running (a first-round loss in 2010 and no playoffs in 2011), Peyton Manning is back where he belongs -- on every other commercial that airs during the telecast of NFL postseason games.
And he's on the field again, too, leading the 13-3 top-seeded Broncos at home this weekend against visiting Baltimore, a team he owns, having beaten the Ravens nine times in a row, and twice in the playoffs (2006 and 2009).
That makes it nine times in the past 10 seasons we've had one of the Manning brothers quarterbacking in the NFL's divisional round. Peyton's Colts made it in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2009, with his Broncos here in 2012. Eli Manning's Giants were divisional round players in 2007 (the only dual Manning year), 2008 and 2011.
If Peyton reaches the Super Bowl again, it'll be the fifth time in the past seven years that we've had a Manning in that game, with only 2010 and 2008 being the exceptions.
8. The Headset Crowd has been here before: Besides quarterbacks, it's coaching that makes the NFL go round, especially in the playoffs. This year the coaching contingent is pretty heavy on experience in the divisional round. First on the head coaching front, we have two ring winners (Belichick and Green Bay's Mike McCarthy), three Super Bowl coaches (add Denver's John Fox to that list), and four guys with at least six playoff wins to their credit (Belichick 17-7, McCarthy 6-3, Fox 6-4 and Baltimore's John Harbaugh 6-4).
Seattle's Pete Carroll has four playoff trips with two different teams in two different decades (3-3 overall record), Houston's Kubiak is 2-1 in the postseason, and San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh is 1-1, both making their playoff debuts last year. Only Atlanta's Mike Smith is winless at 0-3, and there are no coaches making their first career playoff forays.
And on the coordinator front, no less than six ex-head coaches are in the NFL's elite eight. Four of them are defensive coordinators: Houston's Wade Phillips, Denver's Jack Del Rio, Green Bay's Dom Capers and Atlanta's Mike Nolan. And two are offensive coordinators: Baltimore's Jim Caldwell and New England's Josh McDaniels.
Plenty of cross-league, cross-conference coaching ties exist. So many it's hard to keep track. But we'll try. McDaniels used to be the Broncos head coach, as was Phillips once upon a time. Kubiak was a Denver quarterback, behind John Elway. Del Rio once coached in Baltimore, as did Nolan and Mike Smith.
Capers was the first Texans' head coach, and Nolan led the 49ers">49ers not all that long ago. Carroll coached the Patriots in the late '90s, preceding Belichick, and McCarthy was the San Francisco offensive coordinator in 2005, the year the 49ers drafted Alex Smith. Then there's the whole Harbaugh brothers thing, meaning we still have a shot at the Har-Bowl Super Bowl we barely missed out on last year.