It's tough to beat this year’s four-pack of NFL divisional-round playoffs for marquee appeal. There’s five Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks still at work, four Super Bowl-winning coaches still in the tournament, and intriguing sub-plots like Peyton Manning versus Andrew Luck, the rugged Baltimore-New England rivalry, and a modern-day version of the Green Bay-Dallas Ice Bowl to look forward to.
In the AFC, the Patriots, Broncos, Ravens and Colts have combined to make a whopping 13 Super Bowl trips in the past 18 seasons, so they know their way home from here. In the NFC, Seattle and Green Bay own two of the past four Super Bowl trophies, while Dallas and Carolina are the kind of how-did-we-get-here upstarts of which every postseason needs a smattering.
We’re down to just eight teams, and now elimination is the enemy, to be staved off at all costs. And the pressure builds...
• Last week: 2-2; Season: 173-86 (.668).
• Best pick in Wild-card round: Dallas 31, Detroit 27 (Actual score: Cowboys 24-20).
• Worst pick in Wild-card round: Pittsburgh 26, Baltimore 20 (Actual score: Ravens 30-17).
Saturday, Jan. 10
Could the Ravens represent the toughest challenge the Patriots will face in their quest to make it to the sixth Super Bowl of New England’s Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era? It says here, yes, because I like Baltimore’s upset chances in Gillette Stadium better than either Denver's or Indianapolis’ in next Sunday’s AFC title game. The Ravens have that road playoff pedigree to rely on, having gone 7-4 away from home in the postseason since John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco showed up in 2008.
But don’t over-read the significance of the Ravens’ 2-1 record in Foxboro in the playoffs; key ingredients of those two upsets -- like Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin and Ray Lewis to name three -- are long gone. And the Patriots have won three of the past four regular-season matchups against Baltimore, all from '09 on, so it’s not as if the Ravens completely have New England’s number. Baltimore will not go quietly or easily, but this is the best Patriots defense we’ve watched in 10 years or so, and that will provide the difference to propel New England into its franchise-record fourth consecutive AFC Championship Game.
It’s indisputable that the Panthers have shown a knack for playing the Seahawks tough, with their three meetings over the span of the past three seasons being decided by a combined margin of just 13 points. But two other points are also inescapable: Seattle has found a way to win all three of those games in gritty, comeback fashion, and all of them have been played in Charlotte, not the noise machine known as CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks have won their last four games by an average of 15.3 points per outing.
The Panthers defense is solid enough to hold up for much of the evening against Seattle’s Russell Wilson-led offense, but I don’t see Cam Newton and Co. making enough happen on their side of the ball against a Seahawks defense that has been stoning opponents the past six games. When the outcome hangs in the balance, Seattle will find a way to scratch out the win and become the first NFC No. 1 seed to advance to a second consecutive conference title game since the Eagles went to three in a row from that launching spot in 2002-'04.
Sunday, Jan. 11
Remember when the Packers were invincible at home during the playoffs? Yeah, that was a while back. Lately, not so much. The Packers are just 2-3 in playoff openers since Aaron Rodgers replaced Brett Favre at quarterback in 2008, and two of those defeats came at Lambeau Field, to the Giants in the divisional round in '11 and to the 49ers last year in the wild-card round.
And now here come the red-hot, mojo-laden Cowboys, who are the NFL’s only undefeated road team this year, which Green Bay must face with a less-than-100-percent Rodgers dealing with the limitations of a slightly torn calf muscle. It should all make for a dramatic Sunday afternoon in the nation’s dairy land, but I foresee the Packers surviving Ice Bowl II to reach that rematch with Seattle that has seemed destined for much of the season’s second half. Dallas was pretty sloppy at times last week at home against Detroit, and got away with it. That won’t cut it this week against a more experienced and disciplined Green Bay team, and the road fun will finally end for Jason Garrett’s over-achieving Cowboys in frosty Green Bay.
Sometimes I wonder if Peyton Manning much prefers the regular season over the postseason, given how dismally so many playoff runs have ended for him and his Colts and Broncos teams? Manning would have to win the Super Bowl this year just to push his career playoff record over .500 (he’s 11-12 at the moment), and he’s got those eight one-and-done losses in the postseason to hear about every January. It can’t be as much fun for him as the regular season, where he’s 38-10 as the Broncos starter the past three years, with a slew of record-breaking performances to his credit.
The playoffs seem to pose nothing but sheer pressure for Manning, and this year will be no different, because what would be worse than getting bounced in Denver’s opener by the Colts and Andrew Luck, the quarterback who made No. 18 unnecessary in Indianapolis? Lose this one and the Broncos’ window of Super Bowl opportunity will look like it’s almost ready to close. Manning hasn’t been quite himself in the season’s second half -- 17 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions since Week 9 -- and his health is something of a question mark, but there will be no one-and-done this year. For this week at least, he and the Broncos will get it done. Then it’s on to New England.