Carolina vs. Goliath
FOXBORO, Mass. — Best weekend of football all year. The eight best teams, theoretically, playing four elimination games in the span of 31 hours. The only quibble this year with the eight-best-teams narrative, and I’ll address in detail why it’s only a minor quibble, is Carolina being in and Detroit out. But the Panthers are certainly playing like one of the best eight teams in football now, despite being 8-8-1.
The matchups, ranked in order of story lines:
1. Dallas (13-4) at Green Bay (12-4), 1:05 p.m. ET Sunday. The first Cowboys-Packers playoff game at Lambeau Field in 47 years, since the Ice Bowl. Aaron Rodgers has a bum calf, and it could play a big role in the game.
2. Baltimore (11-6) at New England (12-4), 4:35 p.m. ET Saturday. Ravens beat the Pats by 19 and 15 in the playoffs, and lost by three, in the past six seasons. Terrell Suggs and Joe Flacco have some kryptonite in them.
3. Indianapolis (12-5) at Denver (12-4), 4:40 p.m. ET, Sunday. The Jimmy Irsay Bowl. Peyton Manning-Andrew Luck III, already. Their first playoff meeting.
4. Carolina (8-8-1) at Seattle (12-4), 8:15 p.m. ET Saturday. Vegas must know something football America doesn’t. Seahawks are 11-point faves. Seattle has played Carolina in each of the past three regular seasons. Seattle’s won by four, five and four points, with each of those games in Charlotte. Is playing at CenturyLink Field worth a touchdown? We’ll see Saturday night.
Good matchups. And another story: I always get a kick out of the World Cup selection show, when the commentators come on and pick one four-team section as the Group of Death. This weekend’s four-game divisional round could be called the Weekend of Death. In the last nine divisional weekends, dating back to 2005, nine of the 18 top seeds have gone down. Half. In 2008 (Tennessee and the Giants) and 2010 (New England and Atlanta), both number one seeds lost.
So … uneasy lie the heads in New England and Seattle, the AFC and NFC one seeds. We’ll find out quickly if history will hold this weekend. So which team, if either, will pull the upset—the pesky Ravens or the out-of-nowhere Panthers, one of the most intriguing .500 teams in memory?
Rivera: "Remember that line from 'Little Giants?' The little kids are talking and one says, 'He may have beaten me 99 times, but that 100th time, I got him.' I can see it in my team."
I covered the Ravens last weekend, and there’s no question they think they can walk into Foxboro and beat the Patriots in New England for the third time in the playoffs in the past six seasons. I asked Carolina coach Ron Rivera, who has had an eventful week, if his team could pull off something a little tougher: beating the defending Super Bowl champs in their raucous stadium.
“There’s always a chance," Rivera said from his office in Charlotte. “I always say this: There’s a reason why you play the games. Remember that line from ‘Little Giants?’ The little kids are talking and one says, He may have beaten me 99 times, but that 100th time, I got him. I can see it in my team. They know. They’re playing with house money. Nobody expected them to be here. They were loose last week, and they’re loose this week."
Carolina has reasons (plural) to be confident flying to Seattle today. The defense finally shed the specter of Greg Hardy; the leaders on that side now know the on-paid-leave star defensive end is not coming back this year. The unit, also adjusting to a brand-new secondary, has grown up in the past month. Carolina’s won five straight and allowed only 11.4 defensive points a game. Its resolve will be tested again this weekend, with standout defensive tackle Star Lotulelei lost for at least the next two weeks with a broken bone in his foot, suffered when he inadvertently stepped on a teammate’s foot in practice Tuesday. But understudies Colin Cole and Kyle Love both have playoff experience, so the Panthers shouldn’t be ruined by the injury to Lotulelei.
Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have played brilliantly sideline-to-sideline recently, which Panthers followers have come to expect. But Charles Johnson has had a superb past eight games, and Rivera said that’s been a game-changer. He’s had 49 quarterback disruptions (sacks/hurries/hits) in that stretch. “In all honestly, the huge difference in our defense has been Charles Johnson," said Rivera. “He’s making plays all over the field."
On offense, the Panthers are getting used to the fact that they won’t have the versatile and athletic version of Cam Newton until next season, because he’s been plagued this year by rib and back injuries, the latter of which stemmed from his car accident a month ago. That’s not all bad. Knowing they can’t rely on Newton to be a do-it-all quarterback has put some pressure back on the running game to be what Rivera wants—a power group that can close out games. Average rushing yards in the past five weeks: 197.0.
'We’re just starting to play offense the way we’d always like to play," said Rivera. “The formula that got us to 12-4 [last season] was this: We rushed for over 100 yards in 15 of 16 games. Our first two wins this year, that was our formula. Then we had a lot of injuries and just couldn’t run the way we wanted, and we were adjusting to a lot of new faces in the passing game and on the offensive line. And Cam, it’s in his makeup to run at certain times, and there are times now you see the little hesitation. It’s been interesting to watch him mature as a quarterback.
“But I think one of the reasons this is such a fun matchup is that we’re similar to Seattle—power-running teams with mobile quarterbacks and physical defenses.”
By late in the week, Rivera was able to think clearly about a football game. After what he’s been through, that’s commendable. On Sunday night, a day after the Panthers won their wild-card game against Arizona, he woke up in his home in Charlotte, smelling smoke and hearing his security company announce over the in-home speakers in his house: “We have detected smoke in your home," and telling him and whoever was in the home to leave.
Rivera went to the kitchen, felt the stovetop and oven, and nothing was hot. But the smoke kept coming. Turns out flames were inside the walls of the home, and only the smoke was visible. Everyone got out of the house, including relatives who were in to see the game and the family’s two dogs. “We are fortunate, very fortunate," Rivera said. “It could have been disastrous. What we learned is how important smoke detectors are." Rivera lost some game balls from his NFL career and a putter signed by Arnold Palmer, and his daughter lost some jerseys given to her by Rivera’s Bears teammates from his playing days. How tough it must have been for him to get back to work, preparing to face the Super Bowl champions. Now he has to deal with a roster depleted by the loss of Lotulelei, and perhaps the loss of speedy wideout Philly Brown (shoulder), who has become a valuable part of the offense.
In January, winners are the teams that get hot at the right time, and that can overcome injuries and distractions—and who have quarterbacks and defenses playing well. I pick Seattle—but I don’t put it out of the realm of possibility that Carolina can pull off the upset of the year.
Players You Need To Know This Weekend
Bené Benwikere, cornerback (number 25) and Tre Boston, free safety (number 33), Carolina. The two rookies, drafted 128th (Boston, from North Carolina) and 148th (Benwikere, from San Jose State) have graduated into starting roles for the Panthers, and they’ll be vital against an improving Seattle receiving corps.
Bose Sound Bite of the Week
From last Sunday's Dallas-Detroit wild-card game, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, upset about you-know-what...
Stafford to referee Pete Morelli: "Hey! Hey Pete, that's unbelievable! That's unbelievable and you know it! You know it is though..."
Stafford to no one in particular on the Lions bench: "How does that get overturned? How does that get overturned? Hey, that's unbelievable! Congratulations! That's unbelievable!"
Stafford to alternate referee Jeff Triplette: "Hey, can I get explained that one? That's pretty awesome. Can we explain that or no?"
Stafford: "Just flat-out overturning a pass interference call."
Triplette: "What he said was, was yes he did face-guard him, but there was no contact before the ball arrived."
Stafford: "I understand, but your man saw it and threw the penalty."
Field Judge Barry Anderson: "We can face-guard."
Stafford: "I understand that."
Anderson: "But there was no contact..."
Stafford: "But I've never in history seen one turned over. Congratulations man, first time in history that's happened."
Regular Old Quotes of the Week
“I can’t remember a circumstance in which a good call by one of the refs is argued about by an opposing player of the other team with his helmet off on the field, which in and of itself is supposed to be a penalty. The call is announced and then reversed without explanation. I haven't seen that before. So I will leave it up to the experts to make the judgment as to why that happened, but I can tell you if I was a Lions fan I'd be pretty aggravated."
—President Barack Obama, on the officiating events late in the Detroit playoff loss to Dallas.
"I realize it’s a bad look."
—Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck, on his scurvy-looking neck beard.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The fallout from the Mueller report. Before passing judgment with finality on commissioner Roger Goodell, the league’s owners wanted to wait for the former FBI director, Robert Mueller, to finish his investigation into whether Goodell or people inside the league office saw the in-elevator video tape of Ray Rice striking his fiancée. Now, there will be many, and with some justification, who won’t wholly trust the Mueller report because the former FBI director was engaged by the commissioner himself to investigate Goodell. But the 32 owners are the ones who will make the call on whether Goodell is in any trouble post-Rice, and from the conclusions of the report—Mueller says neither Goodell nor his staff saw the tape, and he could find no evidence to corroborate an Associated Press claim that an NFL employee accepted a copy of the damaging Rice video from a source—Goodell is very likely in the clear. In a statement, the two club executives appointed by Goodell to be the overseers for Mueller's group, John Mara and Art Rooney II, said: “It is clear to us that Commissioner Goodell was forthright in the statements he made to the owners about this matter, and we have every confidence that Roger Goodell is the right person to lead the league as we move forward."
2. America scoffing. Don’t expect the majority of fans and followers of the NFL to believe Mueller’s report.
3. The two best quarterbacks, via all-time rating, playing. Aaron Rodgers, 106.0. Tony Romo 97.6. Amazing, isn’t it, that Tony Romo has a better career rating than Peyton Manning (97.5), Steve Young (96.8) and Tom Brady (95.9)?
4. The most important calf in the United States. Rodgers’ strained calf will force him to be a pocket passer Sunday on the tundra, and that’s an edge for the Cowboys. Look for Green Bay to keep in an extra blocker early and often against Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s unpredictable blitz schemes.
5. Gene Steratore. He and his improvised crew will be the most closely watched officials during the divisional round. Steratore will referee the Cowboys-Packers game. Wouldn’t be surprised if FOX has a camera isolated on him Sunday.
6. Not Chris Christie. The New York Times will be watching for his presence at Lambeau, not me.
7. Rex Ryan and Dan Quinn. Late in this week, those are the two hot names in the coaching search business. Now the question is: If Quinn lasts another three weeks, and isn’t on the market until Feb. 2, will the Jets or another team wait for him? Teams are hesitant to wait that long for one big reason: They think it inhibits the ability of a first-time head coach to get a quality staff to accompany him.
8. The Hall of Fame finalists. The focus this weekend, and in the three weeks before the vote for the 2015 class, will be on two men, as I see it: running back Terrell Davis and quarterback Kurt Warner. Both are in their first year as finalists, and both have been hotly contested in the court of public opinion because their careers weren’t as long as some of those already enshrined.
9. Colin Kaepernick training with Kurt Warner in Arizona. That’s a hugely encouraging sign for the 49ers—and whoever coaches them in 2015. Kaepernick will work with Warner for eight weeks this winter, before the San Francisco offseason program begins, and Warner is so good fundamentally that it will be a big help to Kaepernick.
10. Mike Shanahan. Of all the candidates out there to coach teams in 2015, Shanahan is the most intriguing. And for him to have met with Mark Davis of the Raiders after the painful Raider divorce he had with Al Davis a generation ago, that’s a huge shock. Would the Niners trust him with Kaepernick? Or the Bears to revive Jay Cutler? Or Buffalo with whatever quarterback the Bills would find?
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