Don Banks: The AFC's power rematches, the Pack's breakthrough, more Snaps - Sports Illustrated

The AFC's power rematches, the Pack's breakthrough, more Snaps

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• Seattle supplied the shocker of the NFL weekend, but in the AFC, things are exactly as they should be heading into that conference's final four. What more could we ask for than Ravens-Steelers III, followed by Jets-Patriots III? We've known for most of the season that the four best teams in the AFC were in some order New England, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and the Jets, and now we have our confirmation.

The division rivals meeting for the third time this season, quite fittingly in the AFC divisional round, offers us a pair of enticing rubber matches: The Ravens (13-4) and Steelers (12-4) both took bruising three-point wins on each other's home turf, while the Jets (12-5) and Patriots (14-2) also split their two meetings in games that weren't close but still provided the kind of theater and drama their bitter rivalry has become known for.

As expected, the deepest wild-card field in recent NFL memory was heard from plenty this weekend, and that sets up what looks to be an ultra-glamour elite eight lineup next Saturday and Sunday. True, we thought the defending Saints (11-6) were the safest wild-card lock of all, and they went down in shocking fashion to the upstart Seahawks. But the Jets, Ravens and Packers all posted road wins in the first round, sweeping the playoffs clean of the 10-6, No. 3- and 4-seed pretenders in Indianapolis, Kansas City and Philadelphia.

What an entertaining round-robin tournament it has been all season in the powerful AFC. The Jets won at Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh won at Baltimore. And the Ravens won at the Jets. The Jets beat the Patriots in the Meadowlands in Week 2, but since then, New England has nipped the Ravens at home in overtime, won at Pittsburgh comfortably, and humiliated New York by 42 points in Foxboro in Week 14.

While the Patriots look unstoppable, if anything, Seattle's win this weekend taught us again how wrong we are to pre-judge any outcome in the playoffs. The Patriots and Steelers will be strong favorites at home in the divisional round, and they should be. But don't lose sight of this: The Jets are an impressive 3-1 on the road in the playoffs in the past two years, while the Ravens are 4-2 on the road in the playoffs in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era, becoming the only team in the NFL with at least one road win in each of the past three postseasons.

The NFC can't match the AFC for glitz, but we do have a couple more rematches to look forward to, making it four-for-four in that department in the divisional round: Green Bay at Atlanta and Seattle at Chicago.

The Packers (11-6) lost a 20-17 thriller in the Georgia Dome in Week 12, but pushed the Falcons (13-3), who won on a field goal in the final seconds, to the limit. The underdog Seahawks (8-9) must now take their magic act on the road to Chicago (11-5), but lo and behold, the only place Seattle won all season away from home outside its division was Soldier Field, 23-20, in Week 6.

In this year's divisional round, everybody knows everybody. Call it the Familiar Four. We get two games on Saturday and two more on Sunday, with eight teams still alive and dreaming their Super Bowl dreams.

• Suddenly, Green Bay is no longer a one-dimensional team, and that has to give the rest of the NFC playoff field reason to worry. The Packers running game has been mostly a theory this season, but it became a reality Sunday in Green Bay's 21-16 win at Philadelphia. Rookie James Starks picked a heck of a time to post his first career 100-yard rushing game, rumbling through the Eagles for 123 yards on 23 carries (5.3), pacing a Packers ground game that gained a very helpful and useful 138 yards.

Aaron Rodgers was Aaron Rodgers: He threw for three touchdowns with no interceptions, and led Green Bay on some critical scoring drives when the Packers needed them most. But with an honest-to-goodness rushing game to rely on, how much better might Rodgers be next week in the rematch with the top-seeded Falcons?

In Week 12 at Atlanta, Green Bay gained only 77 yards rushing on 23 carries (3.3 yards per attempt), and 51 of those came from Rodgers on scrambles. This is not the same Packers team that left Atlanta with its fourth loss of the season against seven wins. Green Bay's defense put together another strong effort Sunday, and the ground game adds balance to the offense, making the passing all the more effective.

• You have to admit, the breaks just keep right on coming in this most charmed of seasons for the Bears. Not trying to knock the Seahawks, who weren't the soft touches we all envisioned at home against New Orleans in the first round, but I'm pretty sure, given their druthers, the Bears would have chosen to draw Seattle in the divisional round over any other potential opponent.

I know the Seahawks have already won at Soldier Field this season, but Chicago will gladly take its chances against the 8-9 NFC West champion. Who wouldn't? The odds are Seattle just played as good a game as it could possibly play Saturday at home against the Saints. And the Bears won't even have the same potential problem of looking past Seattle, which New Orleans might have been guilty of doing.

First, the Bears surprisingly locked up a first-round bye when the underdog Vikings upset the heavily favored Eagles in Philadelphia in Week 16. And now, Chicago won't have to play a team with a winning record in the playoffs until the NFC title game. You can see where this is headed, can't you?

The Packers will upset the No. 1 seeded Falcons next week in Atlanta and the Bears will win and get to stay home and face divisional rival Green Bay in the NFC Championship. You scoff? Then you haven't been paying attention, because things just keep falling Chicago's way this season.

• His yardage didn't amount to much (26 yards on seven carries), but Joe Flacco really impressed me with how he made a few things happen with his feet early on against the Chiefs, when the Ravens offense was still sort of feeling its way.

Flacco doesn't have the same reputation as Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger for being able to get out of the pocket, buy himself time and scramble for some key yards, but he did all of that in Kansas City. He's more nimble than you realize for a big guy, and he's pretty good at finding room to run. Big Joe and Big Ben get to match that part of their games Saturday at Heinz Field.

• It'd be a classic overreaction to let Matt Cassel's rough last two weeks overshadow his fine second season in Kansas City. But that said, they were very rough weeks. Cassel threw for just 70 yards with three interceptions against Baltimore, and when you include last week's 31-10 home loss to Oakland, his two-game totals were 19-of-51 passing for 185 yards and five interceptions. Even worse, Cassel looked hesitant and not-all-that-in-command at times against the Raiders and the Ravens.

• Anybody seen Dwayne Bowe, he of the 15 touchdowns and 1,162-yard receiving regular season? The Chiefs top pass-catcher was completely invisible against the Ravens, and it's pretty apparent Kansas City needs to find some receivers who can get open and create some separation against quality cover men. The Chiefs got just two receptions for eight yards from their wide receivers Sunday, and even started the newly signed Kevin Curtis over Chris Chambers, who was deactivated.

On defense, the Chiefs' weakness showed up rather glaringly, as well. I didn't see Kansas City cover anyone in the middle of the field all day. Joe Flacco found tight end Todd Heap a franchise-playoff record 10 times for 108 yards, and the Ravens picked apart the Chiefs underneath, rarely even taking a shot to throw downfield.

Don't forget, Heap missed all but the first play of the Ravens' home loss to the Steelers last month with a hamstring injury, and his presence in Pittsburgh this weekend will be a big addition.

• What a pushing and shoving street fight the Baltimore-Kansas City game morphed into for most of the day. Every other play featured at least a few guys mixing it up, talking smack and putting their hands on each other. I get there being some excess bravado in the playoffs, but it bordered on the ridiculous at Arrowhead.

• The young-and-improved Chiefs probably overachieved just to get to 10 wins and earn the AFC West title, but their history of one-and-done playoff appearances still has to be maddening for Kansas City fans. Since the Chiefs last won a playoff game, in 1993, when Joe Montana took them all the way to the AFC title game against Buffalo, Kansas City has lost its playoff opener six consecutive times. More gallingly, four of those defeats came at home. All told, the Chiefs' seven consecutive playoff losses is an NFL record.

Sunday's 23-point loss to Baltimore follows in the wake of: a first-round loss at Indy in 2006, a divisional-round home loss against the Colts in 2003, a divisional-round home loss to Denver as the AFC's top seed in 1997, a divisional-round home loss to Indianapolis as the No. 1 seed in 1995, and a first-round loss at Miami in 1994. That's an era that spans the Chiefs coaching tenures of Marty Schottenheimer, Dick Vermeil, Herm Edwards and, now, Todd Haley.

• Speaking of the one-and-done trend in the playoffs, that's seven of 'em in 11 career trips to the playoffs for Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. Indianapolis had little reason to believe it was going anywhere in January this season, and just getting to the playoffs and winning a division title passes as a success story given how many injuries Indy had to overcome.

But still, seven out of 11 times the Colts have made the playoffs in the Manning era, they've failed to advance, and there's no way to sugarcoat that. The Jets have now beaten them twice in the first round (2002 and 2010), tying them with San Diego (2007 and 2008) in that department. Tennessee (1999), Miami (2000) and Pittsburgh (2005) have knocked out Indy as well.

Manning is now just 9-10 as a playoff starter, and the last-second loss to New York only adds another frustrating chapter to his mediocre body of postseason work.

• So much for the Charlie Weis distraction storyline. You can't really pin an entire 23-point, home-field loss on the Kansas City offensive coordinator's decision to jump to the University of Florida at season's end. Baltimore was the primary distraction for the Chiefs on this day. Weis' offense was only part of the problem.

• Reggie Wayne threw a pout-fest after the loss to the Jets, but maybe the Colts' Pro Bowl receiver needs to look in the mirror. Wayne had only one catch for 1 yard, with Manning throwing just that lone pass in his direction. But, after the game, Wayne blamed Manning for his lack of impact, rather than citing the fact that Jets all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis had him completely blanketed.

"It's bull. It's bull, man,'' Wayne said, according to the Indianapolis Star. "I give everything I've got no matter what. Every day, I give it everything. And ball, that's all. I shouldn't have even suited up. I should have watched the game like everybody else. I was irrelevant.''

What's more likely, that Manning purposely wanted to avoid throwing to the team's leading receiver, thereby hurting Indy's chances to win, or that Revis did what Revis does, completely taking away an opponent's top receiver? Playing with Manning is the best thing that has ever happened to Wayne, who wouldn't be a Pro Bowl perennial if he suited up just anywhere in the NFL. What a weak act that was by No. 87 late Saturday night.

• That wasn't exactly a paid advertisement the Saints defense put together on behalf of New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in Seattle. Giving up 41 points and 415 yards of offense to a Seahawks team that had only scored more than 31 points once all season isn't going to enhance Williams' head coaching candidacy. Williams' defense gave up 24 points in the first half -- the most Seattle had scored in any half this year.

After the Seahawks threw a first-possession interception, they went touchdown, touchdown, punt, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal -- scoring on six of their next seven drives. After giving up just 13 touchdown passes all season, the Saints gave up four to Seattle by the mid-point of the third quarter.

• Well, I guess all Saints onside kicks aren't golden in the playoffs. The Saints' Super Bowl touch badly escaped them inside of two minutes in Seattle. Kind of the same way New Orleans' two-year magic carpet ride officially ended with that galling upset loss to the 8-9 Seahawks.

• Seattle played a gutsy and inspired game and deserved its 41-36 upset win over the defending champion Saints. But I still don't believe the Seahawks "deserved'' to have a home-field advantage in this round. You can't convince me it wouldn't have been a very different outcome had the game been played in the din of the Saints' Superdome. Home field is a real advantage everywhere, but few places more so than Seattle and New Orleans, where the noise is so much a part of the environment.

For me, the Saints' loss only strengthens the argument the league shouldn't automatically reward a division winner with a home game when it has an inferior record than its wild-card opponent (let alone a vastly inferior record). New Orleans (11-5) should have gleaned some sort of advantage for having finished four games better in a stronger division than the one Seattle won at 7-9.

But I realize that proponents of leaving the current playoff seeding format as is came away from Saturday's Seahawks upset believing it proved their point as well. I just happen to think Seattle's home-field advantage was one of the key deciding factors in its memorable win, and it was too big of an advantage for a team that didn't accomplish anywhere near as much as its opponent did in the regular season.

• Explain this to me: The NFL rushes in to change the overtime format in the playoffs when the coin flip results show a less than 10 percent swing in terms of favoring the team that wins the toss, and is rarely a factor in the postseason any way.

But in this weekend's first round of the playoffs, seeding by records rather than division winners and wild cards would have resulted in having four different home teams -- and that's not seen as a significant enough competitive advantage issue to address? How twisted is that logic?

• The Saints had three false start penalties in Seattle, and that has always been a big part of the Seahawks' crowd noise advantage, as is the case in New Orleans's Superdome. Since the start of the 2005 season, Seahawks opponents have committed a league-high 107 false starts at Qwest Field.

Again, I've got no problem with a home-field advantage. It has always been a big part of playoff football. But you should have to earn it with your play in the regular season, not just be awarded it because the rules have always been that way in the past.

Come to think of it, though, a false start is the perfect term to summarize the Saints' quickly aborted defense of their Super Bowl title.

• Seattle head coach Pete Carroll just evened up his career NFL playoff record at 2-2, but has anyone ever before gone 13 years between postseason win No. 1 (New England over Miami in 1997's first round) and No. 2 (on Saturday)?

What did those two wins have in common? Lawyer Milloy played safety for Carroll in both of them.

• I can't wait for NFL Films to make an epic, three-part mini-series out of that ridiculous 67-yard, game-icing touchdown run by Seattle's Marshawn Lynch. It'll take at least three nights to air, even if all Films does is interview the seven or eight Saints defenders who had a hand on him at one point during the run.

• Not only was Lynch's masterpiece his career-long run, but his 131 yards represented the first 100-yard rushing game by a Seahawk this season, and was more than Seattle gained on the ground in 13 of its regular season games. So you can't imagine the Saints ever thought the Seahawks could put them away with their ground game.

• Do you realize that the only way Seattle (8-9) could finish above .500 this season is if it continues its playoff upset streak and wins the Super Bowl? That would make the Seahawks 11-9, and represent the fewest victories by any Super Bowl winner ever -- strike-shortened seasons included. Even the 1982 Redskins, who only played nine games in the regular season, finished 12-1 overall, including the playoffs. A Super Bowl loss and the Seahawks would be 10-10.

• Think the NFL isn't a humbling and cruel game at times? Last year during the playoffs, Saints cornerback Tracy Porter was the hero who helped salt away both the NFC title game and the Super Bowl with huge fourth-quarter interceptions of Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. But this time around, he was on the wrong side of the game-turning play.

It's going to take a while for Porter to live down the stiff-arm/shove he took from Lynch on the touchdown run, which resulted in him getting planted on his backside. Even worse, once Porter got back up and re-joined the pursuit, he looked like he didn't want any part of Lynch a second time. He all but pulled a Haynesworth.

• How glaring was the absence of injured Saints second-year safety Malcolm Jenkins? Veteran safeties Roman Harper and Darren Shaper played very old and very slow against Seattle. Both of them got beat repeatedly, and looked little like the steadying presence they were during New Orleans' run to glory last season.

Sharper, talking about Lynch's touchdown run, may have summed up the mindset of the entire Saints roster this season, and put his finger on why it's so hard to repeat in the NFL. "That was a beastly run by him,'' Sharper said. "He had a lot more hunger than we did trying to bring him down.''

A 2009 level of hunger did seem to go missing at times this season in New Orleans. The post-Super Bowl challenge is in many ways tougher than climbing the mountain the first time.

• The Saints and Colts -- last year's Super Bowl teams and No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences -- being the first teams eliminated this year only underscores how democratic the NFL playoffs have become. Eight different teams have earned the 10 Super Bowl berths the past five seasons (with only Indianapolis and Pittsburgh making multiple trips) and New England is the only team to play in two consecutive Super Bowls (2003-04) since Denver went back to back in 1997-98.

• Sean Payton made sure Reggie Bush returned to the Saints for the 2010 season, but when will it be time for New Orleans head coach to acknowledge that he's paying for way more production than he's getting? With Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory both injured and out for the season, the Saints still didn't trust that Bush could carry the load for the running game against Seattle. He touched the ball 10 times in Seattle, gaining 49 yards, most of that coming on his five catches for 37 yards.

The New Orleans run game was forced to ride with Cowboys and Seahawks castoff Julius Jones, and that definitely wasn't the Saints' master plan for the season.

• Seahawks defensive end Raheem Brock had a heck of a game against the Saints (one sack, one forced fumble) and has developed into one of the NFL's reigning good luck charms. Brock is in his ninth NFL season, and he's making his ninth trip to the playoffs. Spending his first eight years in the NFL in Indianapolis sure didn't hurt. But 9-of-9 is pretty impressive, no matter what.

He's kind of the anti-Takeo Spikes.

• Charlie Whitehurst had his 15 minutes of fame in Week 17, but how do you not think about bringing Matt Hasselbeck back in 2011 if you're Seattle? I suppose next week at Chicago he could revert to more of the mistake-prone form we've seen from him the past three regular seasons, but the 35-year-old Hasselbeck just played the game of his life against the Saints.

I don't ever remember seeing Hasselbeck have better touch on his passes than he did in carving up New Orleans. He floated some and fired others, but he was on the money all day long. Once that early deflected pass ended up as an interception by Saints cornerback Jabari Greer, Hasselbeck was on fire, and played the position like the wily, old veteran he is. At the very least, the Seahawks or somebody else is going to want Hasselbeck as a superb, 1A-type starting option.

• Be it Drew Brees, Ray Lewis or whoever that mystery man was leading the Eagles pregame scrum/shout-fest, could the networks please spare us the mandatory televising of these made-for-TV events? They're such a cliché at this point, and you can hardly ever discern what the team leader is even imploring his teammates to do. If they were ever really a fresh and novel glimpse of what happens during the pregame on the sideline, I really can't remember when that must have been at this point.

• With four games down and seven to still play this postseason, the new overtime rules were no factor in the first round of the playoffs. But I'm pretty sure we'll get still more detailed explanations next week of all the potential strategies involved. All for something that will rarely happen, and probably wasn't needed to begin with.