There's no better weekend to watch the NFL than the divisional playoffs, when the league's elite eight square off in a two-day orgy of high-stakes elimination football. Here are eight of the best storylines that loom over the action to come:
Even though they're about as different temperamentally as two people can be, Jets head coach Rex Ryan and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan have the pressure to produce weighing heavily on their shoulders as they prepare for the Patriots and Packers, respectively. You know all about Rex Ryan talking up his team's Super Bowl chances, with his penchant for writing checks with his mouth that his team has to cash. In returning to Foxboro on Sunday, site of their 45-3 humiliation early last month, the Jets face their biggest obstacle yet on the road to Dallas.
But don't overlook the burden on the other Ryan, Atlanta's third-year quarterback. The time is now for the talented Matt Ryan to take the next career step, and that means winning a playoff game for the first time. After all, the Falcons (13-3) are the NFC's top seed, they're rested, and they're playing at home against a Green Bay team they've already beaten once in the Georgia Dome this season. Simply put, No. 1 seeds aren't supposed to lose to No. 6 seeds.
In Matt Ryan's only other playoff start, the Falcons were dismissed in the first round at Arizona in 2008, a forgivable loss at the end of his successful rookie season. This one wouldn't be so forgivable. Ryan has rolled up a gaudy 19-2 starting record at home in his three seasons, but he needs to validate that dominance with a home playoff victory and a berth in next Sunday's NFC title game. After all, Ryan's fellow first-round quarterback in the Class of 2008, Baltimore's Joe Flacco, already owns a 4-2 career playoff record and will be going for an NFL-record fifth postseason road win at Pittsburgh on Saturday. Notching a home playoff win as the top seed is the least Ryan can do to remain relevant in that particular career comparison.
Matty Ice isn't supposed to be an ironic nickname, so Ryan can't afford to turn cold in the playoffs. For both Rex and Matt Ryan, it's time to deliver.
Are they poised to resemble the unstoppable playoff machine of 2003-2004, or are they really just a version of the club that has gone a modest 5-4 in the postseason since winning their last Super Bowl ring? For all New England's glitzy accomplishments of yesteryear, you could make a pretty good case for the Patriots having just turned in their finest half-season of football ever. In its past eight games, since that smelling-salt-under-the-nose loss at Cleveland in Week 9, New England has averaged 37.4 points per game, scoring between 31-45 points every week and winning by an average of more than three touchdowns. To repeat, that's a 21.8-point margin of victory in the NFL, where games supposedly are always won by seven points or fewer. Who said the dynasty was dead?
And it's not just Tom Brady and the offense getting the job done. The Patriots defense has allowed seven points or fewer in four of its past five games, and is giving up just 15.6 points per outing during New England's eight-game winning streak. The Patriots defense recorded 18 interceptions in the season's second half, tying Dallas for the league lead over that span.
Hot quarterbacks usually win in the playoffs, and no one is on fire like Brady. He enters the postseason with a league-record streak of 335 pass attempts since his last interception (a Hail Mary late in regulation of an overtime win over Baltimore in the fifth game of the season), and his four picks in 492 attempts this year set another NFL mark for lowest interception percentage (0.8). The Patriots simply don't turn the ball over. They went more than seven games without a turnover until Danny Woodhead fumbled against Miami in Week 17, and their 10 total giveaways this season left them with a +27 turnover difference, which dwarfed the second-best Steelers (+14).
I'm afraid I have bad news for the rest of the NFL playoff field: These Patriots? They might be for real.
All they have to do is close that little 42-point gap that existed between themselves and the Patriots just six weeks ago. That's all. Is it hopeless? No, it's not hopeless.
Here's an optimistic stat for you New York fans: In the Bill Belichick era, the Patriots are 7-0 against teams they didn't play in the regular season. Against teams they did face (like the Jets), they're just 7-4 in the playoffs, and just 2-4 from 2005 on. Last year, Baltimore lost to New England in the regular season and then came back and humbled the Pats 33-14 in the first round of the playoffs, in Foxboro, no less.
But alas, not all the pregame statistical nuggets favor a competitive game on Sunday in Gillette Stadium. The last time a team lost by at least 40 points in the regular season and then drew that same opponent in the playoffs? The 1991 Wayne Fontes-coached Detroit Lions. They lost to the Redskins 45-0 in the regular season, then met them again in the NFC title game, in Washington. Detroit did better the second time around, but still lost 41-10, in the closest brush the Lions have ever had with the Super Bowl.
Someone please break the news gently to Fireman Ed.
Six of the eight teams in the divisional round (three in each conference) have ridden there on the backs of young quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round -- all from 2004 on.
The lineup goes Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (2005), Chicago's Jay Cutler (2006), Atlanta's Matt Ryan, Baltimore's Joe Flacco (both 2008) and New York's Mark Sanchez (2009). All but Cutler are still playing for the team that drafted them. As for New England's Tom Brady (sixth round, 1999) and Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck (sixth round, 1998), well, this is one club you guys just can't get into.
Quarterbacks always dominate the story lines in the playoffs, but this is a particularly high-pedigree group when it comes to previous postseason success. Brady, of course, owns three Super Bowl rings and is 14-4 as a playoff starter. Roethlisberger is right behind him, with two rings and an 8-2 mark in the postseason. He can tie the likes of Brady and Troy Aikman in the jewelry department with one more Super Bowl victory.
Hasselbeck took Seattle to its only Super Bowl appearance five years ago, and young guns like Flacco (4-2 in the playoffs) and Sanchez (3-1) already have a wealth of playoff experience for quarterbacks who are still very early in their careers. Rodgers earned his first playoff win last week at Philadelphia to square his career mark at 1-1, while Ryan is 0-1 and Cutler is making his NFL playoff debut in his fifth season.
But it's not a great year on that front. Four of the remaining eight teams didn't make the postseason in 2009: Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta and Pittsburgh. But of that group, the Falcons and Steelers were both playoff teams in 2008, with perennial contending Pittsburgh winning its sixth Super Bowl title just two short years ago.
Green Bay and New England are back again this January, but they were one-and-done teams a year ago -- both losing on the wild-card Sunday -- and they have something to prove. The Packers have been considered Super Bowl contenders the past two preseasons, and the Patriots look determined to make everyone regret they offered up those obits for the dynasty after last year's first-round meltdown against Baltimore.
That leaves the AFC wild-card Ravens and Jets as the only teams who have won playoff games in each of the past two seasons, and they're both on the road this week facing supremely tough challenges at Pittsburgh and New England, respectively.
In the entire eight-team field, nobody has waited longer for another taste of the playoffs than Lovie Smith's Bears, who will be playing a postseason game this weekend for the first time since losing the Super Bowl to the Colts after the 2006 season. Led by Jay Cutler on offense, and Julius Peppers on defense, Chicago's big gambles the past two offseasons have paid off and helped save Smith's job.
Never before has the following sentence been written in a preview story for the NFL's divisional playoffs: Can Seattle continue its magic-carpet ride this week -- and get to .500? But that's where things stand with Pete Carroll's 8-9 club as it heads to Chicago for Sunday's opener, and we might as well embrace it.
The Seahawks have to be considered dangerous at this point. They're playing with house money, and they have the relaxed and confident demeanor of a team that knows it's all gravy at this point. Having nothing to lose is a cliché that just might fit in the case of Seattle. The Seahawks are already through the looking glass, so why not continue their wild ride?
And Seattle does have some reason to believe things might continue to go its way this week at the Bears. The Seahawks won 23-20 at Chicago in Week 6, and it was Seattle's most complete victory of the season before last week's upset of New Orleans. Seattle sacked Jay Cutler six times and stoned the Bears on third down (0 of 12). Receiver Mike Williams torched Chicago's secondary with 10 receptions for 123 yards, and Marshawn Lynch made his Seahawks' debut with a 6.7 average rush. All in all, it was a pretty good day.
Could it happen again? Well, both teams have been pretty good on the rematch front. Seattle swept Arizona and split with both the Rams and Saints, winning the second game. The 49ers">49ers avenged a season-opening loss to Seattle when they met again, but that's still a 3-1 mark for the Seahawks when facing a team a second time. But the Bears can almost match that, having swept both Minnesota and Detroit, and losing only their second game against Green Bay, once their playoff seed already had been determined.
Last postseason we had a couple head coaches making their NFL playoff debut. In 2008, we had a whopping five postseason rookies, and in 2007 there were two. But this year, nada. We've got some real playoff veterans working the headsets, and that could make for better games with better prepared teams. Maybe it means no one this year will be going wide-eyed under the playoff spotlight, resulting in the kind of 23-point blowout that we got from Todd Haley and his newbie Chiefs in last weekend's first round.
The dean of our group is, of course, New England's Bill Belichick, who's in his 11th season in Foxboro and has the Pats in the playoffs for the eighth time in the past 10 years. But the younger coaching crowd is gaining on the man in the hoodie. Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin is making his third playoff trip in four seasons, Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is back for a third time in five years, and Baltimore's John Harbaugh is a perfect 3 of 3 in his brief Ravens' tenure.
Though he has sat out the postseason party the past three seasons, Lovie Smith and his Bears are in the playoffs for the third time in his seven-year stay in Chicago. Rex Ryan has two wild-card berths and three wins posted in his two seasons with the Jets, and Mike Smith has the Falcons playing in January for the second time in his three years in Atlanta.
That leaves just Pete Carroll's curious NFL playoff track record. The perpetually energetic one is actually a half-year older than Belichick and will turn 60 next September. But he seems like one of the younger coaches because he's back again, after taking an 11-year break from the NFL. Getting Seattle into the playoffs makes it three postseason berths in his five-year, three-team NFL coaching career, with a mere 13 seasons separating his first playoff win with the 1997 Patriots and last week's shocker against the Saints.
Every NFL postseason has those veteran players who emerge as sentimental favorites. Most fans wanted to see Jerome Bettis or John Elway go out with a ring, and many folks were even partial to a guy like Giants punter Jeff Feagles, who earned his Super Bowl title three years ago after spending about 47 seasons in the NFL.
This year we've got the sentimental fan favorite angle covered in bountiful ways. The Jets have two of the reigning ring-less veterans in 10th-year running back LaDainian Tomlinson and 14th-year linebacker/defensive end Jason Taylor. LT wants a championship so bad he can taste it, and who can blame him after his string of misfortune in the playoffs. More than once, the Patriots have blocked his way to the Super Bowl.
Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez is in his 14th season and Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson is a 13-year NFL veteran. They're two of the best to ever play their positions, but they're still waiting to slip on a ring and take their place in that particular pantheon of the game. You can say roughly the same for ball-hawking Baltimore safety Ed Reed, now in his 9th dominating season. Reed wasn't a Raven when Baltimore won in 2000, and he burns to be a champion and know the feeling that teammate Ray Lewis already knows.
Lastly, there's Brian Urlacher, the 11th-year Bears middle linebacker who with a Super Bowl win could cap a career that has been heavy on individual honors but shy on sustained team success. Urlacher played in a Super Bowl four years ago, but the Bears lost to the Colts in rainy Miami. This might be his last, best shot to erase that loss.