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:
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.
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.