The best weekend of the NFL season is nearly upon us, with the league’s star-studded Elite 8 squaring off in the divisional round playoffs. Here are eight storylines to watch as the month-long Super Bowl tournament continues with four more bursts of single-elimination football.
1. Hearing the ticking of the clock in Denver and New England
The playoffs are pressure-packed for everyone involved, but nowhere is the sense of urgency higher than in Denver and Foxboro, where two legendary quarterbacks are trying to scale the NFL mountaintop one more time. Peyton Manning, 38, and Tom Brady, 37, are in ultra win-now mode and may never have a better chance to add to their ring collection than this year.
For Manning, dealing with a playoff opener has never made for his favorite week of the year. He’s 11-12 in the postseason in his long career, with eight of those losses coming in his team’s first game -- the dreaded one-and-done syndrome. For the record, that’s more playoff losses and more one-and-done postseason runs than any other quarterback in NFL history. The Broncos have gone all-in trying to win a Super Bowl with the tandem of Manning on the field and John Elway in the front office; they’re 38-10 in the regular seasons of 2012-'14, but only 2-2 in the playoffs with Manning, and last year’s Super Bowl blowout loss only ratchets up the sense of now-or-never in Denver.
It’s been 42 years since a team lost the Super Bowl and then came back the next year to win it -- Miami in 1971-'72 -- and all Manning has to do to match the Dolphins’ feat is to beat the quarterback who replaced him in Indianapolis (Andrew Luck), beat either his No. 1 rival in Brady or the guy who knocked him and the Broncos out of the 2012 playoffs in Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, and then potentially beat an NFC champion quarterbacked by either Seattle’s Russell Wilson or Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, the likely league MVP. That’s all.
And then there’s a man named Brady. The quest for that fourth ring in New England has now dragged on for a full decade, and some believe this is perhaps the best, most complete Patriots team he has played on since the 2003-'04 repeat Super Bowl champions. The Brady-Bill Belichick tandem have been trying to win that Terry Bradshaw-Chuck Noll-tying fourth ring together, and they’ve come so agonizingly close on a number of occasions, losing twice in the Super Bowl, three times in the AFC title game, twice in the divisional round and once in the wild-card round.
“I think when you’re young, there is no perspective," Brady said last week. “Now that I have a little perspective on it, yeah, it’s hard to do [win Super Bowls]. To do what we accomplished in a short period of time (2001-'04) was amazing."
If Brady and Belichick get it done, the 10-year gap between titles will dwarf the next longest wait between NFL championships for a quarterback and head coach, with Dallas’ duo of Roger Staubach and Tom Landry going six seasons between their first Super Bowl win together (1971) and their second ('77). Things certainly look good this year for the No. 1 seeded Patriots, but keep in mind New England has lost six of its past 10 playoff games from its early 2008 Super Bowl loss to the Giants on, after starting out 14-2 in the postseason in the Belichick-Brady era. Is it finally the Patriots’ turn again to rule the football world and put the final piece of their dynasty in place? Saturday’s game against visiting Baltimore represents the first difficult step in that direction.
2. Somebody good is going down this weekend
Like all four of the home-field favorites this weekend, and foresee a chalk conference final round of Denver at New England in the AFC and Green Bay at Seattle in the NFC? I think I do, too. But recent history says we’re probably not going to get it. It has been 10 years since the seeding held perfectly in the divisional round, meaning all four home teams -- or the two top seeds in each conference -- were victorious.
Beginning in 2005, home teams in the divisional round are a decent but far from dominant 21-15 (.583), with two or more home teams losing in five of the past nine seasons. In both '12 and '13, the higher seeds went 3-1 at home in this round, with No. 1-seeded Denver being upset by Baltimore in '12 and No. 2-seeded Carolina falling to the slightly favored 49ers last year. But beware New England and Seattle, because No. 1 seeds are just 9-9 in the divisional round since '05, with second seeds (Denver and Green Bay this year) faring much better, at 12-6.
Last year’s Super Bowl teams, the Broncos and Seahawks, have actually already bucked a good bit of history just in earning first-round byes and getting to this weekend. The last time both Super Bowl teams from the previous season have qualified for the divisional round was way back in 1997, when Green Bay and New England both made it after meeting in Super Bowl XXXI following the '96 season. The Patriots lost to Pittsburgh in the '97 divisional round, while the Packers went on to lose the Super Bowl to Denver that year. No wonder the Super Bowl hangover theory thrives.
And if both Seattle and Denver survive this round -- as they are expected to do -- and move on to the conference title games, it’ll represent even more of a rarity. The last time both Super Bowl teams from the previous season made it that far was in 1993, when both Dallas and Buffalo were in the process of earning their way to a second consecutive Super Bowl showdown. As a reminder, the last NFC team to earn back-to-back Super Bowl berths was the '96-'97 Packers, with the Patriots of 2003-'04 the most recent in the AFC.
3. Everybody loves an underdog
If there’s a Cinderella slipper that fits anyone this postseason, it has to belong to those charmed Panthers of Carolina. They've gone from 3-8-1 entering Week 14, to playing this weekend for the right to go the NFC Championship Game. Is this a great country or what? Feel free to make the 8-8-1 Panthers our national sentimental favorite at this point, because the other seven teams still alive in the playoffs all own at least one Super Bowl trophy, with 19 combined and everybody but the defending champion Seahawks boasting multiple Lombardi’s.
Carolina, now in its 20th season of existence, has just that narrow Super Bowl loss to the Patriots in 2004 on its resume and is still seeking its first turn atop the NFL mountaintop. Shoot, the Panthers had never even won their division two years in a row or qualified for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons before turning that trick with this year’s improbable, late-arriving miracle run. But they’re 5-0 in their past five games, and that’s all that matters now. Ron Rivera’s club doesn’t seem to know it’s not supposed to be here, and that’s always going to make a team a bit dangerous come January.
The Panthers, if nothing else, have endured, overcoming the Greg Hardy saga, the league-wide punch line that the NFC South became this season, Cam Newton’s scary car accident, and this week, even the early morning fire that destroyed part of Rivera’s home in Charlotte. And they’re still standing, and still playing, when 24 other teams have gone home for the winter.
Who knows where this could lead? This week, the “Why-not-us?’’ Panthers have designs on pulling the upset in Seattle, which would also nudge them over .500 for the first time since they were 3-2-1 in mid-October. You can’t make this stuff up.
4. A position of strength
If you’re just a tad old-school and think linebacking play is the most fascinating element of a game to watch, you’re in luck this weekend, because the divisional round is practically a who’s who showcase for the game’s best at the position. There will be linebacker talent galore on display in all four games.
Where to start? How about in Seattle, where third-year middle linebackers Luke Kuechly of the Panthers and Bobby Wagner of the Seahawks are the two best in the NFC, with both being Pro Bowl selections. Kuechly hasn’t matched his 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year production, but he’s still a force, and he almost single-handedly destroyed Arizona last week, recording 10 tackles, intercepting a Ryan Lindley pass in the red zone and breaking up a pass that resulted in another interception, by Panthers safety Tre Boston.
Meanwhile, all Wagner has done is help Seattle’s No. 1-ranked defense return to its dominant form of 2013 -- or better -- since returning to the lineup from a foot injury in Week 12. Seattle hasn’t lost in six games since he got back on the field, and the Seahawks haven’t allowed anyone to score more than 14 points in that span, limiting five of those opponents to seven points or fewer. Wagner last week was named first-team All-Pro middle linebacker, and he also recently collected December’s NFC Defensive Player of the Month honor.
But Wagner and Kuechly are just the tip of the iceberg in the divisional round. The Baltimore-New England game features a Ravens lineup that includes Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil (a combined 29 sacks) on the outside for Baltimore, with tackle-machines C.J. Mosley and Darryl Smith inside. The Patriots can counter with young playmakers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower.
In the Dallas-Green Bay game, the Packers defense has finished strong in the second half of the season with both the versatile Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers providing the sack production (18 combined) and star power, while the Cowboys’ surprising defensive strength this year has been built around the unexpected contributions of middle linebacker Rolando McClain.
Lastly, the Indianapolis-Denver game has Von Miller (14 sacks) and Brandon Marshall (91 tackles) leading the defense on the Broncos side, while the Robert Mathis-less Colts have made do without their most valuable defender, getting solid play from the likes of veterans D’Qwell Jackson and Erik Walden.
5. Here’s hoping the weather outside is frightful
Sure, the Super Bowl will be played indoors this year, in the toasty environs of University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. -- an edifice that more than a little bit resembles a big toaster. But playoff football is best served cold, and this weekend will largely deliver on that front, starting with the rematch we’ve been waiting 47 years for: The Ice Bowl II, between Dallas and Green Bay in Lambeau Field on Sunday.
The forecast calls for a high of 23 degrees and a low of 5 in Green Bay on Sunday, with sunny skies and no chance of precipitation. But we’ll be able to see everyone’s breath -- including the fans’ -- and the players will be bundled against cold as best they can, like they were on that memorable New Year’s Eve day of 1967. Here’s hoping someone tapes over their helmet’s earholes, like some Cowboys did in Ice Bowl I, and the game at some point gives us a chance for Green Bay to call a fourth-down quarterback sneak by Aaron Rodgers at the goal line.
The rest of the weather picture this weekend isn’t quite that frosty, but it won’t be balmy in Foxboro, Denver or Seattle. The Ravens and Patriots will play on Saturday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, where the high is expected to be 23 degrees and the low 12, with sunny skies and no precipitation. In Denver on Sunday, in the later game, it’ll be 43 for a high, 20 for a low, with partly cloudy skies and no rain or snow for the Colts and Broncos. In Seattle Saturday night, the Panthers and Seahawks will face a 50 percent chance of rain (of course), with a high of 43 and maybe some fog.
6. The first time is the charm
Everybody is well aware that Baltimore has been New England’s playoff nemesis recently, beating the Patriots in Gillette Stadium in 2009’s first round, as well as the 2012 AFC title game, while losing narrowly in the 2011 AFC title game. So New England looks to have the toughest challenge on its hands of any of the four top-seeded home teams this weekend.
But maybe not, and here’s why: While the Patriots beat both the Colts and Broncos rather handily earlier this season in the first half of November, they didn’t play Baltimore this season. And that may make all the difference in Saturday’s outcome.
It’s simple, really. In the Belichick era, his Patriots are 9-0 in the playoffs against teams they didn’t face that season. But if the playoff game was a rematch from the regular season, New England is just 9-8 overall, and a lousy 4-8 from 2005 on. That’s very bad news for the Ravens this week, but perhaps great news for either the Broncos or Colts in next week’s AFC Championship Game.
7. The Packers defense is suddenly packing a punch
Though the Packers’ postseason hopes are always tied to Aaron Rodgers and their high-powered offensive talent, if the NFL gave out a most-improved award in the second half of the regular season Green Bay’s defense would warrant strong consideration this year. And you probably haven’t even noticed how far coordinator Dom Capers’ defense has come over the course of the past eight games, a span that has featured outside linebacker Clay Matthews shifting inside to the middle at times, the strong play of defensive tackle Letroy Guion, and the improvement by rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Through the first eight games of the season and the Packers’ Week 9 bye, their defense ranked a shaky 25th overall (379.3 yards), with a horrible run defense (153.5, ranked 32nd) and a pretty good pass defense (225.8, 9th). But in the last eight games of the season, Weeks 10-17, Green Bay’s defense was the league’s seventh best overall (313.5), with a fifth-ranked run defense (86.4) and a 13th-ranked pass defense (227.1).
The huge jump on run defense keyed the improvement, and that’s a pretty handy development with the NFL’s leading rusher in the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray headed to town this weekend, and the possibility of Seattle and Marshawn Lynch looming in next Sunday’s NFC title game. Green Bay on average gave up 67.1 yards less of rushing in the season’s second half, by far the biggest improvement in the league over that span. The Packers went from being gouged for 4.78 yards per rush in the first half (29th), to just 3.60 yards per carry in the second half (6th). All eight opponents rushed for at least 108 yards per game in the season’s first half, but Green Bay allowed a second-half high of 113 yards rushing against Buffalo, and held four teams to under 100 yards on the ground.
A top 10 defense in Green Bay, to go with an offense that was the league’s highest-scoring at 30.4 points per game over the course of the whole season? Yep. At least in the season’s second half, that’s what the numbers added up to for the Packers. And that’s a winning formula that could support another Super Bowl run.
8. Twice as nice
Winning a second Super Bowl ring as a quarterback puts him in pretty select company, and exactly half of this weekend’s eight-team field features a passer trying to gain entry to that club. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco are three of the four most recent Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, and they’re all back in the quest for more jewelry. Denver’s Peyton Manning is too, and he’s still trying to match the two rings won by his little brother, Eli, with the Giants of 2007 and '11.
Tom Brady is going for his fourth ring, while Carolina’s Cam Newton, Dallas’s Tony Romo and Indy’s Andrew Luck are all seeking their first. Winning a second ring makes you a darn good bet to punch your ticket to Canton and the Hall of Fame. There have been 11 multiple-ring winning quarterbacks thus far, and of that group, the Raiders’ Jim Plunkett is the only retired quarterback who has yet to be enshrined, with Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning still active.
One further note on Peyton Manning, this is his 10th appearance in the divisional round from 1999 on (out of a possible 15 seasons that he played), and 11 times in the past 12 years we’ve had at least one of the Manning brothers quarterbacking in the NFL’s elite eight. And if Denver makes it to the Super Bowl, it’ll be the sixth time in a nine-year span that we’ve had a Manning start the Big Game, with only 2012, '10 and '08 breaking the trend.