Eight is enough: Best storylines heading into NFL's divisional round
Peyton Manning, Colts have chance to put rest argument to rest
With three dome games and one more in San Diego, weather won't be a factor
Ranking the final eight teams, questioning the kickers and more
Time for the best weekend of the NFL season, when the elite eight pair off in four must-see divisional-round playoff games. Here are eight of the best storylines still looming:
1. The Colts didn't record a perfect season, but will the rest help them win the "rest'' of their games? Well here we go. Time to find out if Indy's strategy of eschewing the drive for 16-0 was the smart move, setting the stage for their second Super Bowl title run in four seasons. The Colts (14-2) have stumbled in this position before in the Peyton Manning era, losing three times at home in their divisional round opener after earning a first-round bye (2007, 2005, 1999).
The only way this storyline could be any richer would be if the Jets were Indy's opponent this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was New York, of course, that came to Indianapolis in Week 16, winning in comeback fashion after the Colts had pulled Manning and a healthy collection of starters in the middle of the third quarter.
But the Ravens are always an interesting foe for Indy, too, because some Baltimore fans still seethe about losing the Colts to Indianapolis almost three decades ago. Indy has won seven in a row against the Ravens, ratcheting up the pressure to win just a little bit more. And it's entirely fair to say that Baltimore (10-7) comes in as the hot team, having won four of its past five, including elimination games in Week 17 at Oakland and in last weekend's first round at New England. And the Ravens are fearless on the road in the playoffs, having gone 3-1 away from home over the past two postseasons.
2. There's nothing like the first time. With the Patriots, Steelers and Giants not making it to the NFL's great eight this season, you can cross off six of the decade's first nine Super Bowl winners right there. That means we have a great chance for a parade to be held in a fairly new spot on the Tuesday after Super Bowl Sunday.
Four of the remaining eight teams have never won a Super Bowl: The Saints, Vikings, Cardinals and Chargers have come up empty in their first 171 combined seasons of play in the Super Bowl era, but they all have some legitimate reasons to believe this will be their year. New Orleans has never even been to a Super Bowl, while Arizona and San Diego have made just one trip each. Minnesota remains 0-4 in the game, but after going four times in eight years between 1969-76, the Vikings haven't been back in 33 years.
Of the other four remaining playoff contestants, the Jets have been trying to follow up on Super Bowl III for a mere 41 years now, and the Cowboys are working on a 13-year Super Bowl drought, tying their longest in franchise history. Only the Colts (2006) and Ravens (2000) have won rings this decade, and both teams have changed head coaches since their championship seasons.
3. Wither the weather? If you're a fan of football in the winter elements, you can pretty much skip the rest of this postseason and start working on your fantasy baseball draft. This weekend's divisional round includes three games in domes (in New Orleans, Minnesota and Indianapolis) and a fourth in perpetually sunny San Diego.
No Snow Bowl is forthcoming. No wind-swept day at Soldier Field, with Sean Landeta whiffing on a punt. No Norman Rockwell painting tableau at Lambeau Field. Just boring climate-controlled temperatures, and highs of around 70 degrees in Southern California.
And when you consider that five of the possible six sites for the conference title games are either indoor stadiums or in mostly sun-splashed locales (New Orleans, Minnesota, Indianapolis, Dallas and San Diego), we're almost assured of more of the same next weekend. And don't forget, the Super Bowl is in South Florida again this season.
You want weather with your playoff football? Then root for the No. 6 seed Ravens to upset the top-seeded Colts and the No. 5 Jets to knock off the No. 2 Chargers, setting up an AFC title game of Baltimore at New York, in what we promise will absolutely, positively be the last game ever played in Giants Stadium. (We're sure this time).
4. The Year of the Quarterback (Playoff version). With hot quarterbacks everywhere you look, the divisional round should be even better than the wild-card round, when Arizona's Kurt Warner, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Dallas's Tony Romo and even Jets rookie Mark Sanchez lit it up (albeit in a training-wheels-still-on sort of way).
Now we get to add into the mix the guy who just won a record fourth league MVP award (Manning), and the three quarterbacks who finished second, third and fourth in the voting (New Orleans' Drew Brees, San Diego's Philip Rivers, and Minnesota's Brett Favre). And like we earlier noted, they'll all be playing in good weather this weekend, so the passing games could be in for the playoff showing of all-time in these four pressure-packed matchups.
The only quarterback who's struggling right now is Baltimore's banged up second-year veteran Joe Flacco, whose hip problem is more bothersome than the Ravens are acknowledging. It's not likely John Harbaugh's club can win again with Flacco completing only four of 10 passes for 34 yards, but taking the air out of the ball and relying on the running game worked like a charm at New England, so look for Baltimore to give that game plan another try against the Colts.
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