The AFC's power rematches, the Pack's breakthrough, more Snaps
With things going according to plan in the AFC, Seattle pulled the lone shocker
James Starks' 123 rushing yards make the Pack that much more dangerous
The Saints' loss means the Bears' charmed 2010-11 season keeps chugging along
Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we wrap up the NFL's wild-card weekend of playoff action and start counting the hours until next weekend's intriguing slate of divisional-round matchups ...
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.
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