Divisional storylines (cont.)
5. Fresh faces are always fun in the playoffs.
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.
6. There's no Saints-like underdog saga in store this year, but the upstart Seahawks aren't a bad replacement.
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 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.
7. Been there, done that.
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.
8. Winning one for the Gipper.
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.