Eight is enough: Best storylines heading into NFL's best weekend
Two Ryans -- Matt and Rex -- will be feeling the pressure in the divisional playoffs
Patriots have been dominant, but are just 5-4 in playoffs since last Super Bowl title
Six of the eight quarterbacks remaining are former first-round draft picks
There's no better weekend to watch the NFL than the divisional playoffs, when the league's elite eight square off in a two-day orgy of high-stakes elimination football. Here are eight of the best storylines that loom over the action to come:
1. There's a Ryan in each conference who really needs a win this weekend.
Even though they're about as different temperamentally as two people can be, Jets head coach Rex Ryan and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan have the pressure to produce weighing heavily on their shoulders as they prepare for the Patriots and Packers, respectively. You know all about Rex Ryan talking up his team's Super Bowl chances, with his penchant for writing checks with his mouth that his team has to cash. In returning to Foxboro on Sunday, site of their 45-3 humiliation early last month, the Jets face their biggest obstacle yet on the road to Dallas.
But don't overlook the burden on the other Ryan, Atlanta's third-year quarterback. The time is now for the talented Matt Ryan to take the next career step, and that means winning a playoff game for the first time. After all, the Falcons (13-3) are the NFC's top seed, they're rested, and they're playing at home against a Green Bay team they've already beaten once in the Georgia Dome this season. Simply put, No. 1 seeds aren't supposed to lose to No. 6 seeds.
In Matt Ryan's only other playoff start, the Falcons were dismissed in the first round at Arizona in 2008, a forgivable loss at the end of his successful rookie season. This one wouldn't be so forgivable. Ryan has rolled up a gaudy 19-2 starting record at home in his three seasons, but he needs to validate that dominance with a home playoff victory and a berth in next Sunday's NFC title game. After all, Ryan's fellow first-round quarterback in the Class of 2008, Baltimore's Joe Flacco, already owns a 4-2 career playoff record and will be going for an NFL-record fifth postseason road win at Pittsburgh on Saturday. Notching a home playoff win as the top seed is the least Ryan can do to remain relevant in that particular career comparison.
Matty Ice isn't supposed to be an ironic nickname, so Ryan can't afford to turn cold in the playoffs. For both Rex and Matt Ryan, it's time to deliver.
2. Which Patriots team will show up?
Are they poised to resemble the unstoppable playoff machine of 2003-2004, or are they really just a version of the club that has gone a modest 5-4 in the postseason since winning their last Super Bowl ring? For all New England's glitzy accomplishments of yesteryear, you could make a pretty good case for the Patriots having just turned in their finest half-season of football ever. In its past eight games, since that smelling-salt-under-the-nose loss at Cleveland in Week 9, New England has averaged 37.4 points per game, scoring between 31-45 points every week and winning by an average of more than three touchdowns. To repeat, that's a 21.8-point margin of victory in the NFL, where games supposedly are always won by seven points or fewer. Who said the dynasty was dead?
And it's not just Tom Brady and the offense getting the job done. The Patriots defense has allowed seven points or fewer in four of its past five games, and is giving up just 15.6 points per outing during New England's eight-game winning streak. The Patriots defense recorded 18 interceptions in the season's second half, tying Dallas for the league lead over that span.
Hot quarterbacks usually win in the playoffs, and no one is on fire like Brady. He enters the postseason with a league-record streak of 335 pass attempts since his last interception (a Hail Mary late in regulation of an overtime win over Baltimore in the fifth game of the season), and his four picks in 492 attempts this year set another NFL mark for lowest interception percentage (0.8). The Patriots simply don't turn the ball over. They went more than seven games without a turnover until Danny Woodhead fumbled against Miami in Week 17, and their 10 total giveaways this season left them with a +27 turnover difference, which dwarfed the second-best Steelers (+14).
I'm afraid I have bad news for the rest of the NFL playoff field: These Patriots? They might be for real.
3. There's reason to believe for the Jets.
All they have to do is close that little 42-point gap that existed between themselves and the Patriots just six weeks ago. That's all. Is it hopeless? No, it's not hopeless.
Here's an optimistic stat for you New York fans: In the Bill Belichick era, the Patriots are 7-0 against teams they didn't play in the regular season. Against teams they did face (like the Jets), they're just 7-4 in the playoffs, and just 2-4 from 2005 on. Last year, Baltimore lost to New England in the regular season and then came back and humbled the Pats 33-14 in the first round of the playoffs, in Foxboro, no less.
But alas, not all the pregame statistical nuggets favor a competitive game on Sunday in Gillette Stadium. The last time a team lost by at least 40 points in the regular season and then drew that same opponent in the playoffs? The 1991 Wayne Fontes-coached Detroit Lions. They lost to the Redskins 45-0 in the regular season, then met them again in the NFC title game, in Washington. Detroit did better the second time around, but still lost 41-10, in the closest brush the Lions have ever had with the Super Bowl.
Someone please break the news gently to Fireman Ed.
4. This year's postseason arms race is a first-rounder's game.
Six of the eight teams in the divisional round (three in each conference) have ridden there on the backs of young quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round -- all from 2004 on.
The lineup goes Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (2005), Chicago's Jay Cutler (2006), Atlanta's Matt Ryan, Baltimore's Joe Flacco (both 2008) and New York's Mark Sanchez (2009). All but Cutler are still playing for the team that drafted them. As for New England's Tom Brady (sixth round, 1999) and Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck (sixth round, 1998), well, this is one club you guys just can't get into.
Quarterbacks always dominate the story lines in the playoffs, but this is a particularly high-pedigree group when it comes to previous postseason success. Brady, of course, owns three Super Bowl rings and is 14-4 as a playoff starter. Roethlisberger is right behind him, with two rings and an 8-2 mark in the postseason. He can tie the likes of Brady and Troy Aikman in the jewelry department with one more Super Bowl victory.
Hasselbeck took Seattle to its only Super Bowl appearance five years ago, and young guns like Flacco (4-2 in the playoffs) and Sanchez (3-1) already have a wealth of playoff experience for quarterbacks who are still very early in their careers. Rodgers earned his first playoff win last week at Philadelphia to square his career mark at 1-1, while Ryan is 0-1 and Cutler is making his NFL playoff debut in his fifth season.
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