This is traditionally the weekend of the year when the best football is played: two full days of exceptional competition. No more flukes and also-rans to deal with. Enjoy, and tell somebody you love that you do love them before it’s too late.
Saints at Seahawks - Beating a good team twice is one of the hardest things for NFL squads to do. There is no clearer example of that than last week’s Chargers-Bengals wild card game, also known as the “Debacle on the Ohio” among certain members of the Brown, Lewis, Dalton and Zimmer families.
This week we have the NFC version of that dynamic, so will the results be any different? The short answer is yes. Though they enjoyed a surprisingly strong performance from Mark Ingram last week in an upset win over Philadelphia, New Orleans doesn’t have the consistency in their running game to expect much out of it when they are on the opposite coast this time.
Seattle’s specialty is a strong and intimidating defense against the passing game, which is the Saints’ only real threat. Never underestimate an inveterate schemer like Sean Payton because he’ll come up with something and is sure to make it an entertaining show.
But even the New Orleans defense, with all to commend them this year, doesn’t present the kind of gap-control and pocket-containment abilities that are required if you’re going to get Russell Wilson very far from his comfort zone, especially at home.
If they take the risk to bring their version of pressure, then watch for Marshawn Lynch to have one of his better days in a while. Seattle’s also just as likely to break enough big plays to make all the difference, if needed, especially with Percy Harvin finally getting back on the field.
Once you get past Wild Card Weekend, it’s impossible to consider any outcome to be an upset really. (Upsetting maybe, but that’s different). So while a Saints victory is not that far-fetched, it does seem much too unlikely.
Colts at Patriots - Indianapolis and New England have this post-season tradition down solid. What really gives the most pause when considering the possibilities for this weekend though, is Indy’s habit of falling behind early and needing to overcome big mistakes.
They are a lot less likely to accomplish that against the Patriots, who excel in exploiting the mistakes and weaknesses of their opponents. Indy plays some inspired football, but New England consistently plays determined. The Pats are also maddeningly effective at making sure teams cannot do what they do best. So, while on the road, don’t count on Luck’s luck to be nearly enough.
The Colts’ best shot at victory in this game is with their defense, so their front has to make sure Tom Brady plays rushed, their hitters have to force fumbles from Stevan Ridley and stonewall LeGarrette Blount, and then with what’s left over figure out how to stymie Julian Edelman when he uses his clever moves to get open across the middle.
It’s probably easier to plan a wedding for the spoiled daughter of a Bridezilla among the Mob Wives Club.
We ponder these things while Bill Belichick just gives us another of his enigmatic looks and Brady broadly beams with the confidence of one who has won 17 post-season games. No wonder we hate them so.
49ers at Panthers - Sunday’s playoff roster kicks off with this jewel from Charlotte. These two last faced off two months ago in San Francisco with Carolina coming away with a 10-9 victory. The Niners are not the same team now on either side of the ball, while the Panthers pretty much are. That’s trouble.
Indeed, Carolina has the beginnings of a good football team, but they are not “there” yet. Their pieces of excellence (Luke Kuechly for example) don’t quite make a whole. The home team really needed the break provided by the playoff bye they earned and are healthier across the board than they’ve been in some time, but the visitors are coming in hot following their challenging visit onto the frozen tundra last week.
Teams are consistently successful in the NFL only for very good reasons, and those come down to coaching. Jim Harbaugh joined a very talented roster, but he’s made all the right moves since. He’s the first coach since the AFL-NFL merger to win at least 13 games in each of his first three seasons.
It’s hard to argue with and impossible to doubt that kind of consistency in performance. That is brilliance in action. It’s pretty amazing, actually. The quality of the rosters tips in favor of the 49ers. The quality of the coaching strongly favors them too.
Ron Rivera has done great things so far with the Panthers, but his team is now in unknown territory and as prepared as you say you are, that’s always nothing but talk. The proof is in the doing and Harbaugh’s guys have done a great deal more.
Chargers at Broncos - It’s hard to believe Peyton Manning is having to play “all or nothing” football anymore, but he’s got a big mountain left to climb if his career is going to be vindicated, at least in that semi-mythical fashion demanded of sports heroes.
This is the one game of the long weekend that is just shouting “SURPRISE!” at the top of its lungs. (I instinctively duck whenever I hear that word because someone is sure to be blindly slinging a big errant stick at a piñata shaped like my head.)
San Diego has absolutely nothing to lose and nobody knows Denver better.
Two months ago, the Chargers lost to the Broncos in San Diego by eight. One month ago they won in Denver by seven. A revitalized Philip Rivers has a very good career record at Mile High, and Denver’s defense is not exactly of the stifling quality it showed early in the season.
The Chargers’ head coach, Mike McCoy, was Manning’s offensive coordinator before getting his current gig.
That sort of “insider” knowledge will be more valuable than ever because they’re going to need every insight they can possibly muster to beat a team that scored over 600 points on the season to set a new league record. It can also be an illusion, because knowledge is not the same as wisdom.
Just because you know an author very well doesn’t mean you can guess his story while he writes it. Manning knows to plan plenty of surprises in his plots.
Then there’s this bit. As a personal note, I’d love to see Denver win it. They’ve got some University of Kentucky players appearing prominently across their roster, with Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan leading the team in tackles, and Jacob Tamme serving as an emergency receiver outlet for Manning from time to time.
Kentucky players don’t exactly get to breathe deeply in the richness of rarified air. Actually, for the past 50 years, it’s been more like the they get to choke in only what’s left over in the tires of Bear Bryant’s old Cadillac.
(Wait…No, that was Rupp’s Cadillac. Bryant got a watch. If you catch my drift.)