In my world, the NFL Divisional Playoffs are quite simply the best weekend in sports.
There may be other two-day events in the conversation–NCAA Final Four, final two rounds of the Masters, World Cup finals, maybe a few others you can feel free to argue at your pleasure—but if you’re reading this, my guess is that for you, as for me, the NFL is king in your sports universe.
Yes, the Super Bowl has become an unofficial American holiday, and I suppose as such it remains the crown jewel for some. Not me. To me, it’s been co-opted; it no longer belongs to the fist-in-the-air fan in his faded jersey, it belongs to the martini in the suit. Not so this weekend. The divisional playoffs weekend is all about the love of the game.
Two days. Eight teams. Four winner-lives, loser-dies, fist-meets-flesh, real-life dramas. For those of us unabashedly passionate about our sports, it just doesn’t get any better.
And as it does every year at this time, the National Football League has once again set our table with a full, rich four-course meal.
BALTIMORE at TENNESSEE
Saturday, Jan. 10, 4:30 PM EST
If you’re looking for fast-break football, look elsewhere–this one may break bones.
If you are a fan of the Tennessee Titans, the one team you probably do not want to see coming to town this weekend is the Baltimore Ravens. The team that has set the NFL standard for defensive dominance for a decade is finally getting some offensive support–and the result has been eye-opening.
Rookie QB Joe Flacco hasn’t been great, but he’s been good enough, in enough key spots, to get the Ravens long-dormant offense to at least carry its own weight.
And for a team playing defense like the Ravens are—with otherworldly FS Ed Reed redefining the term “ball hawk” and first-ballot Hall of Fame LB Ray Lewis having apparently discovered the fountain of youth and providing a brand of in-your-face leadership rarely seen in today’s free-agent millionaire NFL—that has been enough to turn this into one serious group of Poe folks (sorry).
I like and respect Tennessee head coach Jeff Fischer, who might well be the most underappreciated head coach of our time. I think QB Kerry Collins’ redemption story is compelling. Didn’t really care for the guy in his younger, brasher days, but this grizzled-veteran incarnation, having overcoming silly odds to lead his an unlikely team to the heights, has been hard not to appreciate.
Plus I usually love home-field advantage at this time of year.
But these Ravens are nasty. They’re feelin’ it–you can see it building. And unless young Mr. Flacco completely unravels (always a possibility with a rookie, though he’s shown no signs of doing so), they may be on the threshold of scary good.
As in Y2K good.
Baltimore Ravens 20, Tennessee Titans 16
ARIZONA at CAROLINA
Saturday, Jan. 10, 8:15 PM EST
When a team goes 61 years between home playoff wins, it is understandable that not all NFL fans take them very seriously after one home wild-card victory. I’ll admit to struggling a bit with that myself.
Fortunately, at least for fans of the Carolina Panthers, the people charged with preparing them to take on the upstart Cardinals Saturday won’t have that problem.
Rest assured head coach John Fox and Co. do not see that old familiar red-and-white uniform–so much NFL filler for decades–and think 60 years of futility. They are looking at them as they are today; an explosive passing team led by a revitalized former Super Bowl and league MVP in QB Kurt Warner, backed by a scrappy defense, that happens to stand between them and a return to NFC Championship Game and shot at taking care of some serious unfinished business.
Think the current Carolina regime has forgotten SB XXXVIII? There will be no overconfidence on the Panther sideline–no “looking past the Cardinals.”
Don’t get me wrong; if this game was being played in Arizona, I’d like their chances. The energy at Roll-away Bed Field last weekend, when the Cardinals took out the Atlanta Falcons, was a huge factor–both in terms of how it affected the young Falcons and the way it focused an Arizona team whose collective mind often seems to wander on the road.
But the game will not be played in climate-controlled comfort. It will be played on the East Coast (where the Cardinals went 0-5 this season), on real grass, in the elements (current forecast: rainy, mid 50s).
More importantly, the host Panthers (8-0 at home), while not spectacular in any one phase, are the kind of balanced, all-around team that always proves tough in the hyper-intense, last-mistake-loses atmosphere of the NFL playoffs.
Much as I try to picture Warner hooking up with stud WR’s Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin enough to outscore Carolina, what I keep seeing instead is Carolina QB Jake Delhomme finding WR's Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad, and the Panthers baby running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart taking over the game in the second half.
And DE Julius Peppers and the Panthers' pass rush will be cutting loose on Warner late, protecting, and maybe expanding, their lead.
In a game I don’t believe will be as close as final score indicates...
Carolina Panthers 30, Arizona Cardinals 20
PHILADELPHIA at NY GIANTS
Sunday, Jan. 11, 1:00 PM EST
Ah, yes. The Meadowlands. January. The NFC East.
If you blur your eyes a little, you can almost see the irascible Buddy Ryan leading the likes of Ron Jaworski, Wilbert Montgomery, Reggie White, Randall Cunningham, Seth Joyner, and a host of Eagles icons onto the windswept Meadowlands carpet to do battle with Big Tuna, Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor, Mark Bavaro, Leonard Marshall, and a host of other names that start to roll of the tongue if you let them.
That the names this Sunday are Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, and Brian Dawkins, facing off against Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning, Brandon Jacobs, and Justin Tuck, matters not.
For those of us who have followed NFC East football for any length of time, this one is old school, classic Gang Green versus Big Blue. A throwback. A streetfight. And for any pure fan of the NFL game, a January treat.
A little over a month ago, this one would have been easy to call. The Eagles were in imploding, Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid were feeling more Brotherly Wrath than Love, and the Giants were a juggernaut, seemingly rolling toward a second straight NFC Championship.
Today, not so much.
Philadelphia is the one rolling, on a 5-1 run that includes a 44-6 woodshed job on Dallas Cowboys to clinch a playoff spot in the regular-season finale and a solid road playoff win against the Minnesota Vikings—a tough home team one player away from serious Lombardi contention.
The Eagles best player, RB Brian Westbrook, is healthy and dangerous as ever. And if you believe in this kind of thing, given their resurgence and the way the seas parted to allow them into the playoffs in the first place, they look to have that certain feel of Destiny about them.
The Giants, meanwhile, find themselves where so many high playoff seeds have found themselves over the years—having locked up a playoff spot early and played few meaningful games down the stretch.
Add to that the two-week break they earn with the bye, and it can be hit or miss whether the top seeds hit the field with the edge they need to perform at the highest level–the level that earned them that seed to begin with.
All that said...Even in consideration of Philadelphia’s convincing Game 13 win in New York, my head isn’t buying them. Not in the Meadowlands in January. It might take the Giants a quarter or two to get ramped up, but they will.
In the end, home field, a healthy sledgehammer in RB Brandon Jacobs, and 20-year-veteran kicker John Carney’s steady right leg will prove the difference.
Somewhere, Joe Morris will be smiling.
NY Giants 23, Philadelphia Eagles 17
SAN DIEGO at PITTSBURGH
Sunday, Jan. 11, 4:45 PM EST
With apologies to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the story here is the other guys. Particularly for fans who lived through the Norv Turner Era in Washington.
So if you’ll excuse the indulgence...
There is a movement afoot to “give some love” to the star-crossed Chargers head coach this week. After all, his team, left for dead after a 4-8 start, not only rallied to make the playoffs, but beat first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts once they got there.
Well, maybe you're ready to go there, but not I. Not yet.
Don’t get me wrong—it isn't that I don’t like the guy. I do. It's just that down deep in my soul somewhere, I still believe that Norval Eugene Turner is the Plaything of the Gridiron Gods.
I still believe that somewhere "Up There," they have kept an old, well-ventilated voodoo doll of the man around just for kicks. And that they pick up from time to time, grin evil grins, and perforate it with red-hot knitting needles, just to see his reactions.
And I can’t quite shake the feeling they fully intend to pull the rug out from under him this year.
And you know what? All kidding aside, it would probably be just. Maybe I’m out there alone on this one—but where the majority of comments this week seem to be in praise of Turner for rallying the troops, I find myself wondering if maybe it wasn’t more a case of his team winning in spite of Norv Turner’s unique brand of leadership, not because of it.
That's not hating, it's observation. Two years ago, Turner inherited a 14-2 Chargers team universally regarded as Super Bowl ready; as just needing someone other than Marty Schottenheimer and his Amazing Shrinking Cojones come playoff time.
Turner inherited a budding franchise quarterback in Phillip Rivers, arguably the NFL’s top running back in LaDanian Tomlinson, a likely Hall of Fame tight end in Antonio Gates, and the No. 1 scoring offense and No. 7 scoring defense in football.
In his first year, he took that team to 11-5, beat the punchless Tennessee Titans in the wild-card round, then upset the Colts at home in the divisional round before going to lose to the undefeated Patriots in the AFC Title game. Not bad. Not great, given the talent at hand, but not bad.
In his second year, with his imprint firmly on the team, he was 4-8 at the three-quarter pole before rallying to finish at .500. Which by all counts, should have been the end of the Chargers’ season. Yes, really.
In the 39-year history of the AFC West, since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only four teams have ever even finished second in the division at .500 or worse (the ‘98 Raiders, ‘98 Seahawks and ‘88 Broncos at 8-8; the ‘75 Broncos at 6-8).
Given that no AFC West has ever won the division at .500, and with it received the home-field advantage, and further given that the two AFC wild-card qualifiers this year both went 11-5, one could almost be tempted to say the gods smiled on Norv Turner.
So which is it? Are Turner’s Chargers a scrappy, resilient bunch who refused to quit at 4-8, rallied around their coach and stared failure down ... or a deeply talented bunch of underachievers, two years removed from 14-2, backing into the playoffs against all historic odds despite him?
We’ll know more with the benefit of hindsight, obviously. But for now, I simply cannot shake the feeling that by allowing this Charger team into the playoffs, the Gridiron Gods are setting a decent man up for yet another pratfall; another of the gut-wrenching, soul-killing, my-god-did-that-just-happen losses that fans of his previous teams know only too well.
And I can’t quite convince myself that, at some point in the very near future, They will conspire to leave this poor gentleman once again looking like someone ran over his puppy.
For what it’s worth, I’m pulling for Norv. What can I say, maybe the gods will tire of torturing Norv and move on to Jerry Jones.
And I love puppies.
Heart: San Diego Chargers 23, Pittsburgh Steelers 16
Head: Pittsburgh Steelers 20, San Diego Chargers 19
So enough deep, insightful football analysis.
42" Plasma – check.
Comfortable chair – check.
Phone silenced – check.
Cold beverage – definitely.
Let the games begin.