2012 NFL Playoffs: The 5 Most Compelling Storylines of NFL's Divisional Round
It’s the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs and we are down to the
elite final eight teams (the NCAA could be reading this). Wild Card Weekend featured everything from Ray Lewis’ last home game to one of the worst coaching decisions ever (see Mike Shanahan risks the franchise by leaving in RG3).
Three of the four home teams won, including the Texans, who were sliding a bit coming into the playoffs. Now as we look ahead to the four games on this weekend’s docket, here are the most compelling storylines for the Divisional Round.
Peyton Manning’s Playoff Return
On Saturday night, Peyton Manning will make his return to the playoffs since the 2010 AFC Wild Card game against the New York Jets.
Peyton missed the 2011 season due to neck and spinal fusion surgeries. As a result, Manning and the Indianapolis Colts parted ways and he and the Denver Broncos joined forces. Manning has the Broncos playing some of the best football in the NFL this season.
The Broncos finished the season winning 11 straight games and 12 of their last 13. During the 11-game streak, Manning’s offense averaged 31.5 points per game and scored 30-plus points in nine of the games.
The Broncos will begin their 2012 playoff run against the Baltimore Ravens. These two teams will be facing off for the second time in five weeks, which leads into the next big storyline of this weekend…
Revenge is the optimum word for this weekend’s games. Three of the four contests are rematches of 2012 games. First up are the Ravens and Broncos.
These two teams met in Week 15 with Manning and the Broncos beating down the Ravens 34-17 in Baltimore. The Broncos led 10-0 before taking an interception 98 yards for a touchdown and cementing a 17-0 halftime lead.
They would go up 31-3 after three quarters. Manning is 9-2 all-time against the Ravens, winning nine straight games.
In the late afternoon game on Sunday the Houston Texans will travel to Foxborough to face the New England Patriots. The Texans went into Gillette Stadium in Week 14 winners of six straight and 11 of 12.
The Texans put on their worst performance of the season—and in turn my fantasy team—losing to the Pats 42-14 in a game that was even more lopsided than the score would indicate.
The loss touched off a span of three losses in four games and cost the Texans the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will be going for his record 16th playoff victory.
In the prime-time game on Saturday the Green Bay Packers will renew an old rivalry in Candlestick Park against the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers kicked off the 2012 season with a 30-22 road win against the Packers.
Frank Gore rushed for 112 yards and a touchdown while Alex Smith completed 20 of 26 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns. The Niners defense held the Packers to just 45 rushing yards and sacked quarterback Aaron Rodgers three times.
This time around, Colin Kaepernick will be leading the charge for the 49ers and looking to prove that coach Jim Harbaugh made the right call in giving him starting job.
The 49ers are 6-1-1 at home in 2012 and are 14-3-1 at home in the Harbaugh era, including playoffs. The Packers and Niners will be meeting in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 which leads me to…
49ers vs. Packers: Next Generation
I mentioned to a friend recently that the 49ers/Packers rivalry from the ‘90s probably took 10 years off my life. The Packers will be traveling to San Francisco to renew a rivalry that began in 1995.
From 1995-2001, these two teams faced off five times in the postseason, with the Packers winning four of the five contests.
Former Packers quarterback Brett Favre tortured 49ers fans for years, winning three straight contests from 1995-1997 before the 49ers pulled out a last-second win in a 1998 NFC Wild Card game. The two teams would face off one last time in 2001 with the Packers taking the home win 25-15.
On Saturday night, the rivalry will be rebooted. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers will face his childhood team and look to inflict the same heartbreak that myself, Rodgers and all of Niners Nation suffered through under the Favre regime.
The Packers have established themselves as one of the best teams in football in recent years. The 49ers have come alive once again under Jim Harbaugh.
Could this be the first of many playoff battles to come? Personally, I hope not.
Falcons Seeking Redemption
The combination of head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan has been a winning formula for the Falcons since the both arrived in 2008.
The Falcons have finished with a winning record each year under Smith and have compiled a 56-24 record with four playoff appearances and two division titles. What has eluded the Falcons under the current coaching staff is an actual playoff win.
The Falcons are 0-3 under Mike Smith. Last year’s wild-card loss to the New York Giants was the worst of the three. The Falcons managed to score only a safety, losing on the road 24-2.
The Falcons traded up in the 2011 draft to grab top receiving prospect Julio Jones. Now in his second season, Jones has emerged as one of the league’s most talented wide receivers.
The Falcons managed to lock up the top seed in the NFC for the second time under Mike Smith and will be out to prove that they are not just a regular-season team.
Matt Ryan’s progress in such a short period of time has been amazing, even drawing comparisons to Peyton Manning. However another loss will move Ryan closer to that category that Manning spent years trying to shake, the greatest “regular season” quarterbacks in history.
Russell Wilson’s Season Continues
The race for Offensive Rookie of the Year has been a hotly debated topic all season.
Much of the conversation has been debating if the winner will be Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III or Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
However, over the second half of the season a third name emerged, and now he’s the last man standing in the road to the Super Bowl. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has far exceeded expectations this season.
He won the starting job out of training camp and has the ‘Hawks going into Atlanta with a full head of steam and six straight wins. He defeated fellow ROY candidate Griffin last week in Washington.
Right now, Wilson is playing with “house money.” He has outlasted his rookie counterparts and has the support of a fiery coach, a brutal defense and a bruising running game. Given the Falcons' playoff history in recent years, the Seahawks will have many supporters in this game.
No matter the outcome, Wilson has made the ROY discussions that much more difficult and has demonstrated that the Seahawks are not ready to just concede the future of the NFC West to the 49ers.
Follow Walt J as he comes to you on his blog “Live From AREA 49″ with his rants on the world of sports from the fan perspective. Whether it’s picks against the spread, fantasy football tips, or sheer frustration with your team, AREA 49 has a place for you. Follow him on Twitter at @A49_WaltJ and @area49sports, and on Facebook.