After 17 grueling weeks, the NFL playoffs are finally here. The regular season brought us some great games, and some absolutely terrible ones, but the slates are wiped clean for the 12 teams which survived to play postseason football.
Before we get to the weekly playoff picks, let’s take a look at 10 intriguing postseason storylines which we’ll be keeping an eye on. In no particular order….
This counts as two storylines because there are going to be two distinctly different types of rematches that occur this coming weekend.
The first will be between the Cowboys and Eagles down in Dallas. These two teams played with a lot on the line on Sunday, as the winner earned the NFC East title and home field in their first playoff game (and a first-round bye in the case of the Eagles).
As a result, these two teams both played their starters for the full game and will have a good idea what to expect in the rematch down in Dallas.
The second type of rematch will be the ones between Green Bay and Arizona and the New York Jets and Cincinnati.
The Cardinals and Bengals had already wrapped up their respective divisions and had little to nothing on the line when they took the field Sunday.
As such, both teams started resting players as early as the first half, as players like Brian St. Pierre and J.T. O’Sullivan were under center for both teams. This resulted in two huge blowouts; GB 33, Ari 7 and NYJ 37, Cin 0.
Will these huge losses affect the psyches of the home teams? Or will holding back and not showing anything be a huge advantage in the rematch? We’ll see this weekend.
When the Jets failed on three separate field goal attempts and ended up losing to Atlanta in the final minute of Week 15, their own coach, Rex Ryan, proclaimed them out of the playoff picture.
Then, the football gods smiled upon them, as the Colts benched players in the second half of Week 16 and, as previously mentioned, the Bengals barely showed up in Week 17.
Players and fans from Pittsburgh and Houston have to be upset, but such is the nature of the game.
While Commissioner Goodell wants to get involved to protect the integrity of the game, for now it appears that teams who have clinched early will continue to rest players.
Some might say this is the perfect argument for resting players, as the New England Patriots lost their leading receiver in terms of catches and yardage when Wes Welker suffered an apparent torn ACL and MCL on Sunday.
Welker appeared to hurt himself before contact with a defender, which could happen to anyone anywhere, but nevertheless the Patriots will be without him for the postseason.
Some, including Patriots QB Tom Brady say this will provide a short term advantage for the Pats, as the Ravens won’t know how to gameplan for them, but its hard to see how the Patriots wont miss someone who compiled 123 catches and 1,348 yards in 13 games and one play.
The Denver Broncos were the surprise team of the first half of the year, winning their first six games despite the Jay Cutler fiasco, Brandon Marshall suspension, and brand new head coach.
However, things went sour after their bye, as they were blown out by Baltimore for their first loss of the year, which started the first of their two four-game losing streaks to finish at 8-8 and become just the third team to start 6-0 and finish out of the playoff picture.
When the New York Giants started at 5-0, no one was surprised and some anointed them as the team to beat in the NFC. Then they rolled into New Orleans and were blown out by the Saints, lost five of their next six and never recovered, their playoff hopes ultimately being extinguished in a 41-9 blowout (at home) by the Carolina Panthers.
We’ve already discussed arguments for and against resting players, but one thing that can’t be disputed is the fact that two teams who were looking at potential perfection three weeks ago are now going into the postseason on losing streaks.
After starting 13-0, the Saints were upset by the playoff-bound Dallas Cowboys, which, while unexpected, was conceivable.
Their next loss to Tampa Bay was not, and it was followed by a loss to Carolina where possible MVP Drew Brees sat out.
The Indianapolis Colts stood at 14-0 when Coach Jim Caldwell made the decision to bench starters like Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne, and the Colts lost their final two games of the regular season to the Jets and Bills as a result.
While there is something to be said for going into the playoffs healthy, it should be noted that the last five of the last six Super Bowl champs won their final game of the regular season, meaningless or not.
The exception was the 2007 New York Giants, who battled the then-undefeated New England Patriots into the fourth quarter before falling 38-35.
In what has become an annual event and one of the best non-divisional rivalries in football, the Patriots and Colts gave us another great game on Sunday Night in Week 10 this season.
The Colts prevailed 35-34 after trailing 24-7 in the second quarter, thanks to a play that will forever dub this contest “The 4th-and-2 game."
Thanks to the seeding of the AFC teams, the only way this matchup can take place would be in the AFC championship game, an event which last occurred in the 2007 postseason when the Colts overcame a 21-3 first half deficit to win 38-34 (sound familiar?).
The Welker-less Pats would have to get past Baltimore and then San Diego on the road to make this happen, but with these two teams I would say it’s a definite possibility.
As much as I hate to fuel the Brett Favre publicity machine, one of the biggest stories this season was Favre’s return to play against his former team, the Packers.
In what turned out to be the deciding factor in the NFC North division, the Vikings beat the Packers in both matchups earlier this year, with Favre shining in his return to Green Bay, throwing four TDs and no INTs.
After that Week Eight matchup, the Vikings sat at 7-1 and the Packers at 4-3, and it seemed there was no contest which was the better team.
The Packers fell to the winless Bucs the next week, but since then went on a 7-1 stretch to finish the season, while Minnesota lost three of five to end theirs, and if these two teams met it would be a highly contested battle as always.
In order for this to take place, the Packers would obviously need to beat the Cardinals and the Eagles would need to do what they couldn’t do in Week 17 and beat the Cowboys in Dallas. Somewhere, John Madden is salivating at the possibility.
When the Eagles fell to the Cowboys in Week 17, they lost the NFC East, they lost a first round bye, and they lost the right to play their first playoff game at home.
What they also did was give that bye and first home playoff game to the domed Minnesota Vikings.
With the similarly domed New Orleans Saints holding the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, the only time either of those teams would have to play outside would be in Miami for the Super Bowl.
This is especially important for the Vikings, as their 40-year old quarterback isn’t one for the elements anymore.
I happened to be at the game they lost in Chicago, and while the Vikings did mount a furious second half comeback, they had a terrible time adjusting to the weather in a first half against a Bears team missing seven starters on defense.
As evidenced by their 44-7 destruction of the Giants at home in Week 17, the Vikings are much more comfortable in the dome, and their chances of winning the Super Bowl increased significantly the moment they no longer had to travel to Philadelphia.
While the NFL season will extend deep into the winter, culminating in February football, there is the potential that the only two true cold weather outdoor games will be played this coming weekend in New England and Cincinnati.
Three of the four divisional round games will be played in domes while the fourth will be in sunny Southern California.
And while the two Wild-Card teams with the possibility of hosting a conference championship game hail from cities with winter weather and outdoor stadium, the likelihood of that scenario is slim to none.
With the Super Bowl in its traditional warm weather locale, this year being Miami, the elements may only come into play twice this postseason. Who that will benefit remains to be seen…
Be sure to check in with Cubicle GM later this week for playoff picks.