The “Elite Eight” round, better known as the NFL Divisional Playoff Round, starts the “real” games as far as I am concerned.
Most fans and media live for the hype of the NFL Conference Championships and Super Bowl, but you can put my hearty vote in for the NFL Divisional Playoffs as the most exciting portion of the league’s now year-round calendar.
The splendor of the divisional playoff round is that the four best teams from the NFL’s regular season, after a well-deserved bye week, finally get to enter the playoff fracas to take on pumped-up wildcard weekend upstarts.
The wildcard round usually does a pretty good job of removing some of the teams that I like to call “Frauds” from the playoff picture. But if some frauds are left over, surely the divisional round will sniff them out.
The final eight usually brings out the best in teams, leading to highly competitive games before the suffocating hype, pressure, and “big stage” mentality of getting to the Super Bowl sets in.
The great thing about the NFL divisional playoff games is that now teams that excelled in the regular season have to “Prove It” when it matters most.
“Everything that’s happened previously, you can throw out the window,” said Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell. The outstanding rookie head coach added, “Those records don’t matter. All that matters is what happens from here on, and we know that we’re facing a solid team.”
For a long time, teams coming off byes seemed to have it made in the playoffs. Since the league went to 12 playoff teams in 1990, which gave the top two seeds in each conference first-round byes, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are 57-19 (.750) in their first playoff game.
However, since 2005, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are just 7-9 (.438). A prime example was in the 2008 NFL playoffs, both No. 1 seeds (Tennessee Titans and New York Giants) and the No. 2 seed Carolina Panthers came off byes and lost.
Only the AFC’s No. 2 seed, the Pittsburgh Steelers, won in the divisional round and then they went on to win the Super Bowl.
Definitely keep an eye on the winners from the Wild Card round as teams advancing from the round have won the Super Bowl six times, including three of the last four.
I usually also like to look at the hottest teams going into playoff games as favorites, and no team is hotter than the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers enter the postseason with 11 consecutive victories, the NFL’s longest current win streak.
San Diego is the No. 2 seed in the AFC and they carry the fifth-longest win streak to enter the playoffs since 1970.
Conversely, the New Orleans Saints (3) and Indianapolis Colts (2) are entering the postseason on losing streaks. Speaking of this year’s No. 1’s, the Colts and Saints both came out the gates with unprecedented 13-0 records, but now none of that not matters.
The Saints (13-3) surely will have their hands full with the Arizona Cardinals, who are coming off an impressive 51-45 shootout win over the Green Bay Packers. The Saints will have to show that they are back in playoff form after trying for perfection and stumbling home with three straight losses to end their season.
The Cardinals are one the NFL’s most exciting teams and quarterback Kurt Warner has been in and won many big playoff games over the years.
While the nation will have an eye on the Saints-Cardinals game, interest in the Colts match-up with the physically tough Baltimore Ravens will be high too.
The Colts are at the center of the national “Rest or Play to win down the stretch” debate. Having locked up the AFC’s No. 1 seed way back in Week 15 and with 2 games remaining, they decided to acquiesce a legitimate shot at matching the 2007 New England Patriots 16-0 regular season mark.
To the ire of Colts’ fans, the team’s management decided that “resting” players for the playoffs was more important than any regular season glory.
Colts President Jim Irsay said before resting players, “We’d love to get to 16-0. But the biggest focus is going to be on being prepared for that first playoff game.”
GM Bill Polian and Irsay’s plan began in the second half of the Colts-Jets game in Week 16. With the undefeated Colts (14-0 at the time) holding a faint 15-10 lead, Indy sent in backup QB Curtis Painter and host of second-stringers.
The Jets, fueled by Colts’ mistakes, responded in the game’s final 25 minutes to win 29-15. Of his team resting players in a home loss and the fans reaction, veteran Colts center Jeff Saturday said, “I don’t blame them a bit, man, I probably would have booed, too. I don’t blame them. They pay to come see us win games, and we didn’t get it done.”
Think about it, the Colts (14-2) haven’t played a meaningful game since beating the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 17, and now they must turn the switch back on. Their record says that they were the best team in the NFL during the regular season, but the hungry Ravens are waiting to pull an upset.
The decision to throw away “perfection” so easily and not ride into the playoffs “hot” has firmly put a bull’s eye on the collective backs of rookie head coach Jim Caldwell, Polian, and Irsay.
And given the Colts' poor history in gaining the bye this past decade, you would have thought team management would have wanted their guys hitting on all cylinders for the playoffs.
History is difficult to ignore if for no other reason than how poorly the Colts have fared in similar situations. The Colts' record with Peyton Manning at quarterback after earning a postseason bye stands at 0-3.
While it is nice that the Colts have earned a playoff berth in 10 of the last 11 seasons, too often they have been one-and-done (six occasions), including the past two years losing to the upstart San Diego Chargers.
Right now, the Ravens are looking a lot like the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers who led by their strong defense stormed out of the Wild Card round and came to Indy to face a “rested” Colts team with a similar 14-2 record.
In the game, the Colts were out-physicalled by the hungrier AFC North-tested Steelers and went down to defeat by a score of 21-18. I know Colts fans are hoping for a different result this time, but all of the pressure is on Indianapolis.
If the Colts do go on to win the Super Bowl, sure all will probably be forgotten within their fan base, but nothing is guaranteed. If my two cents matters, I thought the Colts should have tried to enter the playoffs on a good note.
By the way… In the AFC since 1990, the No. 1 seed has compiled an 11-8 (.579) record in the Divisional round.
Others storylines to follow in the divisional round include:
Cowboys know how to win in the playoffs
As if the Cowboys’ Week 15 win over the formerly undefeated Saints and their total domination over the Philadelphia Eagles wasn’t enough, there is more evidence that Dallas is a dangerous team in the playoffs.
In fact, the Dallas Cowboys have won 33 postseason games, the most in NFL history. With a victory against Minnesota in the Divisional Playoffs on Sunday, Dallas would advance to its 15th NFC Championship Game, surpassing the Pittsburgh Steelers (14) for the most appearances in a Conference Championship Game since 1970.
Jets head coach and quarterback attempting to enter new rookie ground
Sanchez can become the second rookie quarterback to win his first two playoff games (Joe Flacco in 2008) and Ryan can become only the sixth rookie head coach to reach that mark.
The Cardinals are flying high after their pinball-machine win last week
In their huge 51-45 overtime win over the Packers, the Cardinals used an offensive display for the ages. Arizona and Green Bay combined for an NFL postseason record 96 points and 13 touchdowns.
The game featured 1,024 yards of total offense, tied for the third-most in an NFL playoff game. Yet, the decisive score came on a defensive touchdown when Arizona cornerback Michael Adams forced a fumble that was returned 17 yards by linebacker Karlos Dansby for the game-winning touchdown.
Warner can still play at age 38
Despite constant “retirement” questions, Cardinals veteran quarterback Kurt Warner is playing at a very high level. Warner was nearly flawless as he completed 29 of 33 passes (87.9 percent) for 379 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions in the Cards’ overtime win last week.
The former Super Bowl MVP also improved his postseason record to 9-3. He had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four), becoming just the sixth starting quarterback to accomplish that feat in a playoff game.
Warner outdueled Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who passed for a team postseason-record 422 yards and threw four touchdowns in his first career playoff start. It marked just the second playoff game in the Super Bowl era in which both quarterbacks threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns.
With 253 passing yards against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday, Warner will reach 4,000 passing yards in 13 career playoff games, making him the fastest player in NFL history to reach the milestone.
The Ravens are tough on the road
This Saturday marks the 13th playoff game in Ravens’ history and the club’s ninth on the road.
Baltimore holds a 6-2 playoff record away from home, which stands as the top road winning percentage (.750) in NFL playoff history (minimum five games). Baltimore looks to improve the mark against Indianapolis in the Divisional round.
Favre to add to his legacy
Certain Hall of Famer and Minnesota Vikings QB Brett Favre will not only be looking for a win against the Cowboys, but also the game is an opportunity for him to extend his playoff numbers.
No. 4 ranks second in NFL playoff history in completions, attempts, passing yards and touchdown passes. Favre needs 23 completions, 14 passing attempts, 462 passing yards and seven touchdowns to set postseason records in each passing category.
But getting a win against the Cowboys may prove to be tough for the graybeard passer, as he is 0-3 for his career against Dallas in the postseason.
We will have to see this weekend if the trend of No. 1 seeds not making it to the Super Bowl holds true. Hard to believe it has been 15 seasons since the last time two No. 1 seeds faced each other in Super Bowl (1993 season, Buffalo vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XXVIII).
But remember playoff tenants of Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, Limiting Penalties/Turnovers, and just plain “Want-to” will be the key factors as to which teams move on to the Conference Championship round on long treacherous road to Super Bowl XLIV in South Florida.
Surprisingly, all four home teams are favored this week by Vegas after a Wild Card round in which home teams went 2-2.
Remember to watch for turnovers in all four games as nothing can put a dagger in a team’s playoff hopes quicker than turnovers, especially ones that go to the house.
2009 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Games
ARIZONA CARDINALS (11-6) at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13-3) (Saturday, FOX, 4:30 PM ET)
Broadcast Team: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, and Tony Siragusa (Field Reporter)
After the Cardinals' shootout win over the Green Packers last week, everyone is expecting another high-scoring affair.
In a game that features two of the NFL’s best passers, Saints QB Drew Brees and Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, I believe the team that can run the ball more effectively and gets the most defensive pressure is going to win this game.
The Cardinals are no longer just Warner and his awesome receivers (Fitzgerald, Boldin, Breaston, and Doucet), Arizona can also run the ball with rookie Chris “Beanie” Wells and Tim Hightower.
The key will be the Saints ability to rattle Warner, as the veteran will make mistakes when he is harassed. New Orleans will have their hands full as they will be missing pass rusher Charles Grant, who is on I/R.
On offense, the Saints need to find their explosiveness that allowed them to score 510 points this season. Though the Saints struggled down the stretch, Brees and rest of the Saints want to prove they can win in the postseason, as they only have a 2-6 postseason record in franchise history.
The Super Dome will be rocking as it should be a Mardi Gras-type atmosphere for the home team Saints and their raucous fans.
LV’s Pick: Though not the pinball machine game from last week, there will be plenty of scoring down in the Bayou. Look for Brees and WR Robert Meachem to hook up for a big play or two—Saints 27, Cardinals 23
BALTIMORE RAVENS (10-7) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (14-2) (Saturday, CBS, 8:15 PM ET)
Broadcast Team: Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf
The pressure will be on the Colts to prove that they can win after coming off a bye. The Ravens are a tough physical team that loves to run the football with emerging second-year running back Ray Rice and attacking defense led by veteran linebacker Ray Lewis.
If the Colts are to succeed and shut up a very disgruntled fan base, QB Peyton Manning will need to protect the football and make some plays down the field to Pro Bowl WR Reggie Wayne.
Even as good as Manning and Wayne are, the Colts must find a running game to keep the Ravens from pinning their ears back on every play. Running backs Joseph Addai and Donald Brown will need to find a way to move the chains against big defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg.
On defense, the Colts will have to apply pressure from DE Dwight Freeney and the rest of their D-line as Ravens QB Joe Flacco is essentially a caretaker right now, with only 10 passing attempts last week.
However Freeney and the rest of the Colts defense will need to shutdown Rice and a rejuvenated Willis McGahee as the Ravens want to pound the rock on the way to an “ugly” win.
There is no love lost between these two teams as the Colts will forever be known as the team that left the Charm City for the “greener” pastures of Indy.
These two teams will be meeting in the postseason for the second time. In January 2007, the Colts beat Ravens 15-6 in the Divisional Round.
LV’s Pick: This is a tough one as every bone in my body wants to say that the Colts by virtue of “resting” in their last two games will lose. But I just believe that the Colts will find a way to knock Flacco around and that will make all the difference in the world—Colts 20, Ravens 14
DALLAS COWBOYS (12-5) at MINNESOTA VIKINGS (12-4) (Sunday, FOX, 1:00 PM ET)
Broadcast Team: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Myers and Pam Oliver (Field Reporter)
This is the game that a large portion of the country really wants to see. The Cowboys are probably the hottest team in the NFC right now and have found a swagger that has not been seen in Dallas since 1996.
Dallas got their playoff monkey off their backs with a dominating 34-14 win over the Eagles and now they are looking to knock off the second-seeded Vikings.
Minnesota, since signing veteran Brett Favre before the season, has pointed to the playoffs for the future Hall of Famer to make a difference, and now is the time for him to pay dividends.
Favre and the Vikings were the darlings of the NFL earlier in the regular season, but after stumbling a little down the stretch, some are saying they are ripe for the picking.
If the Vikings and their head coach Brad Childress are smart, they will try to get RB Adrian Peterson going; he hasn’t been over 100 yards rushing in 7 games. Surely the Cowboys highly ranked defense led by pass rushers Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware will look to rattle Favre before he can get the ball to his speedy receivers (Berrian, Rice, and Harvin).
For Dallas offensively the plan is simple, run the ball behind their huge offensive line to help quarterback Tony Romo. The Cowboys three-headed monster of Felix Jones, Marion Barber, and Tashard Choice will have to find holes against the Vikings D-line, led by the Williams Wall (DT’s Pat and Kevin Williams). Romo will also be looking for emerging WR Miles Austin.
LV’s Pick: This is a tough game, because both teams have a ton of weapons offensively but you are not sure about their quarterbacks. Favre has been known to throw interceptions in playoff games and Romo just finally has proven that he can win in the playoffs.
However in this kind of match-up, I always like to look at the defenses. The Vikings of late of struggled without MLB EJ Henderson while the Cowboys are playing a dominating brand of “D.”
Look for the Cowboys to return to New Orleans for a huge rematch with the Saints—Cowboys 31, Vikings 24
NEW YORK JETS (10-7) at SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (13-3) (Sunday, CBS, 4:40 PM ET)
Broadcast Team: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms
Jets QB Mark Sanchez returns to the West Coast in search of another playoff win. But this time the NFL’s hottest team, the San Diego Chargers, await.
The absolute key to this game will be the Chargers ability to take away the Jets’s NFL leading running game and thus forcing Sanchez to beat them. Remember the rookie quarterback is in his comfort zone when he is throwing the ball 20 times or less.
However, look for Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera to dial-up pressure from his linebackers and secondary to force some turnovers.
Another intriguing match-up will be the Jets’ NFL-leading defense’s ability to shut down a Chargers offense that has Pro Bowl players everywhere. San Diego triggerman Philip Rivers has an embarrassment of weapons at his disposal (RB LaDainian Tomlinson, RB Darren Sproles, and gang of giant pass catchers including TE Antonio Gates).
The Chargers can beat you with the run or the pass and it is going to be a difficult challenge for Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan to design a scheme that can shut down such an explosive offense.
LV’s Pick : Of all the games this weekend, I am the most sure of this one. The Jets are a tough team, but I just don’t believe you can hide your quarterback in the playoffs. No matter how great the Jets’ defense led by Pro Bowl CB Darrelle Revis can be, I just believe the Chargers have too many weapons—Chargers 38, Jets 10
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)Posted in 2009 NFL Playoffs, 2009 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round, 2009 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Preview, Brett Favre, Dallas Cowboys Tagged: 2009 NFL Playoffs, 2009 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round, 2009 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Preview, Dallas Cowboys, Football, Indianapolis Colts, NFL, Peyton Manning, Sports, Tony Romo