Archive for January, 2010
by Lloyd Vance (Thanks Bleacher Report)
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.
Other teams currently on a roll are the Dallas Cowboys (4), NY Jets (3), Baltimore Ravens (2), Arizona Cardinals (1) and Minnesota Vikings (1).
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.
Buzz factor (on a scale of 1-10): Eight. Maybe I am a tad high on this, but it’s a fun matchup and it closes out a solid first weekend of action. The Cardinals were last year’s darlings (and might be a better overall team this season), and the Packers have the potential to be that team this year. The QB matchup promises to be great, and you can bet it’ll be closer than last week’s game. If it’s half as entertaining as the last game played there, the Fiesta Bowl, we’re in for a good one.
Most underrated story line: Arizona is banged up. Calais Campbell, the team’s most underrated defender, has torn ligaments in his thumb and surely will be affected. Word is that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie should be good by game time, although he also said he needs to practice this week to play. And Anquan Boldin has an MCL sprain and a gimpy left ankle; he might not play. The Packers come in very healthy now that Charles Woodson’s shoulder has checked out.
Tasty matchup: How do you not go with Woodson against WR Larry Fitzgerald? I could be cute and pick Packers ORG Josh Sitton against Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett, which is an important matcup, but the potential defensive MVP against last year’s almost Super Bowl MVP is too good to pass up. I give slight edge to Woodson because the Packers won’t have to be as concerned about other beating them if Boldin is out or trying to gut through a couple of bad injuries. But Fitzgerald won’t go quietly. He’ll make at least one big play.
Home-field advantage: Hard to say there is a significant one after the Packers silenced the Arizonians pretty quickly last week with their early sortie on the Cardinals. But they’ll be a little more raucous this week, you’d have to think.
Unlikely star: Packers DE Johnny Jolly doesn’t get a lot of ink, but he’s a strong run defender and adept at batting passes down. On a defensive front that has been strong nearly all season, Jolly has been an underappreciated force. He could have a nice game against a mediocre Cardinals offensive line.
Prediction: Pain. (That was for my old roommate, Jason.) Packers 33, Cardinals 24. I like the Cardinals’ resiliency and think they will put in a good showing at home. I just don’t think they’ll have enough defensively to stop Aaron Rodgers, who is having an MVP-type campaign and (I think) will exit the playoffs as one of the more talked-about NFL players this offseason.