Happy New Year and welcome back to the best seats in the house, THE CHEAP SEATS.
Last year (yet still this year, I suppose), the NFL gave its fans everything they could ask for. It was one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory. However, will its next act be as great as the first? The post-season is what all the drama of the fall and early winter was about getting hashed out, and now that the cream of the crop is sorted out, it’s time to see who was for real.
There are many of the usual suspects back in play, such as the New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Baltimore delegates, but this year some teams that have been out of the mix for a while are back at it and are eager to show that the first 16 weeks were no fluke. While the Patriots, Steelers, Bears and Falcons get to wait and watch this week, eight other clubs will take to the field to take the longer road to Dallas and Super Bowl Sunday.
There’s no league in professional sports that has the parity of the truly “Any Given Sunday” National Football League, and being a number one or two seed, or even simply having home field advantage, in this league means less than it does in any other. With that said, I see the 2011 Playoffs shaping up to hold true to this rule this upcoming weekend. Here’s what I see when the initial dust settles.
NEW YORK JETS (11-5) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (10-6): Indy’s tough at home and fought to make it back to the top of the AFC South after battling a seeming endless string of injuries to crucial pieces of their puzzle. However, they are simply terrible against the run and against physical opponents, and that’s exactly what the Jets are. If New York gives control of this one to LT and Shonn Greene, over Mark Sanchez, they will be able to wear down the Colts and control the clock, and in the process reducing Peyton Manning’s effect on the game. The Jets will avenge their loss to the Colts in last year’s Playoffs and pull of the upset. Winner: Jets
BALTIMORE RAVENS (12-4) at KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (10-6): The Chiefs were the biggest surprise of the regular season, and reached 10 wins to snatch the AFC West, in a last-to-first place turnaround campaign. Walking into Arrowhead is never easy for the road team, and the playoff atmosphere will be even crazier. Running the ball is their forte, and they were the best in the league at it. But I don’t see the Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones combo being able to impose their will on the ground against the Ravens tough front seven, and the Ravens options on offense will be able to capitalize against the KC secondary, giving B-More a hard earned road win in KC. Winner: Ravens
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5) at SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (7-9): I don’t care about records here, what division was weaker than another, or even who won the last Super Bowl. Seattle (the city) showed it can make playing there a living hell in big games for its visitors. The crowd played as big of a role in handicapping the Rams in last night’s NFC West championship game as the actual Seahawks did. However, they did not play against a team with the talent or rhythm of the Saints in that matchup either, and Drew Brees and company will end any hope Seattle has of becoming the ’08 Cardinals in short order. Winner: Saints
GREEN BAY PACKERS (10-6) at PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-6): This is the most evenly matched showdown of the weekend, yet both teams have been struggling with consistency coming into this one. The Packers are the walking wounded, and have had to scrap to get any offense started out their usually potential lineup because of it. On the other side, the Eagles have dropped their last two games, and momentum is everything headed into the Playoffs. With that said, I still feel the Eagles are in better shape than Packers are currently, and the Eagles’ multitude of big play weapons will be able to find the few cracks in Green Bay’s exceptional defense and defend their home turf for the win. Winner: Eagles
ON DECK: The top 10 biggest X-Factors on the 12 playoff teams, and who’s presence will make the biggest difference between looking at a TV on Super Sunday, or being in it.