Finally, the 2011 NFL playoffs are here.
For me, this is the absolute best part of the NFL season. There are still four games a week for the next two weeks, Wild Card Weekend and the divisional round, which gives non-Sunday Ticket viewers about as much football as a typical Sunday afternoon brings. The terrible broadcasting crews are more or less gone from the airwaves. (Say what you will about Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, but they're not terrible by any reasonable standard, and they might well be the worst crew working this weekend's games, thanks to NBC tabbing the excellent Mike Mayock to work with Tom Hammond for the first of its two games on Saturday.) And the quality of play should be fantastic or close to it, because all of the bad teams are gone.
Well, except for the Seattle Seahawks.
It must suck to be a Seahawk right now. You're being underestimated by everyone on Earth with ESPN and/or the Internet, your fans weren't rooting for you to make the playoffs, and your team is a double-digit underdog at home despite having what conventional wisdom holds to be the best home field advantage in the NFL.
And, oh, right, you're playing the defending Super Bowl champions.
But as much as that seems like the perfect recipe for nothing other than a 21-point Wild Card Weekend loss and a bunch of snide rephrasings of "I told you so" by radio ranters and the blognoscenti, the Seahawks still get to play a game in front of millions on Saturday, and get a chance to shock the world. Matt Hasselbeck gets one last great chance to be seen as more than a quarterback who was very good at his peak. Pete Carroll could look like a genius. Mike Williams' comeback story could get better.
It's really not that crazy, is it? These Seahawks could win this weekend with defense and special teams — say Reggie Bush fumbles a punt — and, if the Packers beat the Eagles, head to Chicago next week. Two teams have beaten the Bears at home in 2010: the Patriots ... and the Seahawks. A repeat of the 23-20 win in Week 6 sounds a little less insane when it's framed that way.
And then, hey, why can't the Packers beat the Falcons in Atlanta? (They came close in Week 12, losing 20-17.) If Green Bay makes it to the NFC Championship Game, Seattle can host the NFC Championship Game. And, unless you're a Packers fan, wouldn't the symmetry of Hasselbeck getting one last hurrah against the team that turned his "We want the ball and we're gonna score!" into a guffaw be neat?
Then, in the Super Bowl, the Seahawks could play the Steelers, and get karma on their side in a makeup game for Super Bowl XL, which featured officiating that was not great by objective standards and reason to complain until cremation for Seattle fans. And, well, stranger things have happened, right?
I'm not saying that a team that would need to win two games in the playoffs just to get to .500 on the season will win the Super Bowl. I'm not saying the Seahawks will make the 2011 Super Bowl a good game. But what I am saying is that if these Seahawks slip on Cinderella's heels, it would be hard to find any neutral fans not rooting for the Emerald City to win a championship in Super Bowl XLIV.
Now, for the Wild Card Weekend games.
GIVE ME A HEAPING HELPING
Packers at Eagles (-3)
My completely amateurish understanding of how sports books set gambling lines for NFL games tells me that a team favored by three at home in the playoffs is seen as a virtual equal to its opponent. My semi-professional sportswriter's eye tells me that the Eagles and Packers basically are equal.
Aaron Rodgers is a better passer than Michael Vick, though Vick has the better arm, but both have been banged up. Rodgers' receiving corps is a little deeper and bigger, but Vick's got DeSean Jackson. The Eagles' running game is much better than the Packers' patchwork attack, but is often abandoned for stretches thanks to head-scratching decisions by Andy Reid. The Packers' defense is better, with a much stronger secondary, but the Eagles can make up for that with blitzes that cause big plays. It's hard to give either team an edge; it's hard luck for both that they're meeting up so early in the playoffs.
This should be this weekend's best game, far and away, and not just because it requires rehashing of "4th and 26"...
...and the return of Freddie Mitchell, who produced this week's best quotes while reminiscing about that play. I love Freddie Mitchell, the NFL's answer to Ozymandias — he was nicknamed "Bust" on his Wikipedia page when I checked it early this morning — because he's the single least likely human to ever suffer from a lack of self-esteem, even if the Packers fan part of me wishes he occasionally looked on the ruins of his career and despaired.
Ravens (-3) at Chiefs
I know the Ravens are probably the better team in eight of 10 games between these two teams on a neutral field. I know the Chiefs seem to have sputtered at the end of the season for no real reason. I know I don't trust a team whose offensive coordinator knows he's leaving town no matter what.
I also know that there is no better place for a sports fan to be this week than Arrowhead Stadium at noon local time on Sunday, watching the Chiefs play their first home playoff game in seven years.
Kansas City sports fans don't have a ton to cheer for — there's no basketball or hockey, just the Chiefs and the Royals, and both teams have stunk to high heaven in recent years. So it was inevitable that when one of those teams turned things around, fans were going to embrace the first winner the area's had in a while.
Add in the old school, "sea of red" feel that Arrowhead brings (also, antipathy to the frustrating commercialization of American Indian culture aside, how cool a name is Arrowhead?), and there's no Wild Card Weekend game I'd rather attend. So what if the Ravens are going to choke off Jamaal Charles — well, they'll probably stop the 11 carries Todd Haley's going to give Charles, and laugh at the 22 Thomas Jones gets — and force Matt Cassel to throw to someone other than Dwayne Bowe, probably making this an ugly 17-10 or 21-13 game? It will be louder than a Florida EverBlades holiday sweater at Arrowhead on Sunday, and noise is, in the era of HDTVs and DVRs, the single best thing the live sports experience has going for it.
I'LL HAVE A SCOOP OF THAT, PLEASE
Jets at Colts (-3)
Doesn't it feel like the Jets burned through every possible storyline for this season already? The Jets bring in veterans (LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Cromartie, Jason Taylor, Santonio Holmes) to try to win a Super Bowl. They get featured on Hard Knocks and America falls in love with Rex Ryan. They start the season better than expected and Mark Sanchez' maturation seems like a fait accompli. Then Edwards gets a DwI. Then the Jets swoon, and the Patriots eviscerate them and hand them a large enough can of reconstituted dog meat to make Costco's cans look like single-serving items. Then Sanchez is hurt, or something. Then Ryan's personal life becomes Deadspin gristle and tabloid fodder. And the Jets haven't even played a playoff game yet?
This is the reason the Rex Ryan "trash talk" this week was a non-starter for me: I'm ready for the Jets to either be as good as they think they are or as fun as they were before figuring out they weren't that good. I don't think either of those things is happening, because I don't have a time machine. (Yet!)
The Colts are the diametric opposite: they're boring and excellent as ever, and for me, the two most interesting things about this Colts season were a) wondering, in the morbid humor all football fans who know what concussions are must now have, why Austin Collie came back twice from sickening hits and b) wondering what on Earth Colts owner Jim Irsay was on while maintaining his delightfully loopy Twitter account.
The Colts almost lost the AFC South this year ... but then the Texans remembered they were coached by Gary Kubiak (or Kubiak remembered who he was, either way and the Jaguars started Trent Edwards in a must-win game. And if the Colts win this game? They'll meet the Steelers, and then maybe the Patriots, in the later rounds of the AFC playoffs. Manning's greatness is so consistent, it's almost perfunctory. It gets results, of course. It just doesn't get me all that excited.
I'LL TASTE IT FIRST...
Saints (-10.5) at Seahawks
That miracle scenario I laid out for Seattle? Yeah, well, the 21-point blowout is still about 2,000 times more likely. This could be a truly ugly game, because Hasslebeck has looked bad even when healthy, it's not clear whether Charlie Whitehurst is capabe of looking good, Marshawn Lynch scares no one, the Seahawks' best receiver is a 6'5", 240-pound possession guy, and no single person hailing from somewhere other than the Pacific Northwest (save, of course, people who get paid for knowing things about the NFL) can name more than five players on the Seattle defense. (I got Lofa Tatupu and Marcus Trufant, then had to look at the roster.)
Saints fans should be excited for this game. Somebody needs to be, right?
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