Five burning questions heading into NFL Divisional round of playoffs
1) Can the road-warrior Ravens keep up their winning ways in Pittsburgh?
Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Saturday, January 15 – 4:30pm et/1:30pm pt
Heinz Field – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Compared to the other AFC playoff game this week, the Steelers-Ravens has been surprisingly quiet on the trash talk front. Save for Terrelle Suggs’ press conference t-shirt that displayed a message to Pittsburgh, there has been very little back and forth between the two AFC North rivals. Suggs seemed so distraught over the Steelers’ lack of retaliation over his t-shirt that he took to attacking potential AFC Championship opponent Tom Brady on Thursday.
Despite the lack of noise leading up to the game, no-one expects a Steelers-Ravens playoff game to be quiet. There are too many loud players on both sides of the ball – Ray Lewis, James Harrison, and Suggs come to mind – for this game to be played with anything less than full intensity.
The question then becomes, can the Ravens travel to Heinz Field and pull out a win? The Ravens are one of the best road teams in the playoffs; they proved that once again with their Wild Card win in Kansas City last week, controlling all aspects of the game and cruising to an easy 30-7 win. And Baltimore has proven that they can win in Pittsburgh; although the two teams split their regular season series, the Ravens picked up their win at Heinz Field.
The Steelers meanwhile should be a more rested team on Saturday after having a round one bye – not that rolling past the Chiefs took too much out of the Ravens. Pittsburgh did however, have a better record on the road than at home during the regular season.
With Joe Flacco arguably playing at a higher level than at any other time against the Steelers, there are enough signs that point to Baltimore finally getting it done against their divisional foes, and Suggs’ shots at Brady not being premature.
2) Can Matt Ryan keep up his impeccable home record, in the playoffs?
Green Bay Packers vs. Atlanta Falcons
Saturday, January 15 – 8pm et/5pm pt
Georgia Dome – Atlanta, Georgia
We all know about Matt Ryan’s near flawless home record, he’s virtually unbeatable at the Georgia Dome. But that record (20-2) was built during the regular season; Ryan has yet to suit up at home during the playoffs. His lone playoff experience was a loss to the eventual NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals in his rookie season.
Even though he’s played like a seasoned veteran this year, Ryan’s still a young quarterback with very little playoff experience and nerves are always a question when it comes to young QBs. That being said, Ryan has time and again proven his maturity and there’s no reason to believe he can’t handle this next step.
The QB on the other side of the field come Saturday is pretty good too. And any questions about Aaron Rodgers, still green himself, and his poise and maturity were answered last week, when Rodgers went into a hostile Philadelphia and led the Packers to a Wild Card Weekend win. Rodgers was 18 for 27 for 190 yards and three touchdowns last Sunday at Lincoln Field.
Although Ryan and Rodgers have only three post-season starts, and only one post-season win, combined, there aren’t many out there that think they can’t handle this stage. Look for both QBs to put up strong performances, but the home-field advantage may be enough for Ryan to capture his first playoff win, and start a home record in the playoffs that he’ll hope one day rivals that of his home record in the regular season.
3) Can Seattle win on the road, without the help of their 12th man?
Seattle Seahawks vs. Chicago Bears
Sunday, January 16 – Noon et/9am pt
Soldier Field – Chicago, Illinois
A lot has to go right for the Seahawks if they’re to pull out another improbable win in the playoffs, this time away from the familiar confines of Qwest Field.
They’ll likely need another stellar performance at quarterback from Matt Hasselbeck, another defensive breakdown by the opposing team, another Beast Mode run by Marshawn Lynch, and maybe even another Bengals play to steal and use against the Bears.
Last week, Hasselbeck was 22 for 35 for 272 yards and four touchdowns to just one interception against the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints. But the Wild Card performance was more an aberration than the norm for the aging passer these days and it’s likely he won’t be able to pull out another one like that against a strong Bears defence.
As for Marshawn Lynch? He’s an adequate running back but was only worth a fourth-rounder (or third-rounder, depending on who you ask) earlier this season and probably won’t be able to replicate one of the greatest post-season runs of all-time just one week later. And the Bengals play? Well Chicago didn’t play the Bengals this year so the Seahawks will have to look at film from other teams if they’re to find a secret-weapon play for the second straight week.
Meanwhile in Chicago, the Bears continually won during the regular season without ever really getting the respect a 13-win team should have gotten, and with them opening the playoffs at home against the 8-9 Seahawks, look for that trend to continue this week. The Bears however, likely don’t care too much, because they are just two wins, whether they get respect for them or not, from returning to the Super Bowl.
Even though the Bears haven’t been respected very much for their wins this season, a team doesn’t need a whole lot of respect to still be considered the favorites over the Seahawks. That being said, the Seahawks did win the teams’ lone regular season meeting this year, at Soldier Field no less, so anything is possible.
4) Who will laugh last between the Jets and Patriots?
New York Jets vs. New England Patriots
Sunday, January 16 – 4:30pm et/1:30pm pt
Gillette Stadium – Foxborough, Massachusettes
If it wasn’t already crystal clear that these two teams don’t like each other before this week, it sure is now. Even before the Jets defeated the Colts on Wild Card Weekend, Rex Ryan started what would become a long and entertaining war of words between the Jets and Patriots, when he indirectly took a shot at Tom Brady in complimenting Peyton Manning.
The trash talk started in earnest this week by Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who directed a couple of expletives at Brady. Just when it looked like the Patriots were going to take the highroad, Wes Welker answered a few questions at a press conference. And while nobody is saying for sure that Welker was taking shots at Ryan and his scandal earlier in the year, he did seem to be making more foot references than usual.
In the end, the trash talking will mean nothing. Brady has three Super Bowl rings and isn’t about to be phased by an opposing cornerback calling him out before a game, just like Ryan will shake off any jokes directed his way, and keep his team focused at the task at hand.
The teams split their regular season series, with each team winning at home. The Patriots routed the Jets in Week 13 at Gillette Stadium and at no other time was the contrast between the teams’ quarterbacks more apparent. Brady went off for 326 yards and four touchdown passes during that game en route to cementing what will surely be an MVP season. Sanchez looked rattled the entire game and wound up throwing three interceptions.
While it’s entirely possible Brady could put up a performance reminiscent of his spectacular Week 13 game in the playoffs, it is unlikely that Sanchez will be as bad as he was that week. That being said, it’s also unlikely Sanchez will be able to do enough to lead the Jets to a victory in New England. Of the two, look for Brady to be the one celebrating during the game, whether he points to the Jets sideline or not.
5) With just the Raiders left to hire a head coach, which type of bench boss will be the most successful?
A number of different types of head coaches have been hired this season. The San Francisco 49ers went with the hot shot college coach in Jim Harbaugh. The Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns went with the respected co-ordinators in Ron Rivera and Pat Shurmur, respectively. The Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings stayed in house by removing the interim tags from Jason Garrett and Leslie Frazier. And the Denver Broncos went with the experienced head coach – or retread depending on who you ask – in John Fox.
While the 49ers hiring of Harbaugh is getting lauded the most in the media, it should be noted that several successful college coaches couldn’t make the transition to successful NFL coaches. That list includes Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, and perhaps most unceremoniously, Bobby Petrino.
While the hirings of Rivera and Shurmur weren’t met with the most excitement by fans, several pundits in the media are quick to point out that the hirings of Falcons coach Mike Smith, Packers coach Mike McCarthy, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin weren’t met with much excitement at the time either. Rivera and Shurmur may not be grabbing the headlines that a Jim Harbaugh will, but they are smart football men and safe hires.
Both Garrett and Frazier were given the opportunity to show they deserved to be head coaches late last season, and both did a solid job. Had they not been given the reigns mid-season by their respective teams, both coaches would fall into the respected co-ordinators category, and since the Cowboys and Vikings both got a sneak peak at their coaching abilities, these hires come off as both smart and safe.
While Fox is entering his second stint as a head coach, it isn’t completely fair to label him a retread. Fox’s dismissal in Carolina was as much about money as it was about money. And even though Fox is well-respected around the league, it’s tough to ignore that he was the head coach of the 1-16 Carolina Panthers this year.
And as for the Oakland Raiders, history says don’t get too attached to whoever is hired, he’ll likely be gone in a year or two.