Every Wednesday until the Super Bowl, Brian Billick will write a weekly column looking in-depth at different aspects of the modern NFL and will discuss experiences and insights he gained while coaching and broadcasting.
As we prepare for what many fans think of as the single-best weekend on the pro football calendar, it’s worth reflecting on what’s at stake and how the best teams will define themselves in the days ahead. From the organized team activities throughout the offseason, minicamps in June, the sweat and drudgery of training camp and preseason and the long marathon of a 16-game regular season, teams have fought for a spot in the playoffs and then — when possible — for the right to contest those games at home.
What we saw watching the Vikings, Bengals and Colts last weekend was a group of teams that simply weren’t yet good enough to go on the road and take control of a game against a quality opponent in a hostile environment. Home teams went 3-1 last week (4-0 in the wild-card round last year), so that home-field advantage can be huge.
But the best teams in football — almost by definition — are the ones most impervious to the disadvantages of going on the road. Marv Levy’s credo said it all: Championship football teams learn how to win games on the road. And the ability to do that is what makes this weekend’s games interesting. Here’s a look at the four matchups, from the one in which we’re least likely to see a road upset to the one in which we’re most likely to see it.
HOUSTON AT NEW ENGLAND
I’ve been in pro football for most of my adult life, and there’s not a lot in the game that shocks me anymore. That having been said, I would be genuinely shocked if the Houston Texans go up to New England and beat the Patriots. It’s not that the Texans aren’t a good team. Arian Foster is a terrific running back, and if they can get a lead and force the other offense to become predictable, their defense is capable of controlling a game. But it will take a sharp, confident, experienced team hitting on all cylinders to knock the Patriots out of the playoffs, and I don’t think the Texans are there at this point. Tom Brady is playing some of the best football of his career, the Patriots’ running game is getting better and, barring some uncharacteristic turnovers (remember, the Patriots led the NFL in turnover differential this year), it seems much more likely that New England will take control early, build a decent lead, force Matt Schaub to try to beat them through the air, and prevail.
SEATTLE AT ATLANTA
After a season that was defined by two high-profile rookie quarterbacks, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, we head to the divisional round of the playoffs — and the last rookie quarterback standing is the least celebrated one of the three, Russell Wilson of the Seahawks. RG3 was clearly ailing Sunday, but take a step back and look at the larger picture: The Seahawks fell behind by 14 points on the road in the first playoff game of Russell Wilson’s career. But he didn’t panic, didn’t try to do more than he was capable of; instead, he played smart, sound football the rest of the way, leading Seattle on three scoring drives at the end of the first half, and into the lead for good in the second. The Seahawks won by 10 points, and it could (and should) have been even more if it weren’t for a Marshawn Lynch fumble near the Redskins’ goal line. The Seahawks go into Atlanta full of confidence, in both their quarterback and the capability of their team to go toe-to-toe with anyone.
The Falcons are a team with something to prove. Matt Ryan’s still looking for his first postseason win, and the team as a whole needs to convert its consistent regular-season success under Mike Smith into postseason victories. I think you can expect the Falcons defense to throw a lot of different looks at Wilson and count on the crowd noise inside the Georgia Dome to neutralize his ability to adjust at the line of scrimmage. On offense, the marquee matchup will find Julio Jones and Roddy White dueling with Seattle’s big-play cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. That will go a long way toward determining the victor, but don’t forget the old pro Tony Gonzalez, who is still desperately searching for the first playoff win of his 16-year career.
BALTIMORE AT DENVER
On paper, this is an easy game to call. The Broncos are fit, rested and playing dominating football (they spanked the Ravens, 34-17, in Baltimore less than a month ago). Peyton Manning has made the offense his own, and the Broncos’ improving defense, anchored by backfield-wrecking linebacker Von Miller, has grown mighty salty as the season has worn on.
But perhaps more than any other team in football, the Ravens are built for winning postseason games on the road. They’re used to these challenges, and they are back near full strength. Last week, the Ravens played with all four of their defensive stars for the first time this year. (Much will be made of the added emotional advantage of Ray Lewis’s final season, but everybody is highly motivated in the playoffs; I doubt that will be a factor.)
The key will be for Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ offense to produce at least three touchdowns against the Broncos defense. To do that, they’ll need to find a way to get running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce untracked, and they’ll need for young wideout Torrey Smith to step up, and have the sort of game that Anquan Boldin enjoyed last week against Indianapolis. Also, keep an eye on underrated tight end Dennis Pitta, a match-up challenge who enjoyed a growing role in the Ravens’ attack in the second half of the season.
It would be a monumental undertaking for the Ravens to go into Denver and come out with a win, but I’ve long ago learned never to rule out Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. This is probably the end of the line for Lewis, but this game could offer some high drama before his final exit.
GREEN BAY AT SAN FRANCISCO
The best matchup of the weekend, and a game that’s loser will have lots of explaining to do. If it’s the Packers, Mike McCarthy will have to answer why the team’s high-octane offense has had two consecutive early exits from the playoffs. If it’s the Niners, Jim Harbaugh will start hearing questions about his team’s penchant for squandering home-field advantage (recall they lost at home in the NFC title game last season) and, inevitably, his decision to bench Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick late in the season.
When these two teams met early in the season, Green Bay’s offense was stifled by the San Francisco defense — but back then Justin Smith was healthy and messing up the Packers running game. This time around, Smith will be walking wounded and Aaron Rodgers is playing his best football. I think Green Bay will get its points — the pressure in this game will be for Kaepernick to keep the Niners offense moving, and generate the kind of offensive production he did in his starting debut, when he eviscerated a good Bears’ defense in a 32-7 drubbing.
In many ways, this weekend is the most pressurized of the year. For the teams coming off their byes, a home playoff loss is devastating. For the teams that won last week, this is the statement game — a chance to prove they’re genuine contenders, not pretenders. The four teams left standing after Sunday night will have earned their place in the conference title games’ center stage.