Time to peak, playoffs are here
The way the Green Bay Packers blew through the regular season,
it would be foolish to pick against them repeating as Super Bowl
Yet they aren’t on the hottest streak nor playing the best
football as January rolls around. And as the Steelers, Giants and,
yes, the Packers have proven in recent years, being a wild card
isn’t an overbearing burden, so don’t dismiss Pittsburgh,
Cincinnati, Detroit or Atlanta entirely.
New England, the top seed in the AFC with a 13-3 record, and New
Orleans, No. 3 in the NFC, haven’t lost in the second half of the
schedule. Like Green Bay (15-1), both have dynamic, sometimes
unstoppable offenses led by magnificent quarterbacks, bolstered by
a deep and dangerous group of receivers.
All three also have so-so defenses that often require Aaron
Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady to win shootouts. That’s a
difficult way to prosper in the postseason, particularly when
playing against a rugged, versatile defense such as the 49ers,
Ravens and Texans possess.
”A lot of it is working on what we need to work on; working on
things that have been a problem for us, that if they come up again
we need to handle better,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, not
mentioning in particular a penchant for falling into deep holes.
New England rallied from 17-0 and 21-0 deficits to win its past two
Remember, also, that New England has lost its past three
postseason games, including at home to the Ravens and Jets the past
Behind Brees’ record-setting performances, the Saints soared
past all eight opponents at home, but if they can handle the Lions
next Saturday night in the Superdome, then they must head to San
Francisco. And if they get by the formidable Niners, who rode a
stingy, big-play defense to a 13-3 mark, a date at potentially
frigid Lambeau Field is likely.
That is, if the Giants don’t start partying like it’s 2007. They
were seeded fifth that year, but closed the regular season with a
close loss to unbeaten New England. Then the Giants knocked off
division winners Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay before shocking
the Patriots for the championship.
New York won three of its last four, including impressive
defensive efforts in wins over the Jets and Cowboys to grab the NFC
East title. Defense was an issue for much of the season, but with
the pass rush suddenly reborn, the Giants can be dangerous.
”Different guys, different teams. I’d love to have the same
ending as the `07 team,” Giants guard Chris Snee said. ”We
certainly have the capability of doing that, as we have shown. I’m
happy just to be in the playoffs. We’ll take it from there. I don’t
spend too much time reminiscing about that glorious time in our
Baltimore, like New Orleans and Green Bay, went 8-0 at home and
is an entirely different team on the road (4-4). Still, with some
help from outside – ironically, the AFC North rival Steelers are
the most likely to provide it – the Ravens might not have to leave
the Inner Harbor to get to Indianapolis in February.
Ah, the Steelers. The loss of running back Rashard Mendenhall to
a torn right knee ligament is particularly damaging for a veteran
team that has been to the Super Bowl three times in the past six
seasons, winning twice.
Pittsburgh was the only contender not to lose to a weak team,
falling twice to Baltimore, and to San Francisco and Houston. The
Steelers won seven of their last eight as their supposedly aged
defense looked fresh and frugal.
”We have a lot of veterans who know what January football is
all about,” said safety Ryan Clark. ”Now’s the time to go play
”Now we have to go and play better on the road,” he added of
Sunday’s game in Denver. ”I believe this team can win
When a team is peaking, that certainly is true. The Steelers
(2005) and Packers (2010) got going in December and carried their
superb play right through the postseason.
Unfortunately for some playoff qualifiers, their recent
performances spell early exit.
The banged-up Texans (10-6) lost their final three games, are
playing a rookie, third-string quarterback, and have never been in
the playoffs. Their opponent Saturday is Cincinnati (9-7), loser of
three of its past five, backing into the postseason thanks to other
team’s defeats in their finales.
Detroit was torrid in going 5-0, tepid in losing five of the
next seven. The Lions (10-6), in their first playoffs since 1999,
already have lost at New Orleans this season.
Atlanta went 4-4 on the road and, barring a slew of surprises,
won’t get a home game. The Falcons don’t match up well with any of
the NFC’s other playoff teams except, perhaps, the Giants. A win in
the Meadowlands on Sunday wouldn’t be shocking, but anything beyond
Then there’s Denver (8-8), which sneaked away with the AFC West
despite losing its final three games as Tim Tebow stopped
performing great escapes. The Broncos have a good defense, a
terrific placekicker, and a lot of questions.
”It’s what you make it,” coach John Fox said of the Super Bowl
chase. ”I know not too many years ago, there was a team in New
Orleans that lost their last three, and I think they won the Super
These Broncos don’t resemble those Saints at all.