It’s a little harsh being the Packers and Falcons this week. They’re playing the Forgotten Game. There’s no flash, no storyline, no recurring theme and no Michael Vick. It’s just a football game between two very good teams. And, unless there’s a record set, or a long field goal to win it, or maybe if someone streaks the field and is either tased by an officer or tackled by Matt Ryan – or, perhaps, tased by Matt Ryan – you’re not going to hear much about it.
We live in a world where Troy Polamalu’s hair is a brand.
That’s because the three other games this weekend are bursting with possibility. The Ravens and Steelers, for instance, are competitive division rivals with two easily-recognizable defensive menaces in Ray Lewis and Troy Polamalu who have, inadvertently, combined to make any male’s showering experience complete (Lewis with his loopy Old Spice endorsements, Polamalu with his self-effacing work on behalf of Head and Shoulders).
The Seahawks, as you might have heard, weren’t supposed to be here. But after causing a mini-earthquake, both figuratively and literally, they get the Bears—a team many believe to find luck around every corner—in the divisional round. But oddsmakers have seen the light and given the Seahawks some measure of respect. They’ve fallen from 10.5-point underdogs last week at home to 10-point underdogs this week on the road. Seattle, your time is nigh!
And then we have the Jets and Patriots, division rivals so bitter that brushing your teeth and then eating a bushel of grapefruits would seem sweet by comparison. Rex Ryan has told anyone who will listen that he’s taking this very personally. And Antonio Cromartie threw fuel on the fire Wednesday by referring to Tom Brady in ways that forced sportswriters to overload on the obscure “-” key on their computers.
Who is Green Bay playing again?
Wild Card Round (and overall): David Roth: 1-3 (115-131-9); Nando DiFino: 2-2 (135-117-9); Ben Cohen: 2-2 (21-17)
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (-3)
DR: Baltimore; NDF: Baltimore ; BC: Baltimore
These two teams are eerily similar. They both play in the AFC North, they both finished the season 12-4 and both are traditionally regarded as strong defensive teams. (The Steelers ranked first in points allowed this year, while the Ravens ranked third). On top of that, the teams split the season series, with Baltimore taking a Week 4 match-up in Pittsburgh 17-14, and the Steelers winning Week 13 in Baltimore 13-10. Pittsburgh has scored more points this season, and they played four games without Ben Roethlisberger, including the loss to Baltimore. But in those other three games, they beat the Falcons, they put up as many points against the Titans as they did later in the season—with Roethlisberger at quarterback—against the Bills and they scored 38 against Tampa Bay. I’m not sure they can make a case that Roethlisberger would have made a huge difference in those early games. Home-road splits also don’t help: Pittsburgh is 5-3 at home, Baltimore is 5-3 on the road. Essentially, this is a tie. (A tie which we’ll live blog with Jonah Keri.) And with Baltimore getting three points and having momentum with a dominating win over Kansas City, I’m going to have to lean towards the Ravens. – NDF
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons (-2.5)
DR: Atlanta; NDF: Atlanta; BC: Green Bay
While it will nearly impossible to improve on the taser-wielding Matt Ryan that Nando conjured above, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the weekend’s least-hyped game wind up being its best. Atlanta has specialized in a distinctly low-key brand of dominance this season, which has meant that – despite ranking fifth in both points per game and points-allowed – the Falcons have flown well under the radar during one of the franchise’s best seasons ever. The Packers, for their part, have built what might be the NFL’s best defense – and overcome numerous injuries to major contributors on both sides of the ball – in the relative anonymity that comes with playing in the frozen reaches of the upper Midwest. Neither team is glamorous, although the Megadeth-inspired locks of Green Bay’s Clay Matthews should probably get him some kind of conditioner endorsement in a bull market. Neither coach goes in for the Rex Ryan Human Megaphone school of leadership. But Atlanta’s Mike Smith looks more and more like the NFL’s most underrated coach, and Matt Ryan’s incredible 20-2 record at home is one of the most impressive NFL stats no one talks about. Which only amplifies just how unjustly slept-on the Falcons remain – and why I’ll pick them to win this one by just enough to cover. – DR
Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears (-10)
DR: Chicago; NDF: Chicago; BC: Seattle
We’ve reached the second round of the NFL playoffs, which means that the term “nothing to lose” should no longer apply. The teams that remain are all a couple wins away from the Super Bowl, and most of them have at least some reason to believe they’ve got a chance at winning it all. And then there are the Seattle Seahawks, a team which was outscored by 97 points during the regular season and is still a win shy of the break-even mark on the season after pulling a mega-upset against the Saints last week. If there is a team left in the playoffs with nothing to lose, it would be Seattle. And so here they are, with their coach doing goofy shtick in his press conferences, Marshawn Lynch and his ‘mates happily flacking his priceless “Beast Mode” nickname and everyone involved generally seeming looser and more comfortable than any other playoff team. All of which is great, and fun to see, and almost certainly not relevant here – the Seahawks aren’t much good, really, and are especially not-much-good on the road, where they went 2-6 this season. One of those wins did come in Chicago back in Week 6, but that was Week 6 and these are still the Seahawks. Not having anything to lose is great as far as it goes, but it doesn’t do anything to protect against losing. – DR
New York Jets at New England Patriots (-8.5)
DR: New England; NDF: New York Jets; BC: New England
You might’ve heard something about this one. The bombast blasting from the Jets locker room in anticipation of Sunday’s final game (which we’ll also live blog with Jonah Keri) has turned the entire sports media into one big echo chamber, and the deafening dopiness of the whole thing has lowered the level of discourse surrounding the contest to something akin to the average national political campaign. Some of this was clearly by design, but while Jets coach Rex Ryan was doubtless trying to take some heat off his team and get in New England’s collective head by making with the press conference tweaks earlier in the week, the profanely off-message digressions to the same effect from cornerback Antonio Cromartie were almost certainly not part of any pre-planned script. The game has legitimately interesting stories – the brilliant counterpunching from the Jets defense in their wild card win, or the rise of unheralded gadget back (and former Jets special teamer) Danny Woodhead with New England. But they’ve been subsumed in goofy tit-for-tat speculation on non-issues such as whether or not Pats receiver Wes Welker was subtly jabbing at Ryan in his Thursday presser.
So it will be something of a relief to get out of the Situation Room and onto the football field Sunday, and to watch these two teams play football, instead of working on rival messaging campaigns. The Jets are still smarting from the 45-3 whupping New England handed them in Week 13, and if their surprising scheming last weekend was any indication, they will do everything they can to avoid getting beat the same way twice. But while the Jets won’t drop another game by 42 points – and while they’ve seemingly recaptured some of their early-season moxie – it’s hard to escape the various disparities in New England’s favor. The Patriots are as locked-in as any team in the playoffs, and quarterback Tom Brady is playing some of the best football of his career. The Jets acquitted themselves fairly well – or at least fairly amusingly – in the war of words leading up to the game, but in actual football … well, 8.5 points sounds about right to me. – DR