The National Football League’s Elite 8 will take center stage in the 2010 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round. I am expecting a real old school slugfest when Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s team hosts AFC North rival, the Baltimore Ravens, this Saturday afternoon
(Philadelphia, Pa) — The “Elite Eight” round better known as the NFL Playoffs Divisional Round start the “real” games as far as I am concerned. Most fans and media love the hype of the National Football League’s Conference Championships and Super Bowl. But you can put my wholehearted vote in for the NFL Divisional Playoffs as the most exciting portion of the league’s now year-round calendar. The splendor of the divisional playoff round is that the four best teams from the regular season, after a well-deserved bye week, finally get to enter the fracas to take on pumped-up Wildcard Round upstarts. The NFL Playoffs’ Wildcard round usually does a pretty good job of removing teams that I like to call “Frauds” from the playoff picture. However if some frauds are still leftover, surely the divisional round will sniff them out. The final eight usually brings out the best in teams leading to highly competitive games before the suffocating hype, pressure, and “big stage” mentality of getting to the Super Bowl sets in.
The great thing about the NFL Playoffs divisional round games are that now teams that excelled in the regular season have to “Prove It” when it matters most. For a long time teams coming off byes seemed to automatically advance to the Conference Championship round of the playoffs. Since the league went to 12 playoff teams in 1990, — gave the top two seeds in each conference first-round byes — the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are 60-20 (.750) in their first playoff game. However since 2005, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are just 10-10 (.500) in the divisional playoff round. A great example of the non-predictability of current divisional round playoffs was the 2008 NFL Season. Both No. 1 seeds (Tennessee Titans – AFC and New York Giants – NFC) and the NFC’s number two-seeded Carolina Panthers came off byes and lost in the divisional playoffs. Only the AFC’s No. 2 seed, the Pittsburgh Steelers, won in the second round of playoffs and then went on to win Super Bowl XLIII. Remember there are no longer the dynasty bully teams of the past — think of Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns of the ‘50s, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers of the ‘60s, Chuck Knoll’s Pittsburgh Steelers of the ‘70s, Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers of the ‘80s, Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys of the ‘90s, and Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots of the ‘00s – so parity still rules and all 8 teams have a legitimate chance.
Surprisingly this week, all four home teams are favored by Vegas after a Wildcard round where home teams went 1-3. Yes, last year’s Super Bowl match-up of the Saints-Colts brought the NFL’s first No. 1 seed showdown since 1993 (Buffalo vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XXVIII), but I am not sure if the “Chalk” will fall into place again this season. The 2010 NFL Regular Season was topsy-turvy – perfection left the door in Week 5 and 48% of regular season games were decided by 7 points or less — and I fully expect the divisional round to be a wide-open affair too. Somewhere former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell is smiling as the phrase he coined, “On Any Given Sunday” still is reigning true. Bell’s dream theory of equitability where any team, whether top or bottom, could beat each other on a weekly basis, was majorly driven home last week in the Wildcard round.
Everyone, including yours truly, gave the Seattle Seahawks – regular season record of 7-9 at the time and the NFL’s first losing record playoff team in a non-strike season — little chance to beat the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints in the Wildcard Round (I think I said they would be “Fried like the Colonel’s Chicken). But in the parity-filled world of the current NFL, the Seahawks, who were a 250 to 1 shot to win the Super Bowl at the start of the playoffs, defeated the Saints 41-36. Definitely keep an eye on the winners from the Wild Card round as teams advancing from the round have won the Super Bowl six times including the three of the last five champions. Hopefully Lovie Smith’s Chicago Bears were paying attention as every favored team coming off of a bye better prepare for the opponent in front of them or there is distinct chance that they will join the Eagles, Saints, Chiefs, Colts and the 20 other non-playoff teams on the sidelines. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick recently said of the playoffs, “After the regular season the Patriots were 14-2, but now the team is 0-0”.
The theme of the 2010 NFL Divisional Playoff round should be the same as one of my favorite ’70s films, “Let’s Do It Again”. The film starred African-American film icons Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitiere making a killing by prearranging boxing matches with all the marbles riding on a big payday rematch. The word “rematch” fits perfectly as for the first time since 2008 all four divisional playoff games will be rematches or “rubber matches” from regular-season contests. Of course having played and beaten a team in the regular season may bring a partial psychological edge in game planning, and dissecting tendencies. But tried-and-true playoff tenants of Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, Getting off the Field on 3rd Downs Defensively, Scoring Touchdowns rather field goals in the Redzone, Limiting Penalties/Turnovers, and just plain “Want-to” will be the deciding factors as to which teams move on to the Conference Championship round on the long treacherous road to Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, Texas.
Speaking of familiarity, the AFC’s two divisional round match-ups (Ravens-Steelers and NY Jets-Patriots) are also divisional games. To football fans there is nothing better than putting on your team’s colors and rooting against a hated rival. Players usually try to keep a lid on emotions, but when a familiar foe is across the line — play twice a year and sometimes three times, if both teams make the playoffs –- you can save the handshakes for the offseason. NY Jets CB Antonio Cromartie fanned the flames of one the NFL’s biggest rivalries by saying, via the New York Daily News, about what kind of guy Patriots QB Tom Brady is, “He’s an asshole…(Bleep) him.” In retort, Brady took the high road by saying that he had been called worse in the past. But the J-E-T-S better be wary as Brady usually does his talking on the field and sometimes after games too. Back after the Patriots shellacked the NY Jets 45-3 in Week 13, Brady had an additional message for Gang Green. “We don’t listen to the hype,” Brady said. “I don’t think we ever have. We really take after our coach (Bill Belichick), and he says ‘When you win, say little. When you lose, say less.”’
Other than the playoff tenants that we discussed earlier, “Great” playoff teams that usually advance far in the postseason win the battle in Adjustments and Turnovers. The NFL is a copycat league where teams can catch-up quickly and adjustments are the only way to stay ahead of the pack and combat falling behind. With the Wildcard Round behind us, it is time for the “great” coaches to make the adjustments necessary to get their teams to the next round of the playoffs – think Saints head coach Sean Payton calling a surprise successful onside kick after halftime of Super Bowl XLIV. However we all know that nothing goes as “planned” in the NFL. It is all well and good to look at old tape and previous games against your opponent to prepare a dossier. But during the course of a game, plans can quickly go out the window.
Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson used to always say before a fight in his classic lisp voice, “Everybody has a plan, until they get hit.” That quote is so true in the NFL too as former Super Bowl winning coaches in this year’s playoffs (Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin) have been known to make in-game adjustments to their original game plans that have led to playoff victories. As important as adjustments are, plain and simple nothing is an important factor in wining playoff games than “turnovers”. Nothing can put a dagger in a team’s playoff hopes quicker than giving away the ball, especially turnovers that go to the house for points. A prime example was in last week’s Wildcard Round where the Kansas City Chiefs turned the ball over 5 times in their lopsided loss to the Ravens. And of course who could ever forget the worst turnover game in recent memory, where the highly favored Carolina Panthers lost at home 33-13 in a whitewash to the underdog Arizona Cardinals in the 2008 NFL Playoffs Divisional round. Panthers QB Jake Delhomme (17-34, 205 yards, 1 TD, 5 INT and 1 fumble) accounted for six turnovers by himself and the Cardinals scored 23 of their 33 points off of those takeaways.
The operative phrase for all the teams remaining in the single-elimination NFL Playoffs is “Moving On”. Because winning the battle on the stat sheet means nothing as getting “W’s” are all that matter. Style points are out the window as an “ugly” win is just as good as an offensive highlight reel win – Just ask the 2000 Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens who won ugly all the way to a Super Bowl title. Sadly the season will be over soon so enjoy this weekend’s slate of four quality matchups.
Before we turn our attention to our individual game capsules, here are some Lloyd’s Leftovers for the 2010 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round
Being #1 Seed is not what it used to be — Attaining the No. 1 seed in your conference and home field advantage used to mean something back in the day, but in today’s parity-laden NFL there are no guarantees to Super Bowl entry. Since 1990 only 20 of the 40 (50.0 percent) No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Super Bowl, with nine No. 1 seeds being crowned champions (22.5 percent). However some good news for No. 1 seeds are that they are a combined 30-10 in the divisional playoffs since 1990 (NFC: 18-2 and AFC: 12-8)
The Year of the Tight End Continued – With teams playing more zone defenses and quarterbacks looking for “good” match-ups in the redzone, tight ends are more in vogue than ever in the NFL. Some tight ends that will be showcased in the divisional round are Bears TE Greg Olsen, Ravens TE Todd Heap, Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez, NY Jets TE Dustin Keller, Steelers TE Heath Miller, and Seahawks TE John Carlson plus Patriots emerging rookies Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, Last week Heap was one of the biggest stars of the Wildcard round producing 10 catches for 108 yards (10.8 ypc)
The Ravens are tough on the road — Baltimore loves “Us Against the World” games on the road. This Saturday’s game will mark the 15th playoff game in Ravens’ history and the club’s eleventh on the road. Baltimore holds a 7-3 playoff record away from home, which stands as the top road winning percentage (.700) in NFL playoff history (minimum five games).
Rematch after a shellacking – The NY Jets-Patriots playoff game will be their next game since New England’s 45-3 pasting of the J-E-T-S in Week 13. The match-up will be the third time in NFL History where teams have a playoff rematch after a regular season game where one team won by 42 + points. The others were Washington-Detroit in 1991 and Minnesota-Cleveland in 1969. BTW: The Patriots should be happy as both the Redskins and Vikings won again in playoffs after posting a big victory over their overmatched foes in the regular season.
2010-11 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Games
Saturday January 15, 2011
Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) (CBS, 4:30 PM ET)
Broadcast Team: Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf
Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Atlanta Falcons (13-3) (FOX, 8:00 PM ET)
Broadcast Team: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Myers and Pam Oliver (Field Reporter)
Sunday January 16, 2011
Seattle Seahawks (8-9) at Chicago Bears (11-5) (FOX, 1:00 PM ET)
Broadcast Team: Darryl Johnston, Kenny Albert, and Tony Siragusa (Field Reporter)
New York Jets (12-5) at New England Patriots (14-2) (CBS, 4:30 PM ET)
Broadcast Team: Jim Nance and Phil Simms
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)