I believe that. And I believe we will see some proof of that this weekend. The teams to keep your eyes on — the teams that got the byes this year — are New Orleans, Indianapolis, Minnesota and San Diego.
At least one of those teams will fall this weekend. Mark my words.
- Arizona (11–6) at New Orleans (13–3) — The last time Arizona played in the Louisiana Superdome was on Dec. 16, 2007. Neither team advanced to the playoffs that year, but the Saints won their encounter, 31–24. That's the only time since Hurricane Katrina that the teams have faced each other. Truthfully, the teams haven't met very often in recent years so it is necessary to look for other factors that could influence the outcome: (1) Arizona is coming off a hard–fought overtime win over Green Bay last Sunday. Will the Cardinals be exhilarated or exhausted? (2) New Orleans hasn't won at home since beating New England on Nov. 30. (3) Saints quarterback Drew Brees has received a lot of attention this season, and he clearly has been crucial to the Saints' success, but, statistically, the Cardinals have the NFL's top offense, its second–best passing game and its fifth–best rushing attack. (4) On the other side of the ball, Arizona's overall defense, its pass defense and its run defense rank second only to Dallas among teams that are still active in the NFC. Nevertheless, Steve Wyche of NFL.com says the intangibles, like home field and a week to rest and regroup, are in the Saints' favor. And John DeShazier of the New Orleans Times–Picayune writes that, if the Saints truly want to be the best team in the NFL, there may be no better way to prove it than by beating the defending NFC champs. It wasn't so long ago that the very thought of either the Saints or the Cardinals even being in the playoffs was laughable, but it isn't so laughable now. One of them will play in their second NFC championship game in the last four years. Which will it be? That's a tough call for me, but, by the narrowest of margins, I'll pick the Saints.
- Baltimore (10–7) at Indianapolis (14–2) — For the second consecutive week, the Ravens will be playing a team that beat them during the regular season. The Colts barely got by the Ravens on November 22, 17–15, but that game was played in Baltimore. The last time the teams met in Indianapolis was Oct. 12, 2008, when the Colts hammered the Ravens, 31–3. Actually, the Colts have won seven in a row against the Ravens (including a playoff game the year they beat the Bears in the Super Bowl). The Ravens haven't beaten the Colts since Dec. 2, 2001, and some people don't think they will snap that losing streak, in part because Baltimore was much better at home than on the road this year. Nevertheless, the Ravens whipped New England on the road last weekend, and there are some folks, like Bucky Brooks of NFL.com, who think Baltimore's running game, led by Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, can make the difference. At the very least, he concedes it is the running game that not only has kept Baltimore's season going but is responsible for the continued presence in the postseason of the Jets and Cowboys as well. Statistically, the Ravens did have the best running game in the NFL. They were the only squad that averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game, and fans must wonder if Indy can keep up with them. Pat Kirwan, Brooks' colleague at NFL.com, openly wonders if the Colts can stop the Ravens' offensive line. I wonder that, too, but, ultimately, that isn't the issue, is it? The linemen may do their job, but the running backs are the ones who have to make the moves, break tackles and turn up the speed when called for. Baltimore's running attack really has emerged since the Indianapolis game. Last time, as Kirwan points out, the Ravens never scored a touchdown against the Colts with an offense that threw the ball more than ran it. The Ravens settled for five field goals and missed a sixth that would have won the game. The objective needs to be different this time. The Ravens have to get the ball into the end zone, and the ground game seems to be in a better position to produce that kind of result — along with the added benefit of keeping Indy's offense off the field. The Colts are 24th in the NFL in defending the run; they can be had. Another factor in this game is the bye. The Colts haven't won a game since Dec. 17, and they haven't beaten a playoff team since that game with the Ravens nearly two months ago. I believe phoning in their last two games and then taking last week off will work against them. Some people say Dallas or San Diego are the hottest teams in the playoffs right now, but Baltimore could be a plausible candidate for that title. The Ravens have emerged the winners of must–win games to get into and then advance in the playoffs. They have plenty of momentum and a running game that could wear down the Colts. I'll take the Ravens.
- Dallas (12–5) at Minnesota (12–4) — This may be the game that NFL fans have anticipated the most this week. The teams last faced each other in Dallas on Oct. 21, 2007; the Cowboys won, 24–14. The last time they met in Minnesota was Sept. 12, 2004; the Vikings won that one, 35–17. The last time the road team won was on Nov. 23, 2000, when Minnesota won in Dallas, 27–15. The teams didn't meet in the playoffs for the first time until 1971, but it became almost an annual thing in the 1970s as they faced each other four times between 1971 and 1977. They have only played twice in the postseason since that time, with Dallas winning in 1996 and Minnesota winning in 1999. Well, that's all in the past. What does the immediate future hold? Let's go back to the recent past for just a moment. The Vikings signed Brett Favre last summer, thinking he could provide the leadership the team needed to get to the Super Bowl, and, in spite of a bit of a late–season slump, he's come through. When the season started and Favre was learning Minnesota's system, there was a tendency for the team to rely on halfback Adrian Peterson. As the season progressed, though, the Vikings evolved from primarily a running team to more of a passing team — in the last two games of the regular season, Favre threw for more than 300 yards in each game while Peterson did not crack 100 yards in rushing. So, while Favre ended the season behind Dallas' Tony Romo in the passing rankings, he's been following an upward trajectory, perhaps at Peterson's expense, but as long as Peterson is in the lineup, Dallas can't afford to focus exclusively on Favre and Minnesota's aerial attack. Not to be forgotten is the fact that the Vikings went 8–0 at home. If New Orleans beats Arizona, the winner of this game will have to travel to the Big Easy next week, but this week, as Sid Hartman observes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, home field is truly an advantage for the Vikings. It should be interesting — and challenging for the Cowboys. In the end, though, I'll go with the home team.
- New York Jets (10–7) at San Diego (13–3) — Perhaps the only thing you need to know about this matchup is that it has been nearly three months since San Diego lost a football game. That was against Denver on Oct. 19. Here's something else that might be helpful. The last time the Jets played in San Diego was Sept. 22, 2008. The Jets had Brett Favre calling the signals, but that didn't deter the Chargers, who rolled to a 48–29 victory. That's the only win the Chargers have recorded in four meetings with the Jets in the last 15 years — and it came when the Jets had the only Hall of Fame quarterback they've had in their lineup since Joe Namath was on the roster. It's tempting to believe that, until last weekend, the Jets hadn't won a playoff game since Namath was calling the signals. But it only seems that way. The Jets won wild–card games following the 2004 and 2002 seasons, they won a divisional playoff in January 1999, and they won some playoff games in the 1980s, but they've only gone as far as the AFC championship game since their lone Super Bowl appearance more than 40 years ago. The Chargers haven't been much more successful. They lost the only Super Bowl they've ever played in 15 years ago, and they lost in their only AFC championship appearance since then (they only played in two others since the NFL and AFL merged in 1970). But these Chargers are the definition of hot. It is unfortunate for the Jets to have drawn them. If the Ravens had lost to the Patriots, as everyone expected, the Jets would be playing in Indianapolis this weekend and the Pats would have the unenviable task of playing the Chargers. If the Jets and Ravens win this weekend, that would set up the absolutely final game in Giants Stadium, with the AFC title on the line. But I don't think the Jets have the horses to pull it off. I think the Chargers will win.