Saturday, January 15, 2011

Weekend's Best Games Set for Today

It seems to be this way every year.

Once we get past the wild–card playoff weekend and the top two seeds in each conference rejoin the rest of the postseason field for divisional playoff weekend, there is always one game — or one day — that stands out.

Last year, the high point on divisional playoff weekend — at least before the weekend began — probably was the Dallas–Minnesota game. But I guess Dallas didn't show up that day. Minnesota rolled to a 34–3 victory.

The year before, it seems to me the marquee matchup was Philadelphia against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. In January 2008, there were two big attractions, one in each league — Colts–Chargers in the AFC, Cowboys and Giants in the NFC. A year earlier, it was the Colts–Ravens.

Sometimes these games lived up to grand expectations and produced Super Bowl champions or runners–up. Other times, the winners didn't amount to much. They just went on and collapsed in the next round.

But, on that second weekend of the playoffs, those games stood out from the rest.

This year, I see two games on divisional playoff weekend that look like they have the potential to produce Super Bowl teams — and they're both today.

Neither matchup on today's schedule holds any surprises for either participant. The Ravens and Steelers will be meeting for the third time. The Packers and Falcons will be meeting for the second time. All three of those games were decided by a single score.
  • Baltimore (13-4) at Pittsburgh (12-4), 3:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS.

    There are so many variables in this game.

    Peter King of Sports Illustrated thinks this one could come down to the kickers, and he makes a good point. He observes that five of the last seven games between these two teams have been decided by a field goal, but Heinz Field in Pittsburgh is "a Bermuda Triangle for kickers."

    Clearly, something has gotta give.

    This is a pretty heated rivalry — in its current incarnation — but a lot of people seem to forget that this rivalry is a lot older than the decade or so the Ravens have been competing.

    Before the Ravens played in Baltimore, they were called the Cleveland Browns. That team that's been playing in Cleveland lately and calling itself the Browns? It's a substitute, not the original.

    I guess I could write an entire article — or two or three — on how absurd I think it was for the NFL to shift an entire franchise from a city only to award it a new one a few years later — with the same name and uniform and everything.

    But, in the end, the NFL really had no choice, did it? Owner Art Modell wanted to relocate the Browns to Baltimore. Preventing him from doing so would amount to restricting free enterprise, wouldn't it?

    Now, I was always a little peeved about how the Colts slithered away in the dead of night, leaving football fans in Baltimore high and dry. I felt those fans deserved a team, but I never wanted Baltimore to be given another city's team in compensation.

    In the interest of fairness (as well as perhaps trying to avoid a repeat of the Colts episode), giving the football fans in Cleveland a new team to replace the one it had lost was the only thing the NFL could do, I guess.

    And it is worth remembering that the NFL didn't "take away" Cleveland's franchise, either. That was Modell's doing.

    Anyway, once the NFL restored a franchise to Cleveland, the rivalry was renewed. But it's never really been what it was. I guess the folks in the two cities have remained rivals; they're only a couple of hours apart, anyway. But they have met 24 times since a team calling itself the Browns returned to the city, and the Steelers have won all by four, many by ridiculous margins.

    It's been a different story against Baltimore. The teams split their two games this season. The visiting team won both games, and the winning margin in both instances was three points.

    They split their games last year, too, and Pittsburgh swept the season series in 2008. The Steelers made it 3–0 against the Ravens that year when they beat Baltimore for the AFC title.

    But the two teams split their games in 2007, and the Ravens swept the Steelers in 2006. The teams split their series in 2005, 2004 and 2003.

    It is one of the most competitive rivalries in the modern NFL. Sometimes the games have gone into overtime; often, they have been decided by a single score.

    Based on the outcomes of the two regularly scheduled games this season, it is reasonable to think that today's rubber match will be decided by a single score as well.

    I'm sure that would be just fine for the Ravens, who have won six in a row since they lost to Pittsburgh at home in early December and would no doubt like to repeat their October victory in Pittsburgh.

    And, if the season pattern is duplicated this afternoon, the visiting team will beat the home team by a field goal. But, on what figures to be a windy and snowy afternoon, the kickers for both teams might be struggling.

    Can the Ravens do it?

    Well, let's see.

    When Baltimore has the ball: The Ravens were 14th in the NFL in rushing yards and 17th in passing yards, which might give you an idea of their strategy for acquiring yardage, but they might shift gears when they're in scoring range. Baltimore was more effective scoring through the air than on the ground this season.

    Consequently, you might see Ray Price pounding away in the middle of the field, but you might see Joe Flacco throwing to Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason or Todd Heap whenever the Ravens are in the red zone.

    In fact, JJ Cooper over at Fanhouse writes that pressuring Flacco is the key for Pittsburgh today. Cooper observes that the Steelers dramatically reduced Flacco's yards–per–pass average "when the Steelers got a man into Flacco's face" in those two earlier games.

    Is it necessary for the Steelers to sack Flacco a lot? I don't think so. It's important for the Ravens to protect their quarterback, of course, On average, he was only sacked twice per game this season. And it could only help Pittsburgh's cause if Flacco is sacked several times.

    But the pressure alone seems sufficient to me.

    When the Steelers weren't putting pressure on the Ravens, Cooper points out, they were getting nearly 10 yards per pass. And when your air defense is that vulnerable, you may try to compensate by redeploying players who ordinarily would be guarding against the run.

    That's when Price, a solid but not always spectacular runner, could be quite dangerous.

    As far as some people are concerned, Baltimore's offense holds the key to the game. Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune–Review points out that the Ravens have long had a reputation for a great defense, but their Super Bowl dreams in the last 10 years have been thwarted by their offense.

    Part of their problem is turnovers, but that is nothing new. Football coaches have worried about turnovers from the beginning, and the Ravens . But it is especially crucial against the Steelers. Only New England was better at the takeaway/giveaway differential this season

    It's going to be challenging for Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator.

    When Pittsburgh has the ball: I think the key for the Steelers is Ben Roethlisberger. He was completing his suspension when Baltimore came to Pittsburgh and pulled out a come–from–behind victory.

    Big Ben has a six–game winning streak against Baltimore, and he is 8–2 against the Ravens all time. That tends to make a guy confident.

    The Ravens' winning streak, which dates back to Big Ben's last win over them, should give them some confidence, too. But it is critical for them to make some defensive statements — preferably early — if only to provide some cushion against whatever offensive collapse may be in store.

    They might be able to do it. Linebacker Ray Lewis was fifth in the NFL in tackles. Linebacker Terrell Suggs was tied for 10th in sacks. Safety Ed Reed led the NFL in interceptions.

    If you like defense, I think you'll like this game. These two teams were in the top 10 in the NFL in preventing opposing offenses from accumulating yards — and they were #1 (Pittsburgh) and #3 (Baltimore) in preventing opponents from scoring.

    Look for a low–scoring game, and don't be surprised if it is decided by ... a field goal.

  • Green Bay (11–6) at Atlanta (13–3), 7 p.m. (Central) on Fox.

    The Falcons have had a great season. They've won nine of their last 10 games, and that loss came two days after Christmas, when Atlanta's postseason position was more or less assured.

    The Falcons also have the knowledge that they beat the Packers on their home field at the end of November, 20–17.

    But I'm inclined to think Green Bay is going to win this one.

    I've heard a lot of talk about Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, how they are the NFC's quarterbacks of the near future, this generation's elite.

    In today's game, I have heard, both quarterbacks are looking to break through that playoff barrier and join the list of quarterbacks who have been successful in the postseason. This game will be the "next step"

    But I would argue that Rodgers has already achieved that. Actually, he did just about everything but win in his epic postseason debut last year against the Arizona Cardinals. Last week, he finally got postseason victory #1 under his belt when the Packers defeated the Eagles.

    It could also be argued that the Packers as a team have been in playoff mode since before Christmas, when every game became a must–win for them just to make it to the playoffs. The Packers are past the jitters stage.

    The Falcons, on the other hand, are coming in following a bye week. A bye week can be a good thing if a roster is filled with older players, some of whom may be banged up and need a little time to heal. But it can be a bad thing if a team is young and resilient — and Atlanta's three offensive stars (Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White) are under 30.

    I'm not sure a week off helps these guys. Staying in their routine, remaining active and in their rhythm is probably what they need.

    If they were rookies, a week off might help. A rookie can get pretty tired when a 16–game season is wrapping up, and a week off can be just what he needs. But Atlanta's offensive trio are all past their rookie years.

    I wonder if the week off won't hurt Atlanta, at least in the early stages.

    If there is one thing that was clear from playing Green Bay this season, it was that you don't want to spot them a couple of scores. The Packers' defense was second only to the Steelers in preventing opponents from scoring, Clay Matthews was third in the NFL in sacks. Tramon Williams was tied for third in interceptions.

    Green Bay's defense will pose a challenge for Ryan as he looks for his first postseason win.

    The objective will be a little different for Rodgers. In fact, I look at this as Part 2 of his attempt to be fully embraced in Packer lore as Brett Favre's successor.

    Last week was Part 1, and it really called upon Rodgers to accomplish two things that Favre could never do in his career in Green Bay — beat Michael Vick in the playoffs and beat the Eagles in the playoffs. Those things he did.

    Tonight, he will be trying to avenge a playoff loss to the Falcons in Green Bay from January 2003.

    On that night, the Packers entered the game with a perfect record at home for the season, and Green Bay was a perfect 11–0 all time in home playoff games. But Vick and the Falcons prevailed in the snow.

    Rodgers can turn the tables on Atlanta and go his predecessor one better, in a sense, by winning tonight. The Falcons aren't unbeaten at home, but they're close enough (7–1). The Packers, meanwhile, are 3–5 on the road (well, 4–5 now, I guess, since last week's win was on the road).

    Based mostly on that — and the fact that the Falcons beat Green Bay in Atlanta earlier in the season (although the Packers came closer than anyone other than New Orleans in the waning days of the season) to winning at the Georgia Dome — the Packers come into tonight's game as the underdog.

    But remember ...

    Rodgers was the third-best QB in NFL this year, and Greg Jennings was fourth in the NFL in receiving yards. The Green Bay defense was one of the NFL's best.

    Paul Newberry of the Associated Press says the Falcons are hoping to prove themselves.

    By overcoming the Giants, Bears and Eagles in succession, the Packers have already proven themselves.Rodgers certainly has. Now he needs to make a statement.

    And I think he will do that tonight. My prediction — Green Bay 24, Atlanta 14.
Incidentally, if the playoff games get out of hand, there are some good movies on Turner Classic Movies.

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