There may be other two-day events in the conversation–NCAA Final Four, final two rounds of the Masters, World Cup finals, maybe a few others you can feel free to argue at your pleasure–but if you’re reading this, my guess is that for you, as for me, the NFL is king in your sports universe.
Yes, the Super Bowl has become an unofficial American holiday, and I suppose as such it remains the crown jewel for some. Not me. To me it’s been co-opted; it no longer belongs to the fist-in-the-air fan in his faded jersey, it belongs to the martini in the suit. Not so this weekend. The divisional playoffs weekend is all about the love of the game.
Two days. Eight teams. Four winner-lives, loser-dies, fist-meets-flesh, real-life dramas. For those of us unabashedly passionate about our sports, it just doesn’t get any better.
And as it does every year at this time, the National Football League has once again set our table with a full, rich four-course meal.
BALTIMORE at TENNESSEE
Saturday, Jan. 10, 4:30 pm EST
If you’re looking for fast-break football, look elsewhere–this one may break bones.
If you are a fan of the Tennessee Titans, the one team you probably do not want to see coming to town this weekend is the Baltimore Ravens. The team that has set the NFL standard for defensive dominance for a decade is finally getting some offensive support–and the result has been eye-opening.
Rookie QB Joe Flacco hasn’t been great, but he’s been good enough, in enough key spots, to get the Ravens long-dormant offense to at least carry its own weight. And for a team playing defense like the Ravens are–with otherworldly FS Ed Reed redefining the term “ball hawk,” first-ballot Hall of Fame LB Ray Lewis having apparently discovered the fountain of youth and providing a brand of in-your-face leadership rarely seen in today’s free agent millionaire NFL–that has been enough to turn this into one serious group of Poe folks. (sorry)
I like and respect Tennessee head coach Jeff Fischer, who might well be the most underappreciated head coach of our time. I think QB Kerry Collins’ redemption story is compelling. Didn’t really care for the guy in his younger, brasher days, but this grizzled-veteran incarnation, having overcoming silly odds to lead his an unlikely team to the heights, has been hard not to appreciate. Plus I usually love home field advantage at this time of year.
But these Ravens are nasty. They’re feelin’ it–you can see it building. And unless young Mr. Flacco completely unravels (always a possibility with a rookie, though he’s shown no signs of doing so), they may be on the threshold of scary good.
As in Y2K good.
Baltimore Ravens - 20
Tennessee Titans - 16
ARIZONA at CAROLINA
Saturday, Jan. 10, 8:15 pm EST
When a team goes sixty-one years between home playoff wins, it is understandable that not all NFL fans take them very seriously after one home wildcard victory. I’ll admit to struggling a bit with that myself. Fortunately, at least for fans of the Carolina Panthers, the people charged with preparing them to take on the upstart Cardinals Saturday won’t have that problem.
Rest assured head coach John Fox and Co. do not see that old familiar red-and-white uniform–so much NFL filler for decades–and think 60 years of futility. They are looking at them as they are today; an explosive passing team led by a revitalized former Super Bowl and league MVP in QB Kurt Warner, backed by a scrappy defense, that happens to stand between them and a return to NFC Championship Game and shot at taking care of some serious unfinished business.
Think the current Carolina regime has forgotten SB XXXVIII? There will be no overconfidence on the Panther sideline–no “looking past the Cardinals.”
Don’t get me wrong; if this game was being played in Arizona, I’d like their chances. The energy at Roll-away Bed Field last weekend, when the Cardinals took out the Atlanta Falcons, was a huge factor–both in terms of how it affected the young Falcons and the way it focused an Arizona team whose collective mind often seems to wander on the road.
But the game will not be played in climate-controlled comfort. It will be played on the East Coast (where the Cardinals went 0-5 this season), on real grass, in the elements (current forecast: rainy, mid 50's). More importantly, the host Panthers (8-0 at home), while not spectacular in any one phase, are the kind of balanced, all-around team that always proves tough in the hyper-intense, last-mistake-loses atmosphere of the NFL playoffs.
Much as I try to picture Warner hooking up with stud WR’s Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin enough to outscore Carolina, what I keep seeing instead is Carolina QB Jake Delhomme finding WR's Steve Smith and Mushin Muhammad, and the Panthers baby running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart taking over the game in the second half, and DE Julius Peppers and Panther pass rush cutting loose on Warner late protecting, and maybe expanding, their lead.
In a game I don’t believe will be as close as final score indicates ...
Carolina Panthers - 30
Arizona Cardinals - 20
PHILADELPHIA at NEW YORK
SAN DIEGO at PITTSBURGH