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Ross Hollebon’s Sports Pub would like to introduce old friend, talented writer and NFL fan extraordinaire, George Damon and his first guest post. We hope you enjoy the wit and insight he provides and maybe we’ll even add our first regular to the Pub.

Written by: George Damon

Having become a football fan in the late 1960s and having come of age during the NFL’s greatest decade, the 1970s, this weekend’s playoffs send deep and pleasing waves of nostalgia over this middle-aged fan as many of the teams and cities participating hark back to an earlier era.  And while I’ll be watching the 21st Century incarnation of the teams involved, I’ll be thinking of some 20th Century greats that inspired my absolute love of professional football.

But first…

New Orleans at Seattle: Does this feel like a setup to you?  Probably not, huh?  After all, here is a 7-9 team that lost ugly (I mean 41-7, 33-3, and 38-15 ugly) week in and week out for over half the season going up against the 11-5 defending Super Bowl champions who pummeled them 34-19 seven weeks ago.  Here is David, going up against a riled Goliath, but this time without his slingshot.

On paper, it sounds like an impending bloodbath, where the New Orleans Saints will come sweeping into Seattle’s beautiful, loud stadium and silence the fans before pulling the arms and legs off the Seahawks’ players, one-by-one.   But the beauty of the NFL is that its long history is replete with games where the overwhelming underdog, through either an incredible display of moxie on its part or a stupefying display of overconfidence and looking ahead on its opponent’s, jumps up and slaps the favorite so hard that it puts the entire league on its ear.  They call them “trap games”, where the whole football world is made a fool of.

Got you thinking, now, don’t I?  Admit it, you’re thinking this might, might…could be the upset of the year.

It would be so perfect, wouldn’t it?  So, ask yourselves again:  Does this feel like a setup?  Does this feel like a trap?

No, it does not.  Not even Admiral Ackbar thinks this one is a trap.  Seattle became the first team to win a division title with a losing record after posting marks of 4-4 in the first half of the season and a sterling 3-5 in the second half (including a miserable 1-3 in the final month).   The Seahawks are in the playoffs because the St. Louis Rams played like they did not want the division title in their showdown meeting in Week 17.  Seriously, the Rams played as if the postseason was a radioactive wasteland that had to be avoided at all costs and the Seahawks, who played barely better, were the happy recipients of a belated Christmas gift.  I’m sure that even Pete Carroll can’t believe his team is in the playoffs.

But enough piling on the Seahawks—the Saints will do plenty of that on Saturday afternoon.

New Orleans is a much, much better team in every way imaginable, and while they have not been as impressive as they were during their merry Super Bowl season a year ago, they are still a very talented, well-coached, and dangerous team to be reckoned with throughout January.  Sure, they stumbled badly at the end of the season, dropping 2 of their last 3 games and sweating out closer-than-expected wins over Dallas and Cincinnati, but most folks forget that the Saints stumbled during December 2009, and that season turned out pretty well, didn’t it?

New Orleans has  too much on offense, defense, special teams, and coaching for a Seattle team that would probably be taken out by half the BCS slate this year.  This should be a slaughter on a grand scale, one that might propel the Saints all the way to Dallas in February.  Saints 44, Seahawks 13.

(Photo by Ross Hollebon)

 

 

Baltimore at Kansas City: Ah, Baltimore and Kansas City, two venerable NFL cities with long football traditions—or, in Baltimore’s case, TWO long traditions.

For me, Baltimore vs. Kansas City conjures up names like Unitas and Mackey, Dawson and Stenerud.  But these aren’t your father’s—or grandfather’s—playoff teams.  No, these Chiefs and Col—uh-uh, Ravens—are very much modern-era franchises fighting to make their own statement in this year’s playoffs.

For the Chiefs, it may be enough just to be in the playoffs after a 10-6 season that saw them improve 6 games over their 2009 record and equal the number of wins from their previous 3 seasons combined.  The Chiefs endured their ups and downs—a 3-0 start gave way to a 2-4 midseason stretch, but they recovered nicely to finish 5-2 and win their division.  They didn’t see a lot of quality teams on their schedule, and their record in those games was pretty bleak, but they showed a lot of fight in the games that counted.  They finished the season on a very down note, losing at home to Oakland by 3 TDs, and to me they look like the weakest team in the AFC.

On the other hand, the Ravens would have been AFC North division champs if not for the Pittsburgh Steelers, to whom they handed a critical late-season game at home.   The Ravens not only lost the game and the division, but a chance to have a Bye this week.  The Ravens were far from impressive in their last regular season game, barely escaping with a 13-7 win at home against lowly Cincinnati when Bengals QB Carson Palmer coughed up a hairball on a 4th down throw from the Ravens’ 2-yard line, but the Ravens are entering the playoffs on a four-game winning streak and that makes them impossible to overlook.

But that’s not all the Ravens have going for them this week.  The Ravens began the season very much in the conversation of serious Super Bowl contenders and were a preseason choice by some to win it all.  They have a tough defense, an adequate offense, a hard-nosed attitude, and playoff pedigree.  Simply put, they are just too much more of a team than the Chiefs in 2010, and while 3 of their 4 losses have come on the road, I see this week’s game as a tune-up for a much tougher game next week in either Pittsburgh or Foxboro.  Ravens 24, Chiefs 10.

New York at Indianapolis: Ah, the Jets and the Colts, two venerable NFL franchises with long—well, I already did this once, so let’s just get to the point.  The Colts have been in Indy too long to reach for Super Bowl III connections.

Jeff Saturday (Photo by Ross Hollebon)

The Colts had a rough season—a poor one by their standards—but by finishing strong and making the playoffs they tied the Dallas Cowboys’ 27-year old record for most consecutive seasons in the postseason, at 9 years and counting, and that’s no small feat.  However, although they are riding a 4-game winning streak they are hardly rolling into the playoffs, and if they are remembered for anything in 2010 (short of winning the Super Bowl), it will be their grit and determination.

The Jets were another preseason favorite to not only go to the Super Bowl, but win it, and they got the flavor-of-the-month treatment from NFL Films and HBO in last summer’s Hard Knocks series (a show that, to me, is vastly overrated as either entertainment or a revealing look at the NFL).  During the course of the show the New Yorkers came off as—well, New Yorkers—a brash, foul-mouthed group with attitude that extended from their fat, obnoxious, bloviating head coach all the way down the roster.  Some people found that refreshing.  Some of us couldn’t wait for them to get a pie in the face.

The latter group got its wish right away, as the Jets stumbled out of the gate with a humiliating, pants-around-their-ankles performance against the Ravens at home on Monday Night Football—a high-profile game against a fellow Super Bowl contender no team ever wants to lose.  Still, they righted their ship and seemed to find smooth sailing, reeling off 5 wins in a row including 3 straight convincing wins over their division rivals.

However, once they reached the dizzying heights of 9-2, they started to believe their own bullshit and lost 3 of their next 4 games.  Only a last-second reprieve against a hard-charging Steelers rally prevented them from going 0-4 in December, but the damage to their division title hopes had been done and they entered the playoffs as a Wild Card with a paltry 2-3 record in their final 5 games.

So here we have grit and determination vs. cockiness and attitude in a game that I find very tough to call.  The Colts are a wounded tiger, but they are a team that knows how to win when not playing its best.  On the other hand, the Jets seem like a paper tiger—all roar and bluster until someone steps up and punches them in the mouth—and their attitude could evaporate once the Colts bring the heat.

It feels like this game should come down to the quarterbacks.  Peyton Manning is still the best QB in the game today (and he’s in the conversation for best of all time), but he’s thrown a ton of interceptions this season and has seemed out of sync all year-long.  Mark Sanchez has had a good season, though at times his youth seemed to get the better of him.  Still, I think he’s surrounded by a better cast than is Manning, and I can’t get past the feeling that the young tiger is going to knock off the old one on Saturday night.  Jets 38, Colts 28.

Green Bay at Philadelphia: Ah, the Packers and Eagles, two venerable—oh, forget it already.

Yeah, these teams met for the NFL Championship in 1960, with the Eagles toughing out a 17-13 thriller and handing Vince Lombardi one of only 2 losses in his entire postseason career, and it is fitting that, 50 years (and 2 weeks) later, they meet again, albeit for smaller stakes.  But that game a half-century ago is not what makes this meeting the most compelling and interesting of Wild Card Weekend.

Neither are the dog-fighting or redemption angles, of which I long ago grew weary.

No, what makes this the best matchup of the weekend is that here are two flawed but dangerous teams with marquee players that each dropped off the NFL radar for long stretches of the 2010 season but that found themselves in time to qualify for the postseason.  Here are two teams that have the talent, coaching, and experience to make a serious run to Dallas.

Here is Michael Vick, the comeback player of the year, vs. Aaron Rodgers, who would be anyone’s choice to quarterback a team.   Here are talented offenses that can pile up points and hard-hitting defenses that can snuff out playoff dreams in a heartbeat.  Here are crafty and inventive coaches who, for all their success, have never experienced Super Bowl glory.

And finally, here are two teams meeting on the field of honor in 30-degree weather with a 19-mph wind blowing inside the dome-less bowl of the Linc.  Is there anything better than an NFL postseason game played outdoors in the Northeast between two smashmouth clubs that live for this?

Looking at this game, can we draw any conclusions from the Packers’ 27-20, not-as-close-as-the-score-indicated victory in Week 1?  Not really.  The Eagles opened the 2010 campaign with Kevin Kolb (remember him?) as their starting QB.  At that time nobody was giving Michael Vick any thought, much less anticipating the breakout season that was ahead of him.

On that sunny Sunday in September the Eagles played like the Eagles always play in the early months of the season—good enough to win, bad enough to lose.  On that day they were the latter against a confident and motivated Green Bay unit that entered the season as the pick of many to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLV.  It was an old-fashioned butt-kicking, and the Packers were the foot.

As usual, the Eagles didn’t really get going until after Halloween, when they came off a pre-Bye loss to Tennessee with a win against the Colts, a blowout of the Redskins, and a solid and convincing win over their division archrival New York Giants.  At that same time the Packers shut out the Jets, then blew out the Cowboys and Vikings, and at 7-3 both teams seemed to be on course and on schedule for the playoffs.

But while the Eagles went 3-1 over the next month to take the division away from the reeling Giants, the Packers went 1-3 and moved back to the pack (no pun intended) of teams fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive.  For the Packers, the playoffs essentially began in Week 16 and they responded with victories over the Giants and Bears—two wins they had to have to make the postseason.

And the Eagles?  Well, while the Packers were winning two straight to lock up the final playoff spot, the Eagles were losing to the Vikings and Cowboys.  OK, give them a pass for the Cowboys game because they rested as many players as they could, but they haven’t really played outstanding football since that 27-17 win over the Giants in Week 11.

As much as anyone, perhaps, the Packers enter the playoffs on a roll.  Having had to win, they have had to play with an edge, and that edge could well be their edge this week.   The Eagles are rested and should have a fresh team ready to go, but the Packers have their blood up from two must-win games.

I see this game coming down to which QB can outfox the opposing defense.  Michael Vick has a strong arm and the legs to get himself out of trouble, but so does Rodgers—in fact, he is very underrated as a scrambling/running QB.  But the game won’t come down to which QB is more nimble down the field.  It will come down to which QB can maneuver in the pocket and hit the late-opening receivers.  Vick has shown that he can be harassed into becoming a non-factor.  Rodgers, while tough, cannot withstand the hard hits that the Eagles’ defense can and does dole out.  Somewhere in all that one of these QBs will emerge to lead his team to victory.

This one is tough to call and can go either way—and will go down to the wire—but I think Rodgers will outplay Vick and I think that the fact that the Packers have already been playing “playoff” games for the past 2 weeks gives them the advantage.  Packers 31, Eagles 27.

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