— The best weekend on the NFL calendar awaits. For my money, nothing beats the divisional round for truly meaningful, memorable football gluttony. Say goodbye to your family Saturday afternoon, and hello again on Sunday night.
It’s going to be tough to top the wild-card games, but the elite eight slate looks pretty sweet. We get a pair of division rival games in the AFC for the first time ever. They happen to be the best two AFC division rivalries of the last decade.
Falcons-Packers already gave us one great game this season and features two of football's best young quarterbacks. Bears-Seahawks looks like the weakest matchup of the weekend, but that’s what we thought about Seahawks-Saints.
Here’s our quick first look at one storyline to watch for the remaining eight teams.
Patriots try to forget 45-3
We often hear that great cornerbacks and quarterbacks require a short memory. Forget your mistakes and move on. Selective amnesia can be helpful after major success too.
The Patriots are going to be built up all week as overwhelming favorites against the rival Jets. The 45-3 Week 13 shellacking will be brought up non-stop, and coach Bill Belichick knows it.
“I don’t think the last game, the first game, I don’t think that’s going to have a whole lot of meaning,” Belichick said Sunday.
New England is seen as unstoppable by man, but their defensive line has been decimated by injuries. They have young, unproven players throughout their defense and two rookie tight ends set to make playoff debuts.
The formula for the Patriots’ dominance in the regular season was an insane +27 turnover margin. Belichick knows how difficult that pace will be to sustain in the playoffs. He also knows that one of his challenges this week is making his young team realize the last Jets-Patriots game doesn’t matter now.
Can Mark Sanchez put together four quarters?
Mark Sanchez’s game against the Colts was emblematic of his season. The second-year quarterback started very slow, and then came to life late with the game on the line.
The Jets haven’t scored in the first quarter in eight of their last 12 games. They’ve scored 19 first-quarter points in their last 13 games.
New England is a difficult team to come back against because their defense forces so many mistakes. The Patriots are also an underrated running team and will not stop being aggressive scoring points no matter the down and distance.
Rex Ryan’s biggest worry this week will probably be where his pass rush comes from. But the best way to defend the Patriots is with a great offense. The Jets have a real chance to win; they just need Sanchez to play like the game is on the line all four quarters.
Early gut feel: Jets give Patriots a scare, but come up short.
The ultimate test for the Steelers offensive line
The Steelers are among the most complete teams in football — except their offensive line. That’s why a matchup against the Ravens has to greatly worry them.
In both regular-season matchups, the running games were basically non-factors for both teams. Baltimore’s defense stifled Charlie Batch in the first game and had Ben Roethlisberger bruised, battered, and running for his life in the second contest.
Pittsburgh’s big guys up front quietly improved over the last few weeks. If that trend continues, the Steelers could avoid another nail-biter. Pittsburgh’s improving young wideouts can victimize the Ravens secondary if Roethlisberger gets passable protection.
Ed Reed, Ray Lewis looking for one last legendary run
Ravens safety Ed Reed talks about retirement regularly and has struggled to stay healthy lately. Linebacker Ray Lewis turns 36-years-old this offseason. This may not be the last title chance for the two future Hall of Famers together, but it could be their best shot.
I’ve said all season this Ravens defense isn’t quite the same. They have had some defensive breakdowns against the run and in the fourth quarter. They could be peaking at the right time, however, after a five turnover effort against the Chiefs.
The Ravens pride themselves on having the best defense in the league, but the Steelers were better overall in 2010. Now Reed, Lewis, and the entire group can prove who is best on the field, and then possibly take out Tom Brady on the way to the Super Bowl.
That’s the type of stuff legends are made of.
Early gut feel: Steelers win, and don’t even need last minute heroics to do so.
Jay Cutler, playoff quarterback
The monkey who spent last week on Aaron Rodgers' back last week just arrived in Chicago. This will be Jay Cutler’s first playoff start and anything seems possible from an implosion to pure brilliance.
Long time Cutler-philes like me have been looking forward to this day. With Michael Vick out of the playoffs, Cutler is the most exciting signal caller remaining. He can wow you with an impossible throw one minute and make a ridiculous decision the next.
All of Cutler’s interceptions in 2009 made everyone forget how talented Cutler was. They reminded everyone how immature he still was. Now a 27-year-old fifth veteran, it’s time for Cutler to grow up.
Can Seattle’s magic travel?
The Seahawks played their best two games all season the last two weeks. It’s no surprise they were both played at Qwest Field, home to perhaps the best crowd in the NFL.
Pete Carroll’s motley crew only won two road games in 2010, but one of them was in Chicago. The key to pulling off another upset will be the guys up front. Matt Hasselbeck showed that he can still deliver when he’s given protection.
Hasselbeck wasn’t sacked once on 40 drop-backs against the Bears last time. The Bears are too disciplined to give up the big play like New Orleans, so the Seahawks offense will have to work harder to score points.
Seattle already proved a lot of people like me wrong the last two weeks. They could really make a statement if they don’t turn into pumpkins away from home.
Early gut feel: The Seahawks turn into pumpkins.
Turner must turn it up
The Falcons are not a complex offense. As Jon Gruden would say, “They will ROCK you.” Or at least try to.
Running back Michael Turner is the key for Atlanta. He averaged fewer than 3.4 yards-per-carry in his last three regular-season games, perhaps showing signs of wear and tear after leading the league in carries for a second time in three years.
The only weak spot of the excellent Packers defense is that their rush defense can wear down. That suits Atlanta perfectly; Turner rushed for 110 yards and a score in Week 13 against Green Bay.
The Falcons will be content to shorten the game with fewer possessions, and count on the Packers to make a crucial mistake. For that strategy to work, Turner needs to be at his bludgeoning best.
The Packers must play smarter
I picked the Packers to win the Super Bowl the last two years, and won’t back down now. They have truly started to grow up, but need to play even better in Atlanta than they did against the Eagles.
The Falcons will count on the Packers to beat themselves. It happened the first time the two teams played when Aaron Rodgers fumbled on the goal line. Rodgers also fumbled twice against the Eagles and Green Bay had a special teams turnover.
While the players need to avoid mistakes, the Packers coaches should be more aggressive. Mike McCarthy lamely didn’t go for points at the end of the first half against the Eagles. A different mindset is needed in Atlanta.
The Falcons won’t crush you with talent, so this game should be tight. The Falcons also won’t beat themselves. In a game likely to have limited possessions, the Packers need to seize the moment. They won’t be handed anything.
Early gut feel: Packers pull out another road win.