This weekend marks the beginning of the National Football League playoffs with Wild Card Weekend.
It pitches four conference winners against the four wild card entries across two divisions. In the National Football Championship(N.F.C), the defending champion Green Bay Packers wll not be in action, having secured a 15-1 regular season record that ensures them a first round bye and home field advantage. The San Francisco 49ers also enjoy a bye as second seeds in the N.F.C. Although regular season logic determines that these two teams should meet in the N.F.C championship game, there are a myriad of powerful teams with both the offensive firepower and the wherewithal to make a drive for the N.F.C place in the super bowl in Indiannapolis.
The most likely contender to make the step up on this side of the draw are the New Orleans Saints led by Drew Brees, who is in scintillating form, beating Dan Marino’s 27 year old passing yards record for the regular season. The Saints, champions in 2009 and with home field advantage for their first game against the Detroit Lions, are in a good position to avenge their playoff exit last year at the hands of an unfancied Seattle Seahawks unit. While the Lions began the season in blistering fashion, their second half of the season has not quite scaled early season heights. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford joined Drew Brees in throwing for over 5000 passingyoung in the regular season becoming the second youngest player, after Dan Marino, to do so.
In the other N.F.C game on wildcard weekend the New York giants host the Atlanta Falcons. The Giants sealed their playoff berth after defeating the Dallas Cowboys in a head to head shoot out to claim the N.F.C east title. The Giants are also recent Super Bowl winners and in Eli Manning, have a quarterback who specialises in fourth quarter comebacks. The Atlanta Falcons, coming off a thumping of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have enjoyed an excellent 10-6 season, a better record than their opponents. However, the home field advantage for the Giants aligned with their propensity to win big games may just swing it for the 2008 champs. Undoubtedly the main challenge for all N.F.C contenders is to knock Green Bay off their perch. This will be no easy feat, judging buy the manner in which Aaron Rodgers and the Packers purred through the regular season.
While San Francisco enjoyed the second best regular season winning ratio in the entire N.F.L, a trip to the N.F.C Championship may be too much for a team making their first appearance in the playoffs since 2002 with a rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh leading their meteoric rise. The 49ers enjoy a first round bye and home field advantage but face serious competition from more recently successful N.F.C teams.
The A.F.C appears to be of a weaker standard generally, with a clear split between three top contenders and three heavy underdogs. Perennial playoff participants, The New England Patriots make their customary appearance, having secured a first round bye and home field advantage as top seeds. Tom Brady will be looking to add a fourth superbowl ring and appears to be in superb form, joining Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford in throwing for over 5,000 passing yards during the regular season. A major concern for head coach Bill Belichick will be the slowness with which New England begin games. The Pittsburgh Steelers, also serial super bowl contenders, face a trip to Denver this weekend to face the Broncos, who scraped unconvincingly into the playoffs. Despite QB Ben Roethlisberger carrying an ankle injury, the Steelers are still expected to prevail over the Broncos.
After setting the N.F.L alight with his dramatic fourth quarter comebacks, some of the deficiencies in Broncos QB Tim Tebow have become evident in recent weeks as the Broncos have struggled to impose any sort of passing offence on their opponents. In the other game this weekend in the A.F.C, two unfancied franchises, the Houston Texans and the Cincinnati Bengals duke it out in Houston. This is the first ever playoff appearance for the Texans and neither team is expected to reach American Football’s showpiece in Indiannopolis. The final team in the A.F.C playoff mix are the Baltimore Ravens, who secured a first round bye and homefield advantage by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers to with the A.F.C north. Led by a veteran, miserly defence they rarely concede many but sometimes are let down by their offensive unit.
This weekend’s opening salvo promises to be a fascinating spectacle. With multiple quarterbacks tearing up the recordbooks, the omens are good for a set of high scoring, high octane games. Here’s hoping….