January just doesn’t feel the same around these parts with the Patriots watching the games at home – just like you are – for the first time since Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan were in high school.
But if you take some time to look at the postseason, it’s a pretty wide-open and exciting field: with the exception of perhaps Arizona, every team remaining has a legitimate shot of winning it all. It’s rare that you can make that kind of claim in the divisional round.
All these contenders make for four very interesting match-ups this weekend. Plus, I wouldn’t completely count out even Arizona at this point: remember, nobody saw the Giants coming last year, either. And that Giants team wasn’t a whole lot better than the Cardinals are this year.
My preseason pick to win it all, Philadelphia, is still alive. So that’s good. But they didn’t exactly set the world on fire with a 9-6-1 season. But they seem to have just as good a shot as anyone else at this point. So, here’s a look at the eight remaining contenders, exposed for the world to see with the omniscient prism of pigskin called the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
Key Cold, Hard Football Facts: The Cardinals franchise is one of just two that’s been in the league since the beginning in 1920 (the other is the Bears), but won just the third postseason game in its history last week, and its first at home since they were the Chicago Cardinals in 1947.
Strength: Aging warhorse Kurt Warner. The Cardinals were good this year in one area and one area only: passing the ball. Adjusted for sacks, they averaged 7.1 yards per pass attempt this year (6th). Warner, third all-time in career passer rating, continues to pass the ball as well as anyone: he was among the league leaders in every major passing category this year, he tore up Atlanta’s defense pretty effectively last week and he has plenty of weapons to choose from.
Weakness: The Arizona pass defense is atrocious, surrendering 36 TD passes this year – nine more than the second-worst Patriots pass defense (27 TD passes).
Why they can win it all: The run defense suddenly came to life against the Falcons last week, holding Atlanta’s Michael Turner to a season-low 42 yards on 18 attempts. If they can play as well against the other great rushing attacks that define the NFC this year, the Cardinals have a very legitimate shot of reaching Tampa.
Key Cold, Hard Football Facts: Ed Reed might be the best safety in history. He makes plays in big games (five INTs in three playoff games). He also converts big plays into scores, like nobody before or since. Reed has turned 1 of every 8 touches in his career (INTs, fumble recoveries, punt returns) into a touchdown.
Strength: No shocker, the defense. Baltimore finished in the top three in all of the defensive Quality Stats we use over at ColdHardFootballFacts.com. The Ravens were also the best Big-Play team in football this year, with a margin of +27 on CHFF’s Big Play Index.
Weakness: Quarterback Joe Flacco. Yeah, he was solid against Miami. But rookie quarterbacks, the few who actually reach the playoffs, inevitably make critical mistakes in the postseason.
Why they can win it all: The 2008 Ravens set a franchise record with a 60.6 Defensive Passer Rating this year, which makes Baltimore’s pass defense even better than legendary unit that carried the Ravens to a Super Bowl title in 2000 (62.5 Defensive Passer Rating).
Key Cold, Hard Football Fact: Would you believe that the Panthers have the best postseason winning percentage (6-3; .667) of any NFL franchise?
Strength: Offensive balance. The Panthers are solid in all phases of the game, from an explosive passing game (5th this year in Passing Yards Per Attempt) to a rushing attack led by DeAngelo Williams, who set franchise records this year in rushing yards (1,515), touchdowns (20), rushing touchdowns (18), yards per attempt (5.5) and 100-yard rushing games (eight).
Weakness: Run defense. The Panthers surrendered an average of 4.43 yards per rush attempt this year, and were brutally gashed for 301 yards on the ground by the Giants in their December meeting.
Why they can win it all: You know how the talking heads on ESPN babble on incoherently about Brett Favre as the “big game gunslinger,” even though he actually sucks in big games? Well Jake Delhomme is the real deal, the ultimate big-game gunslinger – as Patriots fans might remember from Super Bowl XXXVIII. His career average of 8.55 yards per attempt is an NFL postseason record (192 attempts for 1,652 yards in seven games), while his playoff passer rating of 95.0 is the third best mark in history, trailing only Bart Starr (104.8) and Joe Montana (95.6).
Key Cold, Hard Football Fact: New York traditionally struggles at home against the Eagles, with a mere 18-17 record against Philly at Giants Stadium, including an 0-1 mark here in 2008.
Strength: The offensive line. The Giants are one of the few teams in history that averaged better than 5 yards per attempt on the ground (5.02) over the course of an entire season; but the front five also pass blocks well and they’re among the best in the league at converting those key short third downs.
Weakness: The passing game. The Giants were merely average this year passing the ball, 14th in the all-important yards-per-attempt category, and they really started to struggle after Plaxico Burress went out. Eli Manning has thrown just 3 TDs with 3 INTs since Thanksgiving.
Why they can win it all: They won it all last year with a team that wasn’t nearly as good as this year’s squad.
Key Cold, Hard Football Fact: No team was better in big games this year than the Eagles, who outscored Quality Opponents by 5.8 PPG, best of any playoff team, and then went out on the road and easily beat a tough Vikings squad.
Strength: The defensive line. The Eagles are well equipped to negotiate the minefield of great running teams in the NFC with a front seven that ranked No. 2 this year in CHFF’s Defensive Hog Index, a key playoff indicator. The Eagles frontmen proved their effectiveness against the Vikings, when they shut down Adrian Peterson (20 carries for 83 yards, and 40 of them on a single attempt) and harried QB Tarvaris Jackson all day.
Weakness: Offensive line. The Eagles were one of the worst teams in the league running the ball (3.97 YPA) and QB Donovan McNabb is often harried by opposing pass rushers, as Minnesota’s Jared Allen proved last weekend when he spent so much time in Philly’s backfield Andy Reid should have charged him rent.
Why they can win it all: Interceptions always lead to losses in the playoffs. But the Eagles are armed with the least intercepted passer in NFL history. Donovan McNabb has thrown just 90 INTs in 4,303 career attempts, dating back to his rookie year of 1999, a record-low rate of 2.09 percent. To put McNabb’s 90 picks since 1999 into perspective, consider that Brett Favre has thrown 101 INTs since 2004.
Key Cold, Hard Football Fact: The Steelers do not have a winning record in the postseason against any AFC West team. They’re 0-2 all time in the playoffs against the Chargers, losing in 1982 and 1994, both times in San Diego. But this game’s in Pittsburgh.
Strength: Defense. Defense. Defense. The Steelers led the league in every traditional indicator this year. More importantly, they led the league in CHFF’s key defensive Quality Stats, too, such as Defensive Hog Index: Pittsburgh’s front seven, led by Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, was best in the league against the run (3.29 YPA), best in the league at forcing opponents into negative pass plays (sacks and INTs) and best in the league on third downs (opponents converted just 31.4 percent of attempts).
Weakness: Offensive line. As good as the Steelers were on the defensive front, they were that bad up front offensively. Pittsburgh was among the worst in the league running the ball (a meager 3.68 YPA), while QB Ben Roethlisberger got his head handed to him time and again this year.
Why they can win it all: Teams that are better in CHFF’s Defensive Hog Index are 14-1 in the playoffs since we introduced the indicator last year. The Giants were No.1 last year. Pittsburgh is No. 1 this year.
Key Cold, Hard Football Fact: The worst team that ever reached the Super Bowl also hailed from Southern California. The L.A. Rams went 9-7 in 1979 before winning the NFC title. The Chargers were just 8-8 this year but, statistically speaking, were middle of the pack among playoff teams.
Strength: The passing game. Philip Rivers led the NFL this year in passer rating (105.5) and TD passes (34), while the Chargers led the league in the all-important Passing Yards Per Attempt category (7.67 YPA). To put that into perspective, the record-breaking passing game of the 2007 Patriots averaged 7.79 yards per attempt – a mere 0.12 yards per attempt more.
Weakness: Stars who call in sick for the playoffs each year. LaDainian Tomlinson has missed just one regular-season game in his eight-year career, a remarkable streak of durability – especially for a running back. But he has just one 100-yard performance in the playoffs and has been injured in almost every game. His career postseason rushing totals (six games): 84 attempts, 303 yards, 3.6 YPA, 4 TDs.
Why they can win it all: The last three teams to lead the league in passing yards per attempt were the Super Bowl champion 2005 Steelers, the Super Bowl champion 2006 Colts and the 16-0 AFC champion Patriots. The Chargers led the league in passing yards per attempt this year.
Key Cold, Hard Football Fact: With a win against Baltimore this weekend, Kerry Collins will become the only quarterback in history to win a playoff game with three different teams. The others are the Panthers and Giants, the latter of whom he took to Super Bowl XXV, where they lost to Baltimore and its tough pass defense.
Strength: Balance. The Titans had the best record in the NFL this year (13-3) because they were the most solid team from top to bottom. They do just about everything well, as evidenced by the fact that they had the top average ranking across the board in CHFF’s Quality Stats, and finished in the top eight in seven of eight of these indicators.
Weakness: Explosiveness in the passing game. The Titans were merely mediocre when it came time to get the ball down field – their average of 6.06 yards per attempt placed only 17th in the NFL this year. But they make up for this relative weakness with a smart, mistake-free passing attack. The Titans suffered a negative pass play (sack or INT) on just 4.5 percent of their drop-backs this year.
Why they can win it all: Simple enough: the Titans were the best team in football this year.
Kerry J. Byrne is the publisher of ColdHardFootballFacts.com. His self-congratulatory column will appear here each Wednesday during football season. Send fawning praise, death threats or pictures of your 19-year-old sister to firstname.lastname@example.org.