The best weekend of the season has come and gone, and the final four have been identified.
The Super Bowl will feature the Bears or the Packers facing the Steelers or the Jets. Every combination will result in a great game with a massive rating.
And Jerry Jones will get to watch it all unfold on the floor of his stadium, without his team in uniform.
So why can be said about the four games that cut the remaining field in half? Plenty.
1. Recent trend holds form.
On Friday, we pointed out that home field doesn’t really provide an advantage in the division round of the playoffs. From 2005 through 2009, the home teams won as many times as they lost — 10.
This year, the trend continued.
The Falcons, top seed in the NFC, lost at home to the Packers. The Patriots, No. 1 in the AFC, fell at home to the Jets, only five weeks and six days after beating their division rivals by 42.
And so the the home teams again went .500, pushing their record to 12-12 over the last six years.
The problem with factoring this phenomenon into the process of prognostication? There’s a chance that the wrong home teams will be picked to lose. And the wrong homes teams will be picked to win.
Yes, this year I picked two home teams to lose at home. And they were the two who won.
Next year, I’ll pick all four home teams, and maybe I’ll at least be half right.
2. Tables turn in rematches.
This weekend’s contests featured rematches of games played in each of the four venues where the playoff games occurred.
And in each game the outcome flipped.
The Ravens had beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh, the Falcons had beaten the Packers in Atlanta, the Seahawks had beaten the Bears in Chicago, and the Patriots had beaten the Jets in Foxboro.
Amazingly, the teams that had won each game lost in the rematch.
Next weekend, rematches again will rule the day; the Jets beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and the Bears beat the Packers at Soldier Field.
So, basically, look for the Steelers and Packers to square off in Dallas, and for Jerry Jones to watch one of his team’s non-division rivals celebrate a Super Bowl in his house.
3. Ravens still need to win the division.
In 2008, the Ravens ended up on the road in the playoffs because they were swept by the Steelers. In 2009, the Ravens had to do it the hard way after being swept by the Bengals. This year, if they’d only swept the Steelers or the Bengals, the Ravens would have won the division.
And they would have hosted a playoff game this weekend, after getting a week off.
Of course, they still may have lost, given the whole win-one, lose-one trend applicable to home teams in the division round. But with seven road playoff games in three years and none at home, the Ravens need to redouble their efforts to win the division and to capture a bye, if they want to win another Super Bowl before linebacker Ray Lewis retires.
Or after he does.
4. Third-and-19 even bigger than fourth-and-26.
Seven years ago, the Eagles converted an impossible (but apparently not really impossible) fourth down with 26 yards to go in a playoff game against the Packers, thanks to a down-the-middle connection from Donovan McNabb to Freddie Mitchell. On Saturday night, with the game tied late and the first overtime under the new no-walk-off-first-drive-field-goal rule looming, the Steelers faced third down and 19 from their own 38.
And somehow receiver Antonio Brown got behind cornerback Lardarius Webb for a 58-yard reception, which Brown cemented by pressing the ball against his helmet.
Though it wasn’t a fourth down and the Steelers weren’t trailing at the time, the fact that Pittsburgh converted such a long play against a stout defense at a time when failure would have given the Ravens one last chance to win the game in regulation makes it a more historically significant play, in our view.
Throw in the Jets’ win over the Patriots, and that 58-yard bomb from Big Ben to Brown puts Pittsburgh one win away from their third Super Bowl appearance in six years, and possibly their seventh Super Bowl win.
5. Falcons face a long road in the NFC South.
The good news? The Falcons have cobbled together three straight winning seasons.
The bad news? In the postseason, they’re 0-2.
The worse news? They’ll now return to the valley of 0-0 along with the Saints and the Buccaneers.
It’ll be very hard for the Falcons to overcome the squandering of the top seed after a 13-3 season, culminating in a 48-21 home loss to the Packers. Especially with Saints still striving for a “Two Dat” and the Bucs putting together one of the best young teams in the league.
Though the Falcons will be contenders for as long as Matt Ryan is their quarterback, he has a long way to go to become one of the short-list franchise quarterbacks. For starters, he needs to win a playoff game.
6. Packers rediscover their dominance.
Entering the 2010 season, many believed that the Packers would roll to the Super Bowl.
Then the season began, and after back-to-back wins over the Eagles and the Bills, the Packers became something less than dominant. After back-to-back losses to the Redskins and Dolphins, the Packers nearly lost at home to the Vikings.
But then Green Bay woke up, shutting out the Jets before pasting the Cowboys and Vikings in consecutive weeks, triggering the firings of Wade Phillips and Brad Childress.
A loss to the Falcons brought back the up-and-down vibe. A 28-point win over the Giants cemented the Packers as serious Super Bowl contenders. Doubts returned when the Packers had to struggle with a nothing-to-gain Bears team at home in Week 17, but the playoffs have proven that the Packers are every bit as good as they were when they won Super Bowl XXXI.
The question is whether they can go to Soldier Field for the 182nd meeting in franchise history with the Bears, and only the second in the playoffs. The first came seventy years ago, in a game forced by their 10-1 records during the regular season and 1-1 head-to-head showing.
Played one week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bears won at Wrigley Field, 33-14, in the first true “playoff” game in NFL history.
If the Packers continue to play like they have the last two weekends, they’ll move their all-time postseason record against the Bears to 1-1 — and they’ll be playing for their fourth Super Bowl title.
7. Shades of 1985 in Chicago.
A quarter-century ago, the Chicago Bears won two playoff games at home without giving up a single point. For much of the day on Sunday, it looked like the Seahawks wouldn’t score, either.
Trailing the Bears by 28 in the second half and facing a fourth and nine from the Chicago 12 late in the third quarter, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll opted for the three-pointer, presumably to avoid the prospect of scoring none.
Once Seattle got onto the board, the Bears seemed to ease up on the accelerator, allowing the Seahawks to score three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and making the 35-24 outcome seem much closer than it was.
Next week, the Bears have a chance to clamp down on a much tougher offense. A shutout is unlikely, but the Chicago defense has the punch to put the Bears into the Super Bowl for the third time.
8. Seahawks will face unreasonable expectations in 2011.
The Seattle Seahawks overachieved in coach Pete Carroll’s first season on the job, winning the division with a 7-9 record and knocking the defending champs out of the playoffs. The achievement came in a season featuring low expectations from the fan base.
In year two of the Carroll regime, the bar will be much higher. And the performance of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the wild-card game will pressure the franchise to bring him back for another year, even if it’s in the team’s best interests to move on to Charlie Whitehurst, who played well in the Week 17 NFC West title game, or someone else not currently on the roster.
As a result, the Seahawks will be stuck with Hasselbeck for another year, even if they otherwise believe it’s time to move on. And the locals will expect them to contend once against for the NFC West crown, even if the Rams or 49ers are significantly improved. (We were going to include the Cardinals, but the effects of the beer I drank this afternoon have worn off.)
So while it was a good year for Seattle, it has created the possibility of another bad one in 2011.
9. Jets shrug off Monday night massacre.
When the Patriots were piling it on against the Jets in December, we concluded that New England was hoping to demoralize the Jets to the point that they wouldn’t make it to the playoffs — or that they’d lose in round one and not make it back to Foxboro for a rubber match.
If that’s what the Pats were doing, it was a brilliant move. And if it only had worked, they may have won at home in the division round.
But they didn’t, thanks to a resilient Jets team that has now won four road playoff games in two years — as many as the Ravens have won in three. They must be taken seriously when they return to Heinz Field, especially since the Jets won there 13 days after losing to the Pats, and one week after losing at home to the Dolphins.
Though second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez has not generated high-end stats and at times has struggled, he shows up when it counts, winning as many playoff games in only two NFL seasons as Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Cassel, Carson Palmer, Matt Schaub, Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, Josh Freeman, Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford, and Sam Bradford have won in their 54 seasons combined. Now, Sanchez gets a chance to do in his second year in the league precisely what Tom Brady did in his — qualify for the Super Bowl by beating the Steelers in their own backyard.
10. Since 2007, Postseason rematches have been unkind to Pats.
So what’s wrong with the Patriots? Though most die-hard Pats fans will insist that Spygate is ancient history, its effects possibly could be lingering.
Before 2007, the Patriots were videotaping defensive coaching signals, syncing them up with the actual alignments used and then using the code in the rematch, which often came in the playoffs.
From 2001 through 2006, the Pats were 5-2 in playoff games against teams they faced during the regular season. After the Jets blew the whistle on a practice that plenty of other teams were engaged in as well, the Patriots are 1-3 in the playoffs against teams they played in the regular season.
In 2007, the Giants beat the Pats in the Super Bowl after a Week 17 barnburner. In 2009, the Pats lost to the Ravens after beating them in the regular season. This time around, a 45-3 trouncing in December became a 28-21 Jets victory in the division round.
To this day, no one knows whether and to what extent the practice of videotaping defensive coaching signals actually helped the Patriots. Some believe that coach Bill Belichick compiled the information out of an obsession to collect any information that he can, and that he may have never even used it.
Still, since beating the Chargers in the 2007 AFC title, the Pats have lost three straight playoff games. In that same period of time, they’ve won 35 regular-season games, losing only 13.
Regardless of the reason, the Pats have hit a rough spot in the postseason since making it to 18-0 three years ago, and it remains to be seen whether they can break out of it in 2011, or beyond.
The good news for football fans? The fact that the Pats have gone yet another year since 2004 without another Super Bowl win could make owner Robert Kraft even more antsy to see his team back on the field again, which could prompt him to push even harder for a quick resolution to the ongoing labor dispute between the NFL and the players’ union.