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NFL Playoffs 5 Big Things: Divisional Weekend

Check out five stories that could impact this weekend’s playoff action.

Pat Donovan

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During the NFL’s regular season, we give you 10 big things to look for during that week’s games. Now that the playoffs are here it’s time to narrow are focus to the stories that impact those still vying for a Lombardi Trophy.  Here are four stories that could impact this weekend’s games, and one point about the most important position in football.

1. Baltimore’s overstated momentum: Suddenly the Baltimore Ravens victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Steel Country has reminded people of Joe Flacco’s previous successes in New England, and many are predicting an upset against the Patriots Saturday. With all due respect to the Ravens, this couldn’t be more shortsighted. Sure, “Joe Flacco is 2-1 against New England in the playoffs,” we get it. Sure, Baltimore is a dropped Lee Evans pass away from being 3-0 against the Patriots in the playoffs in New England, but none of that matters. While people like to use lazy analysis that includes historical statistics, the fact is, this year’s Ravens team is a very different team that any of the three teams that went into New England and won. More importantly, this year’s Ravens team has been wildly inconsistent. Whether it’s their late season losses to San Diego Chargers and Houston Texans or it’s their unimpressive victories over teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns, there’s nothing other than last week’s victory over Pittsburgh that should make you confident in the Ravens. The Patriots started slowly, but have been consistent and dominant for most of the year. Don’t expect that to change Sunday because of some silly commentary about what Joe Flacco or the Ravens have been able to accomplish with very different teams in previous years.

2. A Saturday night bludgeoning: Much like the early game between New England and Baltimore, some will try to convince you that the Carolina Panthers – Seattle Seahawks game could result in a huge upset, don’t buy it. Yes, the Carolina Panthers have won five straight  games including their Wildcard victory over the Arizona Cardinals last weekend. However, if you took the time to watch that game, it was quite clear that the 7-8-1 Panthers are exactly what their record says they are, not very good. Despite their late season push, the Panthers defense that was so good a year ago, was mediocre at best in 2014. Carolina was the 16th ranked run defense in the NFL this season, and will have to find a way to stop a Seattle rushing attack that seemed to only build momentum as the season went on. The Panthers stumbled through the season, and managed only seven wins in the worst division in football, while the Seahawks went on to go 12-4 in what might have been the league’s best. For the Panthers to be successful on offense, they need to be able to run the ball, and get the ball to Kelvin Benjamin. Carolina is likely going to find either difficult to accomplish against Seattle, and it’s hard to imagine Saturday night’s game being anything but a beat down. Considering the Panthers had a losing record this season, it’s really only right.

3. The calf that could cost the Packers: While Mike McCarthy suggesting that Aaron Rodgers should be able to go on Sunday is a good thing, the fact that he even has to talk about it has to be a concern to Green Bay Packers fans. Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game, and he is the reason the Packers are favorites to beat the Cowboys Sunday and the reason they are considered Super Bowl contenders. The Packers are a good football team, but they’re nothing without Rodgers. We saw how quickly Green Bay’s offense came screeching to a halt when Rodgers was banged up when the Packers scored just 20 points as Rodgers limped through the team’s 20-3 victory over the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There’s no question that the Cowboys game plan Sunday will be to try and run the ball down Green Bay’s throat with DeMarco Murray to keep Rodgers and the Packers’ offense off the field. The Cowboys defense was more effective than people expected this season, but it’s still not well suited for trying to stop what the Packers do with Rodgers. However, that might not be as much of an issue if the freezing temperatures cause Rodgers’ calf to tighten up and leaves him limping around the field like we saw in Tampa Bay Week 16.

4. A passing of the torch: Regardless of the outcome Sunday night, the symbolism of the old vet nearing the end of his career passing the proverbial torch to the young man who replaced him. Whether or not Andrew Luck is able to pull off the upset victory over former Colts god Peyton Manning Sunday night, the handshake at midfield after the game will remind us of how great Manning was for all those years in Indianapolis, how great Luck is for being able to seemingly yawn at the pressure of replacing Manning, and how ridiculously lucky the Colts are for landing them both. Perhaps the biggest question on the field will be if the week off will help Manning, who looked at times, looked like a guy with a tired arm late in the season. Manning or Luck will have to win another game to get to the Super Bowl, but it seems quite fitting that they’ll have to go through each other to get there.

5. The importance of the quarterback: If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are paying attention to the playoffs, they’re seeing the reason why they should be spending every waking moment to figure out if Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston should be the top-overall pick in the draft. When asked who the best quarterbacks in football are, most quickly go to four names, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Andrew Luck. It’s not a coincidence that all four of those quarterbacks will lead their teams onto the field this weekend with a shot to lead them into a conference championship game a week later. Also, while there were plenty of other issues for the San Francisco 49ers or New Orleans Saints this season, you could point directly to Colin Kaepernick and Drew Brees’ struggles as huge reasons those teams missed the playoffs despite having huge expectations entering the season. You’re either one of two teams in the NFL: You’re a team with a star at quarterback, or you’re a team looking for a star at quarterback. This weekend’s games will be another example of why that statement is so true.

Pat Donovan has covered the NFL for almost a decade and is a host and producer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers radio flagship 620WDAE/95.3FM. Pat covers the NFC South and NFC East for Football Insiders. Follow him on Twitter, @PatDonovanNFL.

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