(Photo courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys)
THIS WEEKEND’S HALL-OF-FAME GAME
Dallas @ Green Bay, Sunday, 1:05 p.m.
The line: Packers by 6
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 22
The story: Dallas is 8-0 on the road. Green Bay is 8-0 at Lambeau. Something has to give … and for Green Bay’s sake, let’s hope it’s not Aaron Rodgers’ calf. The injury kept him out of practice until Thursday, and while he says he’s OK it limited him in the second half of the season finale against Detroit. If it’s still an issue, make it: Advantage, Dallas. No, the Cowboys don’t have Pete Morelli along for this trip, and that’s a problem. But they do have DeMarco Murray, and he’ll have an easier time solving Green Bay’s defense than he … or quarterback Tony Romo … did solving Detroit’s. OK, so the Cowboys might not have made it without Morelli’s ship of fools, but the fact is: They did make it. They overcame a 14-point deficit, and Romo proved that he can win a big game … instead of screw it up. So they have that going for them. They also have momentum. They’re playing where they’re comfortable. And they’re weather-proof, able to beat you with the run or the pass. The questions here don’t surround Romo as much as they do Aaron Rodgers. If he’s right, the Packers are on their way to Seattle. If not, look for the upset.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: At home, Rodgers is nearly perfect. He hasn’t thrown an interception in 477 straight attempts, and he has thrown 38 touchdowns. He had 25 TDs and no interceptions at home this season.
THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL-OF-FRAMING
Baltimore @ New England, Saturday, 4:35 p.m.
The line: Patriots by 7
The weather: Sunny, high of 22
The story: If there’s one opponent out there that’s a hazard to Tom Brady and the Patriots, it’s Baltimore. The Ravens are 2-1 against them in the playoffs – with all three games at Foxboro and Brady so befuddled he produced just three touchdowns and seven interceptions. Worse, he was blanked the second half in the 2012 AFC championship game. So that’s the bad news for New England. The good? Well, Baltimore’s secondary has more holes than Sonny Corleone. The Ravens have run through five starting safeties and seven starting cornerbacks, and if their pass rush can’t reach the quarterback … start running for cover. And that’s where this game will be won. I know all about Joe Flacco on the road in the playoffs and his record over his last five postseason games (5-0, with 13 TDs and no interceptions), but this one is all about Tom Terrific. If the Ravens can pressure him, they have a chance. If not, they’re toast. Simple as that. They have the pass rush to squeeze the pocket, and New England’s pass protection is little more than adequate. But if the Pats figure out how to hold off the Ravens, Brady will exploit Baltimore’s secondary as Ben Roethlisberger could not one week earlier.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: In five games in Foxboro, including three in the playoffs, Flacco completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 9 touchdowns, 3 interceptions and a 92.8 rating. That rating is the highest by an opposing quarterback in Foxboro dating back to 2008.
Carolina @Seattle, Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
The line: Seahawks by 11
The weather: Cloudy, high of 47
The story: Yes, Carolina has momentum, a solid defense and an effective rushing attack, but, no, the Panthers don’t have much of a chance here. Sure, Seattle could screw the pooch. The last eight Super Bowl winners failed to win a playoff game the following season, but the Seahawks won’t join the chorus. Not here. Not now. Russell Wilson won’t let them. Marshawn Lynch won’t let them. And the Legion of Doom won’t let them. The Seahawks are the best team in football today, and Carolina isn’t. It’s that simple. The Panthers’ running game will have trouble making yards, which means it’s up to Cam Newton to pass them to victory … and you saw how accurate he was vs. Arizona. As a quarterback, he makes a great halfback. Plus, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is out, further compromising a defense that will try to serve as speed bumps for Lynch. Hasta la vista, baby. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carolina hang with these guys for a half or two-and-a-half quarters, but that’s it. Seattle has too much offense, too much defense and too much 12th man for a team that lost as many as it’s won.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Seahawks’ defense didn’t allow a point in the fourth quarter of its last six games and surrendered only 13 in the second-halves of those contests.
Indianapolis @Denver, Sunday, 4:40 p.m.
The line: Broncos by 7
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 44
The story: This is billed as Andrew Luck vs. Peyton Manning, but they’re not the key elements here. The defenses are … and only one of these two is Top Five. That, of course, would be Denver, and I don’t care how accurate Luck is … he’s going to have a tougher time solving the Broncos than Manning will the Colts. Yeah, I know, Luck was the best quarterback anywhere last week, but tell me how many times the Bengals pressured him. They didn’t, with Luck picking them apart with pinpoint passes. That won’t happen here. The Broncos will squeeze the pocket, and Luck will be harassed. How he handles that pressure will determine the outcome of this game. I have no doubt that Manning and C.J. Anderson and DeMaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and … whew … anyway, I have no doubt the army of talent Denver has will punch holes in Indianapolis. I don’t feel as confident about the Colts. OK, so Manning isn’t himself, with three TDs and six interceptions his last four starts. But, remember, this is more about Denver’s defense than it is Manning’s right arm.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Denver is 15-5 at home in the playoffs.
FIVE GUYS ON THIS WEEKEND’S WALL OF FAME
1. New England TE Rob Gronkowski. In four career home playoff games, he has 19 catches for 297 yards and three TDs.
2. Baltimore LB Terrell Suggs. He has 12 career playoff sacks, tied with Reggie White for third-best in playoff history.
3. Carolina RB Jonathan Stewart. Including the wild-card defeat of Arizona, he’s run for 524 yards (a 104.8-yard per-game average) since Dec. 1, the most in the NFL.
4. Seattle QB Russell Wilson. He’s 24-2 at home (including the playoffs), with a 100.1 rating. He’s also 3-0 vs. Carolina.
5. Green Bay LB Clay Matthews. In eight career playoff games, he has 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. In three career starts vs. Dallas, he has 2.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and a 62-yard interception return for a touchdown.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
1. Since the NFL moved to the 12-team format in 1990, top seeds in the NFC are 20-4 in divisional weekend, while the top seeds in the AFC are 14-10.
2. New England (10) and Denver (7) have the most first-round byes since 1990 — with the Patriots looking to score 40 or more points for the fourth straight time in a divisional playoff game.
3. Seattle won its last seven playoff games at home.
4. With three touchdown passes, Tom Brady (43) would pass Joe Montana (45) and Brett Favre (44) for most playoff TDs.
5. Joe Flacco has thrown 166 consecutive playoff passes without an interception – fourth best in NFL history. Drew Brees is the leader at 226.
6. Andrew Luck has three consecutive playoff games with 300 or more yards passing. With another Sunday, he would tie San Diego’s Dan Fouts for the longest streak of 300-yard games in NFL playoff history.
7. Seattle is 41-15 since the middle of the 2011 season, with 4.8 points the average margin of losses. Its largest defeat since Nov. 13, 2011 was a 9-point defeat at San Diego earlier this season.
8. Under John Harbaugh, Baltimore is 9-1 in the playoffs when scoring 20 or more points.
9. Denver was the only team in the playoffs to rank in the top five in offense (fourth) and defense (third).
10. The Patriots are 15-4 at home in the playoffs, but only 4-3 over their last seven. They’re 6-1 in divisional home playoff games, with their only loss to Baltimore.