This is the season for conspiracy theories in the NFL. Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs was convinced, after his Ravens beat the Steelers, that the league wants some unnamed matchup -- maybe Broncos-Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, maybe Patriots-Seahawks in the Super Bowl? -- that his team is intent on disrupting. That picked-up flag for pass interference against Dallas? Must have been the league's desire for an Ice Bowl redux.
Yes, the Divisional Round -- arguably the best weekend of football each season -- will feature the first playoff meeting of the Cowboys and Packers at Lambeau Field since they played one of the most famous games in football history 47 years ago, one that is, almost literally, frozen in time. The weather for this Sunday is forecast to be relatively temperate -- or at least in the double digits, degree-wise -- but that hasn't stopped the production of Ice Bowl II T-shirts to commemorate the occasion.
And Suggs' Ravens will get a chance to interrupt what has seemed, for two months, to be the Patriots' inevitable march to the AFC Championship Game when they reprise a fevered playoff series that has seen Baltimore upset New England twice in the past five years. To say nothing of the first postseason game for the defending-champion Seahawks, who had been the last team with a losing record to qualify for the playoffs and then win a game ... until their Saturday opponents, the Carolina Panthers, did it this year. And then there's the third installment of Indianapolis' high-profile -- and highly successful -- succession plan.
While three of the last four Super Bowl champions had to play on Wild Card Weekend, the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs confers the greatest home-field advantage of any round of postseason play across the four major pro sports in the United States. Home teams win a whopping 72.8 percent of games in the Divisional Round. Although, since 2010, five visiting teams have prevailed -- the 2012 Ravens, who went on to beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and win the Super Bowl, were one of those.
In fact, the advantage of the No. 1 and 2 seeds -- the teams that get a bye in the current playoff format -- might be starting to slip. Fifteen of the 36 teams that held a top-two seed since 2005 lost in their initial playoff game. And in the last nine seasons, only two No. 1 seeds and one No. 2 have won the Super Bowl.
With all that in mind, let's take a closer look at the four games that'll decide who will be playing on Championship Sunday:
Given the history, this is probably the last matchup the Patriots were hoping for, but let's keep this in perspective. Yes, Baltimore has beaten New England in two of three tries -- it was very nearly all three -- in the playoffs at Foxborough. And yes, the Ravens are not in any way intimidated by the Patriots' otherwise overwhelming home-field advantage (New England's 11-1 against playoff opponents not from Baltimore since 2001). But just 17 players remain on the 53-man roster from the Ravens team that beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game just two years ago, and none of them are named Ray Lewis or Ed Reed.
Worse: While the Ravens still have a very good pass rush with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil (29 sacks combined in the regular season, most by any defensive duo), a defensive coordinator (Dean Pees) who, because of his Patriots roots, knows how to disturb Tom Brady, and one of the league's best run defenses (ranked fourth), their secondary is the weakness of the defense (ranked 23rd). Uh-oh.
Brady also has a healthy Rob Gronkowski, who, by the way, did not play in that AFC title loss two years back. The Patriots rested Gronk in Week 17, but in his last 11 games of the regular season -- during which New England went 10-1 -- the tight end averaged 6.3 receptions for 88 yards, while the team averaged 34.5 points per outing.
Baltimore QB Joe Flacco has gone 166 consecutive pass attempts without an interception in the playoffs, but the Ravens have not had to contend with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at cornerback in Foxborough before. If Justin Forsett -- who led all running backs in yards per carry (5.4) during the regular season, but managed just 2.5 a pop on Wild Card Weekend -- cannot find running lanes, it's hard to imagine how the Ravens can score enough to keep pace with the Patriots.
When these teams played in Week 8, the Seahawks won 13-9, marking the lowest point totals for both teams this season. In the three games these teams have played with Cam Newton and Russell Wilson at quarterback, Seattle has won all three, and neither team has scored more than 16 points. The Seahawks have allowed an average of 8.3 points per game since Week 14, the lowest figure in the league. The Panthers have yielded 10.8 ppg in that span (second lowest).
Long story short: Don't expect these two teams to light up the scoreboard Saturday night.
The Panthers are 5-0 since the dawn of December, and in those games, they have averaged 197 rushing yards. Jonathan Stewart leads the NFL in rushing yards since Week 13 (including the postseason). Also, Seattle allowed 11 touchdown receptions to tight ends this season, tied for third-most in the league, while the Panthers' Greg Olsen just posted the best regular season of his career (84 receptions for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns).
That's great ... until you consider that the Seahawks are allowing an average of 3.1 yards per rush since the beginning of December, and have given up just three touchdowns and 39 points over their last six games.
Meanwhile, Carolina's allowed 5.0 yards per carry since the beginning of December, the most among the remaining playoff teams -- and the Panthers just lost space-eating DT Star Lotulelei. Furthermore, Carolina fared poorly during the regular season against top-tier competition, going 1-4-1 against teams that made the playoffs. They went 0-3 against the remaining playoff teams and were outscored 89-36. The Seahawks, on the other hand, went 5-1 in the regular season against playoff teams and were 3-1 against remaining playoff teams.
This is the first time in NFL history a team that was 8-0 on the road in the regular season (the Cowboys) will travel to play a team that was 8-0 at home (the Packers) -- and the caliber of play in those regular-season games was unsurpassed. Dallas had the league's best point differential on the road (outscoring opponents by 94 points), while Green Bay had the best point differential at home (155 points).
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Much of that is attributable to their quarterbacks. Tony Romo (113.2) and Aaron Rodgers (112.2) were the NFL's top two QBs in passer rating this season. Rodgers, who did not throw an interception at Lambeau Field this season, led the league's top scoring attack, while the Cowboys' offense ranked fifth.
There are some X-factors to watch. Rodgers' calf injury was aggravated in the regular-season finale -- this could limit his ability to move freely outside the pocket, where he is particularly dangerous.
While Ice Bowl-like conditions are not in the forecast, it is expected to be well below freezing for the game. Romo's winning percentage is .375 (3-5) with a passer rating of 86.3 (11.3 points below his career average) when the game-time temperature is below 40 degrees. Rodgers is at .733 (22-8) in such conditions with a rating of 104.7 (just 1.3 points below his average).
The Cowboys' best weapon to neutralize Rodgers, though, might simply be the clock. Running back DeMarco Murrayled the league in rushing, while the Packersranked 23rd in rushing defense, allowing 119.9 yards per game. Murray faced four run defenses that finished the season ranked in the bottom 10, and in those five games (the Giants were counted twice), he averaged 133 yards per outing at 5.4 yards per carry.
Irsay also said the Colts haven't played their best game yet and that they'd have to do just that in order to ascend to the AFC Championship Game and send Manning home. Luck and Manning have split their two regular-season showdowns over the past two years, with the elder statesman earning the latest win in Week 1 of this season.
Luck (40) and Manning (39) ranked Nos. 1-2 in touchdown passes this season, but as critical as they are, there are real questions about both entering this game. Manning threw twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (three) in his last four games after throwing 36 touchdown passes against nine picks in the first three months of the season. During the last four games, his completion percentage dropped more than 3 percentage points.
Luck threw at least one interception in 11 of 16 regular-season games, contributing to a team turnover total (31 giveaways) that had the Colts tied for 29th. But Luck played arguably the best game of his career against the Bengals in the wild-card round, completing 31 of 44 passes for 376 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Denver's offseason focus on improving the D could make the difference here. The Broncos are second in rushing defense, ninth in passing defense, tied for ninth in sacks and have 12 takeaways in the last five games.