The best weekend of the football season is upon us. Thank God.
After the penance that was Wild Card Weekend and the depressing conclusion of the year-long San Diego root canal, football fans can sit on the couch over the next couple of days and watch the very best teams in the NFL slugging it out for the right to land in the NFL's version of the Final Four. The Texans are playing, too.
Each of the four matchups come with compelling subplots and a "Choose Your Own Adventure"-level host of options for how the games will play out. Let's look into the future and offer four possible Monday morning headlines.
My only rule: The headlines must be rooted in reality on some level .. even if it's only by a thread.
Tex message: Brady throws five touchdowns in absurd Patriots blowout
All Tom Brady wants right now -- the thing that would put a cherry on top of a ridiculous career that might not ever end -- is to be on the same riser as Roger Goodell when the Lombardi Trophy is presented next month at NRG Stadium. Just two more wins away from the Super Bowl and against an overmatched Texans team, the stars are aligned for one of Brady's best playoff performances -- which is saying something, considering he will have played two full seasons of them by Monday.
I infamously predicted last summer on the Around The NFL Podcast that Brady would show signs of slight regression in this, his age-39 season. I was wrong. OK, I was really wrong. But I stand by my prediction that Brady won't remain this great forever. The inexorable march of time catches up to us all, and it will for TB12 and his magic pajamas, too.
Big Ben, Bigger Alex: Smith's fine day lifts Chiefs to AFC title game
Alex Smith is a big part of that. At some point, Smith got tagged as the most game manager of all game manager-y quarterbacks. Throwing 15 touchdowns in 15 starts this season reinforced that. But the Chiefs enter the playoffs on a major offensive roll. In the back-to-back wins that closed the season and locked up the two-seed, the Chiefs averaged 35 points and 425 yards per game, as well as a saucy 6.34 yards per play.
Listen to your friend, Melissa Etheridge.
Romo-mentum: Cowboys backup outduels Rodgers in instant classic
You don't like to put this type of pressure on a game -- the Football Gods could crumble under the pressure of expectation -- but this Packers-Cowboys matchup feels destined to be a game we remember, doesn't it? The resurgent, outrageously loaded (three All-Pros on the O-line!) and well-rested Cowboys welcome the Packers and Aaron Rodgers, who is now just three more stirring wins away from the greatest run a quarterback's ever had in [best Paul Maguire voice] the National Football League.
But with all possible respect for Rodgers, it still feels like the Book of Romo isn't closed this season. Tony Romo's journey from franchise centerpiece to dignified understudy has been the biggest soap opera of the NFL season. It's the storyline that produced a riveting press conference that still feels like it was taken off the editing floor of a Peter Berg movie.
Will that presser and his one touchdown drive in Week 17 be the end of his story as The Big Story in Dallas? I can't shake the feeling it won't. Which isn't to say I'm necessarily predicting an injury for Dak Prescott this week (that would suck) or a panic benching ordered down from the owner's box (this would be unfair, but kind of awesome), but it feels like one last twist is in the stars for the team identified by The Big Star.
Matt Ryan: Boring name, thrilling game, as Seahawks were made aware of
The Seahawks are battle-tested and worthy of their place in this tournament, but this team -- specifically this defense -- won't be able to handle what Matt Ryan and the Atlanta offense is about to bring. The heart of the problem is that the Seahawks are missing the heart of their defense: Earl Thomas. Seattle has been a mediocre team since Thomas was lost for the year with a broken leg in Week 13, and the secondary has been completely sapped of big-play ability in his absence.
The proof: Thomas was placed on injured reserve Dec. 6. The Seahawks have not had an interception since. Including last weekend's wild-card win over the Lions, Seattle has gone five straight games without a pick, tying a franchise record. The Earl-free "Legion Of Boom" has also become susceptible to the big play, and the Falcons just so happen to be the best home-run offense we've seen since Brady and Moss were playing catch in 2007.
And let's not forget the last time the Seahawks (3-4-1 away from the Clink this season) went on the road in a divisional playoff game to face a buzzy NFC South offense. It was just last year, actually. That Seattle team -- with Earl Thomas active and with two functioning legs -- went to the halftime tunnel down 31-0 to the Panthers.
Add it all up and Ryan is well set up for that thrilling game, despite his, um, boring name. Not such a bad headline after all, Ken. Allison still loves you. She needs time to figure some stuff out.