By David J. Cohen
Since the NFL has gone to the four division format, four teams playing in the wildcard round of the playoffs have made the Super Bowl: the '03 Panthers, '05 Steelers, '06 Colts, and last year's Giants. For the last three years, the Super Bowl winner has come out of this round of the playoffs.
And there's a good reason for this. With four divisions, there's usually a weak division (see AFC West, NFC West) that gets a team with a mediocre record into the playoffs. This is creating wild card teams with better records playing lower record division winners.
This year is the culmination of the NFL parity transformation. For perhaps the first time in the history of the wildcard, all four road teams could be favorites at kickoff.
The run of wildcard champions should leave eight teams in contention for at least a spot in Tampa. But there's a catch.
All the wildcard champs have something in common. They all made the playoffs the year before they hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy. If that's applied to this year's playoffs, where just five teams return to the playoffs from a year ago, it narrows the field down to Saturday night.
The Colts and Chargers are the only two teams that made the playoffs last season. So if recent history is any indication, the winner of this game wins the whole thing. It also means either the Giants or Panthers win the NFC.
Looking at the playoffs from an on-field perspective, it's not unreasonable for the winner of this game to win it all.
First off, in the NFC there's a clear divide between the Giants and Panthers, and everyone else. The Falcons have a first year head coach with a rookie quarterback and are a .500 road team. The Cardinals are a one-trick pony. The Vikings don't know what they'll get out of their quarterback and have a star running back that keeps putting the ball on the ground. The Eagles tied the Bengals.
Out of the four wildcard teams, the Eagles are clearly the best team. They have the experience and equipment on both sides of the ball to contend with the Giants at the Meadowlands. They could make a run at Tampa, but you never know when they'll forget they have Brian Westbrook. And if they beat the Giants, it will give the Panthers a home game for the NFC crown. They're 8-0 at home.
As for the AFC, it's absolutely wide open. There is no dominant team in the conference and all of the playoff teams have noticeable flaws. The Titans can be bottled up if you stop the running game and will have players coming back from injury at the start of the playoffs. The Steelers might be without Big Ben, haven't established a consistent rushing attack with Willie Parker in the lineup, and have pass protection issues. Miami isn't explosive. The Ravens have a rookie coach and quarterback and rely heavily on the run.
Basically the conference is a matter of matchups. The two teams that can create the most matchup problems in the conference: the Chargers and the Colts.
The Colts come in winning nine straight. They're the hottest team in the league. According to conventional wisdom, they should be fine.
They have a robot named Peyton Manning playing quarterback. They still have a variety of options to throw it to. Defensively they are coming on as they are finally getting healthy. They aren't the best defense and they will give up plays, but they are good at making you work for points. They make you put together drives to get scores when the unit is at 100%. They also have a proven running back but haven't been able to run the ball. That could change.
The Colts have seen every team they could face down the road as long as the Ravens beat Miami. They beat the Chargers in San Diego at the end of the game in late November. They beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in early November. They play the Titans twice a year and know them very well. The Titans are the last team to beat the Colts but it was early in the year. And if the Ravens somehow get to the AFC title game, the Colts did blow them out at the start of the season, even though both teams are dramatically different from that time. So there’s no matchup where the Colts haven’t proven they can contend with the competition.
The Chargers are the first 4-8 team to make the playoffs. On paper, they have the talent to hang with any other team in the NFL. Until the last couple of weeks, it hasn't showed up. The question with them is whether that’s a result of the Bucs and Broncos.
They were up against these Colts with a minute and a half to go and had a terrible call go against them that may have changed their fate if called correctly.
Their offense can give the Colts problems because they have so many options. Philip Rivers, performance wise, is the best quarterback in these playoffs and has carried this team all season long. If Ladanian Tomlinson is O.K. with the groin injury, he's as close to his real self as he’s been all season. The receiving core can beat you down field and go up and get the ball.
The defense is the big question mark. There's a lot of talent on that side of the ball but they haven't generated a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and haven't covered receivers nearly as well as they should be. They have especially been lit up by opposing tight ends and Dallas Clark may be the best route running tight end in the league. The Colts are a tough match for the Chargers, but if they can get by them, everything opens up.
The Chargers played the Steelers in their house and lost by just a point earlier in the year. With Big Ben a question mark and a Chargers team coming on, they could take the Steelers by surprise.
If they get by the Steelers, the Ravens will probably be waiting for them. Baltimore has an elite defense and relies heavily on the run. The Chargers have certainly had their struggles against the run this season but have improved in that department during their winning streak. Ron Rivera can give Joe Flacco some confusing looks, and the Chargers offense should be able to get some movement through the air. It's another tough game for the Chargers, but one they will be in entering the fourth.
Either of these teams can win the conference. The Colts especially have all the pieces in place to make a run at Tampa.
The Chargers lost a ton of close games earlier in the year and are now figuring out how to finish games. All but one of their losses this season was by seven points or less. The Panthers won on the final play. The Broncos beat them on a blown call. They played Miami and Buffalo on the east coast at 1:00. They weren’t too far off 12-4.
If the Colts beat the Chargers, they probably keep the Super Bowl wildcard streak alive.
The Manning Bowl would be a Colts victory simply because they matchup tremendously well against the Giants. Their offensive line is the best in the playoffs in pass protection. The amount of receiving threats can take advantage of holes in the Giants secondary. The Colts aren't great against the run, but good enough to neutralize it.
That's the same reason they would beat the Panthers. Both of the NFC frontrunners rely on pressuring the quarterback as the basis of their defensive success. When you take that away, opportunities present themselves.
If the Chargers go to Tampa, it's a whole different deal.
The team Eli didn't want to play for can throw the ball all over the Giants when their quarterback isn't getting drilled. But that's a big if. They would need an effective Tomlinson to keep the Giants pass rush at bay. Defensively, their run defense would have to be better than it is now to keep the Giants from doing whatever they wish. But if the Chargers get this far, that's already been solved.
The Giants lack of a game breaking receiver could do them in. The Chargers have athletic corners that could play up on the line of scrimmage.
The Panthers could be too much for the Chargers to overcome. But the Chargers took them to the very brink to start the season.
Recent NFL history has spoken. This year's Super Bowl is in San Diego, and the Colts appear poised to take the crown.
But the Chargers have a lot of fight left in them. They have tremendous potential and finally got over their playoff demons a year ago when they beat Indianapolis after losing LT and Rivers during the game.
A one-legged Rivers with no LT nearly beat the Patriots last season. Perhaps it's time for another quarterback to join the elite ranks. A Super Bowl ring would do just that.