Chills in Charm City
Emotions will run high in Baltimore in Ray Lewis' potential final home game
First, you have the emotion of the Baltimore fans. They still remember the moving vans carrying off their Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis and leaving them without pro football until the Ravens opened business in 1996. Losing a sports franchise tears at the heart of loyal fans.
Then you have the return of Colts coach Chuck Pagano to Baltimore, where he was an assistant before getting the Colts' head-coaching job this season. Pagano was the league's best story this year. While he was getting leukemia treatment, interim coach Bruce Arians and the team worked to give him a playoff team. Pagano returned to the field this past week after the Colts clinched a playoff spot the previous week.
But the biggest emotions revolve around Ray Lewis. On Wednesday, Lewis, one of the top defensive players in the NFL history, announced he would retire after the season. Because the Ravens are the No. 4 seed, this could be the last home game of his NFL career.
This will be the most memorable run onto the field Lewis will ever have. For 17 seasons, fans counted on his leading a defense that stuffed visiting offenses. His energy and strong leadership dominated this team.
That last run will be emotional.
Here are the top 10 trends from the wild-card round of the playoffs:
1. Which rookie quarterback will advance? One rookie quarterback will make the divisional round of the NFC playoffs because two of them are playing each other Sunday. Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks or the Redskins' Robert Griffin III will be in Atlanta (or San Francisco, if the Vikings beat the Packers) the next Sunday depending how the day goes for each.
In the past, thoughts of a rookie quarterback's winning a playoff game on the road were remote. Since 1966, only 11 rookie quarterbacks have taken teams into the playoffs, including T.J. Yates of the Texans, who was filling in for injured Matt Schaub last year. The first to win a playoff game was Shaun King of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Jan. 15, 2000, but that game was at home. Ben Roethlisberger won a playoff home game in his rookie season in 2004. Then came Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez, who each won two road games in their rookie seasons and made it to the conference title games. RG III, Wilson and Andrew Luck have beaten the odds all season. Anything can happen.
2. Tough to win playoff road games: It's not an accident odds-makers have favored only one road team -- Seattle -- in the wild-card round. Winning on the road is tough in the regular season, but winning on the road in the playoffs is even tougher. Last year, all four road teams were swept in the wild-card round.
From 1990 to 2003, home teams were 41-15 in the wild-card round. In 2004, Houston entered the league as an expansion team and the playoffs expanded to 12 teams. With eight four-team divisions, better teams in stronger divisions qualified as wild-card teams. That's why a Ben Roethlisberger or an Eli Manning or an Aaron Rodgers could make it as a wild card and keep piling up enough wins to get to the Super Bowl.
For an eight-year stretch, at least two lower-seeded teams a season won wild-card games. In that eight-year stretch, such teams were 15-17. This year, Flacco, Rodgers and Schaub are the more experienced quarterbacks on repeating playoff teams at home. Odds are on their side.
3. Home helps in short-turnaround games: The Minnesota Vikings made the playoffs in the final week of the regular season with their thrilling 37-34 win over the Green Bay Packers. Adrian Peterson has rushed for 409 yards in two games against the Packers this season. Being back at Lambeau, though, gives a big edge to the Packers.
Over the past 10 years, a playoff game featuring a Week 17 rematch has happened four times, including three in 2009. Home teams have won three of those games. What gives the Packers the great advantage is the weather. Christian Ponder doesn't figure to play well in the cold. For the season, he gets fewer big pass plays in road games. His yards-per-attempt average is 7.0 at home but 5.27 on the road. Peterson might get the rushing yards, but Ponder will struggle to get the big downfield passes. To beat Rodgers, Ponder will need some big pass plays. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ponder hit 4 of 5 completions on 15-plus yard throws in Week 17. But that was in a dome. He was 0-for-6 on 15-yard throws in the teams' Dec. 2 meeting at Lambeau. The Packers might have lost four of their past six playoff home games, but they have a huge edge in this game.
4. Running can get you only so far: Peterson was the seventh player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards and came just nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's all-time rushing record of 2,105.
Four of six previous 2,000-yard runners have made the playoffs, but only once has a 2,000-yard runner cashed in on a playoff victory. That was Terrell Davis of the Denver Broncos in 1998, and he had John Elway at quarterback. The two would then go on to win their second consecutive Super Bowl.
Peterson almost single-handedly carried the Vikings to the playoffs. Peterson had 1,019 yards after contact, and clearly his strategy will be to break runs to the outside against the Packers.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Packers gave up 7.0 yards per rush outside the tackle, second worst in the NFL. Peterson averaged 13.7 yards outside the tackle against Green Bay. The return of safety Charles Woodson, who hasn't played since Week 7, could help, but you have to figure defensive coordinator Dom Capers will find a way to stop the leakage on the outside runs.
5. Playoffs déjà vu: Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis will get a chance to show how much he has closed the gap on the Houston Texans. Last year, Cincinnati opened the playoffs with a 31-10 loss in Houston. The Bengals lost even though Yates, a rookie at the time, was behind center for the Texans instead of injured Schaub.
And history says the Texans should win this weekend. Since 1990, the three times repeat playoff teams met in the wild-card round, the team that won the first game also won the second. Still, the Texans are reeling. They've lost three of their past four games. They dropped from the No. 1 seed to the No. 3. Their pass defense is giving up too many touchdowns, and injuries have killed them at inside linebacker.
6. Handling the Bengals' defensive line: The Texans will have to find ways to contain Cincinnati defensive tackle Geno Atkins. He had 12.5 sacks and gets great pressure up the middle. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Bengals were the best defense in football with four-man rushes. They had a league-high 37 sacks when rushing four or fewer defenders. That gives defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer the option of dropping seven into coverage. Texans coach Gary Kubiak will try to counter that with Arian Foster runs to set up Schaub's play-action passes. Schaub's rollout ability should help counter some of the inside rush of the Bengals.
7. Earning the big bucks: Flacco is the only quarterback in NFL history to make the playoffs in his first five years. He has won four playoff games on the road, and he is 5-4 as a playoff quarterback. For the second consecutive year, he has won the AFC North.
Still, he doesn't get enough respect nationally. This is an important game for him. His contract is up after the season, and the team is still trying to figure out his worth. Does he get $16 million a year? Does he get $17 million? Or do the Ravens simply stick the franchise tag on him? Frustrations with the offense led to the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in December. Jim Caldwell was promoted from quarterback coach to offensive coordinator. He quickened the pace of the play calling and the offense. But both aspects need good games against the Colts for Ravens management to figure out the future of the offense. Clearly, though, the Ravens aren't letting Flacco hit the free-agent market, not with five trips to the playoffs in five years.
8. Offensive rookie of the year debate: Too bad voting for regular-season honors concluded before Sunday. The three top offensive rookies are putting on shows. Arguments can be made for Wilson and RG III as offensive rookie of the year, but what about Luck, who propelled the Colts from 2-14 to 11-5?
As a rookie, Luck tied the NFL record for most winning drives in the fourth quarter with seven. He set the rookie yardage record with 4,374. On third down, he's tough to stop. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Luck completed 68.6 percent of his throws to the first-down marker on third-down plays, second only to Drew Brees.Critics point to his completion percentage. He completed 54.1 percent of his throws and had 18 interceptions. Also, according to ESPN Stats & Info, he had seven interceptions dropped. Part of the problem with his completion percentage is the type of throw he makes. ESPN has him making an average throw of 10.1 yards, the third longest of any quarterback in the past five years. Regardless, it has worked out for Luck and the Colts this season.
9. Prepared to stop the pistol formation: RG III has had great success running the "pistol" offense, which puts him in a short shotgun in which he hands off to Alfred Morris, runs the ball himself or throws a quick bubble screen to a receiver.
The Seattle defense has plenty of experience against that. Pete Carroll came from USC, where he had to face that type of offense regularly. The Seahawks faced those types of plays and did well against them when they played Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers and Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers. Newton had 141 yards passing and 42 yards rushing in a Seahawks victory in Carolina in Week 5. Kaepernick had 244 yards passing and 31 yards rushing in Seattle's 29-point victory over the 49ers in late December.
Griffin is wearing a bulky knee brace that limits his running ability. RG III averaged eight running attempts a game before the injury. He has had eight carries in the past two weeks. The knee is a little better, but the brace is slowing him.
10. The menu is for Garcon: Taking away the deep threat of Pierre Garcon will be one of the keys for the Seahawks. Garcon is Griffin's best deep threat. The Seahawks have the ability to jam Garcon at the line of scrimmage with cornerback Brandon Browner, who is back after serving a four-game suspension. They can have Richard Sherman cover him stride for stride downfield. Garcon missed six games because of injury. The Redskins were 1-5 without him and 9-1 with him. They averaged 29.1 points a game when Garcon was getting deep. They averaged five fewer points per game when he was on the sideline.