As we embark on the postseason, here are the biggest storylines heading in:
1. Manning trying to rid his playoff demons
Peyton Manning already is in the discussion of greatest quarterbacks ever. If he walked away from the game today, he could make a case for best ever. But if there’s one small shortcoming on his resume, it has been his record in the postseason. Manning’s 9-11 playoff win-loss mark and one Super Bowl victory in two tries are tapestried to him like the scarlet letter, but they are not all his doing. Still, Manning himself is a perfectionist, and you know it eats him up inside that he has not won more often. So in a season in which Manning shattered some vaunted passing marks and his Denver Broncos only have lost three games, the expectation is that the AFC’s best team this season will end up in the Super Bowl. And those expectations, you know, have to be shared by Manning — and he expects to win it all, too.
2. Belichick, Brady trying to reverse recent playoff failures
The New England Patriots are the team that nearly every other team aspires to be, but for them the past seven seasons without a Super Bowl title ultimately have kept them from what they truly believe constitutes success. When you consider what the Patriots have lost this season in the offseason and to injury, it’s truly remarkable what Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have achieved this season. They went 12-4 with the four losses (all on the road) by a combined 18 points, and two of the losses ended in controversial fashion. Can Brady summon his old magic with a newfangled cast? Can Belichick out-scheme the field? You can’t put it past them.
3. Rodgers’ incredible comeback trail
Sunday’s victory over the Chicago Bears, vaulting the Green Bay Packers into the playoffs, likely will belong on Aaron Rodgers’ mantle one day. Coming back from a collarbone injury likely was the only way the flawed Packers have a chance to get into the field, and yet now, having Rodgers makes them a very dangerous entrant. His steely drive against the Bears, converting three fourth downs, proves that. Throw in Randall Cobb, and the Packers almost have their full allotment of playmakers. Can the defense respond? That group was playing far better before Rodgers got hurt initially, so it’s possible he could help them raise their game.
4. Lewis, Dalton must answer postseason questions
Marvin Lewis is the second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL behind Belichick, and Andy Dalton now has made the postseason in his first three seasons, as the starting NFL quarterback. Typically, those would be things to be celebrated. But for the Cincinnati Bengals, losing in the first round of the playoffs for a third straight year would represent unmet expectations and could elicit some real pressure on Lewis and Dalton to retain their jobs next season — seriously. The Bengals know what’s at stake, in a home game against a San Diego Chargers team that barely scratched into the playoff field, and anything but a victory Sunday would be a severe disappointment.
5. Newton, Panthers try to crash playoff party
The Carolina Panthers were one of the surprise entrants into the playoff field this season, and they rose up late to snatch the No. 2 seed in the NFC, pushing back their rival New Orleans Saints in the process. But the last time the Panthers were in the playoffs, back in the 2008 season, they also were a 2-seed and also hosted a home playoff game amid great expectations … and they were taken to the cleaners by the Arizona Cardinals. Five long years later, they are back — and most of the current roster was not a part of that disappointment. That includes Cam Newton, who struggled at times this season but touched MVP-like levels at other points, and he must feel that the time is now for him and the team to deliver. If the Panthers can get deep into the postseason, the talk will grow of Newton fulfilling expectations as the former No. 1 overall pick.
6. Seahawks try to go coast to coast
It’s rare that a team without much recent playoff success can face unwieldy postseason expectations heading into a season head on, but that’s exactly what the Seattle Seahawks have done. They have rallied around their head coach Pete Carroll, their quarterback Russell Wilson, their dominant defense and their screaming-loud home-stadium fans, all for a postseason equation that looks darned tough to beat on paper. But as the last few seasons have taught us, playoffs games are played on a different surface. The Seahawks will not play a road game until the Super Bowl, if they make it that far, but they look awfully tough to beat before the tournament starts. It just might be this team’s time.
7. Chiefs' great season — how long can it last?
Kansas City Chiefs fans roundly are tickled with the way this season has gone in light of the misery that was 2012. Eleven wins and a trip to the postseason, improving by nine victories this season, were beyond almost anyone’s expectations in Andy Reid’s first season in town. But the optimism has cooled slightly following a 9-0 start, and disappointing losses to the Broncos (twice) and Colts, whom they play this weekend. If the Chiefs lose Saturday, no one is going to call them failures this season; so in that sense, they are playing with house money. But can Reid and Alex Smith find a little playoff mojo when, frankly, so little is expected of them past this point? They might be intriguing “sleepers,” as below the radar an 11-win team possibly could be.
8. Kelly, Foles try to keep magic going
It looked like the NFL had Chip Kelly clocked when the Eagles started out 1-3, and later 3-5. His up-tempo offense was off-beat, and worse, the defense looked completely outclassed … and gassed from being on the field too much. But the defense rounded into form, and Nick Foles — once he got a full chance after replacing Michael Vick — started putting up historically good numbers, especially in terms of not throwing interceptions. The offense really took off around midseason and, save for a hiccup loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 15, the Eagles have been among the hottest teams in football the past two months.
9. Bad refereeing
It has been a theme most of the season, and you almost have to think — and cringe — that there’s a decent possibility we’ll have a postseason game marred by a refereeing error. No matter how you spin it, this much is true: It has been a tough season for the refs, with seemingly one major mistake revealed every few weeks, including Week 17’s field-goal gaffe that allowed the Chargers entry into the postseason. It’s one thing for VP of Officiating Dean Blandino to get on his NFL Network perch during the regular season and explain how a crucial regular-season call was blown. But if that has to happen in the playoffs? It really could be a major black eye for the NFL and force Roger Goodell to explain himself at his state-of-the-union address at the Super Bowl, and perhaps intervene in some way.
10. Weather a factor
For months, we’ve been talking about the league’s first outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl this coming February in New York and what the effect might be, especially in light of the Farmer’s Almanac (and they are never wrong, right?) predictions for record cold and snow on the big weekend in question. But the remainder of the playoffs leading up also should feature some interesting weather possibilities. The first and second rounds of the playoffs will feature only one indoor game (Chiefs at Colts), with only the Panthers likely to host a game south of the Mason-Dixon line. Torrential rain in Seattle (or San Francisco)? Snow in Philly, New England or Denver? You’d have to think we’ll get one rather wintry game along the way to Super Bowl XLVIII.
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