The NFL playoffs reach their semi-final round this weekend, and after two surprising early rounds a lot of eyebrows are still stuck on the ceiling. It’s not as if someone snuck some habanero peppers in the guacamole; the results of the games have been that surprising.
The Arizona Cardinals, a team that has been so down and so out for so long that they weren’t even used as a brand name for ineptitude are one game away from the Super Bowl. Two bottom seeds in each conference, the Baltimore Ravens and the Philadelphia Eagles are also one game away from the biggest stage in sports. A look back might give us some clue as to what will happen this weekend.
A lot of folks are casting the Eagles as this year’s New York Giants. Last year, the Giants looked like a mediocre team for much of the regular season, and after eking out a couple of close wins, they finished the season at 10-6. The Giants were no one’s idea of a Super Bowl contender, yet they went on the road and won three straight games against superior opponents to reach the Super Bowl, and if you’ve read this far, you know what happened then.
There is a superficial resemblance in the story line that makes the comparison attractive, but there is a key difference. The Eagles lumbered through a 9-6-1 season that made them look more mediocre and more ready for an overhaul, than a deep playoff run of road victories. The resemblance also includes punishing, aggressive defenses, but there’s one key difference, point differential. Last year’s Giants were a team that genuinely was a cut above mediocre; their 22-point differential was consistent with a mere 8.8 wins (I know, I know, you can’t win .8 of a football game, unless you’re the Green Bay Packers who seemed to stop playing four-fifths of the way into every contest this season, but the decimal is instructive given the small sample size of 16 games). By contrast, this year’s Eagles outscored their opponents by a whopping 127 points, 1 of the 5 best margins in the NFL and consistent with 11.3 wins. In other words, they aren’t Cinderella; instead they are the latest example of another cherished sports cliché, the team that is much better than their record indicated.
The Cinderella tag, which thankfully isn’t used in football very often since the idea of offensive lineman in chiffon dresses isn’t especially appealing, belongs to those Arizona Cardinals. If sports fans are still acclimating to the idea that Arizona is an NFL power, think of how it’s playing in the desert. The Cardinals’ relatively new stadium isn’t even named for the team, a bank or local business giant. It’s named for a nearby university, the University of Phoenix, which I didn’t know existed until they named an NFL stadium for it. However, the Cardinals beat two formidable teams to reach this stage, and their rise points out one of the difficulties in forecasting NFL games. In contrast to baseball and basketball where teams play many times a week, NFL teams play only once. There’s time to draw up strategies to offset your weaknesses. The Cardinals have many holes, especially on defense, so they drew up a different blueprint for the playoffs that involves gambling in the secondary, and it’s working like a charm (hmm, that’s not such a good metaphor either). This new aggressive scheme forced three turnovers against Atlanta and six against Carolina.
The problem is that the Eagles now have two weeks of game film to review the new Arizona defense and game plan for it. The Eagles won the regular-season matchup between these teams 48-20, but I don’t put much stock in the game; Arizona had already clinched its playoff spot and was simply playing out the string. Nevertheless there’s no objective argument that the Eagles aren’t far superior to the Cardinals. By halftime on Sunday, fans may need some hot peppers in the cuisine to maintain their interest until the late game starts.
The evening game pits Baltimore against the Pittsburgh Steelers, their hated division rival. This figures to be a rock-em/sock ‘em kind of game that will leave avid football fans glued to the tube while casual ones lament the lack of scoring. If it’s 10-6 at the half, that will constitute high-flying offense. These teams have met twice this season and Pittsburgh won both, 23-20 in Pittsburgh and 13-9 in Baltimore. Point differential doesn’t separate the teams either, the Ravens outscored their opponents by 141 the Steelers outdid theirs by 124. Both teams feature two of the top defenses in the NFL. In other words, the only surprise from this game will be if it’s not a close, low-scoring contest that comes down to execution in the fourth quarter. My suspicion is that the deciding factors won’t be discerned via statistical analysis but on the trainer’s table. Baltimore lineman Terrell Suggs is hurting as are Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and safety Troy Polamalu. If anyone is less than 100 percent, it’ll hurt their team’s chances. Home field advantage hasn’t played a big part in these playoffs, but I suspect it will exert an influence on this game giving the Steelers a miniscule margin of victory. But these teams are so close that I’ve changed my mind twice while writing this paragraph. The only real thing to do is make sure there’s lots of guacamole on hand.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.