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NFL Playoffs Developing Storylines: Wild Card and Divisional Rounds

Mario Mergola breaks down the top storylines to watch through the NFL Playoffs.

Joe Flacco

The greatest week of the NFL season is upon us. Every team that is still alive in its quest for a Super Bowl is in action, and there are the maximum amount of playoff games possible on a full weekend slate.

It doesn’t get any better than this.

Sports are more than just the matchups. The ‘X’s and O’s’ only carry us so far. It’s the drama that drives us.

During the season, storylines emerge organically, although they take time to fully come to fruition. In the playoffs, time is an entity with no such luxury. Every play means more than the last and entire seasons hang in the balance each time the ball is snapped.

Players become legends or goats in the blink of an eye. Uproar is silenced or fueled. Hypotheses verified or disproved.

Whatever unfolds in the postseason happens on the grandest of scales.

Below are the top storylines leading into the Divisional Round of the 2014 NFL playoffs, including those from the Wild Card games that just completed:

It’s tough to get worse quarterback play than the Wild Card game between the Cardinals and Panthers.

Ugly. Just absolutely ugly. By the end of the first half, the score of Wild Card Weekend’s opening game could have ranged anywhere from 17-0 Panthers to 7-0 Cardinals. Nauseatingly bad football was on full display throughout the contest, highlighted by an inexplicable botched punt – mind you, not fumbled, but redirected off the return man’s body after he dropped to his knees – numerous open receivers missed by both quarterbacks, and a possibly game-changing interception thrown by Cam Newton, returned by Cardinals cornerback Antonio Cromartie who somehow couldn’t outrun Newton on the return.

Hideous.

The one saving grace from this pillow-fight was that someone had to lose, sending home one of the two worst quarterbacks – at least, gauging by their performances in the opening round – in the postseason. In a league where the aerial attack has gained supreme power, the matchup between Arizona and Carolina was the case study in how poor quarterback play can end a season.

Baltimore refuses to play postseason games in Baltimore, wins elsewhere.

What did it mean that Baltimore had to travel to Pittsburgh to play its bitter rival? Nothing. It never does.

Now an unprecedented 7-5 in road playoff games under head coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens have become the ultimate ‘Road Warrior’ franchise. They appear unaffected by imperfect conditions and actually play better under adversity. Not only has this become their identity over the course of the 2014 season – namely, winning five the the team’s final seven games, only one of which was within the division, to earn a playoff berth – but it was the calling card of the 2012 campaign. During Baltimore’s 2012 Super Bowl run, they knocked off Andrew Luck‘s Colts, Peyton Manning‘s Broncos, Tom Brady‘s Patriots, and a 49ers team playing at one of its highest levels in over two decades.

If any team thrives when it shouldn’t, it’s the Baltimore Ravens.

Carolina almost hosted two playoff games.

For all the chatter about how “a team with a losing record doesn’t deserve to host a playoff game,” consider this: the Panthers almost hosted two.

Had the Detroit Lions, the sixth seed in the NFC, completed the upset in Dallas, they would have next traveled to Carolina to play the Panthers. All things being equal, the Lions would have likely been the ‘favorites’ to win, but the fact that the a team with seven wins in the regular season would have played two home games while an eleven-win team traveled twice would have created another uproar.

Of course, there is a solution for teams like the Lions and Cardinals that suffered the fate of a road game to open the postseason: win the division.

“New England’s worst matchup is Baltimore.”

In the past three years, the Patriots faced the Ravens twice in the postseason. New England won one game by a field goal, while losing the other by 15. The team’s other two losses came from Denver and the New York Giants.

The argument is relatively solid – Baltimore, as noted earlier, plays some of its best games when the stakes are highest, and touts a top-ten scoring offense and defense this year – but a history of playing certain teams well only carries a franchise so far. As much as the media will make about Baltimore’s relative success against the Patriots, New England will be able to study whatever made it vulnerable in the past. Furthermore, the Patriots were largely pronounced ‘dead’ after a few weeks this season, only to be resurrected immediately.

If the National Football League has taught us anything, it’s that games are never as ‘easy’ as they appear.

Romo and the Cowboys relieve the pressure.

The Cowboys were ripe for the picking.

Largely considered the biggest ‘chokers’ of the past decade, the Cowboys were given every opportunity to squander their early season success as the year drew to a close. Playing the lowest seed in the conference, at home, on the spotlight game of the week, Dallas had absolutely everything in their favor and, therefore, everything to lose. Surprising naysayers across the country, ‘America’s Team’ not only beat the Lions to keep its season alive, but did so in clutch, come-from-behind fashion.

Suddenly, the entire weight of pressure leaves the collective shoulders of the Dallas Cowboys. No longer are the expectations at their peak, as the Cowboys will travel to Lambeau Field to face the Packers and their top-ranked scoring offense. Instead, Dallas assumes the role of the ‘underdog.’

The Cowboys may actually prefer that label.

Are the Colts still ‘Manning’s team’?

The proverbial passing of the torch from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck occurred years ago when the Colts drafted Luck with the first overall pick in the draft. Manning, leading the Denver Broncos to a first round bye in all three of his seasons with the team, was released from the Colts after an incredible 14-year career in Indianapolis. Luck picked up right where Manning left off, leading the new Colts to a playoff berth in each of his first three seasons.

When the two meet again in the Divisional Round of the AFC playoffs, the outcome will speak volumes to the future of each quarterback.

Peyton Manning is clearly approaching his last games in the league, whether it is at the end of this season or one of the next few. Luck, barring injury, is looking at another decade under center. But the Indianapolis Colts have been associated with Peyton Manning since Luck was nine years old. This was not only Manning’s team, but his franchise. Amazingly, even with the passing records and surefire Hall of Fame status, Manning managed only one Super Bowl Champion in his illustrious career.

What would happen if Luck matches that in his third professional season?

Anybody that watches Andrew Luck play knows the man is special. His future would be incomplete without a Super Bowl ring and at least a few appearances in the Big Game. But, as Manning can attest, reaching the pinnacle of the sport is harder on the field than it is on paper.

If Luck can top Manning this week, he may be on his way to supplanting Manning in Indianapolis lore.

Cowboys advance on questionable penalty.

Despite how ‘clutch’ the Cowboys performed in their Wild Card win against the Lions, it wasn’t without its controversy. In the fourth quarter, leading by a field goal, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford threw a pass on third-and-one to tight end Brandon Pettigrew. The pass ultimately fell to the turf, as did a handful of penalty flags.

Incomplete pass.

Not pass interference, despite the yellow laundry on the turf. Not a completion, probably because the receiver’s ability to catch the ball was interfered. And not a first down.

Incomplete pass.

Reviewing the ‘non-penalty’ numerous times in slow motion yields the same result – the defender had a hand on the receiver without attempting to catch the ball. This is a penalty. However, watching the play unfold at full speed breeds an alternative school of thought.

In the National Football League, the defender is not required to turn towards the ball as long as he does not make contact with the receiver prior to contact with the ball. Once the ball strikes either player, a mugging can ensue without penalty. As the jumbled mess of arms and legs flailed in front of human eyes, the contact between the players could have been lost in real time – again, before the ball hit the defender. Given the stakes, without definitive and obvious proof outside of the safety net of instant replay, the referees must have ultimately settled on allowing the result to stand without interjection.

As it never is in sports, the game was not decided by one play, although it was obviously altered by it. However, if Detroit wants to find fault with the outcome of the game, it should look no further than the ten-yard punt that followed or the top-five defense that couldn’t keep Tony Romo out of the endzone when it mattered most.

Yes, it should have been a penalty – two, if you count the non-call of defensive holding on the same play – but the referees did what most fans always ask: let the players decide the game on the field.

The Lions decided the outcome.

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