Chad Pemberton: Interesting matchups abound as playoffs hit divisional round
In the NFL, on a long enough time line, everything regresses to the mean. Transcendent rookie quarterbacks fall prey to their own inexperience, or to the untalented roster that surrounds them, or (and this is perhaps saddest of all) to the attrition of playing a truly grueling game that is unflinching and often irrevocable in the injurious toll it takes on one's body, particularly the knees.
An almost-record-breaking, medically confounding running back eventually sputters out behind a cavalcade of erratic passes by a backup quarterback who didn't attempt a single pass in the regular season. The Twitter-verse implodes into a cacophony of equal parts disapproval and sarcasm, yet never before have things felt so, well, back to normal.
There are eight teams remaining that have a chance at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in a few weeks, and looking back at the body of work from the regular season, the teams remaining shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Atlanta (13-3), San Francisco (11-4-1), Green Bay (11-5) and Seattle (11-5) finished first, second, third and fourth respectively in the NFC. Denver (13-3), New England (12-4), Houston (12-4), and Baltimore (10-6) finished first, second, third and fifth respectively in the AFC.
As if the games weren't exciting enough themselves, the storylines hemmed to this weekend are enough to make a network executive salivate.
Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis, two of the absolute best to ever play at their positions, facing each other for one final time. Tom Brady trying to break the tie he has with Joe Montana for most post-season wins of all time, while Houston is seeking some much sought after revenge for the 42-14 shellacking they received at the hands of the Patriots in Week 14. Matt Ryan desperately seeking his first playoff victory against a rookie quarterback who already has one. And the Packers and 49ers vying for the unofficial crown of the NFC, seeing how they have more wins -- 26 and 24 respectively -- over the past two seasons than any other teams in the NFC.
Granted, these compelling storylines won't dictate the outcome of these games, as much as some would like to think. Sporting events are decided by such things as fate or destiny.
These games will be determined by things like: Can Houston find a way to negate the devastating efficiency of New England's dual-threat tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski? Can Seattle's vaunted secondary force Atlanta to lean on its 29th-ranked rushing attack? Can Joe Flacco sustain drives by completing a high percentage of his passes and avoid costly turnovers when Baltimore is threatening? Can Colin Kaepernick be the dual-threat quarterback that Joe Webb absolutely wasn't against Green Bay?
No. Probably not. Absolutely not. And not likely.
These aren't the only reasons why I think New England and Denver will meet in the AFC Championship, and Green Bay and Atlanta in the NFC Championship. Houston isn't built to play from behind; Seattle has struggled on the road all season and no team (or magician) has gotten more mileage out of smoke and mirrors than Baltimore this season.
But sometimes it's not as enthralling to obsess about the statistics and the advanced metrics, the averages and the regression to the mean. Sometimes it's better to bask in the narrative, the stories that give meaning and life to the numbers. And with certain matchups looming -- a potential rematch of Brady and Manning, a chance at seeing Ryan and Aaron Rodgers do their best to impersonate the burgeoning of a rivalry in the NFC similar to what Brady and Manning have had in the AFC -- it's hard not to talk a lot about the parts that have nothing to do with what wins football games.
Chad Pemberton is a Marshall University graduate who follows the NFL and is writing about it for The Herald-Dispatch. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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