Wild-Card Storylines: Emotions to run high in Baltimore, Beltway’s big day
Throughout most of the 2012 regular season, the Indianapolis Colts held an emotional advantage over their opponents.
With head coach Chuck Pagano battling leukemia, the Colts banded together — “Chuckstrong” — and played for their sidelined leader. Pagano’s visit to his team’s locker room following a Week 9 win over Miami had football fans everywhere choked up. His return to his post, for a Week 17 matchup with Houston, was a spectacular human triumph, one met with tears and elation in Indianapolis.
Sunday in Baltimore, the Colts may find out what it’s like on the other side of the emotional advantage.
With Ray Lewis’ announcement this week that he will call it a career whenever Baltimore’s playoff run ends, the Ravens and their fans have plenty of motivation to bring an unsurpassed effort for what likely will be their only home postseason game.
Barring a Ravens-Bengals AFC title game (or Lewis backing off on his retirement talk), this will mark the legendary linebacker’s last game in Baltimore. His longtime teammate, Ed Reed, has hinted at retirement too.
Lewis and/or Reed walking way from football cannot compare to Pagano’s battle against cancer, but the Ravens will rally around the occasion nonetheless.
How far can emotion take a team in the NFL? Eventually, no matter the circumstances, games come down to Xs and Os and which team executes better. For a young team on the road in the playoffs like the Colts, though, just weathering the storm early Sunday will be a challenge.
Lewis and his Ravens team will come out fired up like at no other time this season. Can the Colts respond if the emotional edge is no longer theirs?
The Colts-Ravens matchup is game No. 3 of four this NFL playoff weekend. Here are some of the other storylines to watch as the wild-card round unfolds:
• Assistant coaches on the move?
Consider this weekend another audition for some of the hot names on this offseason’s coaching carousel. Several assistant coaches taking part in Wild-Card Weekend have been linked, at least via rumor, to head coaching vacancies around the league.
The name that may be atop a couple of lists (i.e. Chicago and San Diego) is that of Bruce Arians. The Colts’ offensive coordinator did a sensational job as interim coach with Pagano sidelined by leukemia. The Bears reportedly requested permission to interview Pagano next week, but they likely will not be the last to come calling.
The Bears also have asked to interview Green Bay offensive coordinator Tom Clements, who will have his hands full with Minnesota this week.
Other assistants to keep an eye on this week: Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. That the latter has not, as of yet, really been connected to any vacancies is a definite head-scratcher.
• A plug for the NFL’s new offenses
Seattle and Washington are not the first NFL teams to implement the pistol formation, nor did they introduce the read-option to the league. The Seahawks and Redskins have, however, helped bring those schemes to the forefront of the league’s collective consciousness this season.
Their similar styles — not to mention rookie quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III — make their matchup to close this weekend’s slate a must-see event. Between the successes of these teams this season and the imminent arrival of Oregon coach Chip Kelly in the NFL, it does not appear that this style of offense will fade anytime soon.
• Will first-time playoff QBs deliver?
Of the eight teams playing this weekend, five are led by quarterbacks making their playoff debuts — Houston (Matt Schaub), Washington (Griffin), Seattle (Wilson), Minnesota (Christian Ponder) and Indianapolis (Andrew Luck). So far, the three rookies (Griffin, Luck and Wilson) have shown no signs of cracking under pressure.
Schaub, meanwhile, has been waiting nine years for this opportunity. He had to sit out Houston’s playoff appearance last season with an injury.
As for Ponder, he faces one of the harder tasks this weekend. The second-year Vikings quarterback has to try to take down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field.
• Jim Caldwell vs. Indianapolis
As if there was not enough going on in the Colts-Ravens matchup, Jim Caldwell’s recent ascension to Baltimore offensive coordinator means that he will be matching wits with his former team — Caldwell was a member of the Colts’ staff from 2002-11 and head coach for the final three of those seasons.
The pressure is on to deliver, too. The Ravens’ offense has been on a roller-coaster ride this season, but they’ll have to put up some points to get through the AFC playoffs.
• All eyes on the D-lines in Houston
The Texans bounced the Bengals from last year’s playoffs on Wild-Card Weekend, so Cincinnati will try to flip the script this time. To do so, the Bengals will need another big game from their dynamite defensive tackle, Geno Atkins.
Houston has its own disruptive force on defense: J.J. Watt. Quite possibly the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, Watt tipped the scales in Houston’s direction during that postseason matchup last season by picking off an Andy Dalton pass and returning it for a score.
• The Beltway’s biggest day
Sunday will be … well, kind of a big deal in the D.C./Maryland area known as “the Beltway.” Thanks to the gods of NFL scheduling, the Ravens will host their playoff game in Baltimore at 1 p.m. ET and then, about three hours later and 35 miles away, the Redskins will take the field in Landover, Md.
• Minnesota’s one-man show vs. Green Bay’s deep receiving corps
The Packers’ wide receivers are as healthy as they’ve been in a very long time, which could spell bad news for the Vikings. Both Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have practiced this week, and that duo alone could start for the majority of teams in the league.
Add in James Jones, the league leader in touchdowns, and veteran Greg Jennings, and Minnesota may not be able to slow down the Packers’ passing attack no matter what it tries.
So, the onus will be on the Vikings’ offense to answer with points of their
own, as they did in a Week 17 win over Green Bay. And any chance they have to do that starts with the incredible Adrian Peterson, who averaged 204.5 yards in two games against Green Bay this year.
If he can’t repeat those performances, will the Vikings be able to hang in this one?
• DeAngelo Hall vs. Dana McKenzie
McKenzie’s name not ringing a bell? Allow me to offer a refresher …
He is the NFL official who tossed Washington’s DeAngelo Hall during an October game in Pittsburgh because, according to McKenzie, Hall threatened to kill him during an argument.
For whatever reason, McKenzie was assigned to be the head linesman for the Seattle-Washington playoff game. However, the league changed its mind late, pulling McKenzie off Redskins duty. Score it one for Hall, who still may want to be on his best behavior Sunday.