ESCANABA - And then there were eight. Aside from one massive upset in last week's NFL wild-card round, there were no big shockers, but holy moley was that an upset!
Put all talk that the Seattle Seahawks don't belong in the postseason to rest. You have to after they eliminated the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in surprising fashion. Where did all that offense come from? Where did that crushing run by Marshawn Lynch that was dubbed "Beast Mode" by the blogosphere come from?
I've seen some great running backs over the last 15 years. Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, Emmitt Smith, you name it, but I've never seen a run quite like Lynch's 63-yard bulldozer where he broke half a dozen tackles, practically running through the entire Saints defense.
Lynch and the suddenly effective Matt Hasselbeck will need to be on top of their game again Sunday afternoon as the Seahawks travel to bitterly cold Chicago. Are the Bears of any concern for the 8-9 Seahawks? Yes and no. Seattle has already shocked the Bears once this season in Chicago, but that was back in October before the Bears went on their 7-2 run to close the season.
Confidence sure won't be a problem for the suddenly formidable Seahawks and the Bears will now have to realize the legitimacy of this Seahawks team.
How will Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler fare in his first NFL playoff game? How will the Bears vaunted defense respond to Seattle's offensive outburst? These are the questions being asked this week.
One thing is for sure, Seattle is wearing that underdog tag pretty proudly these days. Who am I to pick against them? Seattle for the win.
Our other NFC North darling, the Green Bay Packers, face their stiffest test yet this season as they travel to Atlanta to face the NFC favorites to reach the Super Bowl.
I (perhaps foolishly) picked against the Pack last week in Philadelphia but that Green Bay defense showed they aren't to be underestimated, depleted or not. Clay Mathews sacked Michael Vick on Philadelphia's first play on offense and that pretty much set the tone for the game.
Against a far less mobile quarterback Saturday in Atlanta's Matt Ryan, the Packer defense figures to rev up the sack machine again, but they'll also have a different problem to contend with. That would be the NFC's leading rusher in Michael Turner. The Falcons feature back was steady in his last game against the Packers, racking up just over 100 yards rushing and adding a touchdown to help Atlanta win 20-17 in late November.
Stopping Turner should be Green Bay's top priority if they want to advance to the NFC championship game. Easier said then done though. If Turner gets going, it will open up the Falcons passing attack which is more than just a novelty act with receiver Roddy White leading the show.
If Green Bay comes out of Atlanta with a win, I have to like them to make a Super Bowl appearance because they match up well against either Chicago or Seattle. That's a big if at this point though. Hate me if you want, but I'm taking the Falcons in this one.
In the other two games we have AFC East rivals the New York Jets and New England Patriots going head to head for the third time this season. The Jets took the first meeting early in the season and were blown out by the Pats in early December at Foxboro.
This game is of course, at Foxboro so take that for what it's worth.
Jets coach Rex Ryan acknowledges Tom Brady's star power and sees New England coach Bill Belichek as his nemesis, so you know he wants this win. Good thing Ryan has who he calls the NFL's best player in cornerback Darrelle Revis.
I can't say I disagree with him. Revis has shut down every top receiver he's come across. Calvin Johnson? two catches for 12 yards. Reggie Wayne? one catch for one yard! Are you kidding me? What is Wes Welker going to do with Revis stuck to him like super glue?
Frustrating Brady is key for the Jets and Revis might be the only player remaining in the playoffs who is capable of doing so. Why not? He's already helped vanquish Peyton Manning by taking away the former MVP's top receiving option. That's just what he does.
I'm taking the Jets in a close one. This just feels like their year.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh will also be facing each other for the third time this year. Give the people what they want, I suppose. The Ravens thoroughly dismantled the Kansas City Chiefs last week in the wild-card's big blowout of the week. The Ravens split the season series with the Steelers with both games being decided by a field goal.
One thing to note, as if it makes a difference now, the Ravens won on the road and lost at home. Saturday's game is at Pittsburgh.
In a playoff game, you look to your quarterback. If I'm left with the choice of Ben Roethlisberger who has played in and won a Super Bowl or Joe Flacco who isn't exactly a hyped up name, you take the experienced and unshakable Big Ben.
The defenses are a wash, both Pittsburgh and Baltimore are no strangers to being strong on that side of the ball and it's no different this year. Where the ground game is concerned, the Ravens employ a multi-back attack led by Ray Rice while Pittsburgh goes with the capable if somewhat inconsistent Rashard Mendenhall. Again, likely a wash.
So I'll again direct your attention at the quarterbacks, and there you'll have your answer.
I'm taking the Steelers. Call it safe, but experience usually wins out.