By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, January 7, 2006
It's easy to overthink the NFL playoffs, to obsess over a dark horse or fall in love with a wild-card team . . . especially since several non-division winners have dominated January in recent years. But don't be consumed with finding Cinderella in these playoffs. The front-runners, Indianapolis and Seattle, are going to survive and meet in the Super Bowl next month.
It's particularly popular, as the playoffs begin today, to look at the NFC and make the case for any of the six teams, including the Washington Redskins. And true enough, every NFC team has some especially attractive element. The Buccaneers and Bears have the best defenses in the league.
The Giants' Tiki Barber is having a magical season. Carolina still has a great many players from its run to the Super Bowl two years ago. And the Redskins are the hottest team in the conference, having closed the regular season with five straight victories.
And while all that's a matter of fact, the biggest truth is that the Seahawks have the best team in the NFC, a team that would have been celebrated to be a much greater degree if it didn't play in Seattle. All season long, as the Seahawks compiled the best record in the conference, we've battled the nagging thought that the Seahawks aren't to be trusted in the postseason. They haven't won a playoff game since 1984, the longest current streak of futility in the NFL. Yes, the Arizona Cardinals have won a playoff game more recently than Seattle.
But the Seahawks probably haven't had this strong a team since the mid-1980s, either. It starts with Shaun Alexander, but it doesn't end there. Matt Hasselbeck has thrown 24 touchdown passes and only nine interceptions. His only "bad" game statistically came in a 42-0 beat-down of the Eagles in Philadelphia. Otherwise, he spent the season making all the right decisions behind an offensive line that allowed him to be sacked only nine times.
Hasselbeck turned 30 recently, so he has been around long enough to understand how infrequently a playoff team has a bye week, two home games, the best running back in football and a head coach who has won a Super Bowl.
Alexander's only problem -- or maybe, it's an asset -- is that he plays in Seattle, 3,000 miles from ESPN and Sports Illustrated and the East Coast newspapers and talk shows. All he's done is rush for 1,880 yards and a league-record 27 touchdowns.
The best thing Hasselbeck and Alexander have going for them is that they play for a tournament-tested coach in Mike Holmgren, who has been back on top of his game after the club took most of his personnel responsibilities and made him concentrate exclusively on what made him great in Green Bay in the mid-1990s: coaching.
The one thing working against the Seahawks is that they'll probably draw, next week, the Redskins, a very similar team with many of the same strengths (Hall of Fame coach, veteran quarterback, great running back). But Seattle was undefeated at home this season, and ought to be attentive since they lost to the Redskins in overtime in Week 4.
So, while the Redskins will beat the Bucs in Tampa today and the Bears will hold off the Giants in Chicago next week, the Seahawks should be able to handle the Redskins and Bears consecutively in Seattle to reach the Super Bowl. And the Colts, also playing indoors at home, will have a much more difficult time trying to get through the AFC, specifically the Steelers and Broncos.
Yes, I said the Broncos and not the Patriots, who seem to be in uncharacteristic form emotionally. Golden Boy Tom Brady has spent way too much time (anything longer than five seconds is too long) talking about how he and his team have been "disrespected" all season. The "disrespect" theme is common among athletes always looking for imaginary opponents against whom they can rail; the media is the most convenient target, no matter how fawning the reports have been, in fact. But Brady is particularly delusional. This is a man who has been on the cover of every magazine this season except Ebony talking about being disrespected, a man who was compared favorably all season with Joe Montana, a man whose team couldn't win consecutive games in the first half of an injury-plagued season, yet was constantly called a serious threat to win again if everyone got healthy. Brady is getting to the point where he should be seen and not heard.
Great player and hunky boy that he is, Brady's silly rant might just reveal that this Patriots team doesn't feel as omnipotent going into the playoffs as it had been in 2001, 2003 and 2004. As loath as I am to trust Denver's Jake Plummer in the playoffs, I'll take Denver over the Patriots (eliminating the Indy-Patriots game most of us want to see as desperately as Southern California-Texas) and the Colts over the Broncos in the AFC championship game.
And that should set up what every sport ought to have: the two best teams playing for the championship on the final day of the season.