For devotees of the NFL, this is as good as it gets – the divisional round of the play-offs, four games pitting the regular season’s finest against four challengers already battle-hardened by victory in last weekend’s ever-treacherous wild-card round. And in 2014 there’s an extra twist: the prospect that one of the longest, most painful droughts in US sport might be near an end.
Not since 1979 has a Seattle team won a national championship, and that was the Sonics, the basketball franchise that subsequently decamped to Oklahoma. Over the years baseball’s Mariners have had their moments and the football Seahawks made the Super Bowl in 2006, but lost to Pittsburgh. Now they have a chance to make amends.
These are some of the most unpredictable play-offs in years. But if there is a favourite to win next months’s Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey, it’s Seattle, with their balance between defence and an offence built around the talents of quarterback Russell Wilson.
Wilson was one of three standout quarterbacks recruited in the NFL draft of 2012, and is emerging as perhaps the pick of the bunch. After a breathtaking rookie season, Robert Griffin III took a nosedive with the Washington Redskins, shambolic in 2013. Andrew Luck has twice led the Indianapolis Colts to the play-offs, but fell at the first hurdle last year, and will do well to get past Tom Brady and the AFC top seeds, the New England Patriots, on the road in today’s evening game.
Last season, after defeating Griffin and the Redskins in the wild-card round, Russell also took the Seahawks to the divisional stage of the play-offs. But this time they have positioned themselves far better, earning top-seed status in the NFC and home advantage throughout, after a 13-3 regular season.
A highlight of that run was a 34-7 home rout of the New Orleans Saints, who Seattle face this afternoon in the division round’s opening match-up.
After the notoriously road-averse Saints gave the lie to their reputation with victory in Philadelphia last weekend, today’s repeat is likely to be closer. But the outcome, according to the oddsmakers, will be the same – which would set up Seattle for a championship game against either the San Francisco 49ers or the second-seeded Carolina Panthers who meet in the other NFC eliminator tomorrow.
Wrapping up proceedings will be the Denver Broncos, the AFC’s top seeds led by the indestructible Peyton Manning, almost everyone’s pick for MVP, who host the San Diego Chargers. According to the gentlemen in Las Vegas, it shouldn’t be close, even though the Chargers (who like Seattle have never won a Super Bowl) ended the regular season with four straight wins, one of them against the Broncos in Denver.
That was followed by last weekend’s 27-10 wild-card round win on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals. The law of averages suggests Manning won’t have a second mediocre outing against the Chargers. But NFL gods, like other sporting deities, sometimes stumble. An upset could be on the cards.