Today, the battle for the Super Bowl starts in earnest. The regular season is out of the way, and so is Black Monday which immediately follows, the now traditional cull of NFL head coaches who didn’t deliver the goods. This year five were sacked (the most noteworthy among them Mike Shanahan of the utterly dysfunctional 3-13 Washington Redskins).
Now, however, the focus switches from the worst to the best – the dozen teams who made the play-offs. This weekend sees the wild-card round of four games, whose winners will face the four top seeds, owners of the best regular season records, in next weekend’s divisional round.
And this time, the mix could be wilder than ever. As with every major league sport in the US, promotion and relegation do not exist in the NFL. Instead it operates a salary cap and a draft, whereby the worst teams one year pick the best players newly eligible for the league the following year.
The system works. Last year’s champions, the Baltimore Ravens, didn’t even make the play-offs this time. The first Super Bowl was in 1967. Since then 22 of the 32 NFL franchises have won American football’s supreme prize. Of the 10 that haven’t, three – the Philadelphia Eagles, the San Diego Chargers and the Cincinnati Bengals – are in action this weekend. Two more, the Carolina Panthers and the Seattle Seahawks, enter the fray in the next round.
Any of them could break the drought at Super Bowl XLVIII at the Metlife Stadium in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City, on 2 February where a four-mile long perimeter security fence is under construction around the arena and nearby facilities. This will be the most tightly policed and protected Super Bowl ever. The shadow of 9/11 still haunts New York.
The big day, however, is still almost a month and three playoff rounds away, and any one of the dozen remaining contenders could lift the Vince Lombardi trophy. First up today is the visit of the Kansas City Chiefs to Indianopolis, with the Chiefs narrowly favoured by the oddsmakers, despite losing to the Colts last month.
Next comes one of the weekend’s two marquee match-ups, between the New Orleans Saints – winners in 2010 – and the Eagles. If the game were in New Orleans, where the home team were unbeaten in 2013, the Saints would be prohibitive favourites. On their travels, however, they and star quarterback Drew Brees are nowhere near as impressive, especially when it turns seriously cold. Moreover, in snow-bound Philadelphia tonight they face the NFL’s hottest team, winner of seven of their last regular season games.
The icy weather gripping the north-east US will also be a factor in San Diego’s visit to Cincinnati, the first of tomorrow’s games. Normally the Chargers would have the edge, not least because the Bengals have not won a play-off game since 1990. On the other hand, they were 8-0 at home in the regular season, and the Chargers will be 2,000 miles away from sunny southern California.
The ultimate chill challenge however awaits the San Francisco 49ers in their classic evening match-up with the Packers in Green Bay, in the tundra of northern Wisconsin (forecast kick-off temperature of minus 19 Centigrade).
Last year, the 49ers eliminated the Packers in the play-offs’ second round – but that was in balmy San Francisco, behind a record-breaking performance from quarterback Colin Kaepernick. On paper, the 49ers look stronger, and the Packers only crept into the play-offs with an 8-7-1 regular season record. But not only do they once more have Aaron Rodgers on their side after their own superstar quarterback missed half the regular season through injury, they also have their hometown winter weather.