SEATTLE (11-6) AT GREEN BAY (13-3)
WHEN: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. MST
WHERE: Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.
You have to love Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck for not merely acknowledging, but providing a Vermeil-worthy embrace the proverbial elephant in the room as soon as his team’s divisional-round trip to Green Bay was assured:
“We want the ball, and we’re gonna score!”
That sentiment, uttered upon winning the coin toss at overtime of the teams’ wild-card duel four Januarys ago, will likely adhere to his résumé for the rest of his days — since his Seahawks did not live up to that proclamation that day, and lost on a touchdown return of an errant throw by Hasselbeck himself.
In 2008, he can laugh at the memory, bringing it up at a postgame press conference after a 35-14 wild-card win over the Washington Redskins last Saturday. In 2004, such bravado was easy to utter and hard to live down.
Nevertheless, I admire his confidence. Isn’t that what you want in a leader? It took Hasselbeck six seasons in the league — one on a practice squad, two as understudy to Brett Favre and three as an up-and-down starter for the ‘Hawks before he possessed the impetuous boldness with which he could make a statement like that.
It’s not a coincidence that the Seahawks have since won four consecutive division titles — two more than they snagged in their first 28 seasons. Only Indianapolis and New England have lengthier ongoing streaks.
Hasselbeck and Seattle will need all the confidence they can conjure, even though they snatched a win over the Packers in their last meeting in 2006. Green Bay is not only re-emerging as a powerhouse, but is doing so with ubiquitous youth, some of which was the product of a fairly brilliant 2006 draft that brought aboard standouts as Greg Jennings and A.J. Hawk. The Packers had good draft position after finishing 4-12 the year before, and promptly capitalized.
Jennings’ emergence as a deep threat and Favre’s rebirth as a control passer helped open lanes for undrafted rookie running back Ryan Grant, who was fairly anonymous to all who weren’t Notre Dame fans prior to his 104-yard effort against Denver in Week 8. Grant is now a confident and productive runner in his own right, and with the Seahawks unable to counter with a pulsating ground game of their own behind the gallant but fast-faltering Shaun Alexander, the Packers should control this one, even though the sentimental angle could favor the Seahawks as former Packers coach Mike Holmgren — beloved by both sets of fans in this duel — takes a team onto Lambeau Field for perhaps the last time.
MASON’S PICK: Packers, 31-17. I’ll probably watch this one from a bar somewhere along State Street in Madison, Wis. Bratwurst and cheese curds. I can feel my arteries solidifying already. You think I’m picking against the Packers when I’m going to be surrounded by more Gs than a pilot going supersonic? Seriously, though, even if I were at a watering hole in Pioneer Square, surrounded by people with faces painted like blue birds with lime green plumage, I’d still pick the Pack.
OTHER PICKS FROM THE BLOGOSPHERE:
MIKE RICE, NEWSRADIO 850 KOA: Green Bay, 27-17.
KYLE MONTGOMERY, BRONCOTALK: This should be a good game, but the forgotten aspect is always Green Bay’s defense. They have the secondary to handle the Hawks’ spread offense, and their front seven should easily contain Shaun Alexander. Packers 31, Seahawks 20.
JOHN BENA, MILE HIGH REPORT:: Green Bay. While I was heavily tempted to pick the ‘Hawks, I have to go with the Packers at home. Seattle has become a one-dimensional football team and the fall of Shaun Alexander has been swift and decisive. If the Seahawks cannot generate a ground game Matt Hasselbeck is in for a long day. They won’t and he will be.
JONATHAN DOUGLAS, BRONCOTALK: This looks to be the best game for the weekend with nearly retired Brett Favre and Mike Holmgren going at it. Despite the old Packers-Broncos rivalry, I’d like to see Brett go out with a Super Bowl win (preferably over Brady and the Patriots). So, I’ll go with Green Bay in a close one.
JACKSONVILLE (12-5) AT NEW ENGLAND (16-0)
WHEN: Saturday, 6 p.m. MST
WHERE: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
The more everyone speaks of a potential historic upset, the less likely it is to actually happen.
At least that’s my take on this matchup.
Yes, the Jaguars can play the kind of football that stifles the Patriots, particularly on offense. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew have contrasting styles, but their lethal effect on opposing defenses is similar; it’s like choosing between the electric chair or the firing squad with these two runners.
Jacksonville’s defense, however, has shown signs of fatigue. Last Saturday marked the second time in four games that the Jaguars roared to a commanding lead over the Steelers, only to nearly lose the game. Last week, with Willie Parker injured, the Steelers rallied by assuming a passing postulate that exploited Jacksonville’s defensive aggression for 297 yards through the air — 148 of which came on the three touchdown drives after the Steelers snatched a 28-10 lead.
On those successful drives, the Steelers passed on 20 of 27 snaps.
So you think Tom Brady isn’t eager to rear back and throw? Don’t expect the Patriots to sit back and wait as long as the Steelers did to uncork their quarterback.
The Jaguars’ pass defense last week was remiscent of its efforts during a nine-game stretch in the heart of the regular season, when it permited 282.0 yards per game. They allowed just 106.5 aerial yards per game in Weeks 14-17, but the Steelers game last week ended that trend and brought the Jaguars’ pass ‘D’ back to where it stood at midseason.
Jacksonville can nevertheless amass a mighty pass rush, one that didn’t dip with last week’s injury to havoc-wreaking defensive tackle John Henderson. But teams have sent linemen and blitzing linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks at Brady and he’s simply stroked his chin and kept flinging passes to Randy Moss, Wes Welker and anyone else who finds downfield seams to exploit blitzing opponents.
New England hasn’t lost a home playoff game since New Year’s Eve 1978. That encompasses nine victories, all since the 1996 divisional-round win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their road record in that time is respectable — 6-7 — and with a 3-2 ledger in Super Bowls, the Patriots have an 18-9 postseason record since the Houston Oilers hammered them in the 1978 divisional playoffs.
(When you say “Chuck Fairbanks,” you’ve said it all for the Patriots’ last home playoff loss. The coach had announced to his team two weeks earlier that he would leave for the University of Colorado and what proved to be an utterly disastrous tenure, punctuated by an ill-advised — and blessedly temporary — change in colors and two home losses to Drake. Fairbanks’ impending move to Boulder dulled any edge left on the Patriots, and they meekly fell to Earl Campbell, Ken Burrough and co.)
And wasn’t sprite-like Mack Herron still playing for them back then? (He wasn’t; he was a Patriot from 1973-75.) Oh, well. I still wanted to get his name into this piece. How many 5-foot-5 players have some degree of success in the league, as he did in 1974, when he scored 12 touchdowns? The best thing about Herron was the fact that he was so small, the numbers on the back of his jersey barely fit.
The above is a screen capture from The Championship Chase, the brilliant highlight film of the 1974 season produced by NFL Films that is perhaps the finest work ever churned out by the artists in South Jersey. If you purchase the Super Bowl I-X DVD set, you get all the annual year-in-review films, including this piece. No NFL Films afficionado should be without it.
Back to the present.
MASON’S PICK: Patriots, 37-20. Everyone thinks this game is going to be close. The Patriots typically react to such public buzz by brandishing a fly swatter roughly the size of Rhode Island.
OTHER PICKS FROM THE BLOGOSPHERE:
MIKE RICE, NEWSRADIO 850 KOA: Jacksonville, 24-23.
KYLE MONTGOMERY, BRONCOTALK: I’ve adopted the Jaguars as “my” playoff team, and while I may be cheering them on throughout the playoffs, I can’t picture a scenario where they beat the Patriots. Can you imagine how good New England will be in January if they find another level? They’be been playing playoff caliber all season — if they find a level above that, there really is no stopping them. Patriots 41, Jaguars 27.
JOHN BENA, MILE HIGH REPORT:: New England. The only real hope the Jags have is the weather, should it become a sloppy game. It isn’t supposed to be, and that doesn’t bode well for the Jags.
JONATHAN DOUGLAS, BRONCOTALK: As much as I’d like to see Belichick beaten, I don’t think the Jags are the ones to make it happen. New England moves on and maintains home field vs Indy next week.