Cardinals and Panthers lie in wait as play-offs begin
The Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals both earned No 1 seeding, giving themselves the weekend off, but the race to the Super Bowl really hots up tonight.
Competitive parity has been a key to the NFL's emergence as the dominating force in American pro sport, with the last 10 Super Bowls producing eight different winners.
But the shadow of the Cardinals and the Panthers lies over proceedings. They had the two best records in the league, and by common consent are its two best teams. The Panthers, led by quarterback Cam Newton, had a prodigious 15 and 1 regular season, perfect until the penultimate Sunday. Newton combines the throwing and rushing games as few before him. In 2015, he registered a career-best 45 touchdowns (35 passing, 10 rushing), and had three games with five touchdown passes.
The Cardinals, although they had a marginally inferior record of 13 and 3, may be an even stronger all-round unit. Their quarterback Carson Palmer is 36, but he too has just had his best-ever season after coming off major injury. And Arizona's defense rates as among the most impermeable in the NFL, despite a 36-6 thrashing in the final game at the hands of the Seahawks.
All of which, however, has rather eclipsed what's been happening in the AFC. Tom Brady and the Patriots started the season 10 and 0, but then injuries took their toll, and the Patriots lost four of their last six games, allowing the Denver Broncos, with an identical 12 and 4 record, to claim the top-seed spot.
Neither the Broncos nor Patriots are playing well, however, and the play-offs are all about momentum. The Pittsburgh Steelers have it, as they go into tonight's game against Cincinnati. So do the Kansas City Chiefs, winners of 10 games straight after a 1 and 5 start to the season, who face the Houston Texans.
Over in the NFC, it's a similar story. The wild-card Seahawks appeared in the last two SuperBowls, winning it in 2014, before narrowly losing to the Patriots last year. And so to the Washington Redskins, long the NFL's most dysfunctional franchise. But, miraculously, things settled down in mid-season. The team found a more than decent quarterback in Kirk Cousins, won the woefully bad NFC East, and tomorrow face off at home against the wild-card Green Bay Packers.
The Packers have the peerless Aaron Rodgers, but if momentum means anything, the Redskins could well win. If so, victory means a trip to either Carolina or Arizona in the divisional round - and, surely, lights out.
AFC wild card - Today: Houston Texans v Kansas City Chiefs (9.35pm); Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers (1.15am)
NFC wild-card - Tomorrow: Minnesota Vikings v Seattle Seahawks (6.05pm); Washington Redskins v Green Bay Packers (9.40pm). All live on Sky Sports 1