NFL's elite bid to keep cool in play-off pressure cooker
Today, the battle for the Super Bowl starts in earnest. The regular season is out of the way and so is Black Monday, the now traditional day for the culling of NFL head coaches who didn't deliver the goods, with five getting the axe so far this year.
Now 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 who 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 on February 2.
First up today is the visit of the Kansas City Chiefs to Indianapolis Colts, with the Chiefs narrowly favoured by the odds makers, 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 was 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 struggle.
Moreover, in snow-bound Philadelphia tonight they face the NFL's hottest team, winners of seven of their last eight regular season games.
The icy weather gripping the north-eastern United States 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, the Bengals were 8-0 at home in the regular season.
The ultimate chill challenge 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 19C).
Last year, the 49ers eliminated the Packers in the play-offs' second round -- but that was in balmy San Francisco.
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 star quarterback Aaron Rodgers (left) on their side after he missed half the regular season through injury, but they also have their hometown winter weather.
(© Independent News Service)
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