In this quarterback-driven league, nothing could be better than teams driven by their QBs meeting in the playoffs.
So next weekend can't come soon enough: Denver's Peyton Manning vs. the man who replaced him in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck. Baltimore's Joe Flacco, who twice has defeated the Patriots and Tom Brady, heading to New England.
Aaron Rodgers against Tony Romo in Lambeau Field — just as enticing. Even Carolina's Cam Newton against another new-wave QB, Seattle's Russell Wilson, who merely won a Super Bowl last February.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) throws a 36-yard touchdown pass as he is tackled by Cincinnati Bengals' Carlos Dunlap (96) during the second half of an NFL wildcard playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
"On to next week," Luck said after helping the Colts defeat Cincinnati 26-10 on Sunday in the AFC wild-card round. "It's the playoffs. There's a difference. You've got to move on; you've got to keep that journey alive."
The divisional round opens next Saturday with AFC top seed New England (12-4), the East winner, hosting Baltimore (11-6), which eliminated Pittsburgh 30-17 in the other AFC wild-card match. That will be followed by defending Super Bowl champion Seattle (12-4), the NFC West champion, against Carolina (8-8-1), which beat Arizona 27-16.
NFC North champ Green Bay (12-4) is home for Dallas in the early game next Sunday. It's the first postseason visit to Lambeau Field for the Cowboys since the 1967 Ice Bowl. Dallas beat Detroit 24-20 in the wild-card round.
The final division-round contest next Sunday has Indianapolis (12-5) at Denver (12-4). Indy disposed of Cincinnati 26-10 in a wild-card game.
Andrew Luck threw for 376 yards and one touchdown, Daniel "Boom" Herron ran for another score, and Indianapolis dominated the second half to beat Cincinnati on Sunday. The Colts made a fair share of mistakes, but nothing like the Bengals (10-6-1), who became the first team in NFL history to lose four consecutive opening-round playoff games.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano, whose team lost the season opener 31-24 at Denver, knows that Luck must be as good or better than Manning for Indy to keep going.
"Looking at next week, he's going to have to do the same things," Pagano said. "He's going to have to create some plays, he's going to have to move around and get some first downs with his legs, and those type of things. Obviously, it's a benefit."
"He's one of those guys that you have to play a 60-minute game against," DE DeMarcus Ware said. "He has really good pocket awareness. He's always one of those guys, just like Peyton, where he hits the open guy the majority of the time."
Yes, New England was 7-0 at home in games with any meaning. But if there's one team that has shown no fear of Foxborough, it's Baltimore.
The Ravens knocked off the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the 2009 and 2012 playoffs; Baltimore won the Super Bowl after the latter victory.
"Bring 'em on," linebacker Pernell McPhee said Saturday night after the Ravens won a postseason game in Pittsburgh for the first time. "We're going to work hard in practice this coming week and go up there and play our best game. We're going to play Ravens football. And with a great game plan, I know we'll be ready for anything."
Brady, of course, owns three Super Bowl rings and two more AFC titles. In recent years, though, Flacco has been just as successful in the playoffs and has a 10-4 record, 7-4 on the road.
A longstanding rivalry — they have met six times in the playoffs, with Dallas having four wins — will be renewed. Standing in for Bart Starr or Brett Favre will be Rodgers, who already owns a Super Bowl ring. In place of Don Meredith or Troy Aikman will be Romo, whose late touchdown pass lifted Dallas over Detroit in the wild-card round on Sunday.
"I'm excited about the challenge, it's going to be fun," Romo said. "Obviously we know now we're going against as good an offense as there is in the league. Maybe over the last three of four years the best offense in the league. It's going to be a great test. We have to play great, better than we did today."
Green Bay was 8-0 at home in 2014. Dallas (13-4) won all eight of its road games.
Just the second team with a losing record to win a division title, the Panthers took their fifth straight game by ending Arizona's season Saturday. It was Carolina's first playoff win in nine years.
The defense held the Cardinals (11-6) and third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley to 78 yards, the fewest in NFL playoff history. But facing Wilson is a far tougher challenge, to say the least.
"We know who we are — menacing, stifling and we are going to get after you," cornerback Josh Norman said. "We know when there is blood in the water and when there is, our sharks are going to eat."
They might not find such a meaty opponent next week when the AFC South champs travel to Seattle. Newton will face the league's stingiest defense, one that has been doing much of the chomping the last two months.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco looks to pass as he scrambles away from Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison (92) in the second quarter of an NFL wildcard playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) reacts to a touchdown during the second half of an NFL wildcard playoff football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)