As a resident in the northeast, I had grown accustomed to the harshness of winter, but the arctic conditions could not curtail the excitement I felt in anticipation for the start of the NFL playoffs. The opening round began with a peculiar twist when the defending champion Saints were ousted unceremoniously by the Seattle Seahawks, who were the first playoff team with a losing record in the regular season (7-9). But the Saints’ early departure from the playoffs was overshadowed by the stellar play of the sixth-seeded New York Jets and Green Bay Packers in the AFC and NFC, respectively. Playoff success for Wild Card teams is not unprecedented. The 2008 Giants defied the odds to win the Super Bowl after defeating the higher-seeded Buccaneers, Cowboys and Packers in the NFC playoffs and the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. While the recent success of the Jets and Packers is comparable to that of the Giants three years ago, the symmetry between these two teams does not merely exist with respect to their impressive runs, but also in response to their critics.
In the case of the Packers, most of the prognosticators regarded them as serious contenders, but were concerned about the impact of the team’s injuries to their playoff push. Yet, even with a depleted roster, the team made the playoffs as a result of the emergence of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is one of the biggest reasons for the team’s success. Upon entering the playoffs, Rodgers completed 56 of 93 passes for 790 yards and six touchdowns against the Eagles, Falcons and Bears. The other unsung hero has been defensive standout cornerback Tramon Williams, whose six interceptions are a playoff record.
As for the New York Jets, their mediocre 2-3 record to finish the season left some to question their place among the NFL’s elite. QB Mark Sanchez’s erratic performances from week to week and the defense’s inability to generate consistent pressure against opposing quarterbacks was to blame. Unlike their counterparts in the NFC, the Jets had been more outspoken toward their critics because of their loquacious head coach, Rex Ryan. He received attention from the media for publicizing his desire to settle “personal scores” against Colts QB Peyton Manning, whom he had never defeated, and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, whose team had beaten the Jets by a 42-point margin in Week 13. While Ryan’s unconventional approach may be viewed as rambunctious, his team responded with improbable victories against the Colts and Patriots in successive rounds before losing to the Steelers in the AFC championship game.
The success of the Jets and Packers as sixth seeds in this year’s playoffs is comparable to that of the Giants three years ago because of their triumphs over formidable conference opponents on the road. Although the Packers succeeded in advancing to the February finale, the dominant play of both teams invalidated their seeding and attested to the benefits of competitive balance for determining a new champion.