Forget the cold. It’s going to be smokin’ hot in the AFC playoffs this weekend.
No one is trying to shove aside the action in the NFC, but the verbal activity heading into the Ravens-Steelers game on Saturday has reached seismic levels.
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs put on an insulting T-shirt, and then called Saturday’s matchup at Heinz Field “World War III.”
As if these opponents aren’t heated enough rivals in their division.
There’s nothing quite so tangy in the NFC, where both games also are rematches. Neither the Packers at Falcons match Saturday night nor the Seahawks at Bears on Sunday has been accompanied by so much trash talk or accusatory tones.
“We’re looking forward to walking into Heinz Field with a certain swagger,” Suggs said.
Presumably, he won’t be wearing the T-shirt that displays “HEY PITTSBURGH” and a purple Raven and a hand with the middle finger extended.
“There isn’t any message,” he insisted. “This is just, like I always say, I put on for my city. They rep their city, and I’m repping mine. So, here we go.”
Ravens (13-4) at Steelers (12-4), Saturday, 4:30 p.m.: Each side won a superb defensive game on the other’s field, which should give Baltimore some confidence. But the Ravens never have won a playoff game in Pittsburgh.
Plus, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was serving the last game of his four-game suspension when the Ravens won on Oct. 3.
The game-breakers in this one are guys like Suggs, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis for Baltimore, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley for Pittsburgh. Defenders all.
“You can talk about the offense, but these are the two best defenses,” Roethlisberger said. “They are great defenses with a lot of exotic-type blitzes and exotic looks. Both groups are veteran, so it’s all about the offense that makes the fewest amount of mistakes. So, I think that’s why it’s always close. You never want to make a mistake, especially in the playoffs, because everything gets a little tighter. A defense like that, you’re under a microscope even more.”
Packers (11-6) at Falcons (13-3), Saturday, 8 p.m.: Green Bay is on a roll, winning its last three games when one loss would have ended its season. The 21-16 victory at Philadelphia was Aaron Rodgers’ first in the postseason as Packers quarterback, and he performed superbly in a 20-17 loss at the Georgia Dome on Nov. 28
He also lost a fumble near the Atlanta goal line in that game, something he seems to remember more than going 26 of 35 for 344 yards with one TD and no interceptions.
The Falcons were 7-1 at home, where they haven’t had a playoff game since the 2004 season, when they routed the Rams 47-17 in the divisional round. They’ll face an offense that suddenly became versatile when rookie James Starks rushed for 123 yards in Philly.
Atlanta already has that offensive variety with Matt Ryan throwing to Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, and Michael Turner running the ball.
“That’s the thing I think will make them even more dangerous,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said of the sixth-seeded Packers. “With the way they’re running the football, they have a chance to be even more multidimensional. They ran the ball probably as effectively as they’ve run it all season.”
Seahawks (8-9) at Bears (11-5), 1 p .m., Sunday: How can a losing team get within a step of the conference championship game? Well, win a weak division (the NFC West, which Seattle took at 7-9, the first under.-500 division winner). Then play an inspired game featuring loads of big plays against an undermanned opponent — albeit the defending Super Bowl champs.
Now, the Seahawks go back to Chicago, where they won 23-20 in October, their best game of the regular season, and if they do it again, the NFL has a 9-9 club one win away from the big game.
Seattle is brimming with confidence after outscoring New Orleans. Chicago is healthier than the Saints, has a much better defense, and has improved significantly since falling to the Seahawks, particularly the running game with Matt Forte.
Forte ran for 717 yards over the final nine games, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He expects to carry a big load Sunday.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” Forte said. “We can’t go out and do what we did last time and throw the ball 40 or 50 times and run the ball 10 times. We have to have a balanced offense.”