The pass-happy National Football League’s second season begins this weekend with four games kicking off the playoffs in do-or-die battles to stay on track to reach the Super Bowl.
Rules changes and tight enforcement in recent seasons have encouraged the passing game, and quarterbacks Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have taken full record-setting advantage and aim to continue their aerial assault in the postseason.
“You look at the artistry, if you will, of the quarterbacks and the way they performed this year and I think that makes a statement about why you’ve seen such performances,” New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin told reporters on Wednesday.
“I would see no reason why that would change,” added the coach, whose quarterback Eli Manning set a record this season for most fourth-quarter touchdown passes and will lead the NFC East champions against the wild card Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Rodgers, who set an NFL record for best quarterback rating, steered the Green Bay Packers to a 15-1 record with their only blemish a 19-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 15.
Green Bay and the San Francisco 49ers have first-round byes as top seeds in the NFC while the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens also earned the week off as top seeds in the AFC.
Brees, who set NFL single-season records for yardage and completions in 2011, looks to get his NFC South champion New Orleans Saints one step closer to the Big Dance on Saturday against the visiting Detroit Lions and their strong-armed quarterback Matthew Stafford in Saturday’s NFC wild card game.
The AFC South champion Houston Texans and third-string quarterback T.J. Yates make their playoff debut Saturday against the Cincinnati Bengals and signal caller Andy Dalton, the first NFL playoff duel between rookie QBs in more than 60 years.
Sunday’s games have the Giants hosting the Falcons, and the AFC West-winning Denver Broncos at home against last season’s Super Bowl runners-up the Pittsburgh Steelers.
New England’s Brady, a three-time Super Bowl winner, joined Brees and Stafford with more than 5,000 passing yards, the first time a trio topped that mark in a season. All the passing led to the most points ever in the league and a record number of big comebacks.
Leading the way on offence were the top-ranked Packers, Saints, Patriots and Lions, while the NFL’s stingiest defences were the Steelers, 49ers, Ravens and Texans.
That could set the stage for a high-flying aerial show between the Saints and Lions, and tough defensive struggles in the Denver-Pittsburgh and Houston-Cincinnati games.
Balance between the run and pass has been shelved by the top-scoring teams with the exception of New Orleans, who may benefit from a rushing complement to Brees that ranked sixth in yards gained on the ground.
The playoff races once again showed the egalitarian side of a league that still rewards excellence in team-building.
For the 16th consecutive season, at least five teams made the playoffs that did not advance the year before. This postseason features six who were absent last year – Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Houston, the Giants and San Francisco.
Yet the past four Super Bowl winners remain in contention and half of the 12 playoff teams have combined to win nine of the past 11 Vince Lombardi Trophies.
The hottest team is New Orleans, on an eight-game winning streak during which Brees set single season records for passing yards (5,476), completions (468), and completion percentage (71.2 per cent).
The Giants also finished strong, having to beat the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys to qualify.
“We had our backs to the wall and had to perform or we wouldn’t be here,” Coughlin said. “I think that’s a good thing. We are battle tested in many ways.”
The coldest team is Denver, losers of their last three, but the slate is wiped clean for the postseason race to next month’s Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
“We are excited about being in the field of 12,” said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, who hopes quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can effectively lead an attack that is missing running back Rashard Mendenhall despite still recovering from a sprained ankle.
“We turn the page now, we move forward into the single-elimination tournament. That’s what this journey is about.”