I wouldn't go so far as to suggest it's the best weekend of the sports year -- that designation is reserved for that little basketball tournament in March when the field pares to 16 -- but considering how much collective anticipation NFL fans understandably shared for the just-concluded four-game wild-card round, it's fair to suggest in retrospect that it was a bit of a letdown, no?
The Packers and Ravens cruised to uneventful, apparently inevitable victories past overmatched opponents. The Texans' win over the Bengals wasn't much better, though an on-target deep ball or two from Andy Dalton might have changed that. And while the Redskins-Seahawks matchup lived up to the billing as the weekend's must-see matchup for a while, only Seattle fans and the misguided stragglers who thought Pete Carroll was a decent coach here enjoyed how it played out. The rest of us were left with the lousy feeling of wondering whether Robert Griffin III's knee and Mike Shanahan's soul were in equal tatters.
Any hope for four suspenseful games gave way to scattered random questions. Who graduated first from the Elaine Benes School of Dance, Ray Lewis or Pitbull?
What's in that little shed RGIII retreated to when he was hurt or injured or however his balky knee was classified early in the game?
How could the at least adequate Brian Hoyer spent so much of the season waiting for a roster spot to open up when the likes of Joe Webb, a one-man Spergon Wynn tribute band, were one injury from a starting role?
Of course, this weekend's unfulfilled expectations don't temper the enthusiasm for what's ahead, nor should they. Packers-Niners, Falcons-Seahawks, and Ravens-Broncos are all fascinating showdowns that could play out with countless plot twists and outcomes, and around here we get to shift our football focus back to the rested Patriots, who will host the Texans Sunday, 34 days after figuratively repossessing their lettermen jackets with a 42-14 victory on "Monday Night Football" that proved pivotal in determining the seeding in the AFC.
Personally, I was hoping the Ravens would end up as the Patriots' divisional playoff foe, if only for the opportunity to watch them end the mythical career -- emphasis on myth -- of Ray Lewis, a wonderful player for several years but one of the most unaccountable, preening narcissists in league history. Gillette would have been a fine place to end the shameful hagiography.
But a rematch with the Texans will have to do, and the story lines are interesting if easily conjured. After beginning the season 11-1, Houston lost three of its final four games to punt away a bye, the trip to Foxborough a reminder of one opportunity already muffed. If there's any question about the Patriots being favored by 9.5 points, keep in mind that in the first meeting they were up 21 in the first half and glided from there -- without Rob Gronkowski.
Revenge will be an obvious motivator for the Texans, but let's not confuse them with the 2010 Jets, who avenged a 45-3 late-season loss to the Patriots by ending their season with a 28-21 victory in the divisional round a little more than a month later. Those Jets were tougher and more talented than the punch line they have become. Given the stakes, that loss is worth a small reminder, however, and Bill Belichick acknowledged during a conference call over the weekend that what happened that season has been talked about "many, many times." I recommend sparing yourself from the many, many other reminders on sports radio this week.
If there's a playoff opponent in recent Patriots history of which the Texans are reminiscent, it's probably the 2006 or '07 San Diego Chargers. The '06 team went 14-2, racked up 492 points, lost to the Patriots in the divisional round (see: Troy Brown vs. Marlon McCree), and like these Texans, had Wade Phillips as a defensive coordinator. The '07 team is a better comp even though Phillips had moved on -- they went 11-5, scored 412 points (two fewer than this year's Texans team) and had extraordinary talent that wasn't good enough to overcome the 17-0 Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
They were also ... well, I'm reluctant to call any NFL player or team soft, especially in the hours after a player like RGIII is convinced it's part of the job requirement to play through an injury that robbed him of a large portion of his skill. So let's put it this way. The Texans weren't ready for prime-time before, but I seriously doubt we'll see Arian Foster bundled up in a giant parka on the sidelines, LaDainian Tomlinson-style, while his team forges on without him.
If the Texans are going to give a good accounting in their latest Biggest Game In Franchise History, their superstars must lead them. Defensive player of the year shoo-in J.J. Watt's motor is permanently stuck on overdrive, and Foster, who had just 46 yards against the Patriots, ran for 140 against the Bengals. Cincinnati would be wise to put the ball in his hands 30-plus times and see where he can take them.
The Texans may not be as tough or tested as the Patriots, but their victory over the Bengals showed at least some measure of fortitude. Still, it was the Bengals, who from what I gather haven't won a playoff game since Boobie Clark was their feature back. The Texans have earned a couple of stripes, but can they gain full redemption on the same field where it took a turn for the worse just a month ago? Knowing what we think we know about them -- and what we do know about the Patriots -- let's just say this: letterman jackets can be bought. But banners, they have to be earned.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.