[This is the Jan. 10 edition of Read & React, Yahoo Sports’ daily sports newsletter. Subscribe now, free, and never miss another issue.]
Morning, and welcome to the second week of playoff football!
Thanks to last weekend — two overtime games, four one-possession games, two upsets, the possible end of a dynasty — these NFL playoffs are already at redline speed, and the game’s best teams haven’t even taken the field yet.
When this weekend kicks off, no player will face more scrutiny, from both fans and opposing defenses, than Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. His Ravens get the Saturday night primetime slot against the Tennessee Titans (BetMGM line: Baltimore by -8.5) in a game that carries the weight of expectation.
Jackson’s the almost-certain MVP, a player who’s rejuvenated a franchise, a quarterback who might just be changing the way the game is played. And none of it matters a bit if he can’t get it done in the playoffs.
We’re an on-demand culture. We expect players of Jackson’s surpassing talent to stride right through the regular season and onto a Super Bowl podium, but it rarely happens that quickly, if it happens at all. Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck never reached the Super Bowl despite their early hype (though Griffin could ride Jackson’s coattails to a Lombardi). Young-at-the-time quarterbacks Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Patrick Mahomes fell just short of the mountaintop.
Plus, in-season stardom doesn’t necessarily lead to postseason heroics. The week-in, week-out sustained greatness of an MVP doesn’t always translate to Super Bowl stardom. Not once in this millennium has a given year’s MVP also won Super Bowl MVP; Kurt Warner was the last to do it, back in 1999.
But literally no one has brought the combination of size, speed, attitude and awareness to an NFL field that Jackson does. He may or may not revolutionize the game, but he’s already giving defensive coordinators nightmares. Saturday, he’ll step onto the biggest stage of his life, and how he responds will shape his legacy for the next few years.
Quarterbacks who lead their teams to Super Bowl wins are, with rare exception, long-term veterans who can ride out the ups and downs of a playoff run (and the biggest game of their lives) without losing touch with their talent. Can Jackson buck that trend? We’re about to find out.
Elsewhere this weekend, here’s what you need to know:
Minnesota at San Francisco (Sat. 4:35 p.m. ET, BetMGM line: 49ers -7): Kirk Cousins threw off the “can’t win the big game” shroud last weekend in upsetting New Orleans, but he’s still a long way from giving Minnesota fans any sort of confidence in these all-or-nothing deals. And now he’s up against the angry-hornet defense and hit-you-from-three-sides offense of the 49ers, the most complete team still alive in the NFC. This one could be over early … but then, we said that last week, too.
Houston at Kansas City (Sun. 3:05 p.m. ET, BetMGM line: Chiefs -9.5): You want a look at the future of the NFL? Here you go. Deshaun Watson had his hello-world moment last week against Buffalo, and Patrick Mahomes has lurked in the shadow of Jackson all year long. Conventional wisdom holds that KC ought to be able to keep Houston at arm’s length … but that’s still close enough for J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus to do some real damage.
Seattle at Green Bay (Sun. 6:40 p.m. ET, BetMGM line: Packers -4.5): Aaron has led the Packers to a first-round bye and a wide-open opportunity … Aaron Jones, that is. Aaron Rodgers? To quote Toby Keith, he ain’t as good as he once was, but he can be as good once as he ever was. Rodgers doesn’t need to be spectacular Sunday evening to get past Seattle, whereas Russell Wilson will need some serious mojo to haul his collection of replacements and replacement-level Seahawks past the Packers.
Pound for pound, this might just be the best football weekend of the year. Enjoy, and we’ll see you back here Monday!
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