The first week back to work after a long holiday break is always tough. As the euphoria of the new year begins to fade, we start to pay more attention to miserable things like single digit temperatures and bitter, biting winds. Winter is here, and we’re in it for the long haul.


It is in these moments of existential turmoil that football is at its finest. It is our hot cocoa and marshmallows, our extra blanket on the couch, our living room fireplace and our Tom Brady footsie pajamas (perhaps that’s just this writer) all wrapped in one. Simply put, the divisional playoff round is the NFL’s best weekend of the year. The intrigue, the tension, the iconic play-making moments and the sheer star-power envelop us in a warm, musty pigskin cocoon over a breathless 27-hour period.


The only thing that can ruin everything is if your favorite team underachieves and is unexpectedly bounced from the tournament. Therein lies this writer’s dilemma as a Patriots fan, as the greatest NFL weekend of all could leave him crumpled in a pathetic pool of self-pity before dinner time on Saturday. A loss to the Ravens would be the ultimate gut-punch – maybe not quite as bad as the Detroit Lions’ gut-punch last week – but certainly in the neighborhood. Then again, that’s the beautiful harsh reality of the NFL.


All week, people have probably asked Patriots fans if they are nervous about their team facing the Ravens; a team that fit into a small category of squads who not only despise the Patriots but also have absolutely no fear of them. The Ravens are a far cry from the typical “march of the tomato cans,” a phrase coined by Boston sports radio hosts Mike Felger and Tony Massarotti, who typically visit Foxboro in the divisional round.


Baltimore is a legitimate, formidable threat, fully capable of defeating New England, but we feel a strange sense of serenity surrounding this Patriots team. We firmly believe this is the best unit since 2007, and, more importantly, they are built for the playoffs. This, or course, officially guarantees that they will lose to the Ravens. Let the self-loathing begin!


Like all NFL playoff games, this one has been over-analyzed to death, but the combination of Darelle Revis and a healthy Rob Gronkowski provide new dimensions that the Patriots have sorely lacked in their past few playoff runs. That’s all you can ask for as you prepare for the best football weekend of the year. Prediction: Patriots 27, Ravens 23


Here’s what else we like this weekend.


Carolina at Seattle: Feisty Cats Meet Top Dogs
The very best thing we can say about the Panthers is that any game they play this week cannot possibly be worse than last week’s playoff game versus the Cardinals. Actually, the only thing worse may be our usage of double negatives and NFL-esque hyperbolic overspeak in that last sentence. The point we are trying to convey is that Carolina is not good. Do not buy into the narrative that the Panthers are a team on the rise and are suddenly finding their groove. We must discount everything they did against NFC South opponents and/or third-string quarterbacks. Underestimate the Seahawks at our own peril, as all they have demonstrated over the past 7 weeks is that they are the best team in football.
Prediction: Seahawks: 22, Panthers 13


Dallas at Green Bay: Cowboys and The Calf
We need to thank Aaron Rodgers for allowing Patriots fans to consider the possibility that Tom Brady is not the biggest prima donna QB in the NFL (point of clarification: this writer does not believe TB12 is a prima donna, but he understands that sentiment, however unfounded and shameful, may exist). The Rodgers Golden Calf saga has reached mind-numbing proportions, but it is undeniable that he is hurt. We think he’s really hurt. He also thinks the Cowboys have the requisite strengths and approach to bear a full-strength Packers team. As is often the case with Dallas, this is the most delicious game of the weekend. The offensive talent on the field will be absurd, and we will see two quarterbacks in full-on grind mode. We are sensing a Dez Bryant game-winner.
Prediction: Cowboys 31, Packers 30


Indianapolis at Denver: Some Guys Have All the Luck
A corollary to our Patriots fandom is that we are conditioned to dislike and dismiss all things relating to Peyton Manning. So, for what it’s worth, we believe he is playing through a debilitating injury and is extremely beatable this post-season. That said, he once again gets all the breaks by playing a Colts team that, aside from Andrew Luck, is dreadful. Indianapolis is worse than one-dimensional. They’re faux-dimensional, as their “chuck and Luck” offense oozes of desperation. The Colts are very good at making very costly mistakes, and we expect to see many of them on Sunday. We are not sure that we’ll learn anything about Manning this week, as the Broncos don’t need him to do anything special in order to win.
Prediction: Broncos 28, Colts 20


Who do you think will make the final cut? Let’s talk here, or find me on Twitter @endbadly.