AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
An Olympic team spot isn't the only glittering sports prize up for grabs this weekend. Eight teams gear up for the NFL divisional playoffs on the road to next month's Super Bowl. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now for his regular Friday update on what's happening in football. Hey there, Stefan.
STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: So let's start with those two games tomorrow. First, Indianapolis at New England. In a nutshell, what do we expect?
FATSIS: All right. Indianapolis and their second-year quarterback Andrew Luck are coming off that absurd 45 to 44 comeback win over Kansas City last weekend. It was their season in microcosm. According to some numbers crunching by the website Football Outsiders, Indy is one of the most erratic teams in the league.
They had big swings in game performance this year. New England, one of the most steady teams, but also one of the most injured. They lost six starters in the last three months. Tom Brady had one of his worst seasons as a pro and who would pick against him?
CORNISH: All right. Well, what about the other game, Seattle and New Orleans?
FATSIS: All right. Seattle's defense is considered one of the top five or 10 in football history based on performance. Russell Wilson has entered into that realm of prepared, disciplined, creative, gifted quarterbacks and he's also really likeable. Seattle does really well at home. New Orleans doesn't do so well on the road and it's supposed to rain in Seattle, which should be an advantage over New Orleans, which plays in a dome, except for one thing. The Saints won in snowy Philadelphia last weekend, so who knows?
CORNISH: And then, two more games on Sunday. We've got San Diego at Denver and San Francisco at Carolina?
FATSIS: Yep. Did you see 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last weekend, no sleeves in zero degree Green Bay? That was crazy.
FATSIS: He will not be as cold in Carolina, neither will the Panthers vastly improved, equally exciting quarterback Cam Newton, but both of these teams have been successful because of their strong defenses. San Diego at Denver looks like the blowout game of the weekend, except for one thing. The Chargers won at Denver during the regular season and while the Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning scored an NFL record 606 points this season, San Diego held them to under 30 points both times they played.
CORNISH: So Stefan, you mentioned the Patriots' slew of injuries and there's been more attention on head injuries with the NFL's big concussion settlement. Are we actually seeing changes in how the game is being played?
FATSIS: Well, the rules and their application have certainly changed, especially regarding blows to the head. There's been talk that players are targeting the legs instead but it's not obvious whether that's true. There's not data to back that up yet. But let's be clear, there have been a lot of notable injuries this season and plenty of concussions.
A half dozen prominent Kansas City players had to leave last weekend's playoff game, three of them had concussions. We saw a Green Bay player run back into the game for a play while being examined by doctors for a concussion, which was, in fact, diagnosed later. And we saw a New Orleans player refuse to leave the sidelines after he was diagnosed with one. Both of those were in violation of the NFL's concussion protocol.
CORNISH: But how has the NFL responded?
FATSIS: Well, kind of the way they have. It still feels a lot like denial. The NFL's commissioner, Roger Goodell, spoke at a public event in New York earlier this week. It was a controlled setting. He was questioned by a PR guy for a firm that has done business for the league and at least one of its teams. Goodell was asked whether concussions were a threat to the league and whether the sport, when played as intended, can cause lasting damage.
He responded that using the head is not the way football is intended to be played and this is the new party line. Heads up football, tackling with the head up and out of contact is safer. But the notion that the head encased in a hard plastic helmet with a face mask can be taken out of football, human instinct, the speed of the game, just make that impossible. You're going to see plenty of head collisions this weekend.
CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis, he's the author of "A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL." He joins us on Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. Stefan, thanks.
FATSIS: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.