- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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"Over the top" would be a fair description of the main storylines for the NFL's final eight.
Jets coach Rex Ryan will be calling out Tom Brady and the Patriots all week. The Steelers and Ravens are set to resume their intense rivalry, which is filled with bold talk and big hits. The Packers-Falcons game features two of the game's next superstar quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan. In Chicago, all eyes will be on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in his first playoff appearance.
Under the radar, though, are several stories that are just as interesting.
1. John Harbaugh's contract situation: Although there's no emergency situation requiring the Ravens to give Harbaugh a contract extension, he clearly deserves one. He's taken the Ravens to the playoffs three times in his first three years, and his contract expires after the 2011 season. Very few coaches want to be in a one-year situation. They want job security for their assistants. They want players to know who is the boss, and having years on the deal assures that players have to listen to the coach. It'll be interesting to see if Harbaugh is offered a deal similar to the five-year, $25 million contract his brother Jim signed with the San Francisco 49ers (shouldn't all Harbaughs be paid the same?). But Jim could have set the salary bar even higher for his brother if he had worked something out with the Miami Dolphins and ended up being perhaps the highest-paid coach in the league. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin could also play a role in the next contract offered to John Harbaugh. The Ravens have been a wild-card team for three years under Harbaugh because Tomlin's Steelers won the AFC North twice and the Bengals won it last year. If the Steelers beat the Ravens in the playoffs for the second time in three years, Ravens ownership might be reluctant to pay Harbaugh more than the $4.8 million a year Tomlin makes. Ownership can say, "We can't pay you Jim Harbaugh money until you come out ahead of Tomlin and the Steelers.''
2. Woodhead in the heads of Rex Ryan and the Jets: Danny Woodhead was fighting for one of the final spots on the Jets' 53-man roster during the summer when the team was featured in HBO's "Hard Knocks." Woodhead was ultimately cut, and later signed with New England. Now, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady must love making Woodhead a major part of the offense in New England. Woodhead rushed for 547 yards on 97 carries, caught 34 passes for 379 yards and scored six touchdowns for the Patriots. In the Pats' 45-3 victory over the Jets, Woodhead caught four passes for 104 yards and was one of the offensive stars of the game. All of a sudden, Ryan may have to game plan for a special teams player who couldn't make his team. The Pats would take particular delight in making Woodhead a big part of the offense Sunday.
3. The return game: Seahawks halfback Leon Washington was one of the NFL's best comeback stories. He suffered a compound leg fracture last season with the Jets, who wondered how well he could bounce back. Washington was traded to the Seahawks, and the deal has had many happy returns for the Seahawks. He had three kickoff returns for touchdowns, averaged 25.6 yards per kickoff return and 11.3 on punts and was the NFC's first alternate to the Pro Bowl. The Pro Bowl selection naturally went to Bears wide receiver Devin Hester, who had his 14th career return for a touchdown, and averaged 17.1 yards on punts and 35.6 on kickoffs this season. Washington would love to upstage Hester at Soldier Field.
4. Starks, the secret weapon: Heading into the meeting between the Green Bay Packers and the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 28, the buzz in Green Bay was that the Packers might use rookie James Starks to revitalize a dead ground game. Starks didn't play. The Packers spread the field with five receivers, and the only ground game came from Aaron Rodgers scrambles. The James Starks story may be under the radar but it's a huge one for Saturday's NFC divisional game in Atlanta. Starks rushed for 123 yards Sunday against the Eagles, but it's the way he got those yards that is the story. The Packers used a Wishbone-like formation in which Starks got the ball in a three-back backfield. To do that, the Packers go from a three-to-five-receiver finesse offense to a three-back power attack. The Falcons have to prepare for both.
5. Nosing around Ben Roethlisberger's body: No one can forget the left-handed swing of Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata that broke the nose of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Dec. 5. Roethlisberger is saying he isn't mad, and he felt bad about initially blaming defensive tackle Kelly Gregg for the swing. Roethlisberger's nose was a topic of Tuesday conference calls prepping for the Saturday AFC divisional game between these two rivals. Roethlisberger said he was unaware of a comment attributed to Ravens coach John Harbaugh that he was "glad we broke his nose.'' Roethlisberger and Harbaugh supposedly have a good relationship. Both Roethlisberger and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco take violent hits that often don't result in penalties or fines.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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