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UNC Football: Tar Heels playing on Wild Card Weekend

Heels abound in the NFL, with a few in big playoff roles today and tomorrow.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In my opinion, this is certainly one one of the top five weekends on the sports calendar, falling somewhere behind the opening two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, which lands safely in the top spot. It helps that the first weekend in January normally coincides with the first ACC basketball games as well. Wild Card Weekend is mostly interchangeable with the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs next weekend, depending on whichever’s games are more exciting in a given year.

Rounding out the top echelon are events like the Final Four/second weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament, the ACC/your-choice-of-a-worse basketball tournament, and pick your favorite golf major (Masters?) or horse race (Kentucky Derby?). Things like weeks 1 and 17 of the NFL season and respective all-star games/events have an outside case at the top five, but I think the latter at least fall short for sure.

Leagues like the NBA, NHL, MLB, NCAAF, etc. don’t really have true weekend-specific postseason or high-stakes programming packages per se. Soccer might? I know tennis doesn’t – majors are two whole weeks rather than a single weekend, and the semis and finals on their own aren’t enough. Same for the Olympics, World Cup, and most other international competition.

In any event, keep your eye on these former Tar Heels in NFL playoff action on this terrific sports weekend (one in each game). Coincidentally, none of the four teams that earned first-round byes – the #1 Kansas City Chiefs and #2 New England Patriots in the AFC, and the #1 New Orleans Saints and #2 Los Angeles Rams in the NFC all have a UNC product on its active roster.

AFC: #6 Indianapolis Colts (10-6) @ #3 Houston Texans (11-5) (Saturday 4:30 pm EST, ESPN/ABC)

Eric Ebron, TE Colts

Ebron has been one of the best redemption stories of the NFL season. After an underwhelming-yet-passable rookie contract tenure with the Detroit Lions, the 6’4 253-pound talent exploded during his first season of a two-year deal with the Colts worth up to $15 million with incentives.

Ebron snagged 66 catches for 750 yards and a whopping 13 touchdowns, all career highs and tied for the second-best TD mark in the league. He probably won’t score on almost one-fifth of his receptions going forward, but it seems like the Pro Bowler has found a nice home with resurgent quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck has the Comeback Player of the Year award in the bag, but his big weapon Ebron would be an excellent candidate if the NFL had a Most Improved Player award like the NBA and other leagues.

The tight end’s time with the Lions is seen by many as a total bust, mostly because he was the 10th overall pick in the 2014 draft ahead of players like Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald. He did drop a lot of passes in front of the derisive fans in the Motor City, but Ebron was still reasonably productive, as he now has career totals of 252 catches, 2,820 yards, and 24 touchdowns.

Likewise, Ebron showed significant strides during his time in The Hill. Used sparingly as a freshman, he shattered the school records for receptions and receiving yards by a tight end in consecutive seasons before heading to the NFL. Ebron’s total tallies from 2011-13 were 112 receptions, 1,805 yards, and eight touchdowns.

NFC: #5 Seattle Seahawks (10-6) @ #4 Dallas Cowboys (10-6) (Saturday 8 pm, FOX)

Nazair Jones, DT Seahawks

Jones has played in nine games in his second season with the Seahawks, recording seven tackles and one for loss. A third-round pick in 2017, Jones has been a healthy scratch in most of his seven absences, and chances are he will be again today (as of 12 pm EST, the actives/inactives list has not yet been released). But if not, look out for #92.

The highlight of Naz’ professional career so far came on one of his very first plays, when he intercepted an intended screen pass from Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers in last year’s opener and returned it 64 yards for a touchdown – 40 of which were negated by penalty. So Jones was kept off the board, but he compiled a fine rookie campaign, finishing with 19 tackles, three batted passes, two sacks, and the one pick in 11 games. Unfortunately, Jones suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 12 and was later placed on injured reserve after being inactive for four games to end his rookie year.

The 6’5 292-pound Jones was certainly a force up the gut with the Heels, recording 147 tackles (22 for loss), five sacks, three forced fumbles, and one interception from 2014-16.

AFC: #5 Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) @ #4 Baltimore Ravens (10-6) (Sunday 1 pm, CBS)

James Hurst, OT Ravens

Hurst suffered a recent injury scare when the Ravens met the Chargers just two weeks ago in LA, leaving the eventual Baltimore victory with an undisclosed injury. Everything seems to be A-OK, but it is something to keep an eye on since Hurst did miss six games during the middle of the season with a back ailment.

The smart 6’5 310-pound undrafted free agent has built an impressive career, as he has played both tackle and guard on each side of the line in his five seasons with the Ravens. Hurst played in all 64 games as a pro prior to this season, making 16 starts from 2014-16 before becoming a full-time starter last year. The last time Baltimore made the playoffs in 2014, Hurst was thrown into the fire nine months after not being selected by any team as the starting left tackle to protect $120 million franchise QB Joe Flacco. He held his own.

Hurst manned the left tackle spot in Chapel Hill from his second game on during the 2010-13 seasons. He signed a four-year extension with the Ravens in March and is a valuable part of their rush-heavy attack with current starting QB Lamar Jackson.

Keep your eye on #74 at left guard (or possibly right tackle) tomorrow afternoon. Hurst played LG last week in Baltimore’s AFC North-clinching victory over the Cleveland Browns, and he was expertly pulling and smashing defenders all over the place as the Ravens piled up 296 rushing yards.

NFC: #6 Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) at #3 Chicago Bears (12-4) (Sunday 4:30 pm, NBC)

Mitchell Trubisky, QB Bears

Last but not least, let’s all pull for Mitch this weekend. I am not looking forward to the inevitable media narrative if Eagles QB Nick Foles is able to pull off his magic and Trubisky makes a mistake or two – the conclusion being that Trubisky is still “unproven” and holding back an otherwise excellent roster. (What ever happened to being impressed by a QB who makes the playoffs within his first couple of seasons rather than disproportionately critical? Veteran signal callers make plenty of rookie plays themselves, too.)

But luckily Trubisky doesn’t need to worry about all of that, because he is plenty good and does have that ferocious defense to back him up. After the Bears needlessly traded up one spot to select him with the second pick in the 2017 draft, Trubisky was leveled with a gust of Windy City hopes and dreams before slumbering through a listless 12-start campaign as a rookie under old-school former head coach John Fox.

Offensive-minded Matt Nagy arrived in Chicago as a 39-year-old head coach and has apparently changed life for the fourth Tar Heel selected second overall (Ken Willard 1965, Lawrence Taylor 1981, and Julius Peppers 2002; maybe that’s why the Bears traded up – for the historical footnote.). This season, Trubisky completed 289-of-434 passes (66.6%) for 3,223 yards and 24 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. He has added tremendous value on the ground, particularly as a scrambler, finishing with 421 rushing yards and three scores on 68 carries. Trubisky missed Weeks 12 and 13 with a shoulder injury, but that is evidently no longer an issue.

The Bears did pursue the 6’3 222-pound Trubisky so intensely for a reason. Many teams were turned off that the Ohio native had to sit for two seasons behind QB Marquise Williams, who was unable to develop a NFL career and is now playing in the Alliance of American Football (AAF) after a stint in the CFL. But Williams was successful himself in baby blue and when Trubisky did get his shot as head man for the Heels, he shined.

In his lone season as Carolina starter in 2016, Trubisky completed 68% of his passes for 3,748 yards for 30 touchdowns with six picks. In the two seasons since, UNC QBs have hit 57% of their throws for 5,443 yards and 35 touchdowns with 30 interceptions. While the anticipated team success in Trubisky’s season under center fell short, he is looking for that now on the professional level with an ideal first opportunity tomorrow at Soldier Field.

Note: Mack Hollins, WR Eagles was placed on injured reserve prior to Week 1 following offseason sports hernia surgery and a groin injury. He has not returned. The 6’4 220-pound receiver flashed promise as a rookie fourth-round pick in 2017, catching 16 passes for 226 yards and one touchdown. Hollins caught 81 balls for 1,667 yards and 20 touchdowns for Carolina from 2013-16. He led the nation in yards per catch (24.8) as a junior in 2015, catching a pass in all 13 games and scoring in seven.