After a winding season, the NFL playoffs are set to begin this Saturday. While the top two seeds in both the AFC and NFC will be home resting this week, teams ready to begin Wild Card play enter the postseason hotter than some of the league’s higher seeds.
The Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints earned first round byes after both teams combined to go 25-9 on the season but both squads ended the regular season on sour notes. The Vikings lost three out of their last five games and the Saints lost three straight to close their campaign. While the Vikings showed signs of life with a 44-7 demolition of the reeling New York Giants in their season finale, a power struggle between head coach Brad Childress and quarterback Brett Favre casted a dark cloud over the last quarter of the season for Minnesota. With Favre, 40, tiptoeing the line of retirement, it’s officially Super Bowl or bust for the Vikings this year.
The Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals will hit the ground running. For the Cowboys and Packers, they wouldn’t have it any other way. Winners of three straight, the Cowboys will be gunning for their first playoff win since 1996. A road win against the once undefeated Saints and back to back shutouts have the Cowboys flying high while they attempt to reverse their recent trend of late season woes.
The Packers have won seven of their last eight games and will open their playoff run against a Cardinal team they just annihilated 33-7 in Arizona’s home finale. Green Bay ranks second in overall defense and their do-it-all cover corner Charles Woodson is a defensive MVP finalist. Second year signal caller Aaron Rodgers is at the top of the quarterback list in most sporting circles.
The Cardinals and Eagles couldn’t have ended their seasons on poorer notes. With the NFC East crown on the line, the Eagles’ 24-0 loss to the Cowboys was definitely a setback but their prior six-game winning streak is evidence they can turn things around.
Turning things around isn’t something the AFC’s second seed needs to worry about. Winners of eleven straight, the San Diego Chargers have become most sporting pundits “sexy” pick to reach the Super Bowl. Quarterback Philip Rivers earned his third trip to the Pro Bowl and he leads a remarkable cast of athletes on a talented Chargers team.
San Diego will be one of the favorites to advance out of the AFC especially since they’ve had the top ranked Indianapolis Colts number for quite some time. The Colts blazed to a 14-0 start this year but losers of consecutive games could be cause for some concern. Their bigger concern could be a Charger team they’re 1-3 against in the last two seasons including two postseason exits courtesy of Rivers and company.
While the Chargers have had the Colts number, the New England Patriots have had theirs, going 3-1 against San Diego since the 2006 season and knocking the Chargers out of postseason play twice over that span. The Patriots will be down a man however after leading receiver Wes Welker tore both his MCL and ACL in the season finale against Houston.
Welker isn’t the only leading receiver to suffer an injury in the season finale as the Cincinnati Bengals Chad Ochocinco bruised his knee in warm-ups prior to the Bengals finale against the New York Jets. Ironically, both teams will open the playoffs against each other as the first game on Saturday. The Bengals will be seeking revenge after getting blanked by the Jets 37-0.
The fifth seed Baltimore Ravens round out the AFC’s playoff pool. The Ravens won three of their remaining four games to earn consecutive trips to the playoffs and will try to make amends after falling one game short last season of making the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance.
This year’s playoff pool of participants is deep and talented and all offer something different to the table. Teams like New Orleans, San Diego and Green Bay offer explosive offenses while squads like Baltimore and New York bring stingy defenses with them. The Packers and Dallas Cowboys may be the most well-rounded teams in this year’s tournament while the Minnesota Vikings and Chargers are probably the most talented.
I expect the Chargers and Packers to end up facing off in the Super Bowl with the Bolts edging the Pack narrowly in a close thriller. It’s the Chargers’ year after back-to-back playoff exits to the eventual AFC Super Bowl representative. The Bolts are the hottest team in football and you’re not going to find a pair of 6-5 and over cover corners to match up with their shooting guard-sized receivers. Rivers has quietly put together an MVP season and he’ll join classmates Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning to form the most prestigious quarterback draft class ever after he captures his first Super Bowl and solidifies the QB class of ’04.
2-2 mark over the weekend, not great but not bad. The New England Patriots were my last chance at a winning record but jeez … the Saints really took it to them on Monday night and killed that aspiration. Another exciting weekend in the books; last second scores, heroic efforts and comeback performances. This weekend had it all, just in case you missed anything:
New England Patriots vs. New Orleans Saints
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“Brees won’t let things get out of hand on his own field. Brees is threatening Peyton Manning for the MVP award and trumping Brady would give him the same card that Manning holds already. It’s hard picking against Belichick and Brady but the Saints have made fools out of anybody that’s picked against them this year. The Saints haven’t played the toughest of schedules this year but beating New England would give them the last bit of respect that they feel they’re not getting. But that’s easier said than done. Brady’s killer instinct and Belichick’s “who cares” attitude will cut down the Saints bid for an undefeated record.”
What actually happened …
The Saints demolished New England 38-17. Demolish is a light word considering what actually took place inside the Superdome on Monday night. Brees passed for five touchdowns and a perfect passer rating of 158.3. New Orleans jumped the Patriots in the second quarter, outscoring New England 21-3 in the period. Probably more impressive than Brees’ performance, the Saints held Brady without a touchdown pass and picked him off twice on their way to a rout. Brees found five different receivers on each of his scoring strikes and New England had no answer for New Orleans’ explosive offense.
My Reactions …
Wow. New Orleans (11-0) ran circles around one of the best teams in the AFC and looked fabulous doing so. New Orleans isn’t strong at stopping the run, which teams try to exploit, but because the Saints can score in a matter of seconds, it makes it nearly impossible for teams to commit to the ground game. New England came out running the ball with some success in the game’s early moments. After the Saints ripped apart New England’s secondary in the second quarter, the Patriots had to abandon the run game and play catch up. Even with flaws on defense, New Orleans manages to cover them up with a potent offense. They’re obviously the best team in the league right now and seemed destined for a NFC title game appearance.
New England (7-4) looked really really really old last Monday night. Their defense couldn’t stop anything and even their offense looked slow. The Patriots aren’t giving Brady the same time he was afforded in 2007 and maybe it’s the beard but Randy Moss looks like a washed up wideout who can only run deep. New England running back Laurence Maroney is only 24 but runs like he’s 34. This might be the ultimate testament to how good the Saints are though. New England is one of the best teams in the league but the Saints made them look like a .500 team on its last leg. Not sure where New England is headed but Brady is going to have to mask a lot of New England’s deficiencies. With Brady fresh off a ripped up knee, I’m not really sure how much Brady can hide. Stay tuned…
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“Baltimore is still smarting after a 0-3 mark against the Steelers last year and with another game with Pittsburgh on the horizon the week before the season ends, the Ravens know they have to strike now while the iron is hot. No Troy Polamalu and a woozy Roethlisberger is blood in the water for the thirsty Ravens and they’ll be ready to drink on Sunday.”
What actually happened …
The Ravens beat the Steelers 20-17 in overtime. It was a valiant effort by third string quarterback Dennis Dixon and the rest of the Steelers but Baltimore came away with more plays in the fourth quarter and knocked off their hated rival. Sophomore runner Ray Rice totaled 155 yards against the Steelers and his 44-yard reception in the fourth quarter led Baltimore to the tying field goal after the Ravens trailed 17-14 in the fourth quarter. Rookie pass rusher Paul Kruger then intercepted Dixon’s third down pass in overtime and raced 26 yards to set Baltimore up for the game winning field goal.
My reactions …
It wasn’t pretty, but the Ravens (6-5) got it done against a shorthanded Steeler team. It was a must win for Baltimore who will travel next week to Green Bay to take on the sizzling Packers. The Ravens are in good hands with Rice and sophomore signal caller Joe Flacco. Both are light years ahead of average second year men and with their defense rounding back into form, Baltimore could make a late season push for a playoff spot with three of their final four games coming against below .500 teams.
Things got a little bit testy over quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s early Saturday scratch. The Steelers (6-5) went the majority of the week under the belief that their star quarterback would be ready to roll and his late week decision to sit out caused some stir in the locker room. Pittsburgh has now lost three straight games and adding a possible locker room rift won’t help things in western Pennsylvania. The Steelers will catch a bit of a break when they host the Oakland Raiders next week but after a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs a few weeks ago, that might not be such a sure thing. Stay tuned…
Arizona Cardinals vs. Tennessee Titans
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“Warner was dinged up last week after he took a blow to the head and didn’t return for the second half of the Cards’ win against the St. Louis Rams. His status is vital if Arizona wants to reach a 6-0 road mark on Sunday. Regardless of their impressive collection of skill players, without Warner, this offense just doesn’t click. The Titans defense has been playing well during their win streak and would probably be able to handle Warner’s backup Matt Leinhart. Reports suggest Warner will be able to go but if he’s slowed, the Titans could pull the upset but I won’t pick against that group of skill guys if Warner is there to stir the drink.”
What actually happened …
The Titans narrowly dodged Arizona 20-17. Trailing 17-13 with 2:37 left in the fourth quarter, Vince Young marched the Titans 99 yards in 18 plays and capped it off with a last second strike to rookie wideout Kenny Britt with no time remaining on the clock. It was Tennessee’s fifth-straight win and the Cardinals first road loss of the season. Kurt Warner was forced to sit out with a concussion and Matt Leinhart took over but couldn’t will Arizona to a victory. In the matchup of 2005’s Rose Bowl starting QBs, Leinhart failed to throw a touchdown pass and Young passed for a career-high 387 yards, trumping Leinhart once again after Young one upped him in a memorable college game.
My reactions …
Tennessee is on fire. The Titans (5-6) have won five straight and Chris Johnson and Young have been killing teams with their two-man tag team. The defense has been revitalized after their week seven bye. After a 0-6 start, it’s become a real possibility that the Titans could push for a playoff spot but a road trip against the undefeated Indianapolis Colts looms. But the Titans will be game for a chance to get even at .500. If Tennessee can get past the Colts, home games against the St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins could have the Titans where they want to be but there’s a team they still have to take care of first. Stay tuned…
Arizona (7-4) is a strong team and shouldn’t be devastated by their last second collapse. Leinhart didn’t know he would play until the later stages of last week and a full week or preparation would go a long way should Warner be forced to miss anymore time. The Cardinals will get the Minnesota Vikings (10-1) at home on Sunday night but Leinhart will probably have to play the best game of his career if the Cards are to cut down the Vikings. Stay tuned…
Indianapolis Colts vs. Houston Texans
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“Peyton Manning has the Colts under a 19-game regular season winning streak right now and he would love nothing better than to tie Brady’s 20-game regular season winning streak of a few seasons ago. He has the Colts on schedule for home-field advantage but with Houston in the middle of the playoff hunt and ready to extract some payback, Indy will be in for another tough game. But tough games don’t scare Indy. Houston would normally be the trendy pick but until they can win a big time game, you won’t find me picking them.”
What actually happened …
The Colts beat the Texans 35-27. Similar to last year’s game, the Texans were leading 20-7 before Indy started another comeback. The Colts outscored Houston 28-7 in the second half and Manning threw for three touchdowns. Indy ran off 28 consecutive points before Houston’s Matt Schaub threw a late touchdown pass with 18 seconds left in the game. Indianapolis ran their win streak to 20 games and Manning will have the opportunity to break Tom Brady’s 20-game regular season win streak with a victory next week.
My reactions …
The Colts (11-0) just keep chugging along and you have to be impressed. This might be the weakest Colts team in the last six or seven years but Manning has them at the top of the AFC and tied for the best record in the league. It’s not all Manning’s doing as the Colts are getting solid efforts out of their banged up defense but Manning is still the driving force. He just doesn’t lose and even when the Colts got down 14-0 early in the game, no one sitting in Reliant Stadium in Houston thought the game was getting away from Indy. The Colts will get a stiff test next week against the resurgent Titans but there’s no doubt Manning will be up for the task.
Houston (5-6) continues to show their not ready to take that next step into the league’s elite teams. The Texans had Indy down 20-7 at the half and then got shutout for most of the second half until Schaub’s late strike. It’s obvious Houston can compete with some of the league’s better teams but there’s still something missing. Until they figure out what’s lacking, the Texans will be stuck in neutral until they can start matching opposing teams’ intensity level.
15-9 on the season I am. Somewhat satisfied I am. Going undefeated this week I will. Another NFL weekend doozy coming up. Although the season is already dwindling, the matchups continue to heat up. It’s a shame football can’t be played all year long but while it’s here, we got to enjoy every drop of it. And the flavor couldn’t be better for this week with four huge games on the menu.
Typically, I’m pretty sure about my picks but I could easily see me going winless this week.All four major matchups this week contain teams that can easily beat one another but even though I’m not completely sure, something had to be done:
Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2)
There’s no better matchup than a slate between two good division teams. It also helps when both teams absolutely hate each other and Bengals’ QB Carson Palmer has already gone on record in recent years saying he hates the Steelers. After clobbering two pretty good teams last week both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will enter Sunday with the division on the line.
A Bengals win would give them a stranglehold over the division with a 5-0 divisional record. Pittsburgh sits at 1-1 in the AFC North with that one loss coming in their second half meltdown in Cincinnati earlier this year. The Steelers had a firm grip on that game before a dropped touchdown pass and a pick-six led to their 23-20 loss. But things are a little different this time around for both squads.
Sophomore running back Rashard Mendenhall gets his crack at the Bengals after being benched for disciplinary reasons in the first meeting. The Steelers have gone 5-0 with Mendenhall in the lineup and the youngster is averaging 5.7 yards a carry. He has singlehandedly restored the Pittsburgh running game and the Steelers offense is benefiting from it. Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu will also get his first start against Cincinnati this season after missing the first meeting with a knee injury. Polamalu is the center piece to the Steelers’ puzzling defense and has two interceptions in three games since his return.
The outlook isn’t so bright for the Bengals. Although they’ve been playing extremely well, the personnel losses have been starting to mount for Cincinnati. They lost wide receiver and notorious “Steeler-Killer” Chris Henry last week to a broken arm but that was before leading sack man Antawn Odom went down with a ruptured Achilles.
Cincinnati is the most balanced team in the AFC but the Steelers are known to wipe balance away from opposing teams. The Bengals have fed off running back Cedric Benson and their running game all season but Pittsburgh leads the league in run defense, giving up just 70.4 yards a game. Pittsburgh had Cincinnati on the ropes in their first contest but couldn’t finish them off because of a lackluster running game. Mendenhall has beefed up that phase of the Steeler attack and expect Pittsburgh to be the more balanced of the two teams this weekend. Whichever teams fails to establish the run will lose and all signs point to Cincy struggling in that category. Steelers 27-17
Dallas Cowboys (6-2) vs. Green Bay Packers (4-4)
I want to like the Packers because they’re a historic team with a top tier QB but they have too many problems. They don’t run the ball consistently well and they don’t protect their quarterback at all. They’re defense can only shut down inferior teams and their secondary (which is supposed to be the strength of their defense) gets shredded too often. Nevertheless they’re a difficult team to beat at home and will be ready to play after an embarrassing loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is putting up outstanding numbers this year and would be a MVP candidate if the Packers had a better record. He has a live arm, strong confidence and is deceptively mobile. He has some pretty nice weapons to work with on his side of the ball and the Green Bay offense means that they’re always in the game.
The Cowboys however, have been on top of their game in recent weeks and are currently riding a four-game win streak. Rodgers, Drew Brees and Brett Favre are probably the only few QBs in the NFC playing better ball than the Cowboys’ Tony Romo right now, who has responded with a successful season so far after a disastrous ’08. Romo’s finding his receivers, protecting the ball and leading his team the way upper echelon signal callers are supposed to. Dallas has been getting strong play out of both their offense and defense and even the ‘Boys’ special teams have scored in two of the last three weeks.
At 4-4, Green Bay’s back is slightly against the wall. They’ve lost two straight, haven’t beaten a team with a winning record all season and just lost to the last remaining winless team. Another loss this week and Packer fans could be ready to storm the field. Green Bay desperately wants to prove it can win without Favre but until they can play consistent defense and protect Rodgers, that won’t happen. The ‘Boys excel at pressing the passer and their offense has been pretty hot for the past few weeks. If the ‘Boys aren’t too full over their big win against the Eagles, they’ll handle the Packers on Sunday. Cowboys 34-26
Philadelphia Eagles (5-3) vs. San Diego Chargers (5-3)
The last time Philadelphia flew across country to play a California team, they loss an embarrassing game to the dismal Oakland Raiders. It’s safe to say the San Diego Chargers are a better team than the Raiders so Philly will want to pay extra attention in the film room this week. San Diego has renewed confidence after winning three-straight and seeing the division-leading Denver Broncos drop two in a row.
This will be the Eagles toughest road test to date and things could get scary if top corner Asante Samuels is slowed by a neck injury he sustained last week against Dallas. The Chargers love to launch the ball downfield and have all kinds of weapons to make that happen. Star receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Antonio Gates are huge targets and Chargers’ QB Phillip Rivers just tosses the ball up for them to grab.
By taking away the deep ball, the Cowboys laid out the blueprint on how to beat the Eagles last week and San Diego has the personnel to get the job done. Philadelphia specializes in the long ball but San Diego may have the best pair of corners in the AFC. Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer are well equipped to limit Donovan McNabb’s looks downfield and Cromartie has the length and speed to stay near speedy Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson.
It’s not known whether Eagles running back Brian Westbrook will play and his status would be a big boost or big loss for Philadelphia. San Diego is somewhat iffy in their ability to stop the run but fortunately for them, the Eagles don’t run the ball well. If Westbrook is unable to play, the Chargers could just run away with this game. Philadelphia is going to bring their exotic blitzes against the Chargers but Rivers is experienced enough to handle that with ease. Once the Eagles do sell out with their blitz schemes, Rivers will be allowed to take advantage of Philly’s smallish cornerbacks and launch the ball downfield to the biggest set of receivers in the league. Chargers 30-23
New England Patriots (6-2) vs. Indianapolis Colts (8-0)
After struggling with average teams the past couple of weeks, the Colts get their first major test of the season when they host the Patriots at Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend. If this is the game that will decide home field advantage in the AFC then Indy is probably wishing they could’ve played the Pats earlier in the year. The Colts will be without three starters in their secondary against New England and for Tom Brady and Randy Moss, that equals big trouble.
New England’s offense has been clicking after struggling earlier in the year with consistency. Brady has 12 touchdown strikes in the last four weeks and Moss has benefitted from Brady’s hot streak with four TDs in three weeks. While the Patriot offense is catching fire, Peyton Manning and the Indy attack has been tapering off. Manning has just one touchdown pass in the last two weeks. The Patriots haven’t seen a QB quite like Manning all season however, and could be on their heels if Manning gets hot.
Manning will have to be at his best on Sunday to compensate for the Colts’ depleted secondary. If he tries to force anything, New England’s defense has been opportunistic over the last few weeks and could make Manning pay.
Indianapolis will be at home which will give them a huge boost on Sunday but that will probably be their only advantage against a stronger Patriot team. Indy is too banged up to run with the Patriots’ band of receivers and unless Colts defensive coordinator Larry Coyer comes up with a fantastic scheme between Monday and Saturday, New England could put up a lot of points. It’s no coincidence that New England’s two losses so far this year have come against teams featuring outstanding cover men. The Jets’ Darrelle Revis limited Moss to four catches for 24 yards and Denver’s Champ Bailey allowed Moss only one catch in an October clash. With their fourth and fifth string corners playing, Indy may be in a world of trouble. This would be the ideal game for the Colts to kill the clock with a punishing run game but Indianapolis is only averaging 85 rushing yards per game as a team. Patriots 31-20