NFL Wild-Card Preview and Playoff Picks
As we draw closer to the start of the 2008 NFL playoffs, two facts are evident: 1) there is no clear Super Bowl favorite, 2) four road favorites in the wild-card round is unprecedented.
In other words, buckle up. The wackiest and most unpredictable regular season this decade is about to enter do-or-die mode, and nobody knows how it’s all gonna go down.
Everything is so up in the air that even the big boys out west are tentative. Considering every road team is between a one and three point favorite, Vegas sportsbooks — as opposed to last year with the Patriots — have backed off and are allowing the bettors to determine the prevailing sentiment when it comes to picking outright winners. Common logic indicates that home teams have a marked advantage in an elimination format, yet reality says the four best teams taking the field this weekend are doing so on the road.
The bettors have generally agreed. With the exception of the Colts, each road team has gained steam throughout the week (Philly opened at a one-point underdog and is currently a three-point favorite; Baltimore rose from 2.5 to 3.5 point favorites; Atlanta from 1.5 to 2), meaning money has been laid heavier on the road teams. Vegas, in its effort to balance the betting, has responded by swelling the lines even more in favor of the away teams.
That — as any oddsmaker will allow — is problematic, because home field still absolutely means something in the playoffs. You can be assured that at least one of the home ‘dogs advances to divisional weekend. So which squad will protect its turf?
(6) Philadelphia Eagles at (3) Minnesota Vikings
Tavaris Jackson can’t handle the blitz and Jim Johnson is one of the best blitzing defensive coordinators in the league. That’s what you call a game-changing mismatch. As well as Jackson has performed since regaining his job (8 touchdowns, one interception), he’ll have to be even better if the Vikings are to stand a chance. And that’s assuming Minnesota can establish Adrian Peterson early and take some heat off its quarterback. The numbers say Minnesota’s fifth-ranked rushing offense and Philadelphia’s fourth-ranked rushing defense will offset one another. If that’s the case this game could get ugly.
Of course AP is capable of breaking off a huge run on any given carry. However, if the Eagles front seven come out and stuff him early that will open the floodgates for Johnson to bring the noise. Peterson should be able to get some decent yardage, which will keep the Eagles defense (relatively) at bay. The x-factor is Brian Westbrook. If he can run on Minnesota’s stout trench defense, Philly will roll.
The Vikings will come out inspired by a boisterous Metrodome crowd enjoying its first playoff game since 2000, but a healthy dose of Westbrook and too much pressure from Johnson’s defense will end Minnesota’s season at home.
Eagles 27 Vikings 16
(5) Atlanta Falcons at (4) Arizona Cardinals
No one is impressed with the way the Cardinals played down the stretch, highlighted by no-shows at home against Minnesota and in New England. Conversely, the Falcons — behind Matt Ryan and Michael Turner — continued to open eyes right through Week 17. Going into Minnesota on Dec. 21 and knocking off the playoff-hungry Vikings was a quality showing and helped Atlanta shed the moniker of “suspect road team”. However, it must be pointed out that Ryan was just 13-for-24 with 134 yards and a touchdown in that game. Turner finished with a decent day’s work: 19 carries, 70 yards, one touchdown. It was really the Vikings who beat themselves, losing four fumbles.
The Cardinals run defense is vastly inferior to the Vikings, but they do have playmakers in the secondary (notably safety Adrian Wilson). Let’s not kid ourselves. This game will be an air-it-out affair. Led by Kurt Warner, Arizona boasts the best passing attack of any playoff team. All three starting wideouts for the Cardinals caught at least 77 balls and logged over 1,000 yards receiving. Atlanta’s Roddy White and Michael Jenkins are a comparable duo and will give Arizona’s secondary problems with their size and aggressiveness. But will Ryan be able to get the ball to them with the same consistency as Warner will to his trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston?
Ryan, who won three of four games in December, averaged just 200 yards passing and tossed only three touchdowns in that span. He’ll need to combine with Turner for 400-plus yards and four touchdowns if the Falcons are going to keep up with Warner, who thrives when he has time to sit back in the pocket and pick apart defenses. Arizona was 6-2 at home and weather is not an issue. Cards move on.
Cardinals 31 Falcons 27
(6) Baltimore Ravens at (3) Miami Dolphins
Of all the wild-card matchups, this is the one where home field matters the least. Baltimore’s defense relishes going on the road and silencing opposing crowds. They’ve already done it to the Dolphins once this season, taking the first big bite out of the Wildcat en route to a 27-13 Week 7 victory in Miami.
Until the Fins brought back the old single wing and delved deep into the trick-playbook this year, it was traditionally held that NFL teams relying on misdirection plays and flee-flickers as principle means of generating offense would ultimately fail. Sure enough, after gathering enough tape of the formation and the roots of its successes, defenses started to adjust and minimize the damage. Unfortunately for Miami, it was most likely the tape of the Baltimore game that furnished opposing coordinators with a blueprint for stopping the Wildcat. The simple fact is Miami’s offense isn’t good enough to succeed without the Wildcat.
Another adage that always holds true in the playoffs: running the ball and stopping the run leads to wins. Wildcat formations aside, Baltimore’s running game (fourth the league) and rushing defense (third in the league) will enable the Ravens to control both sides of the line of scrimmage. In order to beat the Ravens you must throw deep on them, and Chad Pennington lacks the arm and the true home run threat to do so. Baltimore stuffs the Dolphins and advances.
Ravens 20 Dolphins 10
(5) Indianapolis Colts at (4) San Diego Chargers
12 wins was supposed to get the Colts a first round bye. 8 wins was supposed to get the Chargers a date on their couches for the playoffs. Yet here we are, on the brink of an unlikely wild-card meeting between two teams that have developed quite the rivalry over the last couple years. NFL insiders often note how the postseason doesn’t really begin until divisional weekend. Don’t let the disparity in records deceive you; this will be the game of the weekend, a contest that will become the bar-setter for every game to come.
The case for the Colts is cut and dry. Winners of nine straight, they are the league’s hottest team entering the postseason. Peyton Manning just collected his third piece of MVP hardware, and this may have been his best job yet considering the pieces around him. Tony Dungy is an exceptional coach with a ring. Done and done, right? Not so fast. The Chargers are peaking at the right time for the second year in a row. Their offense has averaged over 37 points per game during a four-game winning streak to close the season. The defense allowed just 18.5 points per game since Ron Rivera was inserted in place of Ted Cottrell. And bear in mind that if Jake Delhomme doesn’t complete a miraculous touchdown pass with no time on the clock in Week 1 and Ed Hochuli doesn’t blow the call vs. Denver in Week 2, the Chargers are a much more appealing 10-6.
Because both offenses are operating at such high levels and both defenses remain mediocre at best, clock management and red zone offense will be focal points in this game. Three and outs will be scarce. Sustained drives will be common. The longer Manning can keep the ball away from Phillip Rivers the better, and vice versa. That means establishing Joseph Addai and LaDainian Tomlinson will be key. The early edge goes to LT, who looked positively reinvigorated last week against Denver, finding the end zone three times and once again showing off his singular cutback ability. A groin strain isn’t expected to keep him out.
When the teams met in Week 12, Rivers led a game-tying drive late. Norv Turner made the grave mistake of calling a timeout on third down, which contributed to Manning getting the ball back with 90 seconds remaining. He navigated the Colts into field goal range and Adam Vinatieri booted a 51-yarder to win the game. The rematch is so tough to call because the game will be tight in the fourth quarter. This side of Tom Brady, Manning is the best in the business at leading game-winning drives. But San Diego ranks first in the league with a 47.5 percent scoring rate on drives after the opposition has scored. Basically the quarterback who has the ball in his hands last will win the game.
Given how the season began and ended for the Chargers, it seems like the football gods are with them. Rivers will lead San Diego from behind on the final drive and end Manning’s season for the second straight year.
Chargers 26 Colts 24
Rest of Playoff Picks
(2) Pittsburgh over (4) San Diego
(6) Baltimore over (1) Tennessee
(6) Philadelphia over (1) NY Giants
(2) Carolina over (4) Arizona
(2) Pittsburgh over (6) Baltimore
(2) Carolina over (6) Philadelphia
Super Bowl XLIII
Pittsburgh over Carolina