Three Week 17 blowouts giving way to a trio of wild-card rematches. Wow. Let’s get right to the breakdowns of a quartet of truly pick ’em Round 1 games.
NY Jets (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
Make no mistake. The Jets are dangerous. They can run the ball and defend the run. The defense gave up just 14.8 points per game in the regular season, best in the league. Darrelle Revis is a shut down corner, having neutralized a handful of the finest wide receivers in the game this year (Randy Moss twice and Andre Johnson among others). As winners of five of the last six, they’re peaking at the right time, highlighted by the 37-0 thumping they doled out to the Bengals last Sunday.
While that game should certainly help the psyche of the Jets, it was far from a true representation of the Bengals. Cedric Benson — the eighth-leading rusher in the AFC — was inactive. Receivers flat out dropped four of Carson Palmer’s first 10 passes. The Cincinnati defense was without a handful of cogs, including Domata Peko, Robert Geathers, Rey Maualuga and Chris Crocker (all are expected to play Saturday). Surely not to be overlooked is the fact the Jets were playing for their season. The Bengals were not.
Now the tables have turned. Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game in nearly two decades. They’ve had only two chances, the most recent of which saw Palmer suffer a devastating knee injury on his first pass against Pittsburgh in 2006. It’s taken the franchise four years to recover from that blow, and Sunday is their first chance to avenge the misfortune. As if they don’t have enough motivation, they will also be playing in the memory of their fallen teammate, Chris Henry.
With the fans at Paul Brown Stadium foaming at the mouth, and Mark Sanchez — who has turned the ball over multiple times on six occasions this season — being counted on to lead his team to victory as a rookie in a hostile environment in the playoffs, it’s tough to see the Jets beating Cincinnati twice in seven days. The Bengals D, which ranked ninth in the NFL with 19 interceptions, will pick Sanchez in a big spot and notch that elusive playoff win.
Baltimore Ravens (9-7) at New England Patriots (10-6)
The Patriots have been forced to start developing a new offensive identity on the fly less than a week after losing Wes Welker to a massive knee injury. His loss really throws a wrench into New England’s Super Bowl chances, but shouldn’t drastically affect the outcome of this game. The Ravens are a talented team; their proponents would point to the four games they’ve lost by three points or fewer and more relevant, the 27-21 defeat they took to the Patriots Week 4 at Foxborough when Mark Clayton dropped a fourth-down pass inside the New England 10-yard line with under a minute to go. A few different bounces of the ball and the Ravens could be 14-2.
The flip side to that is they are simply not as mentally tough as their AFC runner-up squad of a year ago. Teams that have success in January typically aren’t on the short end of close games in the regular season, because those are the ones that are playoff-like, in that they require 60 minutes of physical commitment and superior mental toughness to prevail. In the postseason, when talent gaps are reduced and intensity and competition levels are raised, the team with the psychological edge usually comes out on top. Baltimore hasn’t shown any signs of having that edge in 2009.
Even without Welker, the Patriots will be able to move the ball on a front-seven heavy Ravens defense. The Baltimore corners range from decent (Domonique Foxworth) to below-average (Fabian Washington, Chris Carr). Because of that, Ed Reed will be forced to shade towards Randy Moss all day, which should open up the middle of the field for some seam routes from the tight ends, running backs and Welker’s replacement, Julian Edelman.
When two teams are relatively even on paper, as the Pats and Ravens are, two main factors come into play when trying to determine a winner. 1) Who’s the home team and how significant is its home-field advantage? 2) Which team is more disciplined? In respect to Question No. 2, the nod clearly goes to the Patriots, as the Ravens were second-to-last in the NFL in number of penalties per game (7.2) and were flagged for the most penalty yards (68.4) of any team. New England ranked fourth- and 10th-best in the penalty categories, respectively.
As for home-field advantage, the Patriots were 8-0 at home during the regular season. Tom Brady has never lost a home playoff game (8-0) and the franchise has won 11 straight do-or-die contests at Foxborough, the second-longest run of home dominance in history (Green Bay won 13 in a row at Lambeau Field). All those streaks will continue Sunday.
Green Bay Packers (11-5) at Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
The Cardinals snuck up on everybody last year — pulling a stunning upset of Carolina en route to a Super Bowl berth — but won’t have that luxury this season. Despite being undressed by the Packers last week, the defending NFC champs have many wary of picking against them. Turning a 9-7 season into a Super Bowl run will do that. However, even though the Cardinals finished one game better than last year, this is not the same team it was a year ago.
Arizona’s passing game, No. 2 overall in 2008, slipped to 12th this year. The offense has continued to turn the ball over in droves, yet the defense hasn’t made as many big plays to offset the offense’s carelessness. The team’s turnover differential, which was even in 2008, dropped to minus-5 in ’09.
Injuries are a major concern for the Cardinals as well. Blessed with the closest thing to good health throughout the 2008 playoffs, Arizona has suffered a bunch of injuries this time around. Anquan Boldin missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a sprained ankle. The team leader in sacks, Calais Campbell, will be taking the field Sunday with a broken thumb. In the defensive backfield, corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is nursing a bruised kneecap. And the status of safety Antrel Rolle (thigh) is still not clear.
The Packers, meanwhile, have been tearing teams apart on both sides of the ball. They’ve won seven of their last eight, the only loss coming at Pittsburgh (37-36) on a Ben Roethlisberger-to-Mike Wallace touchdown pass with no time on the clock. They’ve put up nearly 31 points a game in that span and surrendered just 15.6. Aaron Rodgers has had an MVP-caliber campaign leading the offense while the new 3-4 scheme instituted by first-year defensive coordinator Dom Capers has helped the defense come into its own; 24 of the unit’s 37 sacks came in the second half of the season.
When you combine a swarming and pressuring defense like Green Bay’s with a quarterback like Kurt Warner, who likes to survey the field in the pocket, a recipe for disaster is brewing. As great as he is, Warner has a habit of giving the ball away in the face of a fierce pass rush. With Defensive Player of the Year candidate Charles Woodson (9 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 3 touchdowns) on the prowl, the Packers D will make some big plays. The offense will too, rendering the Cardinals’ defense of their NFC crown a brief one.
Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) at Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
Every so often, there’s a wild-card game with Super Bowl implications for both teams. Saturday night the Eagles and Cowboys will clash for the second time in seven days and third this season. The winner will have to be considered a favorite to come out of the NFC.
Judging from last week’s tilt, Dallas is the obvious choice in the rematch. The Cowboys jumped on the Eagles from the beginning and dominated them at the point of attack throughout, piling up 179 yards on the ground while holding an excellent Philly pass rush to a pair of sacks. The game was over by halftime. Who’s to say the same thing isn’t going to happen again? Bear with me.
First off, Donovan McNabb played an ugly game. He didn’t put enough air under a deep pass to DeSean Jackson in the second quarter. A sure touchdown and 7-7 tie would have been the result if not for the poor throw. On the ensuing drive — after the Cowboys had taken a 14-0 lead — McNabb led the offense 67 yards to the Dallas 14 before fumbling a snap out of the shotgun and turning the ball over. Ballgame.
To think McNabb will submit a similar performance in the playoffs is to both underestimate the quarterback and undervalue his track record. Other than Tom Brady, McNabb is the only slinger this decade who has never lost a playoff opener. He’s 6-0 in his career. He’s also had success away from Philadelphia in January, winning three road playoff games, including in Minnesota and New York last year. You will see a whole different Donovan McNabb come Saturday, which spells trouble for a Dallas secondary that Jackson has proven he has the jets to get behind (along with every other secondary in football).
Not to be forgotten is Brian Westbrook. Since returning from a second concussion, he’s totaled 20 touches in two games. Between the delicate nature of concussions and the fact that Philly’s postseason fate was never in question, there was no reason to rush him back. Westbrook will be more significantly featured this time around, and at the very least, his presence should keep some of the Dallas edge rushers a little more at bay.
As golden of an opportunity as the Eagles blew in missing out on the second bye in the NFC last week, that loss swung all the pressure back onto Dallas. Whereas — had they fallen to Philly in Week 17 — the Cowboys would have been a wild-card team not many expected to go on the road and win, they are now the prohibitive favorite of the weekend. They’re hot, they’re at home and they’re playing a team they pushed around seven days ago. Dallas is expected to win.
That could be a problem for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff contest since 1996 and a quarterback who has so far experienced an inglorious run in the tournament. A loss Saturday would drop Tony Romo to 0-3 in his postseason career and give the Cowboys seven consecutive defeats in January, which would be an NFL record. The burden of expectation weighs especially heavy when history is not on your side.
One final note: Of the 19 times divisional opponents have met for a third time in the playoffs after one team swept the other in the regular season, 12 have made it a three-game sweep. However, last year the Giants swept the Eagles in the regular season … and lost at home in the playoffs. In 2007, the Cowboys swept the Giants, and yep, lost the rematch of the rematch at Texas Stadium. Translation: In today’s NFC East, it is nearly impossible to pull off the trifecta. These teams are all too balanced and know each other too well not to make the appropriate adjustments.
The Eagles are going to come out with a better gameplan — they are known to get crafty in the playoffs (hello, Michael Vick?) — and execute it far more soundly than last week. The Cowboys will end up wilting under the pressure of a tight affair in the fourth quarter because whether or not they’ll acknowledge it, that monkey remains on their back.