As of last night, the NFL completed the regular season and this upcoming Sunday the Wild Card round will begin. I’ll give a quick break down for those of you who aren’t football savvy.
The Wild Card round features the #3 & #4 seeded teams from the NFC & AFC and pits them against the “Wild Card” teams in the #5 & #6 playoff spots. Generally, Wild Card teams make the playoffs as a result of any number of complicated scenarios in which certain teams must win/lose in order for another team to qualify. Additionally, two teams in each conference receive a bye this week since they hold the superior records; this also guarantees them home-field advantage (unless the #1 & #2 seeds were to play). In the NFC, the teams on a bye are the New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings. In the AFC, it’s the Indianapolis Colts and the San Diego Chargers. The winners of Wild Card Weekend will advance to face the #1 & #2 seeds, and then the winners of that game go on to the Conference Finals, and after that…the big one, Super Bowl XLIV in Miami. Below, D. Hud and I have made our predictions and analysis of the games. Enjoy.
NFC Wild Card Round
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Dallas Cowboys (Sat 8:00pm EST)
The Eagles lost their chance to get home-field advantage and clearly they needed it because now they must return to Cowboys Stadium and beat the “Boys in their own house. I doubt it, everyone (myself included) has been talking trash about how the Cowboys are a weak December team & what-not. Pause on that thought, the Cowboys come strolling into the playoffs on a 3-game winning streak in which they beat the once undefeated Saints, the Deadskins (really a given) and now their playoff rivals the Philadelphia Eagles…and they still have a chip on their shoulder. The Cowboys rid themselves of distractions this year, no T.O, Pacman Jones, Jessica Simpson, nothing! And while they struggled early on to replace T.O.’s production that became a non-issue with the rise of Miles Austin (81 catches, 1320 yds, 11 TDs & no drama). Their running game is still shy of what it needs to be but if Marion Barber & Felix Jones can do what they did last night *breathes deep* the Cowboys could make the Super Bowl, there I said it.
On the other-end The Eagles looked pitiful. They have not had a consistent or dominant running game this year…rather their bread-and-butter has been DeSean Jackson and his remarkable speed which leads to the big play. In truth, these are the same Eagles of years past always living and dying with the big play…and now they don’t even have Brian Westbrook to rely on. In the past the Eagles could break a team down with quick runs, screen passes, and check-downs to Westbrook…but after two concussions, Westbrook has only just returned to play. But again, none of that really mattered last night because the Eagles couldn’t get anything going. After Sunday, the Eagles have lost both games to the Cowboys in similar fashion but these are the playoffs and crazy things happen…and that’s the only way Philly wins, if something crazy happens.
Prediction: Cowboys 27 – Eagles 14
Green Bay Packers vs. Arizona Cardinals (Sun 4:40pm EST)
Another rematch series. The outcome of Sunday’s game was 33-7 with a Packers win and in defense of the Cardinals they did not need the game to qualify for the playoffs and Arizona head coach, Ken Whisenhunt decided to rest his players. And unlike the Cowboys/Eagles matchup there isn’t much of a story between these two teams carrying over from the 2009 regular season. The Packers have made their way this season on the arm of Aaron Rodgers and riding a strong defensive unit but at the same time they have not played a very difficult schedule staying hot and playing hard might be a big advantage for them but their biggest disadvantage is the cross-country trips.
Green Bay has not been great at limiting a team’s passing yards and their opponent features two elite receivers in Fitzgerald & Boldin. In the playoffs last year Fitzgerald was a monster and was compared to the great Jerry Rice (the greatest receiver of all-time) and he cannot be stopped, they key will be pressure on Kurt Warner. The Packers likewise must protect Aaron Rodgers (the most-sacked QB this season) because pressuring Rodgers is definitely a key to the Game for the Cardinals. Arizona isn’t sitting pretty either…they’re a streaky team and when their players explode they can pull off a win, their issue is the lack of a consistent running game. Beanie Wells is the better rusher of their two backs but early on in the season Tim Hightower was the man because he was a better pass-blocker; but neither is dominant enough to be a feature-back. When Wells can have a solid game with 4.0ypc and at least 70 yards, meaning he just break big runs then the Cardinals get room to open up their passing game. I think Arizona gets a favor in this game from the traveling Green Bay has to do which might leave players tired late in the game. I’m predicting a shoot-out both teams favor the passing game and have strong receiving tandems,the difference maker will be the running game & pressure on the QB.
* Prediction: Cardinals 31 – Packers 34
AFC Wild Card Round
New York Jets vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Sat 4:30pm EST)
And yet ANOTHER rematch series! For those of you who watch Sunday Night Football on NBC, you’ll know that the Bengals just played the Jets in New York last night. The final score: 37-0, in favor of the Jets. Yes, you read that correctly. 37-0. This Saturday, however, the Jets will be going to Cincinnati to try to win again against the Bengals, in order to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
This season, with rookie coach Rex Ryan and rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez at the helm of the team, not many expected the Jets to go as far as they have. Looking back at the regular season, however, it’s important to note that the Jets did have the best defense in the league, only allowing averages of 252.3 yards per game and 14.8 points per game. On the other side of the ball, they also had the best rushing game in the league, averaging 172.3 yards per game behind Thomas Jones (a former Cavalier) and Shonn Greene. Not even the Titans, with both Chris Johnson and mobile QB Vince Young, could beat that. Still, the Bengals ranked 7th in the league for their own rush defense, only allowing 98.3 yards per game on the ground, so we’ll see how that matches up with the Jets’ running game. The only thing that gives me pause is the Jets’ passing game. Sanchez threw for only 2,444 yards this season, with 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Yeah… not that great of a stat-line.
As far as offense goes, the Bengals are pretty average. On the ground behind Cedric Benson, the Bengals averaged 128.5 rushing yards per game, ranking 9th in the league. Through the air, however the Bengals only averaged 180.6 passing yards per game behind Carson Palmer, ranking 26th in the league. And on top of that, Chad Ochocinco, who is Palmer’s main receiving target with 1,047 receiving yards and 9 TD, injured his knee before last night’s matchup. Although he still played in the game last night, he had zero catches and broke his streak of 120 games with at least one reception.
The Jets haven’t had much success in their playoff history, with a postseason record of 6-11 since 1968, when they won their first and only Super Bowl. I don’t see them winning a Super Bowl this year either, but I do think they’ll add at least one more win to that postseason record.
Prediction: Jets 24 – Bengals 17
Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots (Sun 1:00pm EST)
The New England Patriots: the team that no one wants to go up against. As sportscaster Bob Costas said last night, “In a single-elimination game, who really wants to play the Patriots?” Well, the Ravens will have to do that this Sunday.
The Patriots come into this game with the third-best passing game in the league, averaging 277.3 yards per game this season behind Tom Brady. Bad news, though: his top target, Wes Welker, injured his left knee in yesterday’s game against the Texans. Likely a tear of his ACL and MCL, Brady should be without Welker for the rest of the playoffs. And, seeing as how Welker led the Patriots’ receiving corps with 123 catches for 1,348 yards and 4 touchdowns, this is a huge loss for New England. Randy Moss, however, will likely step up to fill Welker’s shoes, as he had 1,264 receiving yards himself, along with 13 touchdowns. The Patriots’ running game isn’t too bad, either. Ranking 12th in the league behind Laurence Maroney, the Patriots have a solid game on the ground to complement their air attack.
The Ravens, however, have always been known for their defense. This season, they tied with the Redskins for the eighth-best pass defense in the league, and also had the fifth-best rush defense. At the end of the day, they only gave up an average of 16.3 points per game. On the offensive side, they ranked fifth in the league in rushing yards, behind Ray Rice, who ran for 1,339 yards and 7 touchdowns, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Against the Patriots’ run defense, ranked 13th in the league, I’m sure Rice will do a little bit of damage. Joe Flacco, though, also did some damage through the air this season, throwing for 3,613 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
At the end of the day, though, I have to go back to what Bob Costas said. No matter what, the Patriots always seem to be able to pull it together. As Brady said earlier this morning, the Patriots will “evolve a little bit as an offense now. It was a very Wes Welker-oriented offense. And now, maybe part of the advantage is Baltimore doesn’t really know what they’re going to see from us now.” I agree.
Prediction: Patriots 27 – Ravens 21