We have finally arrived at the most exciting weekend of the NFL season. Single elimination games on Saturday and Sunday mean that Wild Card weekend is finally here.
Interestingly enough, three of the visiting teams are favored. Given the parity in the league, that is not surprising, and it makes for some intriguing match-ups.
Atlanta Falcons at Arizona Cardinals
If you look at the way Arizona has played all year, it would seem like this game sets up perfectly for them. They were horrible on the road and looked unstoppable at home. They have an experienced quarterback that has won a Super Bowl and stud receivers.
They are playing against a rookie quarterback in his first playoff game. With all this, Arizona has glaring issues that can’t be ignored. They can’t stop the run, and few teams run it as well as the Falcons.
The Cardinals have feasted on the poor teams in their division. When they have played good teams, they have faltered badly.
In the last six weeks, they have lost at home to the Giants and Vikings, and were totally destroyed on the road by New England and Philadelphia.
The Falcons, on the other hand, played in a better division and had better results against the better teams. They pound the ball with Michael Turner, and Matt Ryan has been clutch at quarterback making plays time and time again.
They are a physical football team, and that is where I believe they will beat the Cardinals.
Atlanta’s rushing stats have been better at home but I think they have enough to beat Arizona. Matt Ryan is no ordinary rookie, and will not make critical mistakes.
Falcons 27, Cardinals 23
Indianapolis Colts at San Diego Chargers
The Chargers have played thrilling and inspired football to squeak their way into the playoffs and have momentum. Phillip Rivers has been nothing short of spectacular, and it is not surprising to see him putting the team on his back and getting them to the post-season.
The Colts somehow have flown under the radar. They have been the best team in the AFC the last eight weeks, and no one can remember the last time they lost.
Peyton Manning is the best quarterback left in the playoffs, and when he is clicking on all cylinders like he is now, there is no stopping them.
The Colts don’t have much of a running game to speak of, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem in sunny San Diego.
Manning and crew are one of the only good teams in the league that don’t need balance on offense to be successful. It would hurt them in a bad weather game, but not this week.
The key match-up here is the Charger defense versus the Colts offense. In their game earlier in the year Indianapolis rushed for 93 yards and beat San Diego.
The Chargers must stuff the run and make the Colts one-dimensional. There also needs to be a LaDainian Tomlinson sighting.
Rivers will need to be Superman again along with LT, and their defense will have to be better than it was in their first game if they are to win. I believe another home team will go down here.
Colts 31, Chargers 20
Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins
Much has been written about the resurgence of the Dolphins and the MVP-caliber season that Chad Pennington has enjoyed. Their offense is imaginative and diverse. Their play-calling and coaching is excellent, and they can beat you with the run or the pass.
The big question for them is how will they fare against one of the most physical and intimidating defenses in the league. Pennington is not very mobile and could be a sitting duck against Ray Lewis and the boys.
Miami will have to stay out of third-and-long situations so they are not at the mercy of the Ravens defense.
The Dolphins will have to use their entire offensive arsenal to keep Baltimore off balance. They will have to find something that works, whether it is the Wildcat formation or something else. This will be a tough game for them to win.
Fortunately for the Ravens they have not had to depend on their rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, to make plays for them all the time for them to be effective.
Their suffocating defense keeps them in the game and they make plays off of their ground attack and play action.
Their defense is very proficient at scoring on opponent interceptions and fumbles as well.
I don’t see Ronnie Brown and Rickie Williams having a lot of success on the ground, and the Ravens will not let Pennington sit back and pick them apart.
The Dolphins will have to force Flacco to make critical mistakes for them to have a chance. As a rookie, he may be susceptible to the pressure.
Ravens 23, Dolphins 10
Philadelphia Eagles at Minnesota Vikings
The Eagles are on a roll right now. Donovan McNabb is playing with newfound confidence and the defense is playing lights out. Their third-ranked defense is shutting down the run, sacking quarterbacks and suffocating receivers.
This means that McNabb doesn’t have to be spectacular, just efficient. They will have to be good this week to stop Adrian Peterson.
Everything begins and ends for the Vikings with the threat of Peterson running the ball. If Philadelphia can’t corral him, it will be a long day for them. Over the last seven games, they have only given up 3.1 yards per carry.
The Vikings are not slouches on defense, either. They can line up and stop anyone. They have impressive wins this year over Carolina, Arizona, and the Giants (New York didn’t have much to play for at that point). They lost to Atlanta, but committed a ton of turnovers to help them.
The X-factor for the Vikings will be how Tarvaris Jackson plays. He will not be a sitting duck for the Eagle defense.
If Philadelphia applies the pressure, he can make plays with his legs. That could be a problem for the Eagles. Jackson also has the propensity to make turnovers when pressured as well, so a lot hinges on how well he plays.
Philadelphia’a running game has to at least be average. It has to be good enough so the Vikings can’t tee off on McNabb. They can’t be one-dimensional, or their season will be over.
Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter will have to be good running and catching the ball.
The Vikings played their way into the playoffs, but the Eagles have the momentum and have been playing better. I’m going with the Eagles’ playoff experience and defense to get them over the top.
Eagles 23 , Vikings 20