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NFL Divisional Playoff Preview

Pete McKeownAnalyst IJanuary 6, 2009

This NFL season has been full of upsets and surprises. Miami and Atlanta rising from the ashes of deplorable seasons; Detroit going 0-16; the Patriots winning 11 games and missing the playoffs.

If I were a betting man, my ATM would be in a serious recession.

Last week’s wild card games were no exception. My favorite for the Super Bowl, Indianapolis, was trounced by a .500 Chargers team from the lowly AFC West. Atlanta’s amazing season was stopped short by an 9-7 Arizona; not by their juggernaut of an offense, but by a defense that is about as reliable my ’86 Crown Victoria.

The Philadelphia win in Minnesota was less of a surprise, but still could have gone either way based on the Eagle’s lack of consistency and Viking’s ability to pound the ball on the ground at home.

Baltimore’s dismantling of Miami on the road was the only real no-brainer out of the weekend’s games in my eyes and even that game could have gone in a different direction if Chad Pennington had stayed conservative at the first half instead of throwing a weak punt to the able hands of Ed Reed.

The survivors of the wild card round have little time to celebrate as they each go up against tougher opponents in the quest for Tampa.

Game 1: Baltimore Ravens @ Tennessee Titans, Saturday 4:30 PM


Both these teams enjoy similarly effective systems with two-headed running attacks and QB’s that try to minimize mistakes. For the Titans, Lendale White and rookie Chris Johnson have given new meaning to a thunder and lightning approach, proving to be as effective as any team on the ground. The resurgence of veteran Kerry Collins gives them valuable experience at the helm, and when they run the ball effectively, he has shown his ability to pick a secondary apart. The Ravens’ offense may have struggled a bit against a strong Miami defense but was able to run the ball consistently with Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee while rookie QB Joe Flacco continues to play with a veteran presence and a rocket arm. If either team has an advantage here, it would have to be Tennessee, due to their veteran QB and more explosive running attack (Chris Johnson is a stud), but the two offenses are pretty much even.


This game will be decided based on which defense plays better. The Ravens have been absolute beasts defensively, almost guaranteed to cause costly turnovers. They have veteran superstars on the D-Line (T. Suggs), in the LB core (R. Lewis) and in the secondary (E. Reed), and their play-making ability acts as a second offense. Tennessee’s defense will put fear in any opposing QB’s eyes, especially since their bye week gave valuable rest to injured stars, Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch on defense and center Kevin Mawae. With Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch healthy, the Titans are as talented as anyone on the defensive side of the ball, though I’m giving the slight edge here to the Ravens again because they’re certainly the hotter team.


In a game that will come down to FG’s, both teams employ standout kickers. The Titan’s Rob Bironas can kick it a country mile and the Raven’s Matt Stover has hit 16 out of his last 17, so that’s basically a push. The Titans were 8-1 at home this season, and any time you have to go to someone else’s house, it’s a disadvantage, even though Baltimore had no issue in Miami. In their previous meeting, the Titans won 13-10, but that was in Week 5 so don’t expect that to be a barometer. I give the edge here to the Titans for the sole fact that they have had Jeff Fisher since 1994 and he’s been in this situation enough times to fill two hands while Baltimore’s Coach John Harbaugh is in his very first year.

My Pick

The Ravens have been playing must-win football for about six weeks while the Titans have been injured and coasting to the finish. Ravens 13 Titans 10

Game 2: Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers, Saturday 8:30 PM


These teams couldn’t have more different offensive schemes. The Cardinals passing attack has been among the best in the NFL all season due to their three superstars in Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. They did just enough damage against Atlanta to win the game, and in a previous meeting with Carolina, Warner threw for 387 yards and 3 TD’s in a tough loss. Their running game was nearly nonexistent all season, but last week they showed signs of life with Edgerrin James’ resurrection, which is vital to their survival this week.

Carolina, on the other hand, has a running game to drool over. Deangelo Williams has been outstanding all seasons, scoring 20 TD’s and averaging over five yards a carry. That sets up the passing game that’s not great but definitely serviceable, with Steve Smith’s uncanny big-play ability. This is a draw for me; both teams are relatively one-dimensional in different ways and rely heavily on their strengths.


Neither defense has been stellar this season, but Arizona’s is certainly not as talented. They let up 27 points a game to the Panther’s 21 and have been a doormat for opposing RB’s. Against the Falcons, however, they showed a resilience not seen in the regular season and they shut down Michael Turner, arguably the best RB of the regular season, and look for their defensive stalwart Karlos Dansby to shadow Williams the way he did with Turner.

Carolina’s defense has the potential to be unbelievable any weekend, and Julius Peppers makes for an impossible matchup no matter who the opponent. They have been wildly inconsistent, and unfortunately for them, they are weak against teams who specialize in the pass. In their season finale, they allowed Drew Brees to throw for nearly 400 yards on a Saints team that had a very similar offensive formula as the Cardinals. The edge here easily goes to the Panthers, but if Arizona’s defense carries momentum from last week’s game, it could be interesting.


For me, the most telling stat of this game is the fact that Carolina is undefeated at home and Arizona didn’t win a single road game on the East Coast. Carolina’s John Fox has coached this team well enough to exceed expectations, and they are as confident as any team in these playoffs while Ken Whisenhunt has re-motivated his team into thinking it can beat anyone with their high-powered offense. This is a strong edge to the Panthers, being in Carolina.

My Pick

This game has a potential for an upset depending on which Arizona defense shows up, but I expect the Panthers to pull away in the second half with their stellar run game. Panthers 34 Cardinals 24

Game 3:  Philadelphia Eagles @ New York Giants, Sunday 1 PM


The Eagles offense is as erratic they come. One game they can bust out for 30 points against a very good team, and in another week they can muster only FG’s against a pushover. Last week against the Vikings, they were saved by a huge Westbrook screen and a defensive TD, but don’t expect the Giants to allow either. If Philly wants to win, it will need to establish a consistent running game or Donovan McNabb will be forced into some turnovers. The Giants offense is painfully consistent and rarely flashy. They average the most rushing yards per game in the NFL, getting over 1,000 out of both Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward. Eli Manning may not have turned many heads with his statistics, but he had his most successful year to date and has gained the trust of a fickle New York. The Giants have a clear edge based on consistency, but Philly can trump that if they decide to bring their A-game.


Statistically, these defenses are mirror images of each other. They both make their living stopping the run and using the turnover as an offensive tool. The Eagles come into the postseason having more success than the Giants keeping the opposing team out of the end zone but then again, the Giants had very little to play for, having locked up the division early on. I think Philly’s defense has a very slight edge at this stage of the season, but the Giants' defense has been known to save its best performances for big games. 


Both teams’ kickers, John Carney for NY and David Akers for Philly, had great years and can be counted on for a big game. I like Philly’s chances of breaking a big return with Desean Jackson, who looked especially shifty in Minnesota. Tom Coughlin is a better coach in my eyes than Andy Reid, who seems to hurt his team in close games with poor clock management or 3rd-and-short deep passes. Most importantly, the game is in the Meadowlands, and even though Philly came in and won there late in the season, it’s still a marked advantage for the Giants, especially coming off of a much needed bye week.

My Pick

This game is hard to choose for me because these two teams know each other so well. They split the season series in close games, but I think the Giants fear of losing this game will trump the Eagles’ will to win it.  Giants 21 Eagles 20

Game 4: San Diego @ Pittsburgh, Sunday 4:45 PM


San Diego has the obvious advantage when it comes to moving the ball and scoring points. Philip Rivers has truly become one of the best QB’s in the league, putting up MVP stats for a guy with a weak arm. They also shredded the Colts defense with Darren Sproles, who has stepped in for LT yet again and outperformed him. Expect him to come down to earth against a top-notch Pittsburgh D, but could he break a few big plays? Absolutely. Pittsburgh has a lot of veteran leadership on offense and a game plan that is built for playoff football. They like to hold on to the ball and I’m sure at some point, a trick play will be used to try and mix it up; but when it comes down to it, their offense doesn’t scare me one bit.


Pittsburgh’s defense gives me nightmares. They hit hard every play, bottle up the run, and force offenses into dangerous passing situations on 3rd-and-long. They held this great Chargers offense to 10 points at home, and if they play to their potential, this won’t be much of a matchup. San Diego’s defense was porous at best during the regular season, allowing over 350 yards a game, and 22 points a game (8 more than Pitt). However, they have always had the potential to have a great game because they have no shortage of defensive athletes (Cromartie, Philips), but Pittsburgh has a huge advantage here.


I love San Diego’s return game with Sproles, but I think Pittsburgh has an advantage at kicker with Jeff Reed. I think Mike Tomlin has done a nice job this season, and I expect him to be creative in the way he attacks the Charger’s offense. I’m not a huge fan of Norv Turner’s in-game coaching, though I do think Turner deserves a lot of credit for motivating his team into saving their season and mounting this impressive winning streak. Pittsburgh has an edge here based on the fact that they are great at home and even better in less than perfect weather.

My Pick

This is my upset special of the week because I think this San Diego team is playing inspired football. They beat a very good Colts team, and Pittsburgh is primed for a letdown against a Chargers team that’s playing with nothing to lose.      

Chargers 23 Steelers 20

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