Chasing Lombardi: The Quest for Immortality
The Lombardi Trophy- this prestigious piece of hardware is the Holy Grail for every NFL team. 32 teams embark on a grueling journey to reach the game's pinnacle-- the Super Bowl. 12 teams qualified for the "tournament", however, only one can come away with the ultimate prize. After the first weekend, eight teams remain, each vying for a spot in Tampa on February 1st. Here is an analysis of the Divisional Playoff matchups this weekend:
Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Tennesee Titans (13-3), 4:30 PM ET Saturday, CBS
The Ravens roll into Nashville one of the NFL's hottest teams, coming off of a dominating performance against an error prone Miami squad. The remarkable turnaround from a 5-11 season in 2007 is led by a stingy defense, anchored by dominating nose tackle Haloti Ngata, the timeless play of Ray Lewis, and Ed" "nose for the football" Reed. Reed led the NFL in interceptions with nine and is arguably the league's best ballhawk and centerfielder. The Ravens offense has one of the toughest run games in the league with bulldozers LeRon McClain and Lorenzo Neal bringing the smash mouth to Nashville and speedsters Willis McGahee and Ray Rice providing the potential for a gamebreaker; strong-armed QB Joe Flacco will also look to air it out to dependable recievers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton.
Coach Jeff Fisher's Titans are coming off of a loss to the Colts in which they rested their starters, but should come ready to play, as they have been one of the NFL's most consistent performing teams from Week 1 thru 16. Tennesee is led by seasoned QB Kerry Collins, who has brought stablility to an offense that has been inconsistent in recent years. The brusing LenDale White and elusive Chris Johnson highlight a rushing attack that brings fear to many a defense. The offensive line of the Titans has been excellent in protecting Collins and opening up holes for the ground game all year long.
Another top defense will be showcased, anchored by Albert Haynesworth, who is probably the league's best defensive lineman, and Kyle Vanden Bosch, a high-motor end who is a threat to blow up the opposing teams backfield on every play. The linebackers are all solid tacklers and the secondary, including Pro Bowl CB Cortland Finnegan, excels at forcing turnovers.
Special Teams Standouts:
Titans K Rob Bironas
Ravens K Matt Stover
Ravens P Sam Koch
Ravens LB Jameel McClain
This should be a true "Clash of the Titans".
Pick: Titans; 20-14
Arizona Cardinals (9-7) at Carolina Panthers (12-4), 8:15 PM ET Saturday, FOX
The Cardinals travel to Charlotte for the second time this year, hoping to avenge a Week 8 loss. Arizona is led by forever young QB Kurt Warner, who is armed with two of the NFL's elite receivers in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Edgerrin James has come on as of late, slicing through the defenses of Atlanta and Seattle and should provide a valuable safety valve at RB. Along with quick slot receiver Steve Breaston, short-yardage back Tim Hightower, and a improving offensive line coming off of a fine performance against the Falcons, the Cardinals should be able to put up some points on the Panthers D. Defensively, the secondary is inconsistent, but contains one of the league's big hitters in SS Adrian Wilson. The linebackers are a very tough unit, anchored by Karlos Dansby, a mauler who is relentless in his pursuit from sideline to sideline and the defensive line, who dominated Atlanta last week, is led by distruptive and high-energy tackle Darnell Dockett.
Carolina has been one of the NFC's elite teams this year and is anchored by a dynamic playmaker at WR in Steve Smith. QB Jake Delhomme has been steady since coming back from "Tommy John" surgery to repair his throwing elbow. He has spread the ball around with characteristic accuracy. The offense is built around an explosive rushing attack with speedy dynamo DeAngelo Williams, who was unfairly snubbed from a Pro Bowl nod. Williams was a league leader in yards per carry and his elusiveness and strength make him a threat to take it to the house on any play. Jonathan Stewart shares time in the backfield with Williams and is a wrecking ball who can get the tough yards and refuses to go down on first contact. The offensive line is a unit with great depth that overwhelms many defensive fronts with its size and quickness and has been the key to the Panthers' offensive success. Defensively, Julius Peppers has returned to top form this season after an abysmal 2007 and his play reflects on the entire unit, which has been solid. Pro Bowl LB Jon Beason and CB Chris Gamble, both having career seasons, are two playmakers who are terrific open-field tacklers. Along with hard-hitting safety Chris Harris, this defense has been very good in limiting big plays and keeping points off of the board.
Special Teams Stadouts:
Cardinals K Neil Rackers
Cardinals TE Sean Morey-Pro Bowl in 2008
Panthers Kickers Rhys Lloyd and John Kasay
Cardinals KR Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
The Panthers feast on the Cardinals and dominate all four quarters.
Pick: Panthers; 34-24
Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1) at New York Giants (12-4), 1 PM ET Sunday, FOX
The Eagles are riding a green wave of playoff momentum into the Meadowlands, coming off of a huge victory in Minnesota. QB Donovan McNabb has been stellar since regaining his starting job, having thrown 10 touchdowns to only two interceptions. RB Brian Westbrook is one of the most respected and dangerous offensive players in the league. He brings the total package of being an extremely effective as a rusher, receiver, and blocker. While there is not specifically a go-to guy at WR, Kevin Curtis, DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant, and Hank Baskett combine to form a solid contingent that can move the chains. The offensive line has been a bit erratic this year, but has protected McNabb well and has run blocked well, if inconsistent at times. Defensively, the Jim Johnson-led unit has been playing at a very high level and should continue to pose a major nuisance to Giants QB Eli Manning this week . The defensive line, anchored by lightening-quick end Trent Cole, is disruptive and can both pressure the QB and stuff the run. The linebackers are an aggressive bunch that pursue the ball well and are all big hitters. MLB Stewart Bradley is developing into one of the league's best young defensive players. The secondary, featuring hard hitting -potential Hall of Famer-FS Brian Dawkins and CB Asante"57 million" Samuel, is steadily becoming a cohesive unit. They are excellent in coverage and offer above average run support.
The Giants, who hold the first seed in the NFC and are arguably the best team in the NFL, come ready for battle with their division rivals from Philly. The offense features the best ground game in the league with workhorse Brandon Jacobs setting the tone behind a physical line ; Jacobs may be the toughest back to tackle in the entire NFL. Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw complement Jacobs with game-breaking speed, and this trio creates headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Pro Bowler, Eli Manning has been efficient quarterback, but he will need Amani Toomer, Steve Smith, and Domenik Hixon to help carry the passing game, which has struggled somewhat in the absence of Plaxico Burress. Defensively, the Giants have been stellar for most of the season. The unit is anchored by up-and-coming Pro Bowl DE Justin Tuck and run-stopping menace-MLB Antonio Pierce, who is the leader of this defense. The secondary has featured consistently solid play from CBs Aaron Ross and Corey Webster.
Special Teams Standouts:
Eagles P Sav Rocca
Eagles K David Akers
Eagles KR Quintin Demps and PR DeSean Jackson
Giants P Jeff Feagles
Giants K John Carney
Look for the Eagles to come away with the upset in a taut NFC showdown.
Pick: Eagles; 23-17
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) vs. San Diego Chargers (8-8), 4:45 PM ET Sunday, CBS
Pittsburgh looks to continue its dominance at home against a resurgent Chargers squad. The Steelers have been one of the league's most steady teams this year and feature a dominating defense. They are led by All-Pro SS Troy Polamalu, who plays like a linebacker and is ultra aggressive against the run and in coverage and The 2008 AP Defensive Player of the Year, OLB James Harrison, and his pass rushing partner--OLB Lamarr Woodley. NT Casey Hampton is an overwhelming force for most offensive lines and clogs rushing lanes with ILB James Farrior and DE Aaron Smith. Along with a steady secondary, the Steelers' defense has been lethal to many potent offenses this year. The offense is led by QB Ben Roethlisberger, who has been erratic this season due to an average line, but has won many games in the fourth quarter and is a natural leader with great intangibles. RB Willie Parker has had a down season due to injury, but still has the ability to break a long run at times and keep defenses honest; Mewelde Moore provides spot duty and is a solid receiver out of the backfield on third down. WR Hines Ward continues to be one of the game's most physical recievers, and Santonio Holmes acts as a complementary deep threat.
The Chargers are on a roll and have played terrific football of late. They have been firing on all cylinders, rescuing a doomed season. A big reason is the stunning play of QB Philip Rivers, who led the league in passer rating and was unjustly excluded from the AFC Pro Bowl roster. WR Vincent Jackson is developing into a playmaker, and is complemented by talented Chris Chambers and Legedu Naanee. Super-back LaDainian Tomlinson and speedy Darren Sproles provide a one-two punch in the backfield, and TE Antonio Gates opens up the seams in the passing game. The offensive line has been spotty, but has also played solidly at times, anchored by Pro Bowl LG Kris Dielman. Defensively, this unit has not played very well until late, as it has struggled to overcome the loss of All-Pro OLB Shawne Merriman. Nonetheless, there are some solid players on this unit, including ILB Stephen Cooper and NT Jamal Williams, who can cause chaos for an offense when at the top of his game. The secondary has been suspect this year and contributed to the league's 31st-ranked pass defense, but CB Quentin Jammer is one of the league's most physical corners at his best. CB Antonio Cromartie is a gifted athlete, but has sorely struggled with consistency this season.
Special Teams Standouts:
Chargers P Mike Scifres
Chargers KR Darren Sproles
Chargers WR Kassim Osgood
Steelers K Jeff Reed
Pittsburgh's defense stifles San Diego's offense in a rematch of a Week 11 battle.
Pick: Steelers; 21-14