NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round Preview

John DoeCorrespondent IJanuary 7, 2009

The NFL playoffs march on, with the field of Super Bowl contenders down to eight.

Atlanta, Indianapolis (sorry about mistakenly writing that their record was 11-5 and not 12-4 during the regular season last week), Miami, and Minnesota have disappeared from the party faster than a tray of chocolate chip cookies at fat camp.

But this weekend gives us four very interesting matchups in the divisional round. All of the games are rematches of regular season duels, although judging by the fact two of the contests were in October, two in November, and only one in December (the second Eagles-Giants game), that really doesn't tell us a whole lot. Things change quickly in the NFL. Just ask the Chargers.

After going 1-3 predicting games last weekend, I figured I probably should sit this weekend out picks-wise just to avoid making myself look like a complete asshat again.

But the picks are what makes this fun, so I am back with more poor guesses as to what will transpire on Saturday and Sunday. The key word there is poor. Whatever I say, the opposite will probably happen.

BALTIMORE RAVENS (11-5, AFC Wild Card) at TENNESSEE TITANS (13-3, AFC South champions)
TV: 4:30 p.m. Saturday on CBS
Announcers: Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf
Location: LP Field in Nashville, Tenn.
Gameday forecast: High of 44 F, low of 28 F, with a 30 percent chance of rain and winds out of the NW at 13 MPH
Last meeting: Titans won at Baltimore 13-10 (Week Five)
Officials: Terry McAulay crew

Baltimore's defense proved last week against a team and quarterback that turned the ball over little during the regular season that they very well could carry this squad all the way to the Super Bowl.

However, Don't discount the Ravens' offense. Joe Flacco made some nice throws a week ago, and LeRon McClain continues to be a stud in the running game. But whatever the Ravens get on Saturday will be hard-earned against another blue collar lunch pail defense.

Flacco has to avoid mistakes, and I think he can, in order for the Ravens to avenge the early season loss to the Titans (a game where Flacco threw an interception late in the fourth quarter).

It would also be nice if the Ravens defense could force Kerry Collins into mistakes. They did so in the first meeting, but did not capitalize.

Everyone has kind of forgotten about the Titans the past month or so, even after that impressive victory over Pittsburgh to wrap up home field advantage. This is one of the league's best defenses, and they will be aided by the return of healthy defensive linemen Kyle Vanden Bosch and Albert Haynesworth.

Defense won't be a problem for Tennessee, but can they generate enough offense? The first meeting saw them only accumulate 210 total yards, most of which was through the air for a run-first unit.

Obviously, this will be a hard-fought game between two teams that feature very similar styles. The difference could come down to special teams. Both kickers are excellent, but Baltimore may have a decided advantage with Sam Koch punting over Craig Hentrich for the Titans. Koch downed several punts deep in Miami territory a week ago, and against the Cowboys in Week 16.

PICK: Ravens 17, Titans 13

Baltimore avenges the Week-Five loss to Tennessee with a four-point victory in Nashville. Get excited if you are a fan of defense, as three of this weekend's four games should be low-scoring, hard-hitting defensive affairs.

ARIZONA CARDINALS (9-7, NFC West champions) at CAROLINA PANTHERS (12-4, NFC South champions)
TV: 8:00 p.m. Saturday on FOX
Announcers: Kenny Albert, the Moose, and the Goose
Location: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC
Gameday forecast: High of 58 F, low of 39 F, with a 40 percent chance of rain and winds out of the WSW at 11 MPH
Last meeting: the Panthers won 27-23 in Charlotte (Week Eight)
Officials: Walt Anderson crew with referee Gene Steratore

The Cardinals hold the dubious distinction of being the only NFC team to never play in a conference championship game (dating back to the merger in 1970). Carolina has been in the league for only 14 of those 39 years, and a win on Saturday night puts them in their fourth since entering the league in 1995.

I was surprised with Arizona's ability to control the line of scrimmage against the Falcons, thus limiting the effectiveness of the league's best run offense. They face another daunting task in trying to stop, or at least slow down, the Panthers' 1-2 punch of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

Offensively, Arizona may be without Anquan Boldin, but Kurt Warner and company proved to be fine as he was less than 100npercent last week as well.

Carolina has had a chance to catch their breath after an exhilarating victory to close out the NFC South and a first-round bye in New Orleans two weeks back.

I look for them to come out and attack the Cardinals with a steady dose of Williams and Stewart, but when they least expect it, go to the passing game. Steve Smith will have also have a big night through the air.

The key for the Panthers has to be their ability to slow down Kurt Warner and the Arizona receivers. He torched them for nearly 400 yards in the first meeting, and very well could do it again.

At least Carolina is strong compared to the Cardinals in creating turnovers, and should have a psychological advantage on a team that went 0-5 on the east coast in 2008.

PICK: Panthers 34, Cardinals 27

Carolina is the better team and has the home-field advantage. Plus, I can't pick against a team that has a Delaware high school product (Jeff Otah) on the roster.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (9-6-1, NFC Wild Card) at NEW YORK GIANTS (12-4, NFC East champions)
TV: 1:00 p.m. Sunday on FOX
Announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman
Location: Giants Stadium, the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, NJ
Gameday forecast: High of 30 F, low of 23 F, with partly cloudy skies and winds out of NNW at 15 MPH
Last meeting: the Eagles won 20-14 at the Meadowlands (Week 14); the Giants won the meeting in Philadelphia 36-31 (Week 10)
Officials: Mike Carey, Bill Leavy, or Walt Coleman crew (likely; based on crews that worked last weekend or who had members work as alternates)

The Eagles seem prone to a really bad game offensively every month or so, and I am sure they are hoping it was last week against the Vikings. They did not score an offensive touchdown until mid-way through the fourth quarter in that one.

The New York defense will give Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook plenty of fits, but for the most part, McNabb played well during the two regular season meetings. Defensively, Philadelphia will return the favor and come after Eli Manning early and often, hoping to force the Super Bowl MVP into errant throws.

Philly obviously will be confident entering this game considering the fact they were the only team to win at the Meadowlands against the Giants this season.

New York, as defending Super Bowl champions, carries a little extra swagger, but also a big target on their backs. Rested after the bye week, I am sure they want to come out and prove that they are intent on defending their crown.

The Giants were without Brandon Jacobs for much of the Week 14 loss to the Eagles, and as I've mentioned before, the bruising back is key to their offensive effectiveness. Make them one dimensional, and it is easy to rattle Manning.

For New York to move on, they must get to McNabb, which they failed to do in the first contest.

Like the first two meetings of the 2008 season, this Eagles-Giants showdown should be one for the ages. Both teams and both coaching staffs, know the intricacies of each other very well. Get ready for a hard-hitting defensive affair between two bitter rivals separated only by a short drive along I-95.

PICK: Giants 14 Eagles 9

Like the Baltimore-Tennessee matchup, punting could be the deciding factor. Jeff Feagles is probably the best ever at downing the ball inside the 20, and giving the Eagles a long field to work with could make it difficult for them to score on the strong G-Men defense.

It also could turn field position in the Giants favor in a hurry, or set up easy turnover opportunities and sequentially a short field.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (8-8, AFC West champions) at PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-4, AFC North champions)
TV: 4:30 p.m. Sunday on CBS
Announcers: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms
Location: Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA
Gameday forecast: High of 27 F, low of 26 F, with cloudy skies and winds out of the WNW at 12 MPH
Last meeting: the Steelers won 11-10 in Pittsburgh, the first ever 11-10 game in NFL history (Week 11)
Officials: Mike Carey, Bill Leavy, or Walt Coleman crew (likely; based on crews that worked last weekend or who had members work as alternates)

The Chargers managed to win just two road games this season, and those were against AFC West bottom dwellers Kansas City and Oakland. But they were close in many others, including their Week 11 trip to Heinz Field.

Now this team is on a roll and they have to be considered dangerous, but facing off against a rested Steelers defense in the January cold of Pittsburgh is a tall task.

LaDainian Tomlinson may be unavailable, but Darren Sproles picked up the slack (and then some) after he went out in the second quarter against the Colts. Running the ball will be next to impossible in the first place, meaning the Chargers are going to have to win this game with strong defense and timely big plays from Philip Rivers' arm.

Ben Roethlisberger was banged up in the Week 17 finale against Cleveland, and while being carted off the field due to a concussion, I am sure a lot of Steelers' faithful questioned why he was playing in a meaningless contest. But Big Ben appears ready to play this Sunday, although keep in mind he has taken his lumps this season. He should have the ability to make plays against a weak Chargers' secondary, in case the run game falters.

The Steelers are never going to be flashy on offense, but the unit should get the job done better than they did back in November. Look for the Dick LeBeau-coached defense to try and create some offense themselves by going after Rivers.

PICK: Steelers 23 Chargers 13

Pittsburgh's No. 1-rated defense is the difference in this one, as they end the Chargers' magical run before we ever get the chance to riot over having an 8-8 participant in one of the conference championship games.


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