This NFL season has been anything but a conventional and predictable sports year. With the Wild Card Round on the table and everyone sold on going a perfect 11-0 in their playoff predictions, leave it to a team like the Arizona Cardinals to ruin that by winning their first playoff game in ten years. Red hot teams in San Diego and Philadelphia won their games too, and the way things are going we may as well forget that the regular season ever took place.
Indianapolis was on a nine-game winning streak, but the Chargers stuffed their non-existent running game and watched Darren Sproles steal the show from Peyton Manning. Minnesota had a tenacious defense and the league’s top running back, but Brian Westbrook sliced that defense for a gut-wrenching score and Adrian Peterson looked awful lonely against Jim Johnson’s defense. Even Mike Smith and Tony Sparano were outmuscled as Edgerrin James regained his edge and Baltimore’s defense became a nightmare for Chad Pennington.
Think these games had nothing in common? Wrong. The successful formula for a winning playoff team, both last week and over the past three years, has been a steady balance of efficient quarterback play, a solid running game and a hard-nosed defense that can stop the run. Now take another look at those games last week and tell me if you can’t connect the dots between the Cardinals isolating Michael Turner and the Ravens shutting down the Miami’s Wildcat formation.
You better believe that all of those trends will show up again this week, and as I take a closer look at the Divisional Round contests, see if you can’t spot them for yourself:
Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Tennessee Titans (13-3)
I was reading last week that the Titans were a little disgruntled about the fact that, even after all they have accomplished, no one seems to be giving them any respect. That’s because NFL experts around the league were too busy drooling over the 27-9 shellacking that the Ravens handed the Dolphins. Baltimore’s D harassed Chad Pennington into throwing four interceptions and forced five total Miami turnovers.
If Tennessee really feels bitter about that lack of respect, they’re going to have to find a way to avoid the offensive mistakes that sunk America’s favorite comeback team. Even though Joe Flacco held his own very well for a rookie quarterback making his first postseason start, his stats (9/23, 135 yds) weren’t very good and they don’t figure to improve much against the mighty Titans defense.
Tennessee’s Kerry Collins knows what it takes to reach a Super Bowl and that could be a huge deciding factor over the course of the game. When these teams met back in October, the stats of Flacco (18/27, 153 yds, 2 int’s) and Collins (17/32, 163 yds, 1 td, 2 int’s) were almost identical, but that one Collins touchdown pass decided the game.
Even with Albert Haynesworth limping and Kevin Mawae possibly out altogether, that one touchdown may once again decide the outcome in a battle where every inch will matter.
San Diego Chargers (8-8) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
My humiliation as a Broncos’ fan came to a head when the Chargers squashed them 52-21 in the season finale. If San Diego advances any farther in this thing, my humiliation will turn into a red-hot anger at Jay Cutler for throwing those goal line picks against Buffalo that cost Denver their season and ultimately prolonged my football agony.
On top of all that, I had the Colts as my Super Bowl pick, but the Chargers had to go and ruin that too. Anyway, its important to know that after everything I’ve been through, I’m slowly beginning to realize that San Diego may be the team to beat in this year’s playoffs. Phillip Rivers has the confidence of a Greek God, Darren Sproles is making everyone forget about LT and Ron Rivera’s defense made life pretty hard for Peyton Manning.
The Steelers will have to find a way to protect Big Ben and give him time to throw because odds are that Willie Parker will not be able to bring down the Bolts by himself. Pittsburgh’s D won’t let Sproles have his way with them like Indy did, but can they make enough plays on offense to finally put away those pesky Chargers?
This writer doesn’t think so, so excuse me while I go hurl in my Broncos’ wastebasket before we move on.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1) at New York Giants (12-4)
My friend Ryan, a die-hard Eagles fan who strangely enough is from Colorado, told me at midseason that he was fed up with Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb. “They should both be gone,” he says, “Reid isn’t getting it done and McNabb is all washed up.” Just last night I asked Ryan what he thought about the Eagles playoff win over the Vikings last week, to which he responded, “Well, I admit that I was wrong about those guys.
McNabb has been playing out of his mind, but the sad thing is that if they lose everyone in Philly will call for them to be gone anyway.” Such is the way of being a sports team in the suffocating town of Philadelphia, where the fans rage over their team’s mishaps can be erased with one good stretch to the playoffs.
Awaiting the Eagles in their second step to Super Bowl redemption are the hated rival New York Giants, who split the series with them this season. Common sense tells me that the Giants’ extra week of preparation and rest will give them the advantage, but competitiveness tells me that things like that don’t matter nearly as much in a rivalry game, especially in the playoffs.
The difference in this game, much like the last meeting between these two, is simple; the Eagles still have their best playmaker on offense and the Giants do not. While Brian Westbrook torched the G-Men for two long touchdowns last month in the Meadowlands, Plaxico Burress was not present for Eli Manning to throw to.
If New York can get Brandon Jacobs going and solve Philadelphia’s smothering defense, the absence of Plaxico will hurt a lot less. Otherwise, the soaring Eagles may indeed be this year’s Giants.
Arizona Cardinals (9-7) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)
A lot of people were so sure that the Falcons would easily beat the Cardinals that they were already comparing the running styles of Michael Turner to that of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
Somewhere along the way, Edgerrin James and Arizona got overlooked and they made sure that Atlanta paid the steepest price for that mistake. Not to say that the Falcons actually overlooked them, but they sure weren’t ready for the physicality that was awaiting them in the desert.
Through all of their deficiencies, the Cardinals finally found themselves a running game and a defense, and they’ll need both if they want to survive their trip to Carolina. Unlike Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme does not have a successful Super Bowl trip on his resume and he has to feel that he may be running out of chances at winning the big one.
While the Panthers do a lot of things right, their pass defense is far from great. Like the Falcons did, John Fox’s team will try to take away the big plays of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin (who may or may not play) by daring Arizona to beat them with the run.
That puts even more pressure on “The Edge” to continue his strong play when just two weeks ago he was that close to walking out on the Cardinals. Winning at home against a young Atlanta team is one thing, but going on the road against a proven veteran team who has yet to lose a home game this season is quite another (especially given this team’s struggles on the East Coast).
Don’t discount Arizona and their ability to make big plays come from out of nowhere, but don’t be surprised if the combination of Delhomme, Williams, Stewart, Steve Smith and Julius Peppers proves to be too much to overcome.