The 2009 NFL regular season has come to a close sans the drama of having a team go either 16-0 or 0-16, which may be a slight buzz kill after the last two regular seasons. All said, the '09 season was a fine one and should be trumped by what is shaping up to be a good next few weeks in the NFL.
Without further adieu, let us take a look at the four Wildcard matchups on tap this weekend.
Saturday January 9
New York Jets at Cincinnati Bengals
The first of three re-matches from Week 17, the Jets will travel to Cincinnati coming off their 37-0 onslaught of the Bengals. While no one is expecting a game as lopsided as what went down on Sunday night, the Jets certainly made a statement and gained the attention of football fans everywhere as a dangerous team.
To me, Sunday's blow-out does not mean much considering the Bengals took the game about as seriously as Gilbert Arenas is taking his current gun possession incident. While the Jets may have some success running the football against Cincinnati, Mark Sanchez will certainly have to throw for more than 63 yards. Expect the Bengals to force the Jets to throw the football early and often and expect a couple of turnovers from the rookie.
As far as offensively for the Bengals, they need to do what has got them to the playoffs, which is run the football. Look for them to get Cedric Benson and Larry Johnson involved early to try and both control the clock and wear down the Jets defense. Both have bruising running styles and could open up holes in the defense for later in the second half.
The Jets had the best pass defense in the NFL in terms of yardage in the regular season, so while I do not see a huge day for Carson Palmer, it is important that he is efficient. If the Bengals are successful in running the football, expect lots of play action and spreading the ball around. If Carson only has to throw the ball 20-25 times it is very important that he completes a high number of those opportunities.
I am expecting the Bengals to be fairly dominant on the defense side, and them to wear down the Jets defense early and strike with a big play or two later in the game. It is important for the Bengals to get a big play from a receiver besides Ochocinco—preferably Laverneus Coles—or a long run from change-of-pace back Bernard Scott.
The verdict: Bengals win 16-10
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
Another rematch from Week 17, this is the most intriguing game for me out of the four Wildcard Games being played this weekend. The red-hot Cowboys are coming off of a shutout of Philadelphia to claim the division crown but are also trying to beat the Eagles for a third time this season—a rare and difficult feat.
Offensively against the Eagles, the Cowboys must continue the terrific balance that propelled them to the division title. This means that Marion Barber needs to get at least 15 carries and that Felix Jones needs to get at least 10, if not more. Even if they are not completely successful right away, running ball should help Dallas control the time of possession and keep Tony Romo out of potentially dangerous situations.
That brings us to Romo, who is consistently at his best when he is not forced to stand in the pocket 40 times a game to throw the ball. If Dallas has patience with the run and get Romo out of the pocket a few times on play action, there is no reason to think he will not continue his run of recent success.
Expect Romo to look for Jason Witten early to ease into the game and then find Patrick Crayton and Miles Austin later once the Eagles defense has been exposed to the run for big plays down the field.
More than anything, it is essential the Cowboys get off to a quick start and do not get down too far to the Eagles. Not only will it bring back playoff nightmares to Tony Romo and the Dallas fans, it will force the Cowboys to change their offensive scheme and lose their unpredictability—their biggest offensive wrinkle.
For Philadelphia, their offensive line must first make major adjustments from their Week 17 loss. If they cannot slow Anthony Spencer and the rest of the Dallas front seven's pass rush it will be a long day for Donovan McNabb.
Aside from the obvious adjustments, the key for the Eagles is getting home run plays from their big-play guys. Dallas has been phenomenal against DeSean Jackson, yielding just five catches and no scores to the Pro-Bowler.
Whether it be Jackson on offense or in the return game, Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy, Brian Westbrook, or even Mike Vick, the Eagles must get a couple big plays to rattle the Cowboys early. If this happens and the Eagles get up early, McNabb will have no problem throwing over the middle to Brent Celek often and make Dallas pay for doubling Jackson.
In the end, I think the Cowboys are too strong on both sides of the ball and get that third win over the Eagles this season.
The verdict: Cowboys win 31-20
Sunday January 10
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
Sunday afternoon will feature a battle between two the the better franchises in football over the last decade.
The Ravens are in a bit of a "transition" mode, where they are quietly becoming more of an offensive-oriented team as opposed to the grind-it-out, defensive squad they have been for years. That said, they still have many play-makers on the defensive side, lead by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
That defense will go up against a Patriots offense that has failed to meet lofty expectations heading into 2009. With the loss of leading receiver Wes Welker the Patriots have their work cut out for them, but Julian Edelman is a satisfactory reserve who does much of the same work Welker does.
The Ravens will certainly try to take away the deep ball from Randy Moss, so look for a lot of balls to Edelman and the tight ends of the Patriots in this game.
For the Ravens offensively, it will start with their running back tandem of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. They will need to get plenty of carries, along with catches out of the backfield to keep Joe Flacco under control and out of trouble.
The Ravens do not have a great deep threat, so look for them to try to run the ball and dump short passes to Derrick Mason and Todd Heap to keep Tom Brady off the field and control the clock. If they can stick to this type of game plan for 60 minutes I think they have a great shot at knocking off the Patriots.
For me, there are two keys in this game that stand above the rest: turnovers and red zone play. Both of these teams are good offensively and have above-average defenses, they match up very closely in my mind. For this reason, whichever team takes care of the ball the best will have a distinct advantage in this one.
Will we see the usually ultra-efficient Tom Brady or the Tom Brady that has been throwing the ball all over the place on occasion? The same can be said for the young, but mature-beyond-his-years Joe Flacco.
The second key is redzone execution. Both offenses will move the ball, no doubt. I am not expecting many big plays in this game, which means a lot of long drives. Whichever team can capitalize on their drives and come away with touchdown instead of field goals will more than likely come out on top.
The verdict: Ravens win 30-24
Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals
The third rematch from Week 17, the defending NFC Champion Cardinals will host the Green Bay Packers.
Last year the Cardinals suddenly decided to run the ball a bit and ended up going to the Super Bowl, the question is whether they will choose that route once again in the 2010 edition of the playoffs.
I think Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells will both have to be effective against Green Bay if Arizona wants a chance to move on. Not only will it add a dimension to their offense, it will help to neutralize Charles Woodson and freeze him on play fakes.
The other key for the Cardinals is whether Anquan Boldin will play. Sources as of today are hinting that Boldin will be out for the Cardinals, which would be a huge blow to their chances at winning this game. Boldin is one of the best and toughest receivers in all of football and really compliments Larry Fitzgerald on the other side of the field, if he is not able to go the rest of the Cardinals offense must step up.
Offensively for the Packers, Aaron Rodgers should continue to roll right along against the sub-par Cardinals pass defense. That said, I am expecting Mike McCarthy to ease Rodgers into his first career playoff game by running Ryan Grant early in the ballgame.
In the first part of the game look for many safe throws to Jermichael Finley and Donald Driver and as Rodgers gains confidence he will look for Greg Jennings deep down the field.
If there is one thing the Cardinals have going for them it is that Aaron Rodgers could be jittery in his first playoff game. As I see it, there only chance to beat Green Bay is if he is, and they capitalize on it with a couple game-changing interceptions. Like last year's playoff run, the Cardinals must force a lot of turnovers and capitalize on them when they can.
However, in the end, the loss of Boldin will be much more than the Cardinals can deal with if he is indeed out.
The verdict: Packers win 31-17