NFL Divisional Playoff Predictions: Tough Roads Ahead for No. 2 Seeds

Craig RondinoneCorrespondent IJanuary 14, 2010

NEW ORLEANS - DECEMBER 27:  Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints passes the ball during the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on December 27, 2009 at Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

One step closer to the Super Bowl, so why quit predicting when I am on a roll?

After going 4-0 with my wild-card predictions, I have conferred with the football advisors I trust the most—me, myself, I, and my "He Hate Me" XFL jersey—and have chosen the four teams that will advance to the AFC and NFC Championship games next weekend.

Here are my divisional playoff predictions:

Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings

Many football fans are going to have a tough time cheering for someone in this marquee matchup, as Brett Favre and "America’s Team" are in the "love ‘em or hate ‘em" category, right there with Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, and Ed Hochuli.

Minnesota has three glaring weaknesses—offensive line, secondary, and choosing governors. The offensive line has failed to open holes for Adrian Peterson or protect Brett Favre during the last several games of the season (although they did stay away from party boats).

You know your offensive line is porous when your head coach wants to keep his quarterback safe by pulling him with a 7-6 lead for fear of injury, especially when said QB has not missed a game in 20 years and his bones are rumored to be made of titanium.

Minnesota’s defensive backs have been toasted more often than Thomas’ English muffins. The secondary actually got worse when Antoine Winfield returned from his foot injury, because Winfield is definitely not 100 percent, and seemingly every opponent knows it and picks on him relentlessly like he is the new kid in school.

Dallas will be able to exploit Minnesota’s weaknesses. No team’s defensive line is playing better than the Cowboys’ right now. DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, and Anthony Spencer will pressure Favre without needing blitz help, meaning linebackers will be able to help the Cowboys’ solid secondary in covering Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin.

I don’t see Minnesota having answers to these questions: Who will cover Miles Austin? Who will cover Jason Witten? And if Flozell Adams cheap-shots and sits on Jared Allen, who will put pressure on Tony Romo? Even Minnesota’s vaunted run defense hasn’t been the same since defensive quarterback E.J. Henderson suffered a season-ending injury, so Felix Jones might be able to do damage as well

This looks eerily like another Favre fadeout. I think Cowboys owner Jerry Jones supplants unfunny man Al Franken as Minnesota’s governor, too. And don’t mind the Vikings being undefeated at home. So were the Patriots. Dallas 24, Minnesota 16.


Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints

New Orleans looked about as bad as Heidi Fleiss on "Celebrity Rehab" over the final three weeks of the season. The Saints couldn’t stop the run, couldn’t cover punt returns, couldn’t protect Drew Brees and, worst of all, couldn’t put up the points they had throughout their first 13 games.

My theory for this contest is very simple. We all witnessed what Arizona can do against Green Bay last weekend. I was more interested in what the Cardinals couldn’t do, though. Their defense, improved statistically from what it was in 2008, was picked apart like the antipasto tray at a party.

If Arizona needed 51 points to outlast Green Bay, the Cards will need 60 to overcome the Saints. New Orleans has more weapons and is more well-rounded offensively than Green Bay, not to mention the Superdome artificial turf makes the Saints’ receivers and running backs even speedier and harder to cover. I am not sure what game plan Arizona could come up with to keep Drew Brees and his gumbo lovers out of the end zone.

Sure, Arizona will score its fair share of points. Kurt Warner is a future Hall of Famer after all. But my tarot card reader sees Warner throwing an interception to Darren Sharper and losing a fumble after a Will Smith sack.

The major problem is that the best way to beat New Orleans is to run the ball down its throat, but Arizona cannot run the ball. The Cardinals are all about outscoring its opponents, and this is one opponent that they cannot outscore. New Orleans 41, Arizona 27.


New York Jets at San Diego Chargers

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say right from the get-go that I am a New York Jets fan. Let me also say that I have no ill will towards San Diego, even though I have many Chargers fans ready to stick me in LaDainian Tomlinson’s next dance video after a recent article—published prior to the Jets advancing—where I had the nerve to say the Chargers would not be winning the Super Bowl.

This matchup is an interesting clash of styles. New York only throws when it has to and relies on the old school way of running the ball and playing top-notch defense. San Diego is New Age and believes that passing the ball is the best way to win in today’s offense-friendly NFL, while the Chargers do not worry or rely much on their rushing attack or defense.

New York’s two huge advantages are their rushing game and defense, both ranked No. 1 in the NFL. San Diego ranks 31st in rushing offense and 16th in total defense. San Diego’s two huge advantages are its passing game and special teams. Thanks to a wide receiver corps full of forwards from the NBA, Philip Rivers has been phenomenal and the Chargers have not been held under 20 points all season.

Meanwhile, Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez was the worst starting quarterback in the NFL, and receiver Braylon Edwards is not the person you want holding your baby, let alone catching passes with his hands.

So this games boils down to three questions: Can San Diego force the mistake-happy Sanchez to turn the ball over? Can Darren Sproles’ returns and Nate Kaeding’s kicks be the difference? And can San Diego’s biggest strength be slowed by New York’s biggest strength?

Sanchez has only turned the ball over four times in his last six games, so the combination of him gaining more experience and Jets head coach Rex Ryan insisting on him being more careful with the ball has helped.

While the Jets’ special teams have been spotty and Sproles is dangerous, New York has San Diego bested in punt and kickoff return average and in punt return average allowed. Kaeding is a Pro Bowl kicker, but New York’s Jay Feely is no slouch, so San Diego might not have the special teams advantage you might think.

New York has only allowed an average 153.7 passing yards per game. The next closest team is 30 yards per game behind. The Chargers might have the tallest group of pass catchers in the league, but Darrelle Revis and his "Gang Green" defensive backs have slammed the door on the potent passing attacks of New Orleans and Houston, teams with their own trees disguised as receivers. San Diego would have preferred to have played New England. New York 23, San Diego 21.


Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts

Let’s realize that the Colts are 14-0 in games that they tried to win. Their last two games, their only two losses, can be trashed like Mark McGwire’s lame steroid excuses.

Indianapolis pulled off a rare way to win, for them, when these two teams tussled during the regular season. Indy actually won with its defense, not its offense. No lie. On a day where Peyton Manning’s unit could only muster 17 points, the Dwight Freeney-led defense bent between the 20s but didn’t break inside the red zone, and a Gary Brackett interception sealed the victory.

That first game was played in Baltimore. This rematch is being played in Indianapolis, where the Colts never get shut down, and with Indy’s best players getting anywhere between two-to-four weeks of rest. Meanwhile, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco is suffering from more injuries than a UFC fighter does after a title fight with Anderson Silva.

Going out on a limb here—Flacco has to be better than 4-for-10 for 34 yards to beat the Colts. I think he will be better, but not much better. Look for Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark to fly up and down the fast track and right past Baltimore’s below-average cornerbacks. Indianapolis 30, Baltimore 13.

New York at Indianapolis? Dallas at New Orleans? These would be two intriguing rematches for different reasons—if I’m right.