The Week 17 finale of the 2008 NFL regular season gave us some really exciting football. Anyone who wanted to see an exciting game—unless your team was on the losing end—could find one in pretty much any viewing market across the country.
Just to recount some of the excitement.
My personal favorite, the "Cardiac Cats" held a strong lead over division rival New Orleans. Midway through the second half, the Saints came from behind and led the game by one point with two minutes remaining in regulation.
Steve Smith was the pivotal playmaker for the Panthers. He caught a 39-yard bomb from Jake Delhomme in double-coverage in that last drive, which would eventually end at the New Orleans' 20-yard line.
The Panthers burned their last time out, had a false-start penalty called against LT Jordan Gross for five yards, and John Kasay set up shop to kick the game-winning three-pointer through the uprights, thus giving the Panthers the No. 2 seed behind the Giants, a first-round bye, and the NFC South Division title.
Who would have ever imagined that the Bears would lose to Houston, and the Buccaneers would get trounced at home by the Raiders? The Raiders!!!
I guess all the speculation I had that, "Any given Sunday, being a nice hook for any team to hang their hat on," means I'm eating crow for a while. Last weekend was the classic example of "Any given Sunday."
With the Bucs losing and the Bears also receiving a beat-down, the only thing left was for the then 8-6-1 Philadelphia Eagles to beat Dallas and they were in.
The Eagles not only beat Dallas, they beat them to a bloody pulp, for a score so lopsided, the NFL world was turned on its ear: Eagles 44, Cowboys 6.
So here we are, wild-card weekend in the playoffs.
We have four very tantalizing games on the schedule this weekend, and I have never been more excited about the way a postseason has shaped up, ever.
Saturday 4:30 PM, EST
Atlanta Falcons at Arizona Cardinals
"The Battle Of The Birds." It has a nice ring to it, but I think this is going to be a one-sided battle.
The Cardinals have been a good team at home. I expect to see them put up a good fight offensively and score a lot of points.
On their defensive side, I find it hard to believe they are in the playoffs. Where is Arizona's defense? Granted, they've had some nice defensive plays throughout the season, but not enough to warrant them a playoff spot in the NFL.
If they were in any other division, the Cards would be lucky to have a wild-card spot right now.
If Seattle had been healthier this year, we would be seeing Mike Holmgren and the Seahawks here at the No. 3 seed. The Cardinals are a product of weaker division opponents.
The Atlanta Falcons have been this year's Cinderella story.
Rookie QB Matt Ryan was not expected to have the kind of performance he showed this year. Another factor that helped him to shine came from the backfield—running back Michael Turner has been the equivalent of "LT East."
The Falcons have also been very strong on defense, and have done very well at keeping their opponents honest, while not allowing them to score uncontrollably.
Atlanta's Roddy White has turned his game around, finding himself on the receiving end of Matt Ryan's passing game.
If the Cardinals can keep their score over the Falcons, while stifling their defensive efforts, then Arizona could come away with a win and the right to move on to the Divisional Round.
I believe Atlanta's running and passing attack, combined with their blanketing and fast defense, will have Atlanta going on to the Divisional Round next weekend.
Falcons by seven.
Saturday, 8:00 PM, EST
Indianapolis Colts at San Diego Chargers
Nobody, not even I, thought the Colts would sneak their way into the playoffs, and as a wild card! So what? They're in! They started out horribly!
Peyton Manning had a slow recovery process from double surgeries in one knee, the offensive line was banged up for a while to start the season, Joseph Addai has been in and out of games like a jack-in-the-box, and the Colts' defense hasn't been as dominant as it once was.
The Chargers have also had similar issues, starting out very slowly, plagued with injuries to key playmakers, and never really producing a big season as a whole, but they found themselves winning their division Sunday night against the Denver Broncos, and are playing host to the Colts Saturday evening.
This is a matchup that I have always enjoyed. If it's not this one, then last Sunday night's matchup is in there also.
The Chargers are a speedy team. They have a quarterback in Philip Rivers—even though their record doesn't look that impressive—who has put up MVP-caliber numbers this year.
They also have LaDainian Tomlinson, who is one of the best halfbacks currently playing in the NFL. He's been in a slump the last couple years, but this past Sunday, I was seeing shades of the real L.T.
Complementing Tomlinson in the backfield is another up-and-coming back, Darren Sproles. He has also had a very productive season and is able to bust his way through defensive lines.
The Colts are a special team. They have a special quarterback in Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy is a man with class, and the entire Colts organization is one that is a product of hard work and dedication.
If Joseph Addai plays in this game, it should be a great showing of two teams with a pair of running backs that are awesome to watch.
Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers are like Yin and Yang. Peyton has a sort of calming presence about him. He is methodical in the pocket, and listening to his cadences from the line of scrimmage is astounding.
Philip Rivers is a fiery quarterback, but he has precision passing skills like Peyton, and has that "never say die" aura about him.
Cutting to the chase, this will not be a very big defensive matchup, it should be a high-scoring game. I almost always like the Chargers at home, and with Chris Chambers, L.T., Sproles, and Gates at Rivers' dispense, that is more offensive talent than the Colts have at their disposal this year.
Chargers by three.
Sunday, 1:00 PM EST
Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins
Rookie Joe Flacco has had an outstanding year as the Ravens starting quarterback, and the Ravens defense, though aging in some areas, has looked superb through much of the season.
The Miami Dolphins gave a solid quarterback in Chad Pennington a second shot, as well as opportunities to rub the salt in the Jets' ownership's wounds for casting him astray.
The Dolphins have had a tremendous amount of success, and have turned around a 1-15 program from a year ago to an 11-5 playoff contender.
Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams—yes, Ricky Williams—have had an awesome season running the ball for the 'Phins.
Rookie lineman Jake Long has made an immediate impact for the Dolphins since being drafted No. 1 overall in the first round.
The Ravens are another story of success this year under rookie head coach John Harbaugh, formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Earlier this season, the Ravens played the Dolphins, and shut down that cute little "Wildcat" play that seemingly only they can do 20,000 times a season and get their opponents to bite on it every time.
I don't think the Ravens will fall for it this time, as they didn't fall for it previously, either.
In a side note, I guess I would have to say the Cinderella story is now officially a tossup between Atlanta and Miami. Maybe next weekend I will settle that score.
Ravens by five.
Sunday, 4:30 PM EST
Philadelphia Eagles at Minnesota Vikings
The Eagles had a lot of magic working in their favor last Sunday. They needed two teams to lose, and beating Dallas was a must.
The Eagles are in the playoffs now, and the rest is history.
Minnesota is another team that is a product of a weaker division. With Detroit long out of the running, and Green Bay soon thereafter, the Vikings needed a win and a Chicago loss. The Bears lost to Houston, and the Vikings took down the Giants.
I am not so sure of Tarvaris Jackson being the starter for the Vikes this Sunday. I feel much more confident with Gus Frerrotte under center, but does Brad Childress know what he's doing? We'll see.
Adrian Peterson has been an unstoppable force this season, and he's also a favorite running back of former Cleveland Browns great, Jim Brown.
The Eagles have seemingly awoken as of last weekend, and if they can stay awake long enough, they might get to see the New York Giants in the second round.
If Andy Reid can keep the pass-to-run ratio at an even-keel, then in the second half the Eagles should be able to up the passing game and let McNabb unload all over the Vikings' secondary.
I am somewhat biased in this game, and I am not a Vikings fan, so I would venture to say you know where my vote goes.
Eagles by three.
I will be back next weekend for the Divisional Round, and we'll see who fares out in my picks from Wild-Card Weekend.
Until then, this will be my last article of the year. I thank you for reading, and Happy New Year! I will see you in 2009.