NFL Wild Card Weekend Is a Road Warrior's Dream
As the 2010 NFL Wild Card weekend approaches kickoff, speculation runs rampant on who will play football again next week and who will go fishing instead.
Quarterbacks will get much of the press, starting with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco and last year's Super Bowl MVP and Bert Bell Award recipient, Drew Brees, will also get a healthy dose of the spotlight.
The old adage is that a solid running game and stout defense win playoff games. If this holds true, teams like Green Bay, Indianapolis, Seattle and New Orleans could not have much of a shelf life in the playoffs. While Green Bay has an excellent defense, its rushing attack is practically non-existent.
Weather does not appear to be a factor this weekend, which is good for dinged-up teams like the Packers, Colts and Saints. All are hurting in several key positions, but have still persevered enough to get into the playoffs for a shot at the championship.
Here is a preview of how things may play out.
New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks
Pros Pete Carroll has to be a viable candidate for Coach of the Year. Sure, winning the NFC West was no great feat in 2010, but no one expected Seattle to win many games even with a pretty weak schedule.
With a left tackle struggling with ankle injuries all year, a veteran quarterback again missing time with injuries and a team near the bottom of the league on both sides of the ball, it is amazing that the Seahawks, thought to be years away from completing a rebuilding job, could host a playoff game.
New Orleans did very well for a team holding the banner of defending champions despite having several key injuries most of the year. The Saints lost running backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush for large chunks of year, as well as tight end Jeremy Shockey. Rookies Chris Ivory and Jimmy Graham played so well that the Saints ship kept sailing smoothly.
While the defense wasn't as opportunistic as last year, they were stellar. New Orleans ranked fourth in yards allowed this season. While the Saints intercepted just nine balls this year, they did force 23 fumbles. That is just two less than in 2009.
Seattle does nothing well. The quarterbacks have tossed six more interceptions than touchdowns, and their leading rusher has just 573 yards in the second-worst running game in the league. Though rookie Earl Thomas and the unexpected return of Mike Williams were very nice stories, there aren't many areas of the football field to get excited about for Seahawks fans.
New Orleans also does not have a good running game, ranked 28th this year. Thomas and Ivory are now gone because of injury, leaving it up to a bunch of unknown entities. Some might expect Bush, but he has never been an effective running back. His game is catching passes and kicks. Quarterback Drew Brees has chucked 22 interceptions this year, which is twice as much as last year.
What To Watch For
Seattle needs the special teams to win this, something the unit has done before for the team. This won't be a smash mouth game, because neither team is worth much on the ground. Expect them both to go to the air often.
The defense will have to win this one, because the pass rush and secondary will be tested often. These two teams met at New Orleans just before Thanksgiving, and the Saints walked away with a 15-point victory behind Brees' four touchdown passes and 99 yards from Ivory. Seattle managed just 58 yards on the ground in 18 attempts.
Expect similar results on the scoreboard.
Saints 34, Seahawks 17
New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts
The Jets can run the ball pretty good at times. They will feed LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene often, passing only when there are too many defenders in the box. Though the Jets are far from great passing the ball, Mark Sanchez showed some improvement in 2010.
The defense is stifling, giving up the third-fewest yards in the league and sixth-fewest amount of points. While they only picked off 12 passes in 2010, New York did have 40 sacks and force 23 fumbles.
The Colts being in the playoffs speak of quarterback Peyton Manning's greatness. As his team crumbled around him from injuries, Manning played catch with anyone who could suit up. He had one rough patch in 2010 where he tossed 15 interceptions in about a month, but he was mostly solid the rest of the season and just added to his legacy.
Tomlinson hasn't had an effective running game since the fifth week of the year, and Greene hasn't had a 100-yard rushing game since the fourth week. When the pair is ineffective, the Jets get in trouble trying to rely on Sanchez. Sanchez is a system quarterback who needs a good ground game to simplify things. Factor in his injured arm, New York will be in very big trouble if the Colts stop the run.
Stopping the run has been an issue for the Colts this year. They are the 25th-worst team on yards allowed on the ground. They also struggle mightily to run the ball, where they rank 29th. The recent return of two veterans hurt much of the year arrive just in time for this game.
What To Watch For
The Jets need to ground and pound the Colts. Not only does this keep Manning off the field, but the Jets offensive line is much bigger than the Colts' smallish defensive line. A good running game will especially help New York in the fourth quarter.
Indianapolis goes as Manning goes, but the return of halfback Joseph Addai could be vital. Addai is not only the best running back the Colts have, but he is also able to catch the ball. Though the Jets have four good cornerbacks, the safeties are questionable. Manning will try to exploit this weakness by throwing to the tight ends and backs.
Many expect this game to go to the wire. It is a rematch of the 2009 AFC Championship, and these teams haven't seen each other since then. Both have a lot to prove here, especially the Jets. Head coach Rex Ryan has talked Super Bowl all season to the media or anyone who would listen.
While there may not be many turnovers in this game, any made could end up being the difference between winning and losing this game.
Jets 27, Colts 24
Baltimore Ravens @ Kansas City Chiefs
While Ray Rice carries the offense, the defense continues to carry the entire Baltimore franchise. Though the pass defense isn't as solid as it has been in the past, the run defense is the fifth-best in the NFL. Baltimore has also allowed the third-fewest amount of points. Quarterback Joe Flacco has been inconsistent with his accuracy, but he has more weapons to throw to and tossed only 10 interceptions all year.
Kansas City loves to run the ball, and does it well. The Chiefs have the top-rated running game in the NFL and have been near that spot all season. Though the passing attack is underrated in the shadow of the running game, Kansas City typically goes as far as halfbacks Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones take them.
The Chiefs defense is also underrated. Their pair of Brandon's at cornerback, Flowers and Carr, have defended an impressive 37 balls combined. Rookie safeties Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis appear to have very bright futures.
The Ravens secondary was having issues until Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed returned. He covers a lot of mistakes made. If Rice isn't going well, his reserves have not stepped up and performed like they have in years past. This forced Flacco to try to force things, and that has generally not caused a positive result.
Kansas City shocked the NFL world not only by winning the AFC West, but by winning it so early. The Chiefs have the 30th-ranked passing attack, yet they did throw a minuscule eight interceptions in 2010. They have won with good balance on defense while a good offensive line has led the way on offense. They have just one good receiver threat in Dwayne Bowe, so rookie tight end Tony Moeaki will need to be big Sunday because Bowe will face a double team all day.
What To Watch For
Kansas City has to run the ball. Baltimore would like to as well, but it has four good receivers and a top-notch tight end if forced to throw. The Chiefs have a good run defense, but it isn't on the level of Baltimore's just yet. Against top runners like Frank Gore, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson and Steven Jackson, they have up 43, 47, 58 and 67 yards respectively. Yet they are vulnerable, as the 161 and 106-yard efforts by Denver's Knowshon Moreno showed this year.
If Rice is stopped, Willis McGahee or Le'Ron McClain must pick up the slack. There is a question if the Chiefs have enough defensive backs for the Ravens as well. Rookies like Javier Arenas should get tested.
Baltimore is a veteran team that knows how to win a playoff game. That might make the difference here.
Ravens 23, Chiefs 20
Green Bay Packers @ Philadelphia Eagles
While tossing for nearly 4,000 yards and 28 scores, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has only 11 interceptions. He has done this with such an anemic ground attack that he is second on the team in rushing.
The Packers were absolutely devastated by injuries this season, but that did not prevent them from giving up the second-fewest points in the NFL with the 10th-highest scoring offense. The defense was fifth-best in yards allowed, while the offense was ninth-best in yards gained.
Philadelphia's season started in scary fashion. The Eagles traded legendary quarterback Donovan McNabb so Kevin Kolb could start. Kolb was knocked out in the first game of the year, which happened to be against Green Bay. Michael Vick, a year removed from the disgrace on imprisonment, came to the rescue by playing the best football of his life.
Vick tossed just six interceptions while tossing 21 scores, over 3,000 yards passing, over 600 yards rushing and scoring nine more times. He is a front-runner for Comeback Player of the Year, and he probably will get several MVP votes as well. He has three excellent weapons to throw to, and Philadelphia has a 1,000-yard running back to lean on.
The coaches on both sidelines have starred all year. While Mike McCarthy and Andy Reid deserve major kudos, the assistant coaches have also been stellar. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg might be the best at what they do in the NFL today. Vick's progress and the defensive excellence of Green Bay can be attributed to these men.
Green Bay struggles to run the ball, relying very heavily on Rodgers. Though the young quarterback has carried the load, he did suffer two concussions because he takes so many hits from handling the ball so often. Halfback Brandon Jackson needs to step up in the playoffs.
Philadelphia can score; it is the third-highest scoring offense in the NFL in 2010. Defense is its issue. This inconsistent unit is ranked 21st in points allowed as well as 15th in both rushing and passing yards allowed. The Eagles haven given up 24 or more points in 11 games this year.
What To Watch For
The quarterbacks are in the spotlight here, but the running game could hold the key. If Jackson or Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy get 100 yards, the Eagles should win. If neither do anything, expect Rodgers and Vick to gun it out.
The best defense should prevail here.
Packers 30, Eagles 24