Last week’s scores:
Jets 24-14 (my prediction Jets 23-7)
Cowboys 34-14 (my prediction Dallas 24-20)
Ravens 33-14 (my prediction New England 27-17)
Cardinals 51-45 (my prediction Green Bay 34-17)
Ok, so I was 2 and 2 last week. I won with the Jets upsetting the Bengals and the Cowboys beating the Eagles for the third time this season. I didn’t envision the Ravens dismantling the Patriots like they did, and I thought the Packers would be a little more stout defensively against the Cardinals. My thoughts on this week’s games?
Arizona Cardinals @ New Orleans Saints (Saturday at 4:30 on FOX)
Offense: 11th in points (23.4), 28th rushing (93.4), and 12th passing (251)
Defense: 15th in points (20.3), 17th rushing (112.8), and 23rd passing (233.7)
Offense: 1st in points (31.9), 6th rushing (131.6), and 4th passing (272.2)
Defense: 20th in points (21.3), 21st rushing (122.2), and 26th passing (235.6)
Offense anyone? Kurt Warner and the Cardinals destroyed the league’s 5th best pass defense for 5 touchdowns and a QB rating just shy of perfect (154.1 to 158.3). In fact, he threw more touchdowns than incomplete passes (4), and the Cardinals’ offense didn’t have to punt until the 4th quarter. Steve Breaston and Early Doucet stepped up in a huge way with Anquan Boldin inactive for the game, totaling a combined 13 catches, 202 yards, and 3 TDs. Beanie Wells ran for 91 yards on the league’s #1 rush defense, including a 42 third quarter burst. Even without that carry, Wells still averaged 3.76 yards a carry.
The Saints stumbled into the playoffs on a 3 game losing streak that followed their 13-0 start. They lost a tough home battle to the upstart Cowboys, laid down in the second half against the Bucs, and tossed in the towel for the finale against the Panthers. They lack the slightest sliver of momentum heading into their first playoff game. Can they flip the switch against an inspired Cardinal team? If any offense can, it’s this one. Drew Brees averaged more passing yards per game than any QB not named Matt Schaub and led the league in TDs and QB rating. Brees has a plethora of options when he drops back to pass. Seven Saints caught at least 35 passes this year. By contrast, Sammie Stroughter was third on the Bucs with 31 receptions. The Saints aren’t one dimensional either. The league’s 6th ranked rushing attack is led by Pierre Thomas. Of the league’s rushers with a minimum of 100 attempts, Thomas ranks 6th with 5.4 yards per carry. He also caught as many passes this year as did Antonio Bryant.
At first I thought that the Cardinals might not want to get into another aerial assault this week, but then I thought, why the hell not? Darren Sharper is still one of the game’s best safeties, but this is a defense that has been absolutely shredded by opposing QBs down the stretch – Jason Campbell (30 points, 30-42, 367 yds, 3 TD), Chris Redman (23 points, 23-34, 303 yds, 1 TD), Tony Romo (24 points, 22-34, 312 yds, 1 TD), and Josh Freeman (20 points, 21-31, 271 yards). Gregg Williams’ unit is struggling against the run as well. I’d think that the Cardinals would like to feature Beanie Wells in this contest against a unit that allowed 145 rushing yards to the Cowboys, 176 to the Bucs, and 178 to the Panthers to close out the season.
Will Anquan play? Will it matter? The Cardinals would surely prefer to have him healthy and in the lineup, but they’re an impressive 6-1 over the past two seasons without him. I’m guessing they play it conservatively with him this week and don’t suit him up unless he’s really close to 100%. Arizona safety Antrel Rolle provided some early bulletin board material: “I don’t ever want to face him again in my life. I am dead serious. I’ll face Drew Brees any day of the week before I face him again.”
Robert Meachem could be the key to the Saints success this week. He averaged 16 yards per reception this season, and the Cardinals had trouble keeping both Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley in front of them last week. Despite the Saints’ struggles, they still line up one of the top QBs in the league. He’ll score, but will he have enough to combat Warner? The Cardinals are riding a huge wave of momentum in this game whereas the Saints are flat. Maybe they’re hitting their stride at the right time for a second year in a row. I simply can’t see the Saints slowing down Warner often enough. He destroyed one of the NFL’s best pass defenses last week and is now facing a unit that is unimpressive as a group.
Cardinals advance 34-27
Baltimore Ravens @ Indianapolis Colts (Saturday at 8:15 on CBS)
Offense: 9th in points (24.4), 5th rushing (137.5), and 18th passing (213.7)
Defense: 3rd in points (16.3), 5th rushing (93.2), and 8th passing (207.2)
Offense: 7th in points (26), 32nd rushing (80.9), and 2nd passing (282.2)
Defense: 8th in points (19.2), 24th rushing (126.6), and 14th passing (212.7)
Ok, I didn’t see that one coming. First play from scrimmage, Ray Rice up the middle and down the left sidelines 83 yards for a score. Three plays later, Terrell Suggs swipes the ball from Tom Brady, and they’re in the endzone again in less than three minutes. The Ravens were up 14 points in less than 5 minutes. It was over from there as the Ravens flat dominated the Patriots, handing each Bill Belichick and Tom Brady their first career home playoff loss. Tom Brady couldn’t find open receivers downfield, and they had no chance of mounting a serious comeback. Randy Moss might have been slowed by a knee that he was reportedly limping around on during the week, and Brady may indeed have broken ribs and a finger issue as were reported last week as well. That’s not to take anything from what the Ravens accomplished yesterday. They absolutely dominated the former champs. It says something when your QB only has to throw the ball 10 times the entire game. Dominique Foxworth did a wonderful job on Randy Moss, and the entire defense gathered 3 INTs, 3 sacks, and 6 TFL.
Indianapolis may have lost their last two compared to the Saints’ 3, but they may be in worse shape heading into the playoff than New Orleans. Jim Caldwell made the very controversial decision to pull Peyton Manning and others up 15-10 with 5 minutes left in the third quarter. The Colts went on to lose that game and their pursuit of a perfect season. In addition, they kickstarted the Jets’ playoff drive. Think Caldwell would like to revisit that decision now? After starting 14-0, the Colts lost their final two games, and Peyton Manning won’t have played any meaningful action in 20 days. Peyton’s the man, but they can’t afford to come out rusty against these Ravens. Peyton has the league’s second worst running game to lean on, and the Ravens should have no problem shutting it down once again. In seven career games against Baltimore, Reggie Wayne has totaled 36 catches and just 2 trips to the endzone. Indy is 1-0 against the Ravens in the playoffs, winning in the divisional round 15-6 at Baltimore.
When these teams met in week 11 in Baltimore, the Ravens limited the Colts to just 76 yards on the ground and turned them over three times. Still, the Colts emerged victorious 17-15. The Ravens had the lead in both the second and fourth quarters and possessed the ball on Indy’s 14 yard line with under three minutes to play. On 3rd and 7, the Colts got a little bit of pressure on Flacco up the middle. He backpedaled and threw an ill-advised pass over the middle to Ray Rice who had 3 Colts between himself and the football. Derrick Mason caught 9 passes for 142 yards in that game, so the odds are pretty good that he’ll improve upon last week’s 1 catch 8 yard performance. Think Flacco’s looking for some redemption?
Like last week, the Ravens have no reason to fear the other team’s running game, so they can gamble a bit more and attempt to disrupt Peyton early and often. Peyton’s the man, so I’m guessing he’s watched the Ravens-Patriots game a time or two since Sunday. He’ll be better prepared to take on this Baltimore defense than Brady apparently was. If Foxworth can shut down a Pro Bowl receiver for the second week in a row, the Ravens should be in great shape. In week 11 Rice touched the ball 27 times (his third highest game total in ’09), and you can bet they’re going to feed him the ball another 20 times this week. The Colts are really weak against the run, allowing a combined 427 points to Maurice Jones-Drew, Thomas Jones, and Fred Jackson in the season’s final three weeks. Rice is running strong and isn’t going down on first contact. The Colts will struggle with him all day. Surprisingly, Rice didn’t catch a pass last week against the Patriots. It was the first time all year he didn’t catch at least 1 pass in a game.
I don’t see Baltimore being able to jump out to a huge lead and sit back in their comfort zone against Indy like they did with New England. Unlike the Patriots who were limited to Moss and Julian Edelman, the Colts have Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie to go along with Wayne. Look for Peyton to find the open receiver and handle Baltimore’s pressure much better than Brady did. The Colts won’t be caught by surprise, and Peyton is going to show why he’s the MVP. I think this one starts out slowly, and the Ravens once again lead in the second half. In the end, Manning is too much. Flacco fumbles late, and the Joseph Addai scores the game winner.
Colts head to the conference championship 23-17
Dallas Cowboys @ Minnesota Vikings (Sunday at 1:00 on FOX)
Offense: 14th in points (22.6), 7th rushing (131.4), and 6th passing (267.9)
Defense: 2nd in points (15.6), 4th rushing (90.5), and 20th passing (225.4)
Offense: 2nd in points (29.4), 13th rushing (119.9), and 8th passing (259.8)
Defense: 10th in points (19.5), 2nd rushing (87.1), and 19th passing (218.4)
These teams last faced each other in October of 2007; Adrian Peterson’s 6th career game. The rookie ran for 63 yards on 12 carries and scored once in a 24-14 loss. Tarvaris Jackson completed 6 passes for 72 yards while Tony Romo was 31 of 39 for 277 yards and a TD. Brett Favre is 0-3 against the Cowboys in the playoffs, but all three of those games came between 1993 and 1995 (the Cowboys were Super Bowl champs in 1993 and 1995).
After week 16 Minnesota seemed to be headed down the road to losersville with the Saints. The week before, they lost at Carolina in a Sunday night game where the whole Childress-Favre drama started. They followed that up with a lackluster loss in OT to Chicago, a team that had lost 6 of their previous 7 games. In the finale they took out two weeks of frustration on the Giants. Favre threw for four TDs, and the Giants were held to a meaningless fourth quarter score. Might the Vikings be back on track?
In his 19th season, Brett Favre has the highest QB rating of his career. He proved that last year’s finish in New York was a fluke throwing for 11 more TDs and 15 less INTs. Favre was everything the Vikings were hoping for when they signed him. He took it to his former team twice this season and might still be the hungriest player in the league. Benefiting most from Favre’s arrival is Sidney Rice. In his third season, Rice ranked 4th in yards and was easily Favre’s favorite target. He’s playing tough; going over the middle of the field and making catches when they count. Last but not least is Adrian Peterson. In a “down” year, Peterson ranked 5th in the league in rushing but found the endzone more than any other rusher. He’s been utilized more in the passing game this season and had his carries cut by 50; may have added another year to his career.
Is Philly that bad, or is Dallas just that good? Dallas is on fire, winners of four straight. Last week’s dismantling featured another impressive performance from Tony Romo and introduced the Vikings to Felix Jones, the guy they’ll get to chase around the dome this week. Jones capped off a 148 yard rushing performance with a third quarter 73 yard score that put the dagger in the Eagles’ playoff hopes. Miles Austin caught another 7 passes and scored once again. The breakout receiver’s worst performance over the last 7 games was a 6 catch 71 yard outing against the Chargers. No one has been able to corral him. Roy Williams even got into the action, catching 5 passes for 59 yards.
The offenses are getting all the attention in this one, but the key to this game should be how well (or not) Viking tackles Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt handle DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Minnesota’s bookends struggled mightily in that Sunday night loss to the Panthers. When Favre wasn’t getting hit he was throwing the ball away. They didn’t look much better against the Bears the following week against a pretty weak pass rush. Ware and Spencer combined for 5 sacks in their last two contests, and they shouldn’t have much trouble adding to those numbers Sunday.
How will Minnesota counter? With Spencer and Ware crashing from the outside and Jay Ratliff occupying the middle of the field, Peterson is going to have a hard time finding much running room. The Vikings’ run blocking has been just as bad as their pass blocking recently, and going up against the league’s 4th rated run defense isn’t going to help things. Does Favre have another big game in him? I think he’s called on to throw another 40+ passes and keep his team in the game. I called it last week with Felix Jones, and I think they’re going to try and get him loose again. If he can, it’s over. Romo shouldn’t have much of a problem attacking the Vikings vertically, and Ware and Spencer should be able to run roughshod against the Vikings’ line. Everything is telling me to take Dallas, but something doesn’t smell right. Minnesota won’t win a shootout, but I think this one is a low scoring contest decided late in the 4th. My original playoff prediction was a close Minnesota win over Dallas. I’m sticking with it.
Vikings win 20-17
New York Jets @ San Diego Chargers (Sunday at 4:00 on CBS)
Offense: 17th in points (21.8), 1st rushing (172.2), and 31st passing (148.8)
Defense: 1st in points (14.8), 8th rushing (98.6), and 1st passing (153.7)
Offense: 4th in points (28.4), 31st rushing (88.9), and 5th passing (271.1)
Defense: 11th in points (20), 20th rushing (117.8), and 11th passing (209.2)
It wasn’t 37-0, but last week the Jets once again topped the Bengals and advanced to the divisional round against the San Diego Chargers. For Jets fans there wasn’t much to not like about last week’s game. Cedric Benson got his numbers on the ground, but Carson Palmer was held to 146 yards and 50% passing. Chad Ochocinco was shadowed by Darrelle Revis the entire game and managed just 2 receptions, both in the second half. He was only targeted twice in the first half, and Revis intercepted the second of those passes. Thomas Jones got into the endzone, but it was his backfield mate Shonn Greene who did the most damage, running for 135 yards and a score of his own. The cherry on top was the performance by Mark Sanchez. No, it wasn’t one for the record books, but his 12-15 for 182 yards and a TD without a turnover instilled confidence in not only Sanchez but his teammates and coaches as well. Dustin Keller (3-99-1) and Jericho Cotchery (6-67) drew nearly all of his targets and were able to keep the chains moving for the Jets.
The Chargers head into this matchup with on an 11 game winning streak. During that stretch, Philip Rivers had a 20-6 TD-INT ratio. In his 4th year as a starter, Rivers put up the best numbers of his career. He’s not even in the top 5 in most categories, but the fact that he was able to lead his team on a 10 (didn’t play much in week 17) game winning streak tells you he’s doing something right. He’s cut down on his mistakes and has really become a leader of the team. I think he and Aaron Rodgers are the young Tom Brady and Peyton Manning of this next decade. Vincent Jackson really emerged this year, catching at least 5 passes in 9 of this year’s contests. And then there’s Antonio Gates, the TE who had his best season since ’05. What didn’t help Rivers was that LaDainian Tomlinson had by far the worst year of his career. He put up his lowest carry, yard, average, and reception numbers ever. The Chargers were worse at running the ball than any team aside from the Colts this year. Darren Sproles was more involved this year, but he didn’t deliver what the Chargers were expecting for $6.6 million.
These teams last faced each other in week 3 of last season. Philip Rivers and Brett Favre both threw for 3 TDs and LaDainian Tomlinson got into the endzone twice. The Chargers won 48-29 in what ended up being Rivers’ second most efficient game of the season.
The Chargers can’t allow the Jets to tally 40+ carries or else New York takes this one. I expect San Diego to commit to the run and force Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery to win one-on-one matchups with Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie is where I’d go, but Eric Weddle will be sneaking around back there too. Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman will need to get in Sanchez’s face and force him to make the clutch throws like he did in Cincinnati. Rivers will continue to do what’s got the Chargers to this point; move the chains and don’t turn the ball over. With Jackson blanketed by Revis, Malcolm Floyd will be called upon to make plays downfield against Lito Shappard. The Jets’ bandwagon is getting crowded, but I think their season ends Sunday. The Chargers will do a better job than Cincinnati of slowing down Greene and Jones, and they won’t allow Sanchez to make those clutch plays two weeks in a row.
Chargers advance 30-20
My confidence rankings:
1 – San Diego
2 – Indianapolis
3 – Arizona
4 – Minnesota
AFC Title Game:
Chargers win @ Indy
NFC Title Game:
Vikings beat the Cardinals
Chargers beat the Vikings