OK, Wade Phillips is shakily secure in Dallas for the moment. But that won’t be the case next season if the Cowboys miss the playoffs again. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will have his pick of some very big names.
Cowher and Holmgren pulled themselves out of contention in 2009 for family considerations. Shanahan, who is owed $20 million by good friend and Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, has a safety net and 20 million reasons not to rush back into coaching if the right opportunity doesn’t present itself. The Jets, without a quarterback if Brett Favre decides to retire, aren’t such a great landing spot. Owner Woody Johnson just fired Eric Mangini after a 9-7 season!
But let’s be honest, there could be some very attractive situations after the 2009 season. Dallas figures to be atop everyone’s list, followed closely by San Diego. Norv Turner is safe for 2009, but what if his team struggles in 2009? Then there are the Redskins and Texans, whose two owners will want playoff finishes next year. All four of these teams have talent and owners who will spend big money. Well, three of the four, for sure.
Shanahan in Dallas would be very interesting. Both and he and quarterback Tony Romo are graduates of Eastern Illinois.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Cardinals will host their first playoff game since 1947 when the franchise was in Chicago. Turnovers have plagued the Cardinals the past two months, and that’s what Atlanta will be striving to force. In the last seven games, the Cardinals have committed 16 turnovers — 10 of them in their own territory. Opponents have converted those turnovers into 10 touchdowns and two field goals, a major reason why the Cardinals lost four of their past six games, going from 7-3 to 9-7. Putting pressure on Arizona QB Kurt Warner, who was sacked only 26 times this season, will be critical if the Falcons are going to win. Atlanta DE John Abraham, who led the Falcons with 16 1/2 sacks, should be a handful for OT Mike Gandy. “Warner gets hit more than any quarterback in the league,” Abraham said. “Our biggest thing is to keep the pressure on him and keep hitting him. We might not get the sacks, but we have to make sure we get him frustrated.” Atlanta DEs Chauncey Davis and Kroy Biermann will rotate in place of injured Jamaal Anderson, who suffered a high ankle sprain against Minnesota on Dec. 21. Both players had sacks last week; the two have combined for six sacks, while Anderson has just two. Warner, who passed for 4,583 yards and 30 TDs, averages 37 attempts per game.
One big plus for the Arizona offense is the return of WR Anquan Boldin, who appeared to have fresh legs in practice this week after sitting out several games with a bum shoulder. “He moved around very well,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “He looked very good. I’m glad I sat him.” Also returning is OLB Travis LaBoy, who had four sacks during an injury-marred season. The Falcons can control the game’s tempo with RB Michael Turner, who scored 17 rushing TDs this season while running for 1,699 yards in a career year. If Turner moves the pile, it will allow rookie QB Matt Ryan to pick his spots and utilize play action. Ryan was 6-0 this season in games in which he had a 100.0 or higher quarterback rating. WR Roddy White had a team-record season with 1,382 receiving yards, and he’s a great deep threat, averaging 15.7 yards a catch. Plus, White has 29 third-down receptions, second-best in the NFL.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Although Whisenhunt wouldn’t confirm it, he has benched Tim Hightower for veteran RB Edgerrin James. Hightower had one good game, in St. Louis in early November, but has done little since. Edge ran for 100 yards in the season-ending win over Seattle. Edge, who ranks No. 13 all-time with 12,121 yards rushing, still wants out of Arizona and that will happen as Whisenhunt looks for a back in free agency or the draft. James passed Thurman Thomas and Franco Harris last Sunday. The Cardinals still have to make a financial decision with Warner, who earned $5 million this season. Do they give him a one-year raise to $7 million? Big considerations are that Warner will be 38 next season and how much longer does he want to play? The Cards can’t make more than a two-year commitment to him, especially with Matt Leinart still on the roster. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do, yet, at this point,” Warner said this week. “It’s easy to say, ‘I want to play.’ You don’t want to give this up too early. I just want to make sure it’s the right decision.” When it’s all said and done, Warner plans to talk with his wife, Brenda, about his future and then make a decision.
Ryan, who became the first Falcons rookie QB to start the season since Steve Bartkowski in 1975, was very excited about being named Offensive Rookie of the Year. Believe me, I almost voted for him as MVP, taking Turner instead. Ryan’s first pass as a Falcon went for a 62-yard touchdown to Michael Jenkins in the opening game against Detroit and he also completed a long pass to set up the rally over the Bears in the final 11 seconds. “He has the demeanor of all the great quarterbacks,” veteran tackle Todd Weiner said. “I’ve played with a few and I’ve also had friends that have played with a few. He just has that leadership quality that a quarterback needs.” Falcons owner Arthur Blank made all the right moves in the offseason, hiring Tom Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, who got my vote for Coach of the Year. Basically, Blank wanted a quiet team off the field and what he got was a playoff team. “We have a chance,” Black said, referring to the playoffs. “If you’re not in this tournament you don’t have a chance. This team believes in itself; it has shown resiliency. They’ve continued to step up this entire season. They’ve found inner strength and believe they can compete against any team in the NFL.”
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Chargers finished the regular season 31st against the pass and they face Colts QB Peyton Manning, who won his third MVP award (tying Brett Favre) because he was red hot down the stretch. Manning threw 17 TDs and only three INTs during Indy’s nine-game winning streak. But while Manning is playing well and has a very talented group of downfield targets, the Chargers haven’t generated a consistent pass rush all season without Shawne Merriman. The secondary, even with Ron Rivera taking over the defensive controls, has been mostly a passive bunch in coverage, particularly Antonio Cromartie, who had 10 interceptions last season. He finished with two this season. Remember, it was Cromartie who had three picks of Manning last season in his breakout game. San Diego ILB Stephen Cooper has been playing great down the stretch, collecting his team-high four INTs during the winning streak. The Chargers have had some success creating turnovers against Manning in the past, including nine INTs in three meetings the past two seasons. The key for San Diego is to stuff RB Joseph Addai and thus keep them out of play-action possibilities.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers has been sensational down the stretch and one big reason has been the improved play of LT Marcus McNeil, who might be able to handle Dwight Freeney. The real key may be if Jeromey Clary can stay with Robert Mathis on the other side. The Colts’ defensive strength is their team speed and that safety Bob Sanders is healthy, as is much of the rest of their secondary. The big loss is MLB Gary Brackett, who is a tackling machine. RB LaDainian Tomlinson (groin) won’t be 100 percent, but San Diego needs him in the lineup. It’s too bad that he’s been slowed, because L.T. looked like he was back to his 2007 form with the quick cutting and hard running that made him the best back in fantasy football. TE Antonio Gates, who has a severe ankle sprain, will try to play. Rivers needs both players to complete the short passes that lead to the downfield throws to Vince Jackson and Chris Chambers. Backup RB Darren Sproles is one of the league’s best screen runners and can also help negate some of the Colts’ speed. The Chargers fell to the Colts in the regular season this year at home, 23-20.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Although his midseason misfires were a big reason why the Chargers finished 8-8, Rivers finished the regular season as the NFL’s top-rated passer with a team-record 105.5 rating. He set a franchise record with 34 touchdown passes, which led the league, while throwing for 4,009 yards. Colts coach Tony Dungy knows his team must sustain pressure on Rivers. “The Chargers have been making big plays,” Dungy said. “They’ve always been a big-play offense. The mistakes are down. The thing that I see most is the fourth-quarter scoring. They’ve scored a ton of points in the fourth quarter.” Dungy expects to make a decision on his future with the team in the next couple of weeks. Offensive assistant Jim Caldwell is expected to succeed him should Dungy decide to retire. Of the two injured San Diego stars, Gates is the least likely for full-game participation. If the game was Thursday, he would not have played. However, Gates and L.T. have been improving. “Both of them are a lot better than they have been,” coach Norv Turner said. “They really will be Saturday decisions. We’ll get them out there and run around and see how they feel. I’m optimistic about both of them.” Interestingly, the Chargers were pretty healthy for the AFC West showdown against the Broncos and then both offensive stars got hurt. They were both hurt for much of the playoff run last season, too. Remember, they upset the Colts in Indy last year in the playoffs with backup QB Billy Volek leading the game-winning scoring drive. Colts personnel man Chris Polian is expected to be in play as a candidate in Detroit and Kansas City and maybe Denver.
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