What a bizarre season this has been. Two teams that many pundits figured would meet in the Super Bowl – the Cowboys and Patriots – didn’t even make the playoffs. While two teams expected to dwell the cellars of their respective divisions for another season – the Dolphins and Falcons – will be playing in round one of the postseason, which kicks off this weekend.
Below is a complete playoff preview for the four Wild Card games this weekend. In each game preview you’ll find a matchup breakdown, a player to keep an eye on, odds, and a predicted score. (What’s a game preview without a prediction?)
Rather amazingly, all four home teams are underdogs this weekend.
Atlanta Falcons (11-5) at Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
Saturday, January 3, 4:30 PM FOX
Opening Odds: Falcons –2
Outside of having to face Kurt Warner and a Cardinals’ offense that averages over 290 passing yards a game, this is a great matchup for the Falcons. Arizona has had issues stopping the run over the past couple weeks and before Edgerrin James cracked 100 yards Sunday against the Seahawks, no Cardinal rusher hit the 100-yard mark in the previous seven games. Offensively, that means Atlanta can do what it does best – put the game in the hands of Michael Turner. “The Burner” is coming off a 208-yard rushing performance in Week 17 and hasn’t shown signs of wearing down despite this being the first season that he’s had to carry the full rushing load. Look for the Falcons to try to wear down Arizona’s front seven throughout the game and keep the Cards’ explosive offense on the sidelines. Once the Cardinal safeties start to creep up to stop Turner, Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey can start taking shots down the field with rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. Defensively, the Falcons will have to keep their safeties back in coverage and rely on their front seven to stop the Cardinals’ run game because corners Chris Houston and Dominique Foxworth can’t contain Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in one on one coverage. Although Boldin has missed the final two games with a shoulder injury, he’s expected to play, which is obviously huge for Warner and the passing game. But if they can’t run the ball they’ll be to one-dimensional and the Falcons will be able to sit back in coverage.
X-Factor: John Abraham, Falcons DE
Abraham has been an absolute beast this season and if the Falcons can build a decent lead with their running game, it will allow Abraham to pin his ears back and head straight for the quarterback. Atlanta has done a nice job rotating their defensive linemen all season to keep them fresh and if Abraham can get pressure on Warner, he’s bound to make mistakes and turn the ball over.
Prediction: Falcons 30, Cardinals 27
Atlanta’s secondary is a concern (especially with safety Lawyer Milloy nursing a back injury), but the Vikings exposed the Cardinals two weeks ago and the Falcons will use the same blueprint.
Indianapolis Colts (12-4) at San Diego Chargers (8-8)
Saturday, January 3, 8:00PM ET CBS
Opening Odds: Colts –1.5
No team in either conference heads into the postseason on a hotter streak than the Indianapolis Colts. Peyton Manning has been brilliant over the second half of the season and if San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera can’t figure out a way to slow down the Colts’ passing attack, then the Chargers will be exciting the postseason in quick fashion. That said, the Chargers have played remarkably better since Rivera took over for Ted Cotrell midseason, and outside of Shawne Merriman’s absence, this is largely the same Chargers team that went into Indy last year and knocked off the Colts. This looks like a walk in the park for the Colts, but San Diego is a tough environment to play in and the Chargers are riding a four-game win streak. Indy is incredibly banged up on defense and if LaDainian Tomlinson runs as hard as Saturday as he did against Denver in Week 17, then the Chargers have a shot to pull off an upset. Bob Sanders, Gary Brackett and Freddie Keiaho all missed the Colts’ final regular season game, so it’ll be interesting to see if they’ll be healthy enough to play Saturday. It’s almost vital that the Colts have those defensive players in uniform this weekend.
X-Factor: Bob Sanders, S, Colts
As Sanders’ health goes, Indy’s defense goes. He’s great in coverage, but even better in run support and he can make up for Indy’s lack of size defensively. Much like the Steelers’ Troy Polomalu, Sanders is a mistake-eraser and the Colts absolutely need him to play against a Chargers’ offense that is averaging close to 30 points a game.
Prediction: Colts 33, Chargers 27
The Chargers might be 8-8, but they’ll surprise people this week by keeping this one close to the end. It’s just hard to go against Manning when he’s playing like a man determined to win another Super Bowl and it just seems like the Colts are flying under the radar with more attention being played to the Titans, Steelers and even the Dolphins and Ravens in the AFC.
Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Miami Dolphins (11-5)
Sunday, January 4, 1:00PM ET CBS
Opening Odds: Ravens -3
This game features two teams that had remarkable turnarounds in 2008. And no team had a bigger turnaround than the Dolphins, who went from a dismal 1-15 record a year ago to 11-5 this season and a division title. Nobody could have imagined in preseason that the Dolphins would be hosting a playoff game come January, but they are and it’s a testament to the job Bill Parcells and Tony Soprano did this season. That said, things aren’t going to be easy for Miami this Sunday. Baltimore’s defense is limiting opponents to 15.3 points per game this season, and just 179.8 passing and 81.3 rushing yards per game. The Dolphins have largely relied on keeping defenses off-balance with multiple formations and gadget plays, but those typically don’t work against the Ravens. And the Dolphins can’t just line up and physically go toe to toe with Baltimore for four quarters. Look for the Ravens to run blitz for most of the game and rely on Ed Reed to blanket the field in coverage. Quarterback Chad Pennington has largely played mistake-free this season, but he’ll have his work cut out for him this weekend and might have to make more plays in the passing game if the Dolphins expect to win. Offensively for Baltimore, they’ll continue to pound the ball on the ground and allow rookie quarterback Joe Flacco to take what the defense gives him in the passing game. The Ravens have allowed Flacco to throw vertically (as opposed to dink and dunk passes that most teams employ when they have a young quarterback) and he’s excelled in just his first-season. As long as he doesn’t make mistakes and cost his team field position, the Ravens should come away with a victory, which is amazing considering this is another team with a rookie head coach. John Harbaugh has been fantastic in working with Flacco and turning around a once anemic offense.
X-Factor: Ed Reed, S, Ravens
I love the playoffs because it’s usually a time when media outlets start paying a lot more deserved attention to the great safeties in the NFL. Reed is one of the best playmakers in the league and while he does get burned at times taking unnecessary risks, he’s one of the most versatile defensive backs in the league. Don’t blink or else you might miss one of his game-changing plays.
Prediction: Ravens 20, Dolphins 9
Baltimore’s defense is too good and while the Dolphins were a great story this year, they won’t make enough plays to beat a Ravens team destined for more this postseason.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1) at Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
Sunday, January 4, 4:30PM ET FOX
Opening Odds: Eagles -3
How the hell did the Eagles get here? It doesn’t seem that long ago that they tied the Bengals, were drubbed by the Ravens, and had every media member in the Philadelphia area screaming for Andy Reid’s head. Now they’re heading to Minnesota to take on a Vikings team that barely squeaked by the Giants’ backups in Week 17 to make the playoffs. (Actually, the Bears lost to the Texans, so Minnesota would have got in regardless of if they won or not, but you get what I mean.) This is a game that features two teams that have largely been inconsistent this season. One week the Eagles were beating the Giants in East Rutherford, the next they were losing to a struggling Redskins team. Likewise for the Vikings, who crushed the Cardinals in Arizona three weeks ago, only to turn the ball over four times at home in a loss to the Falcons the very next week. It would be easy to jump on the Eagles bandwagon after the absolutely crushed the Cowboys 44-6 in Week 17. But they were just 3-4-1 this year on the road and Brian Westbrook has been limited by knee and ankle injuries over the past month. Outside of the penchant for putting the ball on the ground, Adrian Peterson has been a beast and he’s going to be hard for the Eagles to slow down. Expect Brad Childress to take the game out of Tarvaris Jackson’s hands (assuming he starts) and put it squarely on Peterson’s shoulders. Defensively, they’ll attempt to take Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter out of the game and force Philly to be one-dimensional. Donovan McNabb has been fantastic over the past month of the season, but he’s been turnover prone when the Eagles have fallen behind in games this season.
X-Factor: Jared Allen, DE, Vikings
Allen has been an absolute thorn in the side of offensive coordinators throughout the league this season. If the Eagles can’t get him blocked, McNabb will have a tough time setting his feet and trying to make plays in the passing game. Allen must play with more discipline, however, because Philly loves to run screen passes and they could suck the defensive end up field and out of the play if he’s overly aggressive. The Falcons used this technique two weeks ago and Allen was rendered ineffective in for most of the game.
Prediction: Vikings 20, Eagles 17
Trust me, I’m not in love with this prediction. Quite frankly I could see the Eagles feasting on Viking turnovers all afternoon and running away with this one by halftime. But I think Minnesota will play a cleaner game than they have over the past couple weeks and the Metrodome is terrifying for opponents come playoff time. Of course, I could see the lack of playoff experience come into play for Jackson and Peterson, which obviously gives McNabb and company an advantage. Crap. Let me stop writing before I change my mind and go with the Eagles…