NFL Divisional Round Preview

Before I get to my Divisional Round Preview, I’d like to send all of the losers from Wild Card Weekend off the only way I know how: By jabbing them one final time.

Atlanta Falcons: Hey Mike Smith and Mike Mularkey, his name is Jerious Norwood. He’s #32 and he’s one of the best playmakers on your offense. Might want to think about using him more the next time an opposing defense figures out how to shut down Michael Turner.

Indianapolis Colts: Seven trips to the postseason in the last seven years and you only manage one Super Bowl appearance with a three-time MVP at quarterback? Dear Barbara…

Miami Dolphins: Chad, I love you man and I love your story this season. But you can’t force passes down field into double coverage and expect good things. You should have kept doing what you did all season and what you did in your first possession of the game – hit the high-percentage passes and let your receivers get the yardage.

Minnesota Vikings: Did anyone else scratch their head when Brad Childress declined a holding penalty on third down early in the first quarter that would have moved the Eagles on the edge of field goal range? Instead, it brought up forth down and David Akers drilled a 43-yarder to give Philly a 3-0 lead. Childress basically said, “I’m not sure if my defense can hold the Eagles on 3rd and 14 – better give up the field goal so we don’t give up a potential touchdown instead.” You never give your opponents points in the playoffs. Never. Not even a field goal. Force them back, force them to make a play and force them to earn the points.

Myself: I went 1-3 with my Wild Card Predictions last week. Seriously? You went with the Colts in the playoffs? A rookie in Matt Ryan? The Vikings over everyone’s sleeper team in the Eagles? You’re a freaking bum. (Ironically I went 3-1 in a family football pool because I came to my senses and picked San Diego and Philly.)

Moving on…

Chris JohnsonBaltimore Ravens (11-5) at Tennessee Titans (13-3)
Saturday, January 10, 4:30PM ET
Opening Odds: Titans –3
Over/Under: 34.5
Game Outlook:
No disrespect to the Giants and Eagles or any other team playing this weekend, but this is easily the best matchup on the divisional playoff schedule. Did you see what Ed Reed and the Ravens did to Chad Pennington and the Dolphins last week? They held them to only 276 total yards, forced five turnovers and surrendered only 52 rushing yards. And although they used a lot of gadget formations throughout the season, it’s not like Miami’s offense was a dud this year. Granted, the Titans have the seventh best rushing attack in the league and rookie Chris Johnson brings an added dimension to the field, but Mike Heimerdinger has his hands full this week trying to come up with a game plan to move the ball against a Baltimore defense allowing just over 15 points a game this season. That said, it’ll be interesting to see how rookie quarterback Joe Flacco does against the seventh best defense in the NFL. Flacco passed with flying colors last week while playing mistake-free and running for the game-clinching score in the fourth quarter. But he’ll have to do a hell of a lot more than complete 9 of 23 passes for 135 yards against a Tennessee defense that could have DT Albert Haynesworth and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch back on their defensive line. If both players are in the lineup Saturday, Flacco is going to feel the heat up the middle and from the edges so he better get rid of the ball in a timely manner. Overall, this is the best defensive matchup of the year and this game will probably come down to who doesn’t turn the ball over.
X-Factor: Chris Johnson, Titans RB
The only time the Dolphins found success last week was when they used the Ravens’ aggressive style against them and slipped backs out in the flats. Pennington was able to hit Patrick Cobbs and company for seven to 10 yard gains and the Titans could employ the same method. Johnson is a homerun threat and more than capable of taking one to the house every play. Tennessee has to get the ball in this kid’s hands and force the Ravens to miss tackles in the open field, which they have the penchant for doing at times.
Prediction: Titans 16, Ravens 13.
I’m not going to bite on this potential upset. The Ravens’ defense is absolutely nasty, but Flacco worries me against a ball-hawking Tennessee secondary and I think the Titans are going to shut down Baltimore’s running game. This game comes down to which team makes fewer mistakes and I’ll take a veteran in Kerry Collins over the rook Flacco. (Word to the wise though, Kerry – stay away from Ed Reed’s side if you can.)

Steve SmithArizona Cardinals (9-7) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)
Saturday, January 10, 8:15PM ET
Opening Odds: Panthers –10
Over/Under: 48
Game Outlook:
There’s no sense avoiding the obvious: the Cardinals are a different team at home than they are on the road. The Cardinals played an inspired game last week in their win over the Falcons, but the Panthers aren’t going to make the same mistakes Atlanta did. Unlike the Falcons, Carolina will attack the edges of Arizona’s defense with the dynamic running duo of DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart. And for as well as the Cards played against the run last Saturday, it’s highly doubtful they do it two weeks in a row, especially considering that this time they’ll be on the road. Jake Delhomme isn’t going to be as awestruck as rookie Matt Ryan was either, so don’t expect Arizona to be handed three gift turnovers like they were last week. Granted, the Cardinals did play the Panthers tough in Carolina earlier this year and probably should have beaten them, but the Cats are well rested and their defense is playing better now than it was in the middle of the season. Look for the Panthers to establish their running game early, but also get playmaker Steve Smith involved on their first two offensive possessions. Carolina loves to run zero-screens to Smith to see if he can break one early, and he just might against a defense that will be more concerned with stopping the run. Another factor working in the Panthers’ favor is that Anquan Boldin continues to be hampered by injuries. If he can’t be effective, Carolina will load up to stop the run (which Atlanta failed to do) and blanket Larry Fitzgerald in coverage. The Falcons were unable to get pressure on Kurt Warner, but Carolina won’t make the same mistake. Arizona OT Mike Gandy won’t be as lucky as he was last week playing a hobbled John Abraham, because Julius Peppers is revving to go.
X-Factor: Steve Smith, Panthers WR
Defenses try to double and triple-team this guy and he still winds up making plays. You can’t stop him – you can only hope to limit him from making game-changing plays. If the Panthers can run the ball effectively, Smith is going to have a huge day because the play action pass will open up.
Prediction: Panthers 35, Cardinals 24.
Although Arizona burned me last week when I predicted them to lose to the Falcons, I think everything that worked for the Cardinals last week will go against them this Saturday. They won’t be able to run the ball, Warner is going to see more pressure and the defense won’t shut down Williams and Stewart like they did Turner.

Donovan McNabbPhiladelphia Eagles (9-6-1) at New York Giants (12-4)
Sunday, January 11, 1:00PM ET
Opening Odds: Giants -4
Over/Under: 40
Game Outlook:
I wrote about it Sunday after the Eagles beat the Vikings and I’ll write about it again: this is not a matchup the Giants wanted. Philadelphia is brimming with confidence right now, has already beaten the Giants in New York once this season and is playing incredibly well defensively. The G-Men won’t admit it, but their fans will – they would have rather played the Cardinals this weekend than NFC East rival Philadelphia. Either way, they’ve got the Eagles and now the defending champs will have to defend their title the hard way. This game will come down to two things: 1) Brandon Jacobs and 2) protecting Eli Manning. If the Giants can get Jacobs and the running game going, it’ll help neutralize what Eagle defensive coordinator Jim Johnson does best: blitz. But if Jacobs is ineffective, the Eagles are going to send the house every play and pressure Manning, who can look like a Super Bowl winner one moment and Henry Burris the next. Not having a playmaker at receiver has hurt the Giants over the past couple weeks. Their win over the Panthers in Week 16 was inspiring, but their receivers aren’t making big plays and that’s a problem going against a secondary that is playing incredibly well right now. As for Philly, they have to stop the run. They allowed the Vikings to rush for close to 150 yards last Saturday and they were fortunate that Tarvaris Jackson couldn’t make enough plays in the passing game to beat them. If the Eagles can’t stop the run again this week, they can rest assure that Manning will beat them, even with the lack of a playmaker at receiver. They need to stuff the run, pressure Eli and get his confidence down immediately. They also need better production from Brian Westbrook, who couldn’t get going against a very good Minnesota front seven. Donovan McNabb has played extremely well over the past month, but he needs Westbrook to open things up for him so the Giants don’t just pin their ears back and pressure him into mistakes.
X-Factor: Brandon Jacobs RB Giants
If he can be effective, he’ll take the pressure off Manning and the Giants will move on. If he can’t, the Eagles win this one in a defensive struggle.
Prediction: Eagles 20, Giants 16.
I didn’t bite on the Ravens upsetting the Titans, but I will here. The Giants haven’t looked sharp in over a month and losing Burress hurt them more than they’ll admit. McNabb seems to be playing looser since being benched at Baltimore and Jim Johnson beats Kevin Gilbride in the battle of the coordinators.

Troy PolamaluSan Diego Chargers (8-8) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Sunday, January 11, 4:45PM ET
Opening Odds: Steelers -6
Over/Under: 38
Game Outlook:
The Chargers provided the upset of Wild Card Weekend in knocking off the Colts, as Darren Sproles has emerged as the next young playmaker in San Diego’s backfield. Chances are we haven’t seen the last of him either, because word is that LaDainian Tomlinson will be out the rest of the playoffs with a groin injury. Defensively for the Chargers, coordinator Ron Rivera has had massive impact since taking over for Ted Cottrell midseason and now San Diego is playing with more confidence than earlier in the year. The biggest turnaround has been in the secondary, which had been shredded earlier in the season but has since come together and even held Peyton Manning in check the late in the game last Saturday. The true test for the Chargers this week is keeping Ben Roethlisberger (who will play despite receiving a concussion being concussed in Week 17) from making plays on third down. Teams have gotten to Big Ben, but he’s often burned them by escaping the pressure while keeping his eyes down field and making plays in the passing game. Pittsburgh’s offensive line is being held together by duct tape, so it’ll be interesting to see if Rivera can drum up a pass rush with his front seven and possibly force Roethlisberger to make mistakes like he did in the Steelers’ loss to the Titans a few weeks ago. Offensively for San Diego, if Sproles can’t find running room against the best defensive defense in the league, the game will be placed directly on quarterback Philip Rivers’ shoulders. Antonio Gates has been hobbled of late, but should play. Watch for the Steelers to blanket him in coverage and force Rivers to go to Chris Chambers and his other receivers. Rivers can’t make mistakes this weekend or else the Steeler defense will eat him alive and the wild ride will be over with for the Chargers. Anyone expecting a Pittsburgh romp will be sorely mistaken because this game should be tight throughout. This game also has some added intrigue because when these two teams met earlier this season, the Steelers came away with an 11-10 victory, which was the first 11-10 final in NFL history. Of course the final score should have been 18-10 because Troy Polamalu scored a defensive touchdown in the waning seconds of the game, but the officials blew a forward-lateral call and the score came off the board, resulting in the 11-10 finish. It was one of the most bizarre plays of the season, which incidentally cost gamblers millions of dollars.
X-Factor: Troy Polamalu, Steelers S.
Any chance I get to write about a playmaking safety, the better. Much like the Ravens’ Ed Reed, Polamalu is a game-changer and he made the catch of the year in the Steelers’ win against the Chargers earlier this season. He’s the type of defender that can cover the entire field and there’s no doubt he’ll make a play or two to shift the momentum of the game in Pittsburgh’s favor.
Prediction: Steelers 20, Chargers 13.
Although this is definitely another game San Diego can win, I don’t see them moving the ball as well as they did against Indy. The Steelers have issues, but their defense should win this one for them.

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