NFL Playoff Preview: Championship Sunday

New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts
3:00 pm ET

The New York Jets and their brashly confident head coach Rex Ryan just keep believing they can beat anyone. And while rolling over the fading Bengals twice was impressive, going into San Diego and beating a Chargers team that many expected to go to the Super Bowl was another thing entirely. Sure, they had a few breaks go their way, like Nate Kaeding missing three field goals, but the Jets came to play, and they held Philip Rivers and that high-flying offense to 14 points. It goes without saying that facing Peyton Manning’s Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium will be just as challenging, if not more challenging for Ryan’s upstart squad, but anyone who counts out their “ground and pound” offense and stifling D isn’t paying attention. Meanwhile, the Colts will not be pulling their starters in the third quarter as they did against Gang Green in Week 16, and they proved to everyone last Saturday that resting those players allowed them to be a step quicker than the wild card Ravens. Sure, the Ravens held the Colts to 20 points, but the Colts’ defense squashed the Ravens’ #5 ground game, allowing just 3 points, and they hope to do the same to the Jets’ top-ranked rushing attack, daring rookie QB Mark Sanchez to beat them through the air. Last week, Sanchez made just enough plays, but he needs to be wary of that quick, opportunistic defense of Indianapolis that forced four turnovers against Baltimore. THE PICK: COLTS 20, JETS 16

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
6:40 pm ET

While both the Vikings and Saints struggled at bit down the stretch, they both flexed their collective muscle last weekend while eliminating the Cowboys and Cardinals, respectively. Minnesota sacked Tony Romo six times while holding a hot offense to just 3 points, and their own QB, old man Brett Favre, threw four touchdown passes and looked like a man half his age running around the field. New Orleans, after allowing a 70 yard touchdown to Tim Hightower, allowed only 7 more points the rest of the way, and D-coordinator Gregg Williams made all the necessary adjustments to stop Kurt Warner from keeping up with the Saints’ high-flying offense. And as for that offense, Drew Brees kept his gaudy completion percentage up high by going 23 of 32 (71.9%) for 247 yards, 3 scores and zero picks. And Reggie Bush was absolutely electrifying, rushing for a 46 yard touchdown and returning a punt 83 yards for the score that ultimately put the game out of reach. So what happens when these two superpowers meet in the, ahem, Superdome? It’s easy to say it will be a high scoring affair, but not when you consider how good each defense looked last week. More likely, it will be a close game, and one that will be determined in the final minutes or even in overtime. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about this game, so I’ll say it….get your popcorn ready! THE PICK: SAINTS 27, VIKINGS 24

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NFC/AFC Championship Preview

Before I wrote my Divisional Preview last week, I gave a jab to all the losing teams from Wild Card Weekend. So I think it’s only fair to the Falcons, Colts, Dolphins and Vikings that I do the same to the losers from the divisional round.

Tennessee Titans: Spend some time this offseason finding another offensive weapon besides Chris Johnson. I swear at one point during the game last week I actually saw Kerry Collins look to dump a pass to the Titan bench because he knew Johnson was sitting there nursing his injured ankle.

Carolina Panthers: Jake, black shirts, silver helmets, bro. Does anyone else wonder if one of the Panthers went up to Delhomme in the locker room after the game, stopped at his locker, looked him dead in the eye and said, “Happy f’ing birthday, Jake. Way to cost us the game”?

New York Giants: Eli, you’ve been playing in New York (New Jersey, actually) for four years now. You’re telling me you still haven’t figured out how to throw with that wind by now? Don’t blame yourself, though. Your coach should have deferred to the second half and put his defense (his strength) on the field first to start the game. Losing to the Eagles at home was a collective effort.

San Diego Chargers: I read that the general feeling out of Chargers’ camp was that Santonio Holmes’ punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter set off a chain of mistakes and miscues leading to San Diego’s loss in Pittsburgh. Yeah that, and the fact that Willie Parker did whatever he wanted, the Chargers only held the ball for 17 seconds in the third quarter and they couldn’t stop the big play. But that was it.

Kurt WarnerPhiladelphia Eagles (9-6-1) at Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
Sunday, January 18, 3:00PM ET
Current Odds: Eagles –4
Over/Under: 47
Game Outlook:
What the hell do we make of the Cardinals now? They stumbled into the postseason, so everyone (myself included) thought, “Well, this team won’t make it past the first round.” Then they beat the Falcons by shutting down Michael Turner, which happened to be the one thing many pundits said that they would have trouble with. But then everyone (myself included) thought, “Well, now they have to go on the road. And there’s no way they’ll win on the road.” Then they go to Carolina and absolutely crush the Panthers 33-13. Now there seems to be two schools of thought with these Cardinals from Arizona. The first being that the Falcons and Panthers made their job a hell of a lot easier by collectively turning the ball over nine times in two games. The second being that the Cards are for real and that everyone has disrespected them the past two weeks. Personally, I think ‘Zona falls somewhere in between. Do I think they were handed some golden opportunities to win over the past two weeks? Yeah. Do I think that they’re better than what everyone (one more time: myself included) thought they were? Yeah. But the Eagles are playing some damn good football right now and probably won’t make the same glaring mistakes that the Falcons and Panthers did. Philly also measures up well with Arizona given that their secondary is outstanding and that they’re playing with a ton of confidence. This game will come down to three things for both teams: 1) don’t turn the ball over, 2) convert on third downs and 3) play good defense. Whichever team is successful in those three areas of the game will win. And if you think that’s too simple then look at all of the playoff games played so far this season. The losing team turned the ball over more, couldn’t convert on third downs and couldn’t stop their opponent from making the big play.
X-Factor: DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
Jackson has breathed life into Philly’s passing attack and he’s provided a spark in the return game. If Brian Westbrook isn’t 100%, Jackson will have to make plays to give the Eagles a shot at making their second Super Bowl appearance in four years. It’ll also help if Andy Reid can line Jackson up in the “Wildcat” formation and allow him to make plays running the ball, too. Because Donovan McNabb can’t win on his own, even though he’s playing outstanding football right now.
Prediction: Cardinals 24, Eagles 21
Why the Cardinals? Because I think they’re destined to win. Nobody thought that they would be here right now and nothing in the NFL has made sense all year (i.e. the Eagles are probably the better overall team, so why should they win, right?). The Cards are also at home (where they play remarkably better than they do on the road) and I can already see the Kurt Warner headlines in the paper Monday morning.

Willie ParkerBaltimore Ravens (11-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Sunday, January 18, 6:30PM ET
Current Odds: Steelers -6
Over/Under: 34
Game Outlook:
Even though the divisional round essentially provided two duds (I know the Ravens-Titans game was close, but it really wasn’t that good of a game), I’m once again looking forward to what the AFC brings to the table this week. These are the two best defenses in the league (if not the NFL) and it’s going to be great to see how Rex Ryan and Dick LeBeau attack the opposing offense. The Ravens’ game plan has been simple the past two weeks in that they’ve relied on playing great defense and not turning the ball over offensively. Rookie Joe Flacco hasn’t thrown for over 200 yards in either of Baltimore’s two postseason wins, but the key is that he hasn’t turned the ball over. He has taken a couple of big shots down the field (mainly to Derrick Mason in the win last week) and converted, so that could once again play a factor this Sunday. The Ravens aren’t going to do anything different Sunday than they did the past two weeks – they’re going to play things conservative and win this game with defense. For the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the picture of perfect health right now, so it’ll be interesting to see what Ryan does to get pressure on Big Ben and force him to make mistakes like the Titans were able to in their Week 16 win over the Steelers. Of course, if Baltimore can’t stop Willie Parker than this game will be over before it starts. Parker had a great game in Pittsburgh’s win over San Diego last week and it forced the Chargers to be less aggressive. San Diego couldn’t get any pressure on Roethlisberger and he was able to hit them for big plays in the passing game. If the Ravens can effectively blitz him, he’s always likely to hold onto the ball too long, take sacks or turn the ball over. How effective Baltimore’s defense is will be what determines whether or not they’ll be playing for a Super Bowl title in two weeks. Pittsburgh’s defense is outstanding, but it’ll be the opportunities that the Ravens force via their defense that will be the determining factor in which team comes out victorious.
X-Factor: Terrell Suggs, LB/DE, Ravens
The Ravens need this guy to play. His status for Sunday is still uncertain as he continues to nurse an injured shoulder, but things don’t look promising. He’s been one of the best edge rushers in the league since he came into the NFL and he’ll be needed to drum up a pass rush against Big Ben. If he doesn’t play, that’s a huge blow to the Baltimore defense.
Prediction: Ravens 13, Steelers 10
It’s hard to beat a team three times in one season and with Big Ben’s injury a concern, I think Baltimore wins this with defense. Either way, this is going to be an outstanding game.

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