NFL Playoff Preview: Sunday games

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
1:00 pm ET

Last season, the Ravens began their playoff journey as a wild card by upsetting the AFC East champion Dolphins, and then upsetting the top seeded Tennessee Titans, before losing to the eventual champion Steelers in the AFC championship game. This season the Ravens went 10-6 and eked into the playoffs in Week 17, but their losses have mostly been close games, including a 27-21 defeat in New England in Week 4. The Ravens’ fifth ranked rushing attack is led by RB Ray Rice, and they will once again use their stout defense (ranked third overall) to try and stop Tom Brady, Randy Moss and company. The Patriots will try to run the ball to control the clock and keep it away from Rice, and also try to use said running game to allow Brady and his receivers to stretch the field. Of course, everyone knows that Wes Welker is out for the season after jamming his knee into the Reliant Stadium turf last Sunday. But did anyone expect rookie WR (and 7th round draft pick) Julian Edelman to catch 10 passes for 103 yards and run up and down the field looking like a Welker clone doing it? Not really. Still, Brady didn’t have guys named Lewis, Suggs and Reed lining up on the other side last week, and those guys in purple jerseys could force him into making a few mistakes. The bottom line, however, is that the Patriots are 8-0 at home this season, and a Bill Belichick coached team is a tough out in the playoffs.

Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals
4:40 pm ET

Amazingly, this game is the third contest of the weekend that is a rematch of a Week 17 game, and like the Philly/Dallas game, this one is also in the same building, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona. Will it be the same outcome though? Last week, the Packers played all of their starters in annihilating the defending NFC champs 33-7, but Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt did not use star QB Kurt Warner after the first quarter. Still, how much of that crap about tipping your hand before playing an opponent again do you believe? This is the NFL, and the team that executes their game plan usually wins. Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy believed that letting Aaron Rodgers and his receivers stretch the field against the Cardinals’ 23rd ranked pass defense, as well as mixing in a heavy dose of Ryan Grant and Ahman Green to run the ball and keep it away from Warner and Matt Leinart was an effective strategy. Of course, McCarthy’s Packers boast the #1 rushing defense in the NFL and the #5 passing defense, so they feel like they can stop whoever is trying to move the ball against them anyway, especially if star CB Charles Woodson suits up after aggravating a shoulder injury last week. Remember, though, that the Cardinals are recently playoff tested, and came within a brilliant Santonio Holmes touchdown catch from winning it all less than a year ago.

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NFL Week 16 COY Power Rankings

Upsets galore and crazy outcomes have forced us to look a bit harder at the Coach of the Year rankings, but most of our contenders are hanging tough.

1. Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis Colts—The poor guy is still dodging proverbial rocks being thrown by Colts’ fans, who wanted their team to continue its pursuit of perfection instead of rolling over against the Jets. Being that the Colts were still in position to go to 15-0 when Caldwell did that, we have to cut him some slack and remember that his team is still the top seed in the AFC and would be in the NFC as well.

2. Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints—Payton surely did not want to back into the #1 seed in the NFC, but after losing two games in a row, his team did just that when the Vikings’ loss Monday night let the Saints snag the top position. And once again, we have to consider the entire season’s body of work.

3. Norv Turner, San Diego Chargers—When you consider that Turner’s Chargers always play lousy in September, only to win when it really matters, that’s far better than it being the other way around. It’s time we started to give Turner his due.

4. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals—The Bengals are another team not playing well, but they have dealt with two tragedies this season—the death of player Chris Henry, and the passing of the wife of D-coordinator Mike Zimmer. And still, the Bengals are 10-5 with an AFC North title. Raise your hand if you expected that.

5. Brad Childress, Minnesota Vikings—Yes, the Vikings are floundering and in danger of losing the #2 seed to Philly or Dallas, but I’ll keep mentioning two players who Childress sought in the off-season that made this a championship caliber team—Brett Favre and Percy Harvin.

Honorable mention: Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals; Mike McCarthy, Packers; Andy Reid, Eagles; Bill Belichick, Patriots; Rex Ryan, Jets; Wade Phillips, Cowboys; Josh McDaniels, Denver Broncos

The Cardinals have an interesting dilemma

After they beat the Rams last Sunday, many of the Cardinals starters probably figured that they would have Week 17 off against the Packers. But that was before the Vikings lost to the Bears on Monday night and kept Arizona’s hopes alive for clinching the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

The chances of the Cardinals earning the No. 2 spot are slim. They would not only have to beat Green Bay this Sunday, but the Vikings and Eagles would both have to lose as well. That’s a big request, although given that Minnesota plays the Giants and Philadelphia plays the Cowboys, it’s certainly not out of the question.

‘Zona head coach Ken Whisenhunt has quite the dilemma. If he chooses to rest his starters against the Packers, then he’s essentially relinquishing any shot of the No. 2 seed. If he doesn’t rest his starters and the Cards fail to earn the No. 2 seed based on one of the above scenarios, then players like Kurt Warner won’t get any rest heading into the postseason.

Another thing Whisenhunt has to consider is the fact that the Cardinals could wind up hosting the Packers in the Wild Card round next week. If he plays his starters, Green Bay will have plenty of game film to use in preparation to stop Arizona the following week. So what is Whisenhunt to do?

Personally, I think Whisenhunt should play his starters and go for the No. 2 seed now that it’s still in reach. But then again, I’m a risk taker. If you have a shot to earn a first round bye and home field advantage then you have to go for it, regardless of whether or not the odds are stacked against you.

Of course, if the Vikings beat the Giants at 1:00 p.m., none of this will matter because the Cardinals would be eliminated from the No. 2 spot. But if they lose, then I don’t envy Whisenhunt’s decision at 4:00 p.m.

If the Vikings lose, should the Cardinals rest their starters?
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NFL Week 14 COY Power Rankings

As we seem to repeat week after week lately, you can’t put anyone other than Jim Caldwell and Sean Payton atop this list as their teams remain undefeated. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other contenders for coach of the year, however.

1. Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis Colts—The Colts have clinched their division, their conference, a first round bye and home field throughout the playoffs, and threatening the 1972 Dolphins, all with a rookie head coach. That just doesn’t happen, but here we are.

2. Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints—Like Caldwell, Payton’s Saints have encountered a few road bumps recently, but are still 13-0. One more win and they will have ensured that the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC goes through the Superdome…and that’s just daunting for anyone.

3. Brad Childress, Minnesota Vikings—The Vikings beat up a very good Bengals team last weekend, and are close to wrapping up the #2 NFC seed. Despite the Saints’ undefeated mark, nobody should be taking Childress’ team lightly.

4. Norv Turner, San Diego Chargers—Funny, we’ve been ignoring this guy the whole time, and all his team does is win, especially late in the season. This season, Turner’s Bolts might be Super.

5. tie Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals & Josh McDaniels, Denver Broncos—Despite losses to the Vikings and Colts, respectively, last weekend, the fact remains that both of these playoff bound teams have very much exceeded expectations, especially defensively, this season.

Honorable mention: Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals; Jack Del Rio, Jaguars; Mike McCarthy, Packers; Andy Reid, Eagles; Tony Sparano, Dolphins

NFL Week 13 COY Power Rankings

It’s not like we can dock Sean Payton here, but let’s face it. If Shaun Suisham kicks that 23-yard field goal for the Redskins, Payton’s Saints are 11-1 right now. Sure, they proved that they are never out of any game, but based on how Jim Caldwell’s Colts handled a red-hot Titans team, we give him the nod this week.

1. Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis Colts—We’ll say it again. Rookie head coaches, no matter how much talent they inherit, do not start 12-0. And don’t think Caldwell’s boys can’t run the table. Very impressive.

2. Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints—The bottom line is 12-0 and an early division crown. Next up, trying to lock up home field, which would make getting to the Super Bowl for any other NFC team next to impossible.

3. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals—Did anyone else expect a shift in the balance of power in the AFC North like this? The Bengals have a three-game lead over the Ravens and a 3.5 game lead over the Steelers with four to play. And Lewis has his now defense-and-ball-control team believing.

4. Josh McDaniels, Denver Broncos—Maybe those four losses were not the norm, after watching the way the Broncs dominated both the G-men and Chiefs. Whoever winds up playing these guys in January should be really afraid.

5. Brad Childress, Minnesota Vikings—So finally the Vikings went up against an explosive offense their defense couldn’t stop. But that was likely just a bump in the road.

Honorable mention: Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals; Jack Del Rio, Jaguars; Mike McCarthy, Packers; Andy Reid, Eagles

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