NFL Playoff Preview: Wild Card Weekend

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.

Matt RyanAtlanta Falcons (11-5) at Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
Saturday, January 3, 4:30 PM FOX
Opening Odds: Falcons –2
Over/Under: 51
Game Outlook:
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.

Read the rest after the jump...

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

NFL Playoff Preview: Colts need to get healthy in a hurry

The Indianapolis Colts have a lot going for them these days. They’ve won nine straight, will play the San Diego Chargers Saturday in the opening round of the NFL playoffs, and their starting quarterback just won his third career MVP award.

About the only thing working against the Colts, is the amount of injuries they’ve amassed over the past couple weeks, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

The most notably injury is to strong safety Bob Sanders, whose knee continues to bother him. Tony Dungy says he expects Sanders to play Sunday, although it’s unclear at this point whether or not he’ll be slowed by the injury.

One player who won’t suit up is linebacker Gary Brackett, who missed the entire week of practice due to a fibula injury, and has missed the past four games. Defensive tackle Eric Foster, wideout Pierre Garcon, guards Jamey Richard and Mike Pollack, and defensive back Keiwan Ratliff are all listed as questionable.

Philip Rivers has been outstanding all season despite his top receiving weapon Antonio Gates missing time due to injury, as well as LaDainian Tomlinson having a rare down year. Point being, for as well as Manning has played over the second half of the season, the Chargers are more than equipped offensively to get into a shootout with the Colts.

Having a healthy Sanders in the defensive backfield is the key for Indy. He’s a game changer and he can erase mistakes in the blink of an eye. But if he can’t play, or is slowed by his knee injury, it’s no secret opponents have been able to run the ball effectively against the Colts’ defense. And if the Chargers can get LT and Darren Sproles rolling like they did against the Broncos in their division-clinching win in Week 17, there’s no reason to think that San Diego can’t pull away in the second half and force Manning and the Colts’ offense to be one-dimensional.

Before their 23-20 win over the Chargers on November 23 of this year, the Colts had lost their previous three games against San Diego, including a 28-24 playoff loss in Indianapolis last season. Every team struggles with certain opponents, and the Chargers could be the Colts’ thorn.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Colts’ injuries will affect their play on Saturday. One named not previously mentioned was Indy linebacker Freddy Keiaho, who is expected to play. If they can get a healthy Sanders in the mix, the Colts will be more than ready to take the Chargers best shot. But if Sanders and company can’t go, there’s a chance not even a three-time MVP will save them.

NFL Playoff Preview: Falcons defense must rise to occasion

Entering their playoff game with the Arizona Cardinals this Saturday, all of the talk – and for good reason – for Atlanta seems to surround rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, head coach Mike Smith and the Falcons’ impressive turnaround from a dysfunctional 4-12 team to an 11-5 Super Bowl contender.

But while it’s fun to shine the light on Ryan and the Falcons’ feel good story, more attention should be paid to Atlanta’s defense. Because it’ll be the play of Keith Brooking, John Abraham, Lawyer Milloy and the rest of the Falcons’ defensive unit that determines if Atlanta will move beyond Arizona this weekend.

The Falcons will score, this much we know. Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White and Jerious Norwood lead an offense that has averaged close to 25 points per game and are playing against a defense that at times, has resembled a revolving door to the end zone this season.

But how will Atlanta’s defense matchup against a veteran quarterback in Kurt Warner that has a trio of 1,000-yard receivers at his disposal in Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston? Can the Falcons’ secondary of Foxworth, Coleman, Milloy and youngster Chris Houston contain the Cardinals’ explosive offense or will they be another victim to Arizona’s impressive passing attack?

The key might be whether or not Milloy is healthy. He hurt his back in the team’s playoff-clinching win over the Vikings in Week 16 and sat out the Falcons’ Week 17 win over the Rams. If he’s ready to go, he’ll play a huge role in taking away an Arizona running game that averages just over 70 yards per game. And if Atlanta’s front seven can contain the run on its own, Milloy can better help in coverage and hopefully limit the Cards’ big-strike potential.

Not many defensive backfields can line up and take on Boldin, Fitzgerald and Breaston in man-to-man coverage, and the Falcons are no-exception. While Dominique Foxworth has been solid since an early-season trade with Denver, Chris Houston is still learning the position and has been known to give up the big play at times. The Falcons will have to commit their safeties to help in coverage, which means Atlanta’s front seven must take away the run on its own.

Another huge factor is whether or not the Falcons can generate a pass rush without having to commit extra defenders. The team has done an outstanding job rotating its defensive linemen this season and it’s led to Abraham having his best season as a pro. He and Babineaux have been fantastic at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks all year, but it would go a long way in helping Atlanta’s success if second-year end Jamaal Anderson could give them anything in terms of a pass rush.

If the Falcons are to beat the Cardinals on Saturday, it’ll be vital that Ryan and the offense get an early lead by pounding Michael Turner on the ground. This will keep the Cardinals’ offense on the sidelines and hopefully force Arizona to be one-dimensional. If Atlanta can build a double-digit lead, then Abraham and the rest of the Falcon defensive line can think pass first and get pressure on Warner. If they can force a turnover or two, they can put the game away in the second half and bleed the clock with their outstanding running game.

NFL Playoff Preview: Cardinals’ offense needs to find balance

With their 34-10 win over the St. Louis Rams in Week 14, the Arizona Cardinals clinched the NFC West for the first time since the league realigned the divisions in 2002. At 8-5, the Cards secured home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs and essentially felt pretty good about their chances of making a deep postseason run thanks to their explosive offense.

Then all hell broke loose for two weeks.

Arizona was hammered by the Minnesota Vikings, 35-14 at home in Week 15 and were trounced 47-7 by the New England Patriots in Foxboro the following week. In those two losses, the Cards turned the ball over four times and averaged just 43.5 rushing yards. If it weren’t for their salvaging 34-21 win over the Seahawks in the final week of the regular season, ‘Zona would have limped into the playoffs losers of three straight.

While NFL purists love to note how explosive the Cardinals’ passing game is, the key for them beating the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs is creating offensive balance. If they can’t run the ball, the Falcons should have no problem sitting back in coverage and allowing defensive linemen John Abraham, Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux to pin their ears back and get pressure on Kurt Warner.

The Cardinals have averaged just 73.6 rushing yards per game this season, which ranks them dead last in the NFL. While Tim Hightower demonstrated his powerful running style at times this season, his inconsistency has forced Ken Whisenhunt to give veteran Edgerrin James more carries in efforts to try and revive his team’s dead running game.

Led by Warner and a trio of 1,000-yard receivers in Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston, the Cardinals are going to move the ball through the air on Saturday. But if the Falcons are able to stop the run using just their front seven, it’ll allow safeties Erik Coleman and Lawyer Milloy to stay back in coverage and help corners Dominique Foxworth, Chris Houston and rookie Chevis Jackson blanket the Cards’ talented receivers. Arizona must run the football effectively and force Atlanta to bring Milloy up to help in run support, or else the Cardinals will be one and done this postseason.

The Falcons offense ranks sixth in the league in yards per game and is scoring 24.4 PPG, so they’re equipped for a shootout if one were to break out on Saturday. Given how poor the Cardinals’ defense has played at times this season, it would be a mistake to think ‘Zona will go anywhere this postseason if they can’t run the ball and strike balance on offense.

Related Posts