If makeup of current playoff coaches is any indication, Rivera was a good hire by Panthers

Only eight teams remain in this year’s playoffs and of those eight teams, six are being led by first-time head coaches. (Only the Patriots’ Bill Belichick and the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll had been head coaches elsewhere prior to being hired by New England and Seattle, respectively.)

All six of these coaches were NFL coordinators before being hired as head coaches by their respective teams. And of those six, five of them have defensive backgrounds. (Only the Packers’ Mike McCarthy came from an offensive background, as he was the OC in New Orleans and San Francisco before arriving in Green Bay.)

Even given this incredibly small sample size, the fans in Carolina have to be pleased that the Panthers decided to hire former San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera as head coach. He’s best known for the role he played as defensive coordinator for the 2006 Chicago Bears team that went to the Super Bowl, but he’s done a tremendous job in San Diego over the past couple of years as well.

While he’ll keep the Panthers in a 4-3, Rivera has had success running both the 4-3 and the 3-4 fronts. He’s known for being a “players coach” and likes to be aggressive in his defensive schemes. Behind his leadership, the Chargers went from 16th in total defense in 2009 to first in 2010.

No offense to Jim Harbaugh or the 49ers, but it’s proven that teams that hire pro coordinators usually have the most success. Current playoff coaches McCarthy (Packers), Jim Harbaugh (Ravens), Mike Tomlin (Steelers), Mike Smith (Falcons), Rex Ryan (Jets) and Lovie Smith (Bears) were all NFL coordinators before becoming head coaches with their respective teams.

Granted, being a coordinator doesn’t always guarantee success, as there are plenty of examples of former OC’s and DC’s failing as head coaches. Plus, as former Cowboys’ head coaches Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer can attest, coaches with college backgrounds can still succeed as well.

But Rivera’s knowledge and experience in this league should serve him well in Carolina. Panther fans have a reason to be optimistic after such a dreadful season.

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Jay Cutler + Red Zone = Disaster

When Chicago acquired Jay Cutler from the Denver Broncos this offseason, it was all Bear fans could do from booking their plane tickets to Miami. They figured that since they finally had a franchise quarterback under center and that the offensive line had improved, there’s no way Da Bears wouldn’t challenge for a Super Bowl berth.

Then the games actually started and now they’re starting to realize that there’s a reason why the Broncos never got to the playoffs with Cutler as their quarterback.

Cutler threw a mind-boggling five interceptions in the Bears’ 10-6 loss to the 49ers on Thursday night. Not all of those picks were his fault, as Devin Hester fell down on one pass, the ref got in the way on another and San Francisco safety Mark Roman may have gotten away with interference on yet another.

But that doesn’t excuse Cutler for throwing two horrendous interceptions in the red zone – an area in which he continues to struggle this season – to kill drives. It’s almost like whenever Chicago reaches that spot of the field, Cutler breaks out into a cold sweat and forgets how to play. He’s so deathly afraid of the red zone that Lovie Smith might as well trot kicker Robbie Gould onto the field and take three points because there’s a good chance Cutler is going to throw a pick.

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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.)

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Ron Rivera turned around Chargers’ season

San Diego ChargersOctober 28, 2008 is the day the San Diego Chargers’ season turned around. That was the day they replaced former defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell with Ron Rivera, the same Ron Rivera that helped make the Chicago Bears NFC Champions in 2006.

Thanks to Rivera’s guidance, the Chargers’ defense went from a unit that was getting beaten on a weekly basis, to a unit that played to their strengths and masked their weaknesses with sound game plans.

In the Bolts’ impressive 23-17 overtime playoff win Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts, Rivera’s bunch saved their best play for when it mattered most: when the game was hanging in the balance.

After a 72-yard touchdown reception by Reggie Wayne midway through the third quarter to put the Colts ahead 17-14, the Chargers put the clamps down on Peyton Manning and the Indy offense. While Manning did throw for 310 yards and a touchdown, he failed to move his team much in the fourth quarter, including in drives where one more touchdown would have put the game out of reach. The Chargers’ front seven got consistent pressure on Manning, stuffed the Colts’ running game and gave their offense a chance to win. (Which they did.)

And speaking of the San Diego offense, Darren Sproles proved that he is much more than LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup. He rushed for 105 yards on 22 carries and scored two touchdowns, the second of which won the game in OT. While everybody else on the field was going at 100 mph, he seemed to be playing at 150 mph. He truly was the spark that the Chargers needed, and helped take the game of Philip Rivers’ shoulders, which was huge because the NFL leader in passing efficiency wasn’t particularly sharp Saturday night.

What the Chargers did tonight was prove that regular season records mean nothing in the postseason. People can still talk about the Patriots being screwed out of a chance to play for a Super Bowl (which they were), but nobody can say now that the Chargers don’t belong in the postseason. They beat the hottest team in the league, shutdown the league’s Most Valuable Player in the fourth quarter, and displayed a very good young talent in Sproles.

And if Rivera’s defense can continue to play as well as it has over the past month, don’t assume that the Chargers can’t go into Tennessee or Pittsburgh next week and win. They’re playing with house money right now and just picked up some momentum.

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.

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