Playoff football! Whether or not the Chargers are playing this weekend, there is nothing that gets me more excited than playoff football. The month-long thrill of a "one-and-done" tournament drives every sport....except for college football.
Everything up until this week has been about preparation. Keep your stars healthy, keep your players sharp, keep morale high and do everything you can to get a high playoff seed. Well, with the exception of Jamal Williams going down in week 1, the Chargers have done all of those things and so have at least half of the teams that made the playoffs.
After the jump, I'll give a quick preview of each game and let you know who's going to win.
Jets at Bengals
The first game of the weekend has the best chance of being the worst. Both because the Jets could easily blow the Bengals out again, and because there is absolutely no offensive firepower on either of these teams.
Anyone who has watched them consistently has seen Cincinnati get a little bit worse with each major injury. The injury to Antwan Odom took their pass-rush from great to good. The injury to Domata Peko, who is supposed to be back this week against the Jets after missing about a month, took their run defense from great to good. The injury to Rey Maualuga took the entire defense's intensity from very high to pretty high. Piece by piece, this team has become very pedestrian on both sides of the ball.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are the New York Jets. They started the season off hot (3-0), and then (like the Broncos) everyone figured them out and they started slumping (going 1-6 in the next 7 games). Then, the scheduling gods put a couple of creampuffs in front of Gang Green. Three straight wins against the Panthers, Bills and Buccaneers came because those teams could not score enough points to match NY's low-scoring offense. In the last two weeks of the season, the Jets played strong in the first half against the Colts and Bengals....then took advantage when they got the chance to play the 2nd stringers from those teams in the 2nd half of each game.
So, are the Jets as good as some people think? No. Their defense is good and their running game can be good against a poor run defense, but their passing offense is just awful and if you can manage to put 20 points on the board you're all but assured a victory. This is not a team Charger fans should fear. However....
Winner: New York Jets
Eagles at Cowboys
I got a call yesterday from a relative of mine, who is familiar with Philly's fans, who asked me "What's the weather like in Philly? And by that I mean, in relation to the Eagles and their fans." He knew that one big loss and this fanbase turns on their team. Just like one big win and they're all back. I told him that in 3+ hours of driving and listening to Philly sports radio on Tuesday, I heard nothing but McNabb bashing. The hosts didn't even bother to talk about the 76ers or whatever else might've been going on in Philly or even with the team. It was just "Here are the reasons we hate Donovan McNabb" and "I don't care if he wins this playoff game, I want him GONE."
The funniest quote of the entire trip, and this came from a host and not a caller, was this: "The reason I want Donovan gone is that he's led us to five NFC Championship games and no Super Bowls. He needs to go so we can get somebody who can win in the playoffs." Number one, getting to five NFC Championship games means he can win in the playoffs. Number two, many people (myself included) believe that the winner of the Super Bowl needs skill in addition to luck. The Eagles, and McNabb, have been rather unlucky. Number three, and this is something that will blow the minds of you rational football fans, Eagles fans really believe that as soon as they get rid of McNabb his successor will be guaranteed to be better late in games and late in the playoffs. If you bring up the possibility of their next QB after McNabb being a step down from Donovan, they just don't understand. It's like you're speaking gibberish. It's truly amazing.
Anyways, onto the game. The Cowboys are playing well, but look at their last 5 games. They had tough losses to the Giants, and then won games against the Saints (already clinched), Redskins and Eagles (already clinched). I know the Eagles were playing for the division and the #2 seed, and the Saints were playing for history, but if those guys told you they were playing at 80-90% in those games so that they'd have something left for the playoffs (or so that they'd be healthy for the playoffs)....you'd understand. While the Cowboys are not to be overlooked, they're not my Super Bowl favorite.
This game is 100% about the Eagles. The Eagles have the potential to get to Tony Romo, stop the Cowboys run and score a ton of points. After watching last week's game, I wouldn't be surprised if they did just that. Last week, I saw very few blitzes from them and McNabb (like like Philip Rivers against the Redskins) looked more concerned with not making mistakes than making plays. Essentially, it was played almost as if it were a meaningless game. I expect a lot more from them this week. Don't forget how huge DeSean Jackson has been when he plays in primetime.
Winner: Philadelphia Eagles
Ravens at Patriots
Next week, if the Patriots are traveling to San Diego to play the Chargers, you'll hear me say "the Patriots are 2-6 on the road this season" a lot. It will be my go-to fact. With that in mind, I can't disregard the fact that New England is 8-0 at home and going up against a team that doesn't have a great secondary and doesn't have a lot of weapons in the passing game (New England's biggest weakness). Also, Joe Flacco is a good player with a lot of potential but still probably doesn't have what it takes to have a 100+ QB Rating day against a confusing Patriots defense....and that's probably what it will take to win.
I'll touch on Wes Welker briefly. He's a good player, but a lot of what he does is related to the system. They run guys deep (Moss, Watson) and run Welker short. He runs great routes, is really tough and has fantastic hands. Julian Edelman, his replacement in the playoffs, runs very good routes and has shown that he has very good hands. Also, knowing how important that position is in this offense, he'll probably have Tom Brady working out with him constantly this week and any following weeks. That can only help him. I think he'll be fine.
The Patriots gameplan going into this one is similar to the Chargers weekly gameplan. Put up points quickly with the passing game, and take away Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. Force Flacco to beat you, and double his favorite target (Derrick Mason). The games the Ravens have won are simply because their defense has kept the opposing team from being able to score points, but I think the Patriots offense is good enough (at least at home) to do just that. I also think nobody is better at using short-passes and 5 yard runs (Fred Taylor sighting!) to eat up clock than the Patriots.
Winner: New England Patriots
Packers at Cardinals
Drew Magary made a great point in his column at Deadspin yesterday (edited to be work-safe):
No way in hell I pick against the Cardinals when there's always a chance that Kurt Warner will slaughter a calf for God's glory and be transformed, once more, into '99 Warner, setting the f***ing Earth aflame for four weeks straight. I don't give a s*** if Boldin or Rodgers-Cromartie aren't playing. If '99 Warner materializes on the field Sunday, Green Bay has no f***ing chance. ‘99 Warner can get off atomically precise passes forty yards downfield with seven defenders hanging off of his d***. He can also turn water into Booker's. There's nothing else like it. I swear, I've never seen a QB play better than when '99 Warner strikes. Ever. Not Brady. Not Manning. No one. He's unstoppable when he's feeling it.
All week, when asked about this game, I've responded that I don't see how the Cardinals win. The Packers have a better offense, both throwing and on the ground, and a better defense. They have a better pass-rush, better corners and the receivers are a wash for me (when you factor in TEs). Arizona might have an advantage on the offensive line, but it's incremental at best.
Aaron Rodgers has the potential to be the playoff MVP. He's an odd mix of Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. He can make all the throws, usually makes good decisions, can make plays with his feet and seemingly never gives up on a play. If he can manage to keep his interception total low, the Packers are a real threat to make a run at the Super Bowl. That's just my two cents, anyways.
The last game of wild card weekend is almost never good. I'm betting that this one is a blowout, but which way depends on Kurt Warner. If '99 Warner shows up, the Cardinals win by at least 14. If he doesn't, they lose by at least 20. I'm gonna go with my gut and say that Kurt can't put together another postseason like that until next year.
Winner: Green Bay Packers