Predictions for the NFL Divisional Playoffs
Vail, CO Colorado
The first week of the NFL playoffs is in the books, and the intriguing wild card matchups did not disappoint.
The AFC featured two rematches from the regular season, as the Dolphins battled the Ravens and Indianapolis took on San Diego. Led by the superb play of Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, Baltimore forced five turnovers en route to victory, after Miami set an NFL record with just 13 turnovers in 16 regular season games.
While this was Baltimore’s second victory against Miami this season, the other AFC rematch resulted with a new winner. With LaDainian Tomlinson on the sideline with an injured groin, Darren Sproles carried the Chargers to an overtime victory over the Colts, avenging a Week 12 loss in San Diego earlier this season.
In the NFC, another memorable run came to an end as the Atlanta Falcons lost to the Arizona Cardinals, drawing close to the Dirty Birds’ remarkable turnaround from 2007. Surprisingly, the Cardinals edged the Falcons with great defense, scoring a defensive touchdown, earning a safety, and allowing just 42 yards rushing to MVP co-runner up Michael Turner.
In the final game of wild card weekend, Philadelphia continued its hot streak with a strong defensive performance in Minnesota, shutting down Adrian Peterson for all but one play in the first half. After being blanketed all day, Brian Westbrook finally broke loose for a 71-yard screen pass touchdown in the second half to help the Eagles pull away.
Most Impressive Team: Baltimore Ravens
The Purple People Eaters showed once again why they led the league in takeaways this season, forcing Chad Pennington into an uncharacteristic four interceptions and taking one for a touchdown. They also showed that offense actually exists in Baltimore these days, with a powerful, two-back running game and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco heading an underrated passing game.
Best Offensive Performance: Arizona Cardinals
While their defense did most of the talking, Arizona’s offense pulled out of a recent slump to score 30 points highlighted by two long touchdown passes. Kurt Warner’s flea-flicker bomb to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin’s catch and run each went for over 40 yards.
Best Defensive Performance: Baltimore Ravens
Gamebreaker of the Week: Darren Sproles, San Diego Chargers
The feisty Sproles showed once again that he can fill in for one of the game’s best running backs, rushing, receiving, and returning for 278 all-purpose yards. His 22-yard rushing touchdown in overtime ended the Colts’ nine game winning streak without allowing the Colts a possession in the extra period.
Baltimore (12-5) at Tennessee (13-3)
Baltimore will be looking for revenge after a Week 5 loss to Tennessee that came thanks to a controversial roughing-the-quarterback penalty that extended the Titans’ game-winning drive. With two of the league’s best defenses, there should not be too many points in this one, and it’s possible that either team’s defense could outscore its own offense. Joe Flacco and Kerry Collins, two quarterbacks who have “managed” the game for their respective teams this season, will once again be asked to take care of the football. The team that wins the turnover battle should come out victorious. I expect the Titans to come off their bye week a little rusty, and a very dangerous Ravens team should take advantage.
Arizona (10-7) at Carolina (12-4)
After a very slow ending to the season, Arizona ignited last week to beat Atlanta despite being an underdog at home. The Cards will be up against a Panthers team that I believe is as good as any team in football when playing at home. Carolina’s running game is one of the best in the league, featuring rookie Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, who has been on fire of late. The Cardinals showed a greater commitment to the run last week, getting Edgerrin James significant carries for the first time since he was benched midseason. With the Panthers on a week of rest at home, and the Cardinals flying across the country to the East Coast, I can’t see Arizona pulling this one out.
Philadelphia (10-6-1) at New York (12-4)
In this week’s most intriguing game, this NFC East rivalry shall be renewed for the third time this season. Each of the first two games was won by the visiting team, and each was decided by fewer than seven points. Philadelphia looked very impressive beating New York in the Meadowlands in Week 14, and come into this game with a lot of momentum. Comparisons have been drawn from the Eagles to the Giants of last year, who squeaked into the playoffs as a wild card winner last season and wound up winning the Super Bowl. On its way there, New York beat NFC heavyweight Dallas on the road in the divisional round, a feat the Eagles must now perform in New York to fulfill their destiny as my preseason predicted Super Bowl winner. This is a must watch game for any football fan, and you can be sure it will come down to the game’s final minutes.
San Diego (9-8) at Pittsburgh (12-4)
To round out the week, the fourth rematch from the regular season will be played, as San Diego looks to avenge an historic 11-10 loss in Pittsburgh in Week 11. After a week off, Ben Roethlisberger appears to be healthy enough to start for the Steelers, despite suffering a concussion against Cleveland in a meaningless Week 17 game. The Chargers will not have the same luck with their injured star, as LaDainian Tomlinson is doubtful for Sunday afternoon’s game. The matchup between San Diego’s explosive offense and Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense should be intriguing, but it will be the Pittsburgh offense against San Diego’s defense that should decide this game. If the Chargers allow Pittsburgh to get a double-digit lead, it could be difficult to catch up with the ferocious pass rush of Pittsburgh’s linebackers.
Davey DeChant, a senior at Battle Mountain, breaks down the NFL each week for the Vail Daily.