SAN DIEGO -- Best weekend of the year in the NFL, always. And especially this year, because of the weirdness of the end of the season, when the two top NFC seeds had some very shaky moments and the Colts took their annual late-season siesta.
As I flew out here Thursday (there is so much to like about JetBlue and the satellite TV on board), I put my picks together with one idea in mind: How can the underdog win? And that's how I'm going to look at these games. I'm going to present the scenario for the 'dog to win, and then tell you if that's how I see it going.
• Jets at Chargers. Just before I got on the plane west, I heard from San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera about my key stat of the weekend. Chargers allowed 4.5 yards per rush this year. Jets rushed for 4.5 a clip. Some guys you don't know -- Ian Scott, Jacques Cesaire -- are going to have come up big to quash what the Jets do best. "We've been vulnerable, yes,'' Rivera said. "But initially, the first five or six games, I think it was a legitimate concern. [Nose tackle] Jamal Williams went down for the year; Luis Castillo and Travis Johnson were banged up. But since then, we've improved.''
Strange thing: The Chargers allowed 4.3 per rush in the first six weeks, and 4.6 in the last 10 weeks -- but teams stopped trying to run on them as much. No team in the first six weeks ran fewer than 30 times a game on the Chargers. No team in the last 10 weeks ran more than 30 times a game. It was a function for the Chargers of getting ahead of teams, often, and keeping the foot on the gas, and teams trying to throw to catch up in San Diego's 11-game winning streak.
For the Jets to win, and they can, they have to keep the ball from the red-hot Philip Rivers and his giant receivers, and they'll do that by running the ball 35 to 40 times. If the Jets had two Darrelle Revises, I'd pick them. But I think Rivers makes enough plays to win a close one. San Diego 23, New York 20.
• Cowboys at Vikings. How do the Cowboys, slight 'dogs at the Metrodome, win this one? Unleash the hounds. Dallas needs to play this game exactly as it played the game at New Orleans four weeks ago. Take advantage of tackles DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer running around the edge (consisting of left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who has finished poorly, and rookie right tackle Phil Loadholt), and hope the Vikings don't max-protect with big bodies Jeff Dugan and Jim Kleinsasser. Dallas' best chance in this game is pressuring Brett Favre and getting him off his spot, the way Dallas has done so well against Drew Brees and Donovan McNabb in three of the past four weeks.
Offensively, I'll remind you of the biggest difference in these Cowboys from a year ago -- other than the obvious breakout year of Miles Austin. It's not the poise of Tony Romo. It's the explosiveness of Felix Jones. Romo's handed him the ball 132 times in 17 weeks, and Jones has eaten up 6.3 yards per carry. Think back to a year ago, late in the season, without the threat of Jones hitting a home run every time he was on the field. That's there now, and it's there on the turf in Minneapolis.
I wouldn't be surprised one bit if the Vikings won and Favre had the best playoff game by an old man ever. But I think it's more likely the Cowboys, who've surrendered two touchdowns in the past 12 quarters, make enough stops of a very good offense to win. Dallas 27, Minnesota 23.
• Ravens at Colts. The Ravens Across America Tour continues. If they win the Super Bowl, they will have done so by winning five straight road games. They started in Week 17 (21-13 win over Oakland), then to the eastern-most team in the league in the wild-card round (33-14 over New England), and now they venture to the land of frozen corn, where Peyton Manning looms for the second time in nine weeks. The first time they played, Indy hung on for a 17-15 win when Joe Flacco tossed a pick at the Colts' 13 with three minutes left, ruining what could have been Billy Cundiff's sixth field goal of the game.
"Look at the elite quarterbacks we've played this year and done well against,'' John Harbaugh told me the other day. Smothered Tom Brady. Kept Ben Roethlisberger to 259 yards passing and one touchdown and one interception in a 23-20 loss. Held Manning and the Colts to 17 points. Early in the season, got waxed by Philip Rivers and Brett Favre. In the past 11 weeks, the only quarterback to have a really good day against Baltimore was Aaron Rodgers, who, surprisingly, was sacked only once and threw three touchdowns in Week 13. "Our guys will be OK with it," Harbaugh concluded. "[It's] not like they haven't been there before.''
Everyone says this against the Colts, but the important thing will be to stop Manning from the big plays and eat as much of the clock as possible with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee combining for 35 or so carries. Of course, the Dolphins had the same plan against Indy this season, allowing the Colts only 14:53 of possession time, but Indy still won.
I can see the Ravens winning, especially if Ray Lewis and Jarret Johnson, two huge keys to defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's terrific changeup rushes late in the season, are on their game. The Colts have lost in their first playoff game two years in a row, so they'll be vulnerable. But Manning's too good and Flacco's too beat-up to think Baltimore can win anything but a game in the teens or low twenties. This game could be that, but my money's on Manning making three or four big plays. Indianapolis 26, Baltimore 16.
• Cardinals at Saints. I agree with Ken Whisenhunt. The short week and the travel won't hurt the Cards much. It's not like they haven't had to play without Anquan Boldin either; do you think they missed the 6-foot-1, 217-pound Boldin much last week with what the 6-1, 212-pound Early Doucet did against Green Bay? I don't see the rest for New Orleans being vital either, what with the Saints having not played well since Nov. 30.
What the Cardinals have to do, very simply, is pick up where they left off last Sunday, with the most impressive six-offensive series sequence in playoff memory: eight plays, 66 yards, touchdown; 6-71, TD; 3-68, TD; punt; 11-80, TD; 6-67, missed field goal. That's 352 yards in those five drives, in about 36 minutes on the clock. And they can do it again.
The Saints' secondary will have a healthy Jabari Greer (I'm guessing trying to keep up with and jostle Larry Fitzgerald much of the afternoon) keying their coverage, which is a big help. But Kurt Warner's too hot, and the Saints don't have the speed rush to torment him enough to hold the Cards to 30 points.
On the other side, I think Sean Payton has had just about enough of people telling him his offense stinks and he's run out of imagination and the Saints are Cinderella and it's five minutes to 12. I see Brees and the speedy Robert Meachem making as many plays for as many yards as Warner and Fitzgerald do. New Orleans 40, Arizona 34.
Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis.
Through no fault of his own, Manning will enter this divisional playoff game against the Ravens with a little bit of extra weight in his shoulder pads. The Colts chose to hand over the Week 16 game to the Jets by pulling Manning in the middle of the third quarter, then played Week 17 only to get Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne personal records, and then felt the wrath of the nation's sporting press and their local fandom because of it.
I got a Tweet last night from a Colts fan who says she's still not over the giveaway to the Jets. If the Colts were to lose against Baltimore, there'd be not only great grief over the loss, but also the biggest second-guessing over the Colts' methodology in recent playoff history. Again, that's not Manning's fault, but the brunt of the pressure in this game, particularly against an aggressive D like Baltimore's, falls on the quarterback. That plus the fact that Manning has presided over two straight first-game playoff losses (28-24 and 23-17 to San Diego in the last two Januarys) and you have some idea of what he'll be feeling Saturday night when he jogs onto Lucas Oil Field.
1. Whether the real Saints come marching in. The last time their first teams were on the field, we saw New Orleans, at home, blow a 17-point lead to the woeful Bucs and lose in overtime. The offense stunk for the last 40 minutes. The home crowd will be berserk again, but we'll all be looking to see if the Saints of October show up, or the Saints of late December.
2. Coachopoly. Can the Bills find anyone who wants the head coaching job? Can the AFC East (all except the Jets) find defensive coordinators? Can Lovie Smith convince anyone he's not a dead man walking? Oh, and can the Raiders get their situation straight before March, and if they fire Tom Cable, will they hire a coach we've heard of?
3. Favre's last game? Maybe he knows, but he's known in the past and then did a 180, and even a 360 and then a 180 in the case of the Vikings last summer. The bottom line is, love him or hate his waffling, this could be the last time you ever see the conflicted great one throw a football.
4. How Darrelle Revis impacts the thinking of Norv Turner and Philip Rivers. Most interesting matchup question of the weekend. But even if the Jets put Revis head-to-head on Vincent Jackson, and even if Revis erases Jackson, what do you do about the other trees in the Chargers forest -- tight end Antonio Gates and wideouts Legedu Naanee and Malcom Floyd?
5. Ray Lewis. The impact Lewis is making, five months shy of his 35th birthday, is something to behold. On the first series in New England last week, he faked out the Patriots protection and shot the gap and enveloped Tom Brady -- something I bet Peyton Manning has watched 20 times this week. Manning will be ready for Lewis, and he's seen him nine times. But Lewis is just as much of a chess player as is Manning. It'll be great to watch.
6. Mark Sanchez's readiness. Get this: If Braylon Edwards had caught the ball that was right in his hands in the end zone in Cincinnati last week, Sanchez would have had a perfect quarterback rating (158.3) against the Bengals, and he would have been 13 of 15 for 223 yards, with two touchdowns. Not exactly a handicap there. Can he put a second straight efficient game together? That could depend on ...
7. Shawne Merriman's health. By the time Merriman suits up Sunday, it will have been 22 days since he played -- 22 days for his plantar fasciatis to stop barking. If he's right, that's an edge rusher the Chargers haven't had right for much of the season.
8. The breakout player. Every year there's a new star or two emerging in January. This year, my money's on Shonn Greene, the speedier alternative in the Jet running game, or Robert Meachem, the new weapon for Drew Brees. One of those guys will pop a big one or two this weekend.
9. Jockeying for position in the contentious talks between players and owners. A cadre of player reps will go to Capitol Hill next week to continue to try to get politicians on their side in the CBA discussions. This thing is about to intrude on everybody's nirvana world of football.
10. What if it's Jets and Ravens for the AFC Championship? At the Meadowlands. That happens if they win. How odd.