NFL Wild Card Positional Battles
As much as both of these teams make their money pounding the ball on the ground and playing defense, rest assured Matt Cassel will test a hurting Ravens secondary through the air. Cassel quietly has had a very good season passing (27 TDs vs. 7 ints.). Wideout Dwayne Bowe (72 catches, 15 TDs) had a career year to lead Chiefs wideouts. The possibilities indeed are intriguing through the air for Kansas City. Starting Ravens corner Josh Wilson's status remains uncertain for the wild-card playoff after he suffered a shoulder stinger. He would be replaced by Fabian Washington, who was benched in November. Safety Ed Reed, who could cover talented Chiefs tight end Tony Moeaki, also was injured (ribs) in the Ravens' regular-season finale.
Ravens left tackle Michael Oher is a fantastic talent and terrific story. This year, however, the Ravens' front five have been prone to a comedy of errors when it comes to pass protection. The Ravens have given up 40 sacks and left QB Joe Flacco under way too much pressure, which is part of the reason he has not lived up to expectations. The Chiefs are fast becoming an upper-echelon pass-rushing team. Former undrafted free agent Wallace Gilberry is blossoming into a star, complementing opposite end Tamba Hali and helping the Chiefs to 19 sacks over the final seven games of the year.
While these terrific tandems won't ever face each other per se, theirs will be a race to the finish in virtually every other way. Charles has been an explosive electric charge to the Chiefs' attack, complemented perfectly by Jones' tough runs. Rice has found his backfield soulmate in McGahee. The first defense that blinks or allows one of these four backs to run through an arm tackle could pay dearly and be in for a long offseason. It may not be the sexiest stat to watch, but whichever team has the highest yards-per-carry average likely will advance.
No one possibly could have known at the time, but when the Packers visited the Eagles in September and pulled out a 27-20 win, we were witnessing the dawning of the 3G Michael Vick era. After his "Superman" days of Atlanta and a year back from prison trying to regain his football edge, Vick stepped in for the injured Kevin Kolb and in barely a half of football threw for 175 yards and ran for 104. Afterward, Vick said that had he played four quarters, "maybe we would've had a chance to win the game." We'll find out against a ferocious Packers defensive attack.
Sometimes, the Packers don't even try to disguise that they have become a one-dimensional team. With running back Ryan Grant out since opening weekend and Aaron Rodgers having a monster year, it will be on the oft-ravaged Eagles secondary to somehow, some way make plays -- particularly in the red zone. That wasn't the case in the regular season, when only the pitiful Texans and Cowboys gave up more TDs through the air than the Eagles' 31. This isn't Joe Webb and Minnesota. This is Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Donald Driver.
Joe Pesci might call them the two, "utes," a la My Cousin Vinny. Anyway you say it, DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy highlight the young talent on a young Eagles team that must grow up fast or prepare for an early exit. The post-season is an altogether different world, where the immaturity and brain-lock Jackson has exhibited could prove costly. McCoy has had an outstanding year, but will be tested -- particularly in pass protection -- like never before. The ferocious Packers defense led by Clay Matthews is second in the NFL in points-allowed and sacks.
Of all the personal issues the boisterous Jets coach has faced in recent weeks, the last thing you'd expect him to talk about was putting the "shoe on the other foot." But those were exactly his words as Ryan talked about the demons dancing in his head over Manning's dominance over his defenses. In games in which the Colts have not pulled starters at halftime in order to rest for the playoffs, Ryan is 0-5 against Manning and his teams have been outscored 144-53.
At first blush, this looks like an overwhelming mismatch in favor of the Jets, with Tomlinson and Greene leading one of the best ground attacks in football and Indy's well-chronicled struggles stopping the run. But look here: On its four-game win streak to end the year, the Colts gave up just 3.5 yards per carry and 79.8 yards per game. Any success at all putting the Jets in third-and-long situations would be a huge advantage for the Colts.
Jets right tackle Damien Woody returned to practice this week and it was not a minute too soon for Sanchez, who's nursing a sore throwing shoulder. Prone to being sacked and forced into a bad play, Sanchez has no doubt Freeney and Mathis will be doing everything they can to rattle him and force the big-play defensively, particularly in front of the always-raucous Lucas Oil Stadium crowd. Sanchez has been sacked eight times in the last four games in which he's played, with a quarterback rating above 45.3 in just two of those games.
Overconfidence sounds ludicrous to even suggest given the high stakes involved in an NFL playoff game. But the 7-9 Seahawks are overmatched in virtually every way by the loaded Saints. This is where Payton comes in. The Saints enter as a 10.5-point favorite, the largest margin ever for a road playoff team. They also already have defeated the Seahawks 34-19. Players are dropping the usual cliches like, "throw out the stats" and "it's a new season." Payton must have his squad focused and ready. The one thing Seattle does well is play better at home ... a close game late in a loud environment and something crazy could happen.
Offensive only begins to describe the Seahawks' woes. They can't run and they can't pass. If they're going to keep the ball out of Drew Brees' hands, they'll need an imaginative short passing game, featuring bubble screens, flairs out of the backfield and -- let's be honest -- "pick" plays, with one receiver blocking to clear space for another. Mike Williams, Ben Obomanu and the Seattle back du jour MUST have yards after catch if they're going to have any chance to move the chains and eat clock.
If there is one area where you can give the checkmark to the Seahawks in this one, it's special teams returns. Leon Washington, coming off a broken leg in 2009, has been superb. The Saints have been subpar. Special teams also tend to be the part of the game that seems to most inspire home crowds into a frenzy. If Washington can hit a couple of big plays, the Seahawks could feed off it.