Quarterback play will tell tale of Wild Card round
Minnesota cornerback Antoine Winfield and Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco are two of the major difference-makers on Wild Card weekend in this 93rd NFL season, if you accept these premises:
? I can't identify a single most important factor/player in the Seattle-Washington or Cincinnati-Houston games. I am picking Seattle and Houston to win, but I can't say with certainty there's one person or position group that will determine the outcome of either game.
? In the Minnesota-Green Bay game, Adrian Peterson could batter the Packers again, as he did twice in December for a combined 409 rushing yards. And in Baltimore, Andrew Luck could have the same kind of fourth quarter he's had seven times this year, when he led the Colts back to a victory from a deficit or tie. But I think it's more likely the two games will be influenced by the following: the Vikings' coverage limiting Aaron Rodgers' possessions and efficiency -- meaning Winfield, who will be playing with a broken hand and a cast protecting it, will be a huge factor -- and the consistently inconsistent Flacco, who will need to put up points to match the Colts because Indianapolis will be keying heavily on Ray Rice.
One theory at a time.
To do that, Winfield, the best physical corner in the NFL, has to play four very good quarters. Rodgers completed 73 percent of his throws against the Vikings in their two meetings this year. In the second game, last Sunday, Winfield played with the broken hand, and when he went to jam Jennings in the second quarter, pain shot through his arm like he hadn't felt in a football game. "I have a very high tolerance for pain,'' he said from Minnesota this week. "But that -- I can't describe how bad it was. A shooting pain." Without Winfield out in the second half, Rodgers went 17 of 21, for 262 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Flawless.
So Winfield has to show up, and he has to show up big. On Saturday night, Winfield will be fitted with a cast (he had only a pad last Sunday). "I'll be good," Winfield said. "Absolutely. Am I confident? I hope I'll be able to make all the plays I normally make, and I think I'll be able to. But I'll be honest with my team. If I can't do it, I'll let someone else go in and play.''
But Winfield knows how important he is. "Best receiving corps in the league, and we've got to be ready to cover them all over the field,'' he said. "They want to go vertical a lot."
No matter what Peterson does when he has the ball, what Rodgers does when he has it will be a bigger factor in who wins -- and Winfield's the only cover man who can stop Rodgers from having his way. That cast had better work.
"I see what you mean,'' Flacco said from the Ravens' locker room after practice Thursday. "We haven't shown what we're capable of. But we're excited. I feel like we're ready to explode.''
Well, OK. Why? To understand Flacco's optimism, understand what this offense was in training camp. Coordinator Cam Cameron was using a fast-paced, no-huddle scheme in the summer, and the Ravens used some of it early in the season. But gradually Baltimore got away from it, and when new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell replaced Cameron three weeks ago, he decided to play more of it. That's what has the offense excited coming into the playoffs.
"I like it a lot,'' Flacco said. "I think it's the way our offense plays best. Look at our weapons. We've got great speed in [wideouts] Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. I think what you'll see out of us is an attacking style. We're going to lay it all out there. We're excited, I can tell you that."
One other thing I asked Flacco, a flat-line pragmatist and not a fist-pumping cheerleader: Will the fact that this could be Ray Lewis' last game be a boost of adrenaline, or is win-this-one-for-Ray too cliché in an NFL playoff game? "You know I'm the first person who'd call something like that a cliché,'' Flacco said. "But this feels a lot different. I sure don't think it'll be a cliché Sunday."
I've got every game close this weekend: Houston by three, Green Bay by eight, Baltimore by three, Seattle by two. And, unlike in many Wild Card weekends, I could make a persuasive argument for either team in all four games. Should be great fun.
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