No. 5 New Orleans Saints at No. 4 Seattle Seahawks The Saints' reward for winning four more games than Seattle, beating them by 15 points head-to-head and being defending Super Bowl champs? A 5-hour, 45-minute flight (with headwinds) to the Pacific Northwest on Thursday night, and playing at the loudest outdoor stadium in American professional sports. Playoff Fever! Catch it! Not only that, but the Saints will be without their two top running backs, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, both IR'd this week.
Lucky for Sean Payton he's got the best player on the field by far, Drew Brees, who will be immune to the crowd noise and will extend drives with his superb accuracy. One more pro-New Orleans factor: The two running backs who will play, Julius Jones and Reggie Bush, will be supremely motivated to play well -- Jones because he got fired by Seahawks when Pete Carroll came in, and Bush because (whatever he says to the contrary) he feels abandoned by Carroll from the USC controversy. I understand it's a huge edge for Seattle to be home, but New Orleans, even beat up, is two touchdowns better.
8 p.m. ET (NBC)
No. 6 New York Jets at No. 3 Indianapolis Colts I talked to Rex Ryan on Thursday morning (read my Friday column for his interesting views on how the new overtime rules will impact this game in particular), and this came through in the conversation: He thinks the Jets are going to have to be very good and very productive on offense to win this game. It's going to be a shootout -- and who would know more about trying to stop Peyton Manning with some strange defensive schemes than Ryan? I remember how crestfallen he was when the late Steve McNair just couldn't make any plays in the AFC divisional playoff game at Baltimore four years ago and Ryan held Manning to five field goals ... and still lost.
Look for Manning, who is getting more and more comfy with his replacement tight end, to throw double-digit chain-moving passes to Jacob Tamme to try to out-possess the Jets. Whether it's Brad Smith or some anonymous defender, someone on the Jets you don't expect will have to come up big for the Jets to make enough plays to win.
Sunday, Jan. 9
1 p.m. ET (CBS)
No. 5 Baltimore Ravens at No. 4 Kansas City Chiefs "We got Ray going,'' Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said the other day, speaking of the end-of-season hot streak for running back Ray Rice. And that's going to be vital in this game. Remember last season's wild-card rout by Baltimore in New England? Rice rushed for 159 yards and was the best player on the field, better that day than two of the top 20 players of all time (Ray Lewis, Tom Brady). He carried the Ravens that day, and I'll be stunned if the Ravens don't ask him to do exactly the same thing to silence the 70,000 red-wearers in Missouri on Sunday.
For all the positives in Chiefland this year, the decline of the run defense down the stretch has been startling. Over the last five games, foes have rushed for 701 yards (5.0 yards per rush); the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders all hit K.C. for more than 160. I love the Chiefs' run game, with Mr. Inside (Thomas Jones) and Mr. Outside (Jamaal Charles) being capable of winning it. But this game, I believe, is going to be a case of a young, hungry, deserving team getting very close, and nearly being rewarded for a division title with a playoff win, but the Ravens being a little bit more equipped to grind down a defense on the ground.
4:30 p.m. ET (FOX)
No. 6 Green Bay Packers at No. 3 Philadelphia Eagles Game of the weekend. The Packers are one of the best sixth seeds in playoff history, a team clearly able to run a very difficult table (at Philadelphia, at Atlanta, maybe at Chicago) to duplicate what the Giants did in 2007.
The Eagles enter the postseason flat. They've played -- you could argue -- eight minutes of great football in their season-finishing 2-2 stretch; their quarterbacks have been sacked 12 times in the past two games, and superman Mike Vick enters the playoffs after an awful game against Minnesota and nursing a deep thigh bruise. It's been well-documented that Vick has had trouble reading corner and safety blitzes in his tremendous comeback season, and though the Packers don't rush their secondary players all that much (their starting corners and safeties combined for just three sacks this year), there's no doubt defensive coordinator Dom Capers will be playing mind games with Vick by sending rushers from different spots than he's seen on tape. So look for Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson, in particular, to take the kinds of chances Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield took when he strip-sacked Vick and ran the ball back for a touchdown in Week 16.
This will be a great back-and-forth game, right down to the two-minute warning. Anybody's ballgame. I say the Pack D will make two or three plays to win it late.
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