Other than a couple weekend in March, the weekend of the NFL divisional playoffs is by far my favorite sports weekend of the year. The Wild Card round is also fantastic, but there is nothing like having four teams who won last week facing four other teams that earned a week off last week. The rivalries usually come through (this year is certainly no exception) and there is usually at least one interesting David vs. Goliath matchups. The Super Bowl is in view, but still far enough away, so that there is real intrigue thinking about the possibilities. And, best of all, we get back-to-back days of seven straight hours of pure American Football. So, let me see if I can give quick breakdowns of the four fantastic games this weekend.
Saturday, 4:30: Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans
I live in Baltimore, and this city is ridiculous when it comes to the Ravens. I have found that the fans here are blindly supportive of their purple and black–VERY supportive and VERY blind. I am going to stop now because this could be its own weblog. Anyway, back to the game. The Ravens are a team that I really would not want to play at any point right now. I think the Titans got a really bad draw with Baltimore coming to town. The Ravens defense is as good as it has been since the Super Bowl team, and their offense is capable of sustaining drives and giving that defense just the little bit of rest it needs. I think they will be able to stop the Titans and make enough big plays (be it offense or defense) to score the points to win the game. The team believes in Harbaugh, and more importantly, the team believes in Flacco. Plus, look at the Ravens five losses this year–2 close, controversial losses to Pittsburgh, a very close loss to Tennessee, and losses at the Giants and at Indy. No disrespect to the Titans, who have had a fantastic season, but I think that the Ravens will win this game, somewhat easily.
FINAL SCORE: Baltimore 23 – Tennessee 13
Saturday, 8:30: Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
I probably give the Cardinals more of a chance in this game than most people. A lot of talk has been circulating about how bad the Cardinals were when they came to the east coast. Now, yes, they 0-5 in the eastern time zone this year. And, yes, two of those games were debacles in front of national audiences in the final five weeks of the season, but let us look closer at the five games they lost on the east coast this year. Four of the five losses were in games played at 1:00, Eastern (10am, Pacific time), and the other one was on four days’ rest against a desperate Eagles team on Thanksgiving night. Two of the games (at Washington in Week 3 when they were playing very well and at Carolina in Week8) were close games against very good teams decided in the fourth quarter. And, the two worst performances were Week 4 (the game after Washington) against the Jets, after they had decided to stay all week on the East Coast and the Week 16 disaster against the Patriots in the snow. Of the five teams that they played on the east coast, none has losing records, two of the five are still playing this weekend, and another one was 11-5 in the regular season. All that being said, I think the Cardinals have a good chance to pull the big upset today. The weather will be decent in Carolina, and the game is at 5:30 Pacific time. Because of all of this, I would have picked the Cardinals to win this game and break up the Panthers undefeated home season…….except Anquan Boldin may not play at all and certainly will not be at 100%. Because of this, I think that the Panthers will get enough offense from their backs and their superhuman wide receiver, Steve Smith, to pull it out in the end.
FINAL SCORE: Carolina 27 – Arizona 24
Sunday, 1:00: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants
New life. It is amazing that the Eagles are still playing. It is amazing that they have a legitimate chance to end the Giants title defense. It is amazing that a group of players that looked on the downside of their careers just before Thanksgiving (Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb, Brian Dawkins, John Runyan, Tra Thomas, etc.) are playing some of their best football just after New Year’s. This game is going to be a true NFC East WAR, especially when the Giants have the ball. They will try and pound the ball down the throats of the Eagles, and the Eagles’ defense will try and push right back. The one wildcard in this game is the health of Brandon Jacobs. He tore up the Eagles in their first meeting and through the first quarter and a half of the second meeting, but then left with injury. If he is able to control the game, the Giants should be able to make enough plays. However, the Eagles defense is playing as well (if not better) than it has in the Jim Johnson Era (I wanted to write a blog on this, but didn’t want to jinx it). Stewart Bradley, in only his second season, is playing well enough to evoke the names of Jeremiah Trotter and Byron Evans. Quentin Mikell has emerged as one of the most underrated strong safeties in the league. The combination of Bunkley and Patterson at D-tackle have been stout. Darren Howard is finally living up to the contract he signed, and Trent is a flat-out stud at defensive end. The cornerbacks are, obviously, phenomenal. And, the best sign of all is the inspired resurgence of a future Hall of Fame free safety, Brian Dawkins. B-Dawk, my favorite all-time Eagle, is playing a level we have not seen in 4-5 years. On the other side, the Giants have question marks. Is Jacobs healthy? Can Eli really move the ball without Plaxico (who used to absolutely KILL the Eagles)? Is Justin Tuck and the rest of the D-line even close to healthy (they have gotten very little pressure recently, and their depth is being called into question)? Yes, the Eagles have been inconsistent, but I think they (as it stands now) are the better football team. If the Giants had a healthy Tuck, Jacobs, and Burress, I would pick them to win this game by at least a touchdown, but they are not healthy. Plax isn’t playing, and the Eagles have the exact je ne sais quoi that the Giants had last year.
FINAL SCORE: Philadelphia 20 – New York 17
Sunday, 4:00: San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers
New Life. The Chargers are dangerous, just like the Eagles, because they are playing with the preverbial “house money.” And, if this game were being played anywhere but Pittsburgh, I would give the Chargers a decent shot to pull off the upset. However, I think that at home (with great fans), the Steelers team is just too good, especially without a healthy Tomlinson on the other side. As good as Sproles looked last week against the Colts, it was, after all, not the Steelers. Sproles relies on his incredible speed and acceleration to break big plays, but there are two things working against him in this game. One is the Steelers’ defense–the fastest defense I have ever seen. The other is the field, which has terrible traction and is very difficult to make cuts and explode. The Steelers should wrap up Sproles, and I am pretty confident that Michael Bennett (cut by Seattle earlier this year) will not win this game for them. Rivers has been, arguably, one of the best two or three QBs in the league this year, and will probably play well, but cannot carry this team over this defense. I think the Steelers defense will put on a show on Sunday, and move on to the AFC Championship Game.
FINAL SCORE: Pittsburgh 27 – San Diego 10