NFL wildcard weekend: There's no place like the road.
Eagles (-3) at Vikings: If any team out of the Cowboys, Bears or Buccaneers won in Week 17, that would have been the Vikings’ first round opponent. Alas, all three of those teams lost, allowing the Philadelphia Eagles to sneak in to the playoffs.
This is the toughest matchup for the Vikes, given the Eagles’ penchant for blitzing. The Vikings offense ranks dead last in pass offense when facing the blitz. Of course, a lot of those stats were accumulated when the statuesque Gus Frerotte was quarterback. With Tarvaris Jackson getting the nod at QB, his mobility allows him an opportunity to avoid the Eagles’ vaunted rush. That means running back Adrian Peterson will need to have one of his 150+ yard, 2-touchdown performances (and of course, holding on to the friggin’ ball would help). I think the Vikings will win and cover, 21-17.
Falcons (-2) at Cardinals: Atlanta running back Michael Turner finished second in the NFL in rushing yardage with 1,699 yards. Turner’s success helped take a tremendous load off of rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, who himself had a nice year. Ryan led all rookie QBs with 3,440 yards passing and 16 touchdowns. He also played with the poise of a savvy veteran.
Arizona QB Kurt Warner finished third in the NFL in touchdown passes with 30 and second only to Drew Brees in pass yardage. In fact, three Cards receivers (Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston) had over 1,000 yards receiving in 2008. This is a nice matchup for the Cards against a Falcons defense ranked 21st against the pass.
Look for Turner to pound the ball down the Cardinals’ collective throats, thus keeping Arizona’s explosive offense off the field. Atlanta wins 27-24.
Colts (-1) at Chargers:For some reason, the Chargers consistently provide the toughest matchup for the Indianapolis Colts. San Diego’s 3-4 defense has given Colts QB Peyton Manning fits over the years, including the Chargers upset of the Colts in last seasons’ divisional playoff game. However, the Chargers were next to last in pass defense in the regular season due in large part to the absence of pass rushing linebacker Shawne Merriman.
With his third MVP award in the last six seasons, Manning looks to be in midseason form. The minor knee surgery he had in the offseason threw off his very strict regimen, a big reason the Colts started 3-4 and why Manning threw nine interceptions. In guiding Indy to nine consecutive wins, he has thrown only three picks to go with his 17 touchdown passes.
Many surmise that Phillip Rivers made the leap to elite QB in the playoff game against the Colts last season. But he gained iron clad respect with his gutty play in the AFC championship game at 17-0 New England. Despite a partially torn knee ligament, Rivers played the entire game in a losing effort. Rivers’ stellar play continued in to the ’08 season as he led the NFL in TD passes and passer rating.
Unfortunately for San Diego, Rivers isn’t a pass rusher. Look for Manning to have yet another huge game in a 31-21 Colts victory.
Ravens (-3) at Dolphins: My, what a difference a year makes. When these two clubs met in Week 15 of the 2007 season, they entered the game with a combined record of 4-22. They would end the year at 6-26. This season, both teams were guided by rookie head coaches to an 11-5 finish. What’s even more impressive is the Ravens succeeded with rookie quarterback Joe Flacco while the Dolphins’ phenomenal turnaround came after picking up veteran Chad Pennington off the scrap heap.
As is usually the case, Baltimore’s defense was the main reason for their success. Linebacker Ray Lewis once again finished the season with more than 100 tackles while safety Ed Reed led the entire NFL with nine interceptions.
The Dolphins’ unique “Wildcat” offense vaulted them from 28th in overall offense in 2007 to 12th this season. And the Dolphins were able to move the ball effectively against the Ravens to the tune of 359 total yards in their Week 7 matchup, a 27-13 Baltimore victory.
But the Ravens’ D will step it up big time in a 24-17 Baltimore win.