The NFL’s Wild Card weekend has arrived, and with it come 4 very intriguing match-ups. All 4 games feature point spreads of 4 or less, and figure to be great games. Below are some thoughts and predictions for all 4 match-ups.
Jets @ Bengals
Of all 3 wildcard round rematches, this one might be the most perplexing to figure out. After clinching the AFC North division crown, the Bengals have been downright pedestrian going into the playoffs. Along with looking average during the last month, they also just got stomped by their first round opponent in week 17. The Jets completely shut down the Bengals offensive attack in the first half, and that was with every starter except for Cedric Benson in the lineup. The Bengals aren’t really great in any one area, but they aren’t exactly poor in any one area either. However, their lack of a passing game has been noticeably evident as the season has worn on. They simply do not have a down field passing threat that can stretch the field, and do not have much speed at the receiver position overall, which places an incredible burden on their offense. It really appears that they cannot win as constructed if they are forced to play from behind.
Meanwhile, the J-E-T-S have taken quite an interesting path to get to the playoffs. Many have argued that this team is only in the playoffs thanks to the Colts pulling their starters in the third quarter of week 16. Looking at their roster as a whole, it almost seems as if they have under-achieved for a large part of this season. Their defense has feasted on the weaker offenses that have been on their schedule, only to turn around and struggle against better units. While Rex Ryan has certainly changed the aggressive nature of their team, it’s tough to gauge how much of week 17’s success was due to the Jets, and how much was based on the Bengals lackluster performance. On offense, Mark Sanchez has been solid some weeks, and has also looked terrible on many occasions. This is to be expected from a rookie, obviously, but trying to determine how he’ll handle his first playoff start is a challenge.
Prediction: These teams are very easily matched, and at first blush I was tempted to take the Bengals simply due to the home field advantage. But the Jets are playing better football as the postseason gets set to begin, and I believe that they’ll control this game in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The Jets have one of, if not the best, offensive lines in the league, and I look for them to handle the Bengals defensive front. It won’t be easy or pretty, but I look for the Jets to play smart football and outlast Cincinnati on the road.
Jets – 20
Bengals – 17
Eagles @ Cowboys
While I think that all 4 games this weekend are going to be awesome, this rematch is my pick for best game of the wildcard round. 3 weeks ago, the majority was so caught up in Dallas’s past December struggles that a lot of pundits felt that they wouldn’t even be able to make the playoffs. Instead, they beat the Saints in the New Orleans, and last week supplanted the Eagles as the class of the NFC East. Suddenly, all of the sound football that the Eagles had played to get on the verge of the NFC’s #2 seed was dashed, and the Cowboys are now the ones with all the momentum. Without question, Dallas’s fortunes began to turn as soon as Tony Romo began to play smart, consistent football. He has their offense rolling, and their biggest team question mark might simply be whether or not he can keep it going. His numbers have been steadily improving as the season has worn on, but his ability to continue making correct reads and accurate throws will be critical. In the past, this has prevented him from truly being mentioned in the game’s elite, but this postseason will certainly provide the stage for his biggest breakthrough yet. Their defense has also been very solid of late, lead by the edge pass rushing of Damarcus Ware.
Philadelphia must have been wondering early this week what happened. What happened to their hopes of the #2 seed and a first round bye? What happened Sunday afternoon in Dallas, when they got steamrolled? There were many national writers who dismissed starting center Jamaal Jackson’s injury the week before, but I think it was a huge loss for their offensive line. The challenge of making the line calls and dealing with the loss of their continuity proved to be a very, very difficult task against the Cowboys front 7 on Sunday. McNabb and the Eagles were completely smothered, their rhythm was disrupted, and playmakers like Desean Jackson were not able to get going.
Prediction: It’s a shame that these two teams have to meet in the first round, because I feel that both of them would completely overwhelm both Green Bay and Arizona. That being said, Dallas seems like a train rolling down the tracks right now. While the Eagles are a great team and will put up a tremendous effort, the home-field advantage and momentum from Sunday’s win will prove to be too much for Philadelphia.
Eagles – 20
Cowboys – 24
Ravens @ Patriots
I don’t know if it is still a lingering effect from last season’s un-Patriot like year after Tom Brady’s injury, but to me this team is still not getting the respect it deserves. I know that 10-6 is respectable, but to me they’re still one gigantic wildcard in the AFC. Their past success still rings out in my mind, and I just get the impression that they might be lurking in the weeds. Losing Wes Welker due to injury is going to hurt, but a healthy Tom Brady is still going to find ways to move the ball against anyone they play. Additionally, they’ve also rediscovered their running game in recent weeks, and that has lead their offense to become very balanced. Certainly, the impact of Welker’s absence will be one of the game’s biggest storylines. The biggest issue that might prevent the Pats from making a deep run into January is their defense, and more specifically, their secondary. Will they be able to slow down the elite passing teams in the conference? Luckily, they won’t have to worry about that until the divisional round.
Baltimore might have problems producing the big passing plays that could eventually doom the Patriots, because they have had all kinds of issues this season in protecting Joe Flacco. They have relied heavily on Ray Rice to shoulder the load of the offense, both on the ground and as the dump-off valve out of the backfield. But will they be able to protect long enough for Flacco to attack the New England secondary? The potential return of Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork will not make the task any easier. Additionally, I think Baltimore’s vaunted defense has just about reached the end of the line. I don’t think they have enough cover defenders in their secondary to contain Tom Brady and his accuracy.
Prediction: The Patriots were 8-0 at home this season, and have still yet to lose at home a home playoff game in the Brady/Belicheck era. That alone is almost enough to pick them in this one, but I also think they’re a much more balanced team. The Patriots win
Ravens – 16
Patriots – 24
Packers @ Cardinals
If it wasn’t for this past Sunday’s result, I would have said that Arizona had a tremendous advantage going into this match-up against Green Bay. But the Packers went out to the desert in week 17 and used it as a genuine playoff tune-up, whereas Arizona was content to take it easy and stay healthy. Two differing approaches, and it will be very interesting to see which team performs better this coming Sunday. The Cardinals are constructed to build off of last year’s Super Bowl run, and still seemed primed to make a deep playoff run. As long as they can give Kurt Warner time to throw the ball downfield, not only are they extremely dangerous, but they’re also never out of a game. Additionally, their running game, which was seemingly lost for the entire first half of the season, has finally been rediscovered thanks to the impressive running of Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells.
Green Bay has gone through different patches of inconsistent play on both sides of the ball this season. However, a lot of credit must be given to Mike McCarthy and the Packer coaching staff for holding this team together. Aaron Rodgers seems primed for the playoffs, and the defense has been much improved of late, lead by Charles Woodson’s bid for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. But the biggest obstacle keeping the Pack from making a playoff run will be when they face a good passing team. While Woodson has been blanketing one side of the field all season, their secondary is clearly the weak spot on that side of the ball. Enter Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, and most likely Anquan Boldin.
Prediction: While Green Bay is a very solid team overall, I just feel that Arizona is primed to potentially make another run in this year’s NFC playoffs. Their passing attack will prove to be too much for the Packers defense over the course of the game.
Packers – 20
Cardinals – 31