Two down, two to go in the NFL Divisional Playoffs. Let’s take a look at Sunday’s action to see who might join the Ravens and the Cardinals in the conference title games next Sunday.
Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants: Bitter division rivals get together for the third time this season. The Eagles were the most dangerous team in the final month of the season, getting some help to make the playoffs. Donovan McNabb, who was benched in Baltimore, found his fire again. And more importantly, his teammates realized that McNabb represented their best chance to win. Also, the return of Brian Westbrook helped take some pressure off McNabb. The Giants did not have a Super Bowl hangover in 2008, as Tom Coughlin kept his group on an edge most of the season. But the loss of Plaxico Burress to stupidity, has taken the Giants from the designation as the best team in football for most of the ’08 season to one that seems vulnerable.
The weather will be cold, and wind could be a factor. Both teams play in these types of conditions regularly, so there is no edge to be gained. The big question is whether the Eagles run defense can stop the Giants’ “Earth, Wind and Fire” group, and can Eli Manning find a bit of the postseason magic of a year ago. I think the Eagles’ defense finds a way in a slugfest. Prediction: Philadelphia 21, New York 17.
San Diego at Pittsburgh: All of Baltimore will tune in for this one as the Ravens find out where they are heading next Sunday to play for the AFC title. In reality, the Chargers have played five consecutive “playoff” games as they needed to win the last four to qualify, and they beat the Colts in a great game last week. The Steelers’ defense is as good as any in the NFL. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still recovering from a concussion suffered in the final regular season game. How well he plays will determine if the Steelers advance. This will be a battle of defenses against two solid runners: the Steelers’ Willie Parker and the Chargers’ Darren Sproles. Back on Nov. 16, Pittsburgh won 11-10 without benefit of an offensive touchdown. The Chargers are playing with a lot of confidence, and if a couple of early breaks go San Diego’s way, there might not be much towel waving in Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh needs to control the clock with its ground game early, and force Chargers QB Philip Rivers into throwing the ball toward the Steelers’ talented defensive backs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Chargers win, especially if Roethlisberger struggles and San Diego punter Mike Scifres can consistently pin the Steelers back like he did to Indianapolis. But, I think the weather and field conditions play havoc with the Chargers too much. Prediction: Pittsburgh 17, San Diego 10.
Something to think about: If the Chargers win, two of the teams in their respective conference title games will come from the two worst NFL divisions in 2008: The AFC West and NFC West.
(NOTE: Yesterday, I went 1-1 — got the Ravens, and missed on the surprising Cardinals; officially, I’m 3-3 going into today’s two games. Should be great football again today.)