Four games, four opinions: Here is a quick look at this weekend’s NFL Wild Card round games with my gut feel for how each will go. Three of the four games will be competitive, with the Atlanta at Arizona game the lone exception.
In order of play:
Atlanta at Arizona (Saturday, 4:30 pm): Arizona was absolutely putrid over the final five weeks of the season with blowout losses to Philadelphia, Minnesota and New England. Atlanta went into the toughest indoor facility in the league, Minnesota, and came out with a key victory late in the season. But, the Falcons lost in a shootout at New Orleans and got everything they could handle in a victory over St. Louis.
The key stat here is that Arizona tied for the most points among the NFC playoff teams (427 with the Giants), but have given up 426 – the most among NFC qualifiers. The opposing offenses are ranked No. 2 (Falcons) and No. 3 (Cardinals) in the conference. Atlanta’s defense, led by Pro Bowl snub John Abraham (16.5 sacks), and the offense, behind offensive rookie of the year Matt Ryan and tough runner Michael Turner, will chew up yards and clock to make quick work of the Cardinals. Prediction: Atlanta 34, Arizona 14.
Indianapolis at San Diego (Saturday, 8 pm): This is maybe the best matchup on paper of the four games. The Chargers stopped the Colts’ attempt at back-to-back titles with a 28-24 victory in the division round a year ago. Indy QB Peyton Manning is the league MVP for rallying the Colts for 3-4 to 12-4. San Diego has basically played playoff games the last four weeks just to qualify, as the Chargers went from 4-8 to 8-8 to win the AFC West over slumping Denver.
Don’t let the Chargers’ 52 points against Denver last week fool you. They were held to 20 and 16 points in the final two losses to Indy and Atlanta just before the four-game win streak. The Colts beat the Ravens handily before the streak, and New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego during it. Throw out the preseason-style win over Tennessee last week. The only tendency is that they really haven’t blown out much-weaker teams (Cleveland, Detroit, Jacksonville), which makes them suspect if a good opposing defense can slow them down. The big number is that Indy is +9 in turnover margin. Also, if San Diego has both LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates on the shelf or if either/both are limited, the Chargers offense won’t be able to keep up with the Colts. Prediction: Indianapolis 23, San Diego 20.
Baltimore at Miami (Sunday, 1 pm): Miami is underrated as a playoff opponent, as the Dolphins have steadily improved since the Ravens beat them in Week 7. Chad Pennington is a veteran quarterback, and probable NFL coach of the year Tony Sparano will have his group believing they can settle the earlier score. Baltimore is playing as well as any playoff team right now, and John Harbaugh’s veteran-laden team will take nothing for granted or get caught looking ahead at Tennessee.
The key in this game is the quarterbacks. Chad Pennington has had his career reborn after some up-and-down seasons in New York. Joe Flacco is playing like an older veteran, and he improved each week during the regular season. The only carryover from the first meeting to keep an eye on is that the Ravens were extremely disciplined against the “Wildcat” offense and didn’t allow the Dolphins to make much headway.
If the Ravens impressive run game is on track, Flacco can settle into a rhythm with Cam Cameron’s playbook, and move Baltimore along. If the Ravens have a second-half lead, the run game will take over to finish off the Dolphins. Miami has to bank on their amazing +17 turnover margin that led the league, hope Flacco regresses (nine of his 12 interceptions came against playoff teams) and that Pennington (seven INTs) doesn’t find Ed Reed and Co. with errant passes. This game will be much closer than many think. Prediction: Baltimore 24, Miami 21.
Philadelphia at Minnesota (4:30 pm): Somewhere along the way, Philadelphia re-discovered the magic formula and battled its way into the playoffs. Minnesota finally took a weaker-than-expected NFC North over Chicago. The Metrodome is the loudest indoor facility in the NFL, but the game might not be a sellout and there will be plenty of Philly fans in the house, which will negate some of that advantage.
Adrian Peterson will probably get his yards against the Eagles, but Philadelphia’s relentless pass rush will rattle Vikings’ QB Tavaris Jackson. Donovan McNabb has been hot with nine TD passes and just one interception in the last five games. The Eagles’ run game has four 130+ yard games in the last five outings. This will be a lower-than-expected scoring game for both clubs. Prediction: Philadelphia 21, Minnesota 17.