One week of playoff competition is in the books as the Cardinals, Chargers, Eagles and Ravens each won their wild card games. Two more weeks remain in the playoff race to earn a spot in Super Bowl XLIII, with the division round of the playoffs up next.
It’s rematch weekend, as the teams in each contest played their opponent at some point during the regular season. In the AFC, the Ravens and Titans took it into the final minutes in Baltimore, and Tennessee escaped with a 13-10 win in Week 5. The Chargers and Steelers battled in a game that produced a first-ever score of 11-10 in Week 11, Pittsburgh on top.
In the NFC, the Cardinals and Panthers met in Week 8 in Charlotte in another closely fought game, but the home team came away victorious, 27-23. The Eagles and Giants have one of the most long-standing and bitter rivalries in the NFL, and they split their division series in 2008, with the Giants winning 36-31 in Philadelphia in Week Week 10 and the Eagles winning 20-14 in New Jersey in Week 14.
This weekend, the teams all meet again — but this time around, there’s a lot more on the line.
Saturday, 2:30 p.m. MST
TENNESSEE TITANS vs. BALITMORE RAVENS
Why You Should Watch: If you like smash-mouth, hard-hitting, pound-the-run football, this game is for you. On top of that, these two teams just plain don’t like each other, and it shows. In Week 5, the Ravens were flagged 11 times for 91 yards while the Titans got penalized 10 times for 78. There’s trash talking. There are late hits. If the total amount of points scored is less than 20, no one will be surprised.
The Ravens enter the game with the league’s second-ranked defense in terms of yardage, allowing just 261.1 yards per game during the regular season. Not far behind are the Titans at No. 7 with 293.6 yards allowed on average. In terms of scoring, Tennessee edges Baltimore, giving up just 14.6 points per game to the Ravens’ 15.2. Baltimore is first in the league with 26 interceptions — 11 by standout safety Ed Reed alone. The Titans have snared 20 picks on the season. Tennessee ranks fifth in the league with 44 sacks while the Ravens are tied for 11th with 34. Add it all up, and it makes for a nasty defensive struggle.
Keep An Eye On: Cortland Finnegan, CB, Tennessee Titans. This 2006 seventh-round pick out of Samford has quickly become one of the league’s top corner, and he has been honored for his play, earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl as well as a spot on the AP’s All-Pro team. He has five interceptions on the season, one of which he returned 99 yards for a score. He may be listed at 5-foot-10, 188 pounds, and those number may be correct when he’s wearing helmet, pads and cleats. But it doesn’t matter, since he plays like he’s 6-foot-4. He’s fiesty and takes pride getting into receivers’ heads, and when these two teams met, he and Ravens wideout Derrick Mason got into a scuffle or two, earning both players penalties and fines. Keep an eye on No. 31 for the Titans — he’s always around the ball.
Ed Reed, S, Baltimore Ravens. Normally we’d pick just one person to keep an eye on, but both defenses are just too good to ignore, and no one has played better defense in the last two months than the Ravens’ five-time Pro Bowler Reed. He has 10 interceptions in the last seven weeks, including two he picked off a week ago against Dolphins, one of which he took to the house. He was the only unanimous selection for this year’s AP All-Pro team. Quarterbacks have to know where he is at all time, because his head is always on a swivel. If he picks off a pass, he can move like a wide receiver, and if anyone catches a pass in front of him, he can lay a vicious hit.
Saturday, 6:15 p.m. MST
CAROLINA PANTHERS vs. ARIZONA CARDINALS
Why You Should Watch: If you didn’t like watching the slug-fest from earlier in the day, this could be more to your liking. Here you have two veteran quarterbacks in the Cardinals’ Kurt Warner and the Panthers Jake Delhomme. Both QBs can sling it pretty well, and both teams have dynamic Pro Bowl wide receivers — Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin for Arizona, Steve Smith for Carolina. Toss in the two-headed running back monster of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams and their 28 combined touchdowns, and the Panthers have the entire offensive package. But don’t count out Edgerrin James of the Cardinals, who looked like a rejuvenated man in last week’s win over the Falcons.
Arizona has the fourth-ranked offense in the league, racking up 365.8 yards per game in the regular season. Carolina ranks 10th with 349.7. The difference is the Panthers run for 152.3 yards on the ground, good for third in the NFL, while the Cardinals pass for 292.1, second to only New Orleans. And with the defenses ranking in the middle of the pack, 18th for Carolina and 19th for Arizona, there should be a lot of scoring.
Keep An Eye On: The entire Arizona defense. As previously mentioned, they’ve been a pretty average group for most of the season, but a week ago, they played like one of the top units in the league. They held Michael Turner to just 42 yards on 18 carries for a meager 2.3-yard average — he averaged 4.5 on the season. They sacked rookie of the year Matt Ryan three times and forced him to throw two interceptions and cough up a fumble which they returned for a score. It will take a similar performance to shut down Delhomme, Stewart and Williams.
Sunday, 11:00 a.m. MST
NEW YORK GIANTS vs. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Why You Should Watch: Division rivalry games always make for quality television, especially in the NFC East. Now take the hype from a regular season matchup and amp it up to the playoff level, and this could turn into a game for the ages. The Giants were one of the hottest teams for most of the season, but they faded down the stretch. The Eagles, on the other hand, started off slow and had a 5-4-1 record and appeared dead in the water before picking things up and finishing 9-6-1. Now they’ve got to see if they can take down the defending Super Bowl champs twice at Giants Stadium in one year.
The two teams match up extremely well, with the Eagles and Giants having the third and fifth ranked defenses, respectively. Philly is third in the NFL with 48 sacks, and the Giants rank sixth with 42, despite losing standouts Michael Strahan to retirement and Osi Umenyiora to a season-ending injury during the preseason. On the offensive side of the ball, the Giants and Eagles rank fifth and seventh in total yards. Donovan McNabb leads the way for the Eagles through the air with 244.4 yards per game while the three-headed running attack of the Giants leads the league with 157.4.
Keep An Eye On: Brandon Jacobs, RB, New York Giants. His 219 carries for 1089 yards and 15 touchdowns lead this vaunted run game, and he is the workhorse of the group. Backup and fellow 1000-yard rusher Derrick Ward is no slouch, but if Jacobs is 100 percent, this ground attack is extremely hard to stop. In two games against the Eagles this year, he has rushed 32 times for 178 yards, and if he gets going early, it will be tough on Philadelphia.
Brian Westbrook, RB, Philadelphia Eagles. He’s normally one of the elite backs in the league, though his stats are down this year due to injuries throughout the season. But that didn’t stop him from gaining over 1,300 all-purpose yards in 2008. Last week, the Vikings did a good job of bottling him up for most of the night until he broke loose on a screen pass, taking it 71 yards for a score. And that’s what Westbrook can do — take it the distance at any time.
Sunday, 2:45 p.m. MST
PITTSBURGH STEELERS vs. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Why You Should Watch: You’ve got the league’s stingiest defense in the Steelers taking on one of the hottest teams in the NFL in the Chargers. What’s not to like? It’s going to be cold and dark in the Steel City, with a forecasted high temperature in the 20s, and these two teams will probably take it down to the wire just like they did in Week 11. The Steelers have been one of the top teams in the AFC all year, and their 12-4 record gave them the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. The Chargers won four straight to finish the season and get into the playoffs at 8-8, and last week they knocked off the Colts to earn a trip to Heinz Field.
In that first contest, it was ugly weather and ugly football, much like it could turn out to be Sunday afternoon. And as in that first game, the team that plays most consistently could come out on top. Ben Roethlisberger managed the game effectively, completing 31-of-41 passes for 308 yards without a touchdown or interception while Philip Rivers went 15-of-26 for just 164 and two picks. But the Chargers defense kept it close by sacking Big Ben five times, and since then, Rivers has played at an extremely high level.
Keep An Eye On: Willie Parker, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers. After three straight 1,000-yard seasons, Parker played in only 11 games, missing a five-game stretch due to injury. Now he’s back in action and closed out the season with a 116-yard performance against the Browns in Week 17. He should be rested after their playoff bye, and if he can get out of the gates early against the Chargers, that will go a long way in keeping the San Diego defense on their heels. If they have to worry about Parker’s running, they won’t be able to blitz against Pittsburgh’s offensive line that has allowed 49 sacks, fourth-most in the league.
– Adam Zinser, DenverBroncos.com