After Wild Card weekend kicked off with three double-digit victories, NFL fans were treated to a thrilling Wild Card finale as the Cardinals upended the Packers 51-45 in an NFC playoff matchup that won’t soon be forgotten.
Now that Wild Card weekend is in the rear view mirror, it is time for the divisional round. With NFC and AFC championship game berths at stake, all four contests this weekend should be filled with plenty of intensity from start to finish.
Saturday, 2:30 p.m. MST
ARIZONA CARDINALS (10-6) at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13-3)
Why You Should Watch: Fresh off a dramatic 51-45 overtime win over the Packers in an instant-classic Wild Card matchup last Sunday in Arizona, the defending NFC-champion Cardinals look to keep their playoff momentum rolling when they square off with the NFC’s No.1 seed, the Saints, at the Superdome in New Orleans.
Anyone with an infatuation for high-scoring games should be glued to their televisions for this showdown. With Kurt Warner firing on all cylinders in the opening round of the playoffs, Green Bay’s defense had no answers for Arizona’s offensive unit — surrendering 531 total yards and forcing the Cardinals to punt only on one occasion.
In that same game, the Cardinals defense had just as much trouble slowing down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers once the Green and Gold got settled into the game. Now, after giving up six touchdowns to the Packers, the Cardinals face a New Orleans offense that averaged a league-high 31.9 points per game this season and also scored a league-high 510 points in 16 regular season games.
While the offensive firepower that will be on display is reason enough to watch, fans across the NFL will get an opportunity to see if the Saints can regain their regular-season mojo, which disappeared over the final few weeks of the season. When New Orleans jumped out to a 13-0 start, rumblings about a possible undefeated season began to surface. But the Saints proceeded to lose their final three regular season games, including a last-second Week 15 home loss to 3-13 Tampa Bay.
Keep An Eye On: QB Kurt Warner, Arizona Cardinals. To Kurt Warner, age is just a number. On the same weekend that rumors surfaced that the 38-year-old signal caller might retire after the 2009 postseason, Warner put together one of the best playoff performances of his career, completing 29-of-33 passes for 379 yards and five touchdowns without an interception. Warner was the catalyst to Arizona’s Super Bowl appearance last postseason, throwing for 1,147 yards and 11 touchdowns to lead the Cardinals to within moments of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Another strong playoff performance by the veteran on Sunday and Arizona could be headed to its second straight NFC Championship game.
Saturday, 6:15 p.m. MST
BALTIMORE RAVENS (9-7) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (14-2)
Why You Should Watch: Riding high after an impressive upset victory at New England on Sunday, the Ravens head to Indianapolis to take on a well-rested Colts team in the divisional round at Lucas Oil Stadium. Baltimore exploded onto the 2009 playoff scene when Ray Rice raced through a hole for an 83-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage against the Patriots. Soon after, the Ravens owned a 24-0 lead heading into the second quarter and the game really was never in question after that point. The Ravens knocked off a Patriots team that was undefeated at Gillette Stadium in 2009 and also handed Tom Brady his first home playoff loss in the process.
One week after facing off against one of the game’s most established quarterbacks, the Ravens take on another in the divisional round, in league MVP Peyton Manning. As efficient as quarterbacks are built, Manning threw for 4,500 yards during the regular season and led the league with 33 touchdowns — the most to his name since his 49-touchdown effort in 2004.
The Ravens allow 16.3 points per game, but something tells us that a banged up Baltimore secondary will be in for a tough test. Going up against the likes of Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie and Dallas Clark, Ravens QB Joe Flacco will have to do much more than complete 4-of-10 passes for 34 yards with interception — as was the case last Sunday in New England — for John Harbaugh’s team to pull out a second-consecutive road victory.
Keep An Eye On: Rice. The Ravens rushed the ball 52 times against the Patriots, netting 234 yards and four touchdowns for their efforts. More than half of that production came from Rice, who amassed 159 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, including his stadium-silencing touchdown scamper to start the contest. That output should come as little surprise, however, as the 22-year-old has put together game-changing performances all season long. Going up against a Colts defense that gives up 126.5 rushing yards per game, Rice should be in position for another big day on the ground. Also, watch the speedster as a receiving threat out of the backfield — he caught 78 passes for 702 yards during the regular season.
Sunday, 11:00 a.m. MST
DALLAS COWBOYS (11-5) at MINNESOTA VIKINGS (12-4)
Why You Should Watch: The Cowboys head to Minnesota full of optimism and firing on all cylinders. And rightfully so. By beating the Eagles for the second time in as many weeks and the third time this season, Dallas recorded its first playoff victory since 1996. Now, Tony Romo and company — winners of four straight overall — are looking to make a prolonged postseason run after ending that 13-year streak.
Standing in their way is a Minnesota team that is undefeated at the Metrodome in 2009 and eager to make it to its first NFC championship game since 2001, when the Vikings got destroyed by the New York Giants, 41-0. Speaking of nightmarish NFC Championship games against the Giants, quarterback Brett Favre’s last playoff appearance came against New York in 2007. In that game, an overtime interception by Favre led to a heartbreaking Packers loss. Since that moment, Favre has strived to return to the postseason in two different uniforms. Now, fit with an explosive running back — Adrian Peterson — and a stout defense, the 40-year-old gunslinger is hopeful his 19th NFL season ends with a Super Bowl victory.
While much will be made about Romo, a Wisconsin native, going head-to-head with his childhood idol, Favre, the game could very well come down to which team can establish the run more effectively. Anchored by Peterson, the Vikings average 119.9 rushing yards per game. Meanwhile, Dallas’ triple-headed ground game, featuring Marion Barber, Tashard Choice and Felix Jones, amassed 131.4 rushing yards per game during the regular season and 198 rushing yards against Philadelphia on Wild Card weekend. And while Peterson might be thought of in many circles as the most explosive running back to take to the turf on Sunday, watch out out for Jones, who notched a 73-yard third-quarter touchdown run against the Eagles and can also change the game in a blink of an eye.
Keep An Eye On: DeMarcus Ware. Banged up at the end of the regular season after suffering a neck sprain against San Diego in mid-December, Ware looked plenty healthy against the Eagles on Wild Card weekend, notching two sacks and forcing a fumble to set the tone for a stellar defensive effort by the Cowboys. The fifth-year pro from Troy, who recorded 11 sacks during the regular season, should have an intriguing matchup all game long against Vikings offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie.
Sunday, 2:40 p.m. MST
NEW YORK JETS (9-7) at SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (13-3)
Why You Should Watch: New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan’s playoff prediction vs. San Diego’s 11-game winning streak. After securing the final AFC playoff spot, Ryan didn’t hesitate to showcase the confidence he has in his team — saying he believed his team should be favored in every postseason game it plays this year.
Ryan’s players certainly backed that confidence level on Wild Card weekend, playing heady football on both sides of the ball and defeating the Bengals 24-14 in Cincinnati. On offense, the Jets rushed 41 times for 171 yards with two touchdowns, while rookie Mark Sanchez executed play-action passes to perfection and finished 12-of-15 for 182 yards with a touchdown pass. Defensively, New York limited Carson Palmer to 146 passing yards.
After starting the season 2-3, the Chargers won their final 11 regular season games, including three victories over 2009 playoff teams — the Eagles, Cowboys and Bengals. During that impressive run, San Diego proved it can win in a variety of ways. Sandwiched between an array of blowout victories, Norv Turner’s squad squeaked out a 21-20 road win at the Giants in Week 9, a 20-17 road win at Dallas in Week 14, a 27-24 win home win against Cincinnati in Week 15 and a 23-20 home win over Washington in the team’s regular-season finale in Week 17.
Keep An Eye On: CB Darrelle Revis, New York Jets. Revis is swiftly becoming recognized as one of the best cover corners in the NFL — if not the premier defensive back in all of football. The 2009 Pro Bowl selection shut down Chad Ochocinco on Sunday, limiting the big-play wideout to just two receptions for 28 yards, and notching an interception for his secondary efforts. During the regular season, Revis recorded six interceptions. The third-year pro will face another stiff challenge this weekend, going up against Vincent Jackson, who had 68 catches for 1,167 receiving yards in 2009.
NOTE: Prior to Sunday’s game in San Diego, 32 young football players from around the country will compete in the NFL Punt, Pass and Kick National Finals. Three kids from the state of Colorado will be on hand to participate in the finals of the competition: Jordan Remley from Arvada, CO (Girls 10-11 age group), Mikala Gordon, Pueblo, CO (Girls 14-15) and Zach Hooker, Fort Collins, CO (Boys 12-13).
– Zach Eisendrath, DenverBroncos.com