If Week 17 wasn’t intense enough, the Wild Card playoff weekend has arrived. Three of the four matchups pit teams that played each other last week. Here are previews of all four of contests.
Saturday, 2:30 p.m. MST
NEW YORK JETS (9-7) at CINCINNATI BENGALS (10-6)
Why You Should Watch: After stumbling to a 4-6 start, the Jets won five of their final six games to secure the AFC’s No. 5 seed. They sport the league’s best rushing offense at 172.2 yards per game and league’s best defense at 252.3 yards allowed per game. Rookie Mark Sanchez led the AFC with 20 interceptions, throwing 17 of those picks in the team’s seven losses.
After streaking to a 9-3 start, the Bengals lost three of their final four games, but still secured their first AFC North division title in four years. Like New York, Cincinnati has a top-10 rushing offense that averages 128.5 yards per contest. Their defense is right behind the Jets at No. 4 in the NFL, with 301.4 yards allowed per game. Carson Palmer completed 60.5 percent of his passes in 2009. But in limited action against the Jets in Week 17, he was held to 1-of-11 passing for zero yards.
With Cincinnati already in the playoffs, the Jets needed a 37-0 victory over the Bengals in Week 17 at the Meadowlands to set up this Wild Card rematch. The battle now shifts to Paul Brown Stadium, where Cincinnati won six of its eight home games this season. One of those two losses came against the Broncos in Week 1, at the hands of Brandon Stokley’s immaculate deflection touchdown.
Keep An Eye On: RB Thomas Jones, New York Jets. Despite running with 31-year-old bones, the 10th-year pro turned in a career year, notching personal-bests with 331 carries, 1,402 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. He rushed for more than 100 yards in seven games this season. But the Bengals defense and 100-yard rushers did not get along at all in 2009, as only two opposing backs eclipsed the century mark — Browns RB Jerome Harrison and Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles.
Saturday, 6:00 p.m. MST
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-6) at DALLAS COWBOYS (11-5)
Why You Should Watch: For the third time this season and second time in as many weeks, the NFC East rivals will set foot on the same field. Dallas has had Philadelphia’s number in 2009, earning a 20-16 win in Philadelphia and 24-0 win at Cowboys Stadium last week. For Dallas, the stakes are extremely high, as they are looking for their first playoff victory since Dec. 28, 1996. To put time in perspective, Brian Dawkins was in his rookie season.
Both of these offenses thrive on their big-play potential. Cowboys QB Tony Romo threw for a career-high 4,483 yards this season. That effort was helped by his ability to complete 61 passes of 20-or-more yards. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb also profited from the deep ball, throwing for more than 3,500 yards for the second time in his 11 pro seasons. He completed a career-high 55 passes for 20-plus yards.
Keep An Eye On: Romo. While the pressure will be high for McNabb, he has already led his team to nine postseason wins, which marks the most by any quarterback in Eagles history. The same can’t be said for Romo, who is 0-2 career in games where it really counts. Romo’s passing numbers in the playoffs have been less than stellar, as he threw for a combined 390 yards in losses to the Seahawks (2007) and Giants (2008).
Sunday, 11:00 a.m. MST
BALTIMORE RAVENS (9-7) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-6)
Why You Should Watch: Over the last decade, these two teams have put their best foot forward in the playoffs. The Patriots made five Super Bowls in the 2000s, winning four rings, while the Ravens opened the decade with their first-ever Lombardi trophy. While the two teams have appeared in a combined 22 playoff games since 2000, Sunday will mark the first time in history that they face each other in the postseason.
The Patriots were a perfect 8-0 at Gillette Stadium in 2009, including a 27-21 Week 4 win over these Ravens. They won those eight home contests by an average margin of 18 points. After a quick 3-0 start, Baltimore skidded to a 6-7 finish and needed a road win over the Raiders in Week 17 just to make postseason play.
Keep An Eye On: Ravens Secondary. Terrific Tom Brady has gained that nickname because of his postseason exploits. He has thrown 26 career touchdown passes in the playoffs, but also been victimized by 12 interceptions. The Ravens enter Foxborough, Mass. with a defense that divides its strengths well between the run and pass. Baltimore has held its opponents to a stout 93.6 rushing yards per game. When teams have turned to the air this season, the Ravens have responded with 22 interceptions, which is good for second in the AFC.
Sunday, 2:40 p.m. MST
GREEN BAY PACKERS (11-5) at ARIZONA CARDINALS (10-6)
Why You Should Watch: After an embarrassing road loss in Week 7 to the then-winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Packers rallied in the second half of the season, winning seven of their final eight games. The last of those victims happened to be the Arizona Cardinals, setting up a Week 17 rematch in Glendale at University of Phoenix Stadium.
While both teams reached double-digit win totals in the regular season, they were each helped by taking care of business against teams below .500. Of Green Bay’s 11 wins, only three came against clubs with winning records — Dallas, Baltimore and at Arizona. Of the Cardinals’ 10 wins, only two came against teams over the .500 plateau — Houston and Minnesota. Of the teams’ combined 21 wins, 12 came against the 5-11 Seahawks, 1-15 Rams, 2-14 Lions and 7-9 Bears.
Keep An Eye On: WR Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals. After back-to-back seasons of 1,400-plus receiving yards, Fitzgerald barely reached the 1,000-yard mark this season. Defenses have keyed in on Arizona’s No.1 target, as he was held to 113 yards receiving over the club’s final four regular season games. But since 2008, as Fitzgerald goes, so do the Cardinals. Including postseason play, Arizona is 18-7 when Fitzgerald hauls in at least one receiving touchdown.
-Chris Gentilviso, DenverBroncos.com