It’s that time again — January football. The playoffs are upon us, and this weekend marks the Wild Card matchups. Ten years ago the Broncos had a bye this week as a part of their Super Bowl XXXIII run. We’ll have memories of the Broncos’ playoff games from that season during their corresponding weekends — starting next week in the divisional round.
For now, we thought we’d give some quick hits about the playoff games on the docket this season. Occasionally we might have a Broncos player chime in on the matchups, so check back each weekend before the playoff matchups to check out what to watch for.
Quick Wild Card previews after the jump.
Saturday, 2:30 p.m. MST
ATLANTA FALCONS vs. ARIZONA CARDINALS
Why You Should Watch: The Falcons are one of the biggest surprise stories of the season. At the end of last year, their franchise quarterback was headed to jail, their coach left them midseason to go back to college and it looked like things could only go downhill. Then the team drafted Matt Ryan, brought in free agent running back Michael Turner and hired virtually unheard-of Mike Smith as head coach. They finished the year one game away from winning the NFC South, touting the No. 2 rushing offense in the league.
The Cardinals are a surprise as well. A team picked to break out for several years running, no one really expected too much out of the team this season. But then former MVP Kurt Warner looked like he was back in his prime in St. Louis, putting up huge numbers and leading his team to the No. 2 passing offense and No. 4 total offense in the league. The team broke what appeared to be a stranglehold on the division by the Seattle Seahawks and will host a playoff game for the first time since 1947.
Both teams are unexpected success stories from this season, and it will be exciting to see the No. 2 passing offense and No. 2 rushing offense square off.
Keep An Eye On: CB Domonique Foxworth, Atlanta Falcons. Since taking over as a starter, the former Bronco has racked up 38 tackles, 11 passes defensed and an interception. He’ll have his hands full against whichever Cardinal he matches up against — Arizona has three 1,000-yard receivers: Anquan Boldin, Steve Breaston and Larry Fitzgerald. How the Falcons secondary performs could be the key to the game.
Saturday, 6:00 p.m. MST
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS vs. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Why You Should Watch: This game is a rematch of last year’s AFC Divisional Playoff game, which the Chargers won 28-24. The teams also locked up in Week 10 of 2007, and Week 12 this year. The Colts have only won one of those three times, but it was the most recent matchup, coming away with a three-point win on a last-second Adam Vinatieri field goal.
Philip Rivers is having his best season as a professional, leading his team to the AFC West title, and Peyton Manning won the MVP award for leading his team on a nine-game winning streak that locked up the No. 5 playoff seed. The battle of the two quarterbacks is enough reason to watch, let alone the fact that the two teams have had three matchups in the past two seasons that have been decided by a grand total of nine points.
Keep An Eye On: S Bob Sanders, Indianapolis Colts. Indy has the No. 11 overall defense in the league, and much of that comes from the leadership and solid play provided by Sanders in the secondary. He has missed a lot of time this season, but if he does play, he helps out against the run and the pass — he’s a solid tackler and has an interception this season in only six games played. If he’s good to go for this matchup, expect to see the safety heavily involved in the defense.
Sunday, 11:00 a.m. MST
BALTIMORE RAVENS vs. MIAMI DOLPHINS
Why You Should Watch: If the Falcons and Cardinals game is the matchup of two unexpected success stories, the Ravens and Dolphins matchup is pretty unbelievable. Last year, the Dolphins were 1-15, and they have successfully had one of the most historic turn-arounds in NFL history, winning the AFC East with an 11-5 record. The Ravens had a disappointing 5-11 season last year, prompting the firing of head coach Brian Billick. Rookie Joe Flacco took over at quarterback and John Harbaugh took the reins at head coach, the defense returned to form and the Ravens earned a wild card playoff berth.
This is another rematch from a 2008 regular season game — the Ravens came away with a 27-14 victory in Week 7 on the strength of a 100-yard day from Willis McGahee and a Terrell Suggs interception return for a touchdown.
Keep An Eye On: QB Chad Pennington, Miami Dolphins. The signal caller earned the AP Comeback Player of the Year Award, passing for more than 3,600 yards and 19 touchdowns to only seven interceptions, finishing the regular season with a 97.4 passer rating. He threw for 295 yards, a touchdown and an interception against the Ravens earlier in the year. How he performs this time around could help decide the game.
Sunday, 2:30 p.m. MST
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES vs. MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Why You Should Watch: The Eagles have gone 4-1 in their past five games to get into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. With the exception of a 10-3 loss to the Washington Redskins, the Eagles have won those four games by 92 points.
The Vikings won a close battle with the Chicago Bears for the NFC North title, and second-year running back Adrian Peterson has showed his rookie season was not a fluke. Peterson leads the league with more than 1,700 yards.
Both teams have top 10 defenses — the Eagles are No. 3 and the Vikings are No. 6 overall. So this game will be all about which offense can break out against a tough defensive unit.
Keep An Eye On: QB Tarvaris Jackson, Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings have the No. 1 rushing defense in the league, allowing less than 77 yards per game on the ground, and the No. 1 running back. Jackson, who reclaimed his starting job when Gus Frerotte was injured, has played well the past four games. He has thrown eight touchdowns to just one interception, and it’s no coincidence the Vikings have won three of those four. Minnesota will need its quarterback to keep up his hot play to win in the playoffs.
-Gray Caldwell, DenverBroncos.com