Sunday Playoff Previews:
After their earlier regular season meeting it was apparent that there was no by the Ravens for New England, (though does any team really like Bill Belichick and the Patriots?) so I would expect Baltimore to come out with a chip on their shoulder. I’d also expect the Ravens to blitz Tom Brady early and often, not only to disrupt the offense, but to send a message for the phantom ‘Brady Rule’ call imposed upon them earlier this season. Regardless of the outcome, this will be a hard-hitting contest that’s fun to watch.
Baltimore has a good chance to go into New England and upset the Patriots, if they can stick to their game plan. The Ravens have a great running game led by Ray Rice, but Rice is complimented nicely by Willis McGhee and Le’Ron McClain. Their offensive line has given Baltimore big holes to run through all season, and should be able to win the battle in the trenches today. QB Joe Flacco is developing in to a fine starting quarterback in this league. He still has some issues with decision making, (holding the ball too long, or forcing it into coverage) but overall is a good quarterback. His receiving corps is far from top flight, but it does have a number of solid options. I’d look for Ray Rice to have a big game catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s not an easy task to cover for a linebacker, and if the Patriots defense blitzes he will find himself as the safety valve for Flacco. The real key to this game is the Ravens defense, though as a unit it was as dominate as its been in the past, down the stretch they played excellent football. When the Ravens needed them to come up big they always played their best. If they can keep up that performance today, I don’t see how New England moves the ball on them.
On New England’s side things aren’t looking good for the Patriots. Their running game has been awful this season, partly due to the ineffectiveness of the offensive line, party due to struggles at running back. That lack of a rushing attack is a big question plaguing New England as the Patriots start the playoffs. They still have one of the best passing attacks in the league with Tom Brady and Randy Moss, but that unit had a major blow when it lost Wes Welker in week 17. Welker is Brady’s safety valve and multiple people will need to step up to replace his value. New England does have a promising rookie in Julian Edleman, but he has big shoes to fill unless the Patriots change their game plan. I would guess we see TE Ben Watson and RB Kevin Faulk involved in the game more, in an effort to open up things down the field for Moss. The biggest issue for New England is their offensive line play, usually they do a good job of keeping Brady upright, if they don’t the Patriots could be in some trouble. As good as a quarterback as Brady is, he really struggles under pressure, and his numbers fall off big time when he’s getting hit. Without Welker there, Brady will need to find another safe receiver to get the ball too once he sees the pressure coming. Another issue with the Patriots is their defense, when New England was winning Super Bowls it was because of the defense more so than their offense (Adam Vinatieri didn’t hurt either). Now their defense is just good and not the great, dominating defense that was successful for them in years past. They have a good secondary, one that can make plays when quarterbacks make mistakes. But therein lies the problem, this defense doesn’t attack the QB like they used to, and that lack of pressure has led to a decrease in the number of take-aways they have. The Patriots defense will need to find away to slow down Flacco and Rice and not let them match the Patriots offense.
It looks like New England should lose this game, but I think they will pull it out in the end for two reasons. Home field advantage and their previous playoff experience. I think Brady and Co. will pull this game out in the end 23-21.
By Fanspeak Contributing Writer Geoff Nelowet
Can the Arizona Cardinals Match Last Year’s Magical Playoff Run?
Last week the Green Bay Packers won a meaningless game over the Arizona Cardinals 33-7. Both teams knew they had nothing to play for, and they knew they would face each other in seven days for an NFC wild card game. Surprisingly, Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt and Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy took very different approaches last week: Whisenhunt benched most of his starters in fear of potential injuries, and McCarthy played his starters for most of the game.
It will be interesting to see which team will benefit, as Green Bay may find itself in a better flow and more in-sync, and Arizona may feel more rested with essentially a game off.
Last week’s game, though, will in all likelihood prove itself irrelevant to this weekend’s playoff match-up, as both teams will ostensibly play with more intensity than weeks prior.
The Cardinals are the reigning NFC champions, and they come into the playoffs with much more respect than last year. They will not be given the opportunity to sneak up on anyone, and their road to the Super Bowl will be incontestably more difficult. Not to mention, the NFC in its entirety is loaded with more elite teams this year than last.
In consideration of last year’s run through the playoffs, the Cardinals are very difficult to judge. At the end of the regular season last year, they looked like dead weight in the playoffs, and they were expected to get blown out in the first round. Instead, they looked like an entirely different team – they played defense, and they were nearly unstoppable on offense.
It seems unlikely that Arizona can muster the same playoff effort as last season’s, and, like last year, they are going up against a better team on paper. Green Bay has one of the best defenses in the NFL, and they also have one the best quarterbacks in Aaron Rogers. This is a team built for the playoffs that has gotten better each week. They, like Philadelphia, are a major scare team that could do a lot of damage.
Kurt Warner and Co. will keep the game exciting for the Cards, but Green Bay will be too much in the end. Rogers will guide the Packers to an efficient, close win, and their defense will keep the explosive Cardinals air attack in check. Final score: Green Bay 27 Arizona 24.