Match Play - NFL Divisional round

Written by: MJK

Arizona Cardinals vs. New Orleans Saints

If the Cardinals matchup with the Packers last week was any indication, we should expect a lot of points on the scoreboard when these two teams square off. The Saints are coming off a season in which they staked their claim as the best team in the NFC record wise, locking up the #1 seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. This advantage begins against the defending NFC Champions and an equally hungry Cardinals squad. Statistically, the Saints outperformed the Cardinals (and just about everyone else) in total offense this season…but Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner has the best quarterback rating in postseason history and is not to be discounted when trying to match these two teams up.

Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin is not likely to play, but surprisingly I do not think this will be enough of an issue to slow down this Cardinals offense as noticed by last weeks 51 point outburst, as well being 2-0 without Boldin the past two postseasons. Steve Breaston and more importantly Early Doucet have stepped up more than enough to keep this offensive train rolling, much to the credit of Warners pocket presence and preparation. Even though I fully expect a shootout to happen, we cannot sleep on the run game of either of these teams. For the Cardinals, rookie running back Beanie Wells has impressed as he has learned the nuances of NFL defenses. He has shown flashes of brilliance and could gash this overrated Saints defense if given the chance.

The Saints on the other hand are coming off a bye week in which they limped into the postseason after three weeks worth of sub par play. Still, they were they highest scoring offense in the NFL this season but it will be interesting to see how they react to coming off a bye week. It really was discouraging watching this team play at such a high level for most of the season, only to watch the team play such uninspired ball down the stretch. Who knows how much bearing this will have in the outcome of this game. We all know what quarterback Drew Brees and company are capable of but much like Beanie Wells for the Cardinals, running back Pierre Thomas (if healthy) is a multi talented back who can catch passes and is elusive enough to gain a good amount of yards against an over aggressive Cardinals defense.

When it is all said and done I truly believe these offenses are extremely evenly matched regardless of what the regular season stats say on paper. The combination of Warner to Fitzgerald has yet to be stopped in postseason play the past two seasons and until that happens I wont be counting out the Cardinals offense in any scenario. Most importantly, the Cardinals defense is extremely underappreciated and is physical and aggressive enough to keep the Saints off balance. It will be tough for either of these teams to hold one another under 30+ points. That being said I have more faith in the Cardinals speedy and athletic defense than the New Orleans unit who still has problems on the edges and in the front seven. I think the Cardinals have a bigger chip on their shoulder after falling short last season and walk into NOLA and rip the hearts out of the Louisiana faithful.

Cardinals 38-31

Baltimore Ravens vs. Indianapolis Colts

Much like the Saints, Indy sputtered into the postseason and their bye week after a couple of really bad performances to end the season. However, Indy was rolling right along until they started pulling starters out of games in an effort to preserve key players for the playoffs, making their end of the season slump a little more understandable.

Baltimore is coming off an impressive whooping of the once dominant New England Patriots in the opening round. Baltimore has been able to run the ball more effectively than any other team in recent weeks and this really has been the bread and butter to their team success. Ray Rice and Willis McGahee have been running fools over in impressive fashion and really have asserted themselves as forces to be reckoned with. Joe Flacco has taken major steps back since coming out of the gates to start the season, but he still resembles enough of a game manager to where he should not hurt the team downfield, and if he gets the right looks he has an upside of a 300 yard day. If outside lineback Terrell Suggs can make a big play early in the game much like he did last week against Tom Brady, the Ravens could use that momentum swing and never look back.

Indy has looked so impressive throughout much of the year its really hard to pinpoint how they matchup in this situation. The team has had a lot of trouble performing well in postseason games after coming off a bye week and this should pose a threat to the fluidity of their offense. Defensive end Dwight Freeney has reasserted himself as one of the most feared defensive ends in the league. If he gets loose today, then Baltimore will have problems. That being said, the Ravens wont be throwing the ball enough for Freeney to be a factor. But it only takes one play to change game.

I think the Ravens are riding high on some good momentum right now and could very well rush for 200+ yards today, but I think they offer just enough offensive shortcomings for the team to be worried about keeping pace with a Colts offense that probably will come out looking sluggish and rusty, but will click when it needs to in order to move on to the next round.

Colts 24-20

Dallas Cowboys vs. Minnesota Vikings

This game is the most difficult to matchup simply because the Cowboys are playing at such a high level right now while the Vikings are the better team top to bottom.

Dallas just came off back to back victories over a Philadelphia Eagles team that for much of the season looked like the favorite to come out of the NFC East as champions. Dallas has put most of the questions of past late season performances to rest as their offense has really hit their stride, and even more impressively their defense has gelled as a unit. Quarterback Tony Romo has utilized his weapons to the best of his abilities as we can almost expect a big day out of Jason Witten and Miles Austin. The most important aspect of this offense will be the three headed rushing attack of Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. The Vikings boast the NFLs best run defense, but if Dallas can use its mixture of backs well enough- it could be the difference in the game. The play of linebacker Demarcus Ware, DT Jay Ratliff and CB Mike Jenkins has vaulted this defenses play into the upper echelon of the NFL, and they will have to bring their A game here.

The Vikings have had a few blips on the radar this season but for the most part they have been as consistent as teams come. Their offensive line play has come under a little scrutiny lately as running back Adrian Peterson has not been able to break off the big games we have all become accustomed to seeing. I think this has much more to do with relying more on the pass than anything, but in any event Peterson simply has not been the game changing force we have all come to know. Brett Favre has reinvented the Vikings offense with an impressive season, making a pro bowler out of once maligned receiver Sidney Rice. The Vikings have as much, if not more weapons on offense than the Cowboys do and will attempt to open up holes in the front seven for Peterson by stretching the field with Rice and rookie Percy Harvin. I would expect defensive end Jared Allen to have a big game, although this defense has not been nearly as impressive since lineback EJ Henderson went down with a broken leg a few weeks back. Cornerback Antoine Winfield has also been hobbled.

I have bet against Brett Favre too many times this season (mostly because I am tired of his act), but when the Vikings click on all cylinders they cant be stopped. The Cowboys are trying to piggy back off of the momentum they have gained in beating a one dimensional Eagles team two straight weeks, but I think this task may be a little too tall. I simply do not trust Wade Phillips enough to lead this team to the promised land.

Vikings 31-17

New York Jets vs. San Diego Chargers

Jets head coach Rex Ryan has been talking a lot of talk this postseason and if last weeks win was any indication, his team is more than prepared to walk the walk. The truth is the Bengals were a bit of a mirage all season and the Jets were able to exploit some of their inefficiencies with their well planned defensive scheme.

All season long the Jets have used their defense as the cornerstone for the teams success. This defense is scary top to bottom, highlighted by cornerback Darrell Revis and linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott. Most importantly, Ryan’s scheme has proved to work time and time again. They just have an attitude that is carried about them that is reflected through the mirror image that is the tenacity of their head coach. On offense, the two headed running back monster of Thomas Jones and Shonne Green have really taken the load off of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez. When Sanchez has looked comfortable in the pocket this season, he has been the perfect game manger for this team. However, when he has been confused or under pressure he has had a deer in headlights look that should trouble any Jets fan. The Jets will have to rush for over 180+ total yards in order to win this game, and Sanchez will have to play mistake free football.

The Chargers have simply been on fire, riding a franchise best 11 game win streak while locking up the #2 seed in the AFC. Philip Rivers has taken the next step into the NFL’s elite group of quarterbacks, and while running back LaDainian Tomlinson is not the runner he once was…he has still provided just enough spark down the stretch to keep defenses honest. The x-factor in this game will be tight end Antonio Gates as he provides a huge mismatch for anyone on the Jets defense. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson is almost guaranteed to be shut down by Revis, making Gates the most important aspect of this teams offense.

It takes a lot of pride swallowing to roll with Norv Turner, but the Chargers are too hot to ignore. Even though I don’t think the Jets are getting enough credit, once again its difficult investing a lot of faith in a rookie quarterback. Although, I think Sanchez will play relatively well and this will be a close game…I think the Chargers will have just enough to move on.

Chargers 28-24