NFL Playoff Preview: Wildcard Round

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: January 3, 2009

NFLPHILADELPHIA — A wide-open 2008 NFL Season will continue this weekend with start of the playoffs.

As Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said, “It’s an exciting time right now, it’s the NFL playoffs!

There are now 12 teams scratching to survive on the long road to Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa Bay, Florida.

It doesn’t matter how any of the teams got in the playoffs, all that matters is that the remaining teams are in the mix for the biggest prized in pro football.

It has been one wacky NFL season with many exciting storylines and I am sure the excitement will continue in the 2008 “Believe In Now” NFL post-season.

One of the bigger stories from this weekend’s wildcard games is that two games will feature starting rookie quarterbacks.

When Atlanta’s Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco take the field on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, it will be the first time in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) that two rookie quarterbacks have started a playoff game in the same year.

Ryan and Flacco will attempt to join former Buccaneers quarterback Shaun King (1999) and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (2004) as the only rookie quarterbacks to win a playoff game.

But Ryan and Flacco are not the only storyline worth tracking in the wildcard round.

Others storylines include:

– Three rookie head coaches (Dolphins Tony Sparano, Falcons Mike Smith, and Ravens John Harbaugh) making the postseason at the same time since 1992.

– The 11-5 Dolphins, who matched the 1999 Indianapolis Colts as the only teams in history to make 10-game improvements from one season to the next.

– The San Diego Chargers becoming the first team in NFL history to start 4-8 and make the playoffs.

– The Colts making another tough run into the playoffs after starting their season at 3-4, winning nine straight games in the process — the Colts tied the all-time mark for the most consecutive victories (9) for a Wild Card team entering the playoffs .

– The Vikings starting 1-3 and then winning five of their last six to win the NFC North.

– The Philadelphia Eagles coming back from a record of 5-5-1 in late November to win four of their last five games to claim the NFC’s final playoff berth.

But as San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said, “We’re all 0-0 now”.

Truly every team has a chance as nine of the twelve teams in the postseason have double-digit wins and for the 13th consecutive season, five or more teams qualified for the playoffs that were not in the postseason the year — 7 teams including: Arizona, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Minnesota, Miami and Carolina.

There are no dynasty type teams in this year’s postseason mix, so anything is possible and hope abounds in all twelve playoff cities.

If the 2008 NFL Regular Season has taught us anything, it showed that “On Any Given Sunday” any team can step-up their level of play to beat any other team in the parity-filled NFL (Remember the lowly Cleveland Browns knocking off the defending champion Giants way back in Week 6). Besides attaining the No. 1 seed in your conference is no guarantee of Super Bowl entry as surprisingly it has been fourteen seasons since the last time two No. 1 seeds faced each other in Super Bowl (1993 season, Buffalo vs. Dallas in Super Bowl XXVIII).

This year’s wildcard round features eight evenly matched teams, where no one really has any idea which team will advance.

Usually a good indicator of a potential winner in most playoff games is the “home” team, but for the first time that I can ever remember all four home teams in the wildcard round are considered home underdogs by Vegas.

I guess everyone still has images of the road warrior 2007 New York Giants winning Super Bowl XLII as they went 4-0 on the road including the Super Bowl on their way to an unexpected title.

My advice to everyone watching this weekend’s wildcard action is to pay very close attention to the winners as teams advancing from the Wild Card round have won the Super Bowl six times including the last three champions.

Last year, the NFC fifth-seeded New York Giants won three road games and then triumphed in Arizona over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

Two years ago, AFC third-seeded Indianapolis accomplished the feat.

And three years ago, Pittsburgh became the first sixth seed to win a Super Bowl.

I usually like to look at the hottest teams going into playoff games as favorites, but every team in the wildcard round is entering the dance on a high note – Colts (9 game winning streak), Dolphins (5), Chargers (4), Falcons (3), Ravens (2), Eagles (1), Cardinals (1), and Vikings (1).

Saturday’s Games

Falcons (11-5) at Cardinals (9-7), 4:30 p.m., NBC

Broadcasting Team: Tom Hammond, Cris Collinsworth, and Tiki Barber (Field Reporter)

Everyone will talk about the fact that the Cardinals are hosting a playoff game for the first time since 1947 when they were the Chicago Cardinals.

But the true storyline of this game are the two offenses (Cardinals scored 426 points and Falcons 325).

The question is “Which defense will come up big to stop a scoring barrage?” especially with 3 of the 4 NFC Pro Bowl receivers in the game.

You have a young team led by a rookie coach (5th seeded Falcons) against a veteran team that won a very weak division, but who have been pretty good at home with a 6-2 record (4th seeded NFC West champion Cardinals).

As everyone knows the Falcons are led by 2008 NFL Rookie of the Year quarterback Matt Ryan (265-434, 3440 yards, 16 TDs, and 11 INTs), but the young superstar has one of the leagues best ground attacks to lean on — the league’s No. 2 rushing attack (152.7 yards per game) .

The ground attack is led by running back Michael Turner , the greatest UFA acquisitions ever, who came over from the Chargers and hammered the Falcons into the playoffs with 1,699 rushing yards (2nd in the NFL) plus a club record 17 TDs (all rushing).

Turner is spelled by gamebreaker Jerious Norwood (five career touchdowns of 45 yards or more) and don’t forget about Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White, who just established a franchise record for receiving yards (88 catches for 1,382 yards and 7 TDs).

The Cardinals high-octane dome offense is led by 11-year NFL veteran quarterback Kurt Warner, who came off the bench this year to produce another magical Pro Bowl season.

With the former Super Bowl MVP at the controls, the Cardinals have the NFL’s No. 2 passing offense this year (292.1).

Warner’s favorite targets are fellow Pro Bowl selected receivers Larry Fitzgerald (1,431) and Anquan Boldin (1,038) and improving 2nd year player Steve Breaston (1,006) — only the fifth teammate receiver threesome in history with 1,000 yards apiece.

If the Cardinals are smart, they will not forget that playoff games are won with balance and will include running backs rookie Tim Hightower and veteran Edgerrin James in their game plan too.

LV’s Pick: In breaking down this game, I always like to look at who is the hotter team (Falcons are 4-1 in their last 5 games, while the Cardinals are 2-3) and who can run the ball better (Falcons).

The Cardinals have been a great story, but have too often looked bad against quality opposition – faced five playoff teams with a record of 1-4 in those games.

The Falcons have won 4 out of the last 5 times these two have met.

Look for the trend to continue as the emerging Falcons to run the ball at the Cardinals shoddy front seven on their way to a 34-27 victory.

Colts (12-4) at Chargers (8-8), 8 p.m., NBC

Broadcasting Team: John Madden, Al Michaels, and Andrea Kremer (Field Reporter)

The two hottest teams entering the NFL playoffs face off in a crucial game that could have lasting organizational affects (i.e. Chargers head coach Norv Turner’s job maybe on the line).

The Colts and Chargers in their match-up will set a record for the combined winning streak for opposing teams in the Wild Card round (Combined 13 wins with nine for the Colts and four for the Chargers). Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said of the match-up with the Colts, “It’s always a great game against these guys, and it’ll be another great game, you can’t ask for anything more in the playoffs.” The Colts are the NFL’s marquee stable team – NFL record 6th straight year with 12 wins or more – and the Chargers though downtrodden earlier in the year, they have stormed back with four straight wins.

Even though these two teams are in separate divisions, they always seem to meet in the regular season and postseason — Saturday’s game will be the fourth time in the past two seasons the teams have met (Colts have won 4 of the last 6 meetings).

No matter the outcome, you know the game will be close — the first three games between the two have been decided by a total of nine points.

The last time these two teams met on November 23rd in San Diego, Indy won 23-20 as Peyton Manning drove Indy 37 yards to set up a game-ending 51-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri.

But when these two meet you can throw history out the window (met 23 times lifetime with the Chargers holding a 14-9 edge) as they are legitimate rivals.

To me this game revolves around quarterback play as Pro Bowl players Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers square off against each other.

Manning just extended his NFL record with his ninth 4,000-yard season and Rivers is just as dangerous as he is the only quarterback this year with a 100.0 passer rating (105.5). Unfortunately last year in the 2007 playoffs we were not treated to this marquee match-up as San Diego backup Billy Volek led the Chargers to a surprising 28-24 win in Indy.

But this time I am sure the fireworks from both signal callers will be aplenty.

The key will be which team can also establish the run to go with their vaunted passing attacks.

The Colts are ranked 31st in rushing in the NFL, but you know Super Bowl veteran backs Joseph Addai and Dommenick Rhodes will be ready for action.

Conversely the Chargers will be led by marquee running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who has had a sub par season, but last week looked like his old self rushing for 96 yards and a season-high three touchdowns in less than three quarters (left with a groin injury).

LV’s Pick: This is a tough game to pick, because the Colts and Manning are so workman like in the playoffs, but the Chargers know how to beat the vaunted Colts.

To me the game will come down to leadership on the field and on the sidelines.

The Colts have former Super Bowl champions Manning and Tony Dungy, while conversely the Chargers have the beleaguered Norv Turner and volatile Philip Rivers.

With the cool and calm Manning at the controls expect the Colts to comeback for a 34-31 victory with an Adam Vinatieri field goal being the difference.

Sunday’s Games

Ravens (11-5) at Dolphins (11-5), 1 p.m., CBS

Broadcasting Team: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms

Two of the NFL’s biggest surprise teams will be looking for “Respect” as they square off in a very interesting AFC wildcard match-up.

When the season started if you had told me the Dolphins (1-15 in 2007) and Ravens (3-13 in 2007) both with rookie coaches would be playing each other in the playoffs, I would have told you that you were crazy.

But reality has set in and yes these two upstarts will be meeting on Sunday.

It will be a match-up of Miami’s efficient offense against Baltimore’s ball-hawking defense.

The Dolphins tied with the New York Giants for the league lead this season in fewest giveaways, turning the ball over an NFL record-low 13 times (7 interceptions, 6 fumbles lost), while the Ravens forced 34 turnovers (26 interceptions, 8 fumbles recovered) – the most in the league in 2008.

Expect a lot of running the football on offense for both teams and attacking defenses looking for turnovers on the other side.

The last time these two met on October 19th in the same spot – Dolphin Stadium, the surprising result was an easy 27-13 Ravens win.

The Ravens were (2-3) at the time and it took a solid effort from running back Willis McGahee (105 yards) and linebacker Terrell Suggs (44-yard interception touchdown return) to propel them passed the Dolphins.

In the October game, the Ravens attacking defense negated Miami’s “Wildcat” offense — produced only four yards in five plays – but you can expect the Dolphins to try and bring the single-wing attack back for the playoffs.

The Dolphins behind rookie Tony Sparano and a front office led by Bill Parcels have built a team that truly believes in themselves as shown by their 24-17 dismantling of the Jets in Week 17, which gave them the AFC East title.

The Dolphins have won 9 of their last 11 games since the loss and they will be looking to fuel their home crowd with a playoff victory.

The Dolphins will look to 2008 NFL Comeback Player of the Year quarterback Chad Pennington (321-476, 3653 yards, 19 TDs, and 7 INTs) and Wildcat QB/Running back Ronnie Brown (916 yards rushing and 10 TDs) to stymie the Ravens ferocious defense led by Pro Bowl Safety/Probable NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ed Reed (NFL Leader with 9 INTs).

Miami finished the season with the second fewest interceptions in the league (7 to Washington’s 6) and Baltimore had the most pickoffs with 26.

We all know about the Dolphins “Wildcat” offense against Ravens’ defense led by future hall of famer Ray Lewis, but to me the key to this game is the play of Ravens’ rookie quarterback Joe Flacco (257-428, 2971 yards, 14 TDs, and 12 INTs). Though the former D1AA passer has looked efficient all season including in late season wins over the Cowboys and Jaguars, he will be facing a defense that leads the NFL in turnover ratio (+17).

The Dolphins are high on the turnover margin, because their offense protects the ball and on defense, linebacker Joey Porter (17.5 sacks for first in AFC) leads a unit that is underrated but is almost as fierce as the Ravens. Flacco will need to avoid pressure while distributing the ball to TE Todd Heap and receivers Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason.

LV’s Pick: Though the Ravens have won 2 of the last 3 meetings between these two teams, I have a feeling the pressure of a big spot may get to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco — Ravens only 2-5 versus playoff teams in 2008.

The Dolphins are at home and Pennington looks like he has turned back the clock to his New York Jet glory days.

The Dolphins hold a 5-2 edge lifetime in this series, so I expect the Dolphins to buck the trend of the road teams winning by squeaking out a 16-13 victory in a black-and-blue defensive game.

Eagles (9-6-1) at Vikings (10-6), 4:30 p.m., FOX

Broadcasting Team: Troy Aikman, Joe Buck, and Pam Oliver (Field Reporter)

Two teams that many left for dead around the 11-game mark of 2008 NFL season (Eagles were 5-5-1 and Vikings 6-5 at the time) will meet in a crucial wildcard match-up. The fifth seeded NFC North champion Vikings got here after a 1-3 start by winning five of their last six.

The sixth seeded Philadelphia Eagles also surprisingly made it to the big dance after winning four of their last five games and a myriad of games fell their way in Week 17, so that they could claim the NFC’s final playoff berth.

These two teams may have had help in gaining the postseason, but fueled by close-knit lockerrooms, they are here and ready to do battle against each other.

As Eagles Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins recently said, “Everybody turned their backs on us, but we believed in one another.”

This game will feature two coaching staffs and teams that know each other well — played in 2007 (Eagles 23-16 win in Minnesota) and Vikings head coach Brad Childress and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier spent significant time on Andy Reid’s staff — so few surprises should come in game planning.

When Eagles have the ball on offense, they will look to get quarterback Donovan McNabb (345-571, 3916 yards, 23 TDs, and 11 INTs) going with play-action passes to rookie receiver DeSean Jackson (62 reception for 912 yards, 14.7 ypr, and 2 TDs) driven by hand-offs and screens to all-purpose running back Brian Westbrook (233 rushes for 936 yards, 4.0 ypc, and 9 TDs) and capable backup Correll Buckhalter (In Week 17 had 63 rushing yards and 3 receptions for 59 yds with 1 TD). McNabb has looked very efficient during the Eagles crucial 5-game playoff push — has thrown nine touchdowns and just one pick in the past five games — and I won’t even mention his 2nd half benching in Baltimore in Week 12.

The key word for the Eagles offense will be “balance” as they cannot forget to run the football as well as pass it.

This fact was never more evident than in Week 16, when the Birds differentiated from their previous success — ran the ball efficiently in wins over the Cardinals, Giants, and Browns including a franchise high under Reid of 41 rushes in their Week 14 win against the Giants — to the throw the ball 46 times while only running it 16 times in a crucial 10-3 road loss to the Redskins.

Somehow the Eagles luckily stepped around the Week 16 Redskins’ loss like a pile of “poo” to still make the playoffs.

But this time against the Vikings in the one-and-done playoffs, non-balance offensively will most likely lead to defeat.

The Vikings’ pass rush, led by Jared Allen, is above average and their secondary led by hard-hitting Antoine Winfield and Michael Griffin is also a strong unit, but balance on offense will be the Eagles’ best friend.

I know Andy Reid can be stubborn at times, but the Birds must commit to running effectively on offense even if both members of the Williams Defensive Tackle Tag Team play (Pat has injured shoulder) and/or the Birds fall behind.

When Vikings have the ball offensively everyone from South Philly to Minneapolis knows that NFL leading rusher Adrian Peterson (363 rushes for 1,760 yards, 4.8 ypc, and 10 TDs ) is going to be the Vikings first and second options.

However the Eagles have done been very stout against the run this season (3.5 yards per carry and only seven rushing touchdowns allowed).

So expect the Eagles to force the Vikings to pass meaning their young offensive unit, in particularly inexperienced Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, better be ready for the maniacal zone-blitzes and schemes that Eagles veteran defensive coordinator Jim Johnson hatches up.

Jackson has played extremely well since coming in for an injured Gus Frerotte in a Week 14 win over the Lions — record of 3-1 with a respectable 8 touchdowns and only 1 interception thrown.

But the 3rd year passer from Alabama State has no idea what Johnson has in store for him.

If Jackson is feeling brave, then the young passer should or should not depending on how strong is stomach is, take a look at how Johnson’s NFC leading defense led by rejuvenated Pro Bowl veteran safety Brian Dawkins bruised and battered the Cowboys offense in Week 17 producing 5 turnovers, 4 sacks, and 2 defensive touchdowns.

LV’s Pick: Even though the Vikings were 6-2 at home this season, you know there will be a lot of Green in the Homer Dome – over 8,000 tickets were still available as of Friday.

I see this game being close early, but in the end the Eagles playoff experience will take hold.

Remember Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb have never lost to the Vikings with a mark of 4-0 against the men in purple. Plus Reid has never lost in his first playoff game (6-0) in the seasons he had made the postseason.

With all of these factors working in their favor look for the Eagles to continue their winning ways up North 31-21.