This year’s NFL Playoffs may symbolize a changing of the quarterback guard league-wide. Gone are familiar names like Brady, Manning and Brees, while quarterbacks like Rodgers, Cutler and Sanchez are coming into their own. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger holds the ultimate experience advantage over the remaining playoff quarterbacks, having already won two Super Bowl rings. Can the 28-year old Roethlisberger get the job done for the ‘old men’ this Sunday? Regular season rematches are on schedule for this weekend’s NFL Conference Championships.
New York Jets vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
When the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the New York Jets in Week 15 of the NFL season, we all felt that the game served as a possible AFC Championship preview. Now, we can only hope their actual championship collision is as good as the first game. A Jason Taylor sack for a safety proved to be the difference in the in the initial meeting, which was won by the Jets 22-17. After huge wins in Indianapolis and Foxborough, the Jets are riding high and have no fear marching into Pittsburgh with a trip to Super Bowl XLV on the line.
We’ve often questioned Mark Sanchez’s credentials as a Super Bowl caliber quarterback, but after besting Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back games in their stadiums, there’s no reason to think he can’t top Ben Roethlisberger for the second time this season. Sanchez hasn’t been off-the-charts statistically, but he’s limiting his mistakes and playing with a lot of poise when the game is on the line. He was asked to make big plays late in the games against the Colts and Patriots and found a way to deliver.
One of the most talked about items in the first meeting between the Jets and Steelers was the absence of safety Troy Polamalu, who missed the game with a sore Achilles tendon. While no excuses are to be made, Polamalu is one of the biggest game-changers in the entire NFL. Troy’s intangibles change the entire dynamic of an already good Steelers defense. While Sanchez played extremely well in Week 15, Pittsburgh will have the benefit of throwing out some looks he hasn’t seen.
Another thing to take into account about the first game was the fact the Steelers offense arguably outplayed the Jets offense, but was burned by special teams letdowns. Particularly on the game’s opening kickoff when Brad Smith returned a Shaun Suisham kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. After missing last week’s game with an injury, Smith is confirmed to be back on kickoff return duty for the AFC Championship. You have to believe Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin will have something to say about that.
The AFC Championship will be decided this Sunday at 6:30 p.m. EST
Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears
In a twist of irony, it was the Packers’ Week 17 victory over the Chicago Bears that clinched a playoff berth for the team. Fast-forward three weeks later and the two teams will meet again for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. This game features two young up-and-coming quarterbacks arguably playing the best football of their respective careers and two aggressive defenses that are surging at the right time.
Containing Aaron Rodgers is no easy task, but the Bears’ defense has had plenty of preparation. Not only did they hold Rodgers to 1 touchdown pass in a must-win situation back in Week 17, but they found a way to put the pressure on Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and sack him 4 times in their Week 12 game. Rodgers is probably the most dangerous quarterback on the run behind Vick, and if Green Bay’s run attack continues to be questionable, keeping Rodgers in the pocket could severely limit the Packers’ offense.
Saying that, stopping Rodgers is a lot easier said than done. After not having previously won a playoff game in his professional career, Rodgers has led the Packers into hostile environments in Philadelphia and Atlanta and posted 3-touchdown performances in both outings. Though the Chicago defense has played well, their pass coverage has been fairly average all year, and Rodgers could exploit those openings if he has time to do so.
Taking snaps on the other side is Jay Cutler, who came up big in his first playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. After being on the receiving end of harsh criticism for much of his young career, Cutler has played extremely well since the second half of the season and was virtually mistake free in his playoff debut. He’ll need some help from running back Matt Forte to spread the Green Bay defense. After a year full of ups and downs, the Packers have done an outstanding job limiting the run in the playoffs against two pretty good teams.
The Packers take on the Chicago Bears this Sunday at 3:00 p.m. EST
The Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs provided many thrills, with three of the four games on schedule being decided in the final ticks. While Baltimore easily took care of business against the young Kansas City Chiefs, the other three match-ups featured upsets. Most notably, the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks eliminated Drew Brees and the defending champion New Orleans Saints. MVP candidate Michael Vick was contained by the defense of the Green Bay Packers, who used an unexpected lift from rookie running back James Starks to advance with a 21-16 victory. The Jets were lifted over the Indianapolis Colts by a stifling defensive performance and a productive day from LaDainian Tomlison on the ground.
Check out our preview for this week’s Divisional NFL Playoffs below.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Arguably the most heated and well-played rivalry in the NFL today. When the Ravens and Steelers lock up, you know you’re going to see a lot of hard-hitting action and a game that will go down to the wire. In fact, 7 of the l=the last 8 Baltimore/Pittsburgh games have been decided by 6 points or less. The last time the two teams played back in December, a 4th quarter Troy Polamalu sack and strip of quarterback Joe Flacco led to a game-winning Ben Roethlisberger drive.
Baltimore heads into this game coming off a highly impressive victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend. Their vaunted defense was able to force a relatively inexperienced Chiefs team to turn the ball over frequently en route to a 30-7 victory. Experience is an attribute certainly not lacked by Pittsburgh, and they’ll suit up Sunday having had an extra week of rest. Will that week off prove to be a factor?
On average, neither one of these teams give up a lot of points. Throughout the regular season, Baltimore’s opponents only racked up 17 points a game, while Pittsburgh only surrendered 15. A lot of that has to do with how well both teams neutralize the run. While the Ravens are only giving up an impressive 94 rushing yards a game, the Steelers led the league by a wide margin in that category, giving up a ridiculous 63 yards per outing. Seeing how both teams defend the run, this game should (and probably will) come down to what team does a better job of putting pressure on the opposing quarterback.
New York Jets vs. New England Patriots
What’s left to say about this match-up that hasn’t already been said by Rex Ryan and his team? Once again, the outspoken coach of the New York Jets has employed the “talk them out of their game” strategy against a New England Patriots team that isn’t exactly the type of group to let a war of words get in the way of the bigger picture. The Patriots have won 13 of their last 17 meetings with the Jets, including a good ol’ fashioned 45-3 whoopin’ in their Week 13 game.
Tom Brady is without a doubt the league’s Most Valuable Player this season. Arguably playing the best football of his career, Brady finished the season with 36 touchdown passes and just 4 interceptions. What put this Patriots team over the top though is the ascension of their defense. In 4 of New England’s last 5 games, opponents have been held to 7 points or less, including the previously mentioned 3 pointed surrendered to the Jets. If New England’s defense continues to make plays with Brady playing the way he is, they’ll be next to impossible to beat.
New York didn’t have the best outing last Saturday, but they found a way to pull off a win against a veteran Colts team that was poised to ride another Peyton Manning comeback to victory. The Jets were able to contain Manning, which may have helped them prepare for the looming task of defending Brady. For the Jets to win this game, quarterback Mark Sanchez needs to play well from the jump, because New England will make him pay for the type of mistakes he made against Indianapolis. Expect the Foxborough environment to play a big factor in this game as well.
Green Bay Packers vs. Atlanta Falcons
We saw a preview of this match-up back in Week 12, when the Falcons used a final-minute Matt Bryant field goal to edge the Packers 20-17. Like that game, this one will take place at the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons have played near-perfect football throughout the season. On the flip side, Green Bay has played below average football on the road, going 3-5 during the regular season before marching into Philadelphia last week to upset the Eagles.
The Packers have struggled to find a run game to complement Aaron Rodgers’ arm all season, but were able to get an unexpected 123 yards out of rookie James Starks against the Eagles. If Starks can duplicate some of than running in Saturday’s game, it’ll make Green Bay’s offense a lot less predictable and open the field for one of the best quarterbacks in the game. The Packers defense, which held Michael Vick and the Philly offense in check last week, will look to have a repeat performance against a team with just as many offensive weapons.
Green Bay fields a well-balanced defense that does a solid job of containing both the run and pass. Atlanta’s offensive line will play a critical role in this game, making sure Matt Ryan has the proper time to locate Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez without getting hit hard and often like Vick did last week. To keep the Packers’ defense true, expect a healthy dose of Michael Turner and Jason Snelling hitting the holes. Ryan is undefeated against Rodgers, but up until last week, Rodgers had never won a playoff game. Will Rodgers continue to reverse trends?
Seattle Seahawks vs Chicago Bears
The Seattle Seahawks have shown us why you can never count out a team in a ‘one-and-done’ playoff format. After landing an unlikely playoff spot with just a 7-9 regular season record, the ‘Hawks eliminated the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints last weekend after Marshawn Lynch went into “Beast Mode.” This time, there will be no “12th Man” advantage, as Seattle travels to Soldier Field to take on the Chicago Bears.
The advantage Seattle lacks on the road is somewhat made up by the fact that they’ve already won at Chicago this season. In Week 6, the Seahawks sacked Jay Cutler 6 times in their 23-20 victory over the Bears. The well-balanced effort was led by Matt Hasselbeck and receiver Mike Williams, who hooked up 10 times for 123 yards.
However, the Bears are playing much better football at this stage in the season. A large part of the reason is the elevated play of their defense, which is starting to look a little more like that “Monsters of the Midway” crew that we’ve come to expect. They’ve particularly done a great job stuffing the run, only giving up 90 yards a game. Combining the home field advantage with a defense that gives up about 8 points less each time out, the Bears should be able to make a Conference Championship Game reappearance. Seattle looks pretty good in the underdog role, though.
It’s ‘put up or shut up’ time in the NFL this weekend. After months of preparation, it all comes down to this. Eight teams will take the field this weekend for an opportunity to continue their quest to Super Bowl XLV. Match-ups include an AFC Championship Game redux, a re-match of a Week 1 game, an inaugural playoff meeting between two teams and an unlikely showdown between the defending champs and a team with a losing record. Here is our look at to Wildcard Weekend of the 2010 Playoffs.
New York Jets vs. Indianapolis Colts
We get a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game in the opening round of this year’s playoffs. After the Colts staged a 17-0 shutout in the second half of last season’s title game, the two teams are locked in a game that Jets Coach Rex Ryan deems “personal.” Not hard to understand Ryan’s feelings, considering how much he’s struggled to figure out Manning throughout his career. Tracing back to his days as a defensive coordinator for the Ravens, Ryan’s teams are just 1-5 against the Colts, a trend he’d like to see end Saturday.
Let’s be completely honest though; these aren’t the same dominant Colts from the last decade. Manning has had what is perceived to be his worst season in years, while injuries have depleted the Colts on both sides of the ball. If there’s a chance to knock Manning off his block, this is the year. For New York, the injury report has to be a bit encouraging. After suffering with a sore shoulder toward the end of the season, quarterback Mark Sanchez says he is close to 100% heading into this game.
Though generally known as a defensive team, the Jets should be looking to attack a Colts defense that is giving up 5 more points per game than they did a year ago. Particularly on the ground, where New York is averaging close to 150 yards a contest. Of course, anytime a team has Peyton Manning, they’re probably going to have an advantage through the air. However, New York fields some of the best DBs in the NFL and Manning looked sketchy throwing against good defenses toward the end of the season. Look for the Indianapolis run defense and New York pass defense to have a significant impact on the outcome of this game.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Kansas City Chiefs
These two teams will meet for the very first time in the playoffs on Sunday. While the Ravens were expected to be in this position heading into the season, Kansas City completed one of the biggest turnarounds in the league. Their postseason inexperience will prove to be a factor against a Ravens team loaded with veteran players, including a few who have a Super Bowl ring to their credit.
On paper, the Chiefs stack up against the Ravens pretty well. Matt Cassel has played every bit as well as Joe Flacco; Jamaal Charles was the league’s second ranked rusher; and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe led the league in touchdown receptions. The Chiefs also field one of the league’s better pass rushes, recording 38 sacks to Baltimore’s 27. The Ravens have also had some trouble protecting the quarterback this season, even allowing the Bengals to take Flacco down four times last weekend. Not that the Chiefs have looked any better in that department lately. Last week against the Raiders, Kansas City surrendered seven quarterback sacks. A duplicate performance like that against the vaunted Ravens defense can result in trouble for Cassel.
Baltimore has received some good news about a few key players that are dealing with injuries. Safety Ed Reed, who is recovering from a rib injury, is expected to play Sunday. Also cleared to play are tackle Michael Oher, wide receiver Derrick Mason and kick returner David Reed. Considering the similar offensive production and defensive mindset of both teams, field position and special teams looks to be a key factor in determining who advances.
Green Bay Packers vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Back in Week 1 of the NFL season, the Green Bay Packers made the same trip to Philadelphia to take on Kevin Kolb and the Philadelphia Eagles. After Kolb was knocked out of the game at halftime with a concussion, Michael Vick was given the opportunity to save the day. Though his efforts fell short, Vick turned a few heads by looking a little like his former self. Since then, Vick has taken a permanent grasp on the starting gig in Philly, making himself a legit MVP candidate in the process. So, in a twist of irony, Green Bay has themselves to thank for needing a game plan to stop Vick this weekend.
As dangerous as Vick is, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is just as hard to contain. In addition to his cannon of an arm, Rodgers is actually a pretty good scrambler in his own right, racking up 5.6 yards a carry. Due to Green Bay’s lack of an effective run game, Rodgers’ ability to move and spread defenses will prove to be pivotal in the game.
When Vick and his weapons click, they’re incredibly difficult to stop. DeSean Jackson is probably the biggest ‘big play’ threat in the NFL, but LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin help put the Eagles’ offense over the top. However, Green Bay has some of the league’s best defensive playmakers and has the opportunity to contain Vick with the proper schemes. Linebacker Clay Matthews, who was responsible for the Kolb concussion, had three sacks in the first meeting between these two teams. Cornerback Charles Woodson is a dual-defensive threat, with the ability to make big plays in coverage and put a little pressure on Vick with the blitz. Like Week 1, whether or not these two defensive studs can come up with stops and turnovers may determine the outcome of the game.
New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks became the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a sub .500 record. Not only did they clinch a playoff berth, but they’ll be hosting Saturday’s game against the New Orleans Saints. On paper this game should be a cakewalk for New Orleans, but when you take factors like the raucous Seattle crowd and injuries into consideration, the match-up becomes a little more interesting.
Veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has been named the started for Saturday’s game. His play will prove to be pivotal, because the Seahawks have virtually no run game to speak for. If he is to find a connection with top target Mike Williams, he’ll have to do so against the Saints’ top 5 ranked pass defense.
Taking snaps on the other side of the field will be Drew Brees, who racked up 4,600 passing yards this season. With Pierre Thomas and leading rusher Chris Ivory placed on the Injured Reserve list, running duties belong to Reggie Bush and a committee of backup running backs that includes Julius Jones. The injury to Ivory, who averaged 5.2 yards a carry, will make the Saints a little more one-dimensional unless Bush is able to recapture the form of his playoff run from a year ago. However, with Seattle’s pass defense ranked near the bottom of the league, is forcing Drew Brees to throw to one of his many weapons any kind of advantage?
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