For many, this weekend of NFL football is the best football of the season. Saturday and Sunday feature doubleheaders, with the winners of the Wildcard round and the top two teams in each conference (The Titans and Steelers in the AFC and the Giants and Panthers in the NFC, respectively) facing off. A win puts each team one game away from a Super Bowl birth, and all the glory and hype and hyperbole that comes with being a modern day gladiator playing on the biggest stage in the western world.
So if you haven't been following this season, a) what in the name of Dancing with the Stars have you been doing with yourself? And b) don't worry, just check out some detailed (if not hair-brained) analysis below.
Ravens at Titans
Cliched sportscasters have already referred to this as a "heavyweight fight," and even though the language may be stale, it's absolutely apt, even it's more like SNK's arcade classic King of the Monsters than Ali/Frazier. The Ravens swagger into LP field with their chests puffed out, and with good reason. Their vulgar defense completely dominated the Miami Dolphins last week on the road, and Bawlmore appears to be every inch as good as they were in 2001, the year they beat up the Giants in the Super Bowl. The Giants quarterback for that game, Kerry Collins, will start for the Titans on Saturday.
His counter-part, rookie Joe Flacco, will try and become the only rookie QB in NFL history to win two or more playoff games. To do so, he'll have to figure out the Titans defense, which will get back DT Albert Haynesworth and DE Kyle Van Den Bosch in time for the game. Tennessee is as hard-hitting as the Ravens, and they'll look to their tag-team rushing attack, led by RB Chris Johnson and RB Lendale White, to try and move the sticks.
LB Ray Lewis will whip the Ravens up into a frenzy before the game, like he always does, and they'll just bring a different animal to the field. Watch for DT Haloti Ngata, a 300-lb DT who will roam off the line off scrimmage and hit the gaps on pass rushes. It's freaky to watch such a big guy move so gracefully. It's sort of like watching a rhino slam into the side of a trailer. He's a great athlete, but then again the Ravens are loaded with those: LB Terrell Suggs, LB Bart Scott, and S Ed Reed (who is uncanny in his ability to score points off turnovers). In the end, Collins will have to overcome some demons to beat Baltimore. He was able to engineer a late-game drive earlier this year to win a squeaker, but I don't see him doing it again.
PREDICTION: Ravens 20, Tennessee 13
Cardinals at Panthers
One has to be concerned if they're a Cardinals fan this week. Their toughest player, WR Anquan Boldin, looks like he'll be a game time decision after tweaking his hamstring last week against the Falcons, and that greatly reduces options for the Cards air attack. They simply can't run the ball, RB Edgerrin James aberration of a game last week not withstanding. They were last in the league in the NFL in rushing this season, and even though James showed some life in the wildcard round, I can't see him doing any damage against the Panthers defense.
DE Julius Peppers has had a great rebound year, and he'll lead the charge at Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, who's not mobile and has taken to wearing a gloves on the field to prevent him from fumbling. The Panthers will be able to get pressure on Warner, and if they can be physical with him, they passing game won't be as effective. Keep an eye out for Panthers LB Jon Beason. He's going to his first Pro Bowl this year, and he's going to wreak havoc. As good as Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald has been, no one wide receiver has ever won a playoff game for a team (unless you count Plaxico Burress in last year's NFC Championship game, but please, let's not).
The game will come down to Carolina being able to run the ball more effectively than Arizona can throw, not because Carolina will cover that well, but because Warner won't have any time to make decisions, and the run will be nonexistent. Oh, and Carolina is at home, the game's at night, and there's something to be said for that. The Cards are only 3-5 on the road this season.
Prediction: Panthers 31, Cardinals 14
Eagles at Giants
As much as I'd like to give an honest, objective opinion about this game, there's no way that's possible. I'm a die-hard Giants fan, and there's no need to pretend like I'm not rooting for them in this game. If you've read any of my blogs throughout the season, you'd be aware of that.
The Eagles are the hottest team in football, fresh off their win last week in Minnesota. After stinking up the joint against Washington in Week 16, it took a miracle for Philly to even make the playoffs. The Bears had to lose on the road in Houston, and inexplicably, Oakland traveled cross country and beat the Bucs to knock them out of the running. So by the team the Eagles/Cowboys game started in week 17, it had become and "win and you're in" game. Pumped up and emotional (when Philly teams seem to play their best) the Birds destroyed Dallas 44-6, the kind of score that makes you check the ticker twice.
But then there's the Giants. The #1 team in the NFC with the league's #1 rated rushing attack, the team will rely even more on power football if it hopes to knock off their division rival and advance to their second-straight NFC title game. RB Brandon Jacobs, all 6'4", 265 lbs of him, will be back for the Giants, and he'll rotate with RB Derrick Ward who rushed for 1,000 yards during the regular season. The Eagles defense, led by their timeless coordinator, Jim Johnson, will bring pressure, like they always do. The Giants will do the same, as their D-coordinator, Steve Spagnoulo, is a disciple of Johnson's.
The Giants will have to figure out how to stretch the field without WR Plaxico Burress. I wrote in an earlier entry that they wouldn't miss Burress, but they do. He commanded double teams, and now defenses are playing the Giants differently, stacking the run and making wideouts like Domenik Hixon beat them deep. If he doesn't drop another sure thing TD-pass, the Eagles D will stretch out, and their RB's will gash the 'Birds. Then there's the matter of the defending Super Bowl
Nows the time for Giants LB Antonio Pierce to redeem himself from his awful December play and stick to the Eagles biggest threat, RB Brian Westbrook. He's a killer, and if he gets loose on screens, it's going to be a long Sunday afternoon in Jersey.
Prediction: Giants 24, Eagles 20
Chargers at Steelers
In a rematch of the only 11-10 game in NFL history, the Chargers will try and upset the Steelers in Pittsburgh. The Bolts are 12-1 the last two Decembers and Januarys under Norv Turner, their only loss coming in the AFC title game last year, so there's that, but this is the Steelers at home in the playoffs. The league's best defense, boasted by the league's best defensive player, will be a menace. LB's James Harrison and LeMarr Woodley are the best in football at getting pressure on the outside, and S Troy Polamalu is as much of a ball-hawk as Ed Reed is for the Ravens.
The Chargers seem to have finally decide that LT is just not the same as he used to be. Between injuries and wear and tear, he seems to have lost a step. This could just be bad luck that he hasn't been 100% for two straight playoffs, or it could be a sign that he's on the wrong side of 30. Either way, it's QB Philip Rivers' team now, and he'll be looking for his newest weapon, 5'6" Darren Sproles. Despite Sproles talent (he rushed for something like 5,000 yards at Kansas State), and his explosion last week in the Chargers upset of the Colts, Pittsburgh will lock them up. Vincent Jackson just got busted for a DUI, Antonio Gates has been hobbled, and, like I said, the game is in Pittsburgh.
Prediction: Steelers 34, Chargers 13