Full of talent, Dallas proves to be colossal failure yet again
Tom E. Curran, NBCSports.com
NFC: (5) Atlanta at (4) Arizona
Time: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL ...
Get ready for Michael Turner right, Michael Turner left and Michael Turner up the middle. Playing on the road against a defense that allowed 1,764 yards on the ground this year in an inept division, the Falcons will try to gash the Cardinals' front seven with Turner, who ran for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns this year. Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan should also be comfortable against a Cardinals secondary that has played progressively worse as the season has worn on. Arizona allowed 37, 48, 10, 35, 47 and 21 in its final six games. Arizona cannot let the Falcons control the ball and keep their offense on the sidelines or their postseason will be short.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL ...
As much as the Falcons figure to lean on their ground game, look for the Cardinals to go to the air. With a seasoned and playoff-tested quarterback like Kurt Warner running things and two of the game's best wideouts - Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin - at his disposal, the Cardinals are going to try and dance with the one that brung ‘em and that's Warner's arm. Atlanta's dealt with explosive passing attacks in the NFC South this season and they've only allowed two quarterbacks to throw for more than 300 yards against them this year.
The Falcons are 7-2 in their final nine games and have shown an ability to play well on the road this season with wins in Minnesota, San Diego, Oakland and Green Bay. Not exactly the iron of the league, but it's a sign that the playoffs won't be too big for the Falcons and their young team to deal with. Arizona, meanwhile, has been headed in the wrong direction down the stretch. They've gone 2-4 since Thanksgiving and - without even a token running game to keep Atlanta's defense from keying on slowing down Warner - they'll be in trouble if they allow Atlanta to win the time of possession battle by failing to convert on third downs.
AFC: (5) Indianapolis at (4) San Diego
Time: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL ...
Well, at least there will be no secrets. It will be Peyton Manning's game to win or lose against a very familiar opponent. The teams met Nov. 23 in San Diego and Indy won 23-20 as Manning drove Indy 37 yards to set up a game-ending 51-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. Indy took to the air in the first meeting (44 pass attempts, 23 rushes) and - considering how well Manning's playing - they probably will again. The Chargers haven't been the same defense all season without Shawne Merriman, but they've been resourceful and ball-hawking during their run from sad sacks to division champs. Manning's thrown for close to 1,000 yards in the past three meetings, but San Diego has seen him at his worst. They picked off Manning six times in a regular-season matchup last season.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL ...
Nobody looks any more explosive right now than the Chargers. They dropped 52 on Denver on Sunday night in a must-win game as running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles combined for 211 yards on 28 carries. Meanwhile, Philip Rivers keeps stringing together efficient but explosive performances. He finished the season with 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and topped 4,000 yards passing for the first time in his career. Beginning with the Indy game, Rivers has thrown 13 touchdowns and one interception. This Chargers team will always need LT, but the offense is running through Rivers more and more.
This is the best matchup of wild-card weekend because there's so much history between the two teams. Last season, the Chargers - with Billy Volek at the controls - knocked off Indy in the Divisional Playoffs at Indy. They also won the two meetings before that one so Indy's success against the Chargers is short-lived. Meanwhile, Manning has played in relative quiet this season compared to other years but has had one of his most impressive campaigns. Can he put the Colts on his back and carry them into the next round?
AFC: (6) Baltimore at (3) Miami
Time: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL ...
The marching orders for the Ravens offense are going to be: "Don't screw things up." With a defense that should have a significant edge over the Dolphins offense, expect the Ravens to stay conservative and stick the ball in the belly of Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee. Even though rookie quarterback Joe Flacco comes in having played one of his sharpest games in the season finale against Jacksonville (17 for 23 for 297 yards), it will be easier for him to give the ball to his backs against a Miami defense that allowed 4.2 yards per carry this year.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL ...
Nasty as the Ravens defense is, Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington is tough to rattle. But he's still going to need a lot of help from running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams and even more help from offensive coordinator Dan Henning to get through this one intact . Baltimore has as much defensive talent as any team in the league and - if they get suitable pressure on Pennington - that means opportunities are going to emerge for playmaking safety Ed Reed on the other end. Baltimore allows only 3.6 yards per carry and has allowed just 33.6 percent of third downs to be converted.
A matchup of rookie head coaches (Miami's Tony Sparano and Baltimore's John Harbaugh) who've done remarkably well in their first seasons at the top. These teams have history. Earlier this year, Miami lost to Baltimore 27-13 at home. In that game, Willis McGahee ran for 105 and Flacco had a nice day, going 17 for 23 for 232 yards with a touchdown. The game wasn't lopsided. It was 20-13 in the fourth before McGahee scored on a 5-yard run with a little more than six minutes left. And Pennington did throw well, going 24 for 35 for 295 yards with a touchdown and a pick. But even though Miami's won nine of 10 since that game, the Dolphins haven't played a single playoff-bound since facing Baltimore. And that's a red flag. Baltimore, meanwhile, has played seven games against playoff-bound teams. Their record in those games is 2-5.
NFC: (6) Philadelphia at (3) Minnesota
Time: Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET, FOX
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL ...
Going 4-1 in their final five games, the Eagles offense has been buoyed by the play of Donovan McNabb. He's thrown nine touchdowns and just one pick in the past five games and - while his yardage numbers and completion percentages have been just OK, it's his ability to be efficient that's put the Eagles into the playoffs. A big part of that has been all-purpose running back Brian Westbrook and changeup back Correll Buckhalter. The two form a terrific tandem that - against Minnesota's stout front - is going to have to be quick to the edges and in the short passing game in order to neutralize the strength of Minny's defense. The Vikings' pass rush, led by Jared Allen, is good, but the Eagles have faced plenty of nasty pass rushes this season in the NFC East. Minnesota's secondary is led by the very capable corner, Antoine Winfield.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL ...
They have to guess right often against the maniacal Eagles zone-blitz schemes hatched by defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's play has been up and down and he'll have to remain composed and decisive in the face of an Eagles scheme designed to take advantage of squirrelly types. Fortunately for the Vikings, they have the league's best runner, Adrian Peterson to hand the ball to. The Eagles have done a nice job against the run this season (3.5 yards per carry and only seven rushing touchdowns allowed) so this game may well come down to how well Jackson performs in the face of that Eagles blitz-happy scheme.
Fortunately for Minnesota, they have the Eagles at their place, where the Vikes went 6-2 this season. Both teams kind of backed into the playoffs, losing key games in Week 16 (the Eagles to Washington; Minnesota to the Falcons) before NFC rivals went belly-up in the final week to pave their respective ways to the postseason. And while the Vikings' buzzer-beating win over the Giants on the season's final Sunday was stirring, it should be noted that the Giants had nothing to play for and Minnesota was still life-and-death with them. Philadelphia has more players (and coaches) that have been in these high-stakes games before. If Minnesota plays scared and fails to protect the ball, this one could be over quickly.
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