The 2008 NFL regular season was a crazy and unpredictable one and its postseason line-up wasn’t finalized until the last hour last Sunday.
The result is a mixture of established powers and squads no one saw making a postseason run.
The first round of the playoffs [referred to as the wildcard round] is coming up this weekend and eight entertaining match-ups will take centre stage.
Saturday will see two match-ups as the upstart Atlanta Falcons battle the NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals at 4:30pm while the surging Indianapolis Colts face the equally hot San Diego Chargers at 8pm.
Almost all those squads did the impossible to make the playoffs. The Falcons found new life with a rookie quarterback and coach; the Cardinals became a powerful offense led by grizzled veteran Kurt Warner; Peyton Manning led the Colts out of mediocrity in the last 10 games and the Chargers over came a horrible 4-8 start to win their division.
In their match-ups this week expect to see the fundamental aspects that have them all step away from a deep playoff run.
For Atlanta everything starts and ends with the run game. Michael Turner is the MVP of that squad in my mind and stopping him is the only chance the Cardinals have at winning. The under-rated part of Atlanta’s make-up is their linebacker core and their overall ability to defend the deep pass well.
For Arizona a well-lubed offense that throws deep often is key. Warner has an endless supply of talented receivers that make eating up yards and scoring points a breeze. Yet the running game, led by Hightower, is crucial because the Cardinals can be shut down by over-relying on the pass.
In the end what will doom Arizona is their pillow-soft defense that doesn’t show up in games against good opponents. Atlanta has too many pieces on both sides of the ball to not be able to shut down Warner and company while torching the defense.
Look for an Atlanta win and a score line somewhere around 35-14.
With the Colts the offense has come around courtesy of better pass protection from the offensive line. Manning has more time now to find Wayne and Harrison and the early-season rust is gone as he has been in rhythm over the last 10 games.
For San Diego the offense looks markedly better with Tomlinson running like his old self. His health though will be critical. The real intriguing thing about the squad is their resurgent defense. They shut down Cutler in clinical fashion and it could repeat that feat against the Colts.
In the end the Indy-San Diego game comes down to defense. The Colts defense has looked really good lately behind Bob Saunders while Ron Rivera has the Chargers secondary reenergized. I expect a low scoring game with the Colts sneaking by 14-12.
Meanwhile on Sunday two surprise contenders in the Baltimore Ravens and the Miami Dolphins square off at 1pm while the mercurial Philadelphia Eagles take on the NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings at 4:30pm.
Baltimore has gone back to its roots and fielded a winner this year from the defense up. Lewis is as dominant as ever and Reed continues to play like a legend at safety. Meanwhile rookie Joe Flacco has shown great poise at quarterback, managing the offense well behind running tandem Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain.
For the Dolphins there’s finally a good quarterback behind the helm in Chad Pennington. His game management skills and winning attitude are big reasons the Dolphins do not hurt themselves via turnovers. A powerful defense led by sack specialist Joey Porter is another big factor for their success.
Ultimately I give the Ravens the edge here because they shut down Miami in impressive fashion back in week seven. The Dolphins looked good against the Jets but I doubt they can endure the Ravens defensive pressure.
Baltimore’s ability to keep cool facing the wildcat formation is why the Ravens will scrap out a win here 24-17.
The Eagles are a curious squad that seems to be riding an invisible rollercoaster. They have the talent on both sides of the ball, with McNabb in the pocket and Samuel in the secondary, to be a threat but they seemingly fall apart without warning.
Meanwhile the Vikings live and die in the arms of Adrian Peterson. It’s no secret he’s one of the NFL’s best rushers but ball security is a major issue with Peterson lately. Tavaris Jackson can hold his own but without good running the offense is flat and the defense gets overworked.
I have doubts about both teams but I feel Peterson will leave his mark in this game. The linebackers for the Eagles will get tired from the constant run game while Berrian and company take the Vikings to the red zone.
I see Minnesota squeaking by 20-17 and I wouldn’t be surprised if Philly forces an overtime session.
Wildcard teams have made Super Bowl runs in recent playoff history and this year could be the same. In the AFC look out for Indy and/or Baltimore while in the NFC I like Atlanta to go the distance.