Jets @ Colts
These teams meet in the playoffs for the second straight season, but with a totally different dynamic. The perception of these two teams has really changed since last season. The Colts aren’t a Super Bowl favourite anymore and really struggled with injuries this season, losing Bob Sanders, Dallas Clark and Austin Collie. Injury problems are nothing new in Indianapolis, but a struggling Peyton Manning is not something Colts fans are used to. The Colts picked up their game late-on to hold on to their division crown, but this is still the most vulnerable Colts team we’ve seen in a while. The Jets are almost a perfect polar opposite of the Colts, but come into the playoffs with a similar feel. Last season the Jets were the supreme underdogs, backing into the playoffs thanks to the Colts quest for imperfection. This year could not have been more different. Big offseason acquisitions Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes and LaDanian Tomlinson had the New York hype machine operating at full capacity. Things haven’t really gone as planned for the Jets. Their defence is nowhere near as good as it was and Mark Sanchez has struggled to produce consistently at quarterback. Like the Colts, the Jets aren’t where they thought they’d be as a team this season. These teams are like a couple of old Alfa Romeos, they could perform beautifully and look fantastic…or they could burst into flames. I think this one comes down to has it going on the day, because neither team is a great matchup for the other. The Colts have shown recently that they can stop the run, but they have to really sell out to do it. On his day, Mark Sanchez can take advantage of that, but his days have been few and far between this season. On defence, the Jets look like they have the personnel to counter the Colts receivers, but they’ve struggled to get to the quarterback this season and their linebackers could struggle to contain the Colts running backs catching out of the backfield. This is really hard to call, but I think the Jets just edge this and take revenge for last year. They have more balance on both sides of the ball, but it’ll be up to Mark Sanchez to keep them on schedule and Peyton Manning off the field.
Ravens @ Chiefs
This one is really interesting and this is the only game where there is a possibility of a bit of an upset. There aren’t a lot of people giving the Chiefs much credit coming into the playoffs, while the Ravens have been a popular Super Bowl pick for much of the season. I don’t see that at all. The Ravens are not in the same class as the Patriots and even the Steelers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost this. The Chiefs are an excellent home team, going 7-1 at Arrowhead this year. Their one loss came in Week 17 against the Raiders. The Chiefs were disappointing in that one, getting blown out by a Raiders team that will miss the playoffs with playoff seeding on the line. I’m not overly concerned with that loss though. Yes, the Chiefs had seeding on the line, but I think, psychologically, the Raiders had more motivation to win that game. The Chiefs were already in the playoffs and when you’ve never been there before, as is the case with most of the team, I’m not sure you’re overly concerned with seeding, you’re just happy to be in. Conversely, the Raiders needed the win to get to .500 and were playing a division rival. Week 17 will have felt way more important to the team that won’t be playing again this season. Taking a look at how these teams matchup, a lot of football analysts have talked about how, to play defence against the Chiefs, you need a shutdown corner to take away Dwayne Bowe so you can concentrate on stopping a great running game. I’m not sure the Ravens have that shutdown guy and, in general, that Ravens defence is not what it once was. In my opinion, the Ravens are one of the most overrated teams in the NFL and it starts with the perception of their defence. The Ravens D is loaded with superstar names, how many superstar players it has is a different matter. It’s still a very good unit, but are they great? I haven’t seen it. On offence, the Ravens have a lot of talent but they aren’t very explosive, which plays right into the Chiefs hands. The Chiefs want to control the clock and pace of the game. If you can put points up you can disrupt their rhythm and they aren’t the same team. I’m not sure the Ravens can do that unless Ray Rice makes some big plays. I think the Ravens are the better team overall, but Chiefs have a great chance to make some noise at home and I’m picking them to upset the Ravens in a nail biter.
Packers @ Eagles
This is probably the most mouth-watering prospect on Wildcard weekend. The Packers beat the Eagles in the season opener, but so much has changed for both teams since then. The Packer have lost all kinds of key players to injury, but seem to be peaking at just the right time, coming into the playoffs on the back of two big wins in must win games against dangerous teams in the Giants and Bears. Their defence has played really well this year and I think that match-up, the Packers D vs. Michael Vick and the Eagles, is the one that will decide this game. Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the league right now, perhaps behind only Brady and Manning and arguably only Brady. He will make plays against anyone, running game or no running game. Last season he made all the plays, but the Packers D couldn’t do anything to stop Kurt Warner and the Cardinals and the Packers ended up losing that year in overtime. Rodgers fumbled that ball, but it was the defence that lost the game, how they perform against the explosive Eagles defence will be the key to how this game turns out. They certainly have the personnel to have success against Vick. They have excellent pass rushers at every level of their defence, highlighted by Clay Matthews, and we’ve seen that the way to contain Vick is to put him under pressure. The Packers also have a lot of high-motor guys, which will help them keep Vick contained. The Eagles probably aren’t thrilled with the shape they are in coming into the playoffs. Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson have both been banged up recently, but they did have a week of rest with and they will need to be at their best to beat a Packers team that has all the momentum. The Eagles rely on big plays and I think the conditions will be a big factor in this one. Wind, rain or snow could really slow this team down, and they’re all about speed. We saw in the game against Chicago what happens when the Eagles offence gets slowed down. All of a sudden Vick can become a liability with turnovers and they’re not nearly as effective. Hopefully the weather cooperates, because if both these teams are on song, we’ll be in for a classic. It’s too close to call so I won’t even try. Normally I would just pick the team I like better, but as a neutral how can you not like both these teams?
Saints @ Seahawks
Should I even bother writing this one? I’m on a plane right now and I’m struggling to motivate myself to keep typing in a less than ideal position. Honestly though, I can’t see any way the Saints don’t win this one. The Seahawks have a great home crowd, but that can only count for so much and the gulf in class between these two teams is huge. The Saints have been pretty under the radar this year, what with the Young Bucs and the Falcons winning the division. Make no mistake; this Saints team is very much for real. They had a bit of a hangover at the beginning of the season, but they’ve rallied and are back to their best, as they proved by going into Atlanta and beating a Saints team that is great at home and was trying to lock up a first round bye. The defence isn’t forcing as many turnovers, but may actually be playing better than last year, Drew Brees is still a superstar quarterback with a bevy of weapons, Reggie Bush will only get healthier and Sean Payton is still calling the plays. Super Bowl winners traditionally struggle the next year, but I don’t get that sense of complacency from the Saints and they’ll be dangerous again this year. On the other hand, the Seahawks truly backed into the playoffs, despite ending the season with a playoff and division clinching win over the Rams in Seattle. I was really disappointed by that game, by the way. I knew I wasn’t going to be watching the two best teams, but I kinda thought we might see a bit of a barn burner. You know, thrills and spills. Instead it looked like what it was: a game between two 7-9 teams that has very little bearing on the big picture. The Seahawks will come to play, but I don’t know if that will stop them getting blown out.