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Eli Mack, Sal Marcoccio, Chris Eakin, Rinku Dhawan

Inside The Matchup: Divisional Playoffs


Ravens @ Titans (Eakin)

Joe Flacco / Derrick Mason / Mark Clayton / Todd Heap
Le’Ron McClain / Willis McGahee (vs. TEN)

Passing Game Thoughts: Joe Flacco’s quest to duplicate Ben Roethlisberger’s feat of leading a team to the Super Bowl as a Rookie QB continues. Flacco’s late redzone scramble sealed the Dolphin hopes last week. He has all the necessary ingredients; big and strong with a good arm, ability to scramble when plays break down, and an elite defense. Much like Big Ben’s favorite target Hines Ward, Flacco has Derrick Mason to provide a reliable veteran receiver to go to in a pinch. Mason is capable of keeping the chains moving along with the sure handed TE Todd Heap. Both teams may struggle to throw the ball with much consistency so Flacco’s ability to improvise and get first downs with his feet may once again be the winning formula.

Tennessee is second in scoring defense and 5th in QB points allowed. Don’t forget that earlier in the year Cortland Finnegan had his own stretch of creating turnovers that Ed Reed is currently enjoying. The Titans can create turnovers if their front seven can pressure and fluster Flacco. The Titan defense needs to rebound after falling off a little near the end of the year. Two keys will be the health of Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch. Haynesworth is the league’s most formidable defensive player when healthy.

Running Game Thoughts: Running the football is the life line of both offenses. Ray Rice is out so Willis McGahee will complement Le’Ron McClain. McClain needs a steady diet of carries so that by the 4th quarter the Titans are worn down and reluctant to keep banging in to the 260 lb sledge hammer. I expect the game to play out in such manner. The Ravens were able to overcome a Cowboy defense that was playing as well as any in the league by hitting two big runs in the 4th quarter. I think as the game wears on and the rusty Vanden Bosch and Haynesworth get tired, the Ravens will find some creases late.

Joe Flacco: 205 yds passing / 1 TDs
Derrick Mason: 75 yds receiving / 1TD
Mark Clayton: 45 yds receiving
Todd Heap: 40 yds receiving
Le’Ron McClain: 65 yds rushing / 1 TD
Willis McGahee: 40 yds rushing / 20 yds receiving

Kerry Collins/Justin Gage/Justin McCareins/Bo Scaife
Chris Johnson/LenDale White (vs. BAL)

Passing Game Thoughts: If the Titans have an advantage in this game it’s the experience of Kerry Collins. This game features two similar teams that play great defense and run the ball. So to win you need a QB that doesn’t turn the ball over because field position and points will be hard to come by. Despite the veteran experience, Flacco has been slightly more productive then Collins. Collins will try to get top threat Justin Gage loose down field a few times. When he does, he needs to make sure Ed Reed bit on the play fake because the league has not seen a more dangerous player since Deion Sanders in his prime. Reed has six INTs in his last three games and eight in his last five. Knowing the Titans will likely struggle to run the ball, they will need to Chris Johnson the ball in space. They may go to swings and screens to free him up and may be their best chance at hitting some big plays. For grinding out drives and moving the chains expect Collins to rely on TEs Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler who both had success in their earlier matchup this year.

Running Game Thoughts: When a good run game faces a good run defense, the run defense usually wins. I see no evidence to change that forecast. The Titans will be missing their veteran all world center Kevin Mawae. This could turn out to be a huge factor as the center is the QB of the offensive line that reads the defenses and calls out blocking schemes. Running the football on the Ravens is already a tall order and the loss of Mawae really hurts. Without Mawae, Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata should control the middle and prevent LenDale White from establishing the power running game. That means the Titians will need to get Chris Johnson to the edge. Not many teams can a living doing that against the fast Raven Linebacking core.

Kerry Collins: 190 yds passing / 0 TDs / 2 INTs
Justin Gage: 60 yds
Justin McCareins: 55 yds
Bo Scaife: 35 yds
LenDale White: 35 yds rushing /1 TD
Chris Johnson: 55 yds rushing / 35 yds receiving/1 TD

Prediction: Baltimore 20, Tennessee 17

Cardinals @ Panthers (Dhawan)

Kurt Warner/Larry Fitzgerald/Anquan Boldin/Steve Breaston/Stephen Spach/Jerheme Urban
Edgerrin James/Tim Hightower (vs. CAR)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Cardinals boast one of the best receiving duos in the game with star WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. The former specializes in jump ball catches [as seen last week in the highlight package from the Wildcard victory over Atlanta], and the latter is best at catching short passes and running through, around, and over defenders [also seen in the highlights from last week’s Atlanta game]. Kurt Warner is among the best high accuracy passers over the past decade when given time and the weapons around him. Boldin is nursing a strained hamstring and will not try it out until Saturday’s game time. If he cannot go, the other options including TE Jerheme Urban and 1000 yard WR Steve Breaston will need to complement the passing game. Fitzgerald will probably be locked up with Panthers CB Chris Gamble, who has had a great season and is developing into one of the better corners in the game [hence the team signing him to a 6 year extension worth $53 million]. The Cardinal has the jump ball advantage over most cover guys in the league, but Gamble is a burner and can hang on the deep ball, so it will be interesting to watch this match up. The story for Warner and the Cardinals in this game is balance. Excluding the game against the Patriots, Warner averaged 36 pass attempts per game this season; against Atlanta last week, he only threw 32 times. Expect Warner to approach 300 yards as usual; if the game gets out of hand, he may get close to 400 yards in a comeback effort.

Running Game Thoughts: Edgerrin James is still among the most rugged and toughest inside runners in football. For a long time, he has relied upon vision and between the tackles agility to gain yards and keep his offense on down-and-distance schedule. Last week, he was the main cog in keeping the offensive balance, rushing for 73 yards on 16 carries. The key for winning this weekend will be the same play balance. Over the season, Cardinal runners James and rookie HB Tim Hightower combined for 17 carries per game; against Atlanta last week, they tallied 22 carries. This unit needs to keep the Panthers pass rush headed by DE Julius Peppers honest with solid early down gains to maintain manageable 3rd downs for Warner and the pass game. If successful, it will serve to rest the Cardinals defense and keep the Panthers offense sidelined. We should see some solid stats by both runners.

Kurt Warner: 310 pass/2 TD/1 INT
Larry Fitzgerald: 140 rec/1TD
Anquan Boldin: [hamstring/game time decision] 15 rec
Steve Breaston: 80 rec
Jerheme Urban: 40 rec/ 1TD
Stephen Spach: 30 rec
Edgerrin James: 65 rush/1 TD
Tim Hightower: 45 rush

Jake Delhomme/Steve Smith/Muhsin Muhammad/ Dwayne Jarrett/ Jeff King
DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart (vs. ARI)

Passing Game Thoughts: Jake Delhomme has gotten Coach John Fox back into the playoff mix. This pair has had good success this decade: when they make the playoffs [two times past 4 years], they always make it to the Conference Championship game. Can Delhomme make it happen a third time? In 2003, he was among the hottest QBs entering January, and was magical in his reads and decisions. This year, he may actually be the Achilles heel of the team. When these teams met earlier this season, Delhomme bailed out the team after trailing 17-3 with his 2 TDs passing. He was however, at that time in the midst of a hot start, with 4 out of games 5 games with 2 passing TDs. Since that game, Delhomme has closed his season with just 6 TDs and 7 INTs. Will WRs Steve Smith [117 yards, 2 TDs in early season meeting] and Muhsin Muhammad [900 yards, 5TDs this season and 70-plus yards each of his past 3 games] be able to roam free and make easy completions for the QB? Cardinals rookie corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was a rookie then, but a full year has made a huge difference for him. With his blazing speed he had a great season with 4 INTs and 19 passes deflected, so he can help hard hitting secondary mates S Adrian Wilson and S Antrel Rolle [27 yard fumble return for TD last week] contain the explosive Smith. Expect a fun chess match with timely shots downfield off of the run game play action.

Running Game Thoughts: The run game recipe was the main theme of HC John Fox and GM Marty Hurney this past off-season. They made a point to get bigger along the offensive line, so they drafted mammoth T Jeff Otah; they wanted to run with power like their 2003 Super Bowl run [remember Stephen Davis?], so they drafted HB Jonathan Stewart. They were delighted when underachiever HB DeAngelo Williams exploded and put it all together for a monster season [1500 rush yards, 20 total TDs]. This has been the offensive machine that has powered the team to a number 2 playoff seed and dangerous player in the Super Bowl sweepstakes. Can they dominate this week? The Cardinals allowed 110 rush yards per game this season; last week, they held the talented Falcons and HB Michael Turner [he of the breakout 1700 yards, 17 TDs] to just 60 ground yards. In the early season meeting of these teams, the Cardinals won the battle in the trenches, holding the Panthers to 113 yards [they average 152 rush yards per game this season]. If interior DT Darnell Dockett can control the middle, and most importantly, the Cardinals defenders tackle well, they have a chance to slow down this freight train.

Jake Delhomme: 255 pass/1 TD/2 INT
Steve Smith: 110 rec/1 TD
Muhsin Muhammad: 75 rec
Dwayne Jarrett: 30 rec
Jeff King: 30 rec
DeAngelo Williams: 85 rush/ 1TD
Jonathan Stewart: 45 rush

Prediction: Call it the upset special, Arizona 24, Carolina 20

Eagles @ Giants (Mack)

Donovan McNabb / DeSean Jackson / Kevin Curtis / Jason Avant / Brent Celek
Brian Westbrook / Correll Buckhalter (vs. NY Giants)

Passing Game Thoughts: Since that ugly first half in Baltimore in week 12 that led to his much talked-about benching, Donovan McNabb has been on fire. He has thrown 10 TDs with only two interceptions in the six games since, including last week’s triumph on the road against Minnesota. It’s probably hyperbole to say the benching was the catalyst for McNabb’s improved play of late. But whatever the reason, no. 5 has led the Eagles to five victories in their last six games, and now they travel to the Meadowlands to take on a tough divisional foe.

McNabb’s going to have his hands full against a well-rested, New York Giants defense that ranked eighth in the league vs. the pass. Justin Tuck and Mithias Kiwanuka are the two players on the Giants’ defense that Philly has to be mindful of. The two defensive ends had 20 sacks between them during the regular season, so the Eagles’ O-line—Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas in particular—will play vital roles in Philly’s ability to win this game. If McNabb is given time, he should be able to find receivers downfield, although playmakers in the passing game for the Eagles are few and far between. DeSean Jackson should make a big play or two, but don’t expect a whole lot from Kevin Curtis or Jason Avant. TE Brent Celek—who?—played well last week against the Vikings in place of injured LJ Smith, so he should remain an important cog in Philly’s offensive machine. And Reggie Brown? He hasn’t shown up all year and won’t this week.

Running Game Thoughts: The winning formula for Philly is so simple, it’s scary. Whenever the Eagles have a balanced offensive attack, their chances of winning go through the roof. Remember that stink bomb against the Redskins in week 16? They threw the ball 46 times and ran it 14. That inexplicable tie against Cincy in week 11? Fifty-eight pass plays vs. 17 run plays. And even the two games this year against the Giants confirm that trend. Their week 10 lost saw the Eagles throw the ball 36 times, while limiting the ground game to 18 called running plays. But in that impressive win at the Meadowlands in week 14, Philly had 30 pass plays but 36 running plays.

What does all that mean? It means head coach Andy Reid needs to put the ball in the hands of RBs Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter no fewer than 25 times combined if Philly is to have a realistic shot at advancing. New York’s 9th-ranked run defense is formidable, we all know that. But the Eagles have to stick to the run and get Westbrook involved early and often. This can’t turn into one of those games in which Reid tries to get cute while trying to show the football world how creative his offense is. This game will be the quintessential NFC East showdown, and dropping back to pass 40-plus times simply isn’t going to work. Westbrook needs 22-25 carries for Philly win.

Donovan McNabb: 250 yards / 2 TD / 1 INT
DeSean Jackson: 80 yards / 1 TD
Kevin Curtis: 50 yards
Jason Avant: 35 yards
Brent Celek: 40 yards / 1 TD
Brian Westbrook: 75 yards rushing / 1 TD – 35 yards rec.
Correll Buckhalter: 15 yards rushing

Eli Manning / Domenik Hixon / Amani Toomer / Steve Smith / Kevin Boss
Brandon Jacobs / Derrick Ward (vs. Philadelphia)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Giants started the 2008 season 11-1 but faltered somewhat down the stretch. Their 1-3 record in the last quarter of the season is not the kind of momentum you’d like to have heading into the playoffs. But that’s where New York finds itself. Eli Manning’s recent play has been less than stellar. He has three TD passes and three interceptions in his last five games, and the talk about Manning missing Plaxico Burress has picked up steam.

Really, let’s be honest. Domenik Hixon, Steve Smith and Amani Toomer, while all solid WRs, none of them bring the playmaking ability and match-up nightmares that Burress did. That kind of talent missing from any line-up will at some point begin to manifest itself, and in the Giants’ case, it’s doing so with Manning not playing at a high level. I expect the Giants to grind this game out on the ground and not have to rely on Manning to win. But when New York does decide to throw the ball, Philly will bring pressure from every conceivable angle in an attempt to force Manning into mistakes. And whether or not his receivers are capable of helping bail him out remains to be seen.

Running Game Thoughts: Brandon Jacobs claims he hasn’t felt as good as he feels right now since week 3. He’s well rested and says he’s ready to go. That means the league’s top-ranked running offense brings a full deck against the league’s 4th ranked run defense. This is where this game is going to be won or lost, so a healthy Jacobs is crucial to the overall success of the Giants. As was the case for most of the season, Derrick Ward will see a lot of time in the backfield and be a major contributor. Ward often sets the table for Jacobs and the entire New York offense by helping carry the load deep into the opponent’s territory, when Jacobs enters the game and seals the deal with a short TD run.

Although Jacobs claims he’s healthy, no one knows how head coach Tom Coughlin will adjust his substitution patterns. Jacobs’ knee has been a problem all season long and perhaps three weeks off still was not enough time to fully heal. But rest assured that the big fella will see a ton of action in this game, for the success of the Giants rests squarely on the enormous shoulders of Jacobs. This will be the best game of the weekend and an absolute joy to watch.

Eli Manning: 185 yards / 1 TD / 1 INT
Amani Toomer: 70 yards / 1 TD
Domenik Hixon: 45 yards
Steve Smith: 30 yards
Kevin Boss: 25 yards
Brandon Jacobs: 80 yards / 1 TD
Derrick Ward: 55 yards

Prediction: Philadelphia 24 New York Giants 20

Chargers @ Steelers (Marcoccio)

Philip Rivers/Chris Chambers/Vincent Jackson/Malcolm Floyd/Antonio Gates
LaDainian Tomlinson/Darren Sproles (vs. PIT)

Passing Game Thoughts: Philip Rivers was a legitimate MVP candidate this season, leading his team to the AFC West division crown and throwing for 4,226 and 34 TDs. After last week’s contest he now has a 3-2 playoff record as a starting quarterback with both losses coming against the New England Patriots. He’s the lone quarterback from the “Big 3” taken near the top of the 2004 draft class to not yet win a Super Bowl – but he hopes to follow in Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning’s footprints of being the hot team going from the Wildcard Round to the Big Game. The Chargers have three big wide receivers all with enough deep speed and leaping ability to make big plays downfield in Chris Chambers, Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd. That’s without even mentioning elite TE Antonio Gates who after struggling for most of the season with a turf toe injury has been a lot more involved in the offense in recent weeks. The Chargers have a passing game that can put up points with anybody in the league.

However, this week they face the No. 1 ranked defense against the pass. Pittsburgh has sacked opposing QBs 51 times during the regular season with 16 coming from Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. The Steelers allowed only 156.9 passing yards per game and 12 TDs on the season and held the Chargers to only 162 yards passing and no TDs (LaDanian Tomlinson did score on the ground) when the two teams met up in the regular season. While the Chargers are a much hotter team now then they were then, those numbers show that it will not be easy for San Diego in Heinz Filed this week.

Running Game Thoughts: LaDanian Tomlinson is slowed by a groin injury (the severity of which is being downplayed by the team but not by LT) and played very sparingly last week. His availability is doubtful for this week. In his place little Darren Sproles gained over 300 yards in total offense including the game winning TD in overtime. Darren Sproles is one of the more dynamic RBs in the NFL with the ball in his hands as his quickness, speed and balance is superb. However at 185 pounds it may be difficult for him to take the beating that comes with getting a lot of carries and playing the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were statistically one of the best defenses of all time in 2008.

The Steelers were the 2nd ranked defense against the run and allowed only 80.3 yards per game and 7 rushing TDs in the regular season. Safety Troy Polamanu is one of the more recognizable players in the league due to his flowing black mane, and is arguably the best defensive player in the game today – even though his teammate took home the hardware this year. Polamanu may be one of the only defensive players in the game that can out-quick the diminutive Sproles.

Philip Rivers: 245 yds passing 1 TD, 1 INT
Chris Chambers: 25 yds receiving
Vincent Jackson: 70 yds receiving, 1 TD
Malcolm Floyd: 55 yds receiving
Antonio Gates: 45 yds receiving
LaDanian Tomlinson: 15 yds rushing
Darren Sproles: 55 yds rushing / 35 yds receiving

Ben Roethlisberger/Hines Ward/Santonio Holmes/Heath Miller
Willie Parker/Mewelde Moore (vs. SD)

Passing Game Thoughts: Big Ben Roethlisberger should be fully recovered with two weeks of rest after suffering a concussion during the last regular season game. Roethlisberger had an up and down season due in large part to an ineffective offensive line, which combined with his tendency to hold onto the ball too long at times got him sacked a bunch. The toughest wide receiver in the league, Hines Ward, had another excellent season and refused to relinquish top dog status to everyone’s off-season fantasy breakout darling Santonio Holmes. Heath Miller has disappeared from the stats sheet at times due in part to the aforementioned offensive line problems causing him to be used as a blocker more than in past seasons, but he is still a dangerous target and red zone threat.

Although the San Diego defense picked it up a little in the later part of the season as they clawed their way back into the AFC West race, they were mostly miserable against the pass this season. They were the second to worst pass defense statistically allowing 247.4 yards per game and 25 TDs through the air this season. They have talent, but the loss of Shawne Merrimen seemed to take a lot of the life out of this defense.

Running Game Thoughts: Fast Willie Parker suffered his fair share of injuries in 2008, but was mostly mediocre even when on the field after a great start to the season. Parker gained 789 yards rushing and scored 5 TDs (3 in Week 1) in 11 games. Mewelde Moore who was expected to be not much more than a 3rd down back and kick returner at best when he signed this off-season took advantage of the opportunities granted by Parker’s injuries and a season ending injury to rookie Rasheed Mendenhall. Moore rushed for 588 yards and five TDs while also catching 40 balls for 320 yards and a TD in 4 starts (and 16 games). Moore gained more yards per carry than Parker (4.2 v 3.8) and looked like the better back. Look for both to get carries against San Diego.

The Charger defense finished ranked 11th in the league in rushing yards allowed. They allowed 102.6 yards rushing per game and 11 TDs on the season. Despite the statistical disparities in the San Diego run and pass defense, the Steelers may choose to attack the Chargers on the ground anyway. The Steelers still prefer to control the clock and play hard nosed defense and the Charger run defense is nothing special.

Ben Roethlisberger: 205 yds passing 1 TD, 2 INTs
Hines Ward: 55 yds receiving
Santonio Holmes: 40 yds receiving
Heath Miller: 30 yds receiving, 1 TD
Willie Parker: 65 yds rushing, 1 TD / 10 yds receiving
Mewelde Moore: 45 yds rushing / 40 yds receiving

Prediction: Pittsburgh 20 San Diego 13