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Eli Mack, Sal Marcoccio, Chris Eakin, Joe Kilroy

Inside The Matchup: Divisional Playoffs


 Predictions - YTD
Rk Staffer W L %
1 Marcoccio 47 18 72.3
2 Mack 46 20 69.7
3 Kilroy 45 20 69.2
4 Eakin 41 23 64.1

Cardinals @ Saints (Marcoccio)

Kurt Warner/Tim Hightower/Beanie Wells
Larry Fitzgerald/Anquan Boldin/Steve Breaston (vs. NO)

NO FF Points Allowed vs. QBs: -8.9%
NO FF Points Allowed vs. RBs: +10.0%
NO FF Points Allowed vs. WRs: +7.0%
NO FF Points Allowed vs. TEs: -26.1%

Passing Game Thoughts: Kurt Warner didn’t attack downfield as much in 2009 as he’s done in past seasons – which could have been the result of either his hip injury, poor pass protection or some combination thereof – but he was incredibly efficient. Last week he opened the payoffs with a game for the ages completing 29 of 33 passes for 379 yards and 5 TDs. The short routes that the Cardinals run act as a pseudo run game, and are very effective, as the Cardinals have a very talented bunch of runners playing WR. Last week’s game might have cemented the fate of WR Anquan Boldin (being dealt this offseason), as the offense didn’t skip a beat without him when youngster Early Doucet finally showed the skills that made him an early draft pick. His run after the catch ability was very reminiscent of Boldin’s skill set and he could replace the veteran in next season’s line-up. Steve Breaston is likely the most effective slot WR in the league and the Cardinals prefer playing from a spread offensive set, running 3 WRs as their base offense. I haven’t even mentioned perhaps the best all around WR in the game today yet. Larry Fitzgerald has an uncanny ability to catch any ball thrown his way and is the player that the rest of the offense flows through – he either gets the ball or opens up the field for others.

The Saints, with Will Smith, Charles Grant and Greg Williams’ blitz packages can get after the QB. Aided by a strong pass rush, the Saints lived off of the turnovers created in their secondary during their miraculous early season run. Most of those turnovers came from veteran safety Darren Sharper, who has the ability to bait QBs into making throws that end up in his arms (and are often returned for TDs). There may not be a better QB at beating the blitz than Warner, who is tough enough to hang in the pocket for as long as necessary, but has a quick release and often finds the right target before that rush can get to him. However, he has been prone to turnovers at times when pressured and in a close contest like this one is expected to be – a costly mistake could be the difference.

Running Game Thoughts: It surprises me that Ken Whisenhutt hasn’t established more of a running game since he’s been in Arizona, but I guess when the choice is between featuring a washed up Edgerrin James (last season), a rookie that has had issue holding onto the ball, and a plodder like Tim Hightower as opposed to utilizing Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin – it really isn’t a choice. Hightower is not a dynamic runner, doesn’t make the best decisions and has no speed to speak of, but is an effective hard runner in this offense. He’s well equipped to contribute in the passing game and at the goal line and with the emergence of Beanie Wells in recent weeks his role has been more reflective of those talents. Beanie Wells is the superior pure runner of the duo and will be needed against New Orleans to help keep their potent offense on the sidelines. He has a unique size/speed combo that could result in a big play if Arizona takes advantage of the Saints’ blitzes on a couple of draws or screens. Wells just could be the difference maker in a game loaded with offensive stars.

Getting out to early leads helped mask some of the deficiencies in the Saints’ run defense earlier this season, but as the season wore on teams were able to exploit the unit. They finished the season allowing 122.2 ypg and gave up 19 TDs on the ground. While they do have some talent on defense, they aren’t a team that should stuff opposing runners. Don’t be shocked if the Cardinals attempt to deflate the Super Dome a little by attempting to run down the Saints throats at the start of the game.

Kurt Warner: 295 yds passing, 3 TDs, 2 Ints.
Larry Fitzgerald: 115 yds receiving, 1 TD
Anquan Boldin: 30 yds receiving
Steve Breaston: 85 yds receiving, 2 TDs
Tim Hightower: 35 yds rushing / 35 yds receiving
Beanie Wells: 85 yds rushing, 1 TD / 5 yds receiving

Drew Brees/Marques Colston/Robert Meachem/Devery Henderson/Jeremy Shockey
Pierre Thomas/Mike Bell/Reggie Bush (vs. ARI)

ARI FF Points Allowed vs. QBs: +3.9%
ARI FF Points Allowed vs. RBs: -2.6%
ARI FF Points Allowed vs. WRs: +5.0%
ARI FF Points Allowed vs. TEs: +13.5%

Passing Game Thoughts: Drew Brees was a legit MVP candidate this season, but could be a little rusty after not playing in a game during the last three weeks. He should shake that rust off quickly however, as Brees is a smart, accurate, strong armed QB with a plethora of weapons to choose from. It is hard for opposing defenses to game plan to stop this offense as there isn’t really a “go to” option for Brees as in any given week, Colston, Shockey, Bush, Henderson, Meachem or even some more obscure weapon like a backup TE or FB could be the weapon of choice for Brees. Robert Meachem has taken the next step and is a young WR who could wind up being a big star in this league as he continues to grow. The former first round pick is arguably more physically talented than the better known Marques Colston who burst on the scene as a seventh round pick out of Hofstra to take the league by storm. Both are big, strong with adequate speed and make a devastating pair of wide-outs. This offense isn’t going away any time soon.

The Cowboys laid out what could be considered a blueprint for slowing down this offense though in their surprise victory over the then undefeated Saints, but few teams have the fierce pass rush and talented secondary that Dallas posses. Arizona’s pass defense didn’t improve much from last season where they gave up the most passing TDs in the league by a wide margin (22 TDs allowed this season), but are not quite as bad as they looked last week against Green Bay. Brees will need to be aware of where CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is at all times, as he has proven to have a nose for the football and big play ability, but was slowed down by injury last week. I’m sure Sean Payton has poured over the tapes from last week’s Arizona game and hoping his receivers will be allowed to be as free as Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley were allowed to be last week.

Running Game Thoughts: The Saints are a well rounded offense that is capable of beating most of their opponents with their ground attack, but seldom feel the need to take that approach. Pierre Thomas is a complete back that has no real weaknesses in his game, but one would have to question if his “elite” production stems more from elite talent or the fact that he is protected by the Saints passing game. He heads into the playoffs nursing three broken ribs so he may not be able to be as effective as usual if he takes a few early hits. Mike Bell is used more as a battering ram that can wear down opposing defenses with his hard running style – but that style has lead to some injuries this season as well and he is once again banged up a little. By default, this could be a showcase game for disappointing RB Reggie Bush who has seen his role in this offense decrease this season as the team prepares to possibility release him this offseason. Bush has had injury issues as well and the game changing speed he flashed at USC has not translated to the NFL. If Arizona does try and blitz Brees often though, Bush’s abilities in open space could create some big plays on dump off and swing passes.

Arizona, was an average run defense on the season, allowing 112.8 ypg and 13 TDs on the season, but have some talented line backers that can step up on any given week. Weak side LB Carlos Dansby has developed into one of the better young defensive players in the league and will likely be used to shadow Bush or Thomas out of the backfield. I’m not expecting a large amount of rushing attempts from the Saints this week, as I expect them to come out looking to prove that their late season slump was a mirage by firing the ball through the air. Therefore, the burden will fall on the Arizona pass defense that was embarrassed last week to step up this week.

Drew Brees: 325 yds passing, 4 TDs, 1 Int.
Marques Colston: 70 yds receiving, 1 TD
Robert Meachem: 80 yds receiving, 2 TDs
Devery Henderson: 20 yds receiving
Jeremy Shockey: 45 yds receiving
Reggie Bush: 50 yds rushing / 55 yds receiving, 1 TD
Mike Bell: 10 yds rushing
Pierre Thomas: 55 yds rushing / 15 yds receiving

Prediction: Saints 41 Cardinals 31 ^ Top

Ravens @ Colts (Eakin)

Joe Flacco/Derrick Mason/Mark Clayton/Todd Heap
Ray Rice (vs. IND)

IND FF Points Allowed vs. QB: -7.1%
IND FF Points Allowed vs. RB: +4.5%
IND FF Points Allowed vs. WR: +5.5%
IND FF Points Allowed vs. TE: -44.1%

Passing Game Thoughts: The Ravens brought emphasizing the run game to a new level in their opening round playoff victory over at New England. QB Joe Flacco completed just four passes for 34 yards on ten attempts making Trent Dilfer feel like Dan Marino during the Ravens Super Bowl run in 2001. Odds are Flacco will need to warm up his throwing arm facing the Colts. Though the Colts haven’t played a meaningful game in close to a month, they finished as the regular season’s most dominant team and should score enough to force the Ravens hand. When Flacco is used, his preferred option is Derrick Mason. Mason posted near career numbers this season after contemplating retirement in the offseason. He’s a smart route runner and still posses enough speed to get open in intermediate zones. IF the Ravens are forced to pass, Mason can post big totals working underneath the Colts cover two zones. Flacco will struggle to hit big plays because he won’t have enough time in the pocket. The Colts have a good pass defense in large part because of their one-two DE combination of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. They have the speed to avoid the Raven’s mammoth offensive tackles and get to Flacco. The Ravens know this and will rely on safe short routes to Mason and Ray Rice. In the red zone, they prefer to run but will look to TE Todd Heap occasionally. Heap has six TDs and Mason has seven.

Running Game Thoughts: They road to playoff advancement rests on the shoulders of Ray Rice and the running game. Rice scampered for an 83-yard score on the opening play in New England and never looked back on his way to 159 yards and two scores. Rice now has over 2000 yards from scrimmage and has officially become a star in this league. Despite his success, the Colts have held them under 100 yards rushing in their last five meeting. They will crowd the line of scrimmage and dare them to throw. Rice will put up 100 yards, but will need 200 to deliver a victory.

Joe Flacco: 205 yds/1 TD/2 INT
Derrick Mason: 65 yds rec/1 TD
Mark Clayton: 40 yds rec
Todd Heap: 35 yds rec
Ray Rice: 115 yds/40 rec/1 TD

Peyton Manning/Reggie Wayne/Pierre Garcon/Dallas Clark
Joseph Addai (vs. BAL)

BAL FF Points Allowed vs. QB: -8.0%
BAL FF Points Allowed vs. RB: -29.5%
BAL FF Points Allowed vs. WR: -5.1%
BAL FF Points Allowed vs. TE: -14.4%

Passing Game Thoughts: The Colt offense is worlds more diverse than the outdoor poor weather Welker-less Patriots attack the Ravens held in check last week. The Colts have an embarrassment of riches with the development of their two young additions of Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie to an already potent pass attack. No QB reads a defense and exploits the weakness' better than Manning. Giving him more options led to a near perfect season. Reggie Wayne is one of the league’s top all around WRs and demands a double team. The need to double him frees up WR/TE Dallas Clark to work the slot one on one. The Ravens will not be able to guard him unless they bring Ed Reed out of center field and limit his freelancing ability. The Ravens will need a huge game from Terrell Suggs and the rest of their pass rush. The Colts will pick them apart unless they are in Manning face all game. Though they can play well in spots, they haven’t shown the dominant defense from the past on a consistent enough basis to overcome Manning and all of his weapons.

Running Game Thoughts: The Colts have struggled to run the ball at times this year but is only needed enough to keep defenses honest. They Colts like to rotate between Joseph Addai and rookie RB Donald Brown. Addai has rejuvenated his career after struggling with injuries and production last year. They will need to find a way around MLB Ray Lewis to find openings. Lewis is still capable of making plays but is not the dominant force he once was. I think he keeps them in check but not enough to make the Colts entirely one-dimensional.

Peyton Manning: 300 yds/3 TD/1 INT
Reggie Wayne: 90 yds/1 TD
Pierre Garcon: 70 yds/1TD
Dallas Clark: 90 yds/1 TD
Joseph Addai: 55 yds/30 rec

Prediction: Indianapolis 27 Ravens 20 ^ Top

Cowboys @ Vikings (Kilroy)

Tony Romo / Felix Jones / Tashard Choice / Marion Barber
Miles Austin / Roy Williams / Patrick Crayton / Jason Witten (vs. Minnesota)

MIN FF Points Allowed vs. QBs: +5.1%
MIN FF Points Allowed vs. RBs: -28.8%
MIN FF Points Allowed vs. WRs: +0.6%
MIN FF Points Allowed vs. TEs: +27.8%

Passing Game Thoughts: With the Vikings having one of the best rushing defenses in the NFL, Tony Romo and his targets will have to accomplish a lot in order to put points on the board. Fortunately for Dallas, the Vikings secondary can be had. Throughout the regular season Minnesota allowed 52 passing plays of 20 or more yards which was the 8th highest figure in the league. They also ranked 19th in the NFL with an average of 218.4 passing yards allowed per game and the 26 touchdown passes they surrendered was 10th most within that category.

Taking these numbers into equation, look for the Cowboys to try and connect with Miles Austin on a few deep passes while keeping the Vikings defense honest with a commitment to the ground game (regardless of the results) and making good use of Jason Witten as Minnesota has had difficulties defending pass catching tight ends throughout the year.

Running Game Thoughts: The Vikings run defense has been amongst the best in the league in recent years and finished the 2009 regular season having allowed an average of just 87.1 rushing yards per game (2nd only to the Green Bay Packers). As if the task of rushing against this unit weren’t enough, it’s also likely that veteran Marion Barber won’t be playing at 100% due to a swollen bursa sac in his left knee that limited him to three carries last week against the Eagles. It has also caused him to miss some practice time as the Cowboys prepare for this Sunday’s game against the Vikings.

With Barber’s playing time likely to be limited, second year back Felix Jones will be tabbed to lead the way. Jones rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries against the Eagles last week and finished the regular season strongly, but will have a much more difficult time trying to match that production in Minnesota. Tashard Choice will also see a considerable amount of playing time should Barber be held back due to his injured knee.

Tony Romo – 260 yards passing / 2 TDs
Felix Jones – 50 yards rushing / 10 yards receiving / 0 TDs
Tashard Choice – 20 yards rushing / 0 TDs
Marion Barber – 25 yards rushing / 1 TD / 10 yards receiving
Miles Austin – 75 yards receiving / 0 TDs
Roy Williams – 55 yards receiving / 1 TD
Patrick Crayton – 30 yards receiving / 0 TDs
Jason Witten – 70 yards receiving / 1 TD

Brett Favre / Adrian Peterson
Sidney Rice / Percy Harvin / Bernard Berrian / Visanthe Shiancoe (vs. Dallas)

DAL FF Points Allowed vs. QBs: -2.4%
DAL FF Points Allowed vs. RBs: -18.2%
DAL FF Points Allowed vs. WRs: -5.2%
DAL FF Points Allowed vs. TEs: -5.4%

Passing Game Thoughts: Despite being thought of as a heavily run oriented offense heading into the season, the presence of Brett Favre in Minnesota has breathed new life into their passing attack. With Favre at the helm Minnesota ranked 8th in the league this year with an average of just under 260 passing yards per game. They also scored 34 of their touchdowns through the air while Brett Favre’s 7 interceptions proved to be a league low.

In doing so Minnesota should match up well against a Cowboys secondary that finished the regular season ranked 20th in the league against the pass by allowing just over 225 passing yards per game. Dallas did manage to limit opponents to only 19 touchdown passes this year, but given the success of the Vikings passing attack throughout the season Favre should be able to connect with a few of his targets in the end zone this week.

Running Game Thoughts: The Cowboys run defense ranked 4th in the NFL this year with an average of just 90.5 rushing yards allowed per game. They also held opponents in check by surrendering just 7 touchdowns on the ground throughout the season, but nonetheless Adrian Peterson should be able to make a meaningful impact during this contest as he’s likely to handle 20 carries or so and push the century mark on the ground. He’s also scored and least one touchdown during his last four outings and is bound to do so again playing at home this weekend against the Cowboys following a well deserved week’s worth of rest.

Brett Favre – 265 yards passing / 2 TDs
Adrian Peterson – 100 yards rushing / 1 TD / 20 yards receiving
Sidney Rice – 85 yards receiving / 0 TDs
Percy Harvin – 60 yards receiving / 1 TD
Bernard Berrian – 50 yards receiving / 0 TDs
Visanthe Shiancoe – 40 yards receiving / 1 TD

Prediction: Minnesota 30, Dallas 21 ^ Top

Jets @ Chargers (Mack)

Mark Sanchez / Thomas Jones / Shonn Greene
Jerricho Cotchery / Braylon Edwards / Brad Smith Dustin Keller (vs. San Diego)

SD FF Points Allowed vs. QBs: -3.4%
SD FF Points Allowed vs. RBs: -1.5%
SD FF Points Allowed vs. WRs: -8.7%
SD FF Points Allowed vs. TEs: +3.4%

Passing Game Thoughts: It’s common knowledge even to the most casual NFL observer that the New York Jets are a run-first, run-often offense. Whether they do so to protect their rookie QB is a moot point, but no NFL team had fewer pass attempts in 2009 than the Jets. All those successful running plays, though, open the door for those well-timed bootleg passes—much like the 45 yard TD strike Mark Sanchez threw to TE Dustin Keller last week. But even with Sanchez’s limited number of pass attempts last week, he still performed well given the circumstances. Three 3rd-and-long conversions during the game speak to that fact.

It’s going to be imperative that Sanchez receives the help he so requires from his wideouts. Jerricho Cotchery was productive against the Bengals and should continue into this week, but Braylon Edwards continues to mystify NFL fans with his inability to consistently catch the ball. He dropped a sure TD last week; that kind of performance can’t be tolerated if the Jets hope to move on. Unlike last week, Sanchez will be called upon to deliver more than he did in Cincy. The rookie has only 3 INTs in his last five games. His TD totals are sparse, but he’s not asked to throw TDs; Sanchez is expected to take care of the ball and not turn it over. New York’s fortunes rest of the young shoulders of Sanchez. Can he continue his mistake-free play and allow the Jets to advance? That’s a tall order this week going against a rested pass defense that’s ranked 11th in the league.

Running Game Thoughts: Starter Thomas Jones struggled against the Bengals last week, averaging a tad over 2 yards per carry. Meanwhile, rookie Shonn Greene sliced Cincy’s defense for 135 yards and looked darn good in the process. Both Jones and Greene should get a comparable number of carries, but how productive they are will determine whether the Jets win or lose this game. As mentioned above, the Jets’ identity is to run the football, period. They had more rushing attempts than any team in football in 2009, and going against a San Diego run defense that ranks 20th in the league will be the barometer by which New York’s success is measured.

Many people point to the Chargers’ vulnerability against the run as the primary reason why the Jets could pull off the upset. It’s certainly a possibility, as New York fields perhaps the NFL’s most dominant run-blocking O-line. It will be important for New York to stay out of 3rd and long situations. They need to have the threat of a run on most every play, and having manageable 3rd downs will be crucial to that happening. Much like last week, expect both RBs to get at least 12-15 carries. Their success is directly linked to the success of the entire offense.

Mark Sanchez – 170 yards / 1 TD / 1 INT
Shonn Greene – 65 yards
Thomas Jones – 55 yards / 1 TD
Jerricho Cotchery – 60 yards / 1 TD
Braylon Edwards – 40 yards
Brad Smith – 20 yards
Dustin Keller – 35 yards

Philip Rivers / LaDainian Tomlinson / Darren Sproles
Vincent Jackson / Malcom Floyd / Legedu Naanee(vs. New York)

NYJ FF Points Allowed vs. QBs: -37.0%
NYJ FF Points Allowed vs. RBs: -18.1%
NYJ FF Points Allowed vs. WRs: -41.4%
NYJ FF Points Allowed vs. TEs: -30.8%

Passing Game Thoughts: I’ve become a huge fan of Philip Rivers. His play in 2008 and 2009 has certainly endeared me to the former 1st round pick. He’s thrown at least 300 yards OR a TD in 38 of his last 39 games. Rivers is the lead dog in a dynamic offense that relies heavily on him. And sure, the Jets field the NFL’s top defense, but I think Rivers is talented enough to take advantage when opportunities present themselves. It’s going to start up front, though. San Diego’s offensive line must be able to keep the swarming, blitzing Jets defense at bay. If they are successful at it, Rivers could be productive. Keep in mind, though, that the Jets have only allowed 8 passing TDs all season.

For my money, Derrelle Revis is the league’s best CB. He’s shut down many of the top WRs this season, and Vincent Jackson is sure to be his next “victim.” The difference between Revis blanketing Chad Ochocinco last week and Jackson this week is the Chargers have supplemental players in place who are capable of picking up the slack. Jackson went through a few dry spells during the season, including a dreadful 5-game scoreless streak; yet the Chargers forged ahead on their way to 11 consecutive wins. With Jackson shut down this week, Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd will play huge roles. Expect both, especially Gates, to have productive games.

Running Game Thoughts: The Chargers haven’t had a RB rush for more than 100 yards since Darren Sproles did it in week 16 against Denver last season. And guess what? That streak will continue through this week. The Chargers’ offense has long since been handed to Rivers, leaving both LaDainian Tomlinson and Sproles as nothing more than complementary pieces in San Diego’s attack. That undoubtedly will continue this week. Sproles hasn’t done much of anything this year, and LT is on his last leg—although the veteran did score 12 TDs this season. Don’t get it twisted, however. This game will be Rivers’ to win or lose. LT will certainly be in play at the goal line; other than that, don’t expect much from the Charger running game.

Philip Rivers – 210 yards / 1 TD / 1 INT
LaDainian Tomlinson – 60 yards / 1 TD
Darren Sproles – 20 yards rushing
Malcom Floyd – 60 yards
Legedu Naanee – 40 yards
Vincent Jackson – 30 yards
Antonio Gates – 70 yards / 1 TD

Prediction: San Diego 20, New York 17 ^ Top