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2010-01-08

American Football: NFL Wild Card Weekend Preview

By Dave Carey for Infosurhoy—08/01/2010

As four teams’ Super Bowl dreams continue, they end for four others

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Arizona’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who is of Haitian decent, has emerged as one of the league’s top cornerbacks. He earned his first invitation to the Pro Bowl this season. (Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)

Arizona’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who is of Haitian decent, has emerged as one of the league’s top cornerbacks. He earned his first invitation to the Pro Bowl this season. (Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)

NFC WILD CARD GAMES

No. 5 GREEN BAY PACKERS (11-5) at No. 4 ARIZONA CARDINALS (10-6)

Kickoff: Jan. 10, 4:40 PM EST, in Glendale, Ariz.

To the winner: A game against No. 1 New Orleans Saints (13-3) or No. 2 Minnesota Vikings (12-4) in the divisional round next week.

Players with Latin American ties: Arizona: Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, of Haitian decent, is one of the league’s top young players at his position, as he finished the regular season with 50 tackles and six interceptions en route to making the Pro Bowl. Green Bay: Safety Atari Bigby, born in Kingston, Jamaica, finished the regular season with 49 tackles and four interceptions and emerged as one of the most consistent players on one of the league’s top defenses.

What you need to know: Arizona: The Cardinals’ offense isn’t as explosive as you’d think with Pro Bowl-caliber receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, the latter of whom is reeling from a knee injury. The two-time defending NFC West Division champions averaged 23.4 points and 344.4 yards per game – solid numbers, but both outside the top 10 in the league in each category during the regular season. “It’s a crazy game sometimes,” Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner told the Associated Press. “It’s like anything in life. You get to a point and you think, 'OK, maybe now we're there.' And then you find out you're not quite there yet.”

Green Bay: The Packers, who earned the top wild card, have the league’s second-best defense and defeated the Cardinals, 33-7, last week in a game that was meaningless because both teams already had qualified for the playoffs. Green Bay, in its first year under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, is allowing just 18.6 points and 284.4 yards per game. “You watch what they do, you watch how they approach things, you look at players, you see them up close and personal, and you understand you have your work cut out for you,” Warner told the Associated Press.

Keep an eye on: Arizona: Fitzgerald. One of the game’s best receivers took the postseason by storm last year, averaging 136.5 yards per game and scoring seven touchdowns to lead his team to the Super Bowl. But this fall, he saw his production drop by 400 yards even though he caught a career-high 13 touchdown passes.

Green Bay: Ryan Grant. The running back emerged as the season progressed, as he finished seventh in the league during the regular season with 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns. But in the past three games, he’s rushed for 185 yards and four touchdowns on just 35 carries. If Grant finds running room, the balance he brings to the offense is tremendous.

The game likely comes down to: Arizona finding offensive rhythm. The unit mustered a meager seven points last week and has struggled to find consistency throughout the regular season. The Cardinals have scored fewer than 10 points twice in the past four games. Green Bay’s defense is great and should do just enough to end the defending NFC champions’ season.

No. 6 PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (11-5) at No. 3 DALLAS COWBOYS (11-5)

Kickoff: Jan. 9, 8 PM EST, in Arlington, Texas

To the winner: A game against No. 1 New Orleans Saints (13-3) or No. 2 Minnesota Vikings (12-4) in the divisional round next week.

Players with Latin American ties: Philadelphia: Max Jean-Gilles, who was born in Haiti, was inserted into the starting lineup at right guard last month after the team moved several players to compensate for an injury to starting center Jamaal Jackson. Cowboys: None.

What you need to know: Philadelphia: The Eagles, who earned the second – and final – wild card, shine in the postseason. Since Andy Reid took over as coach in 1999, the team has made the playoffs seven times, advancing to the NFC Championship five times and never failing to win its opening game of the postseason.

Dallas: 1996. That’s the last time the Cowboys, the NFC East Division champions, won a postseason game. During that stretch, only the Bengals, Browns and Lions have failed to win a playoff game. Oh, yeah, Coach Wade Phillips also is 0-4 all-time in the postseason.

Keep an eye on: Philadelphia: Brian Westbrook. The versatile running back entered the season regarded as one of the league’s top players. But several injuries and a concussion sidelined the star for stretches during the regular season, limiting him to just 455 yards of offense and two touchdowns. “I think it's important for me to get some opportunities in the game,” Westbrook told PhiladelphiaEagles.com. “Hopefully, I can help out here and there, whatever situations coach gives me. We still need to be able to run the ball and catch the ball with everybody as well.”

Dallas: Tony Romo. The quarterback, a third-generation Mexican-American, is known for his postseason blunders and 0-2 record as a starter. Romo has thrown for just 390 yards and completed just 53.8% of his passes in those losses. “This ballclub has done a good job of putting its best foot forward when it has to,” Romo told the Associated Press. “We haven't arrived and we haven’t accomplished anything. This is a step in the process to continue to get to where we want to go.”

The game likely comes down to: The Cowboys are just better. Dallas won both regular season meetings against the Eagles this year, including a 24-0 victory to clinch their second division title in three years last week. Nineteen times in NFL history a team has had a chance to beat another three times in a season – 12 times it closed the deal.

AFC WILD CARD GAMES

No. 5 NEW YORK JETS (9-7) at No. 4 CINCINNATI BENGALS (10-6)

Kickoff: Jan. 9, 4:30 PM EST, in Cincinnati, Ohio

To the winner: A game against No. 1 Indianapolis Colts (14-2) or No. 2 San Diego Chargers (13-3) in the divisional round next week.

Players with Latin American ties: New York: Quarterback Mark Sánchez is a third-generation Mexican-American who has emerged as a sporting icon for Mexico after thriving in New York as a rookie, throwing for 2,444 yards with 12 touchdowns against 20 interceptions. Cincinnati: None.

What you need to know: Cincinnati: The Bengals can’t score consistently. Cincinnati, which won the AFC Central Division, enters the postseason with the worst offense of any playoff team, averaging a meager 19 points and just under 310 yards per game. In a season-ending, 37-0 loss to the Jets in which the Bengals played many of their backups, the team had a terrible 72 yards of total offense. “There have been ups and downs for this team," Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco told the Associated Press. “Our offense has struggled all season long, but we've found ways to win.”

New York: The Jets, who earned the top wild card, play better defense than anyone. The team allows an NFL-low 14.8 points and 252.3 yards per game. The group relies on blitzing and complex schemes that Coach Rex Ryan employed in Baltimore, where he served as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator the previous few seasons. “You can throw everything out that happened in the regular season,” Jets linebacker Calvin Pace told New York Jets.com. “If we come out and lay an egg in the first week, then I guess the No. 1 defense doesn’t really matter. We kind of have to start over and build up our brand again and let people know that we do have a good defense.”

Keep an eye on: New York: Sánchez. The rookie was so prone to early mistakes that he was given a color-coded armband to remind him of where to throw the ball on specific plays. Sánchez has 12 touchdowns against 20 interceptions and must be much better to beat the Bengals for the second consecutive week.

Cincinnati: Cedric Benson. The running back has rejuvenated what had been until this season a very unimpressive career. But this fall, he’s been great, as he carried the ball 301 times for a career-high 1,251 yards and six touchdowns. The Bengals average more than 130 rushing yards per game and will look to Benson to control the clock by picking up first downs.

The game likely comes down to: Quarterback play. Sánchez is prone to making mistakes, but Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer has postseason experience. Both defenses will stack the line of scrimmage, give new looks and force opposing quarterbacks to make more plays than they did a week ago. But in the end, Palmer will lead the Bengals to their first playoff win since 1991.

AFC WILD CARD GAMES

No. 6 BALTIMORE RAVENS (9-7) at No. 3 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-6)

Kickoff: Jan. 10, 1 PM EST, in Foxborough, Mass.

To the winner: A game against No. 1 Indianapolis Colts (14-2) or No. 2 San Diego Chargers (13-3) in the divisional round next week.

Players with Latin American ties: None for either team, but New England quarterback Tom Brady is married to Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen.

What you need to know: New England: The Patriots, the AFC East Division champions, must find a way to replace the production of receiver Wes Welker, who went down with a season-ending knee injury last week. Welker led the league with 123 catches for 1,348 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season. In the Patriots’ 27-21 win over Baltimore earlier this year, Welker made six catches for 48 yards. “For two days you say, ‘We don’t have Wes, what are we going to do?’” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady told The New York Times. “Then you get out to practice and you say, ‘Well, that looks pretty good.’”

Baltimore: The Ravens’ defense still is among the league’s best in the league. The squad yields a meager 16.3 points and 300.5 yards per game – both of which ranked in the top-3 during the regular season. Even with injuries to safety Ed Reed, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Terrell Suggs, the group persevered through a tough regular season schedule to earn the second – and final – wild card for the second straight year. “I think we’ve just gotten a lot more consistent as the year has gone on,” Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson told reporters. “We took a lot of heat early – gave up some plays, didn’t rush the passer so well. But I think in the end it kind of came together and we started playing more consistent. It’s good to get back in the top of those rankings. For a while there, I’d look us up, and I’d keep scrolling down and down saying, ‘What the heck?’ So, I’m really happy with how we’ve played down the road.”

Keep an eye on: New England: Brady. The three-time Super Bowl champion has thrown for 4,398 yards with 28 touchdowns against 13 interceptions this year. Brady, however, is battling rib and hand injuries and has thrown for just 687 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in his three games – all wins – against the Ravens.

Baltimore: Ray Rice: The running back is one of the NFL’s most versatile players, as he led the team in rushing with 1,339 yards and seven touchdowns to go with a team-high 78 catches for 702 yards. Rice has more than 2,000 yards of offense this year and is the catalyst for the league’s fifth-ranked rushing attack, which averages more than 137 yards per game.

The game likely comes down to: New England just doesn’t lose to Baltimore. The Patriots are 5-0 all-time against the Ravens, including a six-point win earlier this year in Gillette Stadium. The Ravens struggled against the league’s better teams during the regular season. They’ll play well against the Patriots – just not well enough to advance to the division round.

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