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Cheat Sheet: fatal flaws for every first-round team
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Excuse me if this is a bit short; my arms were tired from mopping up all the saliva the media have drooled over the Packers and Cowboys this week. And apologies to Jets fans if unable to get through this. Having not played a real NFL opponent in two weeks, you're in some haze of make-believe convincing yourselves your squad didn't back into the AFC's No. 5 seed. I'm just getting started. Why wait? Let's break it down:
New York Jets
The Kid Quarterback: Has there ever been a quarterback with less impressive numbers to start a postseason game than Mark Sanchez?
It appears as though Danny Kanell of the '97 Giants, Sean Salisbury of the '92 Vikings, Quincy Carter of the '03 Cowboys and Tarvaris Jackson of the '08 Vikings are among the worst quarterbacks numbers-wise to start playoff games over the past 20 years. With his 63.0 passer rating, 54 percent completion rate and 12-20 TD/interception ratio, Sanchez finds himself on that "exclusive" list.
The hot dog incident, the head-first sliding fiasco, the six-interception game against Buffalo, the poor performance against the Falcons with a playoff berth on the line at home — there's no chance Mark Sanchez becomes just the fourth rookie QB in NFL history (Shaun King, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco) to win a playoff game, right? The kid from Southern California who never played a college game in cold weather is going to rally his troops in the bitter cold of Ohio and win on the road?
I'd have my doubts if I were a fan of Gang Green. Sorry, Ed the Fireman. Sorry, Adam Schein. Sorry, Joe Benigno. And sorry to the rest of my graduating class from high school — but it's going to be tough coming out top with No. 6 under center.
Umm, so, yeah, about last week: I know they had nothing to play for, but the Bengals looked really, really, really, really bad Sunday night in New Jersey. Like, early '90s bad. Like David Klingler/Ki-Jana Carter bad.
Whether by design or not, it's hard to come into Saturday's game — on six days' rest — exactly beaming with confidence and bravado after last weekend's performance. And it's not like Curtis Painter and Mike Hart were taking snaps. The only Bengals offensive starter who didn't suit up was Cedric Benson. Against the Bengals, the Jets rushed for 257 yards and held Cincinnati's offense to 72 total net yards. With Domata Peko in the lineup or not, that's a heck of a beating to just bounce back from six days later.
Center of attention: Up until Sunday's bout with the Cowboys, Eagles center Jamaal Jackson had started every Philly game since taking over the gig from Hank Fraley in 2006. The center with the league's fourth-longest active starts streak at 71, Jackson went down with a season-ending ACL injury during Philly's second-half collapse against the Broncos a week before. The Eagles haven't looked the same since.
Though everyone in the Philly camp is downplaying the issue, replacement center Nick Cole — who moved over from guard — had a few bad snaps Sunday against Dallas and struggled immensely in both the run and pass game. Perhaps of greater concern is Cole's replacement, fourth-year man Max Jean-Gilles. Though a beast in college at Georgia, Jean-Gilles has yet to fulfill his potential as a pro and has struggled when given the opportunity in recent years.
Dallas NT Jay Ratliff is a terror. He's going to give Cole and Jean-Gilles fits on Saturday night. Add inside rushes from Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware, and it could be a long evening in Big D.
Who would have ever guessed an Eagles player named Jackson — someone other than DeSean — would be the difference between a Super Bowl run and a first-round loss?
That ol' thing: With the Cowboys in the midst of a three-game winning streak, everyone's high on them this week. Rightfully so. But I suppose there's a little added pressure when you haven't won a playoff game since 1996 and hear about it … every … single … day.
The 'Boys can exorcise a lot of demons with a win on Saturday night. If not, coaches' jobs can be on the line, an offseason of criticism will be under way as soon as the final whistle blows and Tony Romo will be kept out of the elite quarterbacks conversation for yet another year.
That's a lot of pressure. Oh, and beating the same team three times in a season isn't so easy, either. Just ask the '07 Cowboys.
Road trip: The Patriots went 8-0 at home this season and are 11-1 at home in their playoff history. They have won 11 straight home playoff games, and Tom Brady is 8-0 in home playoff games. The Pats have also never lost (5-0) to the Ravens. Ever. Good luck with all that, Baltimore!
New England Patriots
Wes-less: "You can't replace him; there's no doubt about that," Brady said of Wes Welker Monday during his weekly radio interview with Gerry Callahan and John Dennis in Boston. "He's one of those guys that nobody can substitute in for Wes, that they're going to be Wes. He's everything you ask for. He's just an incredible player and leader." When Brady went down in Week 1 last year, the critics said there'd be no way the Pats could recover.
They went 11-5. You know that script.
But what no one mentions is how much the Pats struggled offensively in those first two games after the injury against the Jets (a win) and Dolphins (a loss). Julian Edelman had a big day after Welker went down last week — 10 catches, 103 yards — but is not replacing the 123-catch Pro Bowler anytime soon.
Without Welker and with a running game that hasn't exactly inspired the masses in Boston this year, can the Patriots offense be the Patriots offense? They no longer can just rely on the defense. We saw that about 10 different times this season.
Green Bay Packers
Waking a sleeping giant: There's a bit of recent history between the Pack and the Cardinals, and it seems as if the Packers have had no problem just poking the defending NFC champions with a giant stick.
Ken Whisenhunt was peeved in August when it appeared as though Mike McCarthy game planned and went all-out in a preseason game, taking a 38-10 lead and continuing to go deep after halftime. Similar sentiments could be read between the lines in Whisenhunt's comments after the Packers' blowout win on Sunday. There was Aaron Rodgers, with a 26-0 hafltime lead, still in the game and throwing the deep ball well into the third quarter. The Packers have now come in and embarrassed the Cardinals in their building twice in the past five months.
Jekyll and Hyde: Which version of the Cardinals will show up on Sunday? The defending conference champions that beat the Giants and Bears on the road and dismantled the Vikings on national TV? Or the version that was swept by the 49ers, beaten 31-10 by the Colts in their own building and almost knocked off by the Lions? Injuries are scary (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Anquan Boldin, Calais Campbell), but inconsistency is scarier.
And now that I've dished out a year's worth of negativity, here are my wild-card round picks. After all, somebody has to win these games:
Saturday gamesJets at Bengals: As much as I'd like to focus on Cincy's September and October wins over the Steelers and Ravens, the 257 rushing yards the Jets gashed the Bengals for on Sunday can't escape my mind. Cincinnati wasn't nearly as impressive over the past two months as it was in the season's first two. The Jets, meanwhile, have the No. 1 defense and rushing game.
This one should be downright ugly. Mark Sanchez may throw for 35 yards and still get the win. Look for the law firm of Jones, Greene and Smith to slice, dice, and pound the Bengals defense from start to finish. The season began with Chad Ochocinco stealing the show on HBO's Hard Knocks. It will end on Saturday with Ochocinco being silenced by Darrelle "Master Lock" Revis. The Pick: Jets 21, Bengals 13
Eagles at Cowboys: Two weeks ago, everyone was going gaga over the high-flying Eagles. Fourteen days later, the same folks are nuts about the Cowboys. Though both defenses have had strong seasons and Dallas has posted two shutouts in a row, I'm expecting a shootout similar to the Week 2 Monday night showdown from last year in this one. In the end, I think Tony Romo's shoulders get a lot lighter and Jerry Jones' smile gets a lot wider. Gimme the red hot Cowboys in a wild one. The Pick: Cowboys 38, Eagles 27
Sunday gamesRavens at Patriots: You saw the numbers above about the Pats at home in postseason and against the Ravens. But we're in store for an upset. Look for the Ravens to jump out early, bleed the clock with that dynamic running game and get a surprisingly stellar performance out of what has been a shaky secondary. Call me crazy, but I like John Harbaugh's team in this one. The Pick: Ravens 23, Patriots 20
Packers at Cardinals: It's tough to pick against the Packers, winners of seven of their past eight and fresh off a 33-7 drubbing of this very Cardinals team. But I'm not betting against Kurt Warner in a postseason game anytime soon.
Warner has guided two different franchises to a Super Bowl, has played in three of them and has a 98.9 postseason passer rating, the second-highest in NFL history to Bart Starr's 104.8. Warner averages 306.2 yards per playoff game, the best mark in league annals (minimum five games), has passed for 365-plus yards five times in playoffs, the most all-time, and his 64.8 percent completion rate in postseason is tops among quarterbacks with at least 250 attempts. Warner passed for 1,147 yards in last year's playoffs, the most ever in single postseason, and he holds the top two marks (1,063 in 1999 with St. Louis) in NFL history.
I can go on and on. In short, I'll take Warner and his encyclopedia's worth of game experience and postseason records over a quarterback with zero career postseason starts. Especially at home. The Pick: Cardinals 30, Packers 23