Cowboys emerge as kings of the wild

My biggest problem with picking next weekend’s playoff
winners, especially in the NFC, is the Cowboys and Cardinals are
fresh in my mind. They both looked really great on offense in their
wild-card wins, while the last time I saw the Saints and the
Vikings, well, neither one was playing super.

So, I’m picking the Cowboys and the Cardinals. But
I’m giving the Saints a chance because I’m a Saints
guy. In the AFC, I like the Chargers and the Colts.

Here’s my game-by-game look:

Jets at Chargers: First of all, there won’t
be any restrictions on the Jets offense in this game. I don’t
think it will matter whether they play in bad weather or good
weather. I knew they would beat Cincinnati because the Bengals
haven’t had a good passing attack all year. But the Jets are
facing San Diego, which will be well-coached, and I’ve always
believed teams that throw the ball that well tend to do a great job
schematically of dictating what blitzes they will see.

This will be a totally different game for the Jets, and the
only way they will have a chance against Philip Rivers is with
their same formula: a great defense, control the clock and be able
to run, run, run. That’s really the key. They are going to
face one of the top five offensives in the NFL, and they are going
to face them on the road after flying 3,000 miles.

Mark Sanchez may have to throw more than 15 passes to win
this one. Of the passes he threw against the Bengals, I was more
impressed with the quick slants he threw than the bootleg ones. He
had guys wide open on the boots, but on the slants he had to
deliver some tight passes to keep the chains moving on
third-and-fours. I was very impressed by those and also his
decision-making. It’s going to be a different story against
the Chargers. It’s going to be a hard game for them to win.

Now, I do agree with their coach, Rex Ryan, that the Jets are
a formidable opponent for anyone. It won’t be a cake walk for
the Chargers. I still like them to win, but I think I’d
rather be in the Jets’ position than San Diego’s.

As a player, I didn’t like sitting around. I liked to
play. San Diego has been sitting around and sitting around and they
can say they are getting healthy and all that, but the only thing
about the first-round bye is that, getting healthy. You still
haven’t played in two weeks.

The Jets need to get out there and control the line
scrimmage and take it to them. I don’t think of San Diego as
a defensive machine, either. It’s not as if Shawne Merriman
and those guys are great. This will be a very tough game; it will
be a lot harder for the Jets than what they just went through.

Ravens at Colts: It’s the same thing for the
Ravens as with the Jets. The Ravens love to run the football.
We’re seeing Joe Flacco do a little bit, but he’s
mostly handing off to Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. To have any
chance, they have to run for at least 180 yards. Now, if they can
control the clock with the run, Baltimore can limit the number of
opportunities for Peyton Manning. But the Ravens have to score,
too. They just can’t keep it for eight-nine minutes and get
three points. But I don’t see how the Ravens beat the Colts,
who are so explosive on offense.

I feel better about Indy beating the Ravens than anybody next
weekend. If I had to bet on any of these games and I had $100 to
save my life, I’m more comfortable betting on Peyton Manning
against the Ravens. No disrespect now to them, but I do think the
Jets will come closer to beating the Chargers than the Ravens will
against Indy.

What did I think of Peyton winning his fourth MVP? I’m
not sure it meant as much to him as much it would have meant to
Drew Brees, who has never gotten it. I like to spread this award
around. I mean, you could give it to Peyton every year, but how
could you not give it to Brees? What does he have to do to get it?
What does Chris Johnson down in Tennessee have to do to get it? I
always ask myself who stepped up and had incredible years. It would
have been great for the NFL, because Drew is every bit as good a
guy and a player as Peyton is.

Cowboys at Vikings: I am thinking Dallas will get
pressure all over Brett Favre. I think they will get in his face.
The Cowboys will stop the run — I don’t think Adrian
Peterson has had a 100-yard game in quite a while — and force
Favre to throw to win. As well as Dallas is playing right now, I
just don’t expect the Cowboys to have a letdown — not
like Green Bay’s defense did against Arizona. I think Dallas
is by far the best team right now.

I say that because New Orleans has lost three in a row and
Minnesota won only one of their last four, and that was against a
Giants team that had its vacation bags packed before they played.
That’s a false sense of confidence for the Vikings.

Now, I do believe the Vikings will go into this game
believing they can win, but Dallas is by far playing better defense
right now than Minnesota did in the last month of the season. And
offensively, I would say they are a step ahead of the Vikings, too.

The Cowboys have the running game going, and Tony Romo is
making good decisions with the football. I have a history with
Favre, and he’s proven to me that he can succeed come January
time and time again. He has had such a great season at 40 years
old. I am still so amazed at what he’s accomplished this
season. I mean, we never would have known what a great receiver
Sidney Rice was if Brett hadn’t shown up in Minnesota.

Cardinals at Saints: If the Cardinals can play at
least offensively like they did against the Packers, they have a
great chance against the Saints. Once again, because New Orleans
has lost three straight, I just don’t have a lot of
confidence in the Saints. I was totally shocked with how quickly
the Cardinals without Anquan Boldin jumped out on the Packers.
Early Doucet had a huge game for them picking up the slack, and
they ran the ball great (156 yards) against the NFL’s best
run defense. I think they doubled what Green Bay was allowing in a
single game this season.

Arizona’s defense really covered the Packers a lot
better in the first half than in the second half. And give Mike
McCarthy credit for calling that successful onside kick when they
were down 14 in the second half. It got the Packers right back into
the game. I believe Minnesota can light Dallas up and New Orleans
can light Arizona up — absolutely, it can happen.

How great are Kurt Warner and Arizona? Well, I’m
watching them today, and New Orleans isn’t playing this
weekend. I’m going off those three lost games, and even
though I believe in the Saints, they did not play well in the last
five games of the season. They needed overtime to beat the Redskins
and barely beat the Falcons, too. They were averaging 35.8 points
in the first 13 games and then not even 17 points in the last
three. They were turning it over and not being explosive.

Yes, I believe Sean Payton is very capable of coming up with
the right game plan to beat the Cardinals. When the Saints were
unbeaten, everything Payton called, a post route, a corner route,
deep-in routes and bombs away, they were clicking. Plus, they were
rushing for 145 yards a game. But in those final three, they were
rushing for next to nothing and they got away from it. But can they
dial it up and be scary once again? Yes, I believe they can. But
right now, the Cardinals are fresh on my mind. I feel good about
them, and I feel the same thing about Dallas. They looked awesome
against the Eagles, and they can take this act on the road.