Countdown to Wild Card Sunday

Baltimore at New England, 1 ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Ravens were 1-6 against
playoff teams during the season while the Patriots, who are minus
WR Wes Welker, were unbeaten in Gillette Stadium in 2009. Remember,
the Ravens lost here earlier in the season and afterwards they
questioned a couple of late-hit penalties involving Patriots QB Tom
Brady. Basically, they said the refs were protecting Brady.

Minus Welker, his favorite drag-pattern receiver and safety
valve, the Ravens believe they must bring extra pressure on Brady
and prevent the quarterback from finding his check-down receivers.
It’s anyone’s guess if Julian Edelman, a seventh-round
pick and former college quarterback, will handle the pressure of
his first playoff game. Welker led the Pats with 123 catches (an
NFL high) for 1,348 yards.

The Patriots need to block and protect Brady better; if not
he will be unable to go deep to Randy Moss. That’s the plan
because Baltimore is very weak at cornerback, although free safety
Ed Reed will start after missing five games with a groin injury.
Brady will want to test Reed early to see whether the former
All-Pro can indeed run and cover center field.

The Ravens figure to stick with their Mr. Offense, Ray Rice,
who had 2,041 yards from scrimmage this season, second only to
Chris Johnson. Rice is a tough inside runner, but he also averaged
9 yards per catch on 78 receptions. Pats MLB Jerod Mayo will lock
onto Rice wherever he goes.

The Patriots are pretty healthy along the defensive front
with the return of NT Vince Wilfork and DL Ty Warren. They
don’t need to put that much pressure on Ravens QB Joe Flacco
because the Patriots secondary can cover and is pretty deep. They
will throw a bunch of different zone-man looks at Flacco, hoping to
pick an interception or two.

The Patriots may try to play some ball control with running
backs Fred Taylor and Laurence Maroney leading the way.

CZAR’S SCOOPS: Brady is pretty funny when
talking about Edelman as a former quarterback. “It’s
pretty remarkable what a good receiver he is considering he played
quarterback (at Kent State) and I don’t know how he was a
former quarterback because he can’t throw at all,”
Brady said. “He tries to tell me that he threw for 2,000
yards or something like that and I say, ‘Man, you can’t
hit that wall over there.’ ” Speaking of Brady, he is 8-0 in
home playoff games and no quarterback in the Super Bowl era has
ever been 9-0.

Pete Carroll’s potential new Seattle gig with total
control may cost a lot of people opportunities. Ravens director of
player personnel Eric DeCosta, who does a great job as the
right-hand man of GM Ozzie Newsome, pulled himself out of
consideration for any personnel job in Seattle. You have to believe
that DeCosta has a great shot at replacing Ozzie whenever the Hall
of Famer elects to retire.

Moss and safety Brandon Meriweather were named as alternates
to the AFC Pro Bowl team.

Brady didn’t miss any practice time this week despite a
broken rib and a broken ring finger on his throwing hand. He also
got good news with OT Nick Kaczur supposedly over his nagging
shoulder injury.

One of the biggest headaches for Flacco and the Ravens this
season has been the consistent dropped passes by starters Mark
Clayton and Derrick Mason this season. Clayton had a huge drop in
the first New England game, letting a fourth-down pass bounce of
his chest at the 10-yard line. The Ravens lost that game, 27-21.
Clayton has been struggling of late, catching only one pass in six
of his last seven starts.

Green Bay at Arizona, 4:30 ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The big question is whether or
not Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin is going to be able to play on that
sprained left knee. He has a bad MCL sprain which he has been
getting treatment for all week. Right now, it doesn’t look
like he would be that effective. Yes, his 84 receptions would be a
big loss, but Kurt Warner’s favorite target is Larry
Fitzgerald. Plus Steve Breaston, Early Doucet and Jerheme Urban can
pick up the slack.

You can bet that Warner will stay clear of Packers CB Charles
Woodson and attack Tramon Williams, the cornerback who replaced
injured Al Harris. Look for the Cardinals to stay out of the deep
middle out of respect for FS Nick Collins, a Pro Bowler. Deep out
patterns and crossing patterns, plus dump-offs to RB Tim Hightower
figure to be where the offense is headed. Believe it or not, the
Packers plan to put CB Charles Woodson, who does have a bad
shoulder, in single coverage as much as possible on Fitzgerald.

The Packers are concerned about Arizona TE Ben Patrick, who
missed the last two games with a concussion. He’s an
excellent red-zone receiver and the team’s best all-around
tight end. The Cardinals are hurting in the secondary, but both LCB
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and FS Antrel Rolle are expected to
play. DRC is very good in coverage, but a little hesitant as a
tackler.

The Packers figure to come out throwing with Aaron Rodgers,
who has 14 TD passes and only two INTs in the last eight games.
Rodgers has been playing smarter and getting rid of the football.
Although he was the most-sacked QB in the NFC during the season, he
has learned how to get rid of the ball quicker, plus the
Packers’ offensive line has started to jell. Rodgers (43
sacks in first 10 games) has been sacked only seven times in his
last six games. The Cardinals can bring pressure, considering they
had 43 sacks during the season, with Darnell Dockett and Calais
Campbell (who will play with a cast on his broken left thumb)
leading the way with seven each.

The Packers need another huge game from rookie pass rusher
Clay Matthews to harass Warner. The Packers are tough to run
against, allowing a franchise-low 83.3 yards a game this season.
So, look for more Tim Hightower than Beanie Wells in this game.

The Packers have tremendous balance on offense, but the key
is Rodgers making smart decisions with the football. Ryan Grant did
rush for 1,253 yards and 11 TDs this season and he’s tough
off tackle.

CZAR’S SCOOPS: Cardinals head coach Ken
Whisenhunt has preached to his players all week that he believed
the Packers ran up the score on them during last week’s
meaningless game to end the season. The Packers won 33-7 and also
had a 28-0 halftime lead here during the preseason. Mike McCarthy
told Whisenhunt of his intentions prior to the game, explaining
that he simply wanted to play to win and play all his regulars
while Whiz elected to rest most of his starters, particularly
Warner. Despite a big lead, McCarthy didn’t pull Rodgers
until early in the fourth quarter. Believe me, that was noticed by
the Arizona sideline.

John Schneider, the Packers’ director of football operations,
reportedly has been set to interview for the vacant GM job in
Seattle. Apparently, Ted Thompson is willing to let Schneider go,
but with Pete Carroll and Pat Kirwan in charge of everything
football and personnel-wise, why would Schneider be interested in a
position without any power or influence?

The Packers are really hoping that Woodson wins NFL Defensive
Player of the Year. The Packers respect Campbell, but they will
test him right away to see if he can really play with a cast on his
broken thumb.

The two players who really saved the Green Bay season are the
starting offensive tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher,.
Tauscher was talked out of retirement to start eight games this
season. Neither player has a contract for next season.