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Countdown to Wild Card Sunday

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Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts after he threw an interception in the first...
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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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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.
Tagged: Packers, Patriots, Ravens, Cardinals, Charles Woodson, Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Mark Clayton, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice

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