Wild-card winners can keep going

BY foxsports • January 10, 2011

There was a long period in the NFL when wild-card teams were simply playoff fodder for division winners to feast on before the big divisional showdowns. Generally, either the No. 1 or No. 2 conference seeds were advancing and winning the Super Bowl. Well, that all changed after the 2005 season when Pittsburgh became the first No. 6 seed to win three straight road games and beat No. 1 seed Seattle in the Super Bowl.

When the Giants upset the unbeaten Patriots in 2007, they were the fifth seed. Everything was back to normal last season as the conference’s top seeds met in Super Bowl XLIV.

But there’s every reason to believe that a couple of wild-card game winners can do it again this weekend and advance to the conference championship games.

Don’t forget that the Jets and Packers, two No. 6 seeds, were considered Super Bowl contenders back in training camp. The Packers dealt with more injuries during the season, but both teams have proven how deep their rosters are, and that’s why both are among the last eight teams standing.

This weekend’s AFC playoff games are pretty wild, made to order for the fans. It’s the first time two divisional opponents will meet in the semifinal round. The Jets and the Patriots both held serve at home during the season; the Steelers and Ravens took turns winning on the road. In the NFC, the Falcons beat the Packers on a last-second field goal in the Georgia Dome while — hold on to your hats — the Bears were one of two winning teams the Seahawks beat during the regular season, upsetting them in Chicago 23-20.

Here’s how last weekend’s four winners can repeat.

Most believe that Seattle wasn’t good enough to be in the playoffs in the first place and even now their record is only 8-9. But not only did Pete Carroll’s bunch play inspired football against the Saints on Saturday, they were aggressive on both sides of the ball. The playoffs are a time when coaches must understand that you must gamble a little, get out of your routine and definitely not play "not to lose." That was the Rams’ faulty decision when they lost in Seattle a couple weeks ago in what was essentially a playoff game.

Matt Hasselbeck was on fire against the Saints, but offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates’ play-calling was sensational in that he emptied his playbook. He took advantage of Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins being out and Seattle’s receivers ran a lot of double moves, allowing them to click on some big plays.

The Bears better be prepared for some more fun and games from the Seahawks, who are simply happy to still be alive. Seattle must continue to go for broke and gamble. When they beat the Bears, they sacked Jay Cutler six times and stuffed Chicago’s anemic running game. They even got a safety on Cutler.

It will hurt them that the surface in Soldier Field is not a fast track, but Seattle has a chance with Marshawn Lynch, who showed on his winning touchdown run why he calls himself the Beast. Seattle’s offensive line was magnificent against the Saints and they must repeat that performance against Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher. Of course, the Bears didn’t sack Hasselbeck last time, either.

The Packers will go as far as Aaron Rodgers can take them. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw seven touchdown passes in his first two playoff games, but more importantly he finally has a win after losing last year in Arizona.

Green Bay also just beat Michael Vick and the Eagles in Philadelphia. That’s a tremendous confidence booster. Yes, the Falcons await and they are the No. 1 seed and Matt Ryan never loses at home, etc.

Now, it won’t be easy for the Packers, but they must take the same defensive approach that the Saints did in the Georgia Dome. They must stack the line to stop Michael Turner and dare Ryan to beat them throwing the ball. Green Bay’s secondary should be up to the task of dealing with Roddy White, one of the league’s finest receivers. The Packers’ three cornerbacks, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and rookie Sam Shields, must come up with a turnover or two. It’s as simple as that.

On the flip side, Rodgers can’t make any stupid mistakes or take any dumb sacks. He should be able to read Atlanta’s secondary and stay away from any traps. If he does that, Green Bay can win and advance. They lost a tight 20-17 game on Thanksgiving weekend in Atlanta, so we know they won’t be intimidated with this opportunity.

Now, the Jets may have the most difficult task. The last time they visited New England, they were smoked 45-3. Rex Ryan made a couple silly decisions in the first half and then the rout was on. But Rex won’t make the same mistakes again. He coached brilliantly in Indianapolis, deftly handling his timeouts and in-game decisions.

Tom Brady, who will win the MVP award, threw only four interceptions all season. Two of them came in his early season loss to the Jets. He had an awful second half against New York and finished with 16 incompletions on 36 attempts. However, Brady’s offense has been drastically altered from that game. He still had Randy Moss then and even hit him with a touchdown pass.

The Jets know that New England’s offense is totally different, evolving into a tight-end heavy attack with a lot of short crossing patterns. The Jets will lose if they simply play coverage against the Patriots. They must whack potential receivers at the line of scrimmage and hold them as long as they can. They must also blitz Brady and knock him around.

On offense, the Jets must be aggressive and take some shots down the field while also sticking to their running game. Mark Sanchez passed for three touchdowns when they beat New England and he will have to repeat that performance. The key for New York will be keeping the game close through three quarters. If they can do that, they have a big chance.

Finally, the Ravens will be in a slugfest with the Steelers. These are two of the biggest macho teams remaining in the NFL. And, naturally, most of their big stars play on defense. Baltimore won in Pittsburgh when Ben Roethlisberger was still suspended. In the rematch, the Ravens made a stupid decision to throw the ball on a second-and-five play with 3:25 left and Troy Polamalu caused Joe Flacco to fumble and Pittsburgh raced to the winning touchdown.

The Ravens are a good road team and their defense loves playing in Pittsburgh because they can hear Ray Lewis calling the signals. Baltimore has the superior defensive line, led by Haloti Ngata, and they must impose their will against a shaky Pittsburgh offensive line. They must rattle Roethlisberger just like they did Matt Cassel. Granted, Big Ben won’t fold like Cassel did. But the Ravens must prevent him from throwing the deep bomb to Mike Wallace.

This figures to be the lowest scoring game of the weekend. Joe Flacco can’t turn the ball over. It’s as simple as that. The team that makes the fewest turnovers in Pittsburgh advances to the AFC title game. This will be an old throwback game to the days of the Steel Curtain.

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