2008 NFL Playoffs – Divisional Round Review

(Philadelphia, Pa) — The second leg of the long treacherous road to Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa is in the books and this year’s divisional playoff games delivered high drama along with continuing the trend that the 2008 NFL Season has indeed been one wacky season.  The 2008 Divisional round’s theme may have been “Let’s Do It Again” as there were four rematches, but the results from the exciting games were nowhere near a re-run.  The Cardinals and Ravens turned the tables on their foes after regular season losses and the Eagles proved that every season is different as they vanquished the defending Super Bowl champion Giants into the off-season with a strong road victory — three out of last four years the Super Bowl champ was sent home in the divisional round.

Given that all four home teams were favored in the divisional playoffs, after a crazy wildcard round where are all four road teams were given the edge, you figured sanity would reappear – going into this divisional weekend, above 75% of teams with a bye in the wildcard round won in the NFL Divisional Playoffs since 1990.  However holding to form that anything is possible in this topsy-turvy parity filled league, three road teams walked into hostile environments and gained victories (Cardinals over Panthers, Eagles over Giants, and Ravens over Titans).  I guess the only real non-surprise is that the Pittsburgh Steelers continued to dominate in the divisional round of the playoffs by beating the Chargers — entering the game, the Steelers were 10-2 at home in the divisional playoffs.  But given the NFL’s uncertain environment where being a high playoff seed doesn’t seem to mean much lately, you have to commend the Steelers organization for defeating a dangerous repeat opponent in Heinz Field.

I must admit that I was glued to my television on Saturday and Sunday as the divisional round was very enjoyable — even if I went 2-2 on my picks (had the AFC side correct).  The games showed that persistence, defense, and protecting the ball are the football keys to moving on in the playoffs.  The operative phrase is “Moving On”, because winning the battle on the stat sheet means nothing as getting “W’s” is all that matters in the NFL playoffs.  Surprising all four teams that scored first this weekend lost, showing that the good teams like a good boxer shake off early blows to deliver knockout punches later on in victorious bouts.  The winning teams in the divisional round persistence was led by their defenses as pressure limited scoring opportunities and caused turnovers.  The Cardinals formerly lowly defense joined he high-ranking Steelers, Ravens, and Eagles in capitalizing on turnovers and limiting their opponent’s scoring opportunities in wins — all of the winning teams caused at least 2 turnovers including the Cardinals forcing an amazing six against the Panthers.

What will happen next in the Conference Round???? Who knows as the NFL continues one wacky season.  Early on I thought that I had a clue who was playoff ready by subscribing to the old-school philosophy that home-field advantage still meant something — think Super Teams like the ’70s Steelers, ’80s Niners, ’90s Cowboys, and ’00s Patriots winning at home during their Super Bowl-winning runs.  However with several top seeds falling by the wayside, including both #1 seeds this weekend — No number #1’s in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1997 — times have changed.  This year’s teams are following the “Road Warrior” mentality of recent past Super Bowl champions (2005 Steelers and 2007 Giants) as their blueprint for success.  The script has been flipped as the lower seeded playoffs teams have turned their “Us Against the World” lockerrooms into thought to be unfathomable wins. Next up is the Conference Round with the unlikely pairing of the NFC’s Number #4 seeded Arizona Cardinals hosting the #6 Philadelphia Eagles (first time ever two non double digit win teams will oppose each other in the conference round) and the AFC’s Number #2 seeded Pittsburgh Steelers, the lone remaining high-seed, hosting the #6 seeded Baltimore Ravens.  So right now going into next week’s games, expect the unexpected as teams try to continue to buck the odds in hopes of joining the ’05 Steelers and ’07 Giants, going from an unlikely Wildcard team to holding the Lombardi Trophy.

Game Notes

Baltimore Ravens 13, Tennessee Titans 10

Going into this game you knew it would be black-and-blue affair and the action on the field disappoint.  The weather was cold and windy, but it didn’t stop two of the NFL’s best defenses from teeing off on the other teams’ offense.  The game was low-scoring and both teams made it a point to stop the run (Ravens only had 50 yards rushing and the Titans dynamic duo Johnson and White were both well under 100 yards).  The story of the game for me was how the Titans never capitalized on scoring chances.  The Titans had the advantage in first downs (21 to 9), yardage (391 to 211) and clock (34:07 to 25:53).  But the home team Titans turned the ball over three times in Ravens’ territory including two fumbles inside the Ravens’ 20-yard line.  Ravens veteran kicker Matt Stover (2/2 FGs, 1/1 XP for 7 Pts) nailed a 43-yard field goal with 57 seconds remaining to put the Ravens up, 13-10.  Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was efficient throwing for numbers 11-22, 161 yards, 1 TD and 0 INT as he became the first rookie quarterback to win his first two starts.  You have to wonder if the stifling defense and efficient offense Ravens are feeling like their Super Bowl champion 2000 selves. Next up is a trip to Pittsburgh for a “rubber match” with the Steelers.

Arizona 33 Cardinals, Carolina Panthers 13

Do you remember about a month ago when the Cardinals clinched the pathetic NFC West with a weak 9-7 record.  Everyone thought the Cards would just be happy to be in the playoffs and have their first home playoff game since 1947.  Well everyone welcome to the new Arizona Cardinals as head coach Ken Whisenhunt has his team in position to go to the Super Bowl for the first time ever.  One of the NFL’s longest running punchlines — have never been to a Super Bowl and are in the NFC title game for the first time ever — showed the entire country that they are no longer a joke as they dominated the NFC #1 seeded Panthers.  The Cardinals ran the ball well (135 yards) and stopped the run (only 78 rushing yards for the Panthers).  But the story of the game was the awful play of Carolina Panthers QB Jake Delhomme (see Lloyd’s Lackey) as opposed to the veteran leadership of Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner (21-32, 220 yards, 2 TD, and 1 INT).  Warner and receiver Larry Fitzgerald (see Game Balls) were on the right page from the beginning of the game as the Cardinals built a 27-7 halftime lead.  Also did you notice how up-and-coming rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie held Carolina receiver Steve Smith without a catch for until the fourth quarter.   Last year the Super Bowl was in Arizona’s home stadium, but this year the Cardinals will surprising host the NFC Championship against the equally surprising Eagles.  Fans were so excited the NFC title game sold out in six minutes.

Philadelphia Eagles 23, New York Giants 11

I have to admit that I didn’t think my hometown team could get it done against the Giants on the road for the second time, but they did (Thanks for all the calls and Emails friends and family).  Early on it looked to be all Giants as the G-Men won the coin toss, decided to receive, and backup running back Ahmad Bradshaw ran the opening kickoff deep into Eagles territory.  However kick David Akers stopped Bradshaw from scoring and the Giants started their theme of kicking field goals by converting on a short kick by John Carney.  After the fireworks  of the Giants’ opening drive, it was all Eagles as their defense harassed Giants quarterback Eli Manning all day.  Manning never looked comfortable in pocket as he threw wobbler after wobbler in the windy Meadowlands.  The game seemed to be over when Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel intercepted Manning’s first pass on the Giants’ second drive and returned it to the Giants’ 2-yard line. After a quick dive-in touchdown by efficient Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb (22-40, 217 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, and 16 rushing yards w/ 1 TD – now 9-5 in the playoffs) making the score 7-3, the G-Men had little fight.  The Giants had the ball five times inside the Eagles’ 50-yard line and had only 5 field goal attempts to show for it (Carney made three field goals and missed two).  The Eagles were outrushed (138 to 59), but on two key 4th downs they were up to the task. Eagles DT Brodrick Bunkley made two crucial fourth down stops to preserve the Birds’ win including stuffing Manning on a fourth-and-1 play and running back Brandon Jacobs on fourth-and-2.  Who would have thought it when the Eagles were 5-5-1 after a horrible beating at the hands of the Ravens that they would be going to their unprecedented 5th NFC Championship in 10 years (won 6 of their last 7 including two in the playoffs).  The New England Patriots (five) and Pittsburgh Steelers (three) are the only other NFL teams with more than two conference championship game appearances in that span.  Next up for the Eagles is tough game against a Cardinals team that they already beat on Thanksgiving 48-20.  The Birds cannot have a letdown as they are still the same team that lost to the Redskins twice this year including in Week 16 when their season was supposed to be on the line.  With the Cardinals and Eagles making it the to the NFL Final 4, combined 2007 record of four teams is 31-33.  It will be fun to see which team left for dead, the Eagles or Cardinals, represents the NFC in the Super Bowl XLIII.

Pittsburgh Steelers 35, San Diego Chargers 24

The Steelers were all business as they knew what was at stake in the last divisional game.  All three other home teams lost to lower seeds and the Steelers didn’t want to make it four.  On a snowy and muddy Steelers type track, P-Burgh’s boys dusted off veteran running back Willie Parker (see Game Balls) and rode the Super Bowl XL star to victory.  The game looked to be evenly matched until the Steelers needing a big play (down 7-0 at the time) got one from receiver Santonio Holmes.  The speedy former Ohio State product set a Steelers’ playoff record with a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown that knotted the score.  After winning only by a score of 14-10 at the half, a fully healed efficient Ben Roethlisberger (17-26, 181 yards, 1TD, 0 INTs) and the Steelers came out with smoke in their eyes running 13-play touchdown drive that took 7:56 off the clock. From there the Chargers tried in vane to come back, but the Steelers were too much.  The game was basically over in the  4th quarter when Parker carried the ball five times for 53 yards and scored the Steelers final touchdown to put them up 35-17.  Next up for the Steelers is their hated AFC North rival the Baltimore Ravens.  These teams are the NFL’s version of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s and it will be interesting to see if the Steelers can beat the tough Ray Lewis led Ravens three times in one season.

Game Balls

Arizona Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald — With fellow star 1,000-yard receiver Anquan Boldin sidelined with a hamstring injury, the tall Pro Bowl receiver from the University of Pittsburgh was incredible.  Fitzgerald picked up the slack with 8 catches for 166 yards and 1 touchdown as veteran quarterback Kurt Warner couldn’t help but smile.  To get things started in the Cardinals rather easy 33-13 victory over the Panthers, Fitzgerald made a circus catch over double-coverage on his first grab.  He went on to surpass 100 yards with five minutes left in the second quarter and to no one’s surprise Fitzgerald recovered the Panthers desperation onside kick in the final minutes of the Cardinals’ win.

Other Honorees: Pittsburgh Steelers RB Willie Parker (Had his most carries since week 2 with 27 rushes for 146 yards and 2 TDs. Had his first postseason 100-yard game); Pittsburgh Steelers LB Lamar Woodley (The Steelers “D” was stifling against the Chargers and Woodley was everywhere producing 5 TKLs and 2 sacks); Philadelphia Eagles kicker David Akers (Was huge in beating the G-Men connecting on 3 for 3 FGs and 2 XP’s for  11 points plus tackling Bradshaw on the opening kickoff.  Also set an NFL record with 18 straight made field goals in the playoffs); Philadelphia Eagles S Brian Dawkins (helped stuff the Giants on two 4th down attempts finishing with 10 TKls); Baltimore Ravens S Jim Leonhard (Stopped two huge Titans drives. Before halftime he recovered a fumble and in the fourth quarter the small former Wisconsin star forced a fumble at the Baltimore 9).

Lloyd’s Lackey

Carolina Panthers QB Jake Delhomme – The former NFL Europe quarterback looked like he belonged back in the minor leagues.  Delhomme (17-34, 205 yards, 1 TD, 5 INT and 1 fumble) accounted for six turnovers by himself and the Cardinals scored 23 of their 33 points off of those takeaways. Also only got the ball to All-World receiver Steve Smith only twice including a garbage touchdown. It will be interesting to see if on the hot-seat head coach John Fox brings Delhomme back for a salary of $11 Million dollars next year after such a disastrous game

Other Dishonorees — NY Giants QB Eli Manning (The deer-in-the-headlights look was back as Manning struggle against the Eagles throwing wobbly pass after wobbly pass.  The former first overall pick finished with numbers 15-29, 169 yards, 0 TD, and 2 INTs as his playoffs record fell to 8-7 for his career); Carolina Panthers DE Julius Peppers (After a bust out season producing 14.5 sacks, the former UNC star got no pressure on Warner finishing with only 2 TKLs); Tennessee Titans QB Kerry Collins (I had a feeling that playing the Ravens again was not going to be good for the former Giants Super Bowl quarterback.  Collins looked a little frazzled at times finishing with numbers 26-42, 281 yards, 0 TD, and 1 INT); NY Giants receivers (Anyone wondering if the G-Men would miss Plaxico Burress got their answer as Hixon, Smith, and Toomer only had 6 receptions for 80 yards)

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

Advertisements

2008 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round: Chargers at Steelers

San Diego Chargers (9-8) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4), Sunday 4:45 p.m. ET (CBS) 

LV‘s Pick: Last week running back Darren Sproles (328 all-purpose yards in win over the Colts) had the game of his life.  But this week he is facing the Steelers defense which was almost Number 1 across the board.  Led by Defensive MVP linebacker James Harrison, the Steelers will close all of the gapping holes from the wildcard round.  The Steelers defeated the Chargers, 11-10 in Pittsburgh in Week 11.  But expect a larger margin this time as a healthy Ben Roethlisberger (concussion) leads the Steelers over the formerly surging Chargers 24-17.

2008 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round: Eagles at Giants

Philadelphia Eagles (10-6-1) at NY Giants (12-4), Saturday 1 p.m. ET (Fox) Broadcasting Team: Troy Aikman, Joe Buck, and Pam Oliver (Field Reporter)

The Birds will head 90 miles up the New Jersey Turnpike to face the NFC #1 seed Giants in the highlight game of the four divisional round games.  Since a 5-5-1 start, the Eagles have rattled off 5 wins out of 6 games including a solid win over the Vikings in the wildcard round.  The Eagles are the hottest team in the NFL playoffs that everyone is trying to avoid them, so naturally in the eyes of some they can easily draw comparison to the “2007 Giants”. But the comparison to last season’s wildcard to Super Bowl champion Giants has rankled some like linebacker Antonio Pierce as he basically said “prove it” to the Eagles with some recent quotes.  Pierce said of Eagles comparisons to last season’s Giants, “I won’t know anything about any team until February 1st or 2nd, so you can’t call any team the NY Giants of 2007, because that team won the Super Bowl.”  The loquacious linebacker added, “The psyche of the team this year is a group that understands what it takes to win the championship”.

These two bitter NFC East rivals and their neighboring fans are ready for the “rubber match” of this highly entertaining three-game set.  So far each team has taken home a victory with the road team winning each game — the Giants won 36-31 in Philadelphia in Week 10, and the Eagles won 20-14 at Giants Stadium in Week 14.  This will be the eighth meeting between the longtime foes in three years, so expect this game to come down to game planning, execution, turnovers and special teams.  Both earlier games were slugfests that featured typical NFC East black-and-blue action with the team that ran the ball for the most yards in each meeting winning.  The Giants had 217 rushing yards in Week 10 and the Eagles in Week 14 turned the tables running for a season-high 141 yards on 41 carries.  With both teams looking to stop the run their highly ranked defenses (Eagles NFC leading 274.3 yards allowed and Giants 292 yards).

The talk on the radio always seems to be, “Can Donovan McNabb lead the Eagles to victory?”  But the Eagles offensive game plan should be to get the ball in the hands of playmaker Brian Westbrook (121 total yards in last week’s win over the Vikings).  B-West always seems to save his best efforts for the Giants, but the Eagles need balance to help him so running mate Correll Buckhalter (only 2 carries for 27 yards vs. Vikings) must also get the ball into his hands early and often.  Westbrook showed his explosiveness last week in taking a short screen pass 71 yards to the ‘House as the Eagles sealed the deal against the Vikings.  However I know Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo (former Eagles LB’s coach) is probably studying right not trying how to limit Westbrook.  If Spags is smart he will look to have someone else shadow Westbrook other than overmatched linebacker Antonio Pierce – beat for two touchdowns in the last time in the Meadowlands.

The Eagles may go about running the ball with the speedy Westbrook, but the Giants choose to go at defenses with “Earth, Wind, and Fire” 1-2-3 punch of Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw.  The Giants’ three-headed monster is only as good as their cohesive offensive line, which has over 25 consecutive starts together.  Led by Pro Bowl O-lineman Shaun O’Hara and Chris Snee, the Giants’ Jacobs (rushed 22 times for 126 yards in the Giants’ win) and the rest of EWF are ready to pound on the Eagles again.  The scary thing is that the Giants behind 217 combined rushing yards from their backfield trio held the ball for 39:10 in winning the first regular-season meeting. However lately the Eagles defense has been stifling.  The quick undersized unit finished the regular season with the league’s No. 4 run defense (92.2 yards) and they basically kept Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in check (83 yards, but 40 yards came on one run).

The Philadelphia Eagles will aim to qualify for the NFC Championship Game for the fifth time in the past 10 seasons, since Andy Reid became head coach in 1999.

Other Keys to watch

— A rejuvenated Brian Dawkins in the box against Jacobs, Ward, and Bradshaw

— Receivers Dommanick Hixon (dropped a potential 80-yard bomb last time in Week 14 against the Birds) and Amani Toomer trying to replace Plaxico Burress against an Eagles’ secondary that doesn’t respect them

— Special Teams should be huge in this game so watch to see if David Akers () can come through in the windy Meadowlands and rookie DeSean Jackson can hit a big one on a punt return.  The Giants greybeard Pro Bowl crew of K John Carney and P Jeff Feagles will also be a factor.

— QB Donovan McNabb will need to avoid Justin Tuck (GMen are 13-3 when he gets a sack) and the Giants pass rush.  McNabb has avoided sacks this year in his two prior games against the Giants after the Birds laughingstock 12 sack game last year.

— QB Eli Manning will need to make some more timely throws after only managing only 123 passing yards in the Eagles earlier win.  Manning will have to keep an eye on Pro Bowl corner Asante Samuel (NFL record 4 career touchdown interception returns) and the blitzing schemes of Eagles mad scientist defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.

LV‘s Pick:  I have wrestled back and forth on making this pick, but in the end I just can’t see the Giants losing twice at home to the same team.  Remember the Giants were 7-1 at home and they are the defending Super Bowl champs.  Giants win 20-17 over the Eagles in a very close game.

2008 NFL Playoff Divisional Round Preview: Cardinals at Panthers

Arizona Cardinals (10-7) at Carolina Panthers (12-4), Sat 8:15 p.m. ET (Fox) 

Broadcast Team: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, and Tony Siragusa (Field Reporter)

This maybe the most intriguing of the four rematches as the Arizona Cardinals return to the East Coast looking for their first win on this side of the country – Cardinals were 0-5 back East including shellackings by the Eagles, Patriots, and Jets (Combined score of 202 to 102 in their five losses).  However the Cardinals come into Charlotte with a good feeling fueled by their close 27-23 loss to the Panthers in Week 8.  In the Week 8 clash, the Cardinal led 10-3 at the half before two critical second-half turnovers were converted into 10 points by the Panthers.  Even though they lost the Cardinals clearly believe after putting up 425 total yards including 381 passing yards by quarterback Kurt Warner that they have can beat the 10-point favorite Panthers.

Speaking of Warner, the former Super Bowl MVP has turned back the clock to his St. Louis Rams glory days passing for numbers of 401-598, 4598 yards (2nd in NFL), 30 TDs, and 14 INTs.  Only the Saints had a more prolific passing offense than the Cardinals (292.1 yards a game), so the Panthers secondary led by corners Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall better be ready for a potential track meet.  However the Cardinals clearly understand that in the playoffs balance is the key as former benchwarmer Edgerrin James -NFL’s 11th all-time leading rusher — has emerged to run for 173 yards in the Cardinals last two wins including 73 yards versus the Falcons last week.  James and Warner will be looking for help from All-World receiver Larry Fitzgerald (96 receptions for 1431 yards and 12 TDs), but the former Pitt star will probably have to contend with double-teams as his partner Anquan Boldin is doubtful with a severely pulled hamstring.

The Panthers plain and simple want to pound the rock on offense and who could blame as an O-line led by first round draft pick Jeff Otah has blasted holes for the NFL’s best 1-2 backfield in my opinion.  Carolina’s combination of running backs DeAngelo Williams (1,515 yards, 5.5 ypc, and a league leading 18 TDs) and rookie Jonathan Stewart (836 yards with rookie leading 10 TDs) is probably the NFL’s scariest tandem and the Cardinals led by Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson better summon the same kind of effort that they displayed last week against the Falcons – held the Dirty Birds in check to the tune of 60 yards.  If the Cardinals do find a way to stop Williams and Stewart, then they will have to deal with veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme and his favorite target Steve Smith.  The diminutive Smith (78 receptions for 1,421 yards and 6 TDs) maybe one of the NFL’s smaller receivers at 5’9, but he is one of my favorites due to his toughness, leadership, and uncanny ability to catch Delhomme’s rainbows in traffic. Plus don’t forget about veteran number two Muhsin Muhammad, who is great at moving the chains and in the red zone.  

The key match-up to me will be Panthers Pro Bowl DE Julius Peppers — career high 14.5 sack for 3rd in the NFC-versus a suspect Cardinals offensive line led by LT Mike Gandy.  The Panthers will also be getting DTs Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu back from injury as the two massive men in the middle should also help in collapsing the pocket and keeping James in check.

LV‘s Pick: Even though this game has the makings for an offensive shootout, I believe the weather (expected to be cold and rainy) should be a huge factor in this game.  In a warm weather setting or a dome, I might give the advantage to the Cardinals but this is not their dome in Phoenix they are playing in.  The Panthers have won the past five meetings with Arizona dating to 2003.  So with the elements factoring into the game, expect to see a lot of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart as the Cardinals defense has had too many problems stopping teams this year (331.2 yards allowed per game).  I also see Steve Smith hitting paydirt too as the Panthers defeat the Cardinals 24-14.  At least the Cardinals will be able to point to great season where they hosted their first playoff game since 1947 and won the NFC West (first division title since 1975).

2008 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Preview: Ravens at Titans

Baltimore Ravens (12-5) at Tennessee Titans (13-3), Sat 4:30 p.m. (CBS)

Broadcast Team: Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf

If you like defense and teams playing hardnosed football this is the game for you.  The Ravens nicknamed “Organized Chaos” finished the season ranked 2nd in the NFL with an average of 261.1 yards allowed and the Titans are not far behind with 293.6 yards allowed, which put them 3rd in the AFC. The last time these two teams met in week 5, the Titans came back to defeat the Ravens 13-10 in Baltimore.  There definitely is no love lost between these two former AFC Central rivals as their last meeting featured some chippy play between Titans CB Cortland Finnegan and Ravens WR Derrick Mason.

Both teams like to talk and it will be the squad that maintains their emotions that will win this game.  The key players to me on both squads are their quarterbacks (Ravens rookie Joe Flacco and Titans 14-year veteran Kerry Collins).  Sure both teams are built to run the ball first with their two-headed monsters (Ravens LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee — Ravens led the AFC with an average of 148.5 yards a game; Titans are led by NFL leading rookie rusher Chris Johnson (1,228 yards w/ a 4.9 average) and LenDale White), but the quarterbacks need to step it up in this game for this team to win.  Flacco surprisingly didn’t receive one Rookie of the Year vote after finishing with numbers 257-428, 2971 yards, 14 TDs, and 12 INTs, but efficiency is what matters most to the Ravens “protect the ball” offense.  The rookie from D1-AA Delaware will need to improve on his pedestrian wildcard numbers (9-23, 135 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT and 1 rushing TD) in order for the Ravens to have a chance in hostile Nashville, Tennessee.  The Titans feature opportunistic ballhawks in Michael Griffin and Cortland Finnegan in their secondary, so Flacco will have to be good with his reads.

Collins, who did a commendable job of leading his team to the NFL’s best record is attempting to become the first quarterback in NFL history with at least one playoff win for three different teams, will need to prove he is ready for the playoffs.  He has a lot to prove as way back in week 5, the 1-time Pro Bowl player threw for just 163 yards and had a pair of interceptions.  His old nemesis from Super Bowl XXXV, Ray Lewis, will be waiting with the rest of Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan’s attacking defense will be coming for the graybeard quarterback.  Though the former Penn State signal caller has avoided making bad throws for most of the season, you never know how pressure is going to affect him (finished with 7 INTs in 2008 and he has 10 INTs in only 6 playoff games for his career). You know if Ravens LB’s and D-line can get pressure opportunistic Ravens S Ed Reed (2 INTs vs. Dolphins and an NFL leading 9 INTs in the regular season) will be looking to make a game-changing play.   

An important piece of this game will be both teams ability to stop the run and injuries may cause the Titans to alter their plan of action.  Two key defenders, DT Albert Haynesworth (knee) and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (groin), are back from injury but neither is expected to be 100%.  The Titans will need Haynesworth to control the middle or it could be a long day for them.  Also the Titans’ offense may be in trouble as veteran leader and center Kevin Mawae (elbow) probably will not play.

LV‘s Pick:  This is a tough game to predict, because these two teams will offer no suprises in their attack (run the ball and play stifling defense). This game is a black and blue special, where if they played 10 times, I guarantee you that there would 5 wins on each side. The teams both have good coaches, strong offensive and defensive lines, run the ball consistently, and play good special teams.  Collins last time led the Titans on scoring drives of 80 and 81 yards, but I just don’t see that happening this time.  Fueled by a timely Ed Reed interception, the Ravens continue to win ugly on their way to the AFC Championship game.  Ravens 23, Titans 20

2008 NFL Divisional Playoff Round Preview

(Philadelphia, Pa) – The “Elite Eight” round better known as the NFL Divisional Playoff Round starts the “real” games as far as I am concerned.  Most fans and media live for the hype of the NFL Conference Championships and Super Bowl, but you can put my hearty vote in for the NFL Divisional Playoffs as the most exciting portion of the league’s now year-round calendar.  The splendor of the divisional playoff round is that the four best teams from the NFL regular season, after a well-deserved bye week, finally get to enter the playoff fracas to take on pumped-up wildcard weekend upstarts.  The wildcard round usually does a pretty good job of removing some of the teams that I like to call “Frauds” from the playoff picture.  But if some frauds are leftover surely the divisional round will sniff them out.  The final eight usually brings out the best in teams leading to highly competitive games before the suffocating hype, pressure, and “big stage” mentality of getting to the Super Bowl sets in. 

The theme of the 2008 NFL Divisional Playoff round should be the same as one of my favorite ’70s films, “Let’s Do It Again”.  The film starred African American film icons Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitiere making a killing by prearranging boxing matches with all the marbles riding on a big payday rematch.  The word “rematch” fits perfectly as for the first time since 2005 all four divisional playoff games will be rematches from regular-season contests.  Of course having played and beaten a team in the regular season may cause a little “familiarity” psychological edge in game planning and dissecting tendencies. But playoff tenants of Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, Limiting Penalties/Turnovers, and just plain “Want-to” will be the key factors as to which teams move on to the Conference Championship round on long treacherous road to Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa Bay.  A final note regarding rematches, the aforementioned 2005 divisional playoffs produced some interesting results as 3 out of 4 regular season winning teams lost to their familiar foe in rematches.

Surprisingly all four home teams are favored this week by Vegas after a wildcard round where all four road teams were picked – last week the favored road teams were 2-2 with both winning Sunday.  Remember to watch for turnovers in all four games as nothing can put a dagger in a team’s playoff hopes quicker than turnovers, especially ones that go to the house – just ask the Dolphins (turned the ball over 5 times including two going to ‘The House’ in their wildcard loss to the Ravens last week).

Others storylines to follow in the divisional round include:

 Former Super Bowl QB’s Aplenty — Six of the eight Divisional Playoff teams start a quarterback who has previously started in a Super Bowl including all four NFC quarterbacks. The number of former Super Bowl thrower tops the previous NFL high from in 1993 when there were five.  (Cardinals QB Kurt Warner with the Rams, Giants QB Eli Manning, Eagles QB Donovan McNabb, Titans QB Kerry Collins with the Giants, Panthers QB Jake Delhomme, and Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger).

Being #1 Seed is not what it used to be — Attaining the No. 1 seed in your conference and home field advantage used to mean something back in the day, but in today’s parity-laden NFL there are no guarantees to Super Bowl entry.  Since 1990 only 17 of 34 number one seeds in the playoffs have made it to the Super Bowl with only 8 of those teams winning it all.  The last time two No. 1 seeds faced was in 1993 for Super Bowl XXVIII with Buffalo vs. Dallas.

The G-Men are the playoffs #1 Seed — The New York Giants are only the fourth Super Bowl champion to be ranked as the top seed in the following playoffs since the NFL moved to six playoff participants per conference in 1990 (1975 Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl X; 1983 Washington Redskins Lost Super Bowl XVIII; 1989 San Francisco 49ers won Super Bowl XXIV; 1990 San Francisco 49ers lost in NFC Championship Game; 1993 Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVIII; 1998 Denver Broncos won Super Bowl XXXIII)

Ravens head coach and quarterback attempting to enter new rookie ground — Baltimore Ravens rookie head coach John Harbaugh and his rookie quarterback Joe Flacco can reach two milestones when they play the Tennessee Titans on Saturday.  Flacco can become the first rookie quarterback to win his first two playoff games and Harbaugh can become only the fifth rookie head coach to reach that mark.

Former Super Bowl MVP’s trying to lead their teams back to the promised land – There is no value that you can put on Super Bowl “experience” when it comes to the post season.  Luckily for certain teams they will have the services of players that got-it-done when it mattered most.  There are four Super Bowl MVPs remaining in the 2008 NFL playoffs (Arizona Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, Super Bowl XXXIV; Baltimore Ravens LB Ray Lewis, Super Bowl XXXV; Pittsburgh Steelers WR Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL; and New York Giants QB Eli Manning, Super Bowl XLII).

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA).