Prior to the Snap, Wild Card Weekend: The Music’s Changing

There are sundry reasons Tecmo Super Bowl is the greatest video game ever. There’s the fact that the Giants are really good in it and Lawrence Taylor is unstoppable. There’s the flex done after every sack and that the computer’s quarterback is always left-handed. There’s how there’s always that chance you’ll block the other team’s extra point and the ridiculous number of safeties. There’s how poorly the other team punts and that flea flicker from Simms to Stephen Baker Touchdown Maker that works practically every time. There’s its most recognizable feature: that zig-zagging down the field on a long play is preferable to running straight, implicitly teaching a generation of children how to escape from alligators.

But maybe my single favorite thing about Tecmo Super Bowl is this: When you get to the playoffs, the background music changes. It shifts from the simple regular-season music, which you zoned out about 10 games ago (if you listened to it at all), to a more intense version that immediately reminds you it isn’t the regular season anymore. It’s playoff time.

This week in the NFL, the music officially changes. It seems an especially significant break this year considering the relative uneventfulness of the last few weekends of the season. The NFC playoff teams were determined by Week 16, and the AFC required the Jets and Ravens to beat the resting Bengals and the abhorrent Raiders, respectively, to get in. I can’t think of a Week 17 with less drama.

Furthermore, three of the four matchups this weekend are rematches from Week 17 blowouts, and it’s difficult to figure out in all three circumstances just how much of the blowout owes to circumstances like motivation and how much to more tangible things like, “The Packers are a lot better than the Cardinals.”

And that’s part of what makes this one of the most intriguing Wild Card Weekends in recent memory. The biggest spread in any of the games is 4 (Dallas), and I’m not remotely confident in any of the teams I’m picking. Just three years ago, the spreads on Wild Card Weekend were 6.5, 2.5, 8.5, and 7.5 (Indy-KC, Sea-Dal, NE-NYJ, and Phi-NYG, respectively). Of course, the biggest spread last year was Atlanta by 3.5 over Arizona, and every road team was favored to win. The lesson? Last year was really weird.

So this whole introduction essentially means this: I’m not confident in my picks. I can see myself going 0-4 just as easily as 4-0. Or, parity is back, baby! (And so is my NFL Preview Bonanza interlocutor-style!)

#5 New York Jets (9-7) at

#4 Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

SO THE BENGALS PRETTY MUCH SUCK, RIGHT?: They can’t be that bad, right? This is a team that swept the AFC North, won in Green Bay, were two devastating last-second losses to Denver and Oakland from being 12-4 (and suffered, you know, those other two devastating losses), and almost won in San Diego. This is a kind of impressive 10-6 season, right?

SO YOU DIDN’T WATCH LAST WEEK?: That’s the big question going into this week: How much do we value what happened in Week 17? Heading into last week, I would have quickly picked Cincy to dispatch the Jets, the Cards to beat the Pack, and the Eagles to beat the Cowboys (I did, in fact, pick Philly to win in Dallas last week). But the way all those games went down—and the Jets-Bengals one in particular—really changes how I feel about a lot of these teams.

AND THE JETS ARE PRETTY AWESOME, NO?: According to Rexy. Of course, I’ve said some harsh things about the Jets and Josh can now gloat all he wants about Gang Green going 9-7 and being in the playoffs just as he said and my Giants went 8-8 and are home and didn’t even get to close out Giants Stadium like they were supposed to. The Jets run the ball and play defense well. Darrelle Revis should be the Defensive Player of the Year. But this is not a very good football team.

WHY NOT?: A lot of Jet fans also happen to be Met fans. For reasons I can’t fathom, they do not seem to be approaching the idea of Mark Sanchez starting a road playoff game in snowy, sub-20-degree weather with the same trepidation Met fans approached Oliver Perez starting Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. Mark Sanchez is the worst quarterback to start a playoff game since Scott Zolak.

WHO?: Exactly.

THEN HOW DID THEY PILE UP 37 AGAINST A GOOD DEFENSE LAST WEEK?: By playing Brad Smith at quarterback! They should have done that all year.

No, I can’t imagine that the Bengals aren’t better prepared for Smith in the Wildcat and that they won’t be stuffing the box with eight and nine guys all night. You’ve got arguably the best pair of corners in the league in Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, so don’t be afraid to put them on a little bit of an island and make Sanchez beat you. If he somehow does, you tip your cap.

ANY CHANCE EITHER TEAM CRACKS 20?: They might get to 20, maybe 21. I don’t see them going much higher. The Bengals have scored more than 24 points just twice all season, and the Jets have done it six times—three in the last four weeks (against TB, Indy’s backups, and Cincy’s backups).

BTW, DID YOU SEE WHO’S CALLING THIS GAME?: I wish I hadn’t. Tom Hammond (okay…), Joe Gibbs (huh?), and Joe Theismann (what???). Yeah, tough break CIN and NYJ fans.

IS THIS THE PREMIER MATCHUP BETWEEN DRAFT-BUST RUNNING BACKS WHO LATER RESURRECTED THEIR CAREERS?: It has to be. Thomas Jones was taken seventh by the Cardinals in 2000 (ahead of Ron Dayne and Shaun Alexander) and proceeded to rush for 1,264 yards in three seasons. He rebounded a little in spot duty in Tampa, found a role as a starter in Chicago, and has fully blossomed these last three years with the Jets, who got him from the Bears because Chicago needed to free up PT for…

…Cedric Benson, the fourth overall pick in 2005 who proceeded to rush for 1,593 yards in three seasons in the Windy City. He found some time last year in Cincy before having a breakout season in 2009 with 1,251 yards.

This is the most interesting subplot of the game.

ANY PLAYOFF HISTORY BETWEEN THESE TWO TEAMS?: The Jets defeated the Bengals in a 1982 Wild Card game in Cincinnati, 44-17.

WHO HAS THE HISTORICAL EDGE?: Despite their putrid performance since 1991, the Bengals did in fact have an excellent decade in the ‘80s, twice advancing to the Super Bowl only to lose twice in close fashion to Joe Montana and the 49ers. Cincinnati is 5-8 all-time in the playoffs, 0-1 this decade (it’s still technically the 2009 season), and 1-2 in Wild Card games.

The Jets, of course, have that Super Bowl III title in their lone trip to the big game and an 8-11 postseason record, including a 2-4 mark since 2000 and a 4-5 mark in Wild Card games (2-3 on the road)

ISN’T IT ABOUT TIME FOR A PREDICTION?: Bengals load the box and limit the Jets’ rushing attack, forcing Sanchez to have to throw it more than the 16 times he did last week. He makes one big mistake, and that’s enough for Cincinnati to go with Benson and field position the rest of the way and win ugly, just like it has all season. BENGALS 16, JETS 7

#6 Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) at

#3 Dallas Cowboys (11-5)

AN 11-5 6-SEED IS PRETTY IMPRESSIVE: Yeah, that’s the kind of thing you see in the AFC (like with Baltimore last year) but rarely in the NFC. I don’t think you’ll find anyone who thinks this Eagles’ team isn’t substantially better from the one that earned the 6-seed last year at 9-6-1 and went on to the NFC Championship.

BUT DON’T ANDY REID’S TEAMS USUALLY CHOKE IN THE PLAYOFFS: Well, it’s an interesting dynamic, because the Eagles under Reid have been known for losing NFC title games (and they have: four of them). At the same time, they’ve never been one-and-done in the postseason and are a pretty impressive 3-4 in playoff road games under Reid. Food for thought, eh?

YOU ARE SO ON THE PHILLY BANDWAGON: I was before last week. After they took apart the Giants for the second time this season, I wrote that this was the most explosive offense Reid had had in Philadelphia. And I still believe that: There’s an excess of speed on this team.

But the way Dallas has been playing (and the way they played the Eagles twice this season) gave me a lot of pause. It’s pretty clear that the Cowboys are a better defensive team than Philly, and they’ve been able to contain DeSean Jackson in a way the Giants and most other NFC teams couldn’t. Whether that’s scheme or luck that’s about to run out will probably decide this one.

HOW UNSAVORY IS THIS MATCHUP FOR A GIANTS’ FAN: Very. But at least it’s the first round, meaning it’s less likely that one of these teams will be in the Super Bowl. If we get the Cowboys/Eagles in the Super Bowl after a Yankees/Phillies World Series, I mean…

AND IF THEY PLAY THE JETS!:

WHAT ARE YOUR ROOTING INTERESTS?: Still dislike the Cowboys more, still would like to see them extend the winless playoff streak, but still really dislike the Philadelphia area and can’t endure much more success for them in the sports world. Tough call.

IS DALLAS AS GOOD AS EVERYONE SAYS?: I’m not completely sure. They lost to a Giants’ team in freefall early in December and beat a Saints’ squad that entered freefall in late December. I don’t put much stock in the shutout of the Redskins. But the close loss to San Diego and the shutout of Philadelphia are definitely impressive, and this is as good as the Cowboys have been playing going into the postseason in a long time.

This is really a landmark kind of game for their franchise, I think. If Dallas wins, it has as good a shot as anybody in the NFC of getting to the Super Bowl; it might even be the favorite. If the Cowboys lose, it’s yet another playoff disappointment and another year without a postseason victory for the team or for Wade Phillips. You’d seriously have to contemplate a change, regardless of what Phillips did during the regular season.

WHAT’S THE LITTLE THING IN THE BACK OF YOUR MIND THAT MOST PREVENTS YOU FROM PICKING THE COWBOYS?: More so than Phillips and Romo’s bad playoff numbers and the overall weight Dallas has to put on this game, it’s the kicking situation. This is going to be a tight game, and if it comes down to a field goal, David Akers is a lot more reliable than Shaun Suisham.

PLAYOFF HISTORY?: A good amount. The Eagles beat the Cowboys 20-7 at the Vet in the 1980 NFC Championship to get to their first Super Bowl while Dallas’ ‘90s dynasty twice beat Philly in the Divisional Round: 34-10 in 1992 and 30-11 in 1995. Every time these two teams have met in the postseason, the winner has advanced to the Super Bowl. Shoot me now.

HISTORICAL EDGE?: Depends what you mean by historical. If we’re staying recent, it’s clearly the Birds. The Eagles have a better-than-expected 19-18 playoff record, including a 10-7 mark under Andy Reid. They are 7-5 in the Wild Card round, with six wins in their last seven Wild Card games.

Dallas, meanwhile, is 0-for-the-Aughts in the playoffs and has lost its last six playoff games. The Cowboys are still 32-24 all-time in the postseason with those eight trips to the Super Bowl and five titles.

PREDICTION: Can’t I just say it’ll be a fun game? I think it’s close throughout, I think Suisham misses a field goal early, I think DeSean Jackson gets free for a big play, and I think the Cowboys win anyway because they’re a better team. Tony Romo won’t make mistakes, he’ll outplay Donovan McNabb, he’ll find Miles Austin Jersey Guy for a big play of his own, and Dallas will be able to control the clock in a way Philly can’t. COWBOYS 27, EAGLES 24.

#6 Baltimore Ravens (9-7) at

#3 New England Patriots (10-6)

WHY WES WHY?: Yeah, that kinda sucked. But I’ve always (somewhat irrationally) viewed non-contact injuries as fate. Those things happen.

IS THIS THE YEAR THE PATRIOTS GO DOWN EARLY?: I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to call this the worst Patriots’ playoff team under Bill Belichick. In fact, that’s almost a metaphysical certainty. The defense, while playing better of late, is still relatively subpar, and the offense relies far more on a running game of Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris than we’ve grown accustomed to these last few seasons in New England. Throw in the loss of Welker, and it’s hard to see the Pats making a whole lot of noise this January.

BUT IS THIS THE YEAR THEY GO DOWN EARLY?: That depends on how you feel about the Ravens, who I persisted in saying all year long were the best team in the AFC North (even after they were swept by Cincy). Like New England, Baltimore’s defense isn’t quite what we’re used to seeing there. Its offense, though, is definitely better than it was a year ago when the Ravens made it all the way to the AFC Championship, largely due to Ray Rice. Yet another big-play quasi-Jersey Guy, Rice is the best dual threat still playing (now that Chris Johnson’s season is over) and gives the Ravens another big-play element to go along with Joe Flacco’s occasional forays with the deep ball.

That said, Joe Flacco is still Joe Flacco—you can win with him, but you won’t win because of him.

YOUR ANTI-FLACCO, PRO-RICE AGENDA HAS BEEN CLEAR FOR SOME TIME NOW: I’ll try to calm it down, but I mean, I really like Ray Rice. And it’s not like he’s going to be around too long. Rutgers put way too much mileage on those legs. He may be over the hill by the end of the 2010 season.

IS THE WELKER INJURY THE BIGGEST ONE IN THIS GAME?: Yes.

OH, ISN’T THERE ANOTHER KINDA BIG ONE?: Well, Ed Reed is now back after missing four games with a hip injury, but nobody’s really sure if Ed Reed is BACK, if you know what I mean.

WHO OR WHAT IS JULIAN EDELMAN?: He’s Welker’s equally Caucasian, equally physically unimpressive, not-quite-equally shifty replacement in the slot. He’s also the best pass-catcher to come out of Kent State’s football program this decade. Interestingly, that does not make him the best pass-catcher to come out of Kent State—a title that clearly belongs to former Golden Flashes’ power forward, Antonio Gates. KSU has also produced James Harrison, Joshua Cribbs, and establishmentarian violence.

PLAYOFF HISTORY?: None. But in the regular season, the Patriots are 5-0 against the Ravens. NE is one of two teams Baltimore has never beaten; the other is the Carolina Panthers.

HISTORICAL EDGE?: These are two franchises that have done well when they get to the postseason. The Ravens are 7-4 all-time in the playoffs, including an astonishing 5-2 mark on the road. John Harbaugh is 2-1 in the postseason.

New England, meanwhile, is 21-13 and 14-3 under Belichick. Like the Eagles under Andy Reid, the Patriots have not lost their first playoff game under Belichick. Unlike the Eagles under Andy Reid, they also haven’t lost at home during BB’s tenure as HC. New England’s last home playoff loss was in 1978 to the Houston Oilers.

PREDICTION TIME, AND ALTERNATIVELY: IS THIS THE YEAR THE PATRIOTS GO DOWN EARLY?: No. Edelman will do enough to approximate Welker, Moss will show up because it’s the playoffs, and the Patriots will be able to run the ball well enough to control the game and force Flacco to beat them. He won’t because he can’t. Ray Rice has an okay game, though. PATRIOTS 20, RAVENS 10.

#5 Green Bay Packers (11-5) at

#4 Arizona Cardinals (10-6)

SNOOZE: What? Are you kidding me? To me, this is the most exciting game of the weekend!

YOU SERIOUS?: Are you? Two explosive, pass-happy offenses in warm weather against defenses that, while not great, have a number of playmakers? No discernible edge, even though most people are picking Green Bay and they might be favored by kickoff? And you’re not excited?

EHH, WHAT CAN I SAY?: This may just go down as the Greatest Wild Card Playoff Game Ever Played.

WHAT CURRENTLY HOLDS THAT TITLE?: The last Wild Card game between the Packers and the NFC West champion.

HIGH STANDARD: Yeah, this probably won’t be as good as that one. I mean, Favre in his prime vs. Young in his prime? Beautiful. Not to mention Summerall and Madden.

THE NINERS HAVE PLAYED SOME ENTERTAINING WILD CARD GAMES AT HOME, HAVEN’T THEY?: I hate you.

And should I use this space to point out San Fran benefitted from horrendous calls in both games to win? Is this the space for that? And should I point out how those Niner teams went on to lose to the Falcons and Bucs, respectively? Is that okay?

CAN WE GET BACK TO THE ISSUE AT HAND?: With pleasure. Aaron Rodgers has pretty much shown that he should have been the No. 1 pick in the 2005 Draft (which I thought at the time), and Donald Driver and Greg Jennings are as good a receiving duo in the NFC after their counterparts in this matchup. Ryan Grant is a serviceable running back, and the Green Bay defense has improved dramatically from a year ago, spearheaded by DPOY candidate (and if I had to guess, winner) Charles Woodson. The Pack is fifth against the pass this season as a defense.

The Kurt Warner Hall of Fame debate seems to be fading, if only because Warner is probably in without a question now. He’s still got Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve BReaston to work with, as well as the best running game Arizona has had in a decade with Beanie Wells.* Arizona’s defense has had its moments, but it’s middle-of-the-road (or worse) in just about every statistical category.

*It took me a long time to remember it was “Beanie” because I kept wanting to type Bonzi.

MATCHUP OF THE DAY: Fitzgerald and Woodson in what I imagine is the first time ever a Heisman winner has covered a Heisman runner-up in a playoff game. I can say this confidently because Charles Woodson is the only defensive player to ever win the Heisman.

P.S. I think Fitzgerald wins this matchup.

PLAYOFF HISTORY?: The Packers defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in a 1982 Wild Card game, 41-16.

HISTORICAL EDGE?: Not really that close. Green Bay is 25-15 all-time in the playoffs, including 1-1 under Mike McCarthy and 6-3 in Wild Card games.

The Cardinals are 5-6 in the playoffs, with three of those wins coming last season. Arizona has never gone one-and-done in the playoffs (last time was the aforementioned ’82 when they were in St. Louis), although it’s worth pointing out this is only the third time the Cards have been in the playoffs since moving to Phoenix. Also, they’ve never lost a playoff game in Arizona; they’re 1-0.

PREDICTION, OR: ARE YOU GONNA GO WITH ALL FOUR HOME TEAMS?: Yes, yes I am. The Packers come in as the hottest team in the NFC and, if the Eagles win on Saturday night, a third shot at Brett Favre and the Vikings on the line. But those dream matchups rarely happen, and they won’t this year. The Cardinals will run Wells enough to keep Green Bay’s defense off balance (I expect Beanie to have more yards than Ryan Grant), and Fitzgerald will beat Woodson for a big play. Like I said emphatically above, I expect this to be an exciting, back-and-forth tilt that may just come down to who has it last. In that kind of game, it’s hard not to go with the team with a better coach, better QB, and home-field. CARDINALS 35, PACKERS 31.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] I all over that Pack-Cards game or what? I contemplated predicting a higher score than the 35-31 I did, but nothing higher than 42-38 or […]

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