Wildcard Previews: What To Watch

It's Wildcard Weekend. With four games on the slate for Saturday and Sunday, there is plenty of football to watch. Here are quick peeks at the games this weekend.

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New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Seattle Seahawks (7-9)
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KICKOFF: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 1/8/11
SURFACE: Field Turf
TV: NBC, Tom Hammond, Mike Mayock, Alex Flanagan

PREDICTION: Saints 24-16

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Saints rolled up 494 yards of total offense in the regular-season meeting, and should be able to spread the field and move the ball at will against the Seahawks' thin secondary. One concern is that physical RB Chris Ivory wore Seattle down with 99 yards on 23 carries. He and Pierre Thomas are on injured reserve, so Reggie Bush and former Seahawk Julius Jones need to provide enough in the ground game to prevent the offense from becoming too one-dimensional.

Seahawks QBs Matt Hasselbeck (strained hip) and Charlie Whitehurst split practice reps this week, and the starter could be a game-time decision. That at least forces the Saints to prepare for different styles, as Whitehurst is far more mobile. Seattle started 10 offensive line combinations during the regular season and the ground game finished 31st in the NFL. But offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates got RBs Justin Forsett and Leon Washington the ball in space off various screens last week.

FAST FACTS: The Saints haven't won a road playoff game in their 44-year history. ... The Seahawks, the first team to reach the playoffs with a losing record, won the NFC West for the fifth time in seven years. ... Brees has thrown for 4,000-plus yards in five consecutive seasons.

 

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New York Jets (11-5) at Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
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KICKOFF: Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 1/8/11
SURFACE: Field Turf
TV: NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Andrea Kremer

PREDICTION: Jets 27-21

KEYS TO THE GAME: Jets QB Mark Sanchez threw the ball with more zip in practice this week, but his right shoulder is still a concern - as is his decision-making the second half of the season. New York ideally wants to lean on RBs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson and let Sanchez manage a controlled passing game. But the Colts' oft-maligned run defense allowed just 3.0 yards per carry the past three weeks. If they can create long passing downs, the edge turns to the Colts and DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis pressuring Sanchez into mistakes.

Jets CB Darrelle Revis is expected to shadow Colts WR Reggie Wayne, who he limited to three catches for 55 yards in the playoffs last year. Problem was, QB Peyton Manning did an excellent job of reading the defense pre-snap and picked the Jets apart for 377 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers. New York believes it has upgraded its secondary, but it still has to blitz heavily in order to generate pressure. That will leave plenty of one-on-one matchups that will determine how big Manning's windows are to throw to.

FAST FACTS: The Colts have tied the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL record with their ninth consecutive playoff appearance. ... Sanchez had a 66.6 passer rating in the second half of games during the regular season. ... Freeney had seven of his 10 sacks during the regular season this year at home.

 

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Baltimore Ravens (12-4) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
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KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 1/9/11
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms

PREDICTION: Ravens 23-19

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Chiefs have a six-game postseason losing streak.

Cooking up more Rice: The Ravens have been harping on execution to turn around an offense that slid to 22nd in the NFL during the regular season. There has been a definite move from a pass-heavy gameplan to more of RB Ray Rice, who averaged 23.8 carries the past four weeks. While Baltimore wants to be more physical offensively, it also has to get WR Anquan Boldin (five catches for 26 yards the past three games) more involved. LT Michael Oher (eight false starts during the regular season) has a tough matchup against Chief OLB Tamba Hali (14.5 sacks).

The Chiefs use RBs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones to bring safeties forward and then challenge man coverage downfield against WR Dwayne Bowe. That's especially critical with S Ed Reed (eight interceptions in 10 games) roaming the Ravens' secondary. In their 10 wins, the Chiefs averaged 196.8 rushing yards and allowed 30 sacks, compared to 109.8 rushing yards and 30 sacks in their six losses. Baltimore did give up 52 completions of 20-plus yards, so QB Matt Cassel can take a few shots downfield.

FAST FACTS: Flacco has led the Ravens to the postseason in each of his three seasons. ... Jones seeks to become the first NFL player to score a rushing touchdown in the playoffs for three different teams.

 

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Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
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KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 1/9/11
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver

PREDICTION: Eagles 30-23

KEYS TO THE GAME: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers had an NFL-best 107.4 passer rating against the blitz during the regular season.

Pressure Pack-ed: QB Michael Vick took a beating the final month of the season as defenses became more aggressive and the Eagles struggled in blitz pickup. That's a major concern against the Packers, who racked up 47 sacks during the regular season. Philadelphia combats pressure with a plethora of screen passes and the mobile Vick should be closer to full strength after sitting last week. However, he did turn the ball over eight times in his last five starts and the Packers enter with a plus-10 turnover margin on the season.

Rodgers won't be facing the same defense that held him to a 73.1 passer rating to open the season. The Eagles have suffered injuries at linebacker and in the secondary, where CB Dimitri Patterson has been a popular target of late and FS Nate Allen was lost for the season and replaced by fellow rookie Kurt Coleman. Rodgers tends to carve up blitzes and the Eagles don't generate much pressure with just their front four, but Green Bay still has to guard against becoming too one-dimensional as Philadelphia did finish the regular season with 34 takeaways.

FAST FACTS: OLB Clay Matthews is the first Packer with double-digit sacks in each of his first two NFL seasons. ... The Eagles set a franchise record with 439 points during the regular season.


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