NFL Playoff Fantasy Report: Wildcard Round

Now that the fantasy season has come and gone, we turn our attention to the Wild Card round of the playoffs in this installment of Fantasy Insider Online's Fantasy Football Report. Instead of focusing on individual performances, we will look at what these Super Bowl hopefuls must do in order to advance to the next round, as well as pointing out possible "big busts" in each contest.

This week's games present some very favorable match-ups for certain players… too bad fantasy owners won't be able to reap the benefits.

Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo

COWBOYS KEY TO VICTORY: Utilize the Run Game
With no previous playoff experience, coach Bill Parcells cannot afford to put the game in the hands of first-year starter QB Tony Romo. Instead, the Cowboys will have to rely heavily on their combo of effective backs: Julius Jones and Marion Barber III. Between the two, they have amassed 1,738 rushing yards and over 2,000+ yards of total offense. Dallas' 21 total rushing touchdowns during the regular season ranks third overall in the NFL. Matching up against Seattle's 22nd ranked run defense, Jones and Barber will need to make the most of their rushing potency this Saturday.

SEAHAWKS KEY TO VICTORY: Matt Hasselbeck's Return to 2005 Form
In 2005, the Seahawks ranked in the top-half of the NFL in passing offense, largely due to the play of QB Matt Hasselbeck (especially in the last month and a half of the season - throwing for 13 TD's while only being picked off twice). Hasselbeck finished the 2005 regular season with a 98.2 QB Rating and almost a 3:1 touchdown to interception ratio… pretty good. And his leadership on the field proved to be a factor in helping Seattle reach Super Bowl XL last season.

However, 2006 just hasn't been Hasselbeck's year. Since returning in Week 12 after missing a month due to a knee injury, Hasselbeck hasn't been the same quarterback we saw in 2005. In his last six games, he has posted a 60.0+ QB Rating in only two contests, and has thrown an equal number of touchdown passes as interceptions (8). This type of play isn't going to get it done for Seattle in the playoffs this time around. Hasselbeck needs to take advantage of the Cowboys 24th ranked pass defense (allowing 219.1 passing yards per game), and reinstate himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback.

BEWARE OF: Tony Romo
The last six weeks of the regular season have been a rollercoaster ride for this second-year player. In one week Romo throws for 300+ yards and five TD's (Week 12 against Tampa Bay)… while in another, he gets intercepted twice and posts only 142 passing yards with a 45.5 QB Rating (Week 16 against Philadelphia). A lot of people were quick to anoint Romo as the savior of the Cowboys. Yet, his inconsistent play has led to a 1-3 finish for Dallas in the closing weeks of the regular season. Couple that with previously having no playoff experience, and Romo may end up with more than just Terrell Owens getting on his case this weekend.

Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts

Kansas City Chiefs RB Larry Johnson (27) runs away from Cincinnati Bengals S Kevin Kaesviham Jan 1, 2006 (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

CHIEFS KEY TO VICTORY: Larry Johnson All Day
Could the Chiefs best defense this week be a good offense? Coach Herm Edwards will undoubtedly aim to keep the ball out of QB Peyton Manning's hands, and try to control the game clock. The game plan: repeatedly feed the ball to RB Larry Johnson. Johnson has been the workhorse that carried the Chiefs into the postseason, and his numbers prove it. There is no question that behind San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, Johnson is the next premier back in the NFL. He is second to Tomlinson in all major offensive categories… including rushing yards (1,789), yards per game (111.8) and rushing touchdowns (17).

And when it comes to offensive match-ups, could Kansas City be in any better of a position this week? On Saturday, Johnson and the Chiefs square up against the worst rushing defense in the NFL (allowing 173.0 rushing yards per game this year). Forget about the pass game this week for Kansas City… QB Trent Green will be lucky to see 25 pass attempts. Instead, all focus should be put on Johnson capitalizing on Indy's weak play against the run.

COLTS KEY TO VICTORY: Peyton Manning Taking Control
Just as the Chiefs goal this week will be to keep the ball out of Manning's hands, the goal of the Indianapolis offense will be to put the game (and any Super Bowl dreams) on the back of their perennial Pro Bowl quarterback. Though criticism over the last few years seems to focus on Indy's inability to capitalize on a stellar regular season, Manning is 2-1 in career home playoff games with some pretty impressive numbers (131.6 QB Rating, 375 passing yards per game, 10 TD passes and only one INT in those three games). Couple that with Manning's career numbers against Kansas City (103.9 QB Rating, 309 passing yards per game, nine TD's and three INT's), and things are looking pretty favorable for the Colts in this AFC Wild Card game. If Indianapolis wants to disprove the masses, then they need to make a statement this Saturday… with Manning leading the way.

BEWARE OF: The Colts Defense
Remember when everyone was taken by surprise by the Colts defense in 2005? Ultimately, they ended the regular season with the 11th ranked defense overall. Apparently, however, things have taken a turn for the worse in 2006. The Indy defensive unit has shown glimpses of 2005 form… like in Week 15 when they shut down the high-octane Cincinnati Bengals offense. Yet, other than a strong secondary (that will only get better this week as S Bob Sanders returns to the lineup), the Colts really haven't done much on defense. Opposing backs have gashed the Colts front-seven, leaving Indianapolis with the worst ranked defense against the run in the NFL. This is far off the standard Dwight Freeney & Co. established last year. Will they be able to shutdown RB Larry Johnson? Probably not. But, if this defense comes to play, they can at the very least contain Johnson and force QB Trent Green to knuckle up with the league's 2nd ranked pass defense. The only true question is: Who will show up for the Colts this Saturday?

New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles

New York Giants' Tiki Barber (21) carries the ball against the Washington Redskins during the second quarter of NFL football in East Rutherford, N.J. in a Sunday, Oct. 8, 2006 photo. New York Giants all-time leading rusher Tiki Barber said Thursday that he is firm in his decision to retire after the season. (AP Photo/Tim Larsen, file)

GIANTS KEY TO VICTORY: Tiki Barber Grinding Away
After Barber's amazing performance last week against the Redskins (234 rushing yards and three TD's), coach Tom Coughlin must have caught wind that putting the ball in Barber's hands can only lead to good things. And squaring up against the 26th ranked rush defense in the NFL this Sunday should lead to the same game plan and the same results. Yes, the Eagles always play Barber and the Giants tough… holding the running back to only 126 yards rushing and one touchdown in two games this season. However, Barber has quietly tallied 103.9 rushing yards per game in 2006, making him one of only four NFL backs averaging 100+ rushing yards per game. Add in QB Eli Manning's lackluster play and the possible absence of TE Jeremy Shockey, and the Giants key to victory may rest solely on the shoulders of Barber. This is Barber's last chance to make a run in the playoffs, and he will undoubtedly do everything he can to end his career on a high note.

EAGLES KEY TO VICTORY: Force Manning to Lead the G-Men to Victory
Just as the Giants playoff aspirations will most likely rest in the hands of RB Tiki Barber, the Eagles must shutdown New York's run game in order to keep their dreams alive. Containing Barber will cause the Giants to turn to QB Eli Manning and the passing game… which could lead to big plays for the Eagles defense. The key here is for Philadelphia to take advantage of the mistakes made by the third-year quarterback. And Manning has shown that he definitely does make mistakes. His 18 INT's ranks 4th among NFL QB's this season, and he has put the ball on the ground nine times in 2006. These opportunities can only lead to big things for a defense that has cause 37 total turnovers (19 INT's and 18 forced fumbles). In this case, "big things" doesn't only mean a change of possession… the Eagles have capitalized on turnovers this year, scoring five total defensive touchdowns (second-best in the NFL).

BEWARE OF: Eli Manning
What a disaster. How is that Phillip Rivers deal looking right now for Giants fans? Manning's struggles over the better part of the season have led to a lot of skepticism about whether or not he can truly get things done in New York. Though his QB Rating has gone up since last season (albeit by only 1.1), his passing yards (3,244) have gone down by 500+ yards while his interceptions have climbed (18). The potential is there for Manning, but he just doesn't seem able to capitalize on it. And his previous playoff experience doesn't look like it will help things at all… in 2005, Manning threw for 113 yards and turned the ball over four times (three INT's and a fumble) in a 23-0 loss to Carolina. The Giants are hoping for a huge turnaround from Manning's only playoff appearance, but the cards are stacked against him. Especially opposite Brian Dawkins & Co. in Philadelphia's 9th ranked pass defense.

New York Jets at New England Patriots

New York Jets coach Eric Mangini celebrates with DT Dewayne Robertson against the New England Patriots Nov 12, 2006. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

JETS KEY TO VICTORY: Defense Rises to the Occasion
After starting the season 4-4, the Jets made a huge push in the second half of the season... resulting in a 6-2 record after their bye in Week 9. Much of this success has come as a result of QB Chad Pennington's smart and effective play. Nevertheless, the Jets defense has been equally as potent in the latter half of 2006. Since the break, this defensive unit has held opponents to an average of 12.8 points per game, and only allowed 15+ once in the last eight weeks (Buffalo scored 31 in Week 14). Surprisingly, however, they finished the regular season as the 20th ranked defense overall. Nevertheless, the Jets defense, led by LB Jonathan Vilma and S Kerry Rhodes, is on a roll and peaking at the right time of the year.

In order to be productive, the Jets will have to pressure QB Tom Brady and force him to make bad throws. Think back to Week 14 when the Miami defense got into Brady's head by constantly blitzing, resulting in four sacks and only 78 yards passing for the Patriots quarterback. Since New England has no real playmakers at receiver, if the Jets can shutdown Brady while containing the run, the result may be the Patriots second straight year of being eliminated in the early rounds of the playoffs.

PATRIOTS KEY TO VICTORY: Don't Forget About Corey Dillon
Since the Jets have a pretty stingy secondary, coach Bill Belichick will probably look to keep the ball on the ground for a majority of the Patriots possession time. Although the carries will most likely be split between New England's duo of running backs, RB Corey Dillon will need to carry over his run of solid performances against the Jets into the playoffs. This year, Dillon's top two rushing days came against New York… posting 80 yards and a touchdown in Week 2 and 98 yards in Week 10. In eight career games against the Jets, Dillon has averaged 94.4 total yards per game with six total touchdowns. If he is able to keep his current pace (averaging a touchdown per contest since the Patriots bye in Week 6), Dillon should be able to post another solid showing in this week's "rubber match".

BEWARE OF: The Jets Running Game
As previously stated, much of the Jets success has come from the performance of AP Comeback Player of the Year Chad Pennington. And yes, the Jets don't have a "true" premier back… splitting time between running backs Leon Washington and Cedric Houston (throwing Kevan Barlow into the mix every so often). However, New York has had a 100+ yard day from one of their running backs in only three games this season. That is a pretty absurd statistic for a playoff team, especially in the competitive AFC. Factor in that the Patriots have held opponents to 94.2 rushing yards per game in 2006, and things don't seem to be too promising for the Jets rushing offense this Sunday. Let's not forget to mention that New England allowed only 168 rushing yards in two games against the Jets this season.


This week's Patriots Fantasy Football report is brought to you by Matt Hinzpeter at FantasyInsiderOnline.com. If you have any questions for Matt, you can reach him, or any of the other FIO experts, at TheTeam@FantasyInsiderOnline.com.

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