This week's matchup features two teams who will be facing each other for the third time this season. In the first two matchups, Dallas dictated tempo and rhythm on both sides of the ball. Can they do it a third time? Lets take an inside look.
Keys to Winning:
Philadelphia Defense Vs. Dallas Offense
Last week, Philadelphia's defense struggled in just about every phase. They couldn't get any pressure on QB Tony Romo and couldn't stop the run. Expect defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to dial up more blitzes, whether it's against the run or pass. Philadelphia has to get back to what they do best, that's playing aggressive football on both sides of the ball.
The problem for Philadelphia last week was they couldn't get any pressure on Romo because he was taking three-step drops. It's hard to get to the quarterback on a three-step drop, so Philadelphia has to find a way to disrupt Romo's rhythm. The best way to do that is to press the receivers a bit. By doing so, that would make Romo hold on to the ball longer. And by achieving that, that would disrupt is timing and rhythm. That's something Philadelphia was able to do in the second half of last week's game. But they didn't do much to slow the receivers off their routes.
The tackling has to be much better, especially from the linebackers. Many times they were out of position and overran plays. There's not much the coaches can do with the personnel. The loss of starting MLB Stewart Bradley was very noticeable last week. Consider this, the three starting linebackers last week didn't start in Week One against the Carolina Panthers. Two of them, Jeremiah Trotter and Will Witherspoon, weren't with the team then. Until the Week Five game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Trotter had only started one game since the 2006 season.
The secondary gave up too many plays. An interesting stat that has been uncovered is in their last four games, Philadelphia has given up 56 receptions (14 per game/worst in the NFL), 170.5 yards (third worst), and 1.5 touchdowns per game (tied for second worst) to receivers. That tells us how poor of a job their secondary has done of late. An improved pass rush certainly would help lower those numbers.
Philadelphia Offense Vs. Dallas Defense
Philadelphia's defense couldn't get off the field on third down most of the time, so their offense just couldn't get enough plays in to get their offense revved up.
When they have the ball, they must get the passing game going. The pass protection was mostly solid last week, save for a few plays. NT Jay Ratliff and surprisingly OLB DeMarcus Ware were non-factors. The key is for veteran QB Donovan McNabb to get his accuracy back. Philadelphia has next to no margin of error in this game. McNabb simply has to be on top of his game, or they will almost certainly lose. It would help if his receivers do a better job of holding on to the ball. The receivers and tight ends dropped at least four passes last week, and a fifth could probably be looked at as a drop.
While some would like them to run the ball more, that's not going to happen. This is a vertical stretch offense. That's been the case for many years. Head coach Andy Reid's philosophy is simple. Throw to get the lead, run to win.
Dallas Offense vs. Philadelphia Defense
Because they were able to move the ball well on three-step drops, it will be interesting to see if offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has Tony Romo take more five and seven-step drops. When coaches dial those type of plays up, that usually means deeper pass plays will be called.
Dallas needs to stay on schedule with their balance on offense. The run-pass ratio (29 called runs, 34 called passes) worked quite well last week. Garrett must keep that going. It clearly kept Philadelphia's defense off schedule. Because the running game was so good, it became harder for McDermott to be aggressive as he would have liked.
Look for Garrett to continue to attack veteran CB Sheldon Brown, who doesn't seem to be playing at his usually solid level of late.
When is the last time an opposing quarterback threw for over 300 yards against Philadelphia's defense twice in the same season? Romo has done it this season, so don't look for Dallas to be less aggressive.
Dallas Defense vs. Philadelphia Offense
Because their offense was so good last week and possessed the ball for so
long, the Dallas defense got off easier than expected. Give the secondary
credit, though. Any time you shut out an offense like Philadelphia's, that's
quite an accomplishment.
If time of possession is more even than last week, the Dallas secondary will be challenged. That's something head coach Wade Phillips has to expect.
OLB DeMarcus Ware has to be more of a factor in this game. Veteran OLT Jason Peters handled him quite well last week as he did in the first matchup.
NT Jay Ratliff, who tormented the Philadelphia offense in the first matchup, also struggled to make an impact last week. It will be interesting to see if Phillips dials up different pressure packages on Saturday evening.
But again, the secondary will be tested in this game. Philadelphia is and always has been a vertical passing offense. They have to pressure McNabb and not let him get comfortable. If he gets enough time and is fairly accurate, Philadelphia's chances of pulling off a small upset will rise.
Prediction: Dallas 24, Philadelphia 20.
Quick Thoughts/Predictions on Other Wild Card Games
New York Jets at Cincinnati Bengals
This is the battle of teams that have problems in the passing game.
In the Jets' case, they want to limit how much rookie QB Mark Sanchez throws the ball, so look for them to run the ball at least 30 times in this game. If Sanchez has to throw the ball more than 25 times, they're in trouble.
The Bengals have next to no downfield passing threat, so it's going to be a battle of running games and run defenses. The Jets possess the best run defense out of the two, and that's why I'm going to pick them to win.
Prediction: New York 16, Cincinnati 13.
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
This matchup is intriguing.
On one hand, you have the Ravens who have found their running game lately. Veteran RB Willis McGahee finished the regular season with a surprising 14 touchdowns (12 on the ground). Second-year pro Ray Rice has shown that he's on his way to becoming one of the league's top young backs.
That's not the problem, the lack of passing weapons continue to plague the Ravens' offense. But the good thing for their offense is, the backend of the New England secondary is a big suspect, and veteran CBs Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden can be challenged.
For New England, rookie WR Julian Edelman must show that the drop-off from veteran WR Wes Welker isn't as large as some think it is. After getting a chance to take a deeper look this week, I think Edelman runs better than first thought. Tom Brady must show Edelman the same confidence that he had in Welker for the offense to run at an optimum level.
If the weather holds up, we could see some big plays from both teams, but I'm leaning toward Brady and head coach Bill Belichick's record at home in the playoffs as a huge factor in this game.
Prediction: New England 27, Baltimore 20.
Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals
This should be a fun game to watch.
You're looking at a game which features perhaps two out of the best five or six passers in the NFL, and both defenses have issues on the backend which can be exploited.
While veteran QB Kurt Warner has plenty of playoff experience, he's dealing with some issues that are concerning. LT Mike Gandy was placed on IR recently, and backup OL Jeremy Bridges, usually a guard, is filling in. Also, starting WR Anquan Boldin (knee/high ankle) is very questionable to play. Even if he can play, he could be limited.
The Packers should easily be able to spread out the thin Cardinal secondary, and because of that, look for them to eclipse more than 30 points in a victory.
Prediction: Green Bay 34, Arizona 27.