Baltimore Ravens (12-4) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
Baltimore Ravens (12-4) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
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.
Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron acknowledged he talked to Hue Jackson this week as Baltimore prepares to play at the Kansas City Chiefs in the opening round of the playoffs.
Jackson, the Ravens' former quarterbacks coach, was the Oakland offensive coordinator when the Raiders totaled 31 points and 344 yards of total offense last Sunday at Kansas City.
"You know, this time of year, you talk to anybody that you know," Cameron said.
Cameron has been hearing the criticism over the Baltimore Ravens falling to No. 22 in offense and recording a season-low 199 yards in the regular season finale.
"The good news is, all the stats can be thrown out the window at this point," Cameron said. "The great thing about the playoffs, it is a new season and it's been proven year-after-year that teams can elevate their play, and then some teams don't elevate their play. What better time for us to play the way you've seen us play in spurts throughout the entire season and in various games?"
Cameron pointed out that the offense is helping with the most important statistic — wins. The Ravens (12-4) have their best record in coach John Harbaugh's three seasons and are one of three teams to reach the playoffs the past three seasons.
But it hasn't been easy. The Ravens' four-game winning streak to end the season resulted in an average margin of 6.75 points.
"Winning ugly ain't all that bad," Cameron said. "I think we've proven we can win games in the teens, we can win games in the 20s and we've proven we can win games in the 30s. We'd all like to do it scoring over 30 points."
Cameron's top priority to becoming a winning offense is protecting the ball. Baltimore set a franchise record with 20 offensive turnovers this season, which was the seventh-fewest in the NFL this season.
"We want to take care of the football," Cameron said. "I'm old-school from that perspective."
Cameron said the Ravens need to eliminate mistakes and perform the way they practice in order to improve. "I'm confident our guys will," he said.
Meanwhile, although David Reed must wear a hard brace to protect a torn ligament in his left wrist that makes it nearly impossible for him to hold the football in his left arm and hand, the Ravens are hopeful that the rookie kick returner will be available Sunday.
"He had a good practice today," special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Jerry Rosburg said after Thursday's practice. "He got some balls in his hand and looks like he's growing more comfortable with his device he has on his arm. So we'll see how it plays out."
If Reed - who led the NFL in kick return average with a 29.3 average during the regular season - can't play, Jalen Parmele will likely become the team's primary kick returner.
Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel spent time on the phone this week talking to his adviser on postseason play, a fellow by the name of Tom Brady. Yes, that Brady, the New England quarterback with the 14-4 record in the playoffs over his career including three Super Bowl titles.
Cassel is making his first start in the NFL postseason this coming Sunday against Baltimore.
"I continue to go to him for support," Cassel said of his former teammate with the Patriots. "He says go out there and have fun and enjoy the experience because there are a lot of teams out there that are wishing they were in our position."
Brady and the Patriots faced the Ravens during the 2010 regular season and Cassel says there were a few tidbits about the Baltimore defense that he shared during their call. "He reiterated what you can see on film; they are an outstanding front seven. They are an outstanding defense and the best defense that we've seen," said Cassel.
The playoffs are the time when quarterbacks establish their careers as the superstars of the game. Brady tops the list that 14-4 record as a starter. Spending one of those Super Bowl seasons with Brady gave Cassel an eyeful of what the starting quarterback needs to get done in these situations.
"I think it goes to preparation; he was so meticulous in his awareness of what was going on in the game plan," Cassel said. "We would go over the game plan four or five times on the night before the game. There wasn't any stone unturned. We made sure we were meeting with the receivers and meeting with the running backs and everyone is on the same page.
"Going into this week it's very important for me and some of the other guys to take it upon ourselves and be prepared on Sunday. The other thing I learned from Tom was about Sunday — when you get out there enjoy the experience and embrace the opportunity. If you just go out there and you are so shell-shocked that it's the playoffs, you won't enjoy it, and you really do have to enjoy it."
Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
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.
Aaron Rodgers has long understood what is expected of him as the anointed face of the franchise, and he isn't holding back.
Consider some blunt comments he made this week as the Packers prepare for a first-round game at the Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs Sunday.
On whether he's had to talk to his receivers about their inordinate number of dropped passes this season: "You know what, physical mistakes are going to happen. I make as many as the majority of people in here (the locker room). Those are the things that can be tolerated. But, it's the mental mistakes that I really have a hard time with because that's really about preparation and focus. So, physical mistakes are going to happen, drops are going to happen, and that's part of the game. So, there's no point in jumping on the guy. He's as disappointed as I am. But, it's the mental mistakes that you really have a hard time with."
In saying that, Rodgers came clean a year after the fact about what contributed to the interception he threw on his first pass in the 51-45 overtime loss at the Arizona Cardinals in the opening round of the playoffs.
On whether the pick was a byproduct of nerves at the outset of his postseason debut: "Absolutely (not). Guys lined up in the wrong spot, ran the wrong routes, I moved around, thought my guy was coming back to me. He went to the left; I thought he was coming back."
While he was speaking his piece about those topics, Rodgers, who was named NFC Offensive Player of the Month on Thursday, knows it's put-up or shut-up time for himself in his return to the playoffs.
As brilliant as he was after that ill-fated first throw in nearly pulling off a huge comeback victory for the Packers on the road against the Cardinals - he passed for a team playoffs record of 423 yards and four touchdowns - Rodgers was the first Green Bay quarterback in nearly 40 years to not win his first postseason start.
He has established himself in just three seasons as a starter as one of the elite QBs in the league. Yet , Rodgers needs only to think back to his childhood in Northern California and how heroes Joe Montana and Steve Young defined their legacies by winning in the playoffs, underscored by Super Bowl titles, with the San Francisco 49ers.
Rodgers gets his first shot at vindication Sunday, nearly a year to the day after his overtime fumble was returned for a touchdown by Karlos Dansby to end the highest-scoring playoffs game in league history.
Head coach Mike McCarthy, for one, isn't putting any added pressure on Rodgers to win the game against the Eagles.
"Aaron Rodgers needs to be himself," McCarthy said. "He's established a brand of football at the quarterback position that's pretty damn good, and I'm glad he's our quarterback. His numbers have been phenomenal for his first three years, and he needs to go out and play to the standards he has set.
"Playoff wins are more team goals, and I understand the way everybody wants to put those types of things on the quarterback. Aaron staying true to his standard of play, his brand of football, everything else will take care of itself."
If the Eagles hope to beat the Green Bay Packers Sunday and advance to the second round of the playoffs, they're going to have to find a way to get pressure on the Packers' white-hot quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.
The Eagles did a decent job of that in their 27-20 Week 1 loss to the Packers and it showed in Rodgers' numbers. His 73.1 passer rating was his second lowest of the season if you don't include his early exit against Detroit last month with a concussion. It was one of just three games in which he has thrown multiple interceptions. Had his third lowest yards-per-attempt average (6.06) and fourth lowest completion percentage (61.3).
But that was Week 1, when McDermott had a deep, fresh supply of defensive linemen and a healthy secondary and linebacking corps to attack Rodgers with. Now, he's got neither.
The Eagles have just 15 sacks in the last eight games. A defensive line that registered 19 sacks and 53 quarterback hurries in the first eight games, has just 12 and 29 in the last 8. Their go-to sacker, right end Trent Cole, has been shut out in five of his last seven starts. Right end Juqua Parker is playing way too many snaps and has just two sacks and one hurry in his last seven starts.
McDermott's season-opening starting right corner (Ellis Hobbs), free safety (Nate Allen) and middle linebacker (Stewart Bradley) all are on the shelf with injuries. His other starting corner, Asante Samuel, is playing on one good leg.
McDermott knows he's got to find a way to get pressure on Rodgers Sunday or he'll pick his defense apart. But he can't count on his front four to do that, and blitzing him has been a losing proposition for just about every team that's tried it.
Rodgers has a league-best 107.4 passer rating against the blitz this season. Defenses have sent extra rushers after him on 166 dropbacks. He's completed 66.5 percent of his passes, thrown 11 touchdowns and four interceptions and been sacked only 8 times against the blitz.
The Eagles are ranked 21st in the league in points allowed this season. They've given up 377 points, which is the second most by the club in the last 23 years (they allowed 388 in '05).
The 36-year-old McDermott has taken a lot of heat for his unit's poor play. That probably would've been the case anyway, but the fact that he is following one of the best defensive coordinators in the history of the game — Jim Johnson — hasn't helped.
Every time something goes wrong, every time the Eagles give up another third-and-long completion or another red-zone touchdown, people openly wonder what Johnson would have done in a similar situation.
But Johnson seldom had to rely on as many new, young at key positions as McDermott is right now. You can draw up the cleverest blitzes in the world, but if you don't have the players capable of executing them, it doesn't mean a damn thing.
"I come from Jim Johnson's system," McDermott said last week. "With so many new players, you can't just say, 'Hey, we've always run this blitz, (run) this blitz,' because those players don't know those blitzes. There's a period of acclimation that comes into play, so you want to get the players as comfortable as possible.
"And the execution, it's great to come up with all of these different schemes and everything. But what can these players execute? A lot of these players are in their first games in the NFL. If you had veteran players, you can bank on them being comfortable in an NFL game, and then they can execute whatever you draw up.
"That's part of the overall equation you take into the game plan, and say, 'Okay, realistically, what can I expect these guys to handle?"'
McDermott found himself in a very similar blitz-or-don't blitz dilemma going into the playoffs last year. His unit had just 17 sacks in the last 8 games in '09. Unable to count on his front four to get pressure on the Cowboys' Tony Romo, he tried to attack him with a heavy dose of blitzes in their playoff meeting. Romo made mincemeat of those blitzes, completing 23 of 35 passes for 244 yards, two TDs and no interceptions.
"It's a balancing act," strong safety Quintin Mikell said. "You don't want to go out there and over-blitz because it's not very smart. At the same time, you can't let a quarterback, especially one as good as Aaron Rodgers, have all day.
"As a secondary, we have to make Sean comfortable with (blitzing). That means we have to put in the work and do the little things right so that he feels we're ready to go. When he does call our number, if we have a blitz on, you've got to get there. And if we have to cover for an extra half a second, you gotta do it. At the end of the day, we've got to make it easier on (McDermott)."