NFC playoff rematch time

An in-depth look at the news on the NFC teams playing in the wild card round. Can the losers of the two rematch games from last weekend turn it around when they need it most? Can Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers prove themselves in the playoffs?

Arizona, Cincinnati and Philadelphia were all steamrolled last Sunday by teams they will face in the first round of the playoffs this weekend. The Cardinals rested many starters, the Bengals rested some and Eagles fans can only hope their team played it close to the vest.

What they must do to reverse those outcomes varies widely.

Arizona is the only one of the three that can truly claim last weekend's game didn't prove anything. Quarterback Kurt Warner made only a token appearance and several key players were on the bench early, although coach Ken Whisenhunt has come under criticism for having wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin playing into the second half - with Boldin suffering an ankle injury.

The Cardinals featured a vanilla gameplan on both sides of the ball that was carried out primarily by backups. When they hit the field Sunday they'll have Warner flinging the ball out of a lot of spread formations and defensive coordinator Bill Davis will be firing off his blitz packages.

The Bengals can claim last Sunday's thumping at the hands of the Jets didn't mean much because the gameplan was simplified and players such as Cedric Benson and Robert Geathers didn't play. But they still have to be concerned by the way the Jets' manhandled them in the trenches on both sides of the ball. And with Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis largely negating Chad Ochocinco, quarterback Carson Palmer is going to have to prove he can complete downfield passes to someone else.

The Eagles have no excuse for their shutout loss in Dallas, other than the fact they got away from the running game far too early and let the Cowboys' pass rush take over. But Philadelphia's front seven was no match for Dallas' ground game, and the Cowboys will again attempt to dominate time of possession and create easy play-action situations for quarterback Tony Romo.

The Cowboys' defense has struggle in deep coverage at times this season, but Eagles coach Andy Reid must find better balance - to help his offensive line and to protect the defense from spending so much time on the field again.


DALLAS COWBOYS

Tony Romo entered the season at the crossroads.

His legacy was at stake.

Was he going to be forever labeled as a quarterback who put up great stats but couldn't win the big one?

Or was he going to continue the Cowboys' legacy of Super Bowl quarterbacks like Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach?

Romo has already rewritten much of the Cowboys' record books at quarterback. But he's 0-2 in the playoffs with two embarrassing losses.

Now comes Saturday's wildcard playoff game against Eagles.

Will the third time be the charm?

Will he finally prove to the world he is a big-game and a big-time quarterback?

"I'm a completely different player and this is a completely different team," Romo said. "Those past games have absolutely no bearing on anything going forward."

Romo proved he was a different quarterback over the last month. He led the Cowboys to three straight wins to end the season, completing 71 of 106 passes for 909 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. One of those interceptions came on a tipped pass.

Owner Jerry Jones said Romo has benefitted from his life in a bubble as the Cowboys quarterback. His every move has been scrutinized on and off the field. He has faced intense scrutiny and criticism.

Jones said the world is seeing a Romo who has learned from his experiences and has come out a better man and better quarterback.

"I think that in a great deal of areas, he's just not the same guy," Jones said. "He's had a small lifetime of experiences both on and off the field, media exposure, critique, and I can tell you first-hand that ultimately that will toughen you up or it will knock a little of naivete out of you. So that has an impact."

But it's all talk if Romo doesn't follow up with a playoff win against the Eagles.

A loss and the rap of not being able to win the big one will return.

A win and he could open the door to a Super Bowl run.

"I have to prove everything to myself," Romo said. "It doesn't matter what other people think. Before I started (his first career game) against Carolina, I felt like I could play at this level, but I didn't know.

"It's all part of each stage of your career. I think we can play well as a team in January, but we've got to go out and do it. Same as December. We had to go out and do it," Romo said. "And that's sort of what it comes down to. Doing it."

NOTES

  • RB Tashard Choice practiced on Thursday for first time since suffering a slight concussion against the Eagles last Sunday. He was held back for precautionary reasons. He will play against the Eagles on Saturday and carry his load as the third-down back and the wildcat back.

  • RT Marc Colombo will play and start against the Eagles on Saturday after missing the last seven games of the season with a sprained ankle and fractured fibula. Because there are questions about Colombo's conditioning, he will not carry the full load. He will be spelled during the game by Doug Free, who played admirably at right tackle during his absence.

  • LB DeMarcus Ware was held out of practice because of a sore back. The Cowboys checked the back out and deemed there was nothing structurally wrong with it. Ware will play against the Eagles on Saturday.

  • RB Marion Barber was limited in practice on Thursday because of a knee injury. But it was mostly a precautionary move. Barber will play against the Eagles. He rushed for 91 yards against the Eagles last week.


    PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

    The Eagles know they need to do a better job of jamming Cowboys tight end Jason Witten at the line of scrimmage Saturday night than they did in last week's 24-0 loss.

    Witten, who was given a clean release most of the game, had six catches for 76 yards and one touchdown against the Eagles.

    "We wanted to jam him more than we did and that didn't get done," Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "That's something we've looked at this week. You're talking about a Pro Bowl tight end and really we have to jam him at the line as much as we can and take him out of his routes and the timing of his routes with the quarterback. We're going to have a better plan going into this week to get that done."

    That plan could include a switch as strong-side linebacker. Chris Gocong, who had been the starter, was benched three games ago in favor of rookie Moise Fokou. But Fokou wasn't very effective last week in jamming Witten at the line and also struggled against the run.

    The Cowboys rushed for 179 yards last week, the most allowed by the Eagles this season.

    "Every game you've got to stop the run so that you can play the pass," middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. "If not, they're just going to keep running on you."

    NOTES

  • WR DeSean Jackson isn't even listed on the team's injury report this week, despite aggravating a groin injury in last week's loss to the Cowboys. He has practiced this week and will play Saturday. The Eagles have said he also is expected to return punts.

  • QB Mike Vick is expected to be the No. 2 quarterback Saturday night against the Cowboys, which means he'll be used in a yet-to-be-determined number of Wildcat formations. Vick has been the team's emergency quarterback the last two games while recovering from a thigh bruise.

  • LB Chris Gocong, who was benched three games ago, may replace Moise Fokou at strong-side linebacker Saturday. At the very least, they both will get snaps. Gocong hasn't played a down on defense since his benching.

  • MLB Jeremiah Trotter probably will get more snaps Saturday. He did a better job against the run in the Eagles' base package than the team's other middle linebacker, Akeem Jordan.

  • WR Jeremy Maclin, who is nursing thumb and foot injuries, has been a full practice participant all week and will start Saturday in the Eagles' wildcard game against the Cowboys.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    The "Q" factor looms big for the Packers' showdown at the Arizona Cardinals in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs Sunday.

    After another Cardinals practice passed Thursday without Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin on the field, the advantage tilted in Green Bay's direction to be able to handle Arizona's pass-centric attack.

    Boldin is on the mend from ankle and knee injuries he sustained in a collision with Packers safety Nick Collins during Green Bay's 33-7 win over the Cardinals in the regular-season finale last Sunday.

    "A guy like ‘Q', you don't replace guys like that," Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said of Boldin. "You can't just plug somebody else in and get the same productivity and the same leadership and the same competitiveness and all of the things he brings to the table."

    Arizona without Boldin on Sunday would be the great equalizer for the Packers' short-handed secondary, which has been without Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris since he sustained a season-ending knee injury Nov. 22.

    The Achilles' heel of Green Bay's No. 2-rated defense has been a lack of depth in the secondary after Harris was hurt, but the Packers were fortunate to face only one team down the stretch that had the firepower with multiple receivers to attack the weak spots.

    Incidentally, a 37-36 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 20 — a game in which Ben Roethlisberger picked apart the Green Bay defense for 503 passing yards and a last-second touchdown dart for the victory — was the Packers' lone defeat in their final eight regular-season games.

    The Cardinals are similar to the Steelers with Warner at the controls of an offense that employs a lot of multi-receiver formations, but they didn't show their full hand in the meaningless matchup against the Packers last weekend.

    Arizona surely won't be vanilla in the rematch Sunday.

    "We fully anticipate Arizona to spread us out," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's what Kurt Warner likes to do, and that's what he does very well. We saw a number of snaps last week in spread formations, and I'm sure coming off the Pittsburgh (game), everybody is looking at the empty formations" to throw at the Green Bay defense.

    If the Cardinals have to play without Boldin, the Packers will be able to match up starters Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams against All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston. That would take the pressure off shaky nickel back Jarrett Bush and probably eliminate the need to go to a dime package with one of two untested players in rookie Brandon Underwood or Josh Bell, thus giving defensive coordinator Dom Capers more leeway to roll in No. 5 linebacker Brandon Chillar to help turn up the pass-rushing heat on Warner.

    If Boldin plays, however, the potential mismatches tilt the advantage to Arizona.

    NOTES

  • CB Charles Woodson was declared ready to go by head coach Mike McCarthy for Sunday's first-round playoff game at the Arizona Cardinals. Woodson, who aggravated a shoulder strain last Sunday at Arizona, went through the full practice Thursday. Woodson's day also included being named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for December/January. It is the third such honor this season for Woodson, the only defensive player in league history to earn the award multiple times in the same season.

  • NT Ryan Pickett was a full practice participant Thursday and is on track to return to the lineup Sunday for the first time in five games after he was hampered by a hamstring injury.

  • LB Brandon Chillar practiced in full for a second straight day and should be fine to play this weekend after missing the last game because of recurring back spasms.

  • S Derrick Martin has yet to practice this week, leaving his status in doubt for Sunday's game. The special-teams ace is dealing with an ankle injury that kept him out of the last game.

  • LT Chad Clifton (knee) and DE Johnny Jolly (foot) advanced from limited to full status in practice Thursday, and both starters aren't in jeopardy of not playing Sunday since they've been getting extra rest for their lingering aches the last several weeks.

  • FB Korey Hall has practiced in full this week, which bodes well for him to get back on the field after being out a game because of an elbow injury.


    ARIZONA CARDINALS

    The Cardinals likely won't know until hours before Sunday's game against the Packers about the availability of some key players.

    Receiver Anquan Boldin hasn't practiced this week after suffering a sprained left ankle and knee in the season-finale against the Packers. Boldin said the injuries have improved, but it's not likely his status will be determined before Sunday.

    If Boldin can't play, Steve Breaston will start with Early Doucet moving up to the third receiver role and Jerheme Urban taking the fourth spot.
    At least the Cardinals have options at that position.

    Their depth is lacking at some other key spots. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been limited by a left knee contusion but practiced on Thursday. He reported afterward that he felt good but would have to see how the knee reacted over the next couple days.

    If he can't play, 5-foot-8 Michael Adams will replace him, and the Packers picked on Adams last week when Rodgers-Cromartie left the game after suffering the injury on the third play.

    Free safety Antrel Rolle practiced a little on Thursday, after missing last week's game with a thigh bruise. His availability is important because the backup is rookie Rashad Johnson, who hasn't started a game.

    NOTES

  • WR Larry Fitzgerald is nursing a sore left elbow but he said he will be fully healthy for Sunday's game. Fitzgerald's average gain per catch is down almost four yards this year as teams have doubled him to prevent big plays.

  • TE Ben Patrick is expected to return to the starting lineup after missing two games with a concussion. Patrick is the team's best all-around tight end. He's a receiving threat in the red zone, and he's improved his blocking this year.

  • RB Beanie Wells likely won't get a starting assignment this year, but he has been the team's featured runner for the last month.

  • RB Tim Hightower is nursing a sore knee but he expects to play Sunday against the Packers. Hightower has practiced fully all week.

  • DE Calais Campbell hopes to play despite a fractured left thumb. He's practiced a bit this week with a cast and hopes to find a wrap that will allow him to function on game day. Campbell has seven sacks while his backups, Alan Branch and Kenny Iwebema, are unproven.

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