Saturday wild card game scouts

Jets QB Mark Sanchez was once the ball boy for Carson Palmer's high school team. Now they are competing against each other in the NFL playoffs while the Bengals are trying to get their feet under themselves, literally. In the NFC, Tony Romo is trying to overcome his previous playoff fate, but the Eagles have to find a way to stop the running game first.

Saturday
New York Jets (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) at Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
Sunday

Baltimore Ravens (9-7) at New England Patriots (10-6)
Green Bay Packers (11-5) at Arizona Cardinals (10-6)


New York Jets (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

KICKOFF: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 1/09/10
SURFACE: Grass
TV: NBC (Tom Hammond, Joe Gibbs, Joe Theismann)

KEYS TO THE GAME

The Bengals will have DL Robert Geathers and Domato Peko in the lineup this week, but still have to be concerned with the way the Jets' offensive line physically dominated last Sunday. The Jets also have a wrinkle with WR Brad Smith lining up under center at times, giving Cincinnati more to gameplan for. New York will do everything possible to protect QB Mark Sanchez and keep him out of obvious passing downs.

Bengals RB Cedric Benson should have fresh legs after sitting out Week 17, while the Jets might not know the status of leading tackler ILB David Harris until game time. The ground game is critical to Cincinnati because the virtually nonexistent vertical passing game will be even more difficult to come by in the face of the Jets' pass rush. With CB Darrelle Revis shadowing WR Chad Ochocinco, QB Carson Palmer must be willing to look more often for Laveranues Coles and Andre Caldwell.

FAST FACTS

  • The Jets are the first team since 1970 to lead the league in rushing yards per game (172.3) and total defense (252.3).

  • The Bengals have allowed an average of 173 rushing yards the past four weeks.

  • The Jets are 8-0 when they have a positive turnover margin and 0-5 when it's negative. They are 1-2 when it's even.

    JETS

    Mark Sanchez was once the ball boy for Carson Palmer's high school team, years before the two of them were to become standout quarterbacks for USC.

    But on Saturday, the Jets' quarterback's job description will be a little different, because he will be trying to keep the football away from Palmer and the rest of the host Bengals when they and the Jets collide in an AFC wild-card game.

    "I was a fan (of Palmer's) immediately," said Sanchez, whose brother, Brandon, played on the same Santa Margarita (Calif.) High School team with Palmer.

    The 23-year-old Sanchez said Wednesday he admired Palmer, now 30, for "the way he inspired his team, the way he brought emotion to the game.

  • He was huge in high school. So they won back-to-back (California Interscholastic Football) titles and I got to be the ball boy for all of those and see them celebrate after the game. It was awesome."

    "I first met him back when I was in high school and he was hanging around," Palmer said Wednesday on a conference call. "His brother was one of my teammates.

  • He's gone through some tough times but he's a resilient kid. He's a really good football player and if people don't think he is yet, they'll see in the future."

    Just maybe not in the near future. In recent weeks, the Jets' offense seems to have relegated Sanchez to the NFL version of the kiddie table at Thanksgiving dinner, where he is being asked to stay out of trouble and not get in the way.

    To Sanchez's credit, he has at least done that well without complaining, playing turnover-free football in the last two games, wins over Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Of course, he also didn't throw for any touchdowns in those games.

    "I think things are going to get a lot easier" eventually, Sanchez said. "But at this point in time, I kind of found that with the way we are running the ball, with being accurate, being smart, (that) has been our ticket these last couple of games. I just want to play the same way and get a little bit better, just build on each week."

    When the Jets faced their first third-and-long situation Sunday, they employed former college quarterback Brad Smith in the Wildcat formation, and he ran 57 yards, setting up the Jets' first touchdown. The Jets used the Wildcat on two other third downs in the first quarter, converting both, and Smith added a 32-yard scoring run in the second quarter, giving Cincinnati's defense plenty to think about for the rematch.

    Who knows? Maybe the former Missouri quarterback will throw this Saturday.

    "You can put a lot of pressure on the defense" that way, Smith said. "I'm comfortable throwing the football. It's something I've done my whole life. If that situation arises, we'll try to make plays."

    Sanchez, who now is wearing a wristband with all the play calls on it, a practice that began with Sunday's game, doesn't seem to mind if he's under center or occasionally running fake pass patterns while Smith takes over.

  • LB David Harris (sprained right ankle) returned to practice Thursday on a limited basis and is expected to play. Harris is upset that he got hurt Sunday on what appeared to be an illegal chop block by Cincinnati RB Brian Leonard.

  • P Steve Weatherford (hamstring) practiced Thursday and will play Saturday.

  • Backup RB Shonn Greene figures to have a large role in Saturday's game as the Jets likely will have a conservative game plan. Greene seems to have gotten over his fumbling problems. He has not coughed up the ball in the last three games after losing three fumbles in a six-game span.

  • WR-PR Jerricho Cotchery had a season-high 31-yard return against the Bengals on Sunday and could be a factor in the rematch.

  • Backup CB Donald Strickland (quadriceps) was limited in practice again Thursday and his status for Saturday is uncertain.

    BENGALS

    Last week the Cincinnati Bengals had problems slipping and sliding on the rock hard surface of the Meadowlands. Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco bruised his knee when he slipped and fell and kicker Shayne Graham was actually kicking up chunks of ice during pregame warm-ups.

    With Saturday's AFC wild-card round game against the Jets being played at Paul Brown Stadium, there shouldn't be the same problems this week.

    After the Bengals' one-hour practice on Thursday, the field was covered by a tarp. The stadium was also built with a heating system underneath which should keep conditions optimum.

    "Last week it was like ice. You couldn't plant your feet or get separation," wide receiver Andre Caldwell said. "The field here is fine so it shouldn't be a problem at all getting separation."

    The Bengals practiced indoors on Tuesday and Wednesday but were in the elements on Thursday. Coach Marvin Lewis had no problems or concerns with the week of preparation so far.

    The forecast for Saturday's game according to the National Weather Service has a temperature of 18 for the 4:30 p.m. kickoff with a wind chill of seven.

  • FS Chris Crocker had full participation in practice after missing the last three games with an ankle injury. He will start on Saturday.

  • DT Domata Peko had full participation in practice after missing the last five games with a knee injury. He will start on Saturday.

  • FS Tom Nelson was limited in practice because of a knee injury, but he is expected to play this week.

  • DT Tank Johnson was limited in practice because of a lingering foot injury, but he is expected to play this week.

  • DE Robert Geathers had full participation in practice after being inactive last week. He will start on Saturday.


    Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) at Dallas Cowboys (11-5)

    KICKOFF: Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET
    GAMEDATE: 1/09/10
    SURFACE: Grass
    TV: NBC (Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Andrea Kremer)

    KEYS TO THE GAME

    The Eagles ran just six offensive plays in the first quarter of last weekend's shutout loss. Playing from behind, Philadelphia was forced to become too one-dimensional and Dallas' pass rush took over as five of the Eagles' 12 third downs were 10 yards or longer. Philadelphia ran the ball a season-low 10 times, and must get RBs Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver involved from the outset to help control the clock more. Cowboys RBs Marion Barber and Felix Jones average 6.3 yards per carry last Sunday as the offensive line dominated. That has led to QB Tony Romo completing 66.1 percent of his passes for an average of 9.09 yards per attempt in the first two meetings. Philadelphia has to find a way to contain the ground game on first and second downs and then avoid the blown coverages the secondary has experienced too often this season.

    FAST FACTS

    The Cowboys haven't won a playoff game since 1996.

  • The Eagles have 25 interceptions this season, but have also allowed 27 touchdown passes.

  • Of the previous 19 teams that have swept a division rival during the regular season, 12 have gone on to complete the three-game sweep in a postseason rematch.

    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."

  • 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.

    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."

  • 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.


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