Newyorkjets.com will profile each playoff game in this NFL postseason, with a special eye on Jets angles in each of the matchups. Today: the NFC Wild Card Game being played late Saturday afternoon:
(5) ATLANTA (11-5) at (4) ARIZONA (9-7), 4:30 p.m. EST, NBC
Call this the Zombie Bowl. Both the Cardinals and Falcons have been dead to the NFL's postseason for a while. Now they come together for the first playoff game of this season.
The Cardinals have been away the longest. They snapped the NFL's longest playoff drought, nine seasons, by winning their first division championship since 1974. As a reward, they'll play a home playoff game for only the second time in franchise history. The first? The Chicago Cardinals won the 1947 NFL Championship with a 28-21 win over Philadelphia.
"This is when it's fun," RB Edgerrin James told azcardinals.com of the playoffs. "The regular season, it's all good, it's cool. But this is when football starts. This is when everything is serious. One mistake could be the deciding factor."
The Falcons' fall has been more recent and precipitous, the result of QB Michael Vick's dog-fighting incarceration and coach Bobby Petrino's sudden departure, all last season.
After a three-year absence, they're back in the playoffs, and although it's still a long way from the 2004 NFC Championship Game, the Birds are prepared to take a postseason flyover again, this time with NFL Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan at quarterback, Michael Turner carrying the rock, and former Jets sackmaster John Abraham at DE.
"Nothing's guaranteed," said Turner, who toiled as LaDainian Tomlinson's understudy before arriving in Atlanta. "Just because we made the playoffs our first year being together doesn't mean we're going to be back next year or three years down the line. We have to make the most of this opportunity right now."
Cards WR Anquan Boldin, half of the dynamic duo along with Larry Fitzgerald, has had a tough season physically, but despite his earlier facial surgeries to insert seven plates and 40 screws following the hit from S Eric Smith vs. the Jets and more recently a shoulder injury that sat him down the last two games, he'll be suited up in University of Phoenix Stadium on Saturday.
"If anybody thinks I'm going to miss this game," Boldin said this week, "they're not too bright."
The Cardinals do it through the air. Warner has thrown for 4,583 yards (second behind Drew Brees' near-record 5,069) and 30 TDs (to 14 INTs), to the tune of a 96.4 passer rating, third-highest in the NFL.
Not to diminish either of his two talented targets, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin have been impossible to stop. They've combined for 185 receptions for 2,469 yards and 23 touchdowns, a per-game average of 11.6 catches, 154.3 yards and 1.4 TDs. Steve Breaston also had a 1,000-yard season — only the fifth time in NFL history a team has had three four-figure receivers.
Arizona first-round-rookie CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the top interceptor in this game with four picks, including a 99-yard TD
Ryan's numbers are un-rookie-like: 61.1 percent completion rate, 16 TDs to 11 INTs, an 87.7 passer rating. His best figure: 7.93 yards per attempt, eighth-best among qualifying QBs. WR Roddy White was Ryan's go-to guy overall (88 catches, 1,382 yards, seven TDs — career highs all) and on third down, when he averaged 17.8 yards per catch.
Michael Turner showed he was ready for featured-back duty by racking up 1,699 rushing yards, second-best in the league behind Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, on a league-high 376 carries and with a league-leading 17 touchdowns.
Former Jets first-round pick John Abraham is the star of the Atlanta defense with 16.5 sacks, third in the league, first among DEs and a personal best, plus four strip sacks. His matchup against Arizona LT Mike Gandy will be key, since Warner suffered nine strips this season (four against the Jets alone in Game 4), losing six of them.
The placekickers rarely miss from long distance. Atlanta's Jason Elam is 29-of-31 overall, 11-of-12 from 40 yards or longer, while Arizona's Neil Rackers is 25-of-28 overall, 7-of-8 from 40-plus.
Atlanta finished the regular season with NFL top-10 rankings in overall offense (6th), rush offense (2nd) and scoring offense (10th) and bottom-10 rankings in overall defense (24th) and rush defense (25th).
Arizona finished in with top-five rankings in total offense (4th), passing offense (3rd) and scoring offense (tied for 3rd) and in bottom-10 rankings in rush offense (32nd and last) scoring defense (28th).
The Falcons have a minus-3 turnover margin (minus-2 on the road) while the Cardinals have a zero margin (plus-5 at home).
The teams have never met in the postseason. The last time they met in the regular season was also at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 16 in 2007, when the Cardinals prevailed in overtime, 30-27. The Falcons had won the four meetings prior to that dating to 1999.
Arizona ended its playoff drought at nine seasons and now turns the league's current longest postseason-less streaks over to Buffalo and Detroit at nine each. The Cardinals' all-time playoff record is 2-5, with the last win coming in the 1998 NFC Wild Card Round by 20-7 at Dallas.
Atlanta's all-time playoff record is 6-8, including a 34-19 loss to Denver in Super Bowl XXXIII. The Falcons' last PO game was a 27-10 loss at Philadelphia in the 2004 NFC Championship Game, which followed their last PO victory, by 47-17 over St. Louis in the '04 divisional round.
There's a bit of Green & White peeking through in this red-and-black-hued NFC Wild Card matchup.
For Atlanta, Abraham, the Jets' second of four 2000 first-round picks traded to Atlanta after the '05 season, is in the middle of a career year. Erik Coleman, released after the '07 season, started all 16 games as the Falcons' FS, totaling three interceptions and 95 tackles (80 solo).
On the Arizona roster, P Ben Graham worked his way west after being released by the Jets and Saints. In four games for the Cardinals, Graham has a 42.0-yard gross average (43.3 in four games with the Jets) and a 32.0 gross (36.1 with the Jets). Victor Hobson, released by the Jets, Patriots and Bengals, signed on late with the Cards and backed up Chike Okeafor for one game at SLB.
The coaches in this game could be having a reunion bash for the members of Al Groh's one Jets staff in 2000.
Arizona HC Ken Whisenhunt (Jets' TEs coach, 2000) has four players with Jets ties on his staff: RBs coach Maurice Carthon (1997-2000), strength coach John Lott (1997-2004) and quality control/offense Dedric Ward (Jets WR 1997-2000).
On Mike Smith's Falcons staff, DL coach Ray Hamilton (1994-96, 2000) coached Abraham as a Jets rookie in '00.