Wild Card Playoff Preview


Leon Washington could be a weapon in the passing game

The postseason is finally here and four Wild Card entries will try to work their way to the divisional round, while four of this season's eight division champions try to take care of business and stay focused while setting their goals for a long January run.

Meanwhile, the Chargers, the Ravens, the Bears, and the Saints all get an extra week to rest up and fine-tune their game. You can be sure coaches and players from all four teams will be glued to this week's games. So will we. Here's a quick look at this week's matchups.

Dallas (9-7) at Seattle (9-7):

This game marks the first postseason meeting between these coaches since Super Bowl XXXI when Mike Holmgren's Packers defeated Bill Parcells' Patriots. But neither coach can be entering this game with a lot of confidence as both teams have lost three of their last four games.

Holmgren's Seahawks have the most dangerous and experienced QB in the NFC playoffs in Matt Hasselbeck, and he has a wealth of weapons in the passing game to balance the running of RB Shaun Alexander, who is as healthy as he has been all season. They face a Cowboys defense that has allowed 132 points over the last four weeks and has struggled to stop the big play in the passing game over the last two seasons.

Dallas has stumbled into the playoffs as QB Tony Romo goes through some growing pains, and the Cowboys haven't been able to establish enough of a run game to protect the young passer. The result has been too many sacks and too many turnovers that have left the Cowboys on the wrong side of the ledger. The Cowboys will need to run the ball, but playmaking wideouts Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn will have to take advantage of a banged-up secondary if Dallas is to advance with a win on the road.

Kansas City (9-7) at Indianapolis (12-4):

The Chiefs might be the last team in the AFC that the Colts wanted to see in the first round. Kansas City leans on one of the NFL's top rushers Larry Johnson, who will face by far the worst run defense in the NFL. But the Colts can strike quickly on offense, and despite some talented players on defense, the Chiefs lack the personnel to matchup with Indy in the passing game.

The Colts are coming off their first undefeated season at home since the Baltimore Colts did it in 1984, and the Chiefs are the worst road team in the playoffs this year with a 3-5 regular season mark away from Arrowhead Stadium. But don't forget, the last time friends Tony Dungy and Herm Edwards met in the postseason as head coaches, the result was a 41-0 win for Edwards' Jets in 2002.

Who has the edge? It's hard to tell, but this figures to be a more competitive game than the Colts bargained for.

New York Giants (8-8) at Philadelphia (10-6):

The Eagles are one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now, riding a five-game winning streak. They are also an unlikely Super Bowl contender that is following the lead of backup QB Jeff Garcia and the outstanding playmaking ability of RB Brian Westbrook.

On the other side, the Giants backed their way into the playoffs with a second half of the season that was marked by numerous injuries and inconsistent play on both sides of the ball. They will have to have another big day from Tiki Barber to hang with Philly in the playoffs, but if Eli Manning doesn't step up and lead his team - the Giants postseason stay will be a short one.

Despite the Eagles aggressive defense, this is a unit that is giving up over 130 rushing yards per game. Still, they have had the Giants number this season, and Barber, despite having success against Philly over the course of his career, hasn't eclipsed the 100-yard mark against the Eagles in '06. What many fans don't know is that Eli Manning's highest yardage days of the season both came against the Eagles. But the Eagles also handed Manning 9 of his 25 sacks this season, and in two games against Philly, he had three INT and two fumbles.

New York Jets (10-6) at New England (12-4)

These are two evenly matched teams, as evidenced by the ten total points that decided their two meetings earlier this season, and they know each other very well. And while most prognosticators give the "playoff experience" edge to New England, this is a Jets team that is making its 4th postseason appearance in six seasons.

The Patriots play ball control on offense and generally live by the old school credo of, "run the ball, defend the run." So it shouldn't surprise anyone to hear that the Pats were 5th in the NFL this year in total rushing attempts and ranked in the top 10 in rushing percentage, running the ball on over 47% of their offensive snaps. Don't look for anything to change this week as the Patriots will continue to ride the tandem of Corey Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney. However, don't look for an even split. Two of Corey Dillon's best games of the season came against the Jets.

Ball control has been the name of the game in New York as well, with Gang Green establishing the run anyway they can, with any number of backs, and then letting QB Chad Pennington carry the load with play action and pinpoint accuracy in the short passing game.

Pennington does not throw the ball downfield often, choosing instead to attack the short and intermediate zones with WR's Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery. Third WR Justin McCareins has also worked his way into the lineup, working primarily out of the slot, but the Jets will put him on the perimeter as well and let Cotchery use his speed and ability to catch the ball in traffic to make plays in the middle of the field. With Rodney Harrison likely out for this game, and the Pats playing a single deep safety, look for the Jets to attempt to include more deep passes in the game plan this week. But you can also expect plenty of screens and swing passes to RB Leon Washington as well. Pennington will let the rush come and then throw over the onrushing defenders to Washington in space and let him run up field.

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