This weekend marks the second round of the NFL playoffs. I’ve got a lot of personal pride and fandom running on this weekend (no money, though) as the Chargers and Panthers both play. Here’s hoping they’re not conspiring to make this weekend one gigantic heart attack. (Perhaps I should have rented a defibrillator for this weekend.) Without further ado, here’s what I think of the games. (Yes, I’m paying more attention to the teams that I’m rooting for — this isn’t supposed to be unbiased sports journalism, after all. :) )
Arizona at Carolina, 8:15 ET Saturday, FOX
The Panthers are rested and healthy again (getting run-stuffer DT Maake Kemoeatu back for the first time in several weeks). They host an Arizona team coming off perhaps their most complete game of the year, defeating Atlanta in the first round. The key for Carolina? Pass rush and pass defense. Fact is, Kurt Warner can still torch you through the air and has a wide supporting cast. The run game finally got a little traction, too. Defensively, the Cardinals did everything they had to do against Atlanta — stuff the run and make Matt Ryan beat them. Matt Ryan is a good quarterback, but he’s still a rookie, and that came out a little bit against Arizona.
They’d have to use a similar attack to have a chance against the Panthers. Jonathan Stewart and D’Angelo Williams are a potent 1-2 punch that have bruised and beaten defenses to a pulp, especially over the last half of the season. If Arizona manages to slow down the Panthers’ rushing attack — no easy feat — they may have a chance to slow down Steve Smith and Mushin Muhammad and at least keep the game close. Jake Delhomme’s statistics aren’t pretty, but he finds a way to win, and he’s historically elevated his game in the playoffs.
I get the feeling Arizona is overmatched here. They have a pretty good team but they also can’t win on the East Coast. Carolina’s penchant for letting teams back into games — always a problem under John Fox for some reason — will elevate some blood pressures, but the Panthers will carry the day and advance to the NFC Championship Game for the fourth time in four playoff appearances.
Chargers at Steelers, 4:45 ET Sunday, CBS
The Chargers won in truly heart-stopping fashion in overtime last weekend against the Colts and got heroic performances from many key players, including punter Mike Scifres (his 67-yard punt changed the field position battle for the rest of the game), the entire Charger defense, and Darren Sproles, who became third all-time in all-purpose yardage in a postseason game. They’ll need a similar performance in what promises to be a very bruising game in Pittsburgh. San Diego kept it close in their last meeting, but could not get it done. Pittsburgh is coming off a bye and everybody’s reasonably healthy (including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger). Philip Rivers struggled against the Colts’ pass defense last weekend and I suspect he’s going to have similar problems against the Pittsburgh D. I also don’t believe that Darren Sproles will come close to the day he had against the Colts.
This game is going to come down to missed opportunities. The Chargers missed a lot of opportunities to break the game open against Indy last week (three dropped interceptions, two turnovers in the end zone). The Chargers have to capitalize, capitalize, capitalize against the Steelers if they wish to have a chance.
I have a feeling it’s going to be another low-scoring affair. Roethlisberger hasn’t torched too many people through the air this year, and Willie Parker hasn’t had any earth-shattering performances as of late, either. The Charger D was able to really shut down the Colts’ attack; the question is, can they come east and do this? The Chargers didn’t win an East Coast game either this year. They’ve also essentially played five straight playoff games — how long can they ride this emotional high? Lots of questions. I’m cautiously optimistic about my Chargers, but also realistic. They’ll need a third playoff miracle in Pittsburgh and similarly heroic play if they want to get back to the AFC Championship Game.
The other games…
- Ravens at Titans, 4:30 ET Saturday (CBS): Toss a coin and you can make a pick for this game. These teams are fairly evenly matched and should beat each other up pretty well. I suspect it will be a low-scoring defensive game as well. Chad Pennington learned the hard way what happens if you throw it to Ed Reed — Kerry Collins won’t repeat that mistake. He doesn’t throw often, relying on a power running game to generate points. I’d have to give the edge to the Titans here, if only because Collins is a playoff veteran, knows what it takes to advance, and has done an excellent job taking care of the football. Turnovers will determine the ebb and flow of this game, but it’s truly too close to call.
- Eagles at Giants, 1:00 ET Sunday (FOX): This one comes down to stopping the run — whoever does it best wins it. And I’ll tell you what, the Giants are a tough run to stop. Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward are as bruising and punishing of a running game as you’ll see in the NFL (ask Carolina how well stopping those guys went). Brian Westbrook has started to see signs of life, and Donovan McNabb is playing inspired football. Is it enough against the Giants? That’s a tough team to beat. I think the Eagles’ run ends tomorrow, but there’s no way you get rid of McNabb in Philadelphia now. They’re not where they are without his play.
Best of luck to everybody this weekend — here’s hoping these games are at the level of quality that we’ve seen so far in these playoffs.