>By Will Robinson

The NFL regular season is over with, and there were plenty of storylines that came with it. Despite Denver failing to meet my low expectations this year, they were not the only disappointing team from the 2010 NFL season, and there were a wealth of surprising teams. I’ll spare the details; there will be a season recap coming up later this week.
 
The playoff schedule is now set in stone, and there will be four games this week during the Wild Card round. The matchups, in chronological order, are as follows:

SATURDAY
NFC
#5 New Orleans Saints (11-5) at #4 Seattle Seahawks (7-9), 1:30 p.m. PST, NBC

The reigning Super Bowl champs started this season slowly, as they started out 4-3 including losses to Arizona and Cleveland. Since then, they finished the season 7-2 and posted a victory at Matt Ryan’s house on week 16’s Monday Night Football. Drew Brees had a good year for yards and touchdowns, and completed 68.1% of his passes, but he threw 22 interceptions and fumbled nine times this year: career highs in both categories. The Saints’ running game has been banged up all year (Reggie Bush’s broken leg, Pierre Thomas’ ankle, Chris Ivory’s [insert hurt body part here]), thus has been very inconsistent. Thomas looked good against the Falcons, but was inactive in the season finale against the Buccaneers. The Gregg Williams fronted defense struggled early this year without Darren Sharper in the lineup, but just like the offense, they have turned it on as of late. They held the NFC leading rusher, Michael Turner, to an abysmal 48 yards on 17 carries. I like the Saints to go back home with their dreams of a repeat intact.
 
newaerialSeattle made history being the first team with a losing record to make the playoffs. Fantastic. Great. Practically everyone had the Rams to win in Qwest Field and salvage any respectability for the NFC West, but that was not the case. They are double-digit underdogs at home. With all of that being said, don’t be surprised if this game is closer than the line suggests. Seattle has one of the better home field advantages in the league, and they have three above average-good backs in Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett, and Leon Washington. Mike Williams has been a revelation this year and their most dangerous receiver, and Seattle has awarded him with a three-year contract extension. Their defense held the Rams to six points, and while part of the win had to do with a severe lack of execution by St. Louis, Seattle won, and that’s all that matters in the end. Rookie Earl Thomas was one of the standout rookies this season, leading the team with five interceptions and looking like a vet in his free safety role. The home field advantage will help keep this closer than people expect, but that’s about all Seattle fans can realistically hope for.
 
Prediction: New Orleans 24-16.
 
AFC
#6 New York Jets (11-5) at #3 Indianapolis Colts (10-6), 5 p.m. PST, NBC
 
The Jets have struggled in recent weeks after being embarrassed by New England in Foxborough, and have had trouble landing on their feet (insert Rex Ryan joke). Yet, despite not starting most of their offensive players against the Buffalo Bills, they managed to kill them 38-7 and enter the playoffs on a strong note. The supposedly vaunted, dangerous Jets’ defense has not been what it has all been cracked up to be, mainly due to injuries and Darrelle Revis’ lack of health. Even though he has played most of this season, he has not looked like the defensive standout we saw last year. The secondary needs to step up to slow down Peyton Manning, as he figured them out in last year’s AFC Championship game. The Jets did the right thing resting the rejuvenated LaDainian Tomlinson and the young, struggling Shonn Greene, and showed they have another legitimate weapon in Joe McKnight. Mark Sanchez has been in a slump while hurt, but has declared himself ready for playoff action. Sanchez and his receivers are the key to beating Indianapolis’ banged up secondary, who have now decided to play solid run defense.
 
People were particularly worried about Peyton Manning when he could not stop throwing interceptions. Fortunately, for the Colts, he decided to stop throwing the season – or got back in his groove: I’ll lean towards the former. Anyways, there has been a discovery of a decent run game in the past week that Manning has not had since the original Dominic Rhodes/Joseph Addai tandem in 2006. During the last three weeks of the season, Indy posted over 100 yards rushing. That’s the same amount of times they hit triple digits rushing in their previous 13 games combined. The Colts’ defense is playing at its highest level all year, with back-to-back-to-back great performances in shutting down Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden, and Chris Johnson. The defensive backs allowed 300 yards and a 111.1 quarterback rating to the previously thought to be in assisted living, Kerry Collins. The game hinges on Mark Sanchez against the Indianapolis defensive backs, so expect them to be tested early and often. Despite their injuries, the Colts are peaking at the right time, and are in prime playoff shape. When they won the Super Bowl in 2006-07, they did not have home field advantage and did not rest their starters in their week 17 game. Just saying. They may need some Vinatieri magic to win this one, though.
 
Prediction: Indianapolis 27-24
 
SUNDAY
AFC
#5 Baltimore Ravens (12-4) at #4 Kansas City Chiefs (10-6), 10 a.m. PST, CBS
 
Baltimore is riding high entering the playoffs, posting a great 12-4 record with the third year of the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era. Every loss of theirs this year has been by five points or fewer, with losses to three playoff teams in New England, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta. Ray Rice struggled to start the year, but really began to pick up the yards when he became fully healthy, unlike Anquan Boldin, who started hot but burned out through the year. He started with two 100+ games in his first three weeks, including an eight catch, 142 yard, three touchdown game against Cleveland in week three. Since then, he has recorded two games over 70 yards, and averaged 3.3 catches per game. The ageless Derrick Mason posted strikingly similar numbers (three fewer catches, 35 fewer yards) despite six more years of wear and tear on him, and was far more consistent throughout the year. Todd Heap resurged this season, matching last year’s numbers with only 13 games played and is a reliable target for Flacco. The defense is nowhere near what it was when they won the Super Bowl way back in 2001, but having Ed Reed back in the lineup has definitely strengthened the unit. The defense forced four turnovers in six games without Reed and 23 in ten games with him. That’s a difference of over 1.5 turnovers forced per game. Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs additionally posted great years once again, with 139 tackles for Lewis and 11 sacks for Suggs. Haloti Ngata is one of the premier defensive linemen in the game, after another spectacular season playing one of the crucial down linemen in their defense. He demands a double team, and even sometimes, that is not sufficient in stopping him.
 
Kansas City is entering the playoffs with the opposite feeling as Baltimore. The Chiefs played their starters on Sunday and were whooped at home to their division rivals, the Oakland Raiders. Not the kind of performance a team wants to bring into the postseason. Matt Cassel had by far the worst game of the season, passing for 115 yards on 33 attempts and 11 completions, zero touchdowns, and two interceptions. Jamaal Charles was his electric self, but narrowly missed out on the all-time highest rushing yards per carry record in a single season, as his last carry went for a one-yard loss (Charles would have had 6.41 YPC, Jim Brown had 6.4 YPC in 1963, but Charles finished with 6.37 YPC. Bummer). Calling Dwayne Bowe’s start to the season horrendous would be a gross understatement. Before week six at Houston, Bowe compiled nine catches for 152 yards, one touchdown, and three and a half dropped touchdowns per game (that last one may be an exaggeration) over four games. Since then, he averaged 5.25 catches, 84.1 yards, and 1.2 touchdowns per game. In a six week span (weeks six to 12); Bowe had five multi-touchdown games, and over 80 yards receiving four times (three 100+-yard games). While he has been decent in recent weeks, the threat of a big game from Bowe still looms. The defense has been much improved this season thanks to defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and outside linebacker Tamba Hali. Hali brought down the opposing quarterback a career high 14.5 times this season, the second highest total in the regular season. Hali also tipped three passes, forced four fumbles, and recovered two. Cornerback Brandon Flowers is one of the great, young lockdown corners coming up in the league, and rookie Eric Berry has been solid this year (not as good as other rookie safety, Earl Thomas). This is the most intriguing game of the week to me, as we don’t know what Chiefs team will show up only one week after the egg they laid at home.
 
Prediction: Ravens 21-16
 
NFC
#6 Green Bay Packers (10-6) at #3 Philadelphia Eagles (10-6), 4:30 p.m. PST, FOX
 

 
 
 
Green Bay toughed out a hard victory in Chicago to advance into the playoffs, but before that they had a dominant win against New York, a close loss with the backup Matt Flynn at New England, and suffered a terrible loss against Detroit with Aaron Rodgers knocked out of the game. Green Bay has been injury stricken all year, with Ryan Grant, Nick Barnett, and Jermichael Finley all placed on injured reserve. Rodgers turned in another fantastic year after a rough start. He threw 11 interceptions during the season, with only two coming in the last eight games he played. Their running game has been so lost without Grant, Rodgers has led the team in rushing in three games this year, and their leading rusher has failed to reach 50 yards in a game seven times this year. Take that with a grain of salt, as yards are a particularly deceiving statistic, but that lack of consistency hurts any team. I have loved what their defense has done all year, though. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has dialed up unique packages and aggressive plays to keep offenses off guard all year. I remember seeing Charles Woodson, last year’s defensive player of the year, brought down to blitz Jay Cutler multiple times last Sunday. Not many teams have confidence in the rest of their team to bring their top coverage corner on occasional blitzes throughout an entire game. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews has one of the strongest pass rushing motors in the game right now. Matthews is relentless down after down when he pursues the quarterback, and his 13.5 sacks proves that. Tramon Williams, the other cornerback in the Green Bay, has been another breakout performer this season. Williams had six interceptions this year – and even those can be a misleading stat, look at this Pro Bowl corner that had six this season – and consistently played coverage on opposing wide outs. Whenever I watched the Packers play, I rarely saw him get beat by opposing receivers.
 
Philadelphia boasts the most explosive offense in the league, helmed by the league’s most controversial player: Michael Vick. After Kevin Kolb was knocked out against the Pack in the first week of the season, Vick has shown evolution as a quarterback. His first instinct is to stay in the pocket and look for the right pass, as opposed to opting to run whenever possible. Up until week 12, Vick committed no turnovers; however, from weeks 13 to 16, Vick threw six interceptions and lost three fumbles. Running back LeSean McCoy and wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin make up the best of weapons Michael Vick has ever had in his career. Seriously. He had Warrick Dunn, a younger Alge Crumpler, and a “not all the way there” Roddy White as his top wingmen. The offense looked discordant in their last game trying, against the Vikings, so hopefully the week of rest against Dallas was enough for some of the players to recover and rest. Philly’s defense still has the semblance of what the late great Jim Johnson drew up when he was the defensive coordinator: an aggressive, 4-3 defense that can get to the passer with their four rushers. They were tied for tenth in the NFL for sacks, recording 39; defensive end Trent Cole accounted for ten of those by himself. Rookie safety Nate Allen was one of the best rookie defensive backs this year, but he hurt his knee last month and will not be in the lineup against the Packers. This could be a key, as Asante Samuel is a great corner, but gambles a lot. They need to play more disciplined in the secondary to slow down the Packers.
 
Prediction: Green Bay 28-24

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