Stage Set for Divisional Round
The record may be broken next week.
The game in question was Arizona's 51-45 overtime win over Green Bay, won by the Cardinals on a defensive play -- Karlos Dansby's return of an Aaron Rodgers fumble -- in a game in which there were myriad offensive records set, including one for most points in a playoff game.
That sends the Cardinals to New Orleans next Saturday for a duel between Drew Brees and Kurt Warner, who threw for 379 yards and five touchdowns on Sunday. The way Arizona played, that record of 96 points in a postseason game may not stand -- the Cards played little defense and the Saints have regressed in their three straight losses to end the season.
The other games seem to shape up differently. Baltimore, the New York Jets and Dallas all won in far more physical fashion to qualify for the second round. They also played a lot more defense, especially the Cowboys, who now have allowed just 31 points during a four-game winning streak -- four fewer than Arizona allowed to Green Bay in the second half on Sunday.
Next weekend's games, in order:
Arizona (11-6) at New Orleans (13-3), 4:30 p.m., Saturday
The Saints' run to an unbeaten season was stopped by Dallas at 13-0, then the Saints proceeded to lose to Tampa Bay and Carolina. They held on to home-field advantage in the NFC only because Minnesota was skidding at the same time, losing two of their final three.
If nothing else, this will be fun -- Brees and Warner on a fast track in a game that should be a lot like the Cardinals and Packers. In other words, first team to stop the other wins.
A note on the Cardinals: after winning one playoff game in 51 years, they now have won four of the last five, the outlier being the Super Bowl last season, which they came within 35 seconds of winning. Most of that is due to Warner, who at 39 might retire because of concussions. It's hard to argue with health issues, and his play the last two seasons certainly has solidified his Hall of Fame credentials. Sunday's game put his career postseason passer rating at 104.6, second to Bart Starr's 104.8.
Brees isn't quite Hall qualified yet -- he hasn't played long enough. But he's getting there, although he spent his off-week getting into a mini-Twitter controversy over a piece he wrote for the players' union that annoyed some league officials.
Early line is Saints by seven.
Baltimore (10-7) at Indianapolis (14-2), 8 p.m., Saturday
Baltimore's one-time team, the Colts, have beaten the Ravens the last seven times they've played going back to 2001. That includes a 17-15 win in Baltimore this season, in which the Ravens moved the ball up and down the field but couldn't get into the end zone.
For Indy, this will be the first time in almost a month that they will be trying to win -- they pulled Peyton Manning up 15-10 against the Jets when they were 14-0 and then sleepwalked through their Week 17 loss to the Bills. The year they won the title, 2006, they had to play through to the end.
But the Colts, favored by 6 1/2 in the early line, should enter this game healthier than they've been for a while. Everyone concentrated on Manning sitting, but Robert Mathis didn't play in the final two games and Dwight Freeney played only a bit, so Indy's pass rush should be as good as it's been.
On the other hand, if the Ravens do what they did to New England -- 234 yards rushing -- they will neutralize Freeney and Mathis and keep Manning off the field.
Dallas (12-5) at Minnesota (12-4), 1 p.m., Sunday
Talk all you want about Tony Romo's play and his first postseason victory, but the Cowboys' four-game winning streak is fueled by the defense. During that streak, Dallas has allowed just 31 points and the only turkey of an offense in those wins was Washington, which was shut out.
In fact, like the Jets and Ravens, Dallas won the old-fashioned way this weekend, running the ball and pounding its opponents. The Vikings are liable to pound back -- or at least try to get Adrian Peterson back on track. It's better doing that than doing what the Eagles did for two straight weeks: dropping Donovan McNabb back to get pressured by DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer in an effort to get the ball deep downfield. Bryant McKinnie, the Vikings' Pro Bowl left tackle, may need help to keep Ware off Brett Favre, and when Favre is pressured, he tends to throw interceptions.
Theoretically, the Vikings have the weapons to limit Dallas' running game, especially if Pat Wililams is 100 percent healthy. But Romo has a lot of weapons -- Felix Jones and Tashard Choice have surpassed Marion Barber as running options and Miles Austin can turn a 10-yard reception into 50 yards (he averaged 16.8 yard per catch on 81 receptions this season, very high for that many catches). With rookie Jasper Brinkley at middle linebacker for the injured E.J. Henderson, Dallas may throw to Jason Witten on early downs.
The Vikings are just a 2 1/2 to three-point favorite right now. It may be even less as we get closer to game time.
New York Jets (10-7) at San Diego (13-3), 4:30 p.m., Sunday
Similar to the Ravens-Colts matchup in that the Jets will run well, and will hope to move the ball that way to protect rookie QB Mark Sanchez and keep Philip Rivers and his receivers off the field.
The Chargers are another team with momentum -- 11 straight wins after a 2-3 start. New York's Darrelle Revis, the NFL's best cover cornerback, will likely lock up on Vincent Jackson, which could provide room for Rivers to throw to Antonio Gates. San Diego's receivers also are healthier than the Cincinnati group the Jets shut down on Saturday.
The Jets are young and building and coach Rex Ryan actually thought they had been eliminated (or said he did) after they lost to Atlanta three weeks ago. San Diego is making its fourth straight playoff appearance with little to show except an AFC championship game appearance two years ago and clearly have more pressure to win. The early line has them as 7 1/2 to 8-point favorites, and if they are looking ahead to Indianapolis, a team they've played well against ....