This year's Wild Card Weekend was a bit odd, as the road teams were favored in all four contests. After looking carefully at each matchup, I decided that there were good reasons that the home teams were underdogs but when the dust cleared two of those home teams won, so I only correctly picked the outcome of two of the four Wild Card Weekend games. However, the only result that really surprised me was San Diego beating Indianapolis; even though the Chargers have played the Colts very tough in recent years, the Chargers were a banged up 8-8 team while the Colts were the hottest team in the NFL down the stretch and featured the league MVP, Peyton Manning. I had Atlanta squeaking by Arizona 27-24 but acknowledged that the Cardinals had a "puncher's chance if Warner puts a lot of points on the board and avoids committing costly turnovers" and that was exactly what happened in a 30-24 Cardinals win. I knew that Baltimore and Philadelphia would prove to be superior to Miami and Minnesota respectively.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the four Divisional Playoff games is that they are all rematches of 2008 regular season contests. Here are my predictions:
The 12-5 Wild Card Baltimore Ravens visit the 13-3 AFC South Champion Tennessee Titans.
On paper, Tennessee and Baltimore are about as evenly matched as possible. The Titans posted the best regular season record in the NFL this season but these teams tied for the best point differential (8.8 ppg). The Titans won the regular season matchup 13-10 at Baltimore but the Ravens have won four of their previous seven games versus Tennessee. Both teams have bruising running attacks and fierce defenses.
The Titans are a bit banged up on both the offensive and defensive lines; Kyle Vanden Bosch and Albert Haynesworth are expected to play but center Kevin Mawae's status is less certain and that could obviously have a major impact on Tennessee in both the running game and the passing game.
The Ravens are coming off of a convincing win against a hot Dolphins team but they have to play on the road against a well rested division champion. The key factor will be that Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins must avoid throwing costly interceptions (hint: be aware of where Ed Reed is and do not throw the football anywhere near him).
Tennessee will win, 24-13.
The 10-7 NFC West Champion Arizona Cardinals visit the 12-4 NFC South Champion Carolina Panthers.
Arizona looked terrible in the last few weeks of the regular season but surprised a lot of people by beating Atlanta in the Wild Card game. Still, the Cardinals had a negative point differential during the season, went 0-5 in the Eastern time zone and have lost five of their last seven games to Carolina, including a 27-23 road loss this season. Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns in that game but the Panthers did not lose at home this season and are not likely to do so versus Arizona.
Carolina will win, 31-17.
The 10-6-1 Wild Card Philadelphia Eagles visit the 12-4 NFC East Champion New York Giants.
These division rivals split their 2008 games, with the Giants winning 36-31 at Philadelphia before losing 20-14 at home. The Eagles have won 10 of the previous 17 meetings overall and the Giants have not been quite the same since losing the services of troubled wide receiver Plaxico Burress. Despite New York's superior record, the two teams had virtually identical point differentials. The winner will be the team that is more physical, does a better job of establishing a running game and is able to avoid costly mistakes. New York is the defending Super Bowl champion, a team that made their title run by putting together a record setting road winning streak. They are well rested and I don't think that they will lose to a talented but inconsistent Philadelphia squad.
New York will win, 24-10
The 9-8 Wild Card San Diego Chargers visit the 12-4 AFC North Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pittsburgh beat San Diego 11-10 this season but that score is very deceptive; the referees erroneously nullified a late Pittsburgh TD, the Steelers outgained San Diego 410 yards to 213 and Ben Roethlisberger completely outplayed Philip Rivers, posting a 96.4 passer rating compared to a season-low 44.4 rating for Rivers. The fact that San Diego has beaten Pittsburgh in both of their playoff matchups is meaningless trivia, because those games took place in 1982 and 1994. The only negative for Pittsburgh going into this game is that Roethlisberger suffered a concussion in the season finale versus Cleveland. Assuming that he is not bothered by any aftereffects from that injury, Pittsburgh should dominate this game.
Pittsburgh will win, 27-7