Note: The quotes in this article are fictional.
Atlanta @ Arizona (+2 1/2)
The Cardinals closed out the regular season with a 34-21 win over the Seahawks, giving Arizona its first winning season in ten years. Kurt Warner passed for four scores and Edgerrin James rushed for 100 yards as the Cards built momentum for the franchise's first home playoff game since 1947. They will host the 11-5 Falcons in the first of two first-round games in which the wildcard team sports a better record that the home-standing, division-winning team.
"Hey, people may call us a fluke, people may call us a fraud," says Coach Ken Whisenhunt. "But they best not call us the ‘Milli Vanilli' of the playoffs, because that would be an insult to Rob and Fab. But all insults of ‘lip synchers' aside, this team, after winning our finale, is playing ‘in synch.' And no, I don't mean we're playing 'N Synch, although I'd feel much more secure of our playoff advancement if we were playing ‘N Synch."
"As for Warner and James, I'm hoping we can ride the veteran skills of the ‘Man With The Golden Arm' and the ‘Man With The Golden Teeth' to the second round of the playoffs. Seriously though, I doubt the Falcons will fall for the ‘Edgerrin James as playoff rushing threat' ruse I tried to create by giving him the ball last Sunday. We are a passing team. If we give Kurt, our ‘Jesus Christ Superstar' protection, then I don't foresee any way Atlanta can stop him. Unless, of course, the Falcons utilize the ‘Anti-Christ Superstar' defense, which employs six defensive backs, but, more importantly, features Brian Warner, also known as shock rocker Marilyn Manson, shouting signals and religious epithets."
Having already secured a playoff berth the week before, the Falcons came within a missed John Kasay field goal of winning the NFC South title, as the Panthers pulled out a 33-31 win in New Orleans. Atlanta won a close one in their own right, edging the upset-minded Rams 31-27.
"What's the next best thing to winning your division and hosting a playoff game?" says Matt Ryan, the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year. "Why, traveling out West for a playoff game on the road. It's funny. On the flight to University Of Phoenix Stadium, the further west we traveled, the more confident we became, and the closer I came to realizing an unaccredited online degree in Hospitality, Travel, and Tourism."
Styles will clash in Saturday's early game. The Falcons boast the NFL's #2 rushing offense, while the Cards were last in rushing yards per game. Atlanta will rush to set up play action and deep balls to Roddy White and Michael Jenkins (that was lifted straight from NFC Playbook on the NFL Network; thanks, Sterling!). On the other hand, Arizona will rush to set up tackles for losses, as well as second and long situations and other obvious passing downs. If they're smart, they'll start with some quick passes on first down, mainly to pick up five or so yards (leaving them the solid option of running on second down), but also to neutralize John Abraham's pass rush skills. And screen passes will work against the Atlanta defense. It'll take 31 points to win this game.
Call me a fool, but I'm feeling a home team victory. Arizona wins 31-28.
Indianapolis @ San Diego (-1)
In what is quickly becoming an intense rivalry, the 12-4 Colts travel to San Diego to face the 8-8 Chargers, who upset the Colts in Indianapolis in last year's divisional playoffs. The Colts gained a small measure of revenge with a week 12 win in San Diego, but true satisfaction will come only by eliminating the Chargers from the playoffs.
"One has to admire the Chargers," says Peyton Manning. "Their 8-8, division-winning season is a testament to resiliency, a never-say-die spirit, and the need for playoff seeding reform. There's only one way to celebrate such a successful 8-8 season, and that's with a toast of a beverage called the ‘.500,' a mix of 7 and 7 and half and half. It sounds like a good combination, but it's really only a mediocre drink."
"But enough about the Chargers. Let's talk about the Colts. If there were ever any doubts that this was my team, then those doubts have been cleared, just like I've cleared space on my mantle for the MVP trophy. I'm the ‘Colt' of personality. I sell the things you need to be. I'm the smiling face on your t.v. I exploit you. Still you love me. I'm the Colt of personality. Neon lights...you get the picture. Hopefully, it's on a Sony HD television."
San Diego's rout 52-21 rout of the Broncos won the AFC West and also ended Denver's quest to go wire-to-wire in winning the division. The win also erased the bitter memory of week 2's loss to Denver, in which an erroneous officiating call gave the Broncos the win.
"Hey, we're not only the hottest 8-8 team in the playoffs," says Philip Rivers, "but the best. I'm very proud of this team and myself for maintaining a professional attitude even in the face of a 4-8 record. Lots of teams would have folded in the face of better circumstances. Like the Broncos, for instance. I can't think of a more satisfying victory. Not only did it get us into the playoffs, but it got Mike Shanahan fired, and it probably put a temporary end to my petty, childlike, trivial feud with Jay Cutler. Which I won. I never would have expected the Broncos to fire Mike Shanahan. Losing by 31 must have been so humiliating that they fired a coach who's won two Super Bowls. I fully expect Shanny to find work quickly, most likely as a cattle puncher on John Elway's ranch."
We all know the Colts' and Chargers' offenses will show up, but this game will be decided by the defense that can stop those potent offenses. And by "stop," I mean "hold to a field goal." You won't likely hear the words "three and out" mentioned often in this game, unless Peyton Manning reveals the details of another knee surgery. Manning has been unstoppable lately, even though opposing defenses know he's going to pass.
Indianapolis wins 34-31.
Baltimore @ Miami (+3)
What a difference a year makes. The Ravens and Dolphins, one year after recording 5-11 and 1-15 records, respectively, meet in a playoff matchup that no one could have foreseen, not Nostradamus on psychedelic mushrooms, not even the most optimistic of Raven or Dolphin fan. Miami clinched the East with a 24-17 win over the Jets in the Meadowlands, a win whose implications resounded loudly, resulting in the firing of Eric Mangini, and something even more shocking than Tru TV---more indecision as to the future of Brett Favre.
"Forget the Jets," says Joey Porter. "Eric Mangini is just another example of a Bill Belichick disciple who couldn't cut it in the big time. Obviously, Belichick's secret is film study. Apparently, Mangini, Romeo Crenel, and Charlie Weiss failed to recognize the importance of film, thus setting the stage for their failures. They didn't see the writing on the wall, nor did they see the video on the screen. And Favre? I've heard of the paparazzi chasing someone, but never of someone chasing the paparazzi. He's like Edward R. Murrow---a newshound."
"Our win is the biggest news in the AFC East, although the rumored engagement of Tom Brady to Giselle Bundchen was certainly newsworthy, but the next time Tom and Giselle are mentioned, it better be a story about an armed O.J. Simpson crashing their wedding reception and intercepting the garter belt. Now that's AFC East news."
Like the Dolphins, the Ravens, led by a new coach, John Harbaugh, rose from the bottom of their division to grab an unlikely playoff spot. Although Baltimore didn't win their division, they enter the playoffs as a formidable opponent for any team.
"I think we match up very well with the Dolphins," says Harbaugh. "Especially in the category of ‘chest-thumping, outspoken linebacker,' although Porter's boastfulness makes Ray Lewis sound like Jerry Lewis."
"As a first-year head coach, like Tony Sparano, I understand the magnitude of our accomplishment. Unlike Sparano, though, I didn't feel the urge to celebrate it with a pasta dish, red wine, and indiscriminate sex. I just left out the pasta and wine. What's that? Tony Sparano and Tony Soprano are two different people?"
Of the four first-round matchups, the Ravens seem to be the visiting team most likely to win handily. I can't see Miami scoring more than 17 against Baltimore's defense, and the Ravens offense should more than be able to cover that. Heck, the Dolphins gave up 31 to the Chiefs in week 16.
Baltimore wins 27-13.
Philadelphia @ Minnesota (+2 1/2)
Not since Dr. Victor Frankenstein marveled at his creation has the phrase "It's alive!" meant as much as it did than when the Eagles used the term to describe their playoff chances after the score in Tampa Bay's 31-24 upset loss to the Raiders came down. Needing a win over the Cowboys to secure their playoff spot, Philadelphia jumped on Dallas early and won easily 44-3.
"There was a time when our playoff hopes were as slippery as Adrian Peterson's fingers," says Donovan McNabb, "or as unsure as my understanding of regular-season tie-breaking procedures. Now, things are looking up. That's what a 44-3 victory will do for you. Offensively, we were sharp, and our defense has never been more opportunistic and active. And nothing build confidence like knowing you made Tony Romo collapse in the shower. I'm sure he fumbled the soap first. I guess he was ‘Texas Petered Out.' I bet Jessica Simpson's already planning a remake of Billy Idol's ‘Catch My Fall.'"
"Anyway, you can't speak of Dr. Frankenstein without then mentioning Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who has created a monster of his own in Dallas by forming a team whose talent is exceeded only by its ability to deflect blame. Jones has reiterated for the 20th time this year that Wade Phillips will return as head coach. It's a lie! There are 10,000 torch-bearing Dallas fans who have paid $100,000 for a personal seat license who feel otherwise. There's only one solution for the turmoil in Dallas, and that's to put Jason Witten's brain in Terrell Owens' body. That would be a monster Romo could love for its body and mind."
Ryan Longwell's 50-yard field goal with five seconds left gave the Vikings a 20-19 win over the Giants and the NFC North title. The victory capped a roller coaster season that featured an 0-2 start, a quarterback change, an illegal substance scandal that almost cost the team its two best defenders, and a 6-2 finish to the year.
"This team's seen it all," says Brad Childress. "Or at least those players who were lucky enough to have ‘it' thrown in their face on the infamous Lake Minnetonka sex cruise. Obviously, the Vikings have found success on the water, and Adrian Peterson gives us a huge threat on the ground. Now all we need for a long playoff run is a consistent threat via the air. We're hoping Tarvaris Jackson can take us on at least a three-city ‘Victory Tour.'"
Do you think the Vikings would be happier hosting the Bucs or Cowboys, two teams that, had they made the playoffs, would have done so with limited momentum? Instead, Minnesota drew the Eagles, who look very dangerous. McNabb is a playoff-tested quarterback, and should find success downfield. And Bryan Westbrook will create matchup problems for the Vikings, as long as he stays away from the middle of the defensive line. Defensively, the Eagles will look to cause turnovers, and with Peterson and Jackson fumbling problems, it looks like there will be opportunities for big defensive returns.
Philadelphia wins 24-20.