Note: The quotes in this article are fictional.
Baltimore @ Tennessee (-3)
After rolling over the Dolphins 27-9, the Ravens head to Nashville to face their old AFC Central rival Tennessee, who beat the Ravens in Baltimore 13-10 in week 5. Against the #3-seeded Dolphins, Baltimore forced five Chad Pennington turnovers, including two Ed Reed interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown that gave the Ravens a lead they never relinquished.
"No one ever said Pennington doesn't throw a catchable ball," says Reed, who, were he talking to a Hispanic gangster, would say he was from ‘the U, esse.' "We knew coming in that Pennington ‘telegraphed' his passes, and the speed of his actual delivery is reminiscent of the United States Postal Service. Suffice it to say Pennington won't beat you with his velocity, and his four interceptions last Sunday led Tony Sparano to comment that Chad was ‘killing him softly.'"
"As for the Titans, we expect nothing less than a physical, knock-down drag-out, test of wills, and if the scoring of points is a byproduct of that, then great. This won't be a game for the squeamish, so I suggest that Titans' fans hide the women and children, and Vince Young. There will be blood, and I am fairly positive that I will drink someone's milkshake."
"Baltimore is the home of defensive brutality, as well as iconic author Edgar Allan Poe and avant-garde filmmaker John Waters. I'll put our defense up against any other, and I'll put the poetry of my man Edgar Allan up against that of anything the city of Nashville has to offer, and that includes the ‘poetry' of a countrified, semi-literate ‘artist' like Toby Keith., although you have to hand it to the guy for naming an album Shock'n Y'all. Sunday's game will be one of ‘shock and awe,' and it won't be for the faint of heart, or those with tell-tale hearts. We're going to win this game, although I give the Titans a ‘slim-as-John-Waters-pencil-thin-mustache' shot at winning."
"That so, Raven?" says Jeff Fisher. "No one has ever accused the Ravens of being short on confidence. I'm not one to get into a back-and-forth, war of words with the opposition, so I'll respond to Reed in my typical matter-of-fact and philosophical manner with these time-tested words of wisdom: ‘Don't let your mouth write a check your **** can't cash.'
Reed's right that this will be a physical, hard-hitting game. No kidding, Ed. What do you think people expect when the Ravens and Titans meet? Butterfly kisses? Your analysis is as in-depth as the rudimentary and obvious analysis of former Raven Shannon Sharpe."
"Cheap shots, spears, and helmet-to-helmet hits aside, the game will eventually come down to the play of the quarterbacks. I give our man Kerry Collins an edge, because he's experienced, he's playoff-tested, and he knows he's the last thing standing between Vince Young and playing time. Joe Flacco is a rookie, and he completes more passes to players on the sidelines than he does on the field."
Turnover margin will be a crucial statistic in a game that will be characterized by the type of hits that separate ball from ball-carrier, and unites players with stretchers. +2 won't win you a golf tournament, not even under a modified Stableford scoring system, but it will win the Ravens-Titans clash. I see Baltimore coach Jim Harbaugh gambling a little more, and allowing Flacco to take a few chances downfield. Tight ends will probably play a big role in the outcome, and I give Todd Heap an edge over Alge Crumpler.
Ravens win 16-13.
Arizona @ Carolina (-9 ½)
In a rematch of week 8's 27-23 Carolina win, the Cardinals return to Charlotte seeking revenge and a trip to the NFC Championship game. In week 8's loss, Arizona rushed for only 50 yards while Kurt Warner passed for 381 yards, and the Cards were eventually done in by Carolina's balanced offensive attack. In last week's win over Atlanta, Arizona made a concerted effort to establish a running game, and succeeded, boosted by 73 yards on the ground by Edgerrin James. With wide receiver Anquan Boldin possibly limited with a hamstring injury, James' role takes on an even greater importance to the Arizona cause.
"I'm not sure what's more important for us," says James. "A legitimate running game, or simply the threat of one. In any case, I doubt either scares anyone. But I, for one, am glad to see us running the ball. Heck, this is the first time since I came to Arizona that I'm not wishing I was a Colt. I think I might stay here in Arizona; the last time I left a team, that team won the Super Bowl."
"Sure, our running game may be a popular topic of discussion, but a more pressing matter is our performance on the East Coast this year, where we were 0-5. We're changing up our routine to break that cold spell. Instead of flying east, we're going to fly west. Sure it may add 22 hours to our flight, but we'll be confident, albeit jet-lagged, knowing that we're not headed east towards certain doom."
In contrast to Arizona's questionable running game, the Panthers sport one of the league's most powerful ground attacks, featuring the duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who combined for 28 rushing touchdowns, and only two fumbles, this season. Carolina will commit to the run. The question is, how intently will the Cardinals commit to stopping the run?
"I think our commitment to the run," says John Fox, "has only been surpassed by our lack of commitment to creating an original nickname for our dynamic duo. As you know, DeAngelo and Jonathan are known as ‘Smash And Dash,' a nickname first used to describe the Titans' LenDale White and Chris Johnson. As far as I'm concerned, White and Johnson can have the nickname. Who wants a nickname that also describes an extreme form of shoplifting?"
"Anyway, I've got several suggestions to describe the brutish style of Stewart and the elusiveness of Williams. How about ‘Beef Jerky?' Or ‘Bruise Cruise?' No good? How about this one? ‘The Two Guys Who Make Jake Delhomme Throw Less?' Or, you could throw Steve Smith into the mix and call the trio ‘Punch And Judi-cious Running.' You know, Steve is a lot like Larry Fitzgerald in that he can go up and get any ball, no matter who's around. Steve doesn't mind being Jake's ‘go to guy,' but don't call it a ‘Bro-mance,' lest you get punched in the face."
The Cardinals almost won week 8's game, despite the lack of a running game. A late interception on a tipped ball deep in Carolina territory probably cost Arizona the win. Carolina's secondary has been their weakness all year, and if Kurt Warner exploited it then, there's no reason he can't do it again. Do the Cards really need their running backs? Yeah, to pass block, and serve as an emergency outlet should nothing develop downfield.
But Carolina has the firepower to win a shootout if necessary. With Arizona intent on stopping the run, which they must do to win, Smith is likely to see a lot of one-on-one matchups, which could result in the deep ball, or some quick throws in the flat that Smith could easily turn into big gains. To state the obvious, the Cardinals can't stop the run and the pass. Carolina gets the edge because of their three big weapons, while one of Arizona's big weapons, the gimpy Boldin, may be the Card "on the table."
Carolina strikes quickly on their first possession, as Delhomme uses play-action, pump fakes to Smith on a slant route, then finds Muhsin Muhammed deep for a touchdown, or at least to the one-yard line, where Williams can easily punch it in. Warner and the Cardinals hang tough until the end.
Carolina wins 29-23, improving their home record to 9-0 this year, which leads the chamber of commerce to amend the city of Charlotte's nickname from the "Queen City" to the "Queen, Killer Queen City."
Philadelphia @ NY Giants (-4 ½)
With a 26-14 win in Minnesota, the Eagles earned another date with NFC East foe New York, this time with a berth in the NFC Championship game on the line. The two teams split in the regular season, with the Eagles winning the latest contest, a 20-14 win in Giants Stadium on December 7th.
"Let's just hope our chance at ‘another date' ends more successfully than Charles Barkley's attempt at ‘another date,'" says Donovan McNabb. "Was Barkley driving a Hummer, or was he driving to a Hummer? It looks like Sir Charles' DUI arrest interrupted his plan to be ‘knighted.' I hear Barkley refused a Breathalyzer test. Apparently, no one blew that night."
"Anyway, enough about the ‘Round Mound Of Poon Hound.' Let's talk about the rubber match between the Eagles and Giants. As you know, we're the underdogs in this one, and rightly so. But that's on paper. On the field, this one's a coin toss. Believe me, I've been present for my share of coin tosses, as well as cookie tosses. And what I've found so intriguing about coin tosses is that they can't end in a tie. Imagine that."
"But we've got a chance to knock off Eli Manning and the #1-seeded Giants, thereby insuring a Manning-less Super Bowl for the first time in three years. Once we present Eli with a premature exit from the playoffs, he can join Peyton to headline the Double ‘Stiff' Racing League. Not that I wouldn't want to be in their place. What sane man wouldn't want to play ‘Oreo' with the Williams sisters?"
The Giants are well-rested and look fully capable of defending their Super Bowl title of last year. Despite the loss earlier this year of Plaxico Burress, their most dynamic offensive threat, New York has adjusted and relied more on their running game. With windy conditions always a possibility in Giants Stadium, the team best able to run the ball will likely emerge victorious.
"Hey, Brett Favre's not the only thing that ‘blows' in Giants Stadium," says Tom Coughlin. "The weather will certainly play a factor, which will make our running attack a key component to victory. Our running back trio of 'Earth, Wind, And Fire' should be a full strength. And, as people like Plaxico are well aware, you can never have too many weapons."
"We know the Eagles will come ready to play. Andy Reid-coached teams are always prepared. And that Philly defense is looking rough, just like Reid's beard. I've heard of playoff beards in hockey, but never by a football coach. By the time the Eagles' flight lands in Philly after their loss, Reid should be ‘shaved and ready,' which, incidentally, is also the title of the featured in-flight movie."
With the Giants' defense keying on Brian Westbrook, the Eagles may well look to an unlikely source for their rushing yards. No, not Vincent Papale. I'm talking about McNabb. A few successful scrambles, planned or not, would open up the defense for some bigger plays. As Westbrook proved against the Vikings, all it takes is one. Defensively, the Eagles have to blitz, against the run and pass, and hope they can create a turnover or two. Whether they find success early or not, the Giants will stick with the run, with the intention of wearing down the Philadelphia defense.
Eagles win 22-19.
San Diego @ Pittsburgh 9-6)
To reach its second consecutive AFC Championship game, the Chargers will have to overcome the home-standing Steelers, who beat San Diego 11-10 when the teams met earlier this season in week 11. The Chargers earned the rematch by virtue of their 23-17 overtime win over the visiting Colts last week, which avenged a regular season loss to the Colts. Darren Sproles, who took over for an ailing LaDainian Tomlinson at running back, rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns, and amassed 328 all-purpose yards.
"Sproles is a handful," says Mike Tomlin. "He's certainly a change of pace from Tomlinson. There was a time when the name ‘LaDainian Tomlinson' was synonymous with ‘touchdowns.' Times have changed, though. Now, when L.T. is ‘touched,' he goes ‘down.' Lately, we've seen more of L.T. in Chunky Soup commercials than in the playoffs."
Tomlinson's strained groin may keep him out of Sunday's game. However, if the injury responds well to treatment, Tomlinson could play, although in a limited capacity, or, as it's officially known on the injury report, "L.T.D."
As the regular season total defense leader, and with a bye week of rest, the Pittsburgh defense heads into the playoffs confident, displaying the swagger of a unit capable of shutting down any offense. Offensively, however, the Pittsburgh swagger has been downgraded a bit to a "stagger," with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger still recovering from the effects of a concussion sustained in the Steelers' week 17 win against Cleveland. Roethlisberger didn't practice last week, but intends to play Sunday.
"It's no secret that we have to get into Roethlisberger's head," says Norv Turner. "Or at least on to his head. I've heard that Big Ben reportedly was held out of Monday's practice when team doctors realized that, instead of eye black, he had applied mascara to his eyes. To compound the issue, he was also caught listening to Fall Out Boy on his iPod. I'm not sure of the validity of that report, but the fact of the matter is a woozy Roethlisberger's quarterbacking is about as erratic as Vincent Jackson's driving. If those two guys ever met on the highway, the carnage would be large, as would the moving violations and revoked licenses."
You're exactly right. Those two are highway menaces. Do you what they'd call an accident between #7 and #83? "Number crunching."
Who or what will make the defining impact in Sunday's clash? Roethlisberger? A Roethlisberger turnover? Defensive Player Of The Year James Harrison? Philip Rivers? Darren Sproles? Mike Tomlin? An errant Tomlin decision to go for a two-poit conversion? A questionable defensive holding call, a call that would be perfectly okay if called in a meaningless pre-season game, but not in a playoff game, and especially not in the most crucial moment of an overtime playoff game? San Diego punter Mike Scifres? Pittsburgh kicker Jeff Reed? I say Troy Polamalu. He was robbed of a touchdown in the Steelers' regular season win over the Chargers, and he's probably sick of all the attention Ed Reed is getting. Plus, not only is Polamalu "hairy," he's also been known to "harry."
The Colts were able to get adequate pressure on Rivers, often without committing more than four to the cause. The Steelers will apply more pressure, and Rivers, if he's not sacked, will be forced into short completions that the Pittsburgh linebackers will quickly stop for little gain. Polamalu will snatch a Rivers' turnover in the third quarter and return it for a score.
Pittsburgh wins 19-17.