By Josh Satler – www.profootball101.org
So we’ve finally come to the point in the season when things really begin to count: the playoffs. And to kick off our coverage, we’ll start with a game that has two unexpected visitors who decided to crash the party in the 9-7 Arizona Cardinals and 11-5 Atlanta Falcons.
The Cardinals come in as the NFC West Champs after winning their first division title since 1975 while the Falcons, the No. 5 seed, reversed fortunes quickly and went from a four-win team in ’07 to an 11-win team in ’08.
An amazing turnaround considering this franchise was only a year removed from the Michael Vick dog fighting fiasco and the failed Bobby Petrino experiment as head coach.
So as this four seed vs. five seed NFC game kicks off Wild Card Weekend, let’s see how it will play out.
When the Falcons have the ball, they’ll need to keep the running game as the focal point of the attack. RB Michael Turner is the catalyst for this offense and Arizona realizes that it’s only way to stop this offense is by taking Turner out of the game. Easier said than done.
A lot of teams have tried to crowd the box in attempt to slow the running game, but QB Matt Ryan’s rapid development and maturity have been able to negate this defensive plan and make teams pay.
But it’s still going to be Arizona’s best way to stop Atlanta. So look for S Adrian Wilson to play a little closer to the box and try and keep Turner and Norwood under wraps. And the reason they’ll do this is because Ryan, who’s had the best season of any rookie quarterback since Dan Marino, has begun to unravel of late by tossing five picks in his last four games.
But when they pass it, look for WR Roddy White to be the main target. The first-round pick from ’05 has blossomed into a major weapon at receiver and has greatly aided Ryan’s improvement week-in week-out. He’ll also have Michael Jenkins to throw the ball to when he spreads the ball around.
When the Cardinals have the ball, their offensive game plan will be to use the pass to set up the run. The offense is built around Warner and his awesome outside passing game, which consists of Boldin, Fitzgerald and Breaston.
The top two are among the elite in the NFL while the latter is a nightmare for nickel corners to cover. Look for Warner to use a quick passing game to neutralize the Falcons’ strong pass rush—DE John Abraham in particular, and to keep the chains moving.
If they can get into a rhythm, the Cards should have a few opportunities to go down the field.
The wild card in this game will be RB Edgerrin James. After complaining of carries about midway through the season, he was benched in favor of fifth-round running back Tim Hightower. Well that experiment failed.
Hightower’s a nice back, and better when used for goal line situations, but Arizona found itself too one dimensional and as a result were dismantled by the playoff teams—Giants, Eagles, Vikings and Patriots—it faced in the past month.
If they can get James going, as they did last week when he reached the century mark vs. a porous Seattle team, it’ll keep the safety’s a bit more honest; and this is when the Cards will be able to do their most damage.
As we wrap up the first game of what should be an exciting weekend of playoff football, look for a close game to be pulled out by the Atlanta Falcons, in the neighborhood of 24-20 or 27-24.
It’s usually tough to endorse a rookie QB in his first playoff action, but the Falcons’ offense is well equipped to help its defense keep Warner and his offensive firepower under wraps. And you can thank Michael Turner for that.
His ability to run the ball and wear out the smallish Cardinals defense will keep Warner on the sidelines and his defense fresh for when they do have to stop the Cards offense. And that’s why we’re picking Atlanta.
So the Falcons will advance to round two and most likely play their division rival, the Carolina Panthers, while the Cardinals, fresh off their NFC West Title, will be sent home and have all offseason to figure out how to get a running game to complement their stellar passing attack.