How non-playoff players, coaches foresee the postseason playing out
Cowboys' Brad Johnson: The team to beat is definitely the Ravens
Bengals' Marvin Lewis: Good defenses and ground games are a comon theme
Redskins' London Fletcher: Don't be surprised if Panthers reach Super Bowl
For my money there's no better weekend on the NFL calendar than the Saturday and Sunday quadruple-header of divisional-round play, when the four top seeds play host to the four first-round winners for the right to move on to next week's conference championships. It usually makes for the best football of the entire season, as the higher seeds and the notion of home-field advantage get tested by the teams that already have a playoff win under their belts.
I went looking for analysis and some kind of scouting-report consensus on the NFL's elite eight this week, and it seemed only logical to talk to players, coaches and personnel men on teams that played -- and lost to -- many of the remaining divisional-round survivors.
What I heard could be summarized thusly: Almost unanimous enthusiasm for the playoff-ready winning formula of the AFC's sixth-seeded Baltimore Ravens. There was also great respect for the Super Bowl chances of the battle-tested and top-seeded New York Giants in the NFC, providing they can somehow find a way to squeak past their pesky division rival Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. (All of which made me feel even better about having picked a Ravens-Giants Super Bowl matchup before the start of last week's first round. But I digress).
So here's what a quarterback, a linebacker, a head coach, a position coach and two personnel men had to say about the four divisional-round games:
"To me, the best team is Baltimore,'' said Dallas backup quarterback Brad Johnson, whose Cowboys finished the season by playing four of the remaining eight teams, all in December -- losing at Pittsburgh, beating the Giants at home, losing at home to the Ravens and losing at Philadelphia. "I love the way the Ravens are playing. They can stop anybody, and they can score. And that quarterback, they're not giving the rookie (Joe Flacco) enough credit up there. He doesn't turn the ball over, and he make throws from anywhere on the field. He can really change the field quickly.
"And with that defense, if you beat them, you better beat them 17-13. If you get behind them 10 points, by two scores, it's tough. It's pretty much over at that point. And they've got a great kicker in Matt Stover. I really like them. I think they're the best we faced this year.''
Including Dallas's Week 6 loss at Arizona, the Cowboys played seven games against five different elite eight teams this season, which was tied for most in the NFL. Throw in their preseason opener at San Diego, and the Cowboys saw all but Carolina and Tennessee at some point in 2008. But with two games each against the Giants and Eagles, each of whom they split with, winning at home and losing on the road, the Cowboys are well positioned to weigh in on Sunday's third Eagles-Giants matchup of the season.
"You can beat the Giants, but they're good,'' Johnson said. "And at home they have a real advantage. I think if they win this week, they win next week too and get to the Super Bowl. But Philly can play them very tough and make them earn it. New York played a great game against the Eagles earlier in the year, and then kind of sputtered a little bit in the rematch.
"Eli Manning hasn't been turning the ball over, and that's a big plus this time of year. But if you're the Giants, the whole deal could be missing Plaxico Burress, because that takes away three big pass plays a game, and that's a lot to make up for. It's going to come down to that running game to take up the slack. If Brandon Jacobs is healthy, they're going to get their yards. They'll be fine. But I see it as Baltimore and the Giants. Those are the two best teams.''
Cowboys receivers coach Ray Sherman, who next week will interview for the Rams head coaching job, foresees a different outcome for the Eagles-Giants showdown.
"I think Philly can beat the Giants, because the Giants don't have Plax,'' said Sherman, a former offensive coordinator with the Steelers and Vikings. "Without him, Philly defensive backs can take the Giants receivers out of the game. I think New York is going to have problems without Plax if it has to throw the ball. He was the big difference maker.
"I don't see them beating the Eagles in the air. And if Philly can stop the Giants from pounding it and running the ball all day with Jacobs, that plays right into the Eagles' hands. Jim Johnson (the Eagles defensive coordinator) does one of the best jobs I've ever seen at getting ready for you when he gets to play you a couple times. Trust me, he'll have a great game plan for New York. I just like the way the Eagles are playing right now. They're not afraid of the Giants. They beat them before in New York and they can do it again. Their defense is just as tough as the Giants defense, and they can take things away from New York's offense. So I'm going with Philly to beat the Giants.''
Like Johnson, Sherman walked away from Baltimore's Week 16 win at Dallas greatly impressed by the Ravens' blend of defense, running game and steady, mistake-free quarterbacking. Sherman predicted wins this weekend for Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Carolina and Philadelphia. He doesn't foresee Baltimore getting past the Steelers next week, but it's hard to tell that when you listen to him rave about the Ravens.
"I just think the Ravens are a wrecking machine right now,'' Sherman said. "They're a dominating team on defense and they'll do enough on offense to move the ball. They're a strong contender for this thing. I'm giving them an edge this weekend at Tennessee because they're a little bit better at the skill positions of receiver and tight end than the Titans. I think the Ravens defense will take Tennessee's receivers out of it and force them to run the football.''
In the other two divisional-round games, Sherman, like others, can't muster much support for the two warm-weather teams (Arizona and San Diego) that have to fly east and play in the colder climates of Charlotte and Pittsburgh, respectively.
"Not having Anquan Boldin healthy really hurts Arizona, and they just don't have the mindset to play in cold weather,'' he said. "When they go on the road, and it's cold, they're not the same team as they are at home. I think the buzzsaw is going to hit them and it's going to be over early at Carolina.
"And it'll be a tough game for San Diego to win in that stadium, in that Pittsburgh weather. That Steelers defense is too good. It's better even than Baltimore's defense. Which is why I like the Steelers next week, because their defense is too strong for Baltimore's offense. And if it would be Pittsburgh at Tennessee, I still like the Steelers because of what the Titans did last month when they beat Pittsburgh, stomping on their Terrible Towel. You don't do that stuff. That'll come back to haunt them. You never give your opponent something like that to use against you in the future.''