A feisty battle to watch and my picks for divisional-round weekend
Sparkplugs Derrick Mason and Cortland Finnegan reunite in Nashville
Panthers ground game and clock control will wear down Cardinals
Brandon Jacobs and Willie Parker will key Giants' and Steelers' wins
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Loose locker room here. Confident locker room. Not cocky, but confident, from Kerry Collins down at the far end to the offensive line group over on the right and the healthier defense on the left. Cortland Finnegan can't wait to play Derrick Mason again, and Kyle Vanden Bosch can't wait to get out to test his surgically repaired groin and abdomen. The 13 days off, by gametime Saturday, will have done this team well.
The Finnegan-Mason matchup led to two fights the last time these teams played: one between Finnegan, a paper-thin corner, and veteran Ravens receiver Mason, the other between Finnegan and his own linebacker teammate, Keith Bulluck. In essence, Finnegan lost his mind on the first series of the third quarter that day, getting in two scraps with Mason, one that cost each offsetting personal fouls, the other that cost Finnegan an unnecessary-roughness penalty that advanced the ball from the Titans' 22 to the 11. Three plays later, Baltimore scored its only touchdown of the game.
Then Finnegan and Bulluck had to be separated from tearing each other apart. Bulluck's message to the enraged Finnegan that day, essentially, was that he was losing his cool and it was costing the team -- big time -- and I'm not going to let you do it.
"We're a family,'' Finnegan said here Thursday, "so we're OK now. But I was getting so emotionally involved into the situation that it hurt the team. This isn't hockey, but me and Mason basically threw the gloves down and went at it. I was trying to get into his head, he was trying to get into mine, and it just went overboard.''
Both men went out of their way to praise the other this week -- Mason saying Finnegan's one of the best young corners in the game, Finnegan saying Mason's the receiver he respected the most after facing him. But it's not going to be so cordial late Saturday afternoon. Mason has been playing in pain since Week 10, when he suffered a dislocated left shoulder. And now, with his left arm often tucked to his side while he runs, Mason will have to find a way to battle the feisty kid in a game that means the season.
"One arm or not, Joe Flacco's going to him," Finnegan said. "One play can make this game ... I'm going to be definitely smart, not get baited into anything, and still play at a high level.''
Now onto the picks for divisional-round weekend:
Baltimore 16, Tennessee 12. If these teams played 10 times, I guarantee each would win five. Then again, if these teams played 10 times, the equipment guys would have to suit up because about 33 guys per team would be on IR by game nine. I really like that Kerry Collins, the last time these teams met, had the gumption to take the Titans on scoring drives of 80 and 81 yards after doing nothing for 40 minutes; Tennessee won, 13-10.
I'm going with the Ravens because I think their defense will make a couple more plays than they did last time, and because of Flacco. I loved what his college coach at Delaware, K.C. Keeler, told Damon Hack in this week's Sports Illustrated: "Ice water in his veins. Nothing bothers him. To him, he was just wearing a blue uniform last year and he's wearing a purple uniform this year.''
At first glance, Flacco didn't do much to help the Ravens win in Miami the other day, but look deeper. He did play mistake-free -- no sacks, interceptions or fumbles. The Titans will have to force him into some uncharacteristic errors to win.
Carolina 26, Arizona 17. Go back to draft day. Remember the deal Panthers GM Marty Hurney made in the middle of round one? He dealt second- and fourth-round picks in the 2008 draft, and a first-rounder in 2009, for the Eagles' first-round choice (19th overall). Was right tackle Jeff Otah really worth that kind of quarterback-ish ransom? Apparently he was because the Panthers rushed for 30 touchdowns this year. Thirty! John Fox wanted an offense that was more slug-it-out than throw-it-deep. Luckily for him, the Panthers are blessed with the ability to do both, and I don't trust Arizona's running game to be as good this week as it was last week against Atlanta, when Edgerrin James swam in the Ponce de Leon pool. I think Carolina controls the clock and the game.
New York 27, Philadelphia 20. The reason the Eagles are major-league dangerous Sunday at 1 is what Brian Westbrook told me the other day: "We feel like it's our goal to right the wrongs of the whole season.''
I'm hearing things like that more and more out of these Eagles -- that they're determined to prove the ups and downs of the season are out of their system, and they may not be a great offense, but they're good enough to win any game they play, and they have the kind of veteran presence and experience that will allow them to win a big game. Look at Westbrook's game last week, for instance -- held to nothing for 53 minutes, he takes a screen pass 71 yards to the end zone to turn a nail-biting, two-point lead into a busted-open game.
But the difference here, I believe, will be Brandon Jacobs. Even if Eli Manning can't go deep two or three times in this game -- which he couldn't do in the Eagles' 20-14 win over the Giants five weeks ago -- I think Jacobs will be the kind of physical presence the Giants need to make it to the NFC title game. I am hedging my bets because of the Westbrook factor. He could win this game by himself. But I think Jacobs and ball-control will win it for New York.
Pittsburgh 19, San Diego 13. I still can't believe if the Chargers and Ravens win, a team that was 4-8 just 33 days ago would host the AFC Championship Game. That's not just a great story, it's an all-time story. But I can't predict it. Michael Bennett and Darren Sproles won't be able to dent this version of the Steel Curtain for more than 100 yards; if you wonder why I don't include LaDainian Tomlinson in the San Diego rushing attack, it's because he won't be there -- and if he is, he'll last about three runs.
On the other side of the ball, doesn't it seem like about three months since the Steelers have played a football game? Time enough to get Willie Parker closer to good health and to get Ben Roethlisberger's head cleared. But I don't see this as a big game for Roethlisberger. I think Mike Tomlin wants to play January football in the northeast, and he wants offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to try to pummel the Chargers into submission. This game is going to be won by ball-control and by Parker and Mewelde Moore.