Quarterback play will tell tale of Wild Card round
Minnesota cornerback Antoine Winfield and Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco are two of the major difference-makers on Wild Card weekend in this 93rd NFL season, if you accept these premises:
• I can't identify a single most important factor/player in the Seattle-Washington or Cincinnati-Houston games. I am picking Seattle and Houston to win, but I can't say with certainty there's one person or position group that will determine the outcome of either game.
• In the Minnesota-Green Bay game, Adrian Peterson could batter the Packers again, as he did twice in December for a combined 409 rushing yards. And in Baltimore, Andrew Luck could have the same kind of fourth quarter he's had seven times this year, when he led the Colts back to a victory from a deficit or tie. But I think it's more likely the two games will be influenced by the following: the Vikings' coverage limiting Aaron Rodgers' possessions and efficiency -- meaning Winfield, who will be playing with a broken hand and a cast protecting it, will be a huge factor -- and the consistently inconsistent Flacco, who will need to put up points to match the Colts because Indianapolis will be keying heavily on Ray Rice.
One theory at a time.
On the importance of Winfield: The game plan for the Packers is simple -- don't let Peterson run roughshod over the defense again. And make sure Rodgers doesn't have 12 or 13 possessions, because Rodgers won't be held down for long. In 21 drives against the Vikes this year, he led 11 scoring drives, with one makeable field goal missed. Limiting the times Rodgers can inflict damage (with Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb all healthy enough to make big plays now) is Minnesota's best shot.
To do that, Winfield, the best physical corner in the NFL, has to play four very good quarters. Rodgers completed 73 percent of his throws against the Vikings in their two meetings this year. In the second game, last Sunday, Winfield played with the broken hand, and when he went to jam Jennings in the second quarter, pain shot through his arm like he hadn't felt in a football game. "I have a very high tolerance for pain,'' he said from Minnesota this week. "But that -- I can't describe how bad it was. A shooting pain." Without Winfield out in the second half, Rodgers went 17 of 21, for 262 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Flawless.
So Winfield has to show up, and he has to show up big. On Saturday night, Winfield will be fitted with a cast (he had only a pad last Sunday). "I'll be good," Winfield said. "Absolutely. Am I confident? I hope I'll be able to make all the plays I normally make, and I think I'll be able to. But I'll be honest with my team. If I can't do it, I'll let someone else go in and play.''
But Winfield knows how important he is. "Best receiving corps in the league, and we've got to be ready to cover them all over the field,'' he said. "They want to go vertical a lot."
No matter what Peterson does when he has the ball, what Rodgers does when he has it will be a bigger factor in who wins -- and Winfield's the only cover man who can stop Rodgers from having his way. That cast had better work.
On Flacco: Exclude the final throwaway game at Cincinnati; in the Ravens' final six games of the season played like real games, they scored 13, 16, 20, 28, 17 and 33 points. If you want to look on the bright side and point out they rolled up 533 yards in their last real game against the Giants 12 days ago, I'll give you that -- and I'll also point out that they managed 200, 288 and 278 in three of their previous five. Honestly, you, me and Cal Ripken have no idea what to expect of this Baltimore offense Sunday against Indianapolis.
"I see what you mean,'' Flacco said from the Ravens' locker room after practice Thursday. "We haven't shown what we're capable of. But we're excited. I feel like we're ready to explode.''
Well, OK. Why? To understand Flacco's optimism, understand what this offense was in training camp. Coordinator Cam Cameron was using a fast-paced, no-huddle scheme in the summer, and the Ravens used some of it early in the season. But gradually Baltimore got away from it, and when new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell replaced Cameron three weeks ago, he decided to play more of it. That's what has the offense excited coming into the playoffs.
"I like it a lot,'' Flacco said. "I think it's the way our offense plays best. Look at our weapons. We've got great speed in [wideouts] Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. I think what you'll see out of us is an attacking style. We're going to lay it all out there. We're excited, I can tell you that."
One other thing I asked Flacco, a flat-line pragmatist and not a fist-pumping cheerleader: Will the fact that this could be Ray Lewis' last game be a boost of adrenaline, or is win-this-one-for-Ray too cliché in an NFL playoff game? "You know I'm the first person who'd call something like that a cliché,'' Flacco said. "But this feels a lot different. I sure don't think it'll be a cliché Sunday."
I've got every game close this weekend: Houston by three, Green Bay by eight, Baltimore by three, Seattle by two. And, unlike in many Wild Card weekends, I could make a persuasive argument for either team in all four games. Should be great fun.
Brandon Browner, CB, Seattle (No. 39). If you think Richard Sherman was an All-Pro-caliber cornerback this season (and I voted him one of the two best corners in the league on my All-Pro team) consider that -- according to ProFootballFocus.com -- Sherman's average completion allowed this year was for 15.5 yards, including 3.29 yards after the catch. Browner's average catch was three yards fewer (12.4), and his average YAC surrendered was 3.26 yards. In other words, Browner's no slouch, and that the Seahawks will have both Browner -- off his four-game PED suspension -- and Sherman in the lineup to try to foil Robert Griffin III is a big deal.
1. Chip Kelly's whereabouts. He'll interview with Cleveland, Philly and Buffalo in the next couple of days, and I'd be surprised if he didn't have an offer to coach an NFL team by Saturday night. "I'll listen and we'll see,'' said Kelly Thursday night after the Fiesta Bowl.
I've had NFL people telling me since midseason he'd be the hottest guy on the market, and nothing's changed. He'll have his choice of jobs.
2. Andy Reid. He's hard to miss. And Kansas City is trying to cut him off at the pass by doing a deal with Reid before he can get serious with either Arizona or San Diego. (Reports out of Kansas City Friday afternoon were that a deal had been agreed to in principle.)
3. The tenuous hold of Ron Rivera on his Carolina coaching job. Logic says a coach who wins his last four games by an average of 13 points -- two of the wins over big rivals Atlanta and New Orleans -- saves his job. That owner Jerry Richardson is in his fifth day without saying whether Rivera will return has me thinking Rivera's in serious, serious trouble.
4. The young GMs. Trend this postseason: Go find the next John Schneider or Ryan Grigson. The two top candidates for executive of the year were longtime road scouts before they went about turning around Seattle and Indianapolis, respectively. That's why you hear roadies like John Dorsey (Green Bay), David Caldwell (Atlanta) and Tom Gamble (San Francisco) getting heavy play.
I like Arizona VP of player personnel Steve Keim to come away with a job by early next week. When I call around the league, he's the guy I hear most good things about.
5. The real Bill O'Brien story. Sorry. I'm not buying the one about his loyalty to Penn State. I agree he loves the place, but if you're loyal and you want to get paid more, you say to the school, "I'm going to interview for jobs unless you give me a raise." You don't go interview for jobs, then find out you may or may not get a job, then if you don't, you've got to go back to Penn State and still pledge your love for the place. But that's the way the college business works. Unless you can keep an interview secret, as the Rams were able to do last year with Greg Schiano, you've got to pledge your love for the college within 48 hours of the news surfacing that you might leave.
6. Rookies in the big time. All those last summer who called Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson as playoff quarterbacks in Year 1, raise your hands. Didn't think so.
7. Ray Lewis' final countdown. Cue the top 10 Lewis motivational speeches, NFL Network.
8. Can the Texans regain their momentum? Houston lost out on a first-round bye in dropping a 28-16 decision to the Colts in Week 17. While Houston has a better talent base than the Bengals, the fact that Matt Schaub and Co. lost three of their last four games couldn't have done much to build their confidence heading into the playoffs.
9. Jacksonville. Who's the new GM? Will he embrace analytics the way Shad Khan's son, Tony, wants? Will he fire coach Mike Mularkey? Will he do the Tebow thing? Heavy duty for whoever takes that gig.
10. Ron Wolf's impact in San Diego. Love taking Wolf on as consultant. Now the Spanoses have to listen well.