Regular season record: 132-109-7
Falcons at Cardinals (Sat. 4:30, NBC)
It's pretty rare to have a playoff game where the unanimous feeling from the media, experts, fans, etc. is that one team is a fraud and the other team is probably the league's best story. But that's what you have here. The Cardinals are widely considered to have taken advantage of the worst division in football; six of their nine wins came against the Seahawks, Rams and 49ers. The Falcons, meanwhile, put together an improbable turnaround. The first-year head coach. The rookie quarterback. The free-agent running back. And a franchise trying to get back on its feet. Everything worked out perfectly. But here's the thing. Kurt Warner is 37-years-old. He hasn't been in the playoffs since 2002. He knows how hard it is to get here, and he knows he may not have many more opportunities. That has to count for something, right? Don't forget. It wasn't long ago that Warner was an MVP candidate. Both teams are well-coached. Neither defense is overwhelming. The Cardinals are at home where they went 6-2 in the regular season. Although one-dimensional, I think the Cardinals' offense makes enough plays to pull the upset in a high-scoring game. And if Warner fumbles four times, and the Falcons win by 20, we'll pretend this blog post never existed.
The pick: Cardinals (+2.5)
Colts at Chargers (Sat. 8 p.m., NBC)
Of all the games this weekend, Colts-Chargers has the best chance to be a classic. In Week 15 with 1:19 left in their game against the Chiefs, the Chargers' playoff hopes appeared to be over. In a must-win game in Kansas City, San Diego came out flat, and found itself in a 21-3 hole in the third quarter. But 19 unanswered points, which were made possible by recovering an onside kick with 1:19 left, gave them a 22-21 miraculous victory. Three weeks later, they're hosting a first-round playoff game. Philip Rivers had a career year, leading the NFL with a 105.5 QB rating, while tossing 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. On the ground, it was a down year for LaDainian Tomlinson, but Darren Sproles seems to make a huge play every time he touches the ball. The Colts, meanwhile, won nine straight after starting the season 3-4. Indy's offense is one-dimensional -- 79.6 yards per game on the ground was the worst mark in the AFC -- but Peyton Manning is the great equalizer. This is the toughest game of the weekend to predict, and the winner could make a run to the Super Bowl. I'm tempted to go with the Chargers, but if Manning has the ball with a chance to win late in the fourth quarter, what do you think is going to happen? That's what I thought.
The pick: Colts (-1)
Ravens at Dolphins (Sun. 1 p.m., CBS)
Last New Year's Eve, I worked in Baltimore. I got in my car the morning of Dec. 31 to drive to Philadelphia when the news broke: Brian Billick was fired. The offseason coaching search for the Ravens included several names, including Jason Garrett, who was widely considered to be Baltimore's top choice. Instead, the Ravens ended up with John Harbaugh and are now back in the playoffs. Cam Cameron, meanwhile, was coming off a 1-15 season with the Dolphins. He joined Harbugh's staff, which somehow also retained Rex Ryan as defensive coordinator. Ryan had been looking for a head-coaching job, but the Ravens didn't think he was the right man to run the show. He swallowed his pride and this year led the league's second-ranked defense. Sometimes, I guess things just work out. I give the Dolphins more of a chance than most people. The Dolphins turned the ball over a league-low 13 times in the regular season. Chad Pennington was picked off seven times in 476 attempts. He was intercepted just once in Miami's final five games. If the Dolphins' defense can force turnovers or if they can win the field-position battle, I think they can win a low-scoring game. However, the Ravens' defense will just be too tough. Remember, Ray Lewis is a free agent after this season. He'll have that unit fired up. And Baltimore stepped up on the road throughout the regular season -- taking the Steelers to overtime in Pittsburgh, a 27-13 win in Miami, a 41-13 win at Houston and a 33-24 win at Dallas.
The pick: Ravens (-3.5)
Eagles at Vikings (Sun. 4:30 p.m. Fox)
I imagine some of you skipped the first three just to see this pick. Like most Eagles fans, I went through the following thought process this week:
Monday: Maybe this is a team of destiny? How did all those things go right yesterday? The defense is peaking at the perfect time. Donovan McNabb is taking care of the football. And the NFC looks wide open.
Tuesday: The Eagles are a three-point favorite. Sounds about right. Tarvaris Jackson? This guy is going to beat the Eagles? Trying REALLY hard not to look ahead to the Giants.
Wednesday: Why does everyone have to pick the Eagles? Why does every analyst have to say they are the hot team going into the postseason? Why is everyone tabbing them the team you don't want to face? I really like them better in the underdog, "everyone's counting us out" role.
Thursday: Desperately trying to think of ways the Eagles could possibly lose this game. Fighting off overconfidence. Preparing for disaster.
And that leads us to today. So here's what I came up with on how the Eagles could lose this game:
- They turn the ball over. This sets the Vikings' offense up with great field position, leading to two or three Adrian Peterson touchdown runs.
- The offense doesn't click. McNabb is off-target. The wide receivers can't hold on to the ball. Andy Reid abandons the run. In other words, see Week 16 game against the Redskins.
- Special teams plays a major role. In the Washington game, the Eagles were pinned back near their own goal line on almost every possession. And don't get me started on the blocked field goals. This could be a difference-maker.
- The Eagles' defense doesn't force any turnovers. Peterson has had fumbling problems, but Jackson surprisingly only threw two interceptions in 149 attempts during the regular season.
As always, we'll be doing a live chat at Sunday at 4 p.m. so feel free to join in and comment instantly on the action.
The pick: Eagles (-3)