Can These Wild Card Clubs Pull a 2007 New York Giants?
by Matt Severance - 01/02/2009
We could have one of the deepest wild-card fields in recent NFL memory in this year's playoffs, and you need look no further than the fact that every road wild-card team is favored over a division champ for the opening weekend's games.
The AFC side is so loaded that the 11-5 New England Patriots couldn't even earn a wild-card spot. They became just the fifth team in NFL history to win 11 games and fail to qualify for the postseason and the second team in the wild-card era (joining the 1985 Broncos).
Shoot, the two AFC wild-card teams, Indianapolis and Baltimore, have combined to go 16-2 in their past nine games. On the NFC side, the Atlanta Falcons, the No. 5 seed, have a better record than two of the division winners, and the No. 6 Eagles are considered possibly the most dangerous team in the entire conference, having recently won at the top-seeded Giants before dismantling the Dallas Cowboys last weekend.
There have been nine teams since the wild-card system began in 1970 to advance to the Super Bowl. Five won it: 1980 Oakland Raiders, 1997 Denver Broncos, 2000 Baltimore Ravens (incidentally, the last time the Super Bowl was in Tampa), 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers and 2007 New York Giants.
Here's a quick look at the wild card teams in each conference that could join that group this season, with Bodog listing the odds at a wild-card team playing in the Super Bowl at +105 (no is -135). Also be aware that of the five wild-card teams who won the title, only two won three games on the road to do so: 2005 Steelers and 2007 Giants. The Eagles and Ravens would have to do the same this year.
In the AFC, it's hard not to go with the Colts, who are on a nine-game winning streak, and they are the third-favorite to win the AFC on Bodog at 4/1. Indy gets get a warm-weather opening game against a defense this isn't very physical in the Chargers (at least much less so without Shawne Merriman). The Colts also could catch a break if host Miami upsets Baltimore, as then Indianapolis would get Tennessee in the divisional round and not Pittsburgh. I think any Colts fan would rather see the Titans over the Steelers.
One concern is the health of linebacker Gary Brackett, one of Indy's best defenders and the captain of that unit. He has been out since suffering a fractured fibula Nov. 30 and has been ruled out for this week, with the team saying he will get another medical look if Indy should advance. Another concern is the running game, which has been struggling this year.
But Peyton Manning looks like an MVP, having completed more than 70 percent of his passes in each of the last six games, throwing 17 touchdowns in that span. And other than Brackett, Indy will enter the playoffs about as healthy as it has been all season, so expect solid contributions from running backs Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes and star safety Bob Sanders.
In the NFC, the Eagles look like the most dangerous wild-card team. Sorry, Atlanta, your time is probably coming, but not this year with a rookie quarterback. Philly won four of its final five games after that benching of Donovan McNabb (although there is no excuse for that Week 16 loss to Washington). Like the Colts in the AFC, the Eagles are behind only the top two seeds in terms of odds of winning the conference - Philly is 5/1 on Bodog.
When McNabb is playing well, would you take him over any other current playoff quarterback in the NFC? I certainly would, and McNabb threw nine TD passes and one interception in the last five games.
One thing Philly will need to address is the running game. Only Arizona, Indianapolis, Detroit, Cincinnati, New Orleans and San Francisco ran for fewer yards per game this season. And star running back Brian Westbrook has not scored a touchdown, rushed for 60 yards or touched the ball more than 20 times in any of the past three games. But he has said that he feels better than he has in weeks and is capable of having his workload increased in the playoffs. Plus Philly has another backfield weapon in a healthy Correll Buckhalter - the Eagles were 5-1 this season when he got six touches in a game.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson loves to blitz, and his schemes cause havoc for opposing offenses. Do you think Tarvaris Jackson will be able to handle that this weekend? That defense finished the regular season ranked third in the NFL in total defense, third against the pass, fourth against the run and fourth in scoring defense. It also finished third with 48 sacks.
Assuming Philly beats Minnesota and then must go to the Meadowlands, that defense held the Giants to 211 total yards and Eli Manning to just 123 passing in a 20-14 Week 14 victory (Westbrook had 203 yards from scrimmage). Be assured that the defending champs don't want to see this team again - and neither does anyone else.