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I was under the impression that the playoffs started on January 9, but a quick look at the schedule shows that it really started January 3.That’s when three of this week’s matchups took place for the FIRST time, and while all three games were fairly lopsided and some of the teams didn’t really play to win the game, it should be noted that the confidence level of the Cowboys, Jets, and Packers will play at least a minor role in the contests with the Eagles, Bengals, and Cardinals respectively.
New York Jets @ Cincinnati Bengals
While the venue and intensity will likely change into the Bengals favor, there’s no question that if the Jets take the opening kickoff, march right down the field as they did last Sunday, and take an early 7-0 lead, every player on the Bengals sideline will be thinking, “Here we go again.” Cincy needs a great start to erase last week and gain their confidence back after two straight ugly performances. Meanwhile the Jets need to continue letting their defense and rushing attack, both tops in the league, carry the load and not as Mark Sanchez to do too much. If Sanchez can play an average game, this team could wind up winning the entire AFC. If he has a repeat of his first game against Buffalo earlier this year, the Bengals will win this one going away.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys
The key to this matchup is DeSean Jackson. The Cowboys held him in check twice this season, something the Giants couldn’t do, which is why Dallas is playing postseason football. If they do it a third time, it will force Donovan McNabb to put the game on his shoulders, and he has never been able to win a postseason game when the pressure is on him to perform (and I don’t want to hear about 4th and 26, I could have made that throw the Packers D was so soft). If Jackson gets free, however, it opens up all of the other options for the Eagles and spells a long day for the Cowboys D. The flipside is Tony Romo, who is back in the postseason for the first time since the botched snap in Seattle. That game was also a Saturday night contest on NBC, and you can bet that if the game comes down to a last-second field goal for Dallas, Romo’s hands will be sweating big-time. Which, by the way, is the least of the Cowboy concerns on field goals and extra points, since the kicking game is a major advantage to David Akers and the Eagles in this one.
Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
For the Ravens, the key will be getting an early lead, or at the very least not letting the Patriots do just that. If Brady gains confidence in his other receivers or is able to establish a running game with a lead, the Ravens – who have their own offensive struggles in the passing game – will find it hard to make a comeback. If Baltimore is up, however, it will allow their ball-hawking defense to focus on stopping Moss and blitzing Brady, who hasn’t performed as well when pressured as he had in prior seasons. The return of Ed Reed should help dramatically, and if the Ravens can succeed in running the ball, they will likely earn themselves a trip to Indianapolis the following weekend.
Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals
Meanwhile, the Cardinals did at least break a trend of Super Bowl losers missing the playoffs the following season. Only the Seattle Seahawks managed to make the postseason the year after losing the championship game, dating back to 1997. The Packers struggle to run the ball, so if Arizona can force Green Bay into third-and-long situations, they might be able to also stop the passing attack and begin another run to the Super Bowl. That said, Green Bay also has a very good defense, and without Boldin, expect Charles Woodson to see a lot of Larry Fitzgerald in what might be the best 1-on-1 matchup of the entire first round.
And just to see how well the rest of my predictions do…
Super Bowl XLIV
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