Bob Christ picks the winners for all four of this weekend's wild-card games.
NEW YORK JETS (9-7) AT CINCINNATI BENGALS (10-6)
Time: 1:30 p.m. today Line: Bengals -2 Total: 34
Weather: Mid-20s, 30 percent chance of snow
Facts: Jets coach Rex Ryan said this week he thinks his fifth-seeded team should be favored to win the Super Bowl. Johnny Avello, the sports book boss at Wynn Las Vegas, disagrees, making them a 25-1 shot, the longest odds on his board. The Bengals are 20-1, with Indy favored at 5-2. Cincinnati, though, was 85-1 when the lines were first posted last winter. ... New York rookie Mark Sanchez from USC is the worst-rated QB to make it to the postseason (28th), with 12 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions. However, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger was crummiest among last year’s playoff passers (24th) en route to winning the title. A year earlier, Eli Manning was the 25th in the Giants’ Super season. ... The Bengals and Colts are the lone teams to go 6-0 in division play this year. A year ago, Cincinnati was 1-5 in the AFC North. ... In last week’s 37-0 Jets victory over an uninspired Bengals team, Cincinnati generated 72 yards of total offense, the NFL’s puniest total in the past seven years. ... The Jets yielded a league-low 252.3 yards a game, New York’s lowest norm since its 1968 Super team allowed 240.2. This New York unit will be facing another former Trojan, seven-year veteran QB Carson Palmer, in his second playoff start. New York’s defensive passer rating (58.8) is the league’s best since the Super Patriots of 2003 were at 56.2. ... New York averaged a league-leading 172.3 rushing yards, the most by any team the past three years. It helped that its 607 carries were the second most by anyone the past 23 seasons. Thomas Jones led the way with 1,402 yards. Cincinnati’s Cedric Benson was eighth with 1,251. ... Cincinnati WR Chad Ochocinco (in Russian that’s Chad Vosyempyat) has a knee ailment (probable). Jets LB David Harris, the team’s top tackler, has an ankle sprain (questionable).
ANALYSIS: Ryan will have trouble keeping his rookie QB out of trouble while handling a slick ball in frigid conditions before a hostile crowd. In his four games against top-five pass defenses (based on defensive passer rating) Sanchez has one TD throw and nine INTs. Cincinnati’s unit is ranked seventh and has held opponents to 6.4 yards per throw, tied for fifth best. Not to mention the Bengals’ defense will be getting a jolt with the return of run-stuffing DT Domata Peko and DE Robert Geathers, not to mention safety Cris Crocker. The Jets’ recent bubble of success, which was built on a pair of victories against teams that didn’t care, is about to burst.
FORECAST: Bengals 20, Jets 10
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (11-5) at DALLAS COWBOYS (11-5)
Time: 5 p.m. today Line: Cowboys -4 Total: 34
Weather: High 30s, 10 percent chance of rain
Facts: Dallas’ late run to the NFC East title included shutouts against Washington and Philadelphia the last two weeks. Tennessee closed with two shutouts in 2000, then lost in its playoff opener to Baltimore, 24-10. ... In the Eagles’ 20-16 and 24-0 losses to the Cowboys this year, standout WR DeSean Jackson was held to five catches for 76 yards and no TDs. Also, the Eagles’ 10 rush attempts last week, for 37 yards, matched the second-lowest total by a team all season. ... Philadelphia is 0-4 against this year’s playoff teams, only the second time in the past five years a team entered the postseason without such a quality win. Dallas is 3-2, but also had six victories against teams with double-digit losses, tied for the most among playoff invitees. ... In 2007, the last time Dallas won the NFC East, it hosted the divisional round to a Giants team it had already beaten 45-35 and 31-20, then lost 21-17. It is the only time a team failed to finish a three-game season sweep after winning twice by 10-plus points. ... Andy Reid, coach of sixth-seeded Philadelphia, was in this position before in 2001, facing the Giants on the road in the postseason after losing twice in the regular season. New York won again, 20-10. It’s the only time in Eagles history they were beaten three times by a team in the same season. ... Dallas is tied for the longest current playoff losing streak at six, including two losses as a favorite of 7-plus points. ... If the Cowboys win, they will be traveling to Minnesota for the second round. The Eagles would get the Saints in New Orleans, a team that beat them 48-22 in Week 2, Philly’s most one-sided loss of the season. ... If Dallas coach Wade Phillips doesn’t win, he’ll drop to 0-5 in the playoffs, one game off the playoff futility mark of ex-Saints and Colts coach Jim Mora Sr., who was 0-6 before being exiled from the coaching ranks. Reid, meanwhile, is 7-0 in playoff openers.
ANALYSIS: Dallas has two significant advantages, excluding the 100,000 throats that will be cheering them in JerryWorld and drowning out QB Donovan McNabb’s signals for Philadelphia. Cowboys NT Jay Ratliff is worlds better than backup Eagles center Nick Cole, who will either need to get a lot of help or every play will be a bubble screen. A guy named Dallas McReynolds is Cole’s backup. Also, TE Jason Witten is too fleet for Philadelphia’s linebackers. And if gambling-mad DB Asante Samuel breaks his coverage in an attempt to help out, pump fakes will make him look foolish again as speedy WR Miles Austin and his WR buddies go deep.
FORECAST: Cowboys 27, Eagles 17
BALTIMORE RAVENS (9-7) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-6)
Time: 10 a.m. Line: Patriots -3 Total: 43
Weather: Mid-20s, 10 percent chance of snow
FACTS: Home teams in the wild-card round were 23-7-2 against the line from 1994 to 2001, but since then are 13-15 (14-14 straight up). ... New England and Minnesota were the only teams to have perfect home records this season. Last year, the only two unbeaten clubs at home were Super Bowl combatants Arizona and Pittsburgh. ... Baltimore, which allowed the fewest yards per rush at 3.4, held New England to 2.8 yards on 30 carries in a 27-21 Week 4 loss on the road. In the Ravens’ final two games, the Steelers and Raiders’ norm was 2.3 an attempt. ... The Patriots had a decided edge with 23.3 first downs per game this season, but shifty wide receiver Wes Welker had 71 of them, second in the league, before blowing out his knee last week. He has been replaced by ex-college QB Julian Edelman, who had 10 catches for 103 yards in Week 17. ... The Pats are 8-0 at home in the playoffs in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era, 4-3-1 against the line. They were 0-2 vs. the spread in the 2007 playoffs, their last previous appearance. ... Belichick has won 15 of 19 playoff games, only four fewer victories than this year’s other 11 playoff coaches. Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, in his second year, is 2-1. ... The Patriots haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2004, tied for the longest drought in the league. Their leading ground gainer is Laurence Maroney, with 757 yards, but he’s been benched since fumbling at the goal line early against Jacksonville two weeks ago. Baltimore’s Ray Rice easily beat Maroney’s yardage total, with 1,339, for a team that tied for the league high with 22 rushing TDs. ... When the temperature at kickoff this year is freezing, the home team is 14-2. ... Baltimore became the first team in 15 years to make the playoffs despite leading the league in yards penalized. ... The Patriots opened the season the favorites to win the championship at 4-1. Now they’re 11-1.
ANALYSIS: Baltimore appears to have its five starters on the offensive line ready to go for only the second time in the past seven games, and that unit was at its bulldozing best last week by trampling Oakland for 240 rush yards. New England’s defense, meanwhile, is relatively soft with few dynamic playmakers. In Week 4 against Baltimore, the Ravens scored on two 80-yard-plus drives and probably would have won if Brady wasn’t at his drama-queen best drawing roughing penalties. The Ravens just have to be on their best behavior — and quit dropping passes that hit them in the chest and face mask.
FORECAST: Ravens 26, Patriots 21
GREEN BAY PACKERS (11-5) at ARIZONA CARDINALS (10-6)
Time: 1:40 p.m. Line: Cardinals -1 Total: 47
Weather: Low 70s, no chance of rain
FACTS: Green Bay’s plus-24 turnover differential is the best in the league since Cincinnati was plus-25 in 2005 — the same year the Packers were minus-23, which hasn’t been matched since. On the other hand, Arizona is minus-7. But that doesn’t necessarily spell doom. The 2009 Giants entered at minus-9 and won it all. ... QB Kurt Warner, who has started three Super Bowls, and the Cards were 8-0 against teams with defensive passer ratings in the bottom eight this year, getting 17 TD passes and only one interception. But Arizona was 0-5 against top-12 units, with Warner having a TD/INT ratio of 4/11. Green Bay’s defense, led by Pro Bowler Charles Woodson, is ranked fourth, the best Arizona has faced. ... In addition to the Packers giving the Cardinals and their JV units their worst loss of the season last week, 33-7, Baltimore, Dallas and Seattle also suffered their most lopsided defeats of the season to Green Bay. ... Arizona DB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who has a team-high six interceptions, is questionable with knee and toe injuries and likely will be a game-time decision. ... The Cardinals are the only team in history that is unbeaten in home playoff games (3-0), with two victories coming last year. The other was at Chicago in 1947. ... Arizona is the lone playoff qualifier that was outgained during the regular season, but by an average of only 2 yards per game. In 2001, New England won the title despite an average yardage differential of minus-29.4, worst ever by a champion. ... Green Bay’s 11-5 record against the spread this season was second in the league to San Francisco’s 11-4-1. ... Packers QB Aaron Rodgers tied for the NFL high with 17 completions of 40-plus yards. Warner had only three, nine fewer than last year when he guided the Cardinals to the NFC title.
ANALYSIS: There’s been a lot of harping on the Packers’ pass protection, which resulted in Rodgers being sacked 50 times, tied for the league high. But since bookend veteran tackles Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton have worked in tandem the final seven games, Green Bay has gone 6-1, and Rodgers, the fourth-rated QB, was sacked only nine times. This stretch also coincides with the return from injury of TE Jermichael Finley, who’s had 38 catches for four TDs in that span. Also, there’s been a lot of talk about how disruptive Arizona DT Darnell Dockett is. Then how come he’s had no sacks the past five games and teams (including the Rams and Lions) averaged 4.4 yards a rush?
FORECAST: Packers 30, Cardinals 24
Last week: 9-7 vs. spread; 11-5 straight up
Season: 115-117-6 vs. spread; 144-95 straight up