10 Bold Predictions: Passing will continue to rule

Sporting News’ team of former scouts talk about 10 things to watch for during wild-card weekend.

1. Passing game takes center stage.

Ten quarterbacks surpassed 4,000 passing yards this season, and seven of them are in the playoffs — another sign that the NFL has become a pass-first entity.
 
Some of that has to do with a greater emphasis on spread offenses and rules changes that work to the detriment of defenses. Whatever the reason, the pass-first mentality is working, so expect more of it in the playoffs.

2. Nice to see you again.

Three of the four games this weekend are rematches of games from Week 17 and one — Eagles vs. Cowboysrepresents the third meeting between those teams.
 
Since 1970, there have been 19 opportunities for a team to complete a three-game sweep. Contrary to popular belief that it is darn-near impossible to pull that off, 12 teams have completed the trifecta. That doesn’t bode particularly well for the Eagles, who were swept by the Cowboys in the regular season. 

The Jets will test Carson Palmer's ability to beat the blitz.
The Jets will test Carson Palmer’s ability to beat the blitz.

3. J-E-T-S will B-L-I-T-Z.

Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is one cool customer, and it shows in the way he handles himself under pressure. He’s not real mobile, but he is able to stand in against pressure, make quick decisions, find his checkdowns and avoid sacks.
 
In fact, he ranks second in the NFL in passing efficiency against the blitz, which is why teams rarely go after him. But expect the Jets to buck the trend. Rex Ryan has lived by the blitz his whole career, and he’s not about to stop now.
 
The Bengals don’t use their tight ends or backs as receivers very often, and the Jets are confident in their ability to single-cover the Bengals’ wideouts — especially Darrelle Revis against Chad Ochocinco. That will free up players for Ryan to blitz. Look for New York to send five or six rushers on most snaps.

4. Bengals will play the run better.

The Jets were the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL this season, and they were able to grind out 257 yards on the ground against the Bengals last week. So it seems clear that the Bengals’ defense will have to focus on stopping the run this time. But the Jets will try to disguise their intentions with multiple formations and motion and pass looks at the line of scrimmage.
 
The key for the Bengals is not to fall for it. They will have to play the run on early downs and force quarterback Mark Sanchez into third-and-long situations, which is where he has struggled the most this season. Left end Robert Geathers will be back on the field this week, which should help the run defense tremendously and keep the Jets’ backs from gaining the edge on off-tackle runs.

5. Eagles’ backs will be keys to the passing game.

Last week, the Cowboys shut down the Eagles’ running game, limiting them to 3.7 yards per carry on just 10 attempts. Much of the trouble started up front, where the loss of center Jamaal Jackson hurt the team’s ability to keep Dallas nose tackle Jay Ratliff and his teammates out of the backfield.
 
Philadelphia will try to counter that weakness by using its backs more in the passing game. Considering Brian Westbrook is back to full strength and that fullback Leonard Weaver and rookie LeSean McCoy combined for 55 catches this year, expect a healthy dose of the screen game and short passes off quick drops by Donovan McNabb.

6. Cowboys will run — and run some more.

One of the keys to the Cowboys’ season-ending three-game winning streak was their offensive balance. In those games, they ran the ball at least 30 times for an average of 4.4 yards per carry. That, in turn, helped the passing game to be more productive.
 
Dallas should use its stable of backs to work the inside-outside game. This will wear down the Eagles’ smaller defensive front and create favorable passing situations. Watch for Tony Romo to exploit the Eagles’ linebackers in coverage.

Baltimore's ground-and-pound strategy will be even stronger with an effective Willis McGahee.
Baltimore’s ground-and-pound strategy will be even stronger with an effective Willis McGahee.

7. Ravens should get McGahee involved.

Ray Rice has been stellar this season, rushing for more than 100 yards four times and averaging 5.3 yards per carry. But Willis McGahee showed he has a fresh pair of legs for the playoffs by busting out for 167 yards and three TDs on just 16 carries against the Raiders last week. The combination of the two can be deadly behind the team’s personnel groupings and unbalanced alignments.
 
Baltimore has finally gotten back to the run game and will need to stick with it against a Patriots team that is ranked 13th in the league but has been a bit vulnerable in the last month. The Ravens need to try to dominate time of possession and keep their suspect secondary off the field.

8. Patriots will stick to the game plan.

Some people contend the loss of wideout Wes Welker will be devastating to the Patriots. But those people are forgetting the Patriot Way. When Drew Bledsoe goes down, you plug in Tom Brady. When Tedy Bruschi goes down, you plug in Jerod Mayo. When Wes Welker goes down, you plug in Julian Edelman.
 
A Welker look-alike, Edelman is a former college QB who made an impact as a rookie with 37 catches, including 10 last week as Welker’s replacement. Though he lacks Welker’s lateral burst, Edelman has good quickness, solid hands and excellent awareness. New England will attack a weak Baltimore secondary with the pass, and Edelman will be a key part of that effort.

9. Woodson should be the focus of Packers’ D.

Green Bay has taken to coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme in a big way. The front seven has been effective against the run and the pass. Perhaps most important, the Packers have given cornerback Charles Woodson the green light to make plays all over the field. 

The Packers shouldn’t have Woodson, the NFL’s likely defensive player of the year, shadow Pro Bowl wideout Larry Fitzgerald all day. Woodson’s strengths are that he can do so many things well and be effective from anywhere on the field. Look for Capers to move Woodson around, depending on down and distance and game situations. That will force Kurt Warner and the rest of the offense to find him before they run a play.

Good teams put their playmakers in position to make plays in the playoffs. And Woodson is the top defensive playmaker in the league.

10. Defense will be Arizona’s key.

Everyone knows about the Cardinals’ high-flying offense, led by Warner and their great wideouts. But the defense has quietly put together a very strong season, especially in big games.
 
The Cardinals are sixth in the league in sacks and third-down defense, and they have been strong in the red zone. Coordinator Bill Davis runs an aggressive scheme that uses a lot of different blitz looks out of the team’s base 3-4. It all revolves around the excellent play the team gets out of its cover corners. If Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is out or hampered because of a bruised knee, however, Davis may have to be more conservative.

RealScouts analyzes NFL and college players, coaches and teams exclusively for Sporting News.

Sporting News’ team of former scouts talk about 10 things to watch for during wild-card weekend.

1. Passing game takes center stage.

Ten quarterbacks surpassed 4,000 passing yards this season, and seven of them are in the playoffs — another sign that the NFL has become a pass-first entity.
 
Some of that has to do with a greater emphasis on spread offenses and rules changes that work to the detriment of defenses. Whatever the reason, the pass-first mentality is working, so expect more of it in the playoffs.

2. Nice to see you again.

Three of the four games this weekend are rematches of games from Week 17 and one — Eagles vs. Cowboysrepresents the third meeting between those teams.
 
Since 1970, there have been 19 opportunities for a team to complete a three-game sweep. Contrary to popular belief that it is darn-near impossible to pull that off, 12 teams have completed the trifecta. That doesn’t bode particularly well for the Eagles, who were swept by the Cowboys in the regular season. 

The Jets will test Carson Palmer's ability to beat the blitz.
The Jets will test Carson Palmer’s ability to beat the blitz.

3. J-E-T-S will B-L-I-T-Z.

Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is one cool customer, and it shows in the way he handles himself under pressure. He’s not real mobile, but he is able to stand in against pressure, make quick decisions, find his checkdowns and avoid sacks.
 
In fact, he ranks second in the NFL in passing efficiency against the blitz, which is why teams rarely go after him. But expect the Jets to buck the trend. Rex Ryan has lived by the blitz his whole career, and he’s not about to stop now.
 
The Bengals don’t use their tight ends or backs as receivers very often, and the Jets are confident in their ability to single-cover the Bengals’ wideouts — especially Darrelle Revis against Chad Ochocinco. That will free up players for Ryan to blitz. Look for New York to send five or six rushers on most snaps.

4. Bengals will play the run better.

The Jets were the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL this season, and they were able to grind out 257 yards on the ground against the Bengals last week. So it seems clear that the Bengals’ defense will have to focus on stopping the run this time. But the Jets will try to disguise their intentions with multiple formations and motion and pass looks at the line of scrimmage.
 
The key for the Bengals is not to fall for it. They will have to play the run on early downs and force quarterback Mark Sanchez into third-and-long situations, which is where he has struggled the most this season. Left end Robert Geathers will be back on the field this week, which should help the run defense tremendously and keep the Jets’ backs from gaining the edge on off-tackle runs.

5. Eagles’ backs will be keys to the passing game.

Last week, the Cowboys shut down the Eagles’ running game, limiting them to 3.7 yards per carry on just 10 attempts. Much of the trouble started up front, where the loss of center Jamaal Jackson hurt the team’s ability to keep Dallas nose tackle Jay Ratliff and his teammates out of the backfield.
 
Philadelphia will try to counter that weakness by using its backs more in the passing game. Considering Brian Westbrook is back to full strength and that fullback Leonard Weaver and rookie LeSean McCoy combined for 55 catches this year, expect a healthy dose of the screen game and short passes off quick drops by Donovan McNabb.

6. Cowboys will run — and run some more.

One of the keys to the Cowboys’ season-ending three-game winning streak was their offensive balance. In those games, they ran the ball at least 30 times for an average of 4.4 yards per carry. That, in turn, helped the passing game to be more productive.
 
Dallas should use its stable of backs to work the inside-outside game. This will wear down the Eagles’ smaller defensive front and create favorable passing situations. Watch for Tony Romo to exploit the Eagles’ linebackers in coverage.

Baltimore's ground-and-pound strategy will be even stronger with an effective Willis McGahee.
Baltimore’s ground-and-pound strategy will be even stronger with an effective Willis McGahee.

7. Ravens should get McGahee involved.

Ray Rice has been stellar this season, rushing for more than 100 yards four times and averaging 5.3 yards per carry. But Willis McGahee showed he has a fresh pair of legs for the playoffs by busting out for 167 yards and three TDs on just 16 carries against the Raiders last week. The combination of the two can be deadly behind the team’s personnel groupings and unbalanced alignments.
 
Baltimore has finally gotten back to the run game and will need to stick with it against a Patriots team that is ranked 13th in the league but has been a bit vulnerable in the last month. The Ravens need to try to dominate time of possession and keep their suspect secondary off the field.

8. Patriots will stick to the game plan.

Some people contend the loss of wideout Wes Welker will be devastating to the Patriots. But those people are forgetting the Patriot Way. When Drew Bledsoe goes down, you plug in Tom Brady. When Tedy Bruschi goes down, you plug in Jerod Mayo. When Wes Welker goes down, you plug in Julian Edelman.
 
A Welker look-alike, Edelman is a former college QB who made an impact as a rookie with 37 catches, including 10 last week as Welker’s replacement. Though he lacks Welker’s lateral burst, Edelman has good quickness, solid hands and excellent awareness. New England will attack a weak Baltimore secondary with the pass, and Edelman will be a key part of that effort.

9. Woodson should be the focus of Packers’ D.

Green Bay has taken to coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme in a big way. The front seven has been effective against the run and the pass. Perhaps most important, the Packers have given cornerback Charles Woodson the green light to make plays all over the field. 

The Packers shouldn’t have Woodson, the NFL’s likely defensive player of the year, shadow Pro Bowl wideout Larry Fitzgerald all day. Woodson’s strengths are that he can do so many things well and be effective from anywhere on the field. Look for Capers to move Woodson around, depending on down and distance and game situations. That will force Kurt Warner and the rest of the offense to find him before they run a play.

Good teams put their playmakers in position to make plays in the playoffs. And Woodson is the top defensive playmaker in the league.

10. Defense will be Arizona’s key.

Everyone knows about the Cardinals’ high-flying offense, led by Warner and their great wideouts. But the defense has quietly put together a very strong season, especially in big games.
 
The Cardinals are sixth in the league in sacks and third-down defense, and they have been strong in the red zone. Coordinator Bill Davis runs an aggressive scheme that uses a lot of different blitz looks out of the team’s base 3-4. It all revolves around the excellent play the team gets out of its cover corners. If Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is out or hampered because of a bruised knee, however, Davis may have to be more conservative.

RealScouts analyzes NFL and college players, coaches and teams exclusively for Sporting News.

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