10-Pack: Cowboys’ Phillips is coaching for his job

ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio weighs in on the biggest story lines of Wild Card Week:

1. High pressure for the Cowboys

As first-round playoff games go, the Dallas Cowboys are dealing with as much pressure as any playoff team ever has faced.

First, the team hasn’t won a playoff game since Dec. 28, 1996.

Second, the Cowboys have twice before blown a home playoff game against a division rival they swept in the regular season. This time around, they’ll be expected to reprise their 24-0 spanking of the Eagles from only six days before.

Third, Wade Phillips — who has never won a playoff game in three stints as a head coach — is coaching for his job.

Though it’s inevitable Dallas will win a playoff game someday, winning on Saturday will entail Phillips and the rest of the Cowboys overcoming an inordinate amount of stress and strain.

2. The start of the Jason Garrett era?

Many league insiders believe Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will fire coach Wade Phillips if the Cowboys fail to complete a three-game sweep of the Eagles on Saturday.

The fact that Phillips wouldn’t be entitled to a buyout makes it more likely that Jones would walk away from the option on Phillips’ contract for 2010.

Brad Smith surprised the Bengals last week; don't expect that to be the case this week.
Brad Smith surprised the Bengals last week; don’t expect that to be the case this week.

The fact that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is under contract for two more years at $3.5 million per season makes it more likely that, if Phillips goes, Garrett will get the job.

At one point, it appeared Jones would simply clean house. The Cowboys’ late-season push to the playoffs could save Garrett, especially if it’s the defense and not the offense that blows it for the Cowboys on Saturday.

3. Rex Ryan just can’t help himself

The Jets had the Bengals right where they wanted them. Regardless of whether the Bengals did or didn’t try to win on Sunday night, the AFC North champions undoubtedly were rattled by that 37-0 pounding. And so with the league’s best defense and a potent running game, the Jets seem to be poised to roll into Cincinnati and do to the Bengals what the Bengals so proudly did to the Ravens and Steelers this year — beat them twice.

But then Jets coach Rex Ryan decided to pop off, declaring that his team should be favored not only to win on the second Saturday in January but also on the first Sunday in February.

And with that declaration, Ryan gave Bengals coach Marvin Lewis all he needed to get his team to forget about the beating they took in Week 17 — and to administer one of their own in the wild-card round.

What better way to get past a moment that might have sapped the team’s confidence than by changing the focus to yet another comment from Ryan suggesting that he’s too big for his britches?

4. Carson Palmer needs to prove the doubters wrong

Given that Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer missed most of the 2008 season with a bum elbow and given that he’s not having a great year, a lot of people think he’s still suffering from the injury, and that the Bengals are hiding it just like the Jets did last year down the stretch with Brett Favre’s bad arm.

If Palmer is fine, then he needs to demonstrate it — convincingly — on Saturday.

But the evidence suggests something is wrong. He has thrown for more than 300 yards only once this year, and he has produced fewer than 200 yards seven times.

Last week, he had none.

Regardless of whether it’s Palmer or the guys catching his passes, Palmer is the leader of the team, and it’s on him to try to propel the Bengals to their first postseason win in a generation.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco figures to see a lot of blitz pressure from the Patriots' defense on Sunday.
Ravens QB Joe Flacco figures to see a lot of blitz pressure from the Patriots’ defense on Sunday.

5. Flacco could be the difference maker

The Ravens have been successful over the past decade with a great defense and an offense good enough to score points with the field position the defense gives it.

In his second NFL season, quarterback Joe Flacco has increased his level of play significantly, with more than 600 additional passing yards, the same number of interceptions (12) and seven more touchdown passes (21).

So if the Ravens want to contend for a championship, they’ll need to remove the training wheels. Last year, Flacco threw for 135, 161, and 141 yards in three postseason games. This time around, they need to get the ball into the air more often, especially if opposing defenses — like the Patriots on Sunday — plan to try to take away Willis McGahee and Ray Rice.

6. A little New York hypocrisy

After the Dolphins beat the Jets in October with a heavy dose of the Wildcat, New York linebacker Calvin Pace couldn’t hold his tongue.

"I’m going to be honest, I can’t respect that stuff," he said at the time. "All that Wildcat. Because we’re in the NFL, man. If you’re out there running that nonsense, it’s crap."

And, of course, the Jets have since taken to the Wildcat, using Brad Smith as a change-of-pace quarterback. Smith rushed for 92 yards on four carries in the playoff-clinching win over Cincinnati.

If not for all that "nonsense" and "crap," the Jets might be sitting at home this weekend.

7. Get a good look at Kurt Warner

When Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner signed a two-year contract in the offseason, it was assumed he’d play two more years.

But Warner gave serious thought to calling it quits a year ago, and there’s a good chance he’ll decide after the 2009 season ends to pack it in.

The farther the team progresses, the more likely he is to ride into the sunset. If they win the Super Bowl, he surely won’t return. The question is whether he’ll give it another try in 2010 if they fall short of the mark again.

Still, even if they lose Sunday — and there’s a good chance they will — Warner might decide that he has done enough to get to Canton, and in turn decide he needs to get out before he takes any more concussions like the one that caused him to miss the game at Tennessee in late November.

8. Vikings are surely rooting for the Cowboys again

In Week 17, the Minnesota Vikings clobbered the Giants. The Vikes then needed help from the Cowboys to nail down a bye.

So with the Cowboys beating the Eagles and securing the third seed, a win by the Cowboys will send Dallas to Minnesota for the divisional round.

A victory by Philly would result in the sixth seed heading to New Orleans, with the winner of the Packers-Cardinals game going to Minnesota.

And if the Packers win, they’ll get another crack at Brett Favre — with a much better team than when the two teams got together in early October and early November.

So the Vikings surely are hoping for the Cowboys to knock off the Eagles again, even if it means a rematch of the 1975 division-round game featuring a Hail Mary pass and a flying whiskey bottle.

9. Packers quietly have gotten their act together

After losing to the Vikings and Favre at home on Nov. 1, the Packers stumbled badly against the Buccaneers. Since then, however, Mike McCarthy’s team has won all but one of its games.

The winning streak would be eight but for that last-second wing-and-a-rosary from Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to receiver Mike Wallace.

Along the way, the defense has improved (but for the 37 points given up to the Steelers) and the offensive line has done a better job of keeping quarterback Aaron Rodgers in one piece.

So it’s not unrealistic for Green Bay fans to be dreaming of another Super Bowl win, even with the quarterback who took them to their last one playing for an arch rival.

10. After this weekend, weather likely won’t be a factor

Though the Ravens and Jets are both built to win in the elements, the only games involving elements for the entire postseason might be the games featuring the Ravens and Jets this weekend.

Three of the teams that earned byes play in domes, and the other plays in San Diego.

So unless there are multiple division-round upsets this year, there might not be much cold or wind or snow this time around.

Which means that teams with high-powered passing offenses will have an edge.

Until they get to Miami and it rains the entire game, like it did three years ago.

Mike Florio writes and edits ProFootballTalk.com and is a regular contributor to Sporting News. Check out PFT for up-to-the minute NFL news.

ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio weighs in on the biggest story lines of Wild Card Week:

1. High pressure for the Cowboys

As first-round playoff games go, the Dallas Cowboys are dealing with as much pressure as any playoff team ever has faced.

First, the team hasn’t won a playoff game since Dec. 28, 1996.

Second, the Cowboys have twice before blown a home playoff game against a division rival they swept in the regular season. This time around, they’ll be expected to reprise their 24-0 spanking of the Eagles from only six days before.

Third, Wade Phillips — who has never won a playoff game in three stints as a head coach — is coaching for his job.

Though it’s inevitable Dallas will win a playoff game someday, winning on Saturday will entail Phillips and the rest of the Cowboys overcoming an inordinate amount of stress and strain.

2. The start of the Jason Garrett era?

Many league insiders believe Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will fire coach Wade Phillips if the Cowboys fail to complete a three-game sweep of the Eagles on Saturday.

The fact that Phillips wouldn’t be entitled to a buyout makes it more likely that Jones would walk away from the option on Phillips’ contract for 2010.

Brad Smith surprised the Bengals last week; don't expect that to be the case this week.
Brad Smith surprised the Bengals last week; don’t expect that to be the case this week.

The fact that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is under contract for two more years at $3.5 million per season makes it more likely that, if Phillips goes, Garrett will get the job.

At one point, it appeared Jones would simply clean house. The Cowboys’ late-season push to the playoffs could save Garrett, especially if it’s the defense and not the offense that blows it for the Cowboys on Saturday.

3. Rex Ryan just can’t help himself

The Jets had the Bengals right where they wanted them. Regardless of whether the Bengals did or didn’t try to win on Sunday night, the AFC North champions undoubtedly were rattled by that 37-0 pounding. And so with the league’s best defense and a potent running game, the Jets seem to be poised to roll into Cincinnati and do to the Bengals what the Bengals so proudly did to the Ravens and Steelers this year — beat them twice.

But then Jets coach Rex Ryan decided to pop off, declaring that his team should be favored not only to win on the second Saturday in January but also on the first Sunday in February.

And with that declaration, Ryan gave Bengals coach Marvin Lewis all he needed to get his team to forget about the beating they took in Week 17 — and to administer one of their own in the wild-card round.

What better way to get past a moment that might have sapped the team’s confidence than by changing the focus to yet another comment from Ryan suggesting that he’s too big for his britches?

4. Carson Palmer needs to prove the doubters wrong

Given that Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer missed most of the 2008 season with a bum elbow and given that he’s not having a great year, a lot of people think he’s still suffering from the injury, and that the Bengals are hiding it just like the Jets did last year down the stretch with Brett Favre’s bad arm.

If Palmer is fine, then he needs to demonstrate it — convincingly — on Saturday.

But the evidence suggests something is wrong. He has thrown for more than 300 yards only once this year, and he has produced fewer than 200 yards seven times.

Last week, he had none.

Regardless of whether it’s Palmer or the guys catching his passes, Palmer is the leader of the team, and it’s on him to try to propel the Bengals to their first postseason win in a generation.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco figures to see a lot of blitz pressure from the Patriots' defense on Sunday.
Ravens QB Joe Flacco figures to see a lot of blitz pressure from the Patriots’ defense on Sunday.

5. Flacco could be the difference maker

The Ravens have been successful over the past decade with a great defense and an offense good enough to score points with the field position the defense gives it.

In his second NFL season, quarterback Joe Flacco has increased his level of play significantly, with more than 600 additional passing yards, the same number of interceptions (12) and seven more touchdown passes (21).

So if the Ravens want to contend for a championship, they’ll need to remove the training wheels. Last year, Flacco threw for 135, 161, and 141 yards in three postseason games. This time around, they need to get the ball into the air more often, especially if opposing defenses — like the Patriots on Sunday — plan to try to take away Willis McGahee and Ray Rice.

6. A little New York hypocrisy

After the Dolphins beat the Jets in October with a heavy dose of the Wildcat, New York linebacker Calvin Pace couldn’t hold his tongue.

"I’m going to be honest, I can’t respect that stuff," he said at the time. "All that Wildcat. Because we’re in the NFL, man. If you’re out there running that nonsense, it’s crap."

And, of course, the Jets have since taken to the Wildcat, using Brad Smith as a change-of-pace quarterback. Smith rushed for 92 yards on four carries in the playoff-clinching win over Cincinnati.

If not for all that "nonsense" and "crap," the Jets might be sitting at home this weekend.

7. Get a good look at Kurt Warner

When Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner signed a two-year contract in the offseason, it was assumed he’d play two more years.

But Warner gave serious thought to calling it quits a year ago, and there’s a good chance he’ll decide after the 2009 season ends to pack it in.

The farther the team progresses, the more likely he is to ride into the sunset. If they win the Super Bowl, he surely won’t return. The question is whether he’ll give it another try in 2010 if they fall short of the mark again.

Still, even if they lose Sunday — and there’s a good chance they will — Warner might decide that he has done enough to get to Canton, and in turn decide he needs to get out before he takes any more concussions like the one that caused him to miss the game at Tennessee in late November.

8. Vikings are surely rooting for the Cowboys again

In Week 17, the Minnesota Vikings clobbered the Giants. The Vikes then needed help from the Cowboys to nail down a bye.

So with the Cowboys beating the Eagles and securing the third seed, a win by the Cowboys will send Dallas to Minnesota for the divisional round.

A victory by Philly would result in the sixth seed heading to New Orleans, with the winner of the Packers-Cardinals game going to Minnesota.

And if the Packers win, they’ll get another crack at Brett Favre — with a much better team than when the two teams got together in early October and early November.

So the Vikings surely are hoping for the Cowboys to knock off the Eagles again, even if it means a rematch of the 1975 division-round game featuring a Hail Mary pass and a flying whiskey bottle.

9. Packers quietly have gotten their act together

After losing to the Vikings and Favre at home on Nov. 1, the Packers stumbled badly against the Buccaneers. Since then, however, Mike McCarthy’s team has won all but one of its games.

The winning streak would be eight but for that last-second wing-and-a-rosary from Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to receiver Mike Wallace.

Along the way, the defense has improved (but for the 37 points given up to the Steelers) and the offensive line has done a better job of keeping quarterback Aaron Rodgers in one piece.

So it’s not unrealistic for Green Bay fans to be dreaming of another Super Bowl win, even with the quarterback who took them to their last one playing for an arch rival.

10. After this weekend, weather likely won’t be a factor

Though the Ravens and Jets are both built to win in the elements, the only games involving elements for the entire postseason might be the games featuring the Ravens and Jets this weekend.

Three of the teams that earned byes play in domes, and the other plays in San Diego.

So unless there are multiple division-round upsets this year, there might not be much cold or wind or snow this time around.

Which means that teams with high-powered passing offenses will have an edge.

Until they get to Miami and it rains the entire game, like it did three years ago.

Mike Florio writes and edits ProFootballTalk.com and is a regular contributor to Sporting News. Check out PFT for up-to-the minute NFL news.

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