Wild-card picks: Week 17 all over again for ‘Boys, Pack, Jets

The opening week of the NFL playoffs looks eerily familiar.

In the NFC, it’s an almost exact copy of what we just saw in Week 17 — same bat hosts, same bat visitors, same bat stadiums, only with one different bat channel and two different bat times.

In the AFC, the Jets return the home-and-home favor with a trip to Cincinnati, and the Ravens and Patriots meet again in New England 14 weeks after playing there on Oct. 4.

Jason Witten and the Cowboys will try to push the Eagles out of the playoffs.
Jason Witten and the Cowboys will try to push the Eagles out of the playoffs.

This time around, however, there will be no holding back, mentally or physically. There’s no cushion for some teams of playing at least one more game this season. That should lead to some very aggressive play in every game.

NFC Game of the Week

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys are going for a three-game sweep of their division rivals in hopes of getting their first playoff victory in 13 seasons. It also would be Tony Romo’s first postseason win in three attempts. Looking at recent history and thinking that they can’t pull it off against the Eagles for a second consecutive week and the third time since Week 9 would be a mistake, because, well, the past is in the past.

Romo is a better quarterback than he’s ever been in his fourth season as an NFL starter. The defense has never been this good since the switch to a 3-4 under Bill Parcells. The combination of chemistry and confidence hasn’t been there like this in quite some time. There are unreasonable expectations that often come with being America’s Team, and taking in the mood of the locker room and realizing all the talent it has, you get a sense the Cowboys are ready to do something special.

On the field, the Cowboys have proved to be the better team than Philadelphia twice. They have the power running game to wear down the Eagles’ pass rush and limit the blitzing. They have receivers such as Miles Austin and Jason Witten who can get open for big plays. Romo is playing at such a high level, he’s reading everything well when under pressure.

Defensively, there have been two major developments. First, the secondary has turned into a solid unit, thanks to Mike Jenkins starring opposite Terence Newman. The linebackers have seen an upgrade, with Keith Brooking a perfect fit inside and Anthony Spencer emerging as a pass-rush threat opposite DeMarcus Ware. The Eagles being such a pass-heavy team plays right into the Cowboys’ hands.

For some reason, Dallas couldn’t beat the Giants this season, but they’re not around any more. They match up much better against the Eagles, and that will show again on Saturday night. Cowboys 27, Eagles 24.

Thomas Jones and the Jets have their eyes on the beating the Bengals again.
Thomas Jones and the Jets have their eyes on the beating the Bengals again.

AFC Game of the Week

New York Jets at Cincinnati Bengals. In a playoff field loaded with top-flight quarterbacks, you can make the case that the Jets and Bengals are the two weakest at the position, despite the USC pedigrees of Mark Sanchez and Carson Palmer. It’s no secret that both teams have gotten to the playoffs on the strengths of stout defenses backed by grinding running games. Stuff the run, rush the passer and chew up clock with long, efficient scoring drives.

It’s funny that the two backs involved with those game plans are former Bears — Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson. It must be something about a black-and-blue brand of football. Of course, the Jets have another tie to the Chicago way, with Rex Ryan coaching up an attacking 3-4 defense reminiscent of his father Buddy’s best units. This should be an ugly, low-scoring game, and that will suit the younger Ryan and his Bengals counterpart, Marvin Lewis, just fine.

The difference here will be Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis and New York’s offensive line. Revis will shut down Chad Ochocinco, making it very difficult for Cincinnati to move the ball in a one-dimensional rushing offense. On the other side, the loss of rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga is huge, because it will allow Jets run blockers to pave an easier way for Jones and Shonn Greene. Jets 19, Bengals 13

Shootout of the Week

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots. Remember Mark Clayton’s drop on the Ravens’ final drive against the Pats in Week 4? Had he caught that ball, there’s a good chance the Ravens would have emerged winners from what was a 27-21 loss at Foxborough.

You know in the rematch that Baltimore will be adept at shutting down the Patriots’ mix of backs in the running game. In turn the Patriots will work to take away what the Ravens do best — move the ball with feature back Ray Rice.

That should make Joe Flacco and Tom Brady confident to take to the air, where neither will be daunted by the other’s team pass rush or secondary. Without having to worry about pesky Wes Welker, however, look for the Ravens to bracket their coverage on Randy Moss so they aren’t beat deep, making Brady dink and dunk more, increasing the chance of a turnover.

As for Flacco, working with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, the Ravens will spread out the Patriots’ defense with the pass, and then come back to the run with Rice and Willis McGahee to steal a victory later. Ravens 30, Patriots 27

When he is not handing off to Ryan Grant, Aaron Rodgers will be on the move.
When he is not handing off to Ryan Grant, Aaron Rodgers will be on the move.

Upset of the Week

Green Bay Packers over Arizona Cardinals. We’ve already picked the Jets and Ravens as underdogs, so going with the Packers is pure gravy. The Packers just throttled the resting Cards in Glendale last week, and they won’t let up with more on the line.

Green Bay’s 3-4 is capable of keeping Beanie Wells and Arizona’s ground game in check, which will put the Packers in a good situation against the pass. Clay Matthews will lead the charge to put pressure on Kurt Warner, and as usual, cornerback Charles Woodson will come up with a big play or two.

Offensively, the Packers will keep Arizona off-balance with a balanced attack and Aaron Rodgers’ mobility helping them make some big plays. They’ll mix in Ryan Grant effectively to keep the Cardinals’ aggressive front honest, and they’ll score the decisive touchdown late. Packers 24, Cardinals 20

Stats of the Week
Week 17 record: 14-2
Regular-season record: 165-75.

Vinnie Iyer is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

The opening week of the NFL playoffs looks eerily familiar.

In the NFC, it’s an almost exact copy of what we just saw in Week 17 — same bat hosts, same bat visitors, same bat stadiums, only with one different bat channel and two different bat times.

In the AFC, the Jets return the home-and-home favor with a trip to Cincinnati, and the Ravens and Patriots meet again in New England 14 weeks after playing there on Oct. 4.

Jason Witten and the Cowboys will try to push the Eagles out of the playoffs.
Jason Witten and the Cowboys will try to push the Eagles out of the playoffs.

This time around, however, there will be no holding back, mentally or physically. There’s no cushion for some teams of playing at least one more game this season. That should lead to some very aggressive play in every game.

NFC Game of the Week

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys are going for a three-game sweep of their division rivals in hopes of getting their first playoff victory in 13 seasons. It also would be Tony Romo’s first postseason win in three attempts. Looking at recent history and thinking that they can’t pull it off against the Eagles for a second consecutive week and the third time since Week 9 would be a mistake, because, well, the past is in the past.

Romo is a better quarterback than he’s ever been in his fourth season as an NFL starter. The defense has never been this good since the switch to a 3-4 under Bill Parcells. The combination of chemistry and confidence hasn’t been there like this in quite some time. There are unreasonable expectations that often come with being America’s Team, and taking in the mood of the locker room and realizing all the talent it has, you get a sense the Cowboys are ready to do something special.

On the field, the Cowboys have proved to be the better team than Philadelphia twice. They have the power running game to wear down the Eagles’ pass rush and limit the blitzing. They have receivers such as Miles Austin and Jason Witten who can get open for big plays. Romo is playing at such a high level, he’s reading everything well when under pressure.

Defensively, there have been two major developments. First, the secondary has turned into a solid unit, thanks to Mike Jenkins starring opposite Terence Newman. The linebackers have seen an upgrade, with Keith Brooking a perfect fit inside and Anthony Spencer emerging as a pass-rush threat opposite DeMarcus Ware. The Eagles being such a pass-heavy team plays right into the Cowboys’ hands.

For some reason, Dallas couldn’t beat the Giants this season, but they’re not around any more. They match up much better against the Eagles, and that will show again on Saturday night. Cowboys 27, Eagles 24.

Thomas Jones and the Jets have their eyes on the beating the Bengals again.
Thomas Jones and the Jets have their eyes on the beating the Bengals again.

AFC Game of the Week

New York Jets at Cincinnati Bengals. In a playoff field loaded with top-flight quarterbacks, you can make the case that the Jets and Bengals are the two weakest at the position, despite the USC pedigrees of Mark Sanchez and Carson Palmer. It’s no secret that both teams have gotten to the playoffs on the strengths of stout defenses backed by grinding running games. Stuff the run, rush the passer and chew up clock with long, efficient scoring drives.

It’s funny that the two backs involved with those game plans are former Bears — Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson. It must be something about a black-and-blue brand of football. Of course, the Jets have another tie to the Chicago way, with Rex Ryan coaching up an attacking 3-4 defense reminiscent of his father Buddy’s best units. This should be an ugly, low-scoring game, and that will suit the younger Ryan and his Bengals counterpart, Marvin Lewis, just fine.

The difference here will be Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis and New York’s offensive line. Revis will shut down Chad Ochocinco, making it very difficult for Cincinnati to move the ball in a one-dimensional rushing offense. On the other side, the loss of rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga is huge, because it will allow Jets run blockers to pave an easier way for Jones and Shonn Greene. Jets 19, Bengals 13

Shootout of the Week

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots. Remember Mark Clayton’s drop on the Ravens’ final drive against the Pats in Week 4? Had he caught that ball, there’s a good chance the Ravens would have emerged winners from what was a 27-21 loss at Foxborough.

You know in the rematch that Baltimore will be adept at shutting down the Patriots’ mix of backs in the running game. In turn the Patriots will work to take away what the Ravens do best — move the ball with feature back Ray Rice.

That should make Joe Flacco and Tom Brady confident to take to the air, where neither will be daunted by the other’s team pass rush or secondary. Without having to worry about pesky Wes Welker, however, look for the Ravens to bracket their coverage on Randy Moss so they aren’t beat deep, making Brady dink and dunk more, increasing the chance of a turnover.

As for Flacco, working with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, the Ravens will spread out the Patriots’ defense with the pass, and then come back to the run with Rice and Willis McGahee to steal a victory later. Ravens 30, Patriots 27

When he is not handing off to Ryan Grant, Aaron Rodgers will be on the move.
When he is not handing off to Ryan Grant, Aaron Rodgers will be on the move.

Upset of the Week

Green Bay Packers over Arizona Cardinals. We’ve already picked the Jets and Ravens as underdogs, so going with the Packers is pure gravy. The Packers just throttled the resting Cards in Glendale last week, and they won’t let up with more on the line.

Green Bay’s 3-4 is capable of keeping Beanie Wells and Arizona’s ground game in check, which will put the Packers in a good situation against the pass. Clay Matthews will lead the charge to put pressure on Kurt Warner, and as usual, cornerback Charles Woodson will come up with a big play or two.

Offensively, the Packers will keep Arizona off-balance with a balanced attack and Aaron Rodgers’ mobility helping them make some big plays. They’ll mix in Ryan Grant effectively to keep the Cardinals’ aggressive front honest, and they’ll score the decisive touchdown late. Packers 24, Cardinals 20

Stats of the Week
Week 17 record: 14-2
Regular-season record: 165-75.

Vinnie Iyer is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

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