Daily Blog • Saturday, January 16th

Want your name included in the 2010 NFL Preview Magazine? I need updated stadium pictures for many of the NFL teams including the new Cowboys stadium. Inside panoramic views with most of the stadium in view are recommended. The best pictures will get a chance to be included in the magazine with your credentials. Just email ron@ncsports.com.

Tomorrow's Blog will have the forecasts for the remaining two NFL Divisional games. Coming up on Monday I will have the teams hit hardest by players leaving early and also the teams that have the best returners that turned down the NFL.

NFC Divsional • Saturday 4:30 ET •FOX

New Orleans

The Cardinals earned their first Back 2 Back division titles since '74-'75 and are the 3rd Super Bowl loser to return to the playoffs in the last 10 years. Arizona’s 1st 10 win season since ‘76 went thru the arm of Warner who is the 2nd QB in NFL history to pass for 100 TD's with 2 different teams (Tarkenton). Warner's #'s are down vs last year (286 ypg, 67%, 30-14) as defenses refused to let the duo of Fitzgerald (four 1000 yard seasons in 1st 6 years) and Boldin (five 1000 yard seasons) make big plays and kept them in front of the defense. The Cardinals improving run game also had Whisenhunt dial back the pass attempts (40 in 1st 9, 33 in next 6). In the 1st 7 games Arizona averaged 65 ypg (3.3) on the ground but as RB Wells adjusted to the NFL, Arizona averaged 123 ypg (4.7) over the next 8 prior to resting for the finale. The Cardinals OL has been outstanding this year allowing 26 sacks (1 every 23 pass attempts) and had 27 straight games with the same 5 starters prior to LT Gandy (sports hernia) landing on IR. Arizona released its DC after the Super Bowl loss and the #20 defense is clone of the Steelers but with less freelancing in the secondary. They remain a high risk/high reward defense as while they are 5th in sacks by (1 every 14 pass attempts) they are 23rd in pass D with a respectable 22-21 ratio. CB Rodgers-Cromartie's 6 interceptions are the most for an Arizona player since 2003 and Adrian Wilson is just the 10 player in NFL history with 20 sacks and 20 interceptions in a career. The Cardinals 3-4 differs from Pittsburgh’s as the DL provides pressure and 9 players have at least 2 sacks which diffuses the offenses ability to focus on just 1 key pass rusher (ie: Dallas’s Ware). Dockett is a highly active player who can play inside or outside in 4-3/3-4 snaps and leads the team in sacks and is the leader of the front 7. Whisenhunt has taken great pains to upgrade his special teams and they are a solid 3rd in our rankings thanks to their outstanding KR defense (20.5) and Ben Graham's 40.6 net punting (7th).
            While leading the #1 offense this year Brees finished 1st in comp % (70.6), quarterback rating (109.6), TD passes (34) and tied Rodgers and Romo for 2nd with 39 pass plays of 25 or more yards. Brees also spreads the ball around (7 players with 35 or more receptions this year) which diffuses the defense's ability to lock onto a single player. Colston is the only player who's had 1,000 yards receiving with Brees at the helm but he's done it 3 of the last four years. Henderson is the possession WR but the offense really started clicking with a healthy Shockey who opened up the middle of the field. Meachem was GM Loomis' preseason breakout player & he didn't disappoint as his 16.0 ypc was 9th in the NFL. The Saints best previous finish in rushing was 11th in 2003 and this year they came in 6th. The combo of Thomas, Bell and Bush worked despite injuries as Payton rolls with whichever RB he feels will exploit the opposing team. Combined the trio would be 2nd only to Chris Johnson in rushing this year. The Saints OL is a bit overrated with Brees being sacked 20 times (4th, 1 every 27.2 pass attempts) due to his lightning quick release. Miami and Dallas were the only teams with deep and physical secondaries who were able to jam New Orleans receivers and throw off the timing enough for the edge rushers to get to Brees (9 sacks). DC Gregg Williams led the Saints to the #9 defense after the 1st 5 weeks but injury's caught up to them and they finished the year 25th allowing 384 ypg and 23 ppg over the final 11 weeks. The Saints have played much of the season without its starting CB's Greer and Porter with Jenkins having growing pains as a nickel CB. Sharper tied for the NFL lead with 9 interceptions and MLB Vilma proved that he is a cornerstone player here. New Orleans did lose DE Grant (triceps) vs Carolina but will have DT Ellis here and with him in the lineup New Orleans only allowed 103 ypg (4.2) rushing. The Saints have our #30 specials teams due to 4.6 PR avg (31st) and the KR coverage unit giving up 24.5 (29th).
            The Cardinals are off one of the best offensive playoff games in history setting the NFL mark for points in a postseason game. Teams that scored 50 or more are just 1-5 since 1967 in their next playoff game. Warner reinforced his bid for the Hall of Fame with 379 yards (88%) & 5 TD’s & he is on pace for 4000 yards in postseason games here. The Cardinals took advantage of the fact that the Packers showed all their cards the week before in a meaningless game. Now the Cardinals face a QB that is just as cerebral & instinctive as Warner. Arizona likely won’t have Boldin (high ankle sprain) here but they are 6-1 without him. Brees is also more experienced than Rodgers & isn’t as likely to make the same mistakes that he did. Yes the Saints lost some shine due to their 3 game losing streak but they have 15 players on the team from the 2006 playoff squad. They are also the healthiest they’ve been since training camp opened but I am wondering why they resigned Deuce McAllister here. The loss of DE Charles Grant is big but virtually every other injured defensive player will be healthy & available here. The key here will be if DT Sedrick Ellis can get enough push in the middle to move Warner off his launch point & knock him out of rhythm. Both teams have plenty of weapons here & neither team has a dominant defense to slow things down. I expect a very entertaining & high scoring game here. 




AFC Divisional •  Saturday 8:15 ET •CBS


The Ravens #13 offense underwent a surprising change for '09 after leading the NFL in rush attempts (592) last year they dropped to 7th this year (468). Cam Cameron put the onus on Flacco in his 2nd year to speed up his development. Flacco finished in the top half of the NFL in comp %, yards, yards per attempt, TD's and interceptions which is promising for 2010 as the 3rd year is when QB's make their biggest jump. Baltimore has a mediocre at best receiving unit and while Mason continues to impress with his toughness the Ravens lack deep speed and depth. The leading receiver is Rice who leads the NFL in receptions by a RB (13th overall) and TE Heap who has climbed out of Harbaugh's doghouse with a good season. Rice finished 6th in rushing this year and was the 1st RB in 33 games with 100 yards vs Pittsburgh. In December Baltimore averaged 212 ypg (5.9) rush going back to power football. Baltimore has fielded 5 different OL combos this year with Michael Oher (legit ROY candidate) doing a great job flipping back and forth between RT and LT. The Ravens #3 defense is a bit misleading as they allowed 335 ypg vs playoff teams. Baltimore’s #5 rush defense held up well despite DE Ngata (ankle) missing 2 games. The secondary is very thin especially at CB. SS Reed missed the last 5 regular season games with hip and ankle injuries and his impact was key vs New England. The Ravens were 11th last year in sacks (1 every 15.5 pass attempts) but this year they fell to 18th (1 every 16.7 pass attempts) as LB Suggs missed 3 with an ankle injury and hasn't fully recovered yet. Baltimore finished 8th in our special teams due to their KR units allowing 20.5 but the loss of Webb (ACL) who had a 26.2 avg is a big blow.
            Despite the outcry over the loss of "a perfect season" the fact is that the Colts have 7 straight seasons of 12 or more wins which is a record. Manning has won his 4th MVP which he earned with 5 straight come-from-behind wins this year and the Colts are the only team in the NFL with double digit wins and playoff berths since realignment. What makes this season standout is the changeover at WR with 2nd year WR Garcon and rookie Collie taking over for departed Marvin Harrison and Anthony Gonzalez who sprained his knee in week 1. Despite their inexperience Indianapolis finished in the Top 10 (9th) in total offense for the 10th time in 11 years. The Colts have 5 players in the top 100 for receptions this year with Wayne and Clark tying for 5th with 100 receptions. Clark is the 2nd TE in NFL history with 100 receptions and the Colts offset their #32 run game with Addai in the short pass game (51 receptions, 6.6). They have struggled in the short yardage area which is where Brown was supposed to help out but he's been bothered by a shoulder injury. Indianapolis's 13 sacks allowed is the 4th time in 5 years the Colts OL has given up 15 or fewer sacks. They didn't have a 100 yard rusher in any game this year and only broke that number as a team 3 times this year. Despite finishing 25th vs the run (4.3) the defense under DC Coyer is improved allowing 112 ypg (4.1) prior to the Jets/Bills. Indianapolis also places much more emphasis on speed and sure tackling than other teams. They allowed an NFL best 27 pass plays of 20 or more yards and gave up a 19-16 ratio (3 TD's vs Buffalo) which is a big dropoff from last year's 6-15 ratio. FS Bethea is the only player in the secondary to start all 16 this year and had an All-Pro season. Brackett remains a steady force in the middle but the team doesn't place much priority on LB's. Mathis and Freeney combined for 23 sacks despite basically resting for 3 games at the end of the year. Once again Indianapolis struggled on special teams finishing 31st in our rankings due to some very poor return units (22.2 KR, 5.2 PR).
            The Ravens flat out clubbed the Patriots last week & I was just as surprised as everyone else. It wasn’t as close as the final score indicated & NT Wilfork reinforced it when he said the team simply didn’t have the same intensity as Baltimore. There is a lot of similarity here between the Ravens & the Giants of 2007. The Giants gained a lot of confidence when they lost to New England in the final season finale & used that vs them in the Super Bowl. The Ravens were a missed 30 yard FG away from beating Indianapolis this year where Flacco led them down the field on the next drive but was intercepted. The combo of Reed & Lewis gives the Ravens defense an edge as the defense won’t be fooled by Manning’s pre-snap motions. The pressure is all on Indianapolis here as they have to prove that resting for the final 2 games of the year wasn’t a mistake. Indianapolis is built for speed & playing at home enhances that. Despite last weeks success the Ravens are still pretty 1 dimensional on offense & while Rice will get his yards he’ll also be force fed the ball. Indianapolis is 25th in rush defense this year but their speed will keep them from giving up the big play & keep the clock moving. It takes a Quarter for a passing offense to get up to speed after a bye week & Indianapolis’s youth at WR helps out Baltimore’s below avg CB’s. In the last five games, the Ravens' defense has given up just 60 points (12 ppg) and 5 touchdowns, while earning 13 sacks & 11 intereceptions. This is a dangerous game for the Colts vs a savvy Ravens team that has 6 road wins since 2000 in the playoffs. I think this will be a fairly close but surprisingly low scoring game here.