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Super Bowl still anyone's as race reaches last eight

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Neil Reynolds | 11:27 UK time, Thursday, 14 January 2010

This Saturday and Sunday, we're down to the final eight as the top four teams join the winners from last weekend's wild wildcard round in the NFL play-offs.

The picture should be a little clearer with regard to who will be playing in Super Bowl 44 (sorry, traditionalists but I hate the Roman numerals) in South Florida on 7 February but I think this season's race remains wide open.

The number one seeds from each conference - the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC and the New Orleans Saints in the NFC - enter the fray this weekend but there is no guarantee they are going to wipe the floor with their respective opponents.

Recent history suggests those top seeds need to be wary. Three of the last four top seeds in the AFC (Indianapolis 2005, San Diego 2006 and Tennessee 2008) and the last two in the NFC (Dallas 2007 and New York Giants 2008) have fallen at the first hurdle, despite the luxury of having an extra week off late in the season.

Confidence and self-belief are key components of a successful NFL team and all eight clubs will feel they have a shot at going all the way.

Here is my take on the weekend's action, beginning with the game Greg Brady and I will commentate on for BBC 5 live sports extra from 2100 GMT on Sunday - the New York Jets' visit to the San Diego Chargers.

With the big thaw finally underway, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a trip without flight cancellations, airport delays and lost luggage. And, of course, I'm hoping for another thriller like the shootout between the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals.

New York Jets (9-7) at San Diego Chargers (13-3)

Thomas JonesThe Jets may have sneaked into the playoffs by playing already-qualified teams resting key starters in Indianapolis and Cincinnati in the final two weeks of the year, but now coach Rex Ryan's men are there, they are going to be tough to get rid of.

I firmly believe the NFL is a passing league now and the numbers back that up. There were a record 10 quarterbacks passing for more than 4,000 yards in the league this season and seven of those guys, including San Diego's Philip Rivers, made the playoffs.

But the Jets are a throwback to a bygone age. They throw just enough to keep the defence honest, run it down the opponent's throat behind a powerful offensive line and adopt a smothering, dominant style on the other side of the ball.

Rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez has endured some tough times this season but he played arguably his best game of the year in the first round of the playoffs, completing 12 of 15 passes. But this offence will go as far as the running back pairing of Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene will carry them.

Defensively, the Jets boast the league's leading defence and have put together some scarily good numbers. They have allowed just 14.8 points per game this season and have been even more dominant in the last six weeks, conceding an average of just 7.8 points per outing.

Philip RiversCornerback Darrelle Revis has consistently shut down the best receivers in the game this season and will lock down Chargers' deep threat Vincent Jackson. The good news for the Chargers is that they have other weapons who can prove to be the difference in this game, namely Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates and big-bodied wide receiver Malcolm Floyd.

The Chargers offer a much tougher challenge to the Jets having won their last 11 games in a row and Rivers is in the form of his life. I think Rivers and San Diego will find just enough offense to advance to the AFC Championship Game but this is going to be a close, hard-fought contest.

Prediction: NY Jets 17 San Diego Chargers 21

Baltimore Ravens (9-7) at Indianapolis Colts (14-2)

Peyton ManningThe Colts had a genuine shot at winning every game in the regular season but chose to rest key starters down the stretch. It was not a decision that sat well with quarterback Peyton Manning and he will be keen to make amends by going on to win the Super Bowl.

The danger for Indianapolis is that they have lost momentum and with the home side not having played a meaningful game since mid-December, the first 15 minutes will be key. If the Colts look rusty in the early stages and the Ravens can get a jump on them, Baltimore can pull off the upset.

As we saw in New England last week, if the Ravens can get a decent lead, they are well built to protect it. Baltimore rushed for 234 yards and four touchdowns with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee doing the damage while quarterback Joe Flacco completed just four passes. And the defence led by linebacker Ray Lewis can also be dominant when the Ravens get their noses in front.

Ray RiceBut Manning - winner of a fourth NFL Most Valuable Player Award this season - is a cut above the rest and has the skills to pick Baltimore's cornerbacks apart, teaming with 100-catch men Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark.

Baltimore always seem to give the Colts a good game, but Indianapolis always find a way to edge it. And given that this team was perfect before taking the foot off the gas, I think we can expect the same this Saturday and Indianapolis will advance to the semi-finals.

Prediction: Baltimore 20 Indianapolis 31

Arizona Cardinals (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

Kurt WarnerHold onto your hats - this could be another shootout. The Cardinals head to New Orleans full of confidence after their 51-45 victory over Green Bay and the key for Arizona will, once again, be the form of Kurt Warner and receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Early Doucet (Anquan Boldin is facing another uphill struggle to be fit).

The Saints need to do a better job of slowing Warner down than the Packers did. But how should that be done? Blitz Warner and he will pick apart a depleted secondary, drop extra men into coverage and that gives him more time to throw accurately downfield. New Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has made a massive impact this season but he will really have to earn his head coach-type salary on Saturday.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is just as unstoppable. He is hard to bring down, he sees the field better than most passers in the league and he is supremely accurate with an exciting group of receivers.

This game should feature plenty of points but it could come down to just one or two big defensive plays - a sack here or an interception there. Both clubs have the men capable of making plays on that side of the ball - Arizona will look to linebacker Karlos Dansby or cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, while the Saints have benefited hugely from the ball-hawking skills of safety Darren Sharper.

Drew BreesOne thing to look out for is the psyche of the Saints. They lost their last three games and could conceivably have lost five in a row had they not squeaked out close come-from-behind wins over Washington and Atlanta.

If the Cardinals get a jump on the Saints, Sean Payton's men may fold. But I think homefield advantage, in this particular case, could be crucial and New Orleans will advance to the final four.

Prediction: Arizona Cardinals 28 New Orleans Saints 35

Dallas Cowboys (11-5) at Minnesota Vikings (12-4)

Brett FavreThis is a really tough one to call. The Cowboys defence has risen up in the past month, allowing just 31 points in the last four games - all wins over New Orleans, Washington and Philadelphia (twice). But the Vikings - led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre - have a potent attack that has averaged 29 points per game in 2009. That kind of production cannot be taken lightly.

The key for Dallas will be to get to Favre and knock the 40-year-old about a bit. Pass-rushing outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are in top form and could create problems for a Vikings offensive line that has been inconsistent throughout the season.

Tony RomoRunning back Adrian Peterson used to be the key man for the Vikings but he has not passed the 100-yard mark in the last seven games. So Minnesota will hope Favre and the receiving group of Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, Bernard Berrian and Visante Shiancoe can find openings against an in-form Dallas secondary.

With Tony Romo playing confident and care-free football for the Cowboys, I am taking Dallas to sneak this one, purely based on the fact they have simply been playing better football than the Vikings in the last month.

But I feel it will be close and this, of all the games, is the one I think could genuinely go either way. It certainly has the makings of being a classic.

Prediction: Dallas Cowboys 27 Minnesota Vikings 24

So there you have it. If my predictions are correct, San Diego will visit Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game on 24 January, while New Orleans will welcome the Cowboys to the Superdome in the NFC.

But as the NFL has proven all season long, anything can happen when the games kick off and it wouldn't surprise me if we have seen another upset or two by the end of the weekend.

With all bets safely hedged, I'm off to California!

You can catch live commentary of the New York Jets against the San Diego Chargers this Sunday at 2100 GMT on BBC 5 live sports extra. (Available on the web to UK users only). Watch extended highlights of this weekend's NFL play-offs on BBC 2 on Monday 18 January at 2320 GMT; short clips on Monday on the BBC Sport website (UK only).

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    What do you know, a week in which I agree with all your predictions... Sorry for the kiss of death!

    Somewhat differ in the reasoning however:

    1. Ravens-Colts. (Weren't the Colts originally from Baltimore... and controversially shipped to Indy?) The Baltimore secondary has been inconsistent all season, bad recipe against the Colts; and there's no way the Colts will be as soft against the run at the Pats were. Basically, the Ravens are going to need a big game from Flacco, so there.
    31-10 Colts.

    2. Jets-Chargers. All San Diego. Chargers D is a bend-not-break unit, so while the Jets should move the ball okay, they won't finish many drives. Good as the Jets D is, Chargers have enough options to keep them honest. So Revis shuts down Jackson? No big deal, Gates is Rivers' favourite receiver anyway, so my sense is that the Jets will have to be a bit creative on defense to disrupt the Chargers' offense. Tomlinson/Sproles combined yards likely to be big, and Scifres is a sensational punter who'll heap extra pressure on the Jets.
    27-16 Chargers

    3. Cowboys-Vikings. Very tough call, but you have to lean Dallas. The question mark is how they handle Peterson, because through their outstanding December (ha!), they haven't faced a RB anything close to his calibre. If it's on Favre to go win the game, I think DeMarcus Ware and co will take of that. Dallas O is playing solid, so long as they protect the ball and there's balanced play-calling, they'll do okay. But that's a lot of ifs, and turnovers are going to decide this one.
    17-16 Dallas.

    4. Cards-Saints. Tough again, but I'll toss a coin and say Nawlins in their Dome. Brees and his receivers are a cut above the Packers, and the Saints D has a superior pass-rush which will be roughing up Warner. But this is surely going to be a high-scoring, final possession game, best watched with a neutral hat on!
    41-38 Saints

  • Comment number 2.

    Oh why do I have to support the Vikings? Its always this way in the post-season. Either we scrape in, and everyone knows we don't have a real chance, or we do well but lose momentum / choke at the end (I remember Atlanta!). Problem is, I just can't disagree. Sure, I'd like to hope that the O-line steps up, but the Dallas secondary is looking strong. I don't think it will be as high scoring as the blog suggests: 17-14 Dallas (and hoping I am wrong).

    Interesting predictions on the others, but I can see both the Cards and Ravens doing the business against the no.1 seeds. The Colts are going to be stale, and the Saints appeared to be dipping in form and now have to face a very much in form Cardinals offence.

    And yes, the Colts were from Baltimore (although the franchise was shipped there from the Dallas Texans). The move wasn't welcomed, but Baltimore then got their own expansion team, although it was a move from Cleveland (e.g. players, staff etc) whilst the city retained the rights to their name, history, colours and so on and rejoined the NFL three years later. Confusing? Oh yes!

  • Comment number 3.

    Only one team left that i even slightly care about now, and thats the saints, although i find it amazing that Favre has had such an impact on a franchise that up untill before he came, were completley and utterly usless

    Play up New Orleans! New Orleans Play up!

  • Comment number 4.

    Really looking forward to the games this weekend, and I agree with your predictions, which undoubtedly means they will all end up being wrong! I wouldn't have thought I'd be expecting Dallas to beat the Vikings, but Dallas have seemed a different proposition in the last few games, throughout a thoroughly unpredictable December for that particular franchise! The Favre fairytale is all well and good but I truly don't believe it can continue all the way to Miami, I may be wrong. I agree with the above poster that Peterson could be key as I don't think he'll continue his poor run of form, however I do think Dallas will have just, just enough, to win it by 4-7 points.

    I'm a Colts fan, but it looks to me like San Diego is the team to watch. I don't foresee them having a great deal of trouble with the Jets D given the form Rivers has found himself in, I think they'll win that one by 10-15 points.

    The general consensus in the media is that the ring-rusty Colts would have much preferred to face the Jets than Baltimore, and I tend to agree with that. I'm hoping, as a number of people have stated, that with Flacco's fitness in serious doubt the Ravens will struggle, but any team with Lewis and Rice is always a tough proposition. However I think a lot depends on #18. If Peyton is on his game, and if he can rely on his teammates giving him the space, then the Colts will win. However if Baltimore takes a lead and Manning starts slowly, anything can happen, just look at Tom Brady. I think Indy will shade it by 5-10 points.

    The other game is going to be a fascinating one, it has the potential to be a real shootout type game between two very high level QB's. Even as a Colts fan I think Drew Brees was unlucky to lose so comprehensively to Manning in the MVP voting, it should certainly have been much, much closer. I think Brees' Saints will have enough at their own place, and I think Warner, good as he is, may struggle against the Saints D, and I don't believe he'll post numbers as good as Brees will. Saints by 5-10

    I believe the Saints will advance all the way to Miami. My heart tells me that once there they will face the Colts, but I think my head is probably telling me that it may well be the Chargers. I think the Chargers would probably have enough in the Superbowl to beat the Saints, so therefore San Diego is my Superbowl prediction, although I will continue hoping it will be the Colts!

  • Comment number 5.

    Hi Neil.... Really enjoyed the 5live coverage again this year. Sunday was simply AWESOME !!!

    My take is Colts will be rusty and Ravens on a roll..... Ravens by 4
    Chargers too hot for Jets, who've come as far as they can Chargers by 10
    Cards on a roll and will beat Saints in a shootout. Cards by 6
    Cowboys come down to earth. Favre & Peterson will silence them Vikes by 7

  • Comment number 6.

    I wouldn't have said the Vikings were 'useless' until Favre came in (but I would say that). No 6 defence in 2008 (no 1 against the rush), 5th rated rushing offence in that year as well - an abysmal passing game made it clear there was one major weak spot that needed addressing, and Favre has done that. Question is, as others have noted, will he keep it going?

    The Saints, however, have been a top class team for a few seasons now. And if the Vikings aren't to win it (!), I would like to see Brees pick up the trophy as he has been a standout QB for a long time.

  • Comment number 7.

    I think a lot of NFL fans would settle for a team as useless as the Vikes minus Favre!

    Favre was supposed to be the final piece of the jigsaw... we'll see, but the Vikes really could do it this year.

  • Comment number 8.

    I tipped about half way through the season that either the chargers or vikings would win the superbowl so im pretty happy ther are both still kicking around.

  • Comment number 9.

    I'm a Vikings fan and I have to agree with a few, as poor as Peterson has been lately, surely it cant last much longer, I hope so anyway.
    I put a bet on Ravens beating Colts, Saints to go through, the Chargers to have too much for the Jets and hopefully the Vikings will pull it out of the bag and beat the cowboys.

  • Comment number 10.

    Firstly, can I just clarify a few things: are the Packers still in the Playoffs? No? Oh, that's a shame. How about the Redskins or Giants? They didn't make it to the playoffs? Oh. And how about dem Eagles? Oh, embarrassing. That leaves me with no-one to wind up. At least I get to watch Farve being hit hard all game. Happy days. Cowboys by 14 and Farve to be sacked 5 times.

  • Comment number 11.

    comment #10, well done, you almost perfectly described the Cowboys-Vikings game. Well, apart from the unfortunate fact that it was Romo that got hit hard and sacked all game long.

    Can you make a few predictions for the championship games so that I can confidently put money on the other team? :)

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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