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NFC Divisional Preview

In NFL on January 15, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Dallas Cowboys@Minnesota Vikings

The Dallas Cowboys are the trendy pick for the Superbowl right now after ruining the New Orleans Saints’ perfect season and demolishing a miserable Philadelphia Eagles side.

But I’m not convinced.

The Minnesota Vikings have looked awesome for large stretches of the season, but frailties have been exposed in recent losses, leaving them as underdogs in the eyes of many, despite holding home field advantage for this Divisional playoff game.

I think the Vikings will win this, and they have a great chance of finally ending that Superbowl drought.

You see, the Eagles were really a perfect match-up for the Cowboys. They were also away from home and ravaged by injury. But Dallas will not be able to bully this Minnesota outfit in the same way.

Dallas QB Tony Romo still has a lot to prove

For one thing, running inside against the Eagles undersized interior is a far cry from budging Kevin and Pat Williams. This will put more pressure on Tony Romo, who had an armchair ride against Trent Cole and the Philly pass rushers, who hardly got near him all day. When they did though, it looked for all the world that the old Romo was still very much alive and well. One interception at 7-7 could have made last week’s game a very different affair, and there was one other panicked dump which could easily have been picked off. Jared Allen will be dusting off his hurting pads and licking his lips at those particular misfires.

The Cowboys have relied on a highly effective triple threat on the ground, with Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice giving them plenty of options. They’ll really need to earn their corn if they’re going to hurt Minnesota inside. Barber sat out last week, and if he’s missing then the burden will fall on Jones and Choice to do the damage, and I’m not sure they have it in them.

The Cowboys will have a job on their hands keeping Adrian Peterson out of the end zone

The one part of the field where Dallas do have an edge is in their receiving corps. If the Vikings can’t pressure Romo, then Miles Austin, Jason Witten and, to a lesser extent, Roy Williams, will find holes in the secondary and could haul in some game-changing plays. Antione Winfield at safety hits like a Mack truck and has the aggression to be a turnover threat, but beyond that the secondary is the Achilles heel in this defence.

On the other side of the ball, Adrian Peterson has been very quiet of late, failing to hit the 100 yard mark in his last seven games. This guy is a points machine though, and a big game player to boot. Trying to keep a lid on him is a very different proposition to bottling up McCoy and Weaver on the odd token carry. Should Peterson get his yards, then the whole field opens up for Brett Favre. It will force the Cowboys D to think again, and if he’s given time in the pocket there’s no reason why he can’t hit Shiancoe, Rice, Harvin and Berrian all day, even against a solid pass defence like Dallas undoubtedly have.

Apart from the leaky secondary, Minnesota’s other concern, and the X-factor in this contest, is the form of their geriatric general Brett Favre. He may be a hall of famer, and he may be coming off one of the most impressive years of his career, but he fell apart in the cold weather with the Jets last year and his form has been dropping with the temperature again this season. They lost 3 of 4 before their blowout of the Giants last week, although admittedly Favre was electric in that game and the second half of their OT loss to the Bears in week 16.

Veteran Brett Favre will be the key man for the Vikings

Playing in the Dome, where the Vikes are 8-0 this season, will be a huge boon for Brett. Anyone who saw his unintentionally hilarious ‘warm-up’ ahead of the Carolina game, which consisted of a half hearted hamstring stretch sandwiched between a ginger trot on and off the playing surface, will know that those old muscles feel the cold more sharply than most. Playing in the Dome though, takes this element out of the equation.

Still, if DeMarcus Ware and co can put him under pressure, he is prone to throwing interceptions. He has shown this in the last few weeks, and it will be the visiting side’s main hope on the defensive end.

It should be a tight game, and it could go either way, but as long as Favre keeps hold of the ball I think the Vikings will have too much. Stopping the run will be too big an ask for the ‘Boys D-line, and Romo will be forced out of his comfort zone far more than he was in the last couple of weeks.

I don’t think he’ll react well, and I think that Peterson, Favre, Allen and the Williams wall will be the key players as they lead their team to a 9th straight home win this season, and their first in the playoffs since 2000.

Arizona Cardinals@New Orleans Saints

After last weeks barn-burner between the Packers and the Cardinals, Arizona’s match-up with the NFC’s no.1 seed promises to be yet another instant classic. The image of Kurt Warner and Drew Brees locking eyes over the tumbleweeds as the assembled crowd holds their breath in a thrill is one that’s hard to shake. These kind of match-ups are what it’s all about. It’s the kind of game that corners and safeties dread, because no matter what they do, there will be points.

The Arizona Cardinals were actually a maddeningly inconsistent team this season. The Kurt Warner who gunned down the supposedly watertight Packers secondary, defensive player of the year Charles Woodson and all, is the same turnover machine that couldn’t find the end zone with a sat nav against the lowly 49ers just a few short weeks ago. The Cards D that gave up 45 points last week is the self same outfit that went out and dominated Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson back in December.

So which of these is going to show up?

Kurt Warner saves his best football for the big occasion

Well, whatever about the defence, it seems that this offense thrives on play-off pressure. Last week, I listed the truly silly playoff numbers that Kurt Warner has racked up over the years, and then picked against him. Well, never again. This guy is the very definition of a big game player. The higher the stakes, the higher the performance level, and I think he will carry the day once more.

Of course, it helps when you have receivers of the calibre of Larry Fitzgerald. All year these two were struggling to connect on the deep ball, but as soon as the playoffs rolled into view they suddenly found their rhythm. That’s no coincidence.

Drew Brees runs one of the few offenses that can keep up with Warner and the Cardinals

What’s also hugely significant is that the New Orleans Saints have looked increasingly vulnerable as the season has reached its climax. The defense which was coming up with big-time plays is now looking porous. They slipped from 13-0 to 13-3, and ride a 3 game losing streak into the playoffs. This loss of momentum is not easily shaken off, and while it’s too simplistic to say they’ve been ‘found out’, they don’t have an aura anymore. There’s no reason for the Cardinals to fear the Saints or the Superdome.

One thing the Saints do have going for them is their offense, and Drew Brees in particular. He has led them to the no.1 spot in points and yards per game, while making use of a variety of weapons both through the air and on the ground.

Marques Colston has been his favourite target this year, and he provides a deep threat over the middle of the field. His height and hands also provide Brees with a number of favourable match-ups should he look his way. Devery Henderson and Jeremy Shockey are two solid targets that he’s found with regularity so far this season, but Robert Meachem has been a revelation. Brees hasn’t connected with him as often as the others, but when he has it’s been explosive. Meachem averages 16 yards a catch for nine touchdowns this year, and the Cardinals will have to keep a close eye on him.

Arizona's yong running back Beanie Wells is a star in the making

The beauty of the Saints offense is that even if the receivers are covered, Brees has the option of hitting his running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, who both have very solid hands and present a dangerous threat in space. Along with Mike Bell, these three also get a lot of yards on the ground, and Karlos Dansby and the Cards D will have to be on their game to limit the threat.

The problem for New Orleans is not just one of momentum, but what happens when the ball is out of the hands of Drew Brees and the points scorers.

Early in the year, they found a surprising amount of success through a gambling, ball-bothering defence in which safety Darren Sharper emerged as an early contender for defensive player of the year. That success has not been consistent though. In fact, their effectiveness has deteriorated to such an extent that they rank 20th or below in all the major defensive statistics, giving up more than 21 points per game and nearly 360 yards.

The 235 yards they give up against the pass every game will have Warner licking his lips, but another worry will be the hard running of Beanie Wells. Tim Hightower has shown himself to have issues with ball security and penetration, but Wells is a star in the making.

While Brees and Warner might shoot themselves into a stalemate, if Wells can come up with consistent yards on the carry then Arizona will have a significant edge. The key man in stopping Wells will be middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Vilma has been a star player for a long time now, and he’s still produced over 100 tackles this season. He’ll need to be on top of his game to neutralise Wells though, whose confidence will be at an all time high following some key plays last week.

This game should be an absolute belter, and it could be just as high-scoring and intense as last week’s points-fest. You may as well flip a coin to see which offense will come out on top.

As I said earlier though, it’s very hard to pick against Warner in this form, and I think the Cards have more to offer on the defensive end. That’s why I’m going for the only away win of the weekend to be an upset at the Superdome.

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