Category Archives: NFL

Lamar Woodley is That Guy

Lamar Woodley’s strip-sack of Kurt Warner sealed the victory in Super Bowl XLIII for the Steelers. It also cemented Woodley’s status as That Guy this year. In addition to late-game heroics, Woodley had another sack, two quarterback hurries, one pass defensed and four tackles. But it was that final pass rush of the season gave him the nod.

In a fourth quarter where Kurt Warner caught fire and Larry Fitzgerald caught everything, no one wearing black and gold wanted to take the chance on a last second Hail Mary lofted toward Arizona’s sure-handed superstar. Woodley made sure that the Cardinals would not get the chance to see if a final Warner Hail Mary would be an answered prayer. Instead, he took matters into his own hands, and did what the Steelers failed to do for most of the fourth quarter—pressure Warner.

Woodley, in his second-year out of Michigan, spent most of the season in the shadows of fellow linebackers Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and veteran tackle machine James Farrior. He racked up 11.5 sacks on the season, but none was bigger than the one on Warner last night.

Woodley is the third linebacker to receive my That Guy award, joining Mike Jones of the Rams and Mike Vraebel of the Patriots. My pre-game pick for the award, Steve Breaston, was a college teammate of Woodley. The Cardinals wideout/returner didn’t disappoint, amassing 144 all-purpose yards, including a 34-yard punt return.

In the end, however, it was Woodley—not Breaston—that emerged victorious. Playing linebacker for the Steelers, he won’t be just That Guy very long. But for his role in the Steelers record sixth Super Bowl title, he earned the title of That Guy for stepping out of the shadows on the biggest stage in football.

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Super Bowl XLIII That Guy

Last year I debuted my Super Bowl That Guy column, noting that there’s always some little-known player who rises to the occasion for the big game. Click to read last year’s column for some perspective.

To refresh your mind, here are the rules to qualify for That Guy status as we head into Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIII matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals.

Rules to qualify as That Guy in a Super Bowl:

  1. Starting quarterbacks are automatically ruled out. That means no Kurt Warner and no Ben Roethlisberger.

  2. Pro Bowl selections are also overqualified. That means that, in addition to Warner, receievers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, safety Adrian Wilson and special teamer Sean Morey are ineligible for Arizona. For the Steelers, linebackers James Harrison and James Farrior and safety Troy Polamalu are off limits.

  3. Fantasy football studs are ineligible. This net catches several players already ruled out. Add to those names: Willie Parker, Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.

  4. Veterans with a significant playoff history. Deshea Townsend and Aaron Smith each have at least 10 years of experience and a Super Bowl ring with the Steelers already. They’re exempt. On the Arizona side, there’s a lot less playoff experience, but Edgerrin James definitely qualifies.

  5. No repeats. If you were already named That Guy in a Super Bowl, you can never be him again. The Steelers’ That Guy from Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle-El, is no longer with the team. No one on either team has ever been That Guy before.

Arizona Cardinals top five nominees for Super Bowl XLIII That Guy

5. Mike Gandy, LT
Protecting Kurt Warner will be a key to the Cardinals’ success. Gandy is in charge of protecting Warner’s blindside against the Steelers’ rush that will feature NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison.

4. Matt Leinart, QB
The one-time golden boy has been relegated to the bench, but if Gandy and company fail to protect Warner, the Heisman-trophy winner Leinart will be called upon. Warner has managed to stay healthy this season, so there’s no indication that he’ll go down. But the Steelers’ defense is the best and arguably hardest hitting in the league. What a chance that would be for someone who was once the guy at USC to become That Guy in the Super Bowl.

3. Bertrand Berry, DE
The 11-year veteran had played in just two playoff games prior to this season, losing both. But after starting just four games during the season, he’s started in all three Cardinals playoff victories this year and recorded two sacks. He knows that Super Bowl opportunities do not come around regularly and that should motivate him to get some pressure on Ben Roethlisberger.

2. Tim Hightower, RB
After scoring six touchdowns in a reserve role, the rookie runner started seven of the team’s final nine regular season games, but he scored just four times as a starter. Nonetheless, he remains an important complement to Edgerrin James and will need to contribute if the Cardinals have any hopes of mounting a rushing attack against the Steelers’ vaunted run defense.

1. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB
In his first postseason run, the rookie corner has been stellar, tallying 15 tackles and two interceptions during Arizona’s playoff run. Whether he’s matched up against Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward or deep-threat Santonio Holmes, Rodgers-Cromartie is going to be tested by the Steelers receivers. If he can win his share of those battles, the Cardinals just might win the war.

Pittsburgh Steelers top five nominees for Super Bowl XLIII That Guy

5. Dennis Dixon, QB
This is the ultimate long-shot, but hear me out. The Steelers always seem to know when to run the trick play. They ran one to perfection in Super Bowl XL when wide receiver Antwaan Randle-El hooked up on a touchdown pass to fellow wideout Hines Ward. Who was the offensive coordinator then? Ken Whisenhunt, now head coach of the Cardinals. Wouldn’t the Steelers love to kill the Cards coach with a dose of his own medicine? And, if so, Dixon, the athletic rookie from Oregon could figure prominently. If he gets onto the field, keep an eye on him.

*4. Limas Sweed, WR
The rookie wideout is my brother Mike’s pick, so I’ll list him, but after his drop last week against the Ravens, I just don’t see it happening for Sweed. To hear more of Mike’s thoughts on the game, check out the first episode of The Winning Hand Sportscast available for download or streamed on

3. LaMarr Woodley, LB
The third-year linebacker from Michigan is also the third-ranking linebacker for the Steelers, but that’s only because he plays alongside the best linebacking crew in the NFL with James Harrison and James Farrior. The young’n of the bunch, Woodley is every bit as capable of making big plays, and with the attention the others demand, he may find himself free to make some of those plays against the Cardinals.

2. Heath Miller, TE
He’s not Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates, but Miller fits the mold of a Pittsburgh Steelers tight end. He’s a big body, great blocker and, next to Hines Ward, seems to be Roethlisberger’s go-to target on third down. Tight end is a position not being talked about much in this game, but Miller has the edge and that could pay dividends for the Steelers.

1. Mewelde Moore, RB
When Willie Parker was injured earlier this year, Moore was more than a serviceable fill-in. In the four games he started, Moore averaged 20 carries for 90 yards (4.5 yards/carry) with three rushing touchdowns and a receiving touchdown. Parker broke through with a big effort in the Steelers’ last Super Bowl while playing somewhat in the shadow of Jerome Bettis. Parker doesn’t cast quite as large a shadow as The Bus did, but Moore will look to follow in his footsteps.

My Pick for Super Bowl XLIII That Guy
Steve Breaston, WR/returner, Arizona

The Rationale
The Cardinals are a pass-first offense. Their quarterback and both starting receivers are Pro Bowl starters. Surely the Steelers will do everything they can to limit the number of passes directed toward Fitzgerald and Boldin. Naturally that leads to additional opportunities for the number three man, Steve Breaston. His numbers for the year: 77 receptions, 1,006 yards and 3 touchdowns. Not too shabby. And that doesn’t even factor in his electrifying ability as a kick/punt return specialist, which is where he really made his mark in college at Michigan. As a multi-dimensional weapon, Breaston is a leading threat to take That Guy honors on Sunday.

Matt’s Super Bowl XLIII pick
Arizona 24, Pittsburgh 20

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Super Bowl History in the Making

Super Bowl XLIII will feature a matchup of two franchises on different ends of the Super Bowl history spectrum, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals.

Take a look at the chart on the left, detailing the NFL’s 32 teams and 42-year Super Bowl history leading up to this season. Either team will make history with a win.

The Steelers, playing in their seventh Super Bowl and second in four years, can break a tie with Dallas and San Francisco to become the first team to win six Super Bowls.

On the flipside, the Cardinals are appearing in the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history, leaving just five teams without a Super Bowl appearance.

The Cardinals will attempt to become the 18th NFL franchise to win the Vince Lombardi trophy. The Steelers will attempt to become the first franchise to have enough rings to start loading up a second hand.

The smashmouth tradition of the Steelers against the high-octane offense, nobody-believed-in-us Cardinals. It’s Super Bowl XLIII, and it’s 13 days away, so expect plenty of hype, stories, analysis and predictions between now and kickoff on Feb. 1.

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Calling all bandwagons! Calling all bandwagons! Last call!

If you’re a bandwagon fan (you know who you are), now’s your last chance to make a choice. But choose wisely. You don’t want to choose to suddenly become a “longtime supporter” of one of the four remaining NFL teams only to see them stumble one game short of the Super Bowl.

If you wait until the Super Bowl, you miss out on the two-week hype-fest. If you wait until after the Super Bowl, well, that’s just pathetic. To be a bandwagon fan, you’re OK with sacrificing a lot of your loyalty and self-respect, but if you care to salvage whatever bit you have left, you have to make a choice now. So, which bandwagon should you latch on to? Here’s my guide for you, the lowly bandwagon fan. (2007 Patriots AFC Championship shirts sold separately.)

Pittsburgh Steelers
I live in Pennsylvania, so I know all about the Keystone state’s bandwagon fans. And boy do they love the Steelers, especially when they’re winning. Just let them tell you about their love of the Steelers. Or don’t ask. They’ll probably tell you anyway.

Does the prospect of cheering for someone named Big Ben excite you? If you can’t spell his last name, that’s OK. If you don’t know what college he played at, hear someone say “Miami,” and think it’d be cool to cheer for someone from The U, then Big Ben and the Steelers are a perfect bandwagon pick.

Want to cheer for someone because of their long-flowing mane? You’ve got Troy Poly-pola…oh well, you can just call all your players by their first names! Ben, Troy, Willie. Yeah, it’s like you’re all buddies hanging out together.

Plus, you play in a field named after a ketchup company. That has to whet your appetite as a bandwagon fan. And guess what? You have a receiver named Hines, too! OK, so it’s spelled differently and there’s really no correlation whatsoever, but Hines at Heinz sounds cool! Maybe you should buy his jersey at Wal-Mart!

Philadelphia Eagles
The team from the eastern part of the state is not quite as popular where I live, but do they ever have a bandwagon buy-in for you?! Beards. Playoff beards are the craze in Philadelphia. So join in the fun and stop shaving. Or, if you’re like me and unable to grow a beard on command, buy a fake beard.

Get a Santa Claus beard while you’re at it. Wait, scratch that idea. The Eagles fans once booed Santa Claus—even though their current coach is resembling him more and more by the day. But a regular beard will make you as much a part of the team as caveman Kevin Curtis. If you’ve never heard of Kevin Curtis, you’re a perfect candidate to hop aboard the Eagles bandwagon.

For what it’s worth, they’re being labeled as “this year’s Giants,” the team that won the Super Bowl last year. Of course, they could also face the fate of this year’s Giants and lose an upset to an unsuspecting bird of prey.

Arizona Cardinals
Well, I actually don’t know if the Cardinals are birds of prey. But they’re birds of pray(er) led by the religious and revived ageless Kurt Warner. You may even have hopped on his bandwagon before with the 1999 St. Louis Rams.

I’ve maintained for years now that the Cardinals have the smallest national following. As recently as a few months ago, I was asking my brother if he knew a single Cardinals fan. Neither one of us could do so. It may be the only team that I don’t know a single fan of.

Be a part of history and join the Cardinals bandwagon. Plenty of good seats are still available. As an added bonus, they’re the only team left playing in a warm-weather city. So, if you really want to go all-out as a bandwagon and move to follow them, at least you’ll be living in the warmth of Phoenix when they sink back into NFL obscurity.

Baltimore Ravens
If you have any Cleveland Browns fans as friends, I advise you to stay away from this bandwagon choice. The prospect of the Ravens winning a second Super Bowl before the Browns ever play in one is painful even for me, a diehard Raiders fan.

But if you don’t have any Cleveland tie-ins, you may want to invest in becoming a Ravens fan. Whether you’re a fan of Edgar Allen Poe, the color purple or uninventive offense, the Ravens have you covered.

The Ravens are great for bandwagon fans because you’re not supposed to know the names of their offensive players. They’re just there to keep the field warm for the defense. And since bandwagon fans are already a demographic that is not looked upon fondly by diehards around the league, you’ll have no problem becoming the instant rival of two fanbases—Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

Bandwagon fans of the NFL, the options are there for the taking. As for me, you may have already heard my picks on the podcast earlier this week. If not, here’s who I’m taking in the championship games

Pittsburgh over Baltimore
Philadelphia over Arizona

Yes, I’m forecasting an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl. But don’t worry, you won’t find me riding either one of those bandwagons. Nope, I’m staying out of it and just hoping for close, competitive games the rest of the way.

(OK, and maybe nudging the Cardinals bandwagon just a bit to keep it’s unlikely wheels a-turnin’.

Matt’s 2009 NFL Playoff Predictions Tally
Overall: 5-3

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AFC West Sound Off Response

With the Chargers’ loss on Sunday, the season is over for the AFC West. But Bill Williamson’s AFC West blog forges ahead. As always, Bill had a “Sound Off” question of the week. This time he asked if the Denver Broncos made the right hire by naming Josh McDaniels head coach. To read my thoughts and the responses of others, check out the full post on

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2009 NFL Divisional Playoffs Preview

I didn’t write a column with last weekend’s wild card round picks. It was right after the holidays. I was in a time crunch. Blah blah blah. Anyway, I didn’t write a column, but I posted my usual playoff picks, and I went 3-1.

By not thinking (and writing) too much, I didn’t talk myself into any bad picks. The only game I missed was the Chargers-Colts battle, and that game was the closest of them all, eventually being settled in overtime in favor of San Diego thanks to career nights for backup running back Darren Sproies and punter Mike Scifres.

So, after the silent treatment was successful, I’m doing the obvious—completely abandoning that winning strategy and writing a picks column for the divisional round. I’m feeling good after winning Erie Times-News sports columnist Duane Rankin’s BCS challenge with a clean sweep, 5-0, of the big college bowl games. Now it’s time for me to go pro with the picks for this weekend.

Baltimore Ravens vs. Tennessee Titans
The first team to 10 may very well win this game. These teams play similar grind-it-out styles that depend on their defenses and running games. The primary contrast comes at quarterback. The Ravens will play rookie Joe Flacco. The Titans will start 36-year-old veteran Kerry Collins, whose first playoff start came Jan. 5, 1997. Flacco was 11 years old. Collins hasn’t exactly had a Hall of Fame career, but I think his wisdom and Flacco’s inexperience will be the difference in this one.

My pick: Tennessee 13, Baltimore 3

Arizona Cardinals vs. Carolina Panthers
This game looks to be the biggest mismatch of the weekend. Carolina was 8-0 at home this season, and Arizona was just 3-5 on the road. Plus, the Cardinals may be without Anquan Boldin, allowing the Panthers to put extra attention on Larry Fitzgerald. Expect Kurt Warner to keep it close for a half, but then the Panthers’ will pull away to win going away.

My pick: Carolina 34, Arizona 17

Philadelphia Eagles vs. New York Giants
Last year, the Giants were in the Eagles’ role, heading to Dallas for a divisional round matchup on the road as an underdog. So the Giants won’t be blindsided by Donovan McNabb and company. But they also won’t be fully equipped to beat them. The absence of Plaxico Burress hurt the Giants down the stretch this season, and it will hurt against the Eagles. Their Earth, Wind & Fire running game of Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw should be effective. But with Eli Manning lacking Burress as a deep threat, the passing attack is limited—something that the Eagles’ aggressive blitz scheme should be able to exploit.

My pick: Philadelphia 27, New York 24

San Diego Chargers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
For the second week in a row, the Chargers game looks like the toughest one to pick. My thoughts on this one, re-printed below, were also included on Bill Williamson’s AFC West blog.

Records are irrelevant in the playoffs, so it doesn’t matter that the Chargers are 9-8 and the Steelers are 12-4. Things that do matter? Defense (advantage Steelers, number one in the league). Peaking at the right time (advantage Chargers, winners of five in a row). Injuries (Call it even between Tomlinson?s groin and Roethlisberger?s head). This game has all the makings of a slugfest much like the 11-10 result from earlier this season. And in the past three seasons, the Super Bowl winner has not had a first round bye. While that bodes well for San Diego, no one has been more battle-tested this year than the Steelers. Their rigorous schedule should have them well-prepared for the grind of playoff football. Polamalu picks off Rivers late to seal the deal.

My pick: Steelers 20, Chargers 13.

Matt’s 2009 NFL Playoff Predictions Tally
Overall: 3-1

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Looking Back at 2008 and Ahead at 2009

2008 was a great year for sports. Michael Phelps’ record-setting 8 gold medals highlighted the most exciting Olympic Games of my lifetime, which also included a gold medal for the Redeem Team in Men’s basketball as well as excitement in gymnastics from Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson and on the track from Usain Bolt.

In the NFL, the New England Patriots started the season 18-0 only to lose in one of the most dramatic and surprising Super Bowl outcomes of all-time against Eli Manning and the New York Giants.

The NBA saw the resurgence of its two most storied franchises when the Boston Celtics met the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals, won by Boston in six games.

College sports featured another upset-filled football season that saw a slew of top teams knocked off down the stretch, eventually setting up an LSU vs. Ohio State matchup in the BCS title game, which LSU won handily. And in basketball, Kansas ended the David-and-Goliath-like run of Davidson before upending Memphis thanks to a clutch shot from Mario Chalmers that will be replayed every March from now on.

Major League Baseball featured a season in which the previously-forever-futile Tampa Bay Rays removed the ‘Devil’ and beat out the Evil Empire New York Yankees and their Boston brethren to win the AL East and, eventually, the pennant before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies. For the City of Brotherly Love, it was their first title in the major four sports since 1983.

And in the NHL (yes, hockey reporting on, Sid Crosby grew up as he led his Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals where they fell to the Detroit Red Wings.

Yes, it was a good year for sports—just not for my teams in sports.

Most of my teams failed, plain and simple. But even those that had good seasons ended up breaking my heart.

The Lakers exceeded preseason expectations, but their Finals performance was disastrous—blowing a 24-point lead at home in Game 4 and folding to lose Game 6—and the series—by 39 points. The fact that this happened against archrival Boston was what hurt most of all, though, and all the year’s successes were mitigated by six lackluster games leaving me feeling empty and betrayed.

Likewise, in college hoops, UCLA had a strong season, riding freshman Kevin Love to the Final Four. It was the Bruins’ third straight trip to the Final Four, and with Love filling the void that had seemingly cost them in two previous losses—a formidable presence down low—it seemed like this was the year. But Love shot just 4-11 and Memphis outscored UCLA 40-28 in the second half to pull away for a victory that the Tigers controlled pretty much the whole way.

And if the Lakers and Bruins’ season-ending losses stung, at least they had some wins to get them there. The Raiders finished out the ’08 campaign with back-to-back victories to salvage something from a lost season, but they still finished 5-11, which made them the first team in NFL history to have five seasons in a row with at least 11 losses. They also fired coach Lane Kiffin, making interim Tom Cable the Raiders’ fifth head coach in six years.

Things were no better in the college ranks where Michigan won just three games, lost five games at the Big House, and missed a bowl for the first time since 1974.

In baseball, the A’s weren’t even relevant, and though they’ve been competitive in the decade, have never made a World Series appearance during the Moneyball era.

But 2008 is over, so it’s time to focus on the future.

Here now are 10 predictions, fears and dreams for 2009—five for the sports world at large and five focusing on my teams—the Lakers, Raiders, Michigan, UCLA and the Athletics.


  1. The Raiders will not make it a sixth straight year of 11-or-more losses, but they won’t break the .500 mark either.
  2. Lamar Odom will not be a Laker at the start of the 2009-10 season.
  3. Michigan will play in a bowl game in 2009.
  4. In basketball, Michigan will not only make it to the tournament, they’ll advance to the Sweet 16, further than my other team, UCLA, who will see its run of Final Four appearances snapped by an upset on the first weekend of the tournament.
  5. With a few call-ups to bolster their staff, the A’s will return to the postseason.
  6. Tim Tebow will return to Florida and attempt to become a two-time Heisman and three-time national champion.
  7. With teams aware of his singular talent, Stephon Curry and Davidson will get tripped up in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
  8. LeBron James will supplant Kobe Bryant as NBA MVP.
  9. Tiger Woods will once again be the best golfer, winning two majors. (For the record, that’s hockey and golf in the same post.)
  10. Matt Cassell will start Week 1 for the New England Patriots—not Tom Brady.


  1. Jamarcus Russell fails to develop as a quarterback in 2009, forcing the Raiders to start over (again) at quarterback.
  2. Andrew Bynum will reinjure himself, handicapping the Lakers’ playoff chances again this year.
  3. Terrelle Pryor will be to Michigan what Troy Smith was with the added pain that he almost chose to play for the Wolverines.
  4. Jrue Holiday will follow Kevin Love’s lead and be one-and-done, off to the NBA after his freshman season.
  5. The Angels become the Yankees of the West, leaving Oakland in the dust when it comes to money for free agents.
  6. The Celtics sign Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett wills him to play as well as he did when the two took the Timberwolves to the playoffs in the 90s.
  7. Tom Brady makes a full recovery, and the Patriots regain their 2007 form.
  8. College football signs a 10-year extension to keep the current BCS system in place.
  9. USC’s football team stays focused for a full season.
  10. The Steelers win the Super Bowl, bringing out the annoying droves of fair-weather Steelers fans in all their black and gold glory.


  1. Al Davis sells the Raiders organization to give them a fresh start and a chance to win again.
  2. The Lakers find a way to combine the defense and athleticism of Trevor Ariza, size and three-point shooting of Vladimir Radmanovich, and basketball IQ and passing ability of Luke Walton to form a complete small forward.
  3. Michigan finds a freshman quarterback with the skills to run Rodriguez’s offense and the mind to handle Big Ten defenses.
  4. Michigan re-hangs the banners from the Fab Five’s Final Four appearances.
  5. A prominent free agent spurns the Yankees to sign with the A’s for less money because he prefers the A’s green uniforms to the Yankees’ green.
  6. My team wins a fantasy football championship.
  7. Major League Baseball institutes a salary cap to level the playing field and keep the Yankees in check.
  8. Sportscasters stop pointing out the obvious and provide actual insight.
  9. A Web site develops a jersey shop where you can order any player from any team from any era. My first order? Pooh Richardson circa 1990 with the Minnesota Timberwolves. I don’t know why, but that’s my dream.
  10. The Lakers host (and win) Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Beyonce is the halftime entertainment. And I have courtside seats next to Jack Nicholson to take it all in.

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NFL Playoff Picks

Four road favorites should make for an interesting opening round of the 2009 NFL playoffs. Something tells me that at least one of the road favorites will fall, and it might be the one you least expect.

My picks:

Indianapolis over San Diego
Baltimore over Miami

Arizona over Atlanta
Philadelphia over Minnesota

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2008 NFL Playoff Preview: QBs, Coaches, Defenses

Well, it’s time to face the music. My preseason Super Bowl prediction of New England vs. Dallas is clearly not going to come true. Both teams narrowly missed the playoffs despite posting winning records, including the Patriots, who became the first team since the 1985 Broncos to miss the playoffs with an 11-5 record.

In all, I predicted just five of the 12 playoff teams correctly. I correctly picked division winners New York and Minnesota in the NFC as well as Pittsburgh and San Diego in the AFC. I also had Indianapolis in as the AFC South winner, and they qualified as a wild card.

My biggest misses? Well, there were quite a few. I had playoff-bound Baltimore slated at 2-14. Ditto for the rejuvenated Falcons, who claimed the number five seed in the NFC. I also had the Dolphins, winners of the AFC East, pegged at 3-13. On the flipside, I picked the lowly Rams to win their division at 9-7 and gave the Lions enough credit to win seven games this year, which equates to seven more than they actually won. I was close with the Raiders, though, as they fell only a game short of my 6-10 projection.

Now that all is said and done, I get a fresh start to make a mess of things with playoff picks. It starts with a wild card weekend that I believe will live up to its name. Yes, I see big things for the wild card qualifiers playing on the road against shaky division winners.

But I’ll save my predictions for later this week. For now, here’s a rundown of three key categories heading into the postseason: quarterbacks, coaches and defenses. The team with the best combination at these key spots may very well wind up celebrating February 1.

Four have Super Bowl rings (both Mannings, Roethlisberger and Warner). Three others have played in the big game (McNabb, Collins, Delhomme). And three will be making their playoff debuts (Ryan, Flacco, Jackson). Here’s my rankings of the 12 quarterbacks that will vie for Super Bowl XLIII.

  1. Peyton Manning
    He may be the NFL MVP this season for the way he bounced back from offseason surgery and a slow start to help the Colts win nine straight heading into the playoffs.

  2. Ben Roethlisberger
    He’ll have two weeks to recover from a Week 17 concussion against Cleveland. That should be enough time to get on of the NFL’s toughest quarterbacks ready for a run at a second Super Bowl ring.

  3. Eli Manning
    Few quarterbacks have altered perceptions about themselves the way Eli did last year during the Giants’ Super Bowl run. That performance against New England makes him a favorite to return to the big game this year.

  4. Philip Rivers
    Don’t look at the Chargers’ 8-8 record. Look at Rivers’ league-leading 34 touchdown passes. He’s the reason San Diego is still playing during LaDainian Tomlinson’s worst season.

  5. Donavon McNabb
    He doesn’t use his legs the way he used to, but McNabb has veteran savvy and his best receiving corps since the departure of Terrell Owens.

  6. Kurt Warner
    The Cardinals fell off the map late in the season, but Warner still had his best season since he was a Ram. If his line can keep him protected, he will make defenses pay by hooking up with the best receiving tandem in the NFL, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.

  7. Matt Ryan
    Can a rookie QB be MVP? Fans in Atlanta certainly think so. No one’s talking about Michael Vick anymore, and that is saying something. Now Ryan has to do what no Falcons quarterback has done since Vick—win in the playoffs.

  8. Chad Pennington
    He beat Brett and the Jets to finish the storybook ending to the regular season for the Dolphins, but if Pennington’s story is going to keep going, he’ll have to overcome a swarming Baltimore defense in round one.

  9. Kerry Collins
    The doubters are back after Collins’ Titans limped to a 3-3 finish after a 10-0 start. Still, he is the quarterback of the team with home field advantage in the AFC. And he brings experience, having led the Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000 and played in the 1996 NFC Championship with Carolina.

  10. Joe Flacco
    The second rookie on this list, Flacco is well on his way to giving the Ravens their first franchise quarterback in a long line of journeyman and busts that included Trent Dilfer (who did win a Super Bowl), Elvis Grbac, Tony Banks, Chris Redman and Kyle Boller.

  11. Jake Delhomme
    No one may have a more game-changing weapon to throw to than Delhomme, who has Steve Smith, but Tommy John surgery success story has had an up and down season. And inconsistency is a killer in the postseason. One bad game—even one bad quarter—can be the difference between moving on and being eliminated. If Delhomme can conjure up the magic he found during his one Super Bowl appearance, however, look for Carolina to return to the big game.

  12. Tavaris Jackson
    He was benched after two games in favor of Gus Frerotte, only to be recalled down the stretch. He’ll now get his first taste of playoff action against a blitz-happy Eagles defense. His best bet is to hand it to Adrian Peterson 30-35 times and get out of the way.

Among coaches still active this season, only two have won the Super Bowl (Dungy, Coughlin). Three others have coached a team in the big game (Fisher, Fox, Reid). And five coaches will make their playoff coaching debut (Smith, Sparano, Harbaugh, Childress, Whisenhunt).

  1. Tony Dungy
    Whether in Tampa Bay or Indianapolis, he’s always in the playoffs. His postseason record, however, is a surprisingly mediocre 9-9.

  2. Tom Coughlin
    The reigning Super Bowl championship coach has home field advantage this time around. He’s done a great job keeping the Giants focused through adversity this season as in the past.

  3. Jeff Fisher
    The late-season losses have many wondering about the Titans’ postseason prospects, but Fisher is one of the best in the business, and I’d be shocked if this team wasn’t ready to play in two weeks when they host the lowest remaining seed in the AFC.

  4. John Fox
    From a last-second touchdown catch in Week 1 to a last second field goal in Week 17, the Panthers have been high drama. Credit Fox for making the right moves to help this team win the ultra competitive NFC South.

  5. Mike Tomlin
    One of the best young coaches in the league, Tomlin is a no-nonsense guy who clearly has a lot of trust in his team and a lot of respect from his players.

  6. Andy Reid
    Reid saved his job with a playoff-clinching win against Dallas, but a first-round stumble could put him back on the hot seat.

  7. Mike Smith
    One of three first-year head coaches in the running for Coach of the Year, Smith spearheaded an unbelievable turnaround for a franchise that was mired in turmoil last year. Bobby Petrino’s short-lived stint in Atlanta seems like it happened eons ago thanks to Smith’s fine work.

  8. Tony Sparano
    Under the tutelage of Bill Parcells, Sparano has been excellent in his first season as head coach.

  9. John Harbaugh
    Another first-year coach, Harbaugh has Baltimore playing well and exceeding expectations.

  10. Brad Childress
    Questionable game and clock management nearly cost Childress the chance to coach his first playoff game.

  11. Norv Turner
    Give him credit for keeping the Chargers ship afloat after a 4-8 start, but this team should be well over .500.

  12. Ken Whisenhunt
    No team entered the playoffs with less momentum than the Cardinals, who dropped four of their last six games. It also doesn’t help that Whisenhunt’s team went just 1-4 against playoff teams this year.

These defensive rankings aren’t based on stats, but this is my opinion of which defenses are the best heading into the postseason.

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers
    Troy Polamalu may be the most dangerous defensive player in the playoffs, and he’s the quarterback of the Steelers’ stout defense.

  2. Tennessee Titans
    Albert Haynesworh and Kyle Vanden Bosch give the Titans one of the most devastating defensive lines in football. If they’re both healthy, it’ll be extremely tough to move the ball against Tennessee.

  3. Baltimore Ravens
    The Ravens have a swarming defense led by playmakers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

  4. New York Giants
    Despite losing Michael Strahan (retirement) and Osi Umenyiora (injury) from their Super Bowl squad, the Giants’ defense remained strong throughout the season.

  5. Minnesota Vikings
    Jared Allen gives Minnesota a lethal pass rusher to go with one of the league’s best run derenses.

  6. Carolina Panthers
    Julius Peppers is back to Pro Bowl form this year, and that spells trouble for Panther opponents.

  7. Indianapolis Colts
    A healthy Bob Sanders could be the key to another Colts Super Bowl run. The NFL’s 2007 Defensive Player of the Year has played in just six games this season and has played in more than six games only twice in his five year career.

  8. Philadelphia Eagles
    Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is one of the best at dialing up blitz packages, and veteran safety Brian Dawkins seems determined to make a run at that elusive Super Bowl ring.

  9. Miami Dolphins
    Joey Porter is the emotional leader of this revamped Dolphins defense.

  10. Atlanta Falcons
    Atlanta’s defense is suspect at times, but veteran pass rusher John Abraham is always a threat to sack the quarterback.

  11. San Diego Chargers
    In the absence of Shawne Merriman, the Chargers’ defense has been a shell of its former self this season.

  12. Arizona Cardinals
    This list isn’t about stats, but here’s one for you. Not only does Arizona have the worst defense among the 12 playoff teams—they have the fifth worst scoring defense in the entire league.

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