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Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Wild, Wildcard Contenders

By week fifteen, we've separated early season pretenders (Giants, Broncos) from the contenders (Vikings, Colts, Saints). With the exception of the AFC and NFC East, six of the league's eight divisions are virtually locked up. There's still plenty left to play for in the final three weeks of the NFL regular season with multiple second tier teams scrambling to snag one of the coveted wildcard spots.

Recent history suggests wildcard teams are legit Superbowl contenders, we've had four (97 Broncos, 00 Ravens, 05 Steelers, 07 Giants) hoist the trophy in the last twelve years. Let's take a look at this year's likely wildcard teams and weigh their chances to be the latest unlikely wildcard champion.

Baltimore Ravens (7-6, 2-4 road)
Red flag: The road record is an obvious deterrent because the path to Superbowl 44 is obviously not going to go through Baltimore. After an impressive early road victory at San Diego, the Ravens lone road win came in week ten at the lowly Browns. Quarterback Joe Flacco has regressed after a promising start and the defense is no longer the disruptive force it once was.

There's hope because: Still, the Ravens had the misfortune of playing at Indy, Green Bay, Minnesota, New England, AND San Diego all in the same season and lost every game by less than a touchdown, often in heartbreaking fashion. A two-point loss at Indy and a miracle fourth quarter comeback by Minnesota proved the Ravens are capable of winning on the road against the top contenders in both conferences. Don't forget the league's leader in yards from scrimmage, Ray Rice. Rice is a force the Ravens can ride throughout the playoffs it Flacco can return to his mistake-free self from the beginning of the season.

Bottom line: The defense may not be what it once was but it's still among the top five in the NFL. If Ray Lewis and company can force turnovers and win the field position battle this is still a dangerous team.

Denver Broncos (8-5, 4-3 road)
Red Flag: OK, so I already tabbed them as "pretenders" earlier. Here's why: in the second half of the season, Josh McDaniels' squad has been crushed at Indy, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. Don't forget the 34-3 home shellacking by the San Diego Chargers either. With the exception of Pittsburgh, these are the exact same teams the Broncos will have to face to make it to the Superbowl. While they've shown signs of snapping out of their second half funk, it's quite the stretch to believe they can put together a miraculous string of road victories over the powerhouses of the AFC.

There's hope because: The 00 Ravens, 05 Steelers, 07 Giants were all built around their suffocating defenses, right? While the Broncos D has fallen off it's league leading first half pace they can still overwhelm teams with both young (DE Elvis Dumerveil) and veteran (DBs Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins) defensive talent. They'll need too ride their talented tandem backfield (RBs Knowshown Moreno and Correll Buckhalter) and hope that Orton can move the chains on 3rd down to Brandon Marshall.

Bottom line: This was supposed to be, hands down, the worst team in the NFL this season. They've overachieved magnificently but beyond one wildcard weekend win, their end will run.

Green Bay Packers: 9-4 (4-2 Road)
Red Flag: Every NFL historian knows that Lambeau offers the most unique home field advantage in the league. While the Packers will likely host wild card weekend, the road from there is treacherous. Cheeseheads will likely have to follow their team through (in no particular order) the Metrodome in Minneapolis and the Superdome in New Orleans, not exactly the ideal climate for the Packers to demoralize their opponents with their cold weather immunity. Division rival Minnesota's young wideouts exposed the Pack's defensive backs in both lopsided meetings this season,

There's hope because: The Packers are peaking at the perfect time, winners of five straight including victories over the Bengals, Cowboys, and Ravens. After a porous start, the offensive line has finally begun to gel and protect their unquestioned offensive MVP, QB Aaron Rodgers. CB Charles Woodson is a frontrunner for defensive player of the year and they're going to need him to back it up against the likes of Favre and Brees in the postseason.

Bottom line: This is a team that has matured and come together nicely. The problem remains that everything they do, the Saints and Vikings do better. They've looked vastly inferior in both meetings versus the Vikes this year so they better hope they can avoid a third meeting.

Dallas Cowboys: 8-5 (3-3 Road)
Red Flag: I don't buy the December Dallas curse theory and I don't think the Cowboys do either. This is a difficult team to figure out because they are stacked with talent on both sides of the ball. The problem is they never seem to show up on the same day. The pass defense (21st in the league) needs to improve and the neck injury of DE Demarcus Ware could prove to be catastrophic. This team needs to work on its consistency and that falls squarely on the shoulders of head coach Wade Phillips. If the boys in blue go one and out in the postseason, expect Jerry Jones to send Phillips fishing this offseason.

There's hope because: As I write this, the Cowboys are dismantling the undefeated Saints in the Superdome. No one should be surprised. The Cowboys have championship talent at every skill position and this is the kind of win that can work as the perfect springboard to boost their confidence going into the playoffs. The postseason is all about momentum, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Eagles falter and the Cowboys take the NFC East, furthering their chances as a potential darkhorse.

Bottom line: Tony Romo will have yet another opportunity to silence his critics. It'll take a balanced team effort to trade punches with the heavyweights in the NFC and they'll have to do it on the road. Not a likely scenario, but I wouldn't be shocked if they manage to take out New Orleans again.


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