Thursday, January 08, 2009

NFL Divisional Playoffs Pre-Game Analysis: Arizona at Carolina

Arizona Do’s and Don’t’s:

Do follow Edge's hot hand. He and Kurt Warner have legit playoff experience, and Edge proved that he is still a force to be reckoned with last week. Carolina's run D may be better than Atlanta's, but a committment to the run helps out the aged Warner.

Do stack 7 men in the box on defense. Yes, this is a repeat from last week, but it worked against Michael "Burner" Turner, and the Panthers have an incredible two-headed beast in the running game. If both DeAngelo and The Daily Show are stymied early, John Fox may panic and become too reliant on Jake Delhomme.

Do pray for Anquan Boldin's health. Yes, Steve Breaston is a capabable WR2 ... but he's no Quan. Plus, Boldin was a bright spot in the regular season matchup against the Panthers, where he caught 9 passes for 63 yards and 2 TDs and had a 30 yard scamper on his sole rushing attempt. And that was just his first game back from his earlier injuries.

Don’t be afraid to use Kurt Warner's arm this week. Warner torched the Carolina secondary for 381 yards in the first game, and probably can get near that total again if Boldin plays. I may dog Warner from time to time, but he does have the playoff wisdom and experience, and it would be smart to rely on him here ... just as he relies on his Depends.

Don’t let Jake Delhomme get comfortable. Remember, this is the guy that only managed 72 passing yards against Oakland and only 102 yards against Detroit. He only threw 3 more TDs than INTs on the season. In other words, his mistakes are your keys to winning ... period.

Do’s and Don’t’s:

Do knock the stuffing out of Kurt Warner. Atlanta didn't listen to me and see what happened to them. Put grandpa on his derrier early and often, or at least hurry him before Fitzgerald and Co. have time to break free in the secondary.

Do what you do best ... run the damn ball. Yes, it's a simplistic point, but a key one. Atlanta only ran the ball 24 times (including 4 rushes by Matt Ryan) compared with 40 passing attempts. You will lose 7/10 playoff games if you stick to that math. Even if the run sputters early, stay committed to it. If you can achieve the same 29-rush/28-pass balance that you had in the regular season, you'll be in the NFC Championship Game next weekend.

Do get the crowd involved early. Arizona thrived off its fans cheers last week ... at least that's what Cris Collinsworth kept telling me. So if fan cheers can motivate Arizona's D to play above its potential, logic dictates that negative fan reactions (read: BOOO's) should make them play like the team that gave up 56 points to the Jets.

Don’t forget to feed DE Charles Johnson his Wheaties before the game. The relatively quiet lineman notched 2 sacks and a forced fumble in the Week 8 contest. It will take efforts from all members of the defense to stop the potentially high-powered Cardinals offense, just like it did 11 weeks ago.

Don’t be too afraid to rely on Jake Delhomme. He may not be the same QB who took you to the Super Bowl where you got to see Janet Jackson's boobie, and he may have struggled against teams like the Lions (the LIONS!?!?!?) this season, but he can put on a show when necessary. Just build up his confidence early with a few simple passes, and he'll remember that he's kind of a big deal.

Key Matchups:

When Arizona has the ball
OTs Levi Brown & Mike Gandy vs. DEs Charles Johnson and Julius Peppers
As I noted above, and as I've noted every time I've spoken about Kurt Warner, if he gets time he's a beast to the other team, but if he's rushed/hurried then he's a beast to his own team. Johnson had solid success against Levi Brown in Week 8, but Peppers was limited to just 3 tackles, no sacks and no passes defensed by Gandy. If the OTs can limit these defensive linemen to a max of 1 sack and only a handful of hurries, the Cardinals should do well.

When Carolina has the ball
RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart vs. OLB Karlos Dansby
Maybe I'm slighting the Arizona D-Line a bit (I hereby give you permission to use this as bulletin board material) since that unit did a lot to stop Michael Turner last week. However, Karlos Dansby scored 8 tackles (6 solo), 3 of which were for a loss. Working against Dansby's favor is that the Panthers have two reliable running backs, thereby enabling them to keep their RB fresh while Dansby will grow tired as the game goes on. Working in Dansby's favor is the Week 8 game where he logged 9 tackles (6 solo), a sack and a forced fumble. This should be good.


Jet Lag
0-5. That's Arizona's record in road games outside the NFC West. This team just does not travel well outside its time zone. I will give Coach Whisenhunt props for trying to be creative this year by opting to stay on the East Coast between his team's games against the Redskins and Jets. Of course, that resulted in giving up 56 points to the Jets and losing Anquan Boldin for a few weeks ... but it was creative. The Cardinals need to get past the mental road block against their East Coast slide, or else this game is already over.

Both teams had some impressive wins this season. Carolina can look to its crushing of Denver, the Week 1 squeaker against San Diego, and can even take some pride in its loss in the slobberknocker of a game against the Giants. Arizona takes pride in its demolishing of Buffalo (in the first half of the season when the Bills were still good), its quality early season win against Dallas, and decent performances against the Giants and Panthers. However, each team also had some mind-boggling games as well. Carolina has to deal with the thrashing handed out by Tampa Bay in Week 6, the 17-point loss to Atlanta in Week 12, and the fact that they only beat Detroit by 9-points. Arizona, of course, got "blowed out" by the Jets, the Vikings, and the Patriots. The time for inconsistent play is gone, it's the playoffs.

Final Score Prediction:
Carolina wins, 31-23.

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