The Saints’ 13-3 record earned them home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, and they are 6½-point favorites against the Cardinals. But the Saints struggled down the stretch, not coming close to the form of the first half of the schedule and losing their final three games.
They’ve said all the right things about being ready when the biggest games come, and now it’s time to put up.
Certainly the Cardinals put up last week: 51 points against Green Bay. The problem was they allowed 45 and were forced to overtime to get the victory.
Arizona’s defense isn’t quite as bad as Aaron Rodgers and his receivers made it appear. Then again, as strong as Green Bay can be with the ball, Drew Brees and the Saints are better.
Kurt Warner’s history of success in the postseason is exemplary, and he passed for five touchdowns last week. Warner did so against a far superior defense to what New Orleans has.
Plus, the Cardinals have developed a nice complement with their running game, thanks greatly to rookie Beanie Wells.
It all adds up to another scoring frenzy, although not quite on the record pace of last week in the Valley of the Sun.
UPSET SPECIAL: CARDINALS, 38-35
The Cowboys stormed into the playoffs, something new for them after more than a decade of disappointment. Their consecutive romps over Philadelphia to win the NFC East and then take a wild-card game should have everyone’s attention — particularly Minnesota’s.
Dallas matches up well with the Vikings, especially with QB Tony Romo apparently having shaken his big-game jitters. The offense has become multifaceted, with the speed of WR Miles Austin and RB Felix Jones making them game-breakers. On defense, the Cowboys have become more physical while remaining quick to the ball.
Minnesota, like New Orleans, was no world-beater in December, and Brett Favre hasn’t been sharp. But the main area of weakness is a secondary that could have extreme trouble with Dallas’ versatile passing game.
BEST BET: COWBOYS, 24-20
The Colts placed themselves in the difficult position of needing to win it all to validate this season when they rested Peyton Manning and other regulars with a potential 16-0 record in the works. A matchup with the physical, run-oriented Ravens is not the perfect way for Indy to open its postseason.
Baltimore was so impressive in manhandling the Patriots and handing Tom Brady his first playoff defeat at home — and only home loss of the season — that some observers believe the 6½ points is far too generous.
It probably is too high, but the Ravens will need more from quarterback Joe Flacco and their special teams in this one. Weather won’t be a factor, Manning and his buddies are rested and healthier, and they are on a mission in which they can’t afford any slips.
Rex Ryan’s guys have become true believers in their coach’s optimistic approach: Ryan claims the Jets should be favored to win the Super Bowl. The Jets, including rookie running back Shonn Greene and rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, looked like anything but playoff novices at Cincinnati. Once again, the defense was staunch, which is the key for the Jets.
But they dominated a one-dimensional Bengals team, and the Chargers, winners of 11 straight, are anything but limited on offense. Star cornerback Darrelle Revis can’t cover everyone in San Diego’s deep receiving corps — at least we don’t think he can — and no quarterback is hotter than Philip Rivers.
The Jets will need to open it up when they have the ball to keep up with charging San Diego, and that won’t work.
Versus spread, 1-3 (107-130-3 season); Straight up, 0-4 (170-80 season)
Best Bet: 6-12
Upset Special: 10-8