Thursday, January 2
Bring on the second season
By John Madden
Here is my look at Wild Card weekend.
Chad Pennington became their starting quarterback early in the season and that was a great move. He came in and sort of changed things around with the team. He's had success, and the team's had success, and confidence comes with success. That's what New York has now. When you get a new quarterback in there, like Pennington, who's never really played and you aren't exactly sure how he's going to do, you kind of watch and say, "Jeez, he's pretty good." Pennington was that kind of quarterback and you just get the feeling that everyone's feeding off of him.
The Jets have other things, too. They have a good offensive line, a great running back in Curtis Martin and their defense has played well, led by John Abraham. You tend to look at this team and think that Pennington's doing it all by himself, but obviously that's not true. He's got the running game and he's got good receivers with guys like Laveranues Coles and Wayne Chrebet. New York has a pretty good package there.
And in watching the Jets, not only are they pretty good now, but they're going to be pretty good for a while. Some teams get into the playoffs and they're good that year and then they disappear. Chicago was like that. They made the playoffs last year, but then they didn't do anything this season. Other teams, though, turn things around and get into the playoffs and look like they're going to be here for a while, and I kind of feel that way about New York.
With the Colts, you can get anything. You just don't know what to expect from them. There are times when quarterback Peyton Manning is real hot, especially when the Colts get their running game going because he play-passes so well off of that. Marvin Harrison is also one of the top wide receivers in football and he catches everything thrown his way. He can do a lot of things to a defense.
But the defense is the problem with this team. The Colts have always been a threat offensively, but they've never fixed their defense. Indianapolis can score on you, but you can score on them.
The big thing is if you score on them first. You want to take their running game away because that takes away the play-action pass. And if you can get ahead, they have a tough time playing uphill, and any team would have a tough time playing that way. By getting ahead, especially in the second half -- and specifically in the fourth quarter -- you take their running game away and then you can just go after Manning. And you can get ahead on them because their defense isn't a shutdown, shutout type of defense.
Atlanta Falcons at Green Bay Packers (ABC, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)
Favre and Vick are two guys that you would just pay to watch play. Favre's always been one of my favorite players, and Vick has had a great season in his first year as Atlanta's starting quarterback. He started just two games as a rookie in 2001, but he really took off this season. As I've said before, he might be the fastest player in the league -- and he's a quarterback. And because he's a quarterback, he always has the ball in his hands and that's a tough deal right there for a defense.
You knew that Vick was going to be something special from the day he came into the NFL. He can throw, and he can run and he can run fast. You knew it would just be a matter of time, but you didn't know when that time would be. Well, he's in his second season and that time is now. He's just a lot of fun to watch, and the Falcons are a team that can score on you quickly.
Favre is the Green Bay Packers and he's what makes that team go. He's a nose tackle in a quarterback's body, and it will be interesting to see how Atlanta's defense tries to handle him this weekend.
Look for my complete preview of the Falcons-Packers game on ALLMADDEN.com
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
They have a pretty good defense and a solid running game with rookie William Green. He's played really well since mid-November after a slow start. Holcomb can make the throws and Cleveland's not out of it just because it's lost its regular starting quarterback.
I do think that the Steelers are one of the better teams in the league, though. They can give you the run with Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue, and Tommy Maddox looks like he's back and playing some good football after getting hurt on Nov. 17. He started out playing real well after replacing Kordell Stewart early in the season, but then he had that spinal concussion injury against Tennessee. In his first game back, he didn't look that good, but he looked a little bit better in his second game. He seems to be back to normal now.
The big thing in the Steelers' offense besides the running game is the threat of wide receiver Plaxico Burress. Since Maddox came in there, he's gone to Burress on the weak side and Burress makes a lot of big plays for him. They still have Hines Ward, who caught over 100 passes this season, and rookie Antwaan Randle El, too. There are a lot of playmakers on offense. And then they play tough defense, and when they get ahead the tougher that defense gets.
Pittsburgh, with its combination of offense, defense and playing at home is going to be tough for the Browns. But these two teams know each other, and usually when you have that, it's a pretty good game and that's what I expect on Sunday.
New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers (Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET)
Now the Giants have to go on the road to 3Com Park, and they've won some big games there before. I remember the NFC championship game at the end of the 1990 season when they beat San Francisco and then went on to win the Super Bowl in Tampa. Erik Howard, New York's nose tackle at the time, made a heckuva play and caused a fumble by Roger Craig with just over two minutes left in the game. Lawrence Taylor recovered the ball and that set up a game-winning field goal for the Giants by Matt Bahr. Boy, that was some game at then-Candlestick Park.
The 49ers come into this game off of a short week because they played in St. Louis on Monday night. They have a short week to get ready, and losing to the Rams was not such a bad thing.
They may have lost cornerback Jason Webster, though, because of an ankle injury. I don't know how bad it is, but those things are always tough. You don't have enough good corners anyway, and that's a tough thing when you lose your corner the week of a playoff game. It will be important for that defense to have him on Sunday.
Yes, the 49ers lost to St. Louis, but they looked very sharp offensively and defensively in the first half. Quarterback Jeff Garcia only played one series, but it was a heckuva series. At that time, they were without two of their starting offensive linemen in Ron Stone and Derrick Deese, and they were without wide receiver Terrell Owens, who didn't play because of a groin injury. Garcia did play, however, and in that first half, San Francisco looked playoff ready.
Owens didn't play in his team's last two games, but he's OK. He's healthy and he'll be the biggest concern for New York's defense. The Giants will play the run OK, and the 49ers will bang some runs in there on them, and Garcia will run around, but if San Francisco's going to strike and make big plays, it's going to come from Owens.
Playing in San Francisco, this is going to be a good game and I can see this one going down to a kicker winning it, and the 49ers' stadium is a kicker-killer. You have the wind and the wet field and it's just a tough place to kick in. If it gets tight -- and I can see it being a tight game -- then it could get down to the kicking at the end, and whoever's able to do that will probably win the game.