Saints, Vikings: Can you stand the heat?
Cardinals, Cowboys' offenses will be too hot to handle in NFC divisional round
The NFC wild-card round began Saturday with the Dallas Cowboys' rout of the Philadelphia Eagles and ended Sunday with the Arizona Cardinals' heart-stopping overtime escape from the Green Bay Packers' clutches.
Can the NFC divisional round continue the upward trend?
We've got the top two seeds in the mix now as the No. 1 New Orleans Saints are home to the Cardinals and the No. 2 Minnesota Vikings play host to the Cowboys. While the hosts hope rust has not set in during their byes, the visitors seem to be heating up at the right time. All this means we need to answer a few questions before heading into next weekend's matchups.
Here are 10 of them:
1. Can Minnesota beat Dallas without Adrian Peterson being a major factor?
No. For all the success the Vikings have enjoyed with the addition of quarterback Brett Favre, Peterson is still the man who makes this offense go. As proof, just look at what happened to Minnesota in its two worst losses of the season. Peterson didn't do anything in a 30-17 defeat at Arizona (19 yards on 13 carries) and he was equally invisible in a 26-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers (35 yards on 12 carries). It's one thing if the Vikings are simply taking what the defense gives them. But if that approach leads to the league's top running back becoming an afterthought, then something is dreadfully wrong. If Peterson can't crack the 100-yard mark -- which he hasn't done in his past seven games -- the Vikings will struggle with an extremely hot Dallas defense.
2. Should Dallas be worried about the status of running back Marion Barber against Minnesota?
Barber's health will not be a huge concern if Felix Jones keeps running the way he did while gaining a career-high 148 yards in the Cowboys' 34-14 wild-card victory over Philadelphia. The problem is that backs like Jones generally don't have much success against a tough run defense like Minnesota's. The runners who have given the Vikings more trouble this season have been more physical types like St. Louis' Steven Jackson (84 yards) and Carolina's Jonathan Stewart (109). So if a banger like Barber won't be available -- a knee injury limited him to only three carries against the Eagles -- the Cowboys won't be nearly as balanced as they were a week ago.
3. Will a week away from practice help or hurt Minnesota against Dallas?
Vikings head coach Brad Childress made the right call by giving his team an extensive break this past week. For one thing, the Vikings have too many key players who are trying to get healthy, including guard Steve Hutchinson (shoulder, back), defensive tackle Pat Williams (elbow), tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (turf toe) and cornerback Antoine Winfield (who's still getting over a fractured right foot). Minnesota also needs to recharge itself mentally after dropping three of its past five games to end the regular season. True, there can be a lapse in concentration following these kinds of decisions. But it's likelier that the Vikings will return to the field with a sharper focus.
4. Which NFC player could be a surprise hero in this round of the playoffs?
Consider Shiancoe. He played well enough to earn Pro Bowl alternate status (56 receptions for 566 yards) and he's a nightmare for defenses in the red zone (11 touchdowns). He's also the kind of athletic tight end who could make a defense pay for focusing too much attention on Peterson and wide receivers Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin. Granted, the Cowboys have a done a great job of shutting down top tight ends like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates this season. But Dallas also can't take away every option in an offense as diverse as this. Don't be surprised if Shiancoe becomes the beneficiary of that reality.
5. How excited should the Cowboys be about wide receiver Roy E. Williams these days?
Remember, you're talking about a guy who had only six receptions in his last four regular-season games. So even though Williams had modest numbers in that win over Philadelphia (five receptions for 59 yards), the mere fact that he contributed has to make Dallas coaches ecstatic. The more plays Williams and fellow wide receiver Patrick Crayton make, the more it eases the burden on Pro Bowl wideout Miles Austin. Williams hasn't lived up to the investment Dallas made in him, a price that included three draft picks in a trade with Detroit and a five-year, $45 million contract. But he still has enough talent to help this team make a Super Bowl run. His wild-card game against Philadelphia might have been the start of a solid postseason.
6. How big a deal should we be making of the Saints' three-game losing streak?
We can see New Orleans has problems. But the only game that was really troubling in their late-season slump was their 20-17 overtime loss to Tampa Bay. You can explain away the defeat to Dallas as a hungry team coming into New Orleans and earning a win critical to its playoff hopes. You can make sense of that season-ending loss to Carolina because the Saints were resting key starters. What you can't do is dismiss blowing a 17-0 lead at home against the Bucs -- a team that came into that game with two victories -- and eventually losing. That game told us one key thing: Anybody can win in the Superdome. And you can bet the Cardinals are thinking exactly that as they prepare for this game.
7. What's the key to New Orleans regaining its mojo?
Starting fast. The Saints didn't have any major weaknesses when they opened the season with 13 consecutive wins. But as soon as they became less prolific on offense, the more flaws started appearing on a defense that currently ranks 25th in total yards allowed (357.8) and 20th in points allowed (21.3). It's not likely that the Saints can fix those problems quickly. What they can do is regain the explosiveness against a Cardinals defense that just gave up 45 points in a win over Green Bay on Sunday. An early lead would help ease the pressure on a defense that has been consistently riddled by quarterbacks and pounded by runners of late. Keeping that defense on the field -- especially against an offense as dangerous as Arizona's -- spells all sorts of trouble for the Saints.
8. Are we still underestimating the Cardinals?
I know I'm guilty of that. As exciting as their 51-45 overtime victory over Green Bay was Sunday, what can't be lost in the afterglow is that Arizona won without injured star receiver Anquan Boldin. In his absence, the Cardinals got huge plays from Steve Breaston (seven receptions, 125 yards and one touchdown) and Early Doucet (six receptions, 77 yards and two touchdowns). They displayed the kind of heart that showed up in last year's postseason. OK, so the defense was an issue. But this is the same team that thumped Minnesota earlier this season and also had the NFC's second-best road record (6-2). They're going to be a tough out.
9. How much do reports of Kurt Warner's possible retirement help the Cardinals?
Judging from Warner's stellar showing against the Packers, those reports aren't hurting anything Arizona is trying to do. Warner completed 29 of 33 passes for 379 yards and five touchdowns. He didn't throw an interception against a defense that led the league in that category. He basically played like a man who is not going to waste his last shot at another Super Bowl ring. In fact, it's hard to think Warner hasn't inspired his teammates with the talk that this could be his last run. It's also just as likely that those same players want to help him go out on top.
10. Two weeks from now, who will be playing in the NFC Championship Game?
The Cowboys still seem like the best team in the NFC these days. Meanwhile, the Cardinals just beat the team that appeared capable of making a long postseason run. So it appears Dallas owner Jerry Jones might want to start making party plans, because his team is going to be playing host to Arizona for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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