Close calls likely over weekend
By BARRY WILNER
AP Football Writer
Anyone who gets the feeling the NFC playoffs are vastly more wide open than the AFC probably is right. All six teams, including the four playing this weekend in wild-card games, seem capable of making the Super Bowl.
Not so for the AFC, where the two clubs on byes, Indianapolis and San Diego, look like the true cream of the crop.
Everything gets started with a rematch of last Sunday night's Meadowlands debacle, when the Jets routed the Bengals, 37-0, to grab the final playoff spot. Tonight, another replay has Philadelphia at Dallas six days after the Cowboys blanked the Eagles, 24-0, to win the NFC East.
Tomorrow has Baltimore at New England, a rematch of an Oct. 4 victory by the Patriots, and Green Bay at Arizona, one week after the Packers romped, 33-7 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
BALTIMORE (PLUS 4) AT NEW ENGLAND
Losing Wes Welker to a major knee injury last weekend will crimp the Patriots' offense, which can expect double-teams on Randy Moss every play. If the Ravens don't do that, they deserve to get beaten by the playmaker.
Tom Brady will have to look elsewhere quite often, which could mean many catches for the tight ends and running backs. Julian Edelman was a nice substitute for Welker when the veteran was hobbled earlier in the season, but can the rookie handle the big stage? Brady will expect him to.
Baltimore impressed throughout last year's playoffs behind a rookie QB, Joe Flacco, and a staunch defense. The Ravens won twice on the road, then lost at Pittsburgh in a brutal AFC championship game.
This year's Ravens aren't quite so physical or dangerous defensively, so their key player will be versatile running back Ray Rice. Bill Belichick often finds ways to shut down opponent's stars.
But it will be tight.
BEST BET: PATRIOTS, 20-17
GREEN BAY (PLUS 1 1/2) AT ARIZONA
Quite likely, this will be the most fun game, especially for anyone who likes a shootout. Both sides are well-equipped for high-scoring games, from Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin on the Arizona side to Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and Ryan Grant for Green Bay.
Yet each team has improved drastically on defense, sparked by big-play guys. Packers CB Charles Woodson has been as dominant as any defender in the league, and Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett is a monster up front.
Both sides are playoff-tested, although Warner has a huge experience edge over Rodgers.
The Packers went 5-4 on the road, while the Cardinals were just 4-4 at home.
UPSET SPECIAL: PACKERS, 30-28
N.Y. JETS (PLUS 1) AT CINCINNATI
Don't put too much stock in what happened last Sunday, because Bengals 1,000-yard rusher Cedric Benson and strong DT Domata Peko didn't play. Cincinnati should be a lot more interested, too — a chance for higher seeding had no effect against the desperate Jets last time.
The Bengals need to run effectively inside, because the Jets cut down the flanks with their aggressive defenders. And they must find a passing attack even if Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis shuts down Chad Ochocinco again.
For New York, the word is conservatism. As long as the game is close or the Jets are in front, Thomas Jones will carry the load. He's very capable.
Cincinnati has to force the Jets to throw, making rookie Mark Sanchez win it.
The Bengals were 6-2 at home; New York was 5-3 on the road.
PHILADELPHIA (PLUS 3 1/2) AT DALLAS
Dallas stepped up in December and early January. Now it's time for the Cowboys to show they can roll in the postseason.
Having swept the Eagles in the regular season, the Cowboys should carry tons of confidence into this one. They have found their stride on offense with Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Miles Austin and that three-pronged running attack. The defense has been punishing lately — just ask all those Eagles who were manhandled a week ago.
So this will be another rout, right? Uh, no. Not at all.
In fact, Philly is among the best NFL teams at making adjustments, and will find a way to unleash its young offensive threats: DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, Brent Celek, Jeremy Maclin. The defense must be far more secure in its tackling and coverage, and is capable of that — particularly if its variety of blitzes are effective.
Another close one.
Versus spread, 6-7 (106-127-3 season); Straight up, 13-3 (170-76 season)
Best Bet: 6-11
Upset Special: 10-7