Pre-Game Meal: Wild-Card Weekend

As of Satruday, the 12 teams that are still playing football in the NFL all have the same record: 0-0. A brand new season begins when the the first battle of Wildcard Weekend commences. So hold on tight, Patriot fans. The real fun is just about to start. Of course, by fun I really mean stress, yelling, anxiety, food, drinks, and maybe celebration. The NFL Playoffs are my favorite time of year and it’s even better when my team is a part of the excitement. The action begins Saturday afternoon when Rex Ryan’s Super Bowl favorites take on the Bengals (AGAIN) and the NFC literally just replays week 17 all over. The Pats and the Ravens are the only new match up during Wildcard Weekend and that automatically sets it up to be one of the best.

The Patriots and Ravens always put on a good show. Whether it be 2007 or Week 4 of 2009, there are no shortages of story lines, Ray Lewis psychosis, questionable calls, and trash talk. These two teams are both some of the best to play in the last 10 years and it is only right that they finally get their chance to bang helmets in the post-season.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot has changed for the Patriots over the past two seasons; but no one can say we weren’t ready. Even though I would’ve loved to have had a first round bye, the Pats could fare better by maintaining the momentum of playing games and getting into a rhythm. Also, something like 70% of the teams that have played in Wildcard Weekend over the past 10 years have made it very deep in to the Playoffs.

Round 1 – The Wildcard Weekend Match-Ups:

* Uncomfortable Tom vs. A Pesky Defense – Without the presence of Wes Welker, Tom Brady will be without his most trusted target and security blanket. The Ravens with focus double teams on Randy Moss and play with a lot of pressure. It will be up to Ben Watson, Kevin Faulk, Sam Aiken and Julian Edelman to take some of the load of Tom’s back. These guys have to make catches and get some yards after contact. If they can spread the ball all over the field, the odds of Moss getting free behind the defense once or twice increase drastically. The offensive line needs to solidify into a wall to protect Brady. The longer he sits and the more comfortable he gets in the pocket, the more accurate his passes are and the Patriots become all that more dangerous. This Baltimore defense that features All-Stars like Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Ed Reed will come to Foxboro playing their A-game and it is up to the offense to keep them on their toes.

* Randy Moss vs. Domonique Foxworth – 53 tackles, 4 INTs, and 16 recorded pass defenses is the stat line for Ravens CB Domonique Foxworth. With the help of the safeties Dawan Landry and Ed Reed, Moss is in for a long day. These guys come to play hard every week regardless of the bad taste in their mouths every time they play the Patriots. Randy Moss has been the subject of criticism throughout his whole career with this season included. The loss of Welker puts the focus on Moss even more. His 1,264 yards receiving and 13 TDs show that he is still among the best ever at almost 33 years old. Randy is going to have to pull out all the stops and let all of his tricks show this Sunday. It’s going to take a serious effort in order for Moss to accumulate some catches against this defense, especially in the post-season. I just hope he has the kind of Playoff game like he did in Minnesota when he mooned the Green Bay fans; except this time we can all agree, Ray Lewis getting mooned would be beyond priceless.

* The Battle on the Ground – It is almost a certainty that the Ravens will try to run the ball down the Patriots throats Sunday so it is only right that we reciprocate. Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, and Kevin Faulk will probably all see touches and make the most of them. The staff and the fans still have trust in Maroney and his ball security. He knows as well as anyone the importance of this game and of holding on to the rock. With two weeks of return under his belt, veteran RB Fred Taylor is pumped up for his chance to make a difference in the playoffs, especially in New England where the Playoffs are very different from any other place. Elusiveness and intelligence will be the difference between successful running games between the Pats and the Birds. Both run defenses will be moving faster than ever before and plugging up the holes quickly. Young Ray Rice knows more than most backs his age how quickly post-season football moves and 28-year-old Willis McGahee isn’t a stranger either. These two have combined for 1,883 rushing yards (less than Chris Johnson) and 19 TDs in 2009 and Rice is also a serious threat in the passing game. Ray Rice provides a punishing ground attack with size and strength; if you don’t wrap him up, he will get loose, you cannot tackle him with just your arms. McGahee switches up the power running with speed and shiftiness. The Patriots must play smart and tackles hard and Joe Flacco to the air.

* Joe Cool & Co. vs. Patriot Defense – Joe Flacco has shown that even with all of the adversity in the NFL regular-season, he still knows how to help his team win. Now, consecutively for the second year in his young career he has made the post-season. That is a pretty remarkable feat. His numbers are improving too: 21 TDs, 12 INTs, and 3,613 air yards. The Patriots defense has played well at home this season and hasn’t lost a game there yet. Against mediocre QBs, they don’t seem to buckle under pressure. Many of these players have not seen the Playoffs in New England or even seen the post-season at all for that matter. The youth of the defense will be questioned for as long as the Pats remain alive. It is up to these young guys to follow leaders like Vince Wilfork and James Sanders and gain knowledge while proving to the rest of the critics that this dynasty is still breathing. Receivers like Michael Clayton, Derrick Mason, TE Todd Heap, and former Patriot Kelley Washington have been playing consistent, smart football all year. Flacco can distribute the ball to every one of them and make defenses pay if they ignore a player. The Patriots will need to have a good rush from the front seven and keep the secondary from having to work too hard. A good rush means less time to pass. Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs will need their experience and talent to guide the younger defensive backs and keep the Ravens explosiveness to a minimum.

Keep Your Eye On:

* David Tyree – Seriously? We have to deal with this clown again? Why? He grew up 20 minutes from my house and he doesn’t really do anything in the NFL. He is only know for literally one thing that just happens to be slipping my mind right now and there is no way the Patriots can allow him to have any kind of effect on this game.

* Special Teams play – In a game that is very evenly matched, punt & kickoff returns could very well be the difference in this game. The Pats have to keep their lanes and securely tackle the ball-carriers. Win this one however we have to.

* Julian Edelman – Wes Welker Jr. (he hasn’t earned v2.0 yet) has produced similar numbers whenever he plays significant time. He may not be a crafty as Wes and definitely can’t come out of his cuts as quickly, but I do believe that he is faster. A quick, possible deep threat that consistently catches is just the Tom Brady wants from a wideout.

The Numbers:

* The Patriots have not lost a home playoff game in 32 years. (December 31, 1978)

* They have also won 11 straight playoff games at home.

* Since Bill Belichick became head coach in 2000, the Patriots have won 24 of their last 29 games played after December 25th.
r />Patriot Fan of the Week:

Lisa from Charleston, South Carolina:
Lisa wants to let everyone know that Jake Delhomme just doesn’t cut it for her. Unless you’re playing defense against him.

Thanks for chowing down and I hope to see you guys next week!

Let’s Go!
B.DelaBarrera (follow Brian on Twitter: @bdelabarrera)

Tags: Pre-Game Meal

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