Players who could dramatically alter each divisional playoff

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Associated Press
Defensive tackles Darnell Dockett and Jay Ratliff could their divisional playoff opponents' worst nightmare.


This is the best weekend of the year. Really, it is.

The best eight teams in the NFL slugging it out over two days? You gotta love it.

Sure, nothing tops the pageantry and finality of the Super Bowl, and conference championship weekend is great, too. But this is our last real NFL smorgasbord for a long, long time, so let's savor it as such, shall we?

This weekend I'm looking for individual breakout players. We've seen time and time again how singular brilliance in January can really carry a team -- think Larry Fitzgerald's unstoppable dominance in the postseason last year -- and if these four divisional playoff games play out as I suspect, certain guys will shine. If this proves to be prescient in any way, then it would mean that players beyond those in the glory positions would get their due.

So with that in mind, let's get started:

Arizona at New Orleans

For as great as Fitzgerald was in the playoffs, and for as potent as the Cardinals' offense was last week, I believe someone playing defense in this game is going to have to make the difference. Points will be scored. Balls will be flying all over the place. But, much like last week's record-setting shootout between the Cardinals and Packers, at some point, likely a very critical point, one defense will make a play that changes everything.

I'm not saying this divisional game will end on another sack/strip/fumble-or-was-it-an-interception? deal like last week. But I also don't rule out this game being settled by a takeaway or defensive score. To that end, I'm shining the spotlight on nose tackle Darnell Dockett.

Dockett's play in the postseason last year mirrored the rise of Fitzgerald's performance, only without as much fanfare. We are talking about a force who can generate three sacks from the nose spot in any given game against top opponents. The best way to disrupt Drew Brees and that quick release is to collapse the pocket from the inside, and Dockett can do that. He's athletic enough to make plays on the ball, and he's adept at getting his hands up and knocking it down. If he has the kind of game I think he might, I like the Cardinals to knock off the NFC's top seed on the road.

Dallas at Minnesota

I love me some true 3-4, bleep-kicking nose tackles. They are the most underappreciated studs in this sport (guys such as Baltimore's Haloti Ngata and Green Bay's Ryan Pickett leap to mind). Jay Ratliff is as good as they come in the league. Much of the attention goes to what DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are getting done off the edge, but Ratliff makes this thing go for Dallas.

Ratliff draws so much attention and causes so much havoc, things open up for others. He makes what is a fairly pedestrian secondary look better. And he's facing a Vikings offensive line that was bad for stretches late in the season and does not look comfortable at all having to drop back in pass protection with regularity.

Ratliff is Brett Favre's worst nightmare right now, and I expect the two to see quite a bit of each other on Sunday. The Vikings made a huge mistake, in my estimation, by letting elite center Matt Birk go to Baltimore in free agency, and that error may become most acute this weekend should Minnesota's season end amid a swirl of sacks and passes rushed to the sidelines. I don't see any way the Vikings are equipped to handle Ratliff, Ware and Spencer. Favre is not mobile and even if they max protect and try to go with a heavy dose of Adrian Peterson, I look for Ratliff to shine. Dallas is very stout against the run, and this strikes me as a bad matchup for the Vikings.

Baltimore at Indianapolis

I had a hunch heading into the playoffs that Baltimore could do a lot of damage as a No. 6 seed. For that to happen, however, Terrell Suggs was going to have to perform like he is capable of, and not underachieve like he did for much of the season. Even with Suggs playing at a mundane level, the Ravens boast one of the best defenses in the NFL, the best run defense overall and the top scoring defense in the second half of the season.

But when Suggs is on, they become a downright nasty bunch, one that plays with the swagger and flashes the game-changing plays that have defined Baltimore defenses this decade. He is the one freak-of-nature pass rusher, who can blow you away with speed or size or cunning, and who demands double teams. He changed last week's game against the Patriots for good with a sack/strip that ended up giving the Ravens an early 14-0 lead. If he gets off to a fast start Saturday, and the Ravens are able to play with a lead, then everything falls into place. Joe Flacco doesn't have to do too much, and the power running game can attack a smallish defensive line.

Suggs is that game-changer. Ngata's presence helps a ton, and getting Kelly Gregg back to top form after major surgery is a huge factor as well. But Suggs makes it go. His pressure allows Ed Reed to feast on errant and hurried throws. He opens up holes for Ray Lewis to crush people. He makes life easy for Jarrett Johnson rushing off the opposite side.

You can't allow Peyton Manning the time to shred you, particularly given the Ravens' woes at the corners, and last week we saw Suggs help negate Tom Brady. He has to do that again. It comes down to winning matchups, because if you blitz Manning with too much abandon, he will inevitably make you pay. Suggs can help you win the line with a four-man rush.

One top personnel executive, who spent time reviewing tape of Suggs after the 2008 season, believed realistically he may have been the best player that season, regardless of position. If Suggs is back to that level, or anything close, I smell an upset.

N.Y. Jets at San Diego

The Jets, much like the Ravens, have a simple formula to remain competitive: Great defense combined with a great running attack means the young quarterback won't lose the game. But for all the strengths of this Jets defense, I don't see how they are going to take away Antonio Gates.

The Chargers' hulking tight end is a problem for pretty much everyone at this point. Sure, Darrelle Revis will likely shadow Vincent Jackson, and it's hard to imagine the Chargers moving the ball on the ground against the Jets. But I also don't see how Philip Rivers doesn't pick up big chunks on seam and crossing routes to Gates all day long.

If you bracket Gates out of the slot with a linebacker and safety, which is pretty much a certainty, then Rivers picks you apart on the outside. To me, Gates' production on third down and in the red zone will be the difference in this game. If the Jets find a way to contain him, and if they force Rivers into a few mistakes, you can make a case for them keeping this close.

I consider the Chargers the best team in the NFL, however, and have a feeling they come away exploiting young quarterback Mark Sanchez a few times and keep charging toward the Super Bowl.

Truths and rumors surrounding Cowher

There's been a lot said recently about Bill Cowher's future. Let me just reiterate what I know to be true.

The idea that Cowher has been waiting all along to coach the Giants is flawed. As I have previously reported, he was on the cusp of taking the Jets' job in 2009, he had many detailed conversations with ownership and was putting a staff together when the deal broke down. That's not exactly waiting on Tom Coughlin to get fired a few years removed from winning a Super Bowl.

Furthermore, Cowher was contacting associates again this offseason with his sights set on four attractive possibilities: Chicago, Houston, Carolina and Tampa Bay. As we know, positions with those teams did not open up, but the Buccaneers did contact him and were serious in their intent, as I have reported, but concerns over salary and player spending doomed any progress there.

So, trust me, Cowher has had the itch, and he's not dead set on any one job. In 2010, Chicago and Houston will be under the microscope, both needing to make progress to stand off coaching changes. There are numerous factors which will make those jobs of interest to Cowher. Sure, the Giants would be interesting as well, and there is a lot to like about that job, too, but it's hardly a fait accompli that Cowher goes to the Giants should Coughlin's team struggle again in 2010.

Taking issue with playoff scheduling

A cursory glance at the playoff schedule might lead some fans to question why some teams get more rest than others this time of year. It's a factor the league weighs very heavily and goes to great lengths to eradicate when at all possible, but there are also certain realities that you cannot get around.

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Teams are coming off of wide and varied schedules entering the postseason, and the league has three broadcast partners to work with during the postseason, including two that are bound by conference. For the last three years, the league has worked to set the division round times and dates a week ahead, which allows for teams to better plan for travel and preparation, fans to do the same, and obviously, yes, make life easier for the TV networks as well.

But trust me, the commissioner is very involved in the entire process. He works laboriously with the league's scheduling department, broadcast committees, the teams and networks themselves to ensure as fair a competitive standard as possible.

Let's consider the two teams who ostensibly drew the short straw in the divisional round: Baltimore and Arizona.

The Ravens had to play in Foxborough on Sunday afternoon, then turn around on a short week and travel to Indianapolis for a Saturday night game. Meanwhile, the Colts are coming off a bye week, and the Jets got to play last Saturday and then get an extra day to prepare this week, facing San Diego on Sunday (though there is considerable travel involved). Well, the league worked very carefully with the Ravens before the start of the entire playoffs -- as they do with all teams -- to keep things as fair as possible, and the Ravens are quite happy with the way things turned out.

You see, Baltimore ended the regular season at Oakland, getting back home early in the morning on the Monday before Wild Card Weekend. The last thing the Ravens wanted was to have to fly to New England on Friday, which would have truncated an already short week ahead of the biggest game of the season. The Ravens, as the sixth seed in the AFC, obviously weren't going to have the easiest ride anyway and gladly took the extra day to face the Patriots.

"We are fine with playing Saturday night," much-esteemed team president Dick Cass said when I emailed him to take his temperature on the scheduling issue. "We were most concerned about having to play Saturday on the first weekend because of our long flight back from Oakland. The league helped us by scheduling us for Sunday against the Patriots, and we knew what that would mean for this weekend."

Cass also pointed out that the Ravens, as a wild card last year, faced the same circumstances -- opening the playoffs on a Sunday at Miami and then traveling to Tennessee on a short week, and won both games.

"It worked out really well for us last year," Cass said.

So conspiracy theorists, take note.

Now, let's look at the Cardinals. Yes, as a division winner you would like to spare them as much burden as possible, and Arizona was the last team to play last week, needing overtime to defeat Green Bay at home, and then play in the opening game of the divisional round, having to travel to play top-seeded New Orleans on Saturday afternoon.

Sure, it's not ideal. But dig a little deeper and you'll find out that the Cardinals remain one of the most-rested teams in the NFL. Prior to leaving for New Orleans, the Cardinals had not been on a plane since Dec. 20, getting to finish the season at home and then host a wild-card game. That's not bad for any team, much less one that did not earn a first-round bye.

There are always going to be certain marquee games that networks covet in certain timeslots -- Sunday games generally draw better than Saturdays, for instance -- and there will always be some irregularities given all that goes into the process. None of this is lost on the powers that be. It's taken with the utmost seriousness, and nothing gets finalized until Goodell signs off on it. It's a process the teams themselves respect and understand.

Slow and steady

If the Bills' coaching search feels like it has dragged on forever, well, that's because it has. Buffalo had a jumpstart, on paper at least, on all other clubs by prompting changes after firing Dick Jauron back in November. What has transpired since then has been essentially two distinct searches, neither fruitful to this point.

At first, Russ Brandon, then team president, now CEO, was running the show, putting together lists of candidates for owner Ralph Wilson and scheduling interviews. Efforts to court Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden and Cowher came up empty, as expected, and in the meantime Wilson was reshuffling his front office.

A few weeks back, Buddy Nix was promoted to general manager -- a move that shocked some in the football community given all the responsibility Nix, a 70-year-old, behind-the-scenes, on-the-road scout would have to take on -- and everything changed. Brandon now has a business-side title alone and, according to league sources, is no longer a part of the ongoing search.

It's all run by Nix now, something he hasn't done much of before at this level. So the Bills started over with a list of more likely candidates -- guys such as Brian Schottenheimer, Ron Rivera, Russ Grimm and Leslie Frazier -- but a lot of people simply aren't interested in the job. Now the team that had first dibs is looking at possibly heading into the upcoming Senior Bowl without a coaching staff in place.

Meantime, guys who were let go off the current coaching staff, like Bobby April (special teams), Perry Fewell (interim head coach/defensive coordinator) and Sean Kugler (special teams), have been coveted by other teams. Some had multiple offers with other teams, and all are off the market. This is not a pretty scene in Buffalo.

One thing that did come out throughout both processes is the fact that the Bills would love a dynamic offensive mind, someone to bring an attractive brand of football that would help sell tickets and develop some young skill players. But given where things stand now, if I'm in that front office, I'm making a strong run at Frazier. He's interviewed for several head coaching jobs, been a finalist before, and met with Bills officials last week.

He's been groomed for this for a long time and is ready to meet that challenge. Yes, he's a defensive-minded coach, but I also know he would not be averse at all to working with Mike Martz as his offensive coordinator, and I don't see anyone better suited to the Bills' needs on that side of the ball than Martz right now.

He can be quirky, he might not always endear himself to his superiors, his reputation works against him, yada, yada. But the Bills badly need someone with a keen eye for quarterbacks and wide receivers and, as a coordinator, Martz could be left alone to run that side of the ball and do his thing.

The idea that he can't get along with a defensive-minded head coach just isn't true. From what I've heard about the last time out in San Francisco, head coach Mike Singletary wasn't the guy who wanted Martz gone. In fact, Singletary championed his work. Seems to me Martz is being blackballed a bit here. But if there is a better pure offensive mind out there on the street right now waiting to be hired, I'd love to know where to find him.

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