Wildcard Weekend Part 2: a FanBall preview

We continue our look around FanBall for takes on Sunday’s game, while pondering what in the hell happened to the Eagles, and whether we should be excited now that Michael Vick is one step closer to being a free agent.

The day’s first matchup is the odd game out, in a weekend of instant rematches, as the Patriots host the Ravens. These two teams haven’t seen each other since October 4, almost a lifetime ago in football terms. The Patriots dug a little knife in the side of the then-unbeaten Ravens in that game, but their most memorable recent matchup came two seasons ago, with the Patriots looking to pad an 11-win start to their season. Instead, Kyle Boller (remember him?) and Willis McGahee very nearly led the Ravens to a career-defining upset win.

It was a game that perfectly captured the fates of these two teams. The Ravens had fought and clawed all game long, running on pride and moxie, while the Patriots countered with an overclever “death by a thousand cuts” offensive approach that very nearly lost them the game. Brady targeted 9 different receivers in effort to mystify Baltimore’s ultra-aggressive defense, but misfired on 20 of 38 passes. Down 24-20 and facing a desperation 4th-and-5 play, Tom Brady didn’t target Randy Moss, or Wes Welker, or the everready Kevin Faulk — he bounced a pass off the harmless hands of Ben Watson. 55 seconds left, game over, until the referees found or invented enough contact to throw a 13th penalty flag at the feet of the Ravens.

In any close game between these two teams, the refs have seemingly always been the deciding factor — and that decision has greatly favored the Patriots. Perhaps it’s for that reason that PatsChowder, the FanBall blog covering the Patriots, is already looking ahead to next week. This is the pressing question on the top story of the site:

I posed the question on who you would rather play should the Patriots get to the second round: the Indianapolis Colts or the San Diego Chargers.

— “Tweet Speak, Fans Make the Call”

It’s either that, or the season-ending knee injury suffered by Wes Welker in a garbage-time loss to Houston last week has caused our faithful correspondent to dump his laptop and his faith in the football gods into the Boston Harbor like so much overtaxed tea.

Meanwhile, if our FootBaltimore correspondent feels surge of triumphant rage, or a warrior’s sympathy for his opponent, he is keeping it very close to the vest. Rather, it is likely that he and Mark Clayton alike are looking forward to a rarely-provided second chance at redemption.

Receiver Mark Clayton says he’s not thinking about the crucial drop in their last (Patriots) matchup of the season. Clayton says, “Not at all – until somebody says something about it.”

— FootBaltimore: “Thursday Night Links

A quote from coach John Harbaugh in the linked article might just say it all:

“Hey, you always have second chances,” Harbaugh said. “If it were perfect the first time around, it’s never that way. There are always things you can improve. All of our guys feel that way about every game.”

— Baltimore Sun: “Clayton says he isn’t dwelling on crucial drop last time in New England

More from Footbaltimore: Prediction: Ravens at Patriots

I can’t pretend any impartiality in this game. Like many Rams fans, I absolutely cannot stand the Patriots. The joy of rooting against them was made manifest at my friend Mike’s annual Super Bowl bash two years ago, as thirty guys and gals and some odd number of kids with no particular love for the Giants suddenly adopted the men in blue as faithfully and fully as though Kurt Warner was under center and Marshall Faulk was lined up in the backfield, and we had the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXVI to do over again. Even if I feel a bit dirty rooting for Baltimore (and I do), root I will in this one.

The weekend’s potentially most explosive game now comes with some additional emotional baggage, thanks to this tweet by Adam Schefter:

Adam_Schefter Arizona’s Kurt Warner always could change his mind, but those that know the 38-year-old QB believe this will be his final NFL season.

With the Cardinals hurting all over, and Anquan Boldin doubtful to play, this could very well be his last game. But we don’t expect it to be a replay of the Packers’ 33-7 win last week — if anyone can capture the Drunken Master kung fu and lead a sudden return to glory, it’s the old master himself.

Hunter at Desert Flock is showing confidence, or at least a brave face:

Now let’s head back to the desert, which Green Bay will also have to do (that makes three trips across the country in one week if you’re counting). That’s the place where Whisenhunt and his staff are pouring over every inch of footage of everything Green Bay’s got. If this game was the opening scene of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels then the Pack is Eddie, Tom, Soap, and Bacon; Arizona is Hatchet Harry. We’ve seen their hand. They’re just playing with confidence. Maybe too much confidence.

— “Playoffs? How about revenge?

More from Desert Flock: Anquan Boldin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie injured in loss

Meanwhile, Adam at PackingCheese takes confidence not in week 17’s exhibition win, but in the matchups between each team’s top personnel.

Looking at common opponents the Packers got buried by the Vikings twice and the Cardinals whooped the Vikes. Therefore the Cardinals should beat up the Packers. The NFL doesn’t work like that; A plus B doesn’t equal C. The team that is able to exploit their opponent’s weaknesses more effectively wins in the NFL. I think the Packers have played better down the stretch and the Cardinals are a schizophrenic squad. The Cardinals are the defending conference champs playing at home, but I think the Packers have a good chance to win this game.

— “Packers-Cardinals scouting report, playoff edition

So far, both rematch games this weekend have gone nearly exactly according to Week 17’s script. I think this game will be different, in that it is more competitive, but I fear that the Packers will be too fresh-legged and too strong for the Cardinals, and that this may be Warner’s last game in the NFL.

However, if there’s a force for the Cardinals, it’s Warner’s own indefatigable ego, his drive to be recognized as one of the game’s great quarterbacks. He knows as well as anyone, whether he broadcasts it or not, that his Hall of Fame credentials are still in doubt, and one final Super Bowl appearance could very easily tip the scales in his favor.