NFL playoffs kick off: Any upsets?

The chances of all four home teams in this weekend’s NFL wild-card games are pretty slim. The trick is figuring out where the upsets may lie. It’s been a few years since I covered the Washington Redskins (who will not be going to the playoffs barring an Extreme Makeover: Offense Edition by Mike Shanahan), but some basic elements always go into play, particularly in the first round.

New York Jets at Cincinnati (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
The critical factor here is Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. The former USC signal-caller started out on fire, then looked like the rookie he is much of the second half of the season. The Jets have a nice defense and will keep the Bengals’ potent offense under wraps early on. The bottom line is rookie quarterbacks and road playoff games rarely mix well. Carson Palmer, another USC alum, has the experience and skill level to deliver in the face of a strong Jets secondary. Pick: Bengals 20, Jets 10

Philadelphia at Dallas (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC)
There’s always the old adage about beating a team three times in a season and how difficult it is. That makes the Eagles a tempting pick here, but Dallas has clearly found a groove the last three weeks. Another flat-footed performance like the Eagles gave last week with the NFC East on the line in Dallas seems unlikely. I have too much respect for Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid to expect it. However, Tony Romo has evolved as a field general and in his ability to dissect coverages to the point where, particularly at home, this should be a moment to shine. Pick: Cowboys 28, Eagles 20

Baltimore at New England (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS)
This is where the difference between a rookie like Sanchez and someone with just enough seasoning like Ravens QB Joe Flacco shows up. During their decade of defensive dominance, the one thing the one thing Baltimore lacked was consistent quarterback play on the other side of the ball. Flacco brings that and a great touch on his throws for someone of relative inexperience. Baltimore’s defense has showed its age at points this year but the Patriots have been uncharacteristically inconsistent much of the season. The loss of slot receiver Wes Welker is critical. Pick: Ravens 17, Patriots 16

Green Bay at Arizona (Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, Fox)
Overall, Green Bay’s blowout of the Cardinals last week in meaningless. What isn’t, though, is the Packers’ steady improvement and ability to win close games. Much like Flacco, the development of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been paramount to the Packers’ improvement. The Cardinals have two key injuries they’re dealing with in wide receiver Anquan Boldin suffering from a sprained ankle and cornerback Dominique Rogers-Cromartie nursing a kneecap injury. Rogers-Cromartie’s ability to keep up with top Packers’ receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver could be a key factor in the outcome. Pick: Packers 31, Cardinals 27

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