The Cardinals and Saints aren't the only ones putting points on the board this week.
NFC West blogger Mike Sando and NFC South counterpart Pat Yasinskas scored a few of their own while breaking down the Cardinals-Saints divisional playoff game set for Saturday in the Superdome.
Mike Sando: Ken Whisenhunt has a 4-1 postseason record as Cardinals coach. He has been to a Super Bowl. Sean Payton seems to be the coach with the most at stake in this one.
Pat Yasinskas: There's a lot at stake for Payton and a lot of pressure on him. He has the potential to go from being considered a very good offensive mind to being considered a very good head coach. He has been in the playoffs only once before and that was 2006. They split a pair of games. Getting to 13 wins this season was a huge step for Payton, but the way the season ended, with three losses, sets up the scenario where a playoff loss would be extremely disappointing.
Fans in new Orleans were talking about a Super Bowl when this team was undefeated. Not getting even a playoff victory would open Payton to criticism. Having the bye week has also upped the pressure and panic among fans in New Orleans, but I think Payton used the time wisely as far as game-planning offensively and getting his banged-up defense healthy.
Mike Sando: Watching the Saints from afar, quarterback Drew Brees seemed unusually disappointed when New Orleans lost for the first time this season against Dallas. It was only one game. I wondered if that was the right reaction. Seems to me the Saints should have been focused on the bigger picture. Was I reading too much into that or was there something to it?
Pat Yasinskas: The Saints sincerely believed they had a shot at going undefeated. Their confidence was sky high because at times they were steamrolling opponents. Even in games when they were not playing their best, they always seemed able to pull it out in the fourth quarter. All that changed with the loss to Dallas. I think the Saints know deep down that they are a good team still, but their momentum took a hit and they haven’t been able to get back on course in the regular season. Getting that on the upswing will be a real test of Payton's motivational skills.
Mike Sando: The Saints' defense seems to be at its best when playing with a lead. The Cardinals jumped to a 31-10 lead against the Packers in the wild-card round. Arizona has scored at least 14 points in seven first quarters this season and postseason, same as the Saints. As poorly as the Arizona defense played against Green Bay, the Cardinals did force turnovers early (and late, of course). I think New Orleans could be in trouble defensively if Kurt Warner gets going early and Arizona takes a big lead.
Pat Yasinskas: Absolutely. The Gregg Williams defense counts on playing aggressively and basically their phrase back in camp was something like, "We set the tone." They are all about playing aggressively. Williams likes to blitz. The other big thing is Darren Sharper early in the season was looking like a true center fielder and was a turnover machine. In the second half of the season, when Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer got hurt, they couldn’t let Sharper roam any more. He was playing more like a Cover 2 safety. He was not freed up to make plays. I do think having Greer back at full strength is going to help tremendously.
I’m not saying they are going to shut down Arizona. But they can play. Let’s face it. This is probably going to be a high-scoring game, but defense will be a factor. Whichever defense can force a turnover or two can decide this game.
Mike Sando: The Saints pressured with five or more rushers 49.4 percent of the time this season, trailing only the Jets. Warner can be tough to blitz because he knows where to go with the football quickly. He also benefits from an improved running game. The quarterbacks will win or lose this game, most likely, but Beanie Wells was the player I singled out as a potential X factor. Wells has become a bigger part of the Arizona offense. He had 14 carries for 91 yards against the Packers. The Saints' run defense hasn't been all that great this season.
Pat Yasinskas: The Arizona running game is a concern for that defense. It has been a problem area and Sedrick Ellis has been the key there. He has been in and out with injuries. When he is in, they are OK against the run. When he is out, it changes everything. Having Charles Grant out helps their pass rush because Bobby McCray is better, but Grant was good against the run. The Cardinals might try to exploit that. McCray could be more of a pass-rush situational guy. Anthony Hargrove, who has played inside a fair amount, may move outside on running downs.
Mike Sando: The Saints' pass defense ranked third among NFL teams in holding opposing quarterbacks to low passer ratings. Here's the thing, though. The Saints faced Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman (twice), Jake Delhomme (twice) and Chad Henne. Marc Bulger had 298 yards against them and nearly won the game. Kurt Warner is in another class, particularly in the playoffs. Warner already has more playoff victories in fewer games than Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Peyton Manning. He had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four) Sunday.
Pat Yasinskas: Warner has the track record and has been there many times. For Brees, much like Sean Payton, this is a big game to show he truly is one of the elite. Brees has been so precise, not only this year but the last couple of years, that I think he is more than ready to take the next step. Despite the way the season ended, I think the Saints will rebound. This is too talented a team to waste a 13-win season. More important, they lost their last two games in the Superdome and I don’t see them losing there again because their fans will not let them.
Mike Sando: The Cardinals have to love their chances. They hammered a 12-4 Panthers team on the road in the divisional round last season. They have Warner, one of the best big-game quarterbacks ever. These Saints are so much more dynamic offensively than Carolina was last season, though. New Orleans was too good during the regular season to go quietly. A few injuries and a short week will work against the Cardinals. An upset would not shock me, and if the Cardinals win this game, it's one of their finest victories.