- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2009

What could be more far-fetched than to predict that three of the four rookie coaches in the NFL would lead their teams to the playoffs this season?

How about two of those rookies facing each other in the Super Bowl?

Or crazier still: two rookie quarterbacks on wild card teams led by rookie coaches doing battle in the big game?

It’s in the realm of possibility that Mike Smith and the Atlanta Falcons and John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens will represent the NFC and AFC come Feb. 1 in Tampa, Fla.

And if that happens, Smith and Harbaugh will put the most prized possession in football in the hands of two rookie quarterbacks - Joe Flacco of the Ravens and Matt Ryan of the Falcons.

It’s not likely, but neither is it too much of a stretch.

The Falcons (11-5) face the bigger roadblocks to the Super Bowl - the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers - though Atlanta beat the Panthers 45-28 in their second meeting six weeks ago.

But you have to like the Falcons, who face a questionable Arizona Cardinals team on the road on Saturday, to advance beyond the wild card round.

The Falcons enter the playoffs a hot team, winners of seven of their past nine games. They possess a strong, balanced offense led by Ryan, the NFL offensive rookie of the year, and running back Michael Turner.

The Cardinals (9-7, but 3-7 against teams outside their division) live and die on the arm of ancient quarterback Kurt Warner. Their rushing offense ranks as the worst in the league, averaging just 73.6 yards a game - less than half of the 152.7 yards a game averaged by the Falcons.

That’s not a formula for a Cardinals victory.

Both the Falcons and the Ravens, it turns out, drew favorable matchups. The Ravens face the AFC East champion Miami Dolphins on the road Sunday. Though they reached the playoffs with a wild card, the Ravens look like the stronger team — and a team built for playoff success.

The Ravens defeated the Dolphins 27-13 in Miami early in the season. The Dolphins went on a tear after that loss, winning nine of their final 10 games. But they didn’t play a schedule as tough as the Ravens’, a slate that included a brutal, last-minute loss to a Steelers team that, with a clear-headed Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, would be considered the AFC favorite.

The Ravens’ defense still is led by linebacker Ray Lewis along with two of the best defensive players in the game, safety Ed Reed and linebacker Terrell Suggs. It ranks second in the league against the rush and second in pass defense behind only the Steelers.

The offense also has shown a strong running game of late behind Le’Ron McClain, rookie Ray Rice and even an awakening Willis McGahee — perhaps putting together the kind of playoff run the Ravens did on the way to Super Bowl XXXV.

The Falcons didn’t play quite on the level of elite NFC teams such as the Giants or Panthers.

There is no question, however, that the Ravens played on par with the likes of the Steelers and Tennessee Titans, making their chances of reaching Tampa more credible - unless they have to face Indianapolis and the Peyton Manning air attack.

But that’s down the road, and both the Falcons and the Ravens should move on down that road a piece with wins this weekend.

As far as the other playoff games this weekend go, the Colts should handle the Chargers in San Diego on Saturday. The reasoning: simply because it’s always difficult for me to believe that a team coached by Norv Turner will do anything but underachieve.

The Philadelphia Eagles, though, are indeed the wild card in the NFC because of the way they finished the season: an embarrassing loss to the Washington Redskins followed by a beatdown of the Dallas Cowboys. No one knows what to make of Philadelphia, but if the team that beat the Cowboys shows up Sunday, they will make short work of the Vikings.

This is the year of the rookies — they have been the wild cards defining this NFL season — so why not the Ravens and the Falcons when all is said and done?

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