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Archive for January, 2010

Conference Championship Picks

Posted by mizzou1028 on January 22, 2010

Last week we had three blowouts and one very close game.  It tells you all you need to know about the NFL that the one close game was the one yours truly thought would be a blowout, and to boot it went the other way from my (and most people’s) selection.  I have to admit I thought there was a zero percent chance that the Jets would even stay close against the Chargers.  Maybe it’s time for me to give the Jets some credit, for I have really been slamming them the last two weeks for backing into the playoffs.  I also thought the Chargers were the clear choice for favorite in the AFC.  Maybe I just don’t know what I’m talking about, but I think it’s more a reflection of how fantastic the NFL is and why it is the clear king among pro sports leagues.  As for the other games, we saw terrific performances from the three winning teams, and it shapes up for some great action on Sunday.  Now, on to the picks.

Last week: 2-2  Playoffs: 4-4

New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts: I have to admit that perhaps I should be eating some crow regarding both of these teams.  I picked both to lose last week and in the Jets’ case I said they didn’t even deserve to be in the playoffs.  In the Colts’ case I thought they would suffer disastrous consequences from tanking the last two weeks of the season and voluntarily torching their perfect season.  Well, I was wrong in both cases, but it still doesn’t change the fact that one of the big reasons this is the AFC Championship Game matchup is because the Colts laid down in week 16, allowing the Jets to coast to a 29-15 win and thus allowing them to vault ahead of several other AFC contenders for tiebreakers.  If the Colts played to win, it stands to reason that the Jets would not have made the playoffs, and the Texans or Steelers or some other team would have made it instead.  We’ll of course never know how differently things might have unfolded, and thus here we are with a compelling AFC title game in Indy. 

Of course it is hard to read too much into the teams’ previous meeting in week 16, which the Colts treated like an August scrimmage and the Jets played all out to win, but there are some interesting numbers to crunch from that game:

– The Colts led just 9-3 at halftime, with their starters in for the entire half

– The Jets’ Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene combined to rush for 200 yards (granted some of that in the second half came against some Colts backups).  The Colts got just 62 combined yards from Joseph Addai and Donald Brown. 

– Peyton Manning was 11-14 when throwing to someone other than Reggie Wayne.  He completed three passes to Wayne in seven attempts, with Wayne being shielded by Darrelle Revis a majority of the time.

– Mark Sanchez threw for just 106 yards, which is very typical of his numbers throughout the season.

– The Colts’ special teams allowed a 106 yard kickoff return TD to Brad Smith to open the second half. 

– The Colts’ received just 44 passing yards from backup quarterback Cutris Painter in the second half, along with one interception and one fumble lost. 

Now, again all of this is with the asterisk that the Colts were openly making no attempt whatsoever to win this game.  For all we know, the Colts’ offensive game plan may have been vanilla and could resemble nothing of what they plan to do on Sunday.  It is however interesting to note that even when the Colts’ starters were in, it wasn’t as if they were lighting up the scoreboard.  Truth is, that’s been typical of a number of Colts games this season.  Indianapolis hasn’t been put 30 points on the board every time, and in fact has won a number of tight, low scoring games with running and defense, along with precision mistake free passing by Manning.  One thing I think that Colts should be wary of in this game however is the Jets’ ability to run the ball.  That clearly has not been a fluke in the playoffs.  Last week the Jets ran the ball effectively and controlled the clock, keeping Philip Rivers and company on the sideline for much of the game.  No doubt they will try to do the same and keep Manning standing on the sideline Sunday instead of on the field. 

While the quote-unquote sexier matchup in this game will be Colts offense against the Jets defense, I think this game will be decided based on what happens with the Jets offense against the Indy defense.  The Colts’ defense has been extremely underrated all season, and last week they did an unbelieveable job shutting down a Baltimore running game that had absolutely shredded the Patriots the week before.  They put Joe Flacco in a position where he needed to beat them and he couldn’t do it.  The Jets offense is very similar in that they need the running game to be effective because they don’t want to put Mark Sanchez in a position where he has to win the game through the air on the road.  While Sanchez has proved to be an effective game manager and has made timely throws when necessary, the Jets aren’t about to want to rely on a pass heavy attack if they don’t have to.  So I think the key to the game is how well the Colts defense can stop the Jets’ running game.  If the Jets run the ball as effectively as they have for the past month, they will have a great chance to win.  If they can’t, and it becomes Sanchez’ game to win or lose, then I think the Jets are in big trouble.  I’m going to be watching the battles up front with the Jets’ offensive line and Colts’ defensive line.  That is where the game is going to be won or lost for either side.

As for Manning and the Colts passing game, it is foolish to think they aren’t going to be able to move the ball through the air.  We know that Revis is going to be on Wayne most of the time, but Manning is smart enough to know when to pick his spots to go there, and it’s not as if the Colts don’t have other targets to throw to.  Heck, I’m convinced that the Colts could pick a random fan from row 11, plug him in at receiver, and Manning could manage to find him for four or five receptions.  Manning also will be handle the Jets’ exotic blitzes because he is able to get rid of the ball so quickly and accurately.  In fact, Manning seems to thrive when teams try to blitz him. 

I think this could well be a lower scoring game than many people expect, but that has been the norm for both of these teams during the course of the season.  The Colts have the home field edge, and that over the years has proven to be a big deal late in the playoffs.  I think the Jets will be able to stay in this game, but in the end there is a reason the Colts started 13-0, and last week they emphatically proved they are not rusty.  Indianapolis 20 NY Jets 10

Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints: I think this will be the game of the year (at least until we may see a really dynamic Super Bowl matchup).  Both teams looked extremely impressive last week in rolling through their divisional round matchups.  I think the Vikings, as I’ve said all season long, are the most talented team in the NFL when they are clicking on all cylinders, and they showed why last week.  They got four touchdown passes from Brett Favre, they made big plays offensively, they sacked Tony Romo six times, put pressure on him countless other times, and in short they completely dominated both sides of the ball.  In particular, they won the battles up front, which is absolutely necessary to win this time of year.  As for the Saints, they woke up from a December long slumber and looked like the team they were the first three months of the season.  Drew Brees and the passing game were making big plays, Reggie Bush had a flashback to 2005 at USC, the defense smothered Kurt Warner and blanketed the Cardinals’ receivers, and the Saints’ even overcame the 70-yard touchdown they allowed on the first play of the game.  All told they gave a complete effort, and now the city of New Orleans is giddy with excitement, as the Superdome will host the first NFC Championship Game in its existence.  This alone is a big edge for the Saints, being that the Superdome is one of the few remaining actual home field advantages in the NFL (and that’s because it’s not a new stadium with zillions of luxury suites, but that’s another topic). 

I don’t think there is much question that lots of points are going to be put on the scoreboard by both teams.  Drew Brees and Brett Favre combined to throw a staggering 67 touchdown passes this season, and that number doesn’t include the seven they combined to throw for last week in the divisional round.  Both teams feature a dynamic group of receivers that can make plays in space and gain boatloads of yards after the catch.  So be ready for lots of big plays in the passing game thanks to two of the great quarterbacks in the league.  I think on paper it seems like the Vikings would have an edge on the ground with Adrian Peterson, but his numbers have slipped significantly in the second half of the season, and he hasn’t had a 100-yard game on the ground since November.  That said, he still rushed for over 1,300 yards on the season with 18 touchdowns, and he’s still Adrian Peterson, so it’s not as if the Vikings are completely helpless in this area.  The Saints have a quietly effective running game with Pierre Thomas, and if Reggie Bush continues to make big plays out of the backfield, screen passes to him are just as effective as running the ball. 

While the offenses no doubt have the spotlight in this game, the onus will be on the defenses to make things happen, and the game could well hinge on which defense is more effective.  I think the Minnesota front seven is downright scary with Jared Allen leading the way.  The Vikings all year have been a brick wall against opposing running games, and their ability to rush the passer is unmatched by any front seven in the league.  It will be a challenge for them to contain all the weapons in the Saints’ offense, particularly if Bush is making plays and lining up everywhere.  Drew Brees also has a quick release, so it could be hard for the Vikings to actually get to him.  The key for Minnesota is they need to be able to put pressure on Brees and not allow him time to find open receivers in space.  As for the Saints, they have struggled big time against the run in the second half of the season, but it will be interesting to see how that matchup unfolds on Sunday given the Vikings’ struggles to run the ball in the second half.  If Minnesota is able to get Peterson going, that will make it a big challenge for the Saints’ secondary to cover the receivers as well as make it difficult for the pass rush to get to Favre.  If the Saints are successful in shutting down the run, than it could lend to Favre trying to force plays down the field.  Darren Sharper is known for making big plays in big games, so don’t think he won’t be looking to try to pick off an errant Favre pass. 

I think it’s very possible the Vikings could regret that they didn’t get home field advantage and that they won’t get the game at the Metrodome.  Minnesota was undefeated in front of their home fans this season but suffered all four of their defeats on the road, including December road losses to non-playoff teams in Carolina and Chicago.  The Vikings in many ways have looked like two different teams all year: a dominant one at home and a so-so product on the road.  Other than their November win at Green Bay, the Vikings have no significant road wins they can claim this season.  The Saints have obviously been extremely tough in the Superdome, although they did lose to Dallas and Tampa Bay at home in December.  Minnesota also has a rather dubious conference title game history to contend with, specifically a rather embarrassing 41-0 road loss to the Giants in 2000, and a home loss to the Falcons two years earlier in which the Vikings were clear favorites.  The Saints meanwhile lost their only NFC title game appearance in 2006 in Chicago, and should benefit from the emotion of the crowd for their first ever NFC title game at home.

A lot of the numbers do point to New Orleans here, especially the home field edge.  I think in the end this will be a highly entertaining game where lots of points will be scored, but I also suspect we’ll see a big defensive play or two.  I think it will hinge on which defense does a better job getting to the quarterback as well as how well Minnesota can run the ball.  I think it will also be interesting to see which Brett Favre we see: the one who’s had a great year, or will we see a repeat of Favre two years ago, when costly interceptions allowed the Giants to win the NFC title game at Lambeau en route to a stunning Super Bowl victory?  Will the Saints secondary lure him into picks, or will Favre make good decisions and find his open receivers? 

This game almost seems too close to call, and to be honest I’m a little surprised at how most people are picking the Saints without hesitation, many cases in a runaway.  I know the Vikings have struggled on the road, but over the years it’s been proven in the playoffs that regular season history is irrelevant, because this is one game, and what happened previously has no bearing, especially the deeper you go in the playoffs.  I have a sense that Favre is going to show up big, and Brees will too.  I do think in the end the Vikings have a better defense especially up front, and I think Peterson will find holes to run through late in the game.  Minnesota 31 New Orleans 28

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Divisional Playoff Picks

Posted by mizzou1028 on January 15, 2010

Last week: 2-2

Last week we had two blowouts, a game for the ages, and one boring game that could have easily gone the other way if the losing team didn’t sleepwalk through the contest on their home field.  Of the eight teams remaining, I would say more than half of them can make a realistic case for the Super Bowl.  This is often the most exciting round of the playoffs, and this year shouldn’t disappoint.  Games listed in chronological order of when they will take place. 

Arizona Cardinals @ New Orleans Saints: This on paper has the makings of a repeat of last week’s aerial show between the Cardinals and Packers, in which Arizona won an overtime thriller 51-45.  Last week Kurt Warner had perhaps his best playoff game ever, and that includes his days with the Rams.  Warner’s performance was no impressive that he threw more touchdown passes (5) than incomplete passes (4).  Think about that for a moment.  He had more touchdown passes than incompletions, which is practically unheard of.  If Warner keeps playing like that, I’m not sure who the Cardinals would end up losing to.  Arizona’s offense also could get a lift this week with the return of Anquan Boldin, although Early Doucet was terrific filling in for Boldin (6 catches 77 yards 2 TDs) and Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston also had good numbers against the Packers.  The Cardinals also got good balance from Beanie Wells, who rushed for 91 yards on just 14 carries.  For those of you who are not math majors, that’s 6.5 yards per carry.  That proves that it’s not just passing that carried the Cardinals offense.  If they keep getting that kind of running game to go with it, they could end up proving to be very tough to beat indeed.  The flip side for the Cardinals is the defensive side of the ball.  Although they got two early turnovers against the Packers’ offense and ended up winning the game with a fumble return TD in overtime, they still surrendered 45 points and managed to blow a 31-10 lead that had been provided to them by the offense.  This does not bode well as they head on the road to face an offense that on the whole is more talented and has more big play potential than the Packers.  If the Cardinals are always going to need to score 40 points to win, eventually they will come up short, that’s just the way it is.

The Saints were arguably the league’s best team during the first half of the season, but they arguably peaked during a Monday night thrashing of the Patriots in late November.  Since then, the Saints needed a furious rally to beat the porous Redskins, struggled to beat a non-playoff team in Atlanta, and then proceeded to lose its final three games (home against red hot Dallas, a stunner against awful Tampa Bay, and a throwaway at Carolina in which the starters didn’t play).  That means it has been a month and a half since the Saints have looked sharp, especially on the defensive side of the ball.  The good news for New Orleans is that everyone should be well rested and fresh, and they will enjoy what I think is the best home field advantage of the four teams that will be hosting this weekend.  The bad news for the Saints is rustiness could be a big problem, especially if they fall behind by a couple of scores early, which is possible given that the Cardinals are confident and not showing any sign of slowing down offensively.  The key for the Saints may be how well they can keep up with Arizona on the scoreboard, and I think that shouldn’t be a problem with Drew Brees at the controls and a set of receivers that may not have the sexiness of Arizona’s but is every bit as productive in Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Robert Meachem.  The Saints also showed during the year they can run the ball with Pierre Thomas, but they may also need improved play from Reggie Bush in order to reach the Super Bowl.  Defensively, the Saints’ struggled mightly against the run especially in the second half of the season.  These struggles weren’t as obvious during the first half of the year when the Saints had huge leads and opponents had to abandon the run altogether, but was evident when the Saints were in closer games late in the year.  Their secondary is outstanding, particularly Darren Sharper, so that could make the difference against the Cardinals passing game.

This should be another high scoring, entertaining affair.  This may not be your game if you like hard hitting and defense, but it will be definitely be the one to tune in to if you like points and fireworks.  I think it is quite the contrast between a team with momentum in its favor versus a team that could be rusty from inactivity but has had plenty of time off to heal injuries and get healthy.  I think a lot of times the team with momentum would have the big edge, but I think the combination of the home crowd and the bye has proven to be a very good track record in the NFL over the years.  In the Saints’ case I think they will get a tremendous boost of energy from their home crowd, and while both offenses should put up lots of points, I like the Saints on a hunch to pull this one out, maybe even by a few more points than people expect.   New Orleans 35 Arizona 24.

Baltimore Ravens @ Indianapolis Colts: This is a rematch of a game we saw in mid-November, which the Colts won in Baltimore 17-15.  The Ravens are going to need Saturday night’s rematch to unfold in similar fashion if they want to have a chance.  In the first meeting, the Ravens actually forced a pair of Peyton Manning interceptions, but they did allow the Colts’ signal caller to pass for more than 300 yards.  As high powered as the Colts’ offense can be though, holding them to 17 points can give you a great chance to win most of the time.  Offensively the Ravens had great success through the air themselves, and were able to generate over 350 yards of total offense.  What proved to be Baltimore’s downfall in November was they were 0 for 4 in the red zone and settled for five field goals overall.  If you want to beat Indy, you must score touchdowns.  It sounds obvious and simple, but if you can’t put the ball in the end zone, you’re not going to be able to keep up with Peyton Manning, period. 

There is a lot of pressure on the Colts to win this game for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they voluntarily torched their perfect season and shot at history in the interest of keeping players healthy.  While I have delved into this topic in several previous posts, I will again state that NFL history has proven that teams who rest players late in the season for multiple weeks when they’ve already clinched tend to lose in the playoffs, often in the first round.  This means the Colts will be dealing with the pressure of trying to prove that their actions were correct against numbers that say otherwise.  This is particularly true for the Colts, who are 0-3 in the Manning era in the divisional round when they’ve enjoyed a bye (1999, 2005 and 2007).  2005 in particular bears mention because the Colts had a 13-0 start that year just like this one, clinched several weeks early, sat Manning and other starters for the final two games, and lost at home to a physical and hot Pittsburgh team in the playoffs.  In that game the Colts got dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage and basically got punched in the mouth while looking extremely rusty and showing a complete lack of timing until they got it together too late in the second half.  The next year in 2006, the Colts were the three seed and therefore not in a position to rest players, and they were able to generate enough momentum to win the Super Bowl.  Long story short, if the Colts lose on Saturday, they will never hear the end of it from their fans and other naysayers who will say they botched the season by not going all out for the 19-0.  There is also pressure on Manning, who by all accounts could go down as the best quarterback of all-time, but with only one Super Bowl victory is looked as second fiddle to Tom Brady in many circles.  No doubt Manning is eager for another title to further solidify his credentials in NFL history.  This year’s Colts team does have the making of an elite team, for they’ve got great talent at receiver with Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, they can run the ball much of the time and defensively they are able to get a pass rush with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.  It is interesting to note though the Colts didn’t blow many teams out, and most of the time were able to pull out close games in the fourth quarter.  I think though that I do not see how the Colts are a slam dunk Super Bowl pick at all, simply because it has been a month since they have played hard in a meaningful game and also because while they are very good, they don’t seem to be head and shoulders above the other AFC contenders.

For the Ravens, they are coming off a demolition of New England on the road in which they forced three first quarter turnovers and had put 24 points on the board before many viewers had even turned on the television.  This has the look of other wild card teams from the past that have been able to make deep playoff runs: they can run the ball with Ray Rice, they don’t turn it over, and their defense, while not as spectacular as the 2000 team, is still very good and very physical.  Last week they were able to get all kinds of pressure on Tom Brady, so there is no reason to think they can’t pressure Manning.  Baltimore also is not afraid to play on the road.  Even though it’s only the second year of John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco, the Ravens are 3-1 on the road in the playoffs the past two years.  On Saturday, Baltimore is going to need a better game from Flacco than they got last week, but in that game Flacco didn’t have to do much.  It’s hard to imagine the Ravens will completely be able to rely on the ground against Indy, but if they can get balance, then they have a better chance to be effective.  Again it will boil down to red zone execution, and last week the Ravens were able to cash in their chances. 

I have a hunch that this game will be eerily similar to the 2005 Steelers-Colts playoff game.  I a lot of ways I feel like I’ve seen this movie before.  I sense that the Ravens, fired up and with momentum, will dominate the line of scrimmage at the beginning, putting pressure on Manning while he and the Colts’ receivers struggle to find long lost timing.  I also think the Ravens will be able to generate enough offense on the ground to put some points on the board.  Most importantly, I sense the Ravens’ defense will be able to pull a repeat of November and force a turnover or two.  I think this will not necessarily be a high scoring game, and that suits the Ravens just fine.  While I think Manning will be productive as usual, I just think the Colts made a huge mistake of epic proportions three weeks ago and it will bite them, while the Ravens are like a freight train charging through the station.  I know I’m alone on this one, for everyone else in the free world is already handing the Colts the Lombardi trophy, but I’m going with the upset on this one.  Baltimore 20 Indianapolis 17. 

Dallas Cowboys @ Minnesota Vikings: To me, this game is between the top two teams in the NFC (no offense to New Orleans), and it is a real shame that this isn’t the NFC championship game.  Nevertheless, this should be a fantastic game.   The Cowboys are playing as well as any team in the league right now, and they are playing with a confidence such that they are capable of running the table and winning the entire thing.  Dallas looked like they were in the midst of another late season swoon in early December, but now they have reeled off four wins in a row, including two straight against the division rival Eagles in which the Cowboys demolished them both times.  Their win last week was the first for the franchise in the playoffs since 1996, and it looks like it is more than enough to save Wade Phillips’ job for 2010.  Tony Romo continues to play lights out, and the receiving core, and in fact the entire locker room, is in much better shape since the departure of Terrell Owens in the offseason.  Miles Austin has emerged as one of the best receivers in all of football, and the Cowboys have been able to compliment that with a superb running game.  Last week was particularly impressive because they didn’t have Marion Barber, although they didn’t skip a beat with Felix Jones and Tashard Choice leading the way.  Most of all, they are dominating the line of scrimmage both offensively and defensively.  The defense in particular has really caused problems for Donovan McNabb the past two weeks, and it will be interesting to see if DeMarcus Ware and company can keep the pressure going against the Vikings offensive line.  In short the Cowboys are red hot, have a ton of momentum, and don’t show many signs of slowing down.  They are peaking at the right time, which is always half the battle of winning in the playoffs.

The Vikings were my preseason pick to win the Super Bowl, and they looked the part for the first three months of the season before they lost three of four (all on the road)  in December.  I still think they are the most talented team in the NFL if everything is clicking, and in actually they, unlike most of the other teams that enjoyed the bye, are trending up as they head into the playoffs, owing to their blowout win over the Giants in the final game.  It can even be argued that offensively they started to get it together the previous week against Chicago even though they lost the game.  Minnesota still has all the ingredients necessary to win: they can run the ball thanks to Adrian Peterson and a superb offensive line, they can compliment that with the pass thanks to Brett Favre and talented receivers, and their defensive front seven might be the best in football, led by Jared Allen, Pat Williams and Kevin Williams.  The secondary is also very good when everyone is on the same page, and the bye should in particular help Antoine Winfield get healthy.  The biggest issue facing the Vikings during the last month of the season was the drama between Brad Childress and Brett Favre, but that seems to have faded away, and the bye should be a benefit to Minnesota in that regard also.

I have really gone back and forth on this game.  The Cowboys are the league’s hottest team and that alone makes it tough to pick against them, plus they have all the momentum in their favor a team could ever want.  Minnesota is at home in the loud Metrodome and should get a lift from that, plus they’ve enjoyed the bye.  I think it is interesting how many people are picking Dallas simply because it’s not the Vikings are a pushover, and while they didn’t have a great December they did seem to have it together in the final game, albeit against the Giants.  I think Brett Favre’s postseason history also gives people pause, but he doesn’t have to do everything by himself this time.  In the end I decided I picked the Vikings to win it all in the preseason and I’m going to stick with them and not waffle.  As I said it is too bad this isn’t the NFC title game.  Minnesota 28 Dallas 24. 

New York Jets @ San Diego Chargers: This game on paper seems to be the biggest mismatch of the week to me, which generally means that whatever I’m thinking the game is sure to go the other way.  In any case, the Jets have to be one of the luckiest teams in NFL history.  They got two gimmie wins during the end of the regular season against teams who weren’t even attempting to win, and then last week they drew a Bengals team that wasn’t playing to anywhere near its capability in the playoffs.  Even if Shayne Graham had made the two chip shot field goals he missed, Cincinnati would have been in position to tie or take the lead with a drive at the end of the game.  This is not to say the Jets don’t deserve any credit, but let’s face it, this team backed into the playoffs on luck and they are very fortunate to still be alive and kicking.  They have won in spite of subpar numbers from Mark Sanchez at quarterback, although to his credit he has not turned the ball over and is simply taking what the hand he is dealt on running with it.  The Jets have also done an amazing job running the ball with Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene, and their defense has been very stout against the run (although they did allow a couple of long runs to Cedric Benson last week), and they have been able to get pressure on opposing QBs (but really does Curtis Painter even count?).  I realize this sounds very much like sour grapes, but I just think the Jets got in the playoffs largely thanks to other teams tanking games and they have been very fortunate.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have talent to win, but I think now that they are about to face one of the league’s elite teams on the road, they are in for a very rude awakening indeed.

This year the Chargers have played to the capability many of us have expected from them the past few seasons.  Despite a 2-3 start and a three game deficit created a fast start from Denver, the Chargers ran away with the AFC West title thanks to an 11-game winning streak that is active heading into the playoffs.  We talk all the time about the importance of momentum heading into the playoffs, and there is no question the Chargers have it.  During their winning streak the Chargers were able to win road games in Dallas, Denver, Tennessee and against the New York Giants.  The Chargers have gotten elite play at quarterback from Philip Rivers, who have proven to be tough in the pocket and very accurate with his throws, and he has a stable of receivers to throw to, especially Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates (side note: Darrelle Revis, even as good as he is, can’t cover both of them).  They also have the ability to run the ball, even though LaDainian Tomlinson has slipped from previous years.  It is a big help for the Chargers that Darren Sproles has proven capable of taking a few carries and is also a terrific weapon out of the backfield.  In short, the Chargers have a quick strike ability to score at any time, and seem to put 30 points on the board right after they step off the bus.  Defensively, the Chargers have proven able to force turnovers and also hold opposing offenses out of the end zone. 

I think the Chargers are the team to beat in the AFC right now.  They have not had a bad game since October so there is no reason to expect one now.  I think the Jets have lived on luck for three weeks now and they about to run into a buzzsaw that could shred them in the first quarter if they aren’t careful.  Don’t think also that the Chargers don’t have plenty of bulletin board material, especially the part about Rex Ryan having already scheduled the Jets Super Bowl parade.  I think the Chargers roll so emphatically that the Jets finally get exposed as a lucky, overrated team.  San Diego 38 NY Jets 13.

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Wild Card Picks

Posted by mizzou1028 on January 8, 2010

I do plan to break down the disaster that was the Broncos’ season soon.  Frankly it is still hard to fathom falling from 6-0 to 8-8, a collapse that is more painful in many ways than those of 2006 and 2008.  Thus I need a little more time to compose my thoughts on the season and the mess that it became, but I should be ready to post sometime next week.  In the meantime, I will never miss the NFL playoffs regardless of whether the Broncos are in it or not, and this weekend we have what I think are four very intriguing games, and I think you can make a good case for either team in all four contests.  This is further compounded by the fact that three of the four games are rematches of games we saw in week 17, which is just crazy.  I know it’s happened before where teams have met in the first round of the playoffs after squaring off in the season’s final game, but I never remember more than one meeting at a time, let alone three rematches in the same weekend.   Now on to our wild card selections. 

Last week: 12-4   Final regular season record: 169-85 (.665)   Hey, roughly two out of three games correct, not bad!

– New York Jets @ Cincinnati Bengals: Last week the Jets demolished the Bengals 37-0.  I have read countless accounts from those who believe Saturday’s game will be more of the same.  I am going to come right and say that I disagree vehemently with those accounts.  Let’s be clear about something: Cincinnati made no attempt whatsoever to win that game.  Yes, they did play Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco during the first half, but the game plan was obviously very vanilla because the Bengals knew they would be playing the Jets again in a much more meaningful contest the next week and didn’t want to reveal anything that they were planning to do offensively.  The Jets knew they had to win in order to make the playoffs, so of course they came out guns blazing and went all out to win, even knowing they would see the Bengals again in the playoffs.  The Jets defense was outstanding, holding Cincinnati to an astounding seven yards of total offense in the first half, but again we can’t read anything into that because we know the Bengals weren’t trying. 

We also know that the Jets have not played against a team actually trying to win for two weeks now, because they got the benefit of the Colts waving the white flag in the third quarter the week before.  The week before the Colts game, the Jets looked listless in a 10-7 home loss to Atlanta, a team that will be watching the playoffs on television this year.  The two weeks prior to that the Jets beat Buffalo and Tampa Bay, two of the league’s dreads.  So really it has been awhile since the Jets have been presented with quality competition.  The Bengals meanwhile have dealt with the tragic death of receiver Chris Henry, but nearly stunned red hot San Diego on the road toward the end of the season.  The Jets are  clearly coming into the game with more momentum, and I am on record saying that does count for a lot, and the Bengals are coming in with none being that they tanked last week’s game, so from that standpoint the Jets do have an advantage there.  However I do think in this case the Bengals didn’t show all their cards and they will have something ready for the Saturday that the Jets may not be ready for.

Cincinnati has not won a playoff game since 1990, so the Bengals fans have been waiting for something to celebrate for a long time.  Paul Brown Stadium will be rocking, and that should give the home team a tremendous lift and boost of confidence.  This should not be underestimated as an important X fact0r in this game.  I know home field advantage doesn’t mean as much as it used to, but in this case I have a feeling the Bengals will benefit from the support of their crowd that is dying to enjoy playoff success.  As for the matchup, we have a rookie quarterback on the road in Mark Sanchez, and while the Jets have won five of six heading into the postseason, Sanchez’ numbers have not been that terrific (he only threw for 63 yards last week), while the Bengals have Carson Palmer, who is eager for a playoff performance that will make everyone forget his only other playoff appearance, in which he got hurt on the first series and the Bengals lost to Pittsburgh in 2005.  I also think the Bengals have considerably more talent at receiver, and while Mr. Ochocino could very well have a tough time with Derrelle Revis (the best corner in the NFL), I think Palmer will have no qualms about spreading the ball around to other targets.  Then, I have a feeling we’ll see a huge play from Ochocinco late in the game.  I know he has a tough matchup with Revis, but I don’t see any way Chad doesn’t show up in front of the home crowd on football’s biggest stage.  I think both teams are capable of running the ball well with Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson, but I give the Bengals an overall edge offensively because of the passing game. 

The bottom line on this game is frankly it wouldn’t be a shock if it went either way.  The Jets have the momentum, while the Bengals have the home field and the advantage of not revealing their game plan last week.  I think from a defensive standpoint, the Bengals will be much better prepared than last week having seen what the Jets will throw at them, and in particular Cincinnati will have a chance to come up with ways to contain Brad Smith.  Benson didn’t play last week, so he should be fresh and ready to go, allowing the Bengals a chance to control the clock with the running game.  I think both teams will put some points on the board, but I just think the Jets are way too cocky and overconfident.  (When your coach says you should be the Super Bowl favorite and you’re the five seed, that’s being way too overconfident).  I think the Jets are about to get punched in the mouth being that they are playing a real team trying to win for the first time in two weeks.  I also think the Bengals will be motivated to show up and will win a close one.  Cincinnati 27 NY Jets 24

Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys: Last week the Cowboys shut the Eagles out 24-0 in a game where both teams were playing hard and trying to win, because the winner got the NFC East title and the right to have this game at home.  In the Eagles case, they blew a shot at a first round bye, so they are limping in, while the Cowboys are red hot, having won three in a row, including shutouts in each of their past two games.  Dallas in fact swept the regular season series against the Eagles, so a lot of cards are falling in Dallas’ direction heading into this one.  The Eagles have also been flashy at times this season but every once in awhile have been plagued by inconsistency.  Believe it or not the Cowboys have not won a playoff game since 1996, so patience could be wearing very thin in Big D if the Cowboys don’t win this one, leading to speculation that Wade Phillips might not be retained if they lose.  On the flip side the Eagles have experienced big time playoff success in the early rounds under Andy Reid, so winning a road game in the first round is old hat for them.

There is an adage that it tough to beat a team three times during the regular season, so that might be the biggest thing working against the Cowboys here.  I would be really surprised if we saw a repeat of what transpired in week 17 simply because the Eagles coaches are sure to make corrections and adjustments, and while the Cowboys do have the momentum coming in, it seems in this case that Dallas might be the team with more pressure on themselves here.  Before the week 17 game I expected offensive fireworks on both sides and that a fourth quarter turnover could well decide the game.  In spite of the blowout last week, I’m still expecting Saturday night’s game to be high scoring on both sides and a very entertaining affair.  We have good quarterback play on both sides with McNabb and Romo (who is playing the best football of his career), good receivers on both sides led by DeSean Jackson and Miles Austin, and a good running game from teams thanks to Marion Barber and the duo of Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy. 

I think the difference in this game will be which defense is more up to the task of slowing down the other team’s offense.  That being the case I give the edge to the Cowboys because in the past they have succeeded in slowing down San Diego (holding them to 20 points, even though the didn’t win the game), the Saints and the Eagles.  The play of the front seven, led by DaMarcus Ware, has been particularly outstanding.  Philadelphia surrendered 24 points to a Denver team that struggled offensively much of the season, so it seems like they are a little more vulnerable there heading in.  I think the Eagles will show up better than last week, and they will make some big plays and put some points on the board, but in the end I think the Cowboys will be able to put up a few more points, and they will be lifted by a raucous crowd in the first playoff game at their new stadium.  Dallas 30 Philadelphia 24. 

Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots: This is the only game of the weekend that is not a rematch of a week 17 contest, but they did square off in week four, with New England winning 27-21 in Foxboro.  This was a terrific game in which both teams had over 300 yards of total offense, and it ended with the Ravens driving in the final seconds and Joe Flacco missing a wide open Mark Clayton on fourth down.  The Patriots come into this game having suffered a devastating injury with the loss of Wes Welker last week.  The loss of Welker is huge for the Patriots because he is the league’s best slot receiver and creates lots of matchup problems for opposing defenses.  The encouraging thing for New England is that replacement Julian Edleman had over 100 yards receiving against Houston after Welker went down, so in typical fashion the Patriots may not skip much of a beat if Edleman continues to play well.  Reports also indicate that Tom Brady is playing through injured ribs, but Brady has played through pain before and played very well, so that injury is not near as much of a factor.  As for the Ravens, they still have an outstanding defense, although there have been games this year in which they have surrendered points against high scoring offenses (especially Minnesota and Green Bay).  Baltimore beat up on weak opponents in December (Detroit, Chicago and Oakland) so it will be interesting to see how they play against a step up in competition on Sunday.

The key for the Ravens if they want a chance to win this game is they will need to run the ball to be effective, and I think they will be able to do that.  Ray Rice had 103 yards on just 11 carries in the week four meeting, so it is pretty obvious that Rice will be a big part of the Ravens’ game plan.  Baltimore also has to be encouraged by improved play of late from Willis McGahee over the past few weeks, so if they can get a balanced running game going with both backs, that could prove to be a devastating combo for opponents in the playoffs.  If the running game is working, it will take a lot of pressure off Joe Flacco and not put him in positions where he needs to be flashy and big up big numbers for the Ravens to win.  If the running game is stalled, the pressure may too much for Flacco to overcome.  Defensively, the Ravens are still very good, and as long as they still have Ray Lewis in the middle, I’m not going to say for sure that any team is guaranteed to light them up in the playoffs. 

New England is a good position for the simple reason that they have Brady, who has had more playoff success than anyone else in the NFL.  Even if he is playing hurt, Brady is still someone I would not want to see on the other sideline if I was a defensive coordinator.  Even without Welker, he still has plenty of weapons to throw to, including Randy Moss.  Moss took some heat last month for some bad games, but I think he will show up in the playoffs, especially since he knows the Patriots really need him without Welker.  The Patriots have defined playoff success for much of the decade, and during the playoffs have been virtually unbeatable at home.  For this reason alone it makes it very difficult to pick against Belichick and company, injuries or no injuries.  New England may have had their woes on the road this season, but they still proved to be very tough at Gillette Stadium, so it is clear that it is one of the more formidable home field advantages in the NFL.

I think this will be a game very similar to what transpired in week four, a back and forth affair with the lead changing hands several times.  I think the Ravens will have success on the ground and the Patriots will be able to move the ball through the air.  Any number of little things could end up deciding this game: a dropped ball, perhaps a fumble, maybe a decision on whether or not to go for it on 4th and 1.  This is a wild card game that has the feel of a later round matchup.  The stat that really surprised me is that the Ravens have never beaten New England, ever.  Baltimore is 0-5 against the Patriots.  I know the Patriots at home in the playoffs is about as safe a bet as there has been in the NFL playoffs, but something I can’t put a finger on doesn’t seem right about this year’s group.  I pick Baltimore in the upset not because of the Welker injury, but because I think the Ravens are a sleeping giant capable of bucking the trend of playoff road teams in Foxboro.  The Ravens won two playoff road games last year, so there is no reason they can’t do it again.  Baltimore 24 New England 20. 

Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals: Another rematch of a blowout from week 17, with the Packers rolling 33-7.  The game last week was meaningless for both teams, but the Packers elected to play hard and try to win, while the Cardinals tanked the game, electing to rest their starters and hold back their game plan for the playoff rematch.  The game ended up being costly for Arizona in more ways than one, as the Cardinals lost receiver Anquan Boldin and star corner Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie with injuries.  Neither has been declared out for the playoff rematch on Sunday, but it’s safe to say that neither will be at 100 percent if they do play.  It will be interesting to see how Sunday’s game unfolds, because Green Bay looked like a very dangerous team last week, and the Packers have indeed been playing well throughout December, with their only loss coming on the last play in Pittsburgh.  The Cardinals have really been up and down all year, so for them it could depend on which team ends up showing up.  It’s hard to get a read on them last week considering Matt Leinart was in most of the game at quarterback.  In a way, the Cardinals are limping into the playoffs exactly the same way as last year, and we know they caught fire, so it’s possible that could happen again.

This has the potential to be a high scoring game considering the quick strike offensive ability of both teams.  As long as Kurt Warner is throwing to Larry Fitzgerald (and the Cardinals hope Boldin), the Cardinals have the opportunity for the big play at any time.  Aaron Rodgers has also had a tremendous season, and has done the unthinkable, which is make Packers fans forget about Brett Favre.  Rodgers has managed to buck the trend of replacing a legend quarterback, and for him to have experienced the success he has so far under those circumstances is nothing short of incredible.  While Greg Jennings and Donald Driver may not have the pizzazz of Fitzgerald and Boldin, they have been every bit as productive.  I think Green Bay does have a pretty big edge in terms of being able to run the football for the Cardinals have really struggled with Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells, although Wells started to come on in the second half of the season.  Defensively, neither team jumps off the page, but whichever one can win the turnover battle will go a long way toward deciding this contest.

I think like the other week 17 rematches, we should definitely see a much more competitve game than we did last week.  I think the Cardinals have an advantage in terms of not having tipped their hand as far as strategy, but the Packers clearly have more momentum heading into the game and are definitely healthier.  I think Aaron Rodgers still feels like he has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove, and while the Cardinals have much of the same group that made their Super Bowl run last season, they are going to need a dramatic kick in the rear to get jump started again this playoff year.  Also, it’s not the Cardinals have much of a home field advantage.  Phoenix is a city made up of people from other locations, especially in the winter, and legions of opposing fans are very common at University of Phoenix Stadium.  Factor in that the Cards have actually been a much better road team this year than at home, and that the Packers could well be the best non division winner still in the running in either conference, and I’ll take the Packers to win on the road in what feels like the biggest slam dunk of the weekend (My apologies to Mike McCarthy in advance for the jinx).   Green Bay 34 Arizona 21.

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