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Posts Tagged ‘Arizona Cardinals’

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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NFC West Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 8, 2009

Teams listed in predicted order of finish:

1. Seattle Seahawks – The Seahawks endured a very significant collapse a year ago.  They went from a perennial division championship team to a 4-12 also ran in the blink of an eye.  Definitely not what Mike Holmgren envisioned in his final season as head coach in Seattle.  It started from a get-go with a 34-10 loss in Buffalo, and before the Seahawks knew it they were out of the race.  Injuries had as much to do with this as anything, but the poor record seemed to give the team the excuse it needed to retool just a bit.  Jim Mora, Jr. takes over as head coach, and all he did his first season in Atlanta was lead the Falcons to the NFC title game in 2004.  The Seahawks are healthy, and with the additions they made are back in position to reclaim the NFC West.

Start with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.  Hasselbeck suffered a bulging disc in his back last year, and thus the Seahawks suffered perhaps the second most crippling injury blow in the league after Tom Brady.  Hasselbeck is a no brainer Pro Bowl talent, and with all due respect to Seneca Wallace, the Seahawks will be significantly upgraded this year with a healthy Hasselbeck.  I don’t believe Hasselbeck gets the due he should, for he should abosolutely be in the discussion of top QBs around the league.  His numbers speak for themselves throughout his career.  The Seahawks also made a major free agent impact with the pickup of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who escapes the jail that has been Cincinnati.  Houshmandzadeh no longer has to play in the shadow of Chad Ochocinco, and will be the clear featured receiver in Seattle.  Houshmandzadeh should be more at home in the northwest (he played college ball at Oregon State), but the fact that he is the number one guy will be a huge relief for him as well.  I believe he is in line for a huge year, and his presence will mean a big year for Hasselbeck as well.  The Seahawks also have receiving depth with veterans Nate Burleson and Deion Branch.  Tight end John Carlson also provides a good option in the passing game, plus he is a very good blocker.  The key for Seattle could well be the running game, for they will need i to be successful in order to draw attention from the passing attack.  It will be interesting to see how Mora and his staff divide carries between Julius Jones and new addition Edgerrin James, who was released by Arizona.  Jones and James are both guys who are used to being the primary back, and both are going to want their share of carries.  If they can co-exist, both are talented and capable of keeping a defense off balance.   I think with the right motivation, both will at least act like they are happy for a time, and if both are effective it will really make a difference for the Seahawks.  The offensive line features left tackle Walter Jones, who has been to multiple Pro Bowls but is also coming off knee surgery.  The Seahawks were decimated by injuries along the line last ear, so they expect improvement based on the simple fact everyone is now healthy.

The Seahawks’ defensive line was really pushed around a year ago, so they addressed that area by signing a pair of 300-pound defensive tackles in free agency, Colin Cole from Green Bay and Cory Redding from Detroit.  The Seahawks feel that if those two can tie up linemen, it will create more pass rushing and palymaking opportunities.  End Patrick Kerney was yet another Seahawk to be hit with injury last year, but now is healthy, and he is one of the more underrated pass rushers in the league.  Seattle will have a new look at linebacker, after they traded Julian Peterson, the team’s lone Pro Bowl representative, to Detroit.  To replace him, they used the fourth overall pick in the draft to tab Aaron Curry from Wake Forest.  He has looked great in preseason and should make an immediate impact.  He will be joined by the athletic Lofa Tatupu and hard hitting LeRoy Hill, who the Seahawks thought enough of to use their franchise tag on him.  The biggest question marks are in the secondary, but Seattle does have Marcus Trufant and they brought back Ken Lucas in April.

The Seahawks appear ready to turn the kicker position over to Brandon Coutu, who was on the roster all of last year even though the Seahawks had Olindo Mare.  Jon Ryan will handle the punting duties, and he has a very strong leg.  Nate Burleson and Josh Wilson should also be effective returning kicks.

I expect a big rebound year for the Seahawks.  They were so riddled with injury last year that they had very little chance of being competitive.  This year with everyone healthy they are in position to make a run.  Remember, this division was won with a 9-7 record last year.  I like the Seahawks to reassume the top position.

2. Arizona Cardinals – Arizona has accomplished something that almost no one thought possible: they have defined themselves as a threat in the NFL.  This is a team that has had potential for break out for several years, and last year they were finally able to break through, winning the division with a 9-7 record.  Then, they managed to write off everyone who said that was a fluke by running through the playoffs, beating Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia.  The Cardinals then came very close to stunning Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.  Make no mistake about it, Arizona is a real player in the NFL.  Can they get back to the Super Bowl?  History says that will be tough, but the Cardinals should be able to contend for a playoff spot once again.

It’s hard to believe that Kurt Warner is 38, but he is still one of the most effective quarterbacks in the NFL.  Warner has had a renaissance in Arizona, after he struggled with the Giants and then was a backup to Matt Leinart with the Cardinals.  Leinart is still viewed as the quarterback of the future, but this is definitely Warner’s team.  The Cardinals told him as much when they signed him to an extension in the offseason.  Warner is extremely accurate and probably reads defenses better than anyone else in the league. Even though he is not mobile, he is surprisingly adept at avoiding the sack because of his ability to find the open receiver so quickly.  Not only that but he might have the best set of wideouts in all of football at his disposal.  Larry Fitzgerald has an ability to catch any ball at any time, open or not.  Sometimes he can outleap anyone and snag a ball even when double covered.  Anquan Boldin is also an outstanding route running and deep threat.  He has expressed unahappiness about his contract, so it will be interesting to see how that affects his performance.  Steve Breaston is also a very good option at third receiver.  He would be a sure starter on most teams, but his ability to play the slot alongside Fitzgerald and Boldin makes the Cardinals’ offense very difficult to slow down for any secondary.  The Cardinals took a risk in the running game by allowing Edgerrin James to leave for Seattle.  This is largely because they spent their first round pick on Ohio State running back Beanie Wells.  Wells has an intriguing combination of size and speed, and the Cardinals are hoping he can be the starter from the word go.  Otherwise, the ground attack will be in the hands of Tim Hightower, who is good but not spectacular.  The offensive line is a cohesive unit that plays well together, and returns intact from a year ago.

The defensive line is an enigma at this point, for the group did a great job stuffing the run in the playoffs, but played poorly down the stretch of the regular season.  They also were unable to generate a pass rush on Ben Roethlisberger when it mattered in the Super Bowl.  Darnell Dockett is their best pass rusher, and Arizona will be highly dependent on him to lead the charge to the quarterback.  Bertrand Berry is very capable as well on the other side when he is on his game.  The linebackers are very average and aging, led by Karlos Dansby and Chike Okeafor.  The strength of the team lies in the secondary, which is one of the best in the NFL.  Cornerback Bryant McFadden comes over from the Steelers, and joins Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to form an effective unit.  Safeties Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle are hard hitting and would each start for any team easy.

Kicker Neil Rackers is extremely effective and accurate in the clutch, plus punter Ben Graham is solid so there are no worries there.  The return game is a question mark with the loss of J.J. Arrington, but Breaston might be able to get a shot if the Cardinals are willing to risk minimizing his effectiveness at receiver.

Arizona is battling history in the sense that losers of the Super Bowl tend to have down seasons the next year.  The Cardinals appear to have the talent to buck that trend, but they still need to show they can consistently win on the road.  A hunch says they lose a close division race to Seattle but that they will find themselves in the wild card hunt.

3. San Francisco 49ers – It has been a long time since the 49ers have resembled anything close to the glory days of the 80s.  Last year was more of the same as the team stumbled to seven losses in their first nine games, resulting in the firing of Coach Mike Nolan.  The good news for Niners fans is the team seemed to show some life under Mike Singletary when he took over.  Singletary brought a fiery new attitude to the team and the coaching staff, and San Francisco managed five wins in its last seven contests.  There is hope in San Francisco, but there is also turmoil and distraction looming over like a dark cloud.

The 49ers saw what they thought was good fortune on draft day, as the top receiver on the board fell to them at number ten.  The Niners grabbed Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech, thinking he would give them the deep threat they had been missing offensively.  Turns out they got more than the bargained for, because Crabtree remains the only unsigned draft pick as we head into week one.  Seems Mr. Crabtree thinks he should have been selected higher in the draft, and thus he wants top pick money.  He says he is prepared to sit out the season and reenter the draft next year if necessary.  The 49ers are just as stringent in their stance that Crabtree should be paid based on where he was actually selected, so we have a stalemate that’s going to continue for awhile, with San Francisco potentially in danger of losing the rights to Crabtree altogether if he follows through with his threat to sit out the year.  The absence of Crabtree would mean the 49ers would be stuck with essentially the same group of wideouts as last year.  Isaac Bruce is entering his 16th season in the NFL, and he briefly contemplated retirement in the offseason.  He can still get open, but is not near as explosive as his days with the Rams.  Josh Morgan did start to emerge in the second half of the season last year, and the second year wideout will be expected to step up in a big way if Crabtree doesn’t show.  The 49ers also signed veteran Brandon Jones from Tennessee, who will also be counted on heavily.  Tight end Vernon Davis will be asked to start living up to the potential he showed as a sixth overall pick in 2006.  Davis has been more valuable as a blocker so far, but now he will be needed in the receiving game as well.  Regardless of who is catching the ball, the 49ers know, at least at the start of the season, that Shaun Hill will be one throwing to them.  Hill is actually 7-3 as a starter, and the 49ers have tremendous confidence in him.  One reason for their second half surge last year was that Hill stepped in for J.T. O’Sullivan and seemed to inject some life into the team.  Hill is very much a journeyman, but if he continues to play well, the job will remain his.  Alex Smith has been the ultimate bust since being the top overall pick in 2005, and while the coaches desperately want to make him the starter, Hill has flat outperformed him.  Hill will have a luxury of an excellent running game with Frank Gore leading the way.  Gore has been the team’s workhorse the past few years, and there is no question he is the key to what they do.  He can run, he can catch, and he can block.  Gore has averaged well over 20 carries a game for the past three seasons, so it is scary to think where they would be without him.  The 49ers are making an effort to keep Gore fresher, so they tabbed Alabama’s Glen Coffee with their third round pick.  The idea is that Coffee can spell Gore for a few carries a game, and that way Gore should be fresher for the end of the year.  The offensive line has been horrible, allowing a staggering number of sacks the last two years, but the 49ers did sign free agent tackle Marvel Smith from the Steelers.  Smith has battled back problems, but the Niners are hopeful he can inject some stability into the group.

Defensively, the 49ers are a quietly improving group with talent.  The defensive line is anchored by pass rusher Justin Smith, who proved to be worth the money spent in free agency last season.  The 3-4 alignment the team plans to use this season should prove to be very beneficial to Smith, who will line up exclusively at right end, which plays to his pass rushing strength.  The linebackers are very talented, led by Patrick Willis, who is quietly becoming one of the game’s best players, making the Pro Bowl in each of his first two years.  He is joined by Takeo Spikes, who has been multiple Pro Bowls himself in his career.  The 49ers hope the 3-4 will prove to be better suited to both players.  The secondary is a mix of veterans (cornerbacks Nate Clements and Walt Harris) and youth (safeties Michael Lewis and Dashon Goldson).

The special teams is in good hands with reliable kicker Joe Nedney and punter Andy Lee.  The return game is also in very solid hands with Allen Rossum, who continues to be one of the most consistent kick returners in football.

While the 49ers do have some talent in place and a world of potential, I would feel better about them if they didn’t have the Crabtree distraction hanging over their head.  I also want to see improved play from the offensive line and secondary before I anoint them a playoff team.  Right now they are still a year away,

4. St. Louis Rams – It seems hard to believe it was 10 years ago that the Rams won the Super Bowl thanks to Kurt Warner Marshall Faulk, and the Greatest Show on Turf.  What was once one of the most feared offenses in NFL history is now arguably the worst team in the NFL.  Last year the Rams were a disaster in virtually every area, finishing 2-14.  Not surprisingly, there is a new sheriff in town in first year coach Steve Spagnuolo, who comes over from the Giants and brings a tough attitude to a team that certainly needs a little discipline.  The rebuilding is well underway, and things will be painful for another year in St. Louis.

Marc Bulger does remain the starting quarterback, and the Rams are hoping he can return to levels from a few years ago, especially his 4,000 yard season of 2006.  Bulger has not been able to stay healthy consistently, and he tends to linger in the pocket too long, leading to sacks.  He does have a good arm, and the Rams will be counting on his stability at the position.  The Rams also hope that his declining production the past few years is an aberration, not a trend.  What will make things a little tougher for Bulger is that he will throwing to a very average group of receivers.  Longtime veteran Torry Holt was let go in a cost cutting move, so the Rams will go with Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson, who comes over from Atlanta.  Tight end Randy McMichael does put up decent numbers and is a good blocker.  The key for the Rams is they are going to have to rely very heavily on their running game.  Steven Jackson is by far the best player on the team, for he has ability to run between the tackles, catch out of the backfield, and really make people miss.  The Rams did sign fullback Mike Karney from the Saints, so that is a clear indication that the running game may actually be a priority in St. Louis.  Jackson should post big numbers, and he might be able to get them into the end zone enough to help improve on the total of 2 wins from a year ago.  The offensive line is also a major bright spot for now and the future, for the Rams spent their first round pick on Baylor tackle Jason Smith.  They also signed center Jason Brown from Baltimore.  Veteran Orlando Pace was let go in another cost cutting move, but the new coaches felt that Pace’s production had dropped significantly anyway.

Despite major efforts to upgrade the defensive line the past few years, the Rams have remained bad against the run and have been equally unable to generate a pass rush.  Rookie Chris Long did have four sacks last year, but now the Rams will be counting on him to start showing his potential and justify his second overall selection a year ago.  The Rams will also need production out of Leonard Little, who had six sacks last year.  The linebackers are in the process of being retooled, but I like the second round selection of Ohio State’s James Laurinaitis in the draft.  The Rams hope that he will eventually become the leader of the defense the way he was at Ohio State.  The rest of the group is very young and there are expected to be growing pains.  The Rams have decided to basically retain the same secondary as last year, highlighted by cornerback Ron Bartell and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe.

The kicking game is actually in decent hands with kicker Josh Brown and punter Donnie Jones.  Both have strong legs and are accurate.  Derek Stanley is expected to get the first crack at returning kicks and punts, but he has yet to show any consistency in that area.

The Rams are undertaking a major rebuilding effort, and the immediate future does not look good.  Many home games are not expected to sell out, resulting in local television blackouts.  I think Spagnuolo and his staff will have success eventually, but this has the look of a very rough year for the Rams.

Coming later this week: playoff and week one picks

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Super Bowl Thoughts

Posted by mizzou1028 on February 2, 2009

At the risk of bouncing all over the place with no clear order to my comments from the Super Bowl, I offer my thoughts on the game in a quick hit format:

– What a fantastic game.  For the second straight season, the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl was scored with 35 seconds remaining.  As a fan you can’t ask for much more than that. 

– What a phenomenal job by Ben Roethlisberger on the final drive.  I lost count of how many guys he escaped from during the game, and on the final drive especially he kept plays alive with his feet and made perfect throw after perfect throw.  His pass to Santonio Holmes for the winning touchdown was threaded perfectly through three Cardinals defenders.

– It’s almost hard to realize that Roethlisberger has already won two Super Bowls in his first four years as a quarterback.  The way he can scramble and keep plays alive actually reminds me of my favorite player of all-time John Elway.  There is a certain irony that Roethlisberger wears Elway’s number seven.  While I have certain bitterness toward Roethlisberger and the Steelers because of their AFC title game win over the Broncos three years ago (and my anger over how many Steelers fans elbowed their way into Invesco Field that day), it’s impossible not to applaud his athleticism and the way he gets the job done in crunch time.  I think he should have the MVP, but Holmes is deserving as well. 

– Speaking of which, that was an awesome catch by Holmes for the winning score, and a great job to touch both feet in bounds, but I think David Tyree’s catch in last year’s Super Bowl was much more impressive.  Still, Holmes really stepped up with big catches on the final drive. 

– I don’t think Arizona’s scheme defensively was the problem on Pittsburgh’s final drive.  Roethlisberger and Holmes made a series of terrific plays that any defense would have been hard pressed to stop.  I actually thought Arizona’s defense really stepped things up in the red zone throughout the game, holding the Steelers to two field goals inside the five yard line. 

– Great job by the Cardinals to battle back, overcoming an early 10-0 deficit to get back in the game in the second quarter, and again overcoming a 20-7 deficit to take the lead.  Pittsburgh doesn’t usually lose when they have a double digit lead, and while moral victories don’t count for anything in the NFL, Arizona deserves to be commended for nearly pulling it off.

– James Harrison’s 100-yard interception return at the end of the first half was the play of the game.  Had the Cardinals scored a touchdown, they would have had a 14-10 halftime lead, plus the ball to begin the second half.  The interception and ensuing return caused a monster momentum swing had a big effect on the game.  To be honest I thought the Cardinals were almost done and buried when they didn’t do anything on their first possession of the second half, so they deserve a lot of credit for battling back. 

– On that play, it appeared to me that Kurt Warner misread the coverage by the Steelers defense.  It seemed like he thought the Steelers were going to blitz, and that Anquan Boldin was going to be wide open on the slant pattern.  Instead, Harrison sat back, and saw where Warner was going with the football.  It was clear watching the replay that Boldin was nowhere near open and that throw should not have been made, so it seems to me that Warner may have been expecting something different from the Steelers defense. 

– Give Harrison credit for the job he did on the play.  He read Warner perfectly, and then made a phenomenal run for the touchdown.  His touchdown carried a lot of importance given that time expired during the play, which means that had he been bumped out of bounds at the 2 yard line, the half would have been over and Pittsburgh wouldn’t have been able to add to the 10-7 lead. 

– Larry Fitzgerald deserved a ton of credit during the play too.  If you missed his effort on the play, try to watch him during one of the 50,000 replays you’ll see today on ESPN.  He started chasing Harrison from four yards deep in the end zone (and to boot Fitzgerald was on the opposite side of the field on the play, so he was chasing Harrison at a diagonal from the opposite corner), and kept hustling despite getting blocked by a Steeler defensive linemen.  At one point Fitzgerald even bumped into a teammate at the 30 yard line along the sideline, shoved him out of the way, and very nearly caught Harrison before he scored.  Even though Fitzgerald didn’t prevent the touchdown, his hustle on the play and refusal to give up is something we don’t see often enough from players. 

– I love the way Fitzgerald plays the game, he’s the anti-TO, unselfish, humble and willing to go all-out on every play.  He doesn’t whine when he doesn’t get the ball.  I wish he was on my team.

– The game was terrific, but in theme with the 2008 season, the officiating was, ahem, questionable at best.  Check that, Terry McAulay and his crew were awful.  Consider:

– How is it that the final play of the game (not counting the kneel down) was not reviewed??????  I’m talking about the strip and fumble recovery by the Steelers defense with five seconds left.  It seemed to me that Warner’s arm may have indeed been going forward, and that should have been an incomplete pass.  I am befuddled as to why there is not a bigger stink being made about this.  I’m not sure if the replay was conclusive, but my opinion is the arm was going forward and it should have been ruled an incomplete pass, not a fumble.  At the very least, the play should been reviewed by the booth upstairs.  Even if the call stood, at least everyone would know that it was reviewed.  Why do we even bother to have replay if the biggest play of the entire season is not subject to a review?  It is absolutely inexcusable that a Super Bowl crew wouldn’t look at that play.  Factor in there was a 15-yard penalty assessed on the Steelers following the play, and a reversal would have allowed the Cardinals one shot for a hail mary from the 30 yard line.  Terry McAulay and his crew should be ashamed they allowed this to happen.  Really, I am astounded that this is not a much bigger topic in the media today. 

– Consider also the number of calls that were missed in the game.  For starters, how was Holmes not assessed a 15-yard excessive celebration penalty following his winning touchdown?  The rule says you’re not allowed to use the ball as a prop in a celebration, yet he clearly did.  How about a roughing the passer penalty against the Cardinals for a hit on Roethlisberger, yet a much later after the play and more brutal hit against Warner wasn’t called?  How about the roughing the holder penalty against the Cardinals’ Adrian Wilson?  Seemed to me that was not an intentional blow by Wilson.  What about Roethlisberger getting away with at least two very blatant intentional groundings that weren’t called (one where the refs claimed he was out of the pocket and clearly was not)?  Consider also that the Cardinals were correct on two challenges during the game.  This means that the calls were originally missed by the officials.  All told, there were a lot of flags thrown during the game, but perhaps it’s the ones that weren’t thrown and should have been that made as much of a difference.

– Don’t get me wrong, Pittsburgh deserved to win the game.  They made the plays when they had to especially on the final drive, but you can’t deny that McAulay and his crew had an adverse impact on the game.  I’ll say it again, I am STUNNED that there isn’t more of a fuss being made about the lack of a review on the final play.  The league is very fortunate that the officials’ poor performance is overshadowed by the terrific finish and the great game.  It is ironic though that each of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl wins in the past four years is marred by poor officiating. 

– All that being said, this is not to take away from the Steelers’ victory.  Roethlisberger and Holmes were amazing on the final drive, and James Harrison had a big impact on defense.  I am confident that future Super Bowls will be along the lines of the previous two years: close games with exciting finishes.  It was a terrific game, one that is hard to top in excitement from a fan’s perspective.

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Super Bowl Pick

Posted by mizzou1028 on January 29, 2009

Before we get to talking about the Steelers and the Cardinals, it’s interesting to note that this Super Bowl seems to be more under the radar than any that I can recall in my life.  This is especially true when compared to last year’s game, although to be fair just about everyone had a rooting interest one way or the other last season.  Patriots fans wanted to see Brady and company complete a perfect season, while virtually everyone else in the country was rooting for the underdog Giants to pull the upset.  For whatever reason though, this year’s game does not seem to be getting near the attention.  Perhaps it’s because people are still getting over the shock of the Cardinals making it to the big game.  Maybe it’s because this is a matchup that doesn’t have a lot of quote unquote star power (i.e. a Manning or Brady-esque player in the lead).  Perhaps the economy is a factor in that people are more concerned about the goings on in their lives.  Whatever the reason, the hype for this game does not seem to match that of previous seasons, and it seems like this game is really sneaking up on people this year. 

As far as the game itself, I think most people would agree that picking the Super Bowl is not the same as picking a regular game.  As I pointed out last year in my correct prediction of the Giants’ upset of New England, once the game kicks off, everything that happened during the season prior to that point is completely irrelevant.  Last year it didn’t matter that the Patriots were an unstoppable force heading into the game, what mattered was that the Giants figured out a way to slow them down.  The key play of that game, David Tyree’s incredible catch, could not have been predicted based on any amount of statistics and game data from the season or even in the previous playoff games.  The Super Bowl is a one game situation, and as such the unpredictable has the potential to decide the game.   Any team with a perceived advantage coming into the game is not guaranteed to enjoy that advantage during the game, and often times gets beat (see Giants-Bills in ’90, Broncos-Packers in ’97, Patriots-Rams in ’01, Giants-Patriots last year, and so on).  This makes predicting the outcome of the Super Bowl next to impossible in most years, because what happens after kickoff in the Super Bowl is often no reflection of what the numbers say should happen.  The old saying “any given Sunday” really applies to the Super Bowl, because anything can happen in one game. 

I think it is interesting that the Steelers are favored by seven points.  I agree that they are the favorite coming in, but a full touchdown seems like a lot.  I believe that the days of mega blowouts in the Super Bowl are over for several reasons, largely because of the parity of the league.  I think this is a very intriguing matchup because of the contrast in styles, but both teams have shown they can go against the grain of their perceived style.  The Cardinals are known for their passing offense, and it has been dynamic this postseason (especially Larry Fitzgerald), but in the playoffs they have also  shown they can run the ball effectively.  The Steelers are known as a power running team, and they  have run well, but they have also made big plays in the passing game during the playoffs (in large part thanks to Ben Roethlisberger being able to extend plays and avoid sacks with his escape ability). 

I actually think this has the potential to be a high scoring game.  Both teams have outstanding quarterback play, both have shown they can run the ball this postseason, and both have talented receivers.  Both quarterbacks have won a  Super Bowl before, so neither one will get rattled about being in the big game.   Pittsburgh does seem to have the much stronger defense on paper, especially against the run where they have been nothing short of dominant in two playoff games.  The Cardinals though have been very surprising with their defensive play in the playoffs, including the 5-interception effort against Jake Delhomme in the divisional round.  While I highly doubt the Cards will get five picks on Sunday, I think they do have better ability to cause havoc than people seem to realize.  All that being said, I have a feeling both defenses will end up giving up points on Sunday. 

Honestly, we could break this game down until we’re blue in the face, but the reality is this has been an NFL season of unpredictability for sure.  It has long gotten to the point where I am not surprised to see anything, including a Super Bowl appearance by the Arizona Cardinals.  Going with that theme, I think stats and trends,  numbers and even personnel don’t mean much in regard to picking this game.  In the theme of unpredictability, my pick is….

 Arizona 28 Pittsburgh 24.  It would just be too fitting for a season filled with wackiness and craziness not to end with the Cardinals winning their first championship since 1947.  The Steelers may have the history edge (5 Super Bowl wins to none), may have better tradition, and may be more impressive on paper, but favorites have not carried the day in the NFL this season.  Arizona wins the Super Bowl, and thus we have the ultimate symbol for the 2008 season of unpredictability.

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Divisional Playoff Picks

Posted by mizzou1028 on January 9, 2009

We won’t discuss last week where I went a mighty 1-3.  I have no doubt that Ken Wisenhunt, Norv Turner and Andy Reid are hoping that I pick against their teams again this weekend.  Regardless, there are great games on tap this weekend so let’s get right to it.

Baltimore at Tennessee: The Titans won 13-10 in Baltimore in week five, thanks to a Kerry Collins TD pass to Alge Crumpler in the final two minutes.  I expect the rematch to be very much the same kind of game, low scoring, physical and dominated by defense.  The Ravens come into the rematch red hot, having completely destroyed the Dolphins last weekend.  The Ravens defense is playing well enough to evoke memories of 2000, when they won the Super Bowl.  In that playoff year, the Ravens won their divisional playoff game on the road against… guessed it, Tennessee.  The Titans were the number one seed that year too, and the Ravens were a wild card just like they are this year.  Over the years the Ravens have proven they are not afraid of playing on the road, so home field advantage won’t be much of a factor in this one.  Baltimore actually has more offense this year than they did when they won the Super Bowl, despite the presence of a rookie quarterback in Joe Flacco.  The Titans meanwhile are well deserving of the number one seed, proving their worth for that spot with an impressive win over Pittsburgh in week 16.  Tennessee will also get the boost of getting Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch back along the defensive line, although center Kevin Mawae will not play, which will hurt the offensive line and the running game. 

In the first meeting, the Ravens were much more effective on the ground than the Titans, outgaining them 132-47.  This does not bode well for the Titans in the rematch in light of Mawae’s absence.  I don’t think the Titans will have much success if any on the ground as well as the Ravens’ defense is playing.  The running game will be extremely important in this kind of low scoring game that could be decided by turnovers.  Each defense forced two turnovers in the first meeting, so expect lots of them on Saturday.  I do have slight pause of picking a rookie quarterback on the road against the experienced Kerry Collins, not to mention I give Jeff Fisher a big edge in the coaching matchup over John Harbaugh, but I think the Ravens are just playing too well right now to be denied.  The Titans have the look of a flawed top seed, and the Ravens look like they might even be the AFC’s best team at the time of year where it matters most.

The Pick: Baltimore 20 Tennessee 10

Arizona at Carolina: This is a rematch of one of the more interesting games of the season, a 27-23 Panthers win in Charlotte in week 8.  Arizona actually had a 10-0 lead in the game, and even had the lead through most of the third quarter, before Steve Smith turned the game with a 65-yard touchdown catch along the sideline on the last play of the quarter.  It is interesting to note that the Cardinals outgained the Panthers thanks to a 381 yard day by Kurt Warner, but that the Cardinals were doomed by a lack of a running game and also seven penalties, not to mention an untimely Warner interception in the red zone in the fourth quarter.  DeAngelo Williams had a huge game for Carolina, gaining 108 yards on just 17 carries, and that was a big factor for the Panthers. 

What doesn’t bode well for Arizona heading into this game is that the Cardinals were 0-5 on the east coast during the regular season.  The other thing that doesn’t bode well for the Cardinals is the Saturday night weather forecast in Charlotte.  All things considered, the temperature won’t be that bad for the Cardinals (temps are expected to be in the 40s), but it is the 50 percent chance of rain that will seriously hamper Arizona’s passing attack.  The Cardinals may not have Anquan Boldin, who pulled his hamstring on his 71-yard touchdown catch last week against the Falcons.  In any case, the Cardinals will need a huge game on the ground from Edgerrin James to even have a chance, and I don’t see that happening against Carolina’s strong defensive front seven.  The Panthers have one of the league’s best running attacks with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and that alone gives them an edge in the playoffs.  Steve Smith is also the kind of playmaker that can turn close games in his team’s favor, as he did in the first meeting between these teams.  I think the Panthers roll in this one, in large part because I can’t see Arizona playing well on the road when it matters and also in part because I think Carolina is a focused team on a mission. 

The Pick: Panthers 31 Cardinals 17

Philadelphia at NY Giants: These teams split their regular season meetings, with each team winning the away game.  The Giants won in Philadelphia 36-31 in week 10, while the Eagles won at Giants Stadium 20-14 in week 14.  The Giants ran for an astounding 219 yards in the first meeting, including 126 from Brandon Jacobs, while they held Brian Westbrook to just 26 yards rushing on 13 carries.  In the second meeting, Westbrook ran wild for 131 yards and added 72 receiving with 2 touchdowns, while Jacobs was held to 52 yards, and the Giants mustered just 88 rushing yards total.  It is interesting to note that the second meeting was the Giants’ first game since the Plaxico Burress fiasco, and that the G-men stumbled to a 1-3 finish in their final four games, while the Eagles went 3-1 over their final four regular season games, and then won on the road in Minnesota last week.

Generally speaking, anything goes when teams are meeting for the third time in a season.  Neither team has any secrets from the other, so coaching influence is minimal.  I think the key will be which team will be better able to establish the run, because judging from the first two meetings this game should be within a touchdown either way.  Call me crazy, but I think the Eagles are in much better position to run the ball effectively in this game.  Brian Westbrook is healthy and red hot, while Brandon Jacobs was anything but healthy for the final four games of the regular season.  Even though he has had the bye to regroup, something tells me that Jacobs will still have a hard time in this game.  The Giants did get a huge game from Derrick Ward against Carolina in week 16, so if Jacobs isn’t 100 percent, Ward will need to step up.  I also actually like Donovan McNabb better than Eli Manning in this game based on the way each QB has been playing recently down the stretch.  Manning actually has a difficult matchup against one of the league’s top secondaries with Asante Samuel and Brian Dawkins, especially with the receivers still in flux (Memo to Dominek Hixon: stop dropping passes).  The Giants may have home field and may be the defending champs, but I think the Eagles have more momentum and are actually in better shape to win this game.

The Pick: Eagles 24 Giants 17

San Diego at Pittsburgh: This is a rematch of one of the most bizarre games of 2008, an 11-10 Steelers win in week 11 at Heinz Field that really should have been 18-10, thanks to an incorrect ruling by the official on the game’s final play that wiped out Troy Polamalu’s return of a lateral for a TD.  In any case, Pittsburgh won this game without scoring a touchdown, thanks to three Jeff Reed field goals and a safety.  The Chargers’ one touchdown came courtesy of LaDainian Tomlinson, who is highly doubtful for Sunday’s rematch with a groin injury.  Ben Roethlisberger actually threw for 308 yards in the first meeting, although he got carted off the field in the regular season finale against Cleveland.  He says he will play Sunday, but how effective will he be?  The Steelers did get a 115 yard effort from Willie Parker in the first meeting, and they will need that again on Sunday.  One thing that doomed the Chargers in November was that Philip Rivers had one of his worst games of the season, throwing for just 164 yards and two picks.  If they want to have a chance Sunday, Rivers can’t have that kind of repeat performance.  One thing is for sure, Darren Sproles is guaranteed to have a much more productive game than the first meeting, when he had just one carry for zero yards and caught just one pass for nine. 

It is really crazy to think that if San Diego and Baltimore both win, the Chargers would host the AFC Championship Game in a season in which they were at one point 4-8.  I’m not sure if that’s good news or bad news for the league, but that scenario could put the Chargers in position to complete the highly improbable run from 4-8 to Super Bowl champion.  That’s the thing about the playoffs: once you’re in, what happened in the regular season doesn’t matter.  This is game is a challenging one to pick because of Roethlisberger’s health, and also considering the Chargers are a red hot team playing on the road against a team that earned a bye despite playing the most rigorous schedule in the NFL.  Over the years the Steelers have actually fared much better in road playoff games than they have at home, so that makes it highly tempting to pick San Diego.  On the other hand, no team has made the conference championship game with fewer than 10 wins since Jacksonville did it in 1996.  I think the Steelers will be out to prove something after their home flameout against Jacksonville last season, and I think the Steelers defense will find a way to slow down Rivers and Sproles enough.  Either way, this should be the best of the four games this weekend.

The Pick: Steelers 24 Chargers 21

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Week Two Picks

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 12, 2008

This NFL season is certainly shaping up to be very intriguing on a number of fronts.  Could we possibly have a playoffs that doesn’t include New England OR Indianapolis?  It could be possible if Matt Cassel proves to be no Tom Brady and the Colts take too long to get it together after their disastrous week one effort.  Are the Jets the new favorite in the AFC East, or is Buffalo for real?  Are the Steelers ever going to get their due for being consistently good?  Is the Bears defense back to the level of two years ago?  Who is going to win the awful NFC West?  It’s only one week into the season, and a number of my season picks are threatening to blow up in my face already.  I keep telling myself it’s still early, but it is possible that my AFC Super Bowl pick may not be all its cracked up to be. I still think Jacksonville’s defense will not allow them to be a disappointment.  Was I nuts to pick the 49ers to win the NFC West?  I still maintain they’ll be a surprise by the end of the year.  Was I drinking the Kool-Aid on the Minnesota hype?  I still think they have a team that is scary talented.  Am I underestimating Aaron Rodgers? I have to admit he looked very good in week one.  We’ll see if he can maintain it over the long haul.  Are the Chargers in trouble without Shawne Merriman?  Or is that wishful thinking on my part?.  It did seem like someone forgot to tell them the season started for three quarters against Carolina.  Speaking of the Panthers, are they once again a contender in the NFC? That offense could really come alive when Steve Smith returns from suspension in week three.  How praytell did the Falcons win a game, let alone dominate? I reserve judgement until I see them against someone other than Detroit.  

At least I got a few things right in week one.  The Cowboys dominated on the road.  The Browns looked lost and confused.  The Giants looked dominant like you would expect a defending champ to be.  The Bengals REALLY stink, or did you see Joe Flacco score on a 38-yard touchdown run while jogging through the Bengals defense? The Seahawks looked horrible on the road.  Brett Favre can still play a little.  Donovan McNabb looks poised for a big season.  The Raiders are a mess akin to Days of Our Lives as usual.  The Broncos offense could be scary good.  Or maybe that’s wishful thinking.  Perhaps that was more the Raiders are awful.  

One thing I know, this could be a season unlike any other.  Or maybe it will be just like any other.  For 11 consecutive seasons, there have been at least five teams in the playoffs who did not qualify the previous year.  With the exception of the 2006 Seahawks, the Super Bowl loser has missed the playoffs every year since 2000.  Even at that the Seahawks only made it past the first round the next year thanks to Tony Romo’s butterfingers.  Here are the numbers:

2000 New York Giants – Lost Super Bowl XXXV
2001 New York Giants – 7-9 record, no playoffs

2001 St. Louis Rams – Lost Super Bowl XXXVI
2002 St. Louis Rams – 7-9 record, no playoffs

2002 Oakland Raiders – Lost Super Bowl XXXVII
2003 Oakland Raiders – 4-12 record, no playoffs

2003 Carolina Panthers – Lost Super Bowl XXXVIII
2004 Carolina Panthers – 7-9 record, no playoffs

2004 Philadelphia Eagles – Lost Super Bowl XXXIX
2005 Philadelphia Eagles – 6-10 record, no playoffs

2005 Seattle Seahawks – Lost Super Bowl XL
2006 Seattle Seahawks – 9-7 record (made playoffs, 2nd round exit)

2006 Chicago Bears – Lost Super Bowl XLI
2007 Chicago Bears – 7-9 record, no playoffs

2007 New England Patriots – Lost Super Bowl XLII
2008 New England Patriots – ??????

This does not bode well for the Patriots in light of Tom Brady’s injury.  I know, I picked the Patriots to return to the AFC title game, but I also said they were done if Brady went down.  It will be interesting to see if the Patriots continue the trend of Super Bowl losers struggling the next year.  On one hand, it is hard a fathom a team threatening history one year and missing the playoffs the next year.  On the other hand, the Patriots missing the playoffs this year would be right in line with what the NFL is about much of the time. I still shudder when I think of the Broncos going 6-10 in 1999 after winning back to back Super Bowls and being favored to compete for a third.  After all there is the old cliche “On any given Sunday……”   Now on to the picks.

Last Week: 9-7

– Jaguars over Bills: I have to admit I really struggled with this one.  The Bills dominated Seattle last week, and the Jaguars look like they could be in trouble.  Still, I can’t picture the Jaguars 0-2, especially with Jack Del Rio having a week to drill discipline into his team before the home opener.

– Cardinals over Dolphins: Surprise stat of the week: the Cardinals actually went 6-2 at University of Phoenix Stadium last season.  The Cardinals at 2-0 would rank among the season’s early surprises, but it would be an even bigger surprise if Chad Pennington had a big day against what is becoming one of the league’s most underrated secondaries.

– Jets over Patriots: Brett Favre’s home debut in New York puts an extra charge into this one, plus the Jets would just love to stick it to the Patriots in the wake of Spygate last year.  I have a feeling Matt Cassel will find the road to be much more daunting than Gillette Stadium.  Oh, and he doesn’t have the luxury of facing the Chiefs.

– Titans over Bengals: No Vince Young for Tennessee, but it won’t matter.  There are high school teams that tackle better than Cincinnati’s defense.  The Bengals offense looked a little confused too last week.  Carson Palmer under 100 yards passing?  The Marvin Lewis watch begins in Cincinnati.  I say 75 percent he’s axed before the year is over.

– Steelers over Browns: Pittsburgh will run away with the AFC North.  The Browns proved last week that they are a ways from the elite against Dallas.  This one will be competitive due to the rivalry factor, plus an emotional under the lights home crowd in Cleveland, but the Steelers are the class of the division and they will prove it.

– Vikings over Colts: Chalk this one up as the most intriguing game of the week for me.  Is this an elimination game of sorts already?  The Colts cannot be confident heading into the loud Metrodome after getting shelled at home in their opener.  Minnesota needs Tarvaris Jackson to show that potential we keep hearing about, but the Vikings defense will follow the Bears blueprint and harass Peyton Manning.  Peyton, meet Jared Allen.  Good luck.  The Colts at 0-2? It seems beyond crazy, but it might just happen.

– Broncos over Chargers: Denver’s confidence is sky high after destroying the Raiders on the road, plus Brandon Marshall is back.  If D’Angelo Hall couldn’t cover Eddie Royal one on one, how are the San Diego corners going to handle him and Marshall?  The Chargers pass rush will really miss Merriman, plus Antonio Gates is hobbled.  The Broncos might allow a high rushing day for LT, but their offense will be enough to win a shootout and enjoy a large lead in the AFC West.  San Diego at 0-2? Seems really crazy, but it just might happen.

– Chiefs over Raiders: Dud game of the week.  The rivalry is nasty enough that the game could actually be fun to watch, but these are two of the worst teams in the league.  The Chiefs are reportedly having trouble selling out Arrowhead for this game, which tells all you need to know about the state of football these days in Kansas City.  Still, the Raiders are a mess in every way, and Larry Johnson will run for enough to get KC a rare W.  

– Giants over Rams: The G-men’s biggest challenge will be overcoming a 10-day layoff after opening the season with their Thursday night win over Washington.  St. Louis was maybe the worst team in week one, so there is nowhere to go but up.  This seems like it could be a trap game for New York if the Rams’ offense wakes up (Torry Holt 1 catch for 9 yards last week – are you kidding me?).  Still, the Giants should be able to rely on their championship experience and pull out a win.

– Saints over Redskins: New Orleans will really miss Marques Colston, who is out 4-6 weeks.  Still, Drew Brees has enough targets for the team to score offensively.  The Redskins looked like they didn’t know which end was up offensively last week.  If that continues, New Orleans will win a low scoring affair.

– Bears over Panthers: This should be a great game.  Both teams pulled shockers in week one, so it’s hard to say which of these teams is better right now.  The Panthers are without Steve Smith for another week, so that gives an edge to the Bears defense.  Chicago won on the road during their Super Bowl run two years ago, and the hunch is they’ll find a way to pull out this one.  This one really could go either way though.

– Packers over Lions: Aaron Rodgers played well last week in the spotlight, and the Packers look like they have a statement to make.  Detroit? The Lions should be embarrassed losing to Atlanta.  Home field advantage won’t help the Lions if they keep playing like that.  This won’t exactly be a difficult road environment for Green Bay’s young signal caller.

– Buccaneers over Falcons: Brian Griese gets the start for Tampa so that gives slight pause.  Still, the Falcons aren’t playing Detroit anymore.  Matt Ryan could be in for a rude awakening this week against Monte Kiffin’s defense.  Tampa Bay almost stole one last week and could be just good enough to make things interesting in the NFC South.  On a side note, I am kicking myself that I didn’t rank Michael Turner higher in fantasy this year.  He could have some big games this year even though he’s playing for the Falcons.

– Seahawks over 49ers: Seattle is still really banged up, and I really want to pick the upset.  Thing is, Seattle has a tremendous home field advantage, and there is no reason to back San Francisco on the road right now after the way they played last week.  Besides, Matt Hasselbeck has got to play better this week doesn’t he? This could be a really sloppy game.

– Texans over Ravens: This game has been moved to Monday night due to Hurricane Ike, which makes it the first Monday night game in Texans history.  Even though it won’t be nationally televised,that’s enough for me in this toss-up matchup.  Baltimore’s defense is still good, but I still want to see Joe Flacco on the road.  Houston is a much better team than what they showed last week.

– Cowboys over Eagles: This too will be a fantastic game.  In a way it’s a shame one of these teams will have to start the year 1-1.  I like the Cowboys in what should be a raucous atmosphere for their home opener, on a Monday night no less.  Still, the Eagles pose a big challenge.  The sway factor will be a monster game from Terrell Owens, eager as always to show Andy Reid and company they did him wrong.

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