Archive for January, 2006

Conference Championship Picks

January 21st, 2006 Comments off

I don’t know. That’s what it all comes down to. I’m not sure how we got here (which is to say, I went 1-3 picking straight up last week — though, hey, I did end up 4-0 on Wild Card weekend, so there’s that). And I have no idea where we’re going. That’s the long and short of it. It’s also a pretty good argument for why you should pay absolutely no attention to anything I have to say about the possible outcome of these conference championship games.

Still here? OK. You’ve been warned. So here’s what I’ve got to say in general. There’s a certain logic that says the Broncos, who are at home and who beat the defending two-time champion Patriots last week, and the Panthers, who are by far the better team in the NFC contest, should advance to the Super Bowl. There’s another logic that says both the Steelers and Panthers are playing a third consecutive tough road game, and neither should be expected to come out on top. And yet another logic says since defense wins in the playoffs, both the Steelers and the Panthers should win this weekend (plus, let’s face it, Steelers-Panthers would make for a hell of a game). And you know what? All of that reasoning is valid. All of it makes sense. And I don’t know what line of reasoning to embrace. So I’m just sticking with what makes sense to me, which is, as always, an entirely unhealthy mix of reasoning and gut instinct. That oughta get me all of nowhere. It’ll bit you on the ass, too, if you take my advice. So take my advice and don’t take my advice. Know what I mean?

Here, to the best of my ability, is what I think it all comes out looking like.

Pittsburgh (+3) at Denver
Watching last week’s Divisional Playoff round games confirmed something for me about each of these two teams. It became clear to me, for instance, that Denver is one tough-ass football team. Yeah, the Broncos didn’t play a spectacular game — they logged all of 286 yards of total offense (including just 96 on the ground) and gave up 420 on D (though only 79 of those were to the Patriots’ running game) — and they owe one touchdown to a horribly bad call (the pass interference call on Assante Samuel that put them at the goal line when they shouldn’t have been anywhere near it), but they played tough, the capitalized on the Patriots’ many errors and they found a way to win in spite of not getting everything right. And they did all of that against a team that had won two straight Super Bowls for a very good reason. That’s worthy of admiration no matter how you slice it.

But what I learned watching Pittsburgh beat Indianapolis was a bit more important. Because what hit me there was that the Steelers, when Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, are probably the best team in the NFL. That’s not to take anything away from any other squad. Not the Broncos. Not the Pats. Not the Panthers or the Seahawks or … well, you get the point. And it’s not to say no team can beat the Steelers. They’re as beatable as any other team in the league, particularly if they make the kind of errors the Pats made in Denver last weekend. Nor is it to say that the condition is permanent. Obviously, in this day and age, how good a team is changes with every injury and every off-season. All I’m saying is that right now, there isn’t a more impressive team in football than the Steelers. Forget that the Colts are a classic choke team. Forget that Tony Dungy’s teams never manage to come out ahead in big games. Just focus on the fact that the Steelers came out last week, stared across the field at an opponent that was supposed to be on its way to a Lombardi Trophy, that was big and bad and full of potential, and simply started punching. And they punched. And they punched. And they punched some more. And even when the refs repeatedly sent them to their corner so they could pick the other guys up off the canvas and give them another chance, the Steelers came right back out punching again. They did it until they sealed the victory. And in the process, they did just about everything right (excepting that one nearly crushing turnover near the end of the game). They threw the ball well. They ran the ball well. They controlled the game from virtually the first snap. And they beat the living bejesus out of their opponents. That’s good football.

So what happens when these two impressive teams meet? Well, I think it’s gonna depend on whether the Steelers have another game like the one they played last week in them. Because if they do, there isn’t a thing in the world that the Broncos will be able to do to win this thing. Denver has been capitalizing on turnovers all season long. The Broncos had the second best giveaway/takeaway ratio in the league in the regular season (+18) and we all know they couldn’t have won last week without the five turnovers the Pats committed (one short of the total number of turnovers New England had committed in its 10 previous playoff games, all wins). But whereas the Pats had a bit of a turnover problem ass season long (they finished with a -5 giveaway/takeaway ratio — pointing to a problem they need to somehow address leading into next season) the Steelers were a bit more solid in that regard. Yeah, Pittsburgh turned the ball over 21 times, but they also had 28 takeaways (so that’s a +7, for those who can’t or won’t do the math themselves). The Steelers also controlled the ball mostly well last week against a Colts team that logged 29 takeaways and a +11 ratio during the regular season. So I just don’t see Denver getting the kind of field-position opportunities this week that it got from New England in the divisional round. On the other side of the ball, the Steelers play a defense that’s very similar to New England’s, and I think that’s very bad news indeed for Jake Plummer and the Broncos’ offense. Plummer didn’t look very good last week. And the Pats pretty much shut down Denver’s typically impressive running game. I expect to see much of the same thing this week. I expect to see Pittsburgh force Plummer into making some big mistakes. I expect to see Troy Polamalu put seven points on the board. And I expect to see the Steelers come out on top by about three.

Carolina (+3.5) at Seattle
If DeShaun Foster hadn’t broken his ankle in last week’s tilt with the Bears, and if Julius Peppers hadn’t spent the week too beat up and too ill to practice, I’d be able to pick this game in a second. Seattle’s had an impressive season, there’s no taking that away from them. They’ve got the league’s leading rusher and MVP, Shaun Alexander, working for them. Matt Hasselbeck finally seems to have come into his own as a quarterback. Mike Holmgren appears to have proven his doubters (a group that included me) wrong. And the fact of the matter is that the Seahawks are a pretty likable bunch. But none of that changes the fact that when they’re playing their best football (as they have been for the last two weeks) the Panthers are the most impressive, and hardest to beat, team in the NFC. So if Foster were around and Peppers were 100 percent, I’d just say I’m taking Carolina and leave it at that. Foster isn’t around and Peppers isn’t 100 percent, however. And that makes me kind of uncertain about this game. (Never mind the fact that I’d have a hard time picking both road teams to win this week.)

I still don’t expect the Seattle offense to be able to get a whole lot done. I mean, they’ve had a hell of a season and all, averaging 370 yards and more than 28 points per game. But they’ve struggled against teams with strong defenses, and there are few stronger defenses in the conference than Carolina’s (the Panthers allowed only 283 yards and 16 points per game during the regular season). And while the Seahawks fared well enough last week when they hosted the Redskins (334 total yards, including 119 on the ground even without help from Alexander, who left early with a concussion), they only managed 20 points. And the Panthers are a tougher team to move the ball against than the Redskins.

But I’m not sure Carolina’s offense is gonna be able to give the D any kind of cushion to work with. Jack Delhomme certainly seems to be the kind of cool headed quarterback you want on your side when January rolls around. And there’s no failing to be impressed with the 319 yards and three touchdowns Delhomme managed against a hard-as-nails Chicago defense last week. But part of the reason he was able to do that was that Chicago had to account for the Panthers’ running game, which left Steve Smith with some room to make plays for Delhomme. Seattle isn’t gonna have to worry about the run so much. Sure, Nick Goings has his moments, but there’s a reason he started the season third on the Panthers’ depth chart and I don’t think that changes much just because he’s got the heart to try to step up in the absence of Foster and Stephen Davis. So Seattle should be able to key up on Smith, slow him down some, and try to keep him out of the end zone. That puts a lot of pressure on Keary Colbert, Ricky Proehl and Kris Mangum (who’s the only tight end Carolina has who could ever be classified as anything approaching a true pass-catcher). And none of those guys put up spectacular numbers in the regular season or over the last two weeks. That bodes ill for Carolina.

In the end, while I think the Panthers are probably the better team overall, I think the lack of a running game is going to do them in the same way it did New England in last weekend in Denver. You have to be able to run the ball and stop the run to win in the playoffs. Not either. Both. And I while I think the Panthers will do OK stopping the run this week, I can’t imagine they have much luck running the ball themselves. In the end, while I won’t be the least bit surprised to see the Panthers win, I’m expecting the Seahawks to come out ahead, if only by about a point.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Divisional Playoff Picks

January 13th, 2006 Comments off

I’m guessing you don’t need one more person to point out that the Divisional Playoffs have been the toughest round of the post-season for road teams since the NFL moved to a 12-team playoff system in 1990. Everybody and their brother-in-law has pointed out that the home teams are 40-10 since then. They’ve also noted that last season, after the road teams went 3-1 on Wild Card weekend (as they did last weekend) the home teams swept the Divisional Playoff round. So there’s that.

You also probably don’t need me to tell you that the reasons the home teams have tended to do so well in this round include the fact that those home teams come into the week well rested after a first-round bye. Or that the reason they’re coming off a bye, and playing at home, is that they posted the best regular-season records in their conferences (and typically that doesn’t happen by accident).

Nor do you need me to point out that a 3-1 finish by the road teams in the Wild Card round means three out of four Divisional Playoff games pit conference six and five seeds playing tough road games for a second consecutive week against those well-rested one- and two-seed home squads. But when I do point all of that stuff out, one fact after the next, it does become pretty clear how that .800 winning percentage has come about.

All that said, it’s hardly unheard of for one, and even two, road teams to win in this round. Two of them did two years ago (Indianapolis and Carolina beat Kansas City and St. Louis; and, of course, Carolina went on to beat Philadelphia and advance to the Super Bowl). Philadelphia did it in 2001 (well, 2002, but it was at the end of the 2001 season). Baltimore did it in 2000 (and went on to win the Super Bowl). Tennessee did it in 1999 (and beat Jacksonville a week later to advance to the Super Bowl). Denver did it in 1997 (and went on to win the Super Bowl). I could go on, but you get the point, right?

So the question now is, is this another 4-0 year, or is there an upset or two on the way for the weekend? I see the potential for two, but I only like the odds of one. And I’m picking the one that involves the two-time defending champs/the team coming into the week with a record 10-game post-season win streak. Surprised? Of course you aren’t.

Anyhow, here’s how I see the weekend shaking out:

Washington (+9) at Seattle
Wanna know how I know the Redskins are gonna win this game? Because I’ve finally stopped believing that the Seahawks are destined to collapse. All through the regular season, I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for the Seahawks to fall apart, the way they always do. But then they kept not doing it. And not doing it. And so now, at long last, I’ve stopped expecting them to do it. And, in fact, I quite expect them to win this week. Because, look, the Redskins have certainly been on a hell of a run of late, and all the credit in the world to the team and to Joe Gibbs for getting it together, making the playoffs and eliminating Tampa Bay last weekend. But let’s be realistic here. The Skins didn’t look all that good in that game. They came within a dropped pass of an overtime in which they likely would have lost. And that was against a Bucs team that’s been anything but consistent this season, and that had a guy with no playoff experience (and relatively little regular season experience) taking snaps. What do you think happens when they take their show on the road for the second consecutive week (see above for my thoughts on that) and play the conference’s one seed, a team that’s been lighting it up all season long? I’ve got a pretty good guess. And, now, I know that a lot of smart people think Washington has a chance here, largely because their defense has been beyond solid. And fair enough. But in a way that’s just the point, because the things the Redskins D has been doing have included scoring and setting up the offense for easy scores. Last week in Tampa Bay, the Washington D scored one of the team’s two touchdowns. The Skins’ sole offensive TD came on a one-play, six-yard drive that was set up by LaVar Arrington interception deep in Tampa territory. A week earlier, in the come-from-behind win over the down-and-out Philadelphia Eagles, the game that got Washington into the playoffs, the Redskins defense not only scored the late touchdown that effectively put the game away, it also recorded an interception earlier in the final period that set up the one-play scoring drive that put the Skins ahead in the first place. So that’s 28 of 48 points over the course of two games that can be traced to great defensive play. And you can’t be unhappy about that if you’re the Redskins. And you don’t apologize about where the points come from. But those stats also underscore the fact that the Redskins’ offense hasn’t been doing much. So it would appear, at least to me, that while there are probably seven (or at least six) teams playing this weekend that can win even if they only manage to come up even in the giveaway/takeaway battle, the one that clearly cannot is Washington. And here’s where the problem comes in, because the Seattle Seahawks simply don’t commit turnovers. Seattle had fewer giveaways than any team in the league during the regular season. They lost just six fumbles and threw just nine picks all season. Compare that to the Bucs, who committed 23 turnovers during the season, and the Eagles, who gave the ball away 28 times. The difference is obvious, as is its chief implication: you can’t go counting on Seattle to give you the kind of opportunities Tampa Bay and Philadelphia did. You can, however, count on the Seahawks to put up more points than the Bucs and Eagles. Or at least you could during the regular season, during which the Seahawks outscored both of those teams by an average of nine points a game. And that, to my mind, makes the difference more than the Skins’ D can absorb. So I’m taking the Seahawks to fail to choke, which is to say I like Seattle to win and cover. And that, of course, means the Redskins will come out on top.

New England (+3) at Denver
OK, you know what? Let’s dispense with all the stuff about all the Patriots starters who were out injured when these teams last met back on October 16. It’s an entirely valid consideration, of course, but I don’t need to get into it, because the point has been made and made and made again. Likewise the bit about how much better New England’s run defense played in the latter half of the season than it had in the early going. That’s relevant, too, but the facts have been pointed out everywhere you care to look, and I really see no need to get into the details of it here. And the fact of the matter is that while New England has been doing a terrific job of stopping the run of late, Denver’s run offense is always tough to stop, no matter how good your D is, and the Patriots are going to have to find a way to deal with that. The Pats are also gonna have to find a way to move the ball on the ground, but I don’t think that’s such a big deal. Denver’s run defense hasn’t given up much by way of yards per game (85 on average over the course of the season), but it has allowed four yards per carry and that’s all any team that doesn’t have to pass, pass, pass to catch up should need. What I want to look at is pass offense and defense, because I believe that’s where this game will be won and lost. And that’s good news for the Patriots. Earlier this week, I got to thinking about the widely referenced weakness of the Pats’ secondary. And, you know, even though the secondary has got better as the new mostly patchwork unit of replacement DBs (filling in for injured stars) has spent more time on the field together and learned Bill Belichick’s system, there are still some significant question marks there. But the fact of the matter is that the Broncos secondary, except for Champ Bailey, its one star (and a pretty major star at that), is a very young unit that has been prone to giving up big plays. So I decided to take a close look at the stats. This is what came up: Denver allowed 227. 7 yards per game through the air during the regular season. The Pats allowed 231.4. That’s a difference of less than four yards per game. (It’s also worth noting that last week, the Pats allowed only 205 yards of passing offense to the Jacksonville Jaguars, this despite the fact that the Jags abandoned the run almost entirely early in the third quarter.) The Pats offense, meanwhile, logged an average of 257.5 yards per game in the air during the regular season. (They had 189 passing yards vs. Jacksonville despite the fact that Tom Brady threw exactly twice, for a total of 15 yards, in the fourth quarter.) Denver’s offense meanwhile managed only 201.7 yards per game in the air. That’s a difference of nearly 56 yards per game. Moreover, while the Pats allowed five more passing touchdowns during the season (25 to the Broncos’ 20), they also scored 10 more touchdowns in the air (28 to the Broncos’ 18). And while it’s certainly the case that part of what’s behind those offensive passing stats is the fact that the Broncos ran the ball much more effectively than the Pats, the numbers pretty clearly illustrate that if this game turns into a shootout, the advantage belongs to the Pats. And I expect the Patriots to make it a shootout in part by bringing the same kind of defensive pressure that held a Jaguars team that averaged 122 yards a game on the ground in the regular season to just 87 last week in Foxborough, and in part by coming out throwing, putting up some points and making Denver abandon the run in order to play catch-up. If the Pats can keep Denver throwing, and can make Jake Plummer feel like he’s got to win the game, they should be able to put this thing away. I expect to see the Pats go up by 10 sometime late in the second quarter and to never look back.

Pittsburgh (+9.5) at Indianapolis
OK, folks, here’s the thing. The Steelers aren’t winning this game. They’re not. Yeah, it’s true, the Colts are choke artists who will falter next week whether they get Denver or New England. And it’s also true that the Steelers are a bruising, physical team that has the ability to beat any team in the league if its able to play its game, to knock opposing offenses around and to grind out the clock with its running game, throwing the ball only when it’s completely necessary. But the Steelers simply aren’t gonna be able to do that here. The Colts are going to do to Pittsburgh exactly what the Cincinnati Bengals set out to do last week (and would have done had Carson Palmer not been knocked out of the game on the Bengals’ second offensive play): they’re going to come out throwing, put the Steelers on their heels, build a lead and create a situation in which Ben Roethlisberger has to throw 25 or 30 passes in an attempt to get his team back into the game. That’s a recipe for disaster for Pittsburgh. The only way the Steelers pull off the upset is if the defense manages to come up with one or two huge (and I mean huge) plays early on, giving the Pittsburgh offense the chance to start grinding it out on the ground, and potentially flustering Peyton Manning, whose game suffers when you take him out of his rhythm. But I just don’t see it going that way. So I’m taking the Colts and giving the points.

Carolina (+3) at Chicago
Last week I wondered whether the good Panthers, the ones who look like champions on every play, or the sloppy Panthers, the ones who find ways to blow games, would show up to play the Giants in New Jersey. We all know how that went. (I also wondered whether the good or bad Giants would show up, and we know how that went, too.) This week, I’m not sure it matters. Yes, the Panthers have the ability to beat the Bears. Any team in the league that can put up 14 to 17 points in a game has the potential to beat the Bears, and the Panthers averaged 24 during the regular season. They didn’t quite manage their average the last time they traveled to Chicago, however. In that game, played November 20, Carolina fell three touchdowns short of their average, and 10 points short of keeping up with the Bears, losing 13-3. And I don’t think Carolina’s offense is any better, or Chicago’s defense any less dominating, than they were back then. And, sure, Chicago’s offense is still shaky, and its quarterback, Rex Grossman, has no playoff experience (and next to no regular season experience, since he’s been injured through most of two seasons). But the Bears don’t win games with their offense. They win games with their smothering D. You simply can’t move the ball against them. So if Carolina’s gonna win this game, it’s gonna have to do it on defense. The Panthers D is gonna have to give its offense short fields to work with. That’s something they can do, for certain. Carolina came out of the regular season with a +12 giveaway/takeaway ratio, tied with the Giants for the best in the conference. But the Bears weren’t prone to giving the ball up, and they posted a +6 giveaway/takeaway mark themselves, so it’s not like it’s a given that Carolina can spend the day stripping fumbles and making picks. And I don’t think they will. I think this is gonna be a quick game, played mainly on the ground and won in the trenches. And I expect Chicago to come out ahead, by a score of about 9-7. (Note: there are four ways that I can think of to get to nine points in the NFL. The only route I’d be surprised to see Chicago take there would be a touchdown with a two point conversion plus a missed Carolina PAT returned 100+ yards.)

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Wild Card Picks

January 7th, 2006 Comments off

You know, it’s not like Wild Card weekend ever makes for easy picking — there’s always at least one upset and you never can tell where it’s coming — but this year it seems to me that it’s particularly tough. And the reasons for that vary by conference.

The way I see it, there are exactly two teams in the NFC with a realistic shot at making the Super Bowl and neither of them are playing this weekend. Now, don’t get me wrong. Of course every team that makes the post-season is there for a reason and any one of them has the ability to win it all. But some teams are simply more dangerous than others. And some have easier roads to travel, are in better health, etc. So while I think, for example, that the Redskins and possibly the Bucs could beat Seattle, I don’t think either team can beat Chicago. And while it looks to me like the Giants, were they in the best of health, might have it in them to surprise either the Bears or the Seahawks, the fact is that the Giants are hurting pretty bad. And I don’t think they could beat both Chicago and Seattle in consecutive weeks even if they were healthy. So there’s my reasoning on the NFC in general.

As for this week, however, what I see in the NFC are four teams that have been rather inconsistent squaring off against each other. So, do the good Giants show up to play the bad Panthers? Or is it the other way around? Do the Redskins (and, most important, the Mark Brunell) of the past five weeks show up in Tampa Bay? Or is it the Skins who struggled through the middle part of the season and who had trouble getting started in a must-win game at Philadelphia in week 17? And who do those ‘Skins face? Is it the Bucs team that matched Washington point-for-point (plus one) back in week 10, the team that came up big against Carolina in week 14 and Atlanta in week 16? Or will it be the team that fell apart week 15 in New England and had trouble with New Orleans in its own must-win week 17 match? I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. And it makes the NFC games this weekend exceedingly hard to pick.

What makes this weekend’s AFC games tough to pick is the fact that, as I see it, all six AFC playoff teams have the stuff to get to and win the Super Bowl. Yeah, sure, I think the Colts, Broncos and Patriots have the inside track in the race to Detroit (the Colts and Broncos by virtue of being the one and two seeds, having to play fewer playoff games, and having home-field advantage, the Pats by virtue of being the most experienced and successful playoff team in the crowd), but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Steelers went on a run, and I wouldn’t be terribly shocked if the Bengals or Jaguars did the same. (Or let’s put it this way: I think the AFC’s sixth seeded Steelers are 20 times more likely to make the Super Bowl than the NFC’s sixth seeded Redskins.) So which AFC teams come out of this weekend with a win? I’ve got some guesses, and I think they’re good guesses, but I can’t say I’m in any way certain.

Here, then, is my assessment of what might or might not happen this weekend.

Washington (+2.5) at Tampa Bay
Conventional wisdom says this game is defined by the axiom that holds that success in the NFL playoff is defined by how well you run the ball and how well you stop the run. Fair enough. Both of these teams run the ball well. The Bucs, behind rookie of the year Cadillac Williams, managed 4 yards per carry, 114 per game and 13 touchdowns during the regular season. The Skins, behind Clinton Portis, who’s banged up but still running like a demon, came out of the regular season with 4.2 yards per carry, 136 per game and 15 TDs. It would appear, however, that the Redskins’ slight advantage as a rushing offense is offset by the superiority of the Bucs’ rushing D. Tampa Bay allowed just 3.5 yards per carry, 95 yards per game and 10 touchdowns on the ground during the regular season, while Washington gave up 4.1 per carry, 105 per game and 15 TDs. That brings things pretty even there, doesn’t it? So what makes the difference here? Maybe it’s the passing game. Neither of these teams has a great quarterback. Mark Brunell has had his moments, to be sure, but his overall passer rating is an OK 85.9. Chris Simms, meanwhile, has a passer rating of just 81.4. Neither of these guys is gonna change the way the position is played. And both are up against good to very good pass D’s. The difference in yards per game is negligible; the Skins have allowed 193 to the Bucs’ 183. Both teams have allowed 15 passing touchdowns. And the Redskins have 16 picks on the season, while the Buccaneers have 17. So where’s the difference? Well, Brunell has thrown 23 touchdowns and 10 picks this season, while Simms has thrown just 10 TDs and seven picks. And Brunell has eight playoff games under his belt to Simms’ none. So I’m giving the edge to Washington and expecting to see an upset here.

Jacksonville (+7.5) at New England
Can the Jaguars beat the Patriots in Foxborough? In 19-degree (and colder as the night goes on) weather? In the playoffs? With a quarterback just back from a broken ankle, and probably not fully recovered (or perhaps a backup quarterback, who’s looked OK in the starter’s absence)? Absolutely. How? The same way the Jags beat other good teams (Seattle, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh) during the regular season: by leaning heavily on a defense that allowed the sixth fewest points per game in the league during the 2005 campaign (16.8). If the Jags can dig in and hold the Patriots to 17 or fewer, they’ll have a decent chance to advance to the next round of the playoffs. Will they be able to do that? It’s hard to imagine. The Patriots’ offense has been running in high gear all season long, and, like the rest of the team, only got better over the last five weeks of the season. And even with Corey Dillon back in good health and running like his old self again, the Pats managed to end the season ranked second in passing yards per game, with an average of 257. The Pats also scored 28 TDs through the air this season. That’s third best in the league. And while the Jaguars’ pass D has been fairly stout in terms of yards allowed (184 per game), it’s allowed 22 passing touchdowns — that’s a lot. My guess is that the Pats will be able to put up enough points get out ahead of the Jags and stay there, forcing Jacksonville to throw the ball more than a team with an injured quarterback really should, and the Pats’ healthy, dangerous pass rush will do the rest. I’m taking New England straight up, but since the Patriots only ever win games by three, I’ll take the Jags to cover.

Carolina (+2.5) at NY Giants
This, to me, is the toughest game of the week to pick. And it’s nothing to do with the statistical breakdown, because they teams come out so close to even there you can’t learn anything by comparing the stats. The Giants have the better offense, but manage only two more points per game than the Panthers. The Panthers have the better D, but allow only three points fewer per game than the Giants. Tiki Barber should have success running against the Panthers’ run D, which is good, sure, but not good enough to shut down Tiki. Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith should have success moving the ball against the Giants’ inconsistent pass D. So what makes the difference here? I’m not sure. And that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the fact that the Giants have suffered a ton of injuries, particularly at linebacker, and may find their defense strained beyond its limits. Maybe it’s the fact that Carolina has found more ways to lose big games this season (particularly down the stretch) than any playoff-quality team I’ve ever seen. I can’t know what factor is going to come to the fore, so I can’t predict the result. But since I’m just guessing here anyhow, I’m gonna go with the concrete (Giants injuries) over the ethereal (Carolina’s bad mojo) and take the Panthers in the upset.

Pittsburgh (-3) at Cincinnati
So here’s the thing: I’m thinking Pittsburgh’s tougher and more seasoned and probably better and should come out ahead in this game, right? But I’m also thinking I’ve already picked two road teams (Washington and Carolina) and three of those winning (even on Wild Card weekend) seems like a remote possibility. And since I’m not, at this point, gonna go back and start looking for reasons to pick the Giants (who will probably win now that I think of it) and Buccaneers (who will also probably win, now that you put it that way), I feel like I ought to pick the Bengals here. After all, Cincinnati does have the more high-powered offense. They’re young. They want it more. And if they can come out swinging, maybe get a 10 or 14 point lead, take the Steelers out of their game, they should be able to pull off a win here. But wait. I’ve already picked two upsets and since three of those are unlikely (even on Wild Card weekend), and since I’m not … oh, see the stuff I just said about the Giants and Bucs (both of whom are almost certainly gonna win now that I think of it) … well, I can’t comfortably pick the Bucs either. So I guess the only thing to do is go back to what I think is actually likely. It’s this: the Steelers, who are playoff tested, tough as nails and the better defensive squad, are gonna come out and give the Bengals (who won’t be so easy to beat in the post-season next year) a big old black eye, and walk away with a one- or two-point victory in a low-scoring game. So there.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: