Archive for January, 2007

Conference Championship Picks

January 19th, 2007 Comments off

Before I get into this weekend’s games, I’ve got some general observations to make, one about the conference championships, a couple of others about the remaining Super Bowl contenders, and one about my less than psychologically healthy second choice for a Super Bowl outcome.

I’ll start with the one that’s entirely specific to this weekend. It appears to me that Sunday’s games ultimately are going to come down to how well the home teams’ defenses play. Here’s why I see it that way: Chicago’s offense isn’t going to win the NFC Championship. And Indianapolis’ offense isn’t going to lose the AFC Championship. Meanwhile, both the New Orleans and New England Ds seem likely to play just well enough to give their offenses the opportunity to win their respective games. The questions for both home teams come at D. Will the Bears’ D be the stellar unit we saw through the regular season (allowing just 294 yards of total offense and, more important, just less than 16 points per game), or the unit that struggled to stop Seattle last weekend, giving up 24 points (though only 206 yards) to a team that hadn’t looked very good at all when it hosted Dallas a week earlier? And, conversely, will the Colts’ D be the sub-par unit that gave up nearly 333 yards (173 of them on the ground) and 22.5 points per game in the regular season or the one that has put the clamps down on Kansas City and Baltimore over the past two weeks? I’ve got some thoughts on both of those questions, which I’ll address below, but for now I just wanted to point out that I believe the answers that play out on the field ultimately will decide the weekend and determine which teams move on to Miami.

A semi-related observation about two of the remaining contenders, New Orleans and Indianapolis. I can’t tell you how utterly tired I am about hearing about how it’s these teams’ “time” to win a championship. Peyton Manning and the Colts have been too good for too long not to have won it all. It’s their time. The Saints have been struggling in futility for nearly 40 years. It’s their time. No, it ain’t. It isn’t ever any team’s time. Both the Colts and the Saints could very well win this weekend. And either may win the Super Bowl. But no matter what happens, it won’t be because it’s the team’s “time.” If the Colts win it all, it’ll be because they play better than the Patriots this weekend and better than whichever NFC team they face February 4. Simple as that. Same with New Orleans. If they’re the better team on Sunday, they’ll beat Chicago. And if they’re the better team two weeks hence, they’ll take the Lombardi Trophy. The time is never right. Or wrong. It just is. The outcome of a football game is no more determined by which team’s time has come than it’s determined by whether you sit on the right end of the couch, turn your bar stool around exactly three times clockwise between the first and second quarter and counterclockwise between the third and fourth, or touch your wife’s nose as the team’s line up for the opening kickoff. Anyone who tells you the outcome of a game has anything to do with anything even remotely spooky isn’t worth listening to. Not even a little bit.

Now then, a thought about all four remaining teams. It occurs to me that among the teams still in contention, you can find three outstanding quarterbacks, two who are arguably the best currently in the game and a third who is, at least, having the best season from a statistical standpoint of any QB in the league (guess who’s the odd man out). Also among these four teams are two of the top 10 defenses in the league (statistically speaking) and two of the top three scoring defenses (Chicago, as noted above, allowed just 15.9 points per game in the regular season; New England gave up fewer still: 14.8). The overlap (great quarterback and great defense) comprises exactly one team. Guess which? Might mean nothing in the end, but I figured I’d point it out.

Finally, I just wanted to say now that while what I’m hoping for in the Super Bowl is a New England victory (over either NFC team — doesn’t matter which, I just want to see the Pats get that fourth championship), if I can’t get that, I’d really dig watching the Saints top Colts. As a committed Manning hater, I have to believe the sense of schadenfreude I’d experience seeing the team Entitled Archie never could win with finally triumph at the expense of Pouty Peyton would almost make up for the Pats missing the big game. Almost.

New Orleans (+2.5) at Chicago
You know, I’ve spent a good part of the week trying to find a way to make myself believe that New Orleans is gonna win this game. I don’t know why (especially since I think the Patriots ultimately match up better against the Bears), but I really want the Saints to come out on top here. And, I mean, there are plenty of reasons to believe New Orleans not only could win, but should win. To begin with, the Saints had one of the best offenses in the league this season (maybe the best). During the regular season, they averaged a league-leading 391.5 yards of total offense (110.1 on the ground, 281.4 through the air, the latter of which also put the at the top of the league) and a fifth-best 25.8 points per game. And they managed 435 yards (208 of them on the ground) and 27 points in last week’s divisional playoff game against an Eagles team that had allowed only 328 yards and 20.5 points a game during the regular season (and slightly less than that against the Giants in the wild card round). With the way Drew Brees, Deuce McAllister and the rookies Reggie Bush and Marques Colston have played, the Saints offense is a threat on every single snap. On top of that, New Orleans has been solid if unspectacular on defense. More than solid, in fact. Only 10 teams in the league allowed fewer yards per game than the Saints (307.6). Only two allowed fewer yards per game in the air than New Orleans’ 178 (though that stat has at least something to do with the fact that it was fairly easy to run the ball against the Saints; they allowed 128 rushing yards per game and an abysmal 4.9 yards per carry). And while the 20.1 points per game New Orleans surrendered during the season is anything but spectacular, it’s still a better average than was posted by 19 other teams (though only one of those, Indianapolis, has survived this deep into the post-season). It’s worth noting that Philly’s offense had rather a productive day in New Orleans last week, posting 355 total yards, including 123 on the ground (a painful 6.2 per carry) and 24 points. But then you’ve got to look at that in context: the Eagles offense was the second most productive in the league this season, right behind the Saints.

Certainly, from a statistical perspective, the Saints have a better defense than Chicago has an offense. At the end of the regular season, the Bears O ranked in the middle of the pack in yards per game with 324.9, rushing yards per game, with 119.9 (their 3.8 per carry tied with Tampa Bay for the ninth lowest average in the league), and passing yards per game, with 205.1. Still, Chicago did finish in tie with Indianapolis for second most points per game in the league (26.7), and that’s a number that has to be considered. (It’s also a statistic we’ll look at in further depth presently.) And the Bears had a hell of a day against the Seahawks last weekend, racking up 375 total yards of offense (including 120 on the ground, though they still only averaged 3.5 per carry). But the Seattle D hadn’t exactly stopped anyone this season, so it’s not like Chicago broke loose against a top-notch unit.

Thing is, though, the Bears don’t win with offense. They win with defense. And I’m not expecting Lovie Smith to try turning his team into something it isn’t in the middle of January. If Chicago is gonna win this game, they’re gonna do it by keeping New Orleans out of the end zone, just like they did to their opponents all season long (though, as noted above, that’s just like they didn’t a week ago). When its on its game, the Bears D is a unit that’s incredibly tough to overcome. Those 294 yards per game it allowed included less than 100 on the ground. And the 15.9 points per game were third fewest in the league, trailing only Baltimore (12.6) and New England (14.8). Historically, the teams that allow the fewest points per game in the regular season have fared rather well in the playoff. But, really, to my mind the thing Chicago’s D does that’s perhaps more important than stopping opposing offenses is setting up its own. Remember those odd stats related to the Bears O putting up average to below average yardage but outscoring most of the league? Here’s why: The Chicago D is the best in the league at liberating the ball from opposing offenses. The bears had 43 takeaways during the season, including a league-leading 20 fumbles recovered (their 23 picks trailed only Baltimore’s 26). That set up the offense with some mighty short fields, and, even with the offense’s tendency to commit turnovers itself, left Chicago tied with San Diego for the league’s second-best a giveaway/takeaway ratio. Chicago finished the regular season with +13. New Orleans, on the other hand, wrapped up -2. (Both teams were -1 last weekend). That’s a 15-turnover differential in Chicago’s favor. And that’s where I think this game might turn. For all that New Orleans has going for it, the Saints are going to have virtually no margin for error going up against this Chicago D. That’s a tough situation for a young team with a first-year head coach to be in. Particularly if the Bears D plays up to its regular season levels. And since one game is hardly a trend, that’s just what I’m expecting to see. The Saints still could overcome that if their offense plays flawlessly and their defense finds a way to exploit Chicago’s offensive weaknesses. But that’s where New Orleans’ inexperience in the post-season comes in. That’s what ultimately killed the Bears last season. This year, much as I want things to be different for the Saints, I think it works in Chicago’s favor. I’m rooting for New Orleans, but I’m taking Chicago and giving the points.

New England (+3) at Indianapolis
You know, I just don’t have it in me to get into the whole here we go again, Patriots and Colts, classic AFC matchup of the decade, blah, blah, blah, thing. But I’ll say this: you can talk all you want (if you’re with the Colts) about this game just being this game and all the history (between the two teams and with the Colts folding in the playoffs year after year) meaning nothing, but the bottom line is that all the pressure here is on the Colts. The fact of the matter is that the Colts, anointed the best team in the league by the sports media season after season, have never yet been able to close the deal. Not once. They lose to “lesser” teams in the playoffs every season. And if they lose now that they’ve got the conference championship in their stadium, there’s two ways they can go: they can fade out of contention and be the Buffalo Bills, the team that always found a way to lose when it matters, or they can power on, maybe win everything eventually and be the team that struggled for years and years then finally managed to win one and sort of salvage its legacy. That’s it. They can’t lose here and hope ever to be considered one of the all-time great NFL squads (that is, all-time great squads as opposed to all-time great franchises, a tag a different Colts team earned decades ago). Manning can’t afford to lose this game. Tony Dungy can’t afford to miss this game. The whole loud-mouthed, self-congratulating Colts organization can’t afford to lose this game. The Patriots? Forget that their legacy is sealed (they’re three-time champs; they don’t have to win any game to prove anything). They’re a team that started the season in turmoil, worked through the season with an almost completely overhauled wide receiver corps, continued to play well even while injuries once again put a new face on their defensive secondary nearly every week, and still managed not only to win their division, but to beat yet another one seed on the road in the playoffs — in yet another game they were supposed to lose. Sure, the Pats want to win this one. Sure, it’ll be disappointing to them and their fans if they lose. But they’ve already, both as a franchise and a squad, exceeded all reasonable expectations. What pressure could they conceivably be feeling? But wait. Isn’t that the kind of spooky shit I decry above? Well, no, because it can affect game preparation, decision-making, and execution on the field. That said, I don’t expect it to play a deciding factor in this game. It may color the outcome, but ultimately, as noted, I think this game is going to have much more to do with the play of the Colts D than any other factor. And, much as I expect Chicago’s defense to look more like the unit we saw in the regular season than the one we saw struggle some against Seattle last week, I’m anticipating seeing an Indianapolis defense that’s more like the regular season unit than the one that performed so well against Kansas City and Baltimore in the post season.

Here’s why I put more stock in the long-term stats than the short-term semi-trend when I look at the Colts D. In its wild card weekend matchup with Kansas City, Indianapolis faced an offense that was decidedly unbalanced. More than that, the Chiefs, offense was as one-dimensional as offenses get. Even with Larry Johnson, the second-leading rusher in the league this season starring in their backfield, the Chiefs only managed 133.9 yards per game on the ground this season. That’s fewer than eight other teams (though, notably, more than any team currently still alive in the playoffs, where conventional wisdom holds that you have to be able to run the ball to win — the leading rushing team still playing, by the way, is the Patriots, who averaged 123.1 yards a game on the ground during the regular season). Kansas City’s 187.5 yards a game passing this season was the lowest average by any team to qualify for the playoffs. And since the Chiefs’ coach isn’t exactly known as one of the league’s great creative game planners, Indianapolis didn’t have to spend a lot of time guessing what the Chiefs were gonna try to do on offense in that game. They stacked the box, took Johnson out of the game and challenged Kansas City to beat them through the air, knowing the Chiefs couldn’t pull it off. Playing at Baltimore in the divisional round, the Colts faced an offense that was more balanced than Kansas City’s, but it was balanced in mediocrity. And the Ravens team itself was most certainly unbalanced in favor of defense. Baltimore’s defense was the best in the league this season, and the reason the Ravens won the AFC North and captured the conference two seed. It’s offense was middle of the pack overall (averaging 317 yards and 22 points a game), short in the rushing game (102.3 yards per game, 3.4 per carry) and slightly above average through the air (214.7 yards per game). The Colts D played well enough to stop that average offense, mostly by forcing turnovers, and gave their own O the opportunity to win the game by doing what little it could against a daunting Ravens D. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that, but it’s not as if the Colts D shut down New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Diego, or even New England. This week, the Colts face a team that’s more balanced than either of its previous playoff opponents. In the regular season, the Patriots defense allowed only 294.1 yards (sixth best in the league, second to Chicago among the surviving playoff teams) and 15.9 points a game (second best in the league, after Baltimore, best among the surviving playoff teams. They ranked fifth in the league (best among the surviving playoff teams) against the run, giving up 94.2 yards per game (though their 3.9 yards per carry leaves something to be desired). And while their 200.2 passing yards per game was only 12th best in the league, it’s notable that they allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the league (10) while logging the fourth highest number of picks (22), second only to Chicago among surviving playoff teams.

The Patriots did not have a top 10 offense in the regular season in terms of average total yards, posting an 11th best 335.6, but their O was the seventh-highest scoring in the league (24.1 points per game). They rushed for 123.1 yards per game (12th) and threw for 212.5 (12th), the latter statistic skewed by the fact that, as mentioned, the team was working with new faces at WR throughout the season. In the post-season, New England has averaged 342.5 yards (104.5 on the ground, 238 in the air) and 30.5 points per game (the highest average point total in the playoffs). That may not represent a trend any more than Indy’s post-season defensive stats, but it’s notable that the defenses New England has faced over the last two weeks were statistically more impressive than the offenses Indy’s taken on.

What’s important, however, is that the Colts can’t simply play the run or the pass on D this week, nor can they count on their offense to shoulder the full load of a victory. Their defense is gonna have to account for Tom Brady, Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney. Their offense is gonna have to find a way to overcome the best defensive front in the league. They’re likely going to have to play great football on both sides of the ball if they’re gonna win this game. And the overall trend is that they only play great football on one side of the ball, so that’s what I’m expecting until I see different. Certainly, the same goes for New England. They can’t expect to make mistakes and come out ahead purely by virtue of experience and coaching the way they did a week ago. This team may or may not be as talented as San Diego, but its more battle tested and it will be better prepared.

In the end, I actually expect both teams to play good football. But in the end, I also expect the more balanced team to triumph. That’s the Patriots. So I’m taking them to pull off the upset and head to their fourth Super Bowl in six years.

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Divisional Playoff Picks

January 12th, 2007 Comments off

Looks to me like we’ve got three potentially incredible football games and just one dud ahead of us. You can’t ask for a whole lot more than that. Here’s what not to expect:

Indianapolis (+4) at Baltimore
Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Colts defense came alive in last week’s win over Kansas City. Hey, if you want to see it that way, you go right ahead. But that ain’t what happened. What happened in that game is that old Schottenheimer lite, for all his talk during the week about how he was gonna change quarterbacks if his starter wasn’t getting the job done, had himself a game plan and stuck to it like it was the goddamn Code of Hammurabi, even when it was obvious to everyone else in the universe that his offensive approach wasn’t getting the job done. Any defense can stop a team that keeps doing the same thing over and over and over again. (Seriously, look at the play-by-play on that game. Run, run, pass, punt. It’s quintessential Martyball.) So don’t tell me Indy’s defense came on, because what happened is Indy’s defense got lucky. Wicked lucky. And so did Indy’s offense. Because in nine out of ten games in which you turn the ball over three times and walk away from your first seven trips into your opponent’s territory with all of nine points on the board you don’t come out on top. It’s as simple as that. Now, do I expect Baltimore’s defense to have as good a day (or better) against Indianapolis as Kansas City’s D did? No. And yes. That is, no, I don’t expect one of the best quarterbacks in the league to be picked off three times two weeks in a row. That would be ridiculous. But, yes, I expect the Ravens defense, which allowed the fewest points per game in the league this season (12.6), to hold Manning and company to fewer than 23 points. Maybe the Colts manage 17. Maybe they only score 10. I don’t know. But I’m confident they won’t post three-plus touchdowns. On the other hand, I do expect the Ravens’ offense to perform much, much better than KC’s did. I mean, to begin with Brian Billick ain’t Herm Edwards (which is really to say he’s not some low-rent clone of Marty Schottenheimer). He’s gonna adapt to what he sees on the field and find a way to take what Indy gives him. (For obvious reasons, I expect that to be the run, but I won’t be surprised if it turns out to be short passes or something else entirely, which, of course, will end up setting up the run.) And beyond that, Steve McNair ain’t Trent Green. McNair is a battle-tested, tough-guy quarterback who will find ways to wear you down and who will do whatever it takes to beat you. He’ll play until the last snap of the ball. And he’ll make you pay for trying to stop him and his team. Billick’s game planning, McNair’s leadership, and the overall toughness of the Ravens (particularly their D), I think, is gonna be all it takes to send the Colts home for yet another off-season of wondering what on earth went wrong. (Hint: although the tendency is gonna be to heap all the blame on this guy and what he hasn’t accomplished, the organization should also be taking a hard look at this asshole and what he most decidedly does not bring to the table.) Ravens by six.

Philadelphia (+5) at New Orleans
You know, if it weren’t for the fact that Lito Sheppard is hurt, I’d be sorely tempted to pick the upset here. I mean, look, there’s no question but that the Saints are a terrific football team. Drew Brees has been playing the best football of his career. Reggie Bush has come on like crazy. Deuce McAllister is very much back from his injury (and back to being one of my favorite running back’s to watch). They should create a special Value Pick of the Year award for Marques Colston. And the New Orleans D, while shaky against the run, is one of the better units in the league at stopping the pass. But, you know, the Eagles are red hot. The Eagles are used to playing in January (whereas the Saints most certainly are not). And the Eagles have Brian Westbrook who’s made more than one team pay dearly for having a shaky run D this season. They also have Jeff Garcia who simply has a way of winning tough games. Plus, while he’s done an amazing job, Sean Payton is still a first-year head coach, which isn’t a good position to be in when you’re leading a team with no playoff experience and you’re facing a team and a coach with tons of it. Further, while I don’t believe for a minute that Joe Horn’s lingering groin injury will keep him out of this game, I do expect it will limit his ability to contribute. So am I saying that even with everything I think the Eagles have going for them, the absence of one DB will make all the difference? Not so much. I guess what I’m saying is that I think Sheppard’s injury might be the straw that breaks this camel’s back. The Eagles have rolled with a losing a lot of key players to injury this season. Eventually, that’s gotta catch up with you. And something tells me it happens here. I won’t be shocked if Philadelphia still manages to win this game, but I’m going with the Saints to win it by four.

Seattle (+8.5) at Chicago
I sure do hope the folks in Seattle enjoyed their little gift from Tony Romo last Saturday night. Because that’s all this team’s getting this January. The Seahawks played horribly against the Cowboys on wild card weekend. Horribly. And the fact of the matter is that the only team that deserved to win less than Seattle in round one of the playoffs was Dallas. The Bears, with their stifling defense, won’t make it so easy. In fact, I think they’ll make it pretty much impossible, beating the Seahawks by a minimum of 14 points.

New England (+4.5) at San Diego
It’s probably way too simplistic to say that this game comes down to coaching. But this game comes down to coaching. Because, look, if you want to talk about players, that’s fine, but you end up doing a lot of talking and ultimately not coming to any real conclusions. That is, if you’re a Chargers fan, you can focus on how you’ve got the league MVP (not to mention a guy who may well turn out to be the greatest ever at his position) at running back. Or make reference to your bevy of Pro Bowlers (which is impressive even if it includes a guy who has no business winning any honor). Or your impressive list of all pros (sullied though it is by the same cheater). And there’s nothing wrong with focusing on that stuff. Those guys are what made your team so hard to beat through the regular season. They’re the major reason the Chargers are seeded first in the AFC, and one of the reasons the team is favored by half again the home-team default spread here. On the other hand, if you’re a Patriots fan, you can spend all your time thinking about the fact that you’ve got the best post-season quarterback in the game (maybe in the history of the game) and also arguably the best QB in the league, running your offense. Or how Bill Belichick says the team’s current trio of running backs comprises the best RBs he’s ever coached. Or how the Pats’ stout defense, which is particularly effective in stopping the run, includes arguably the best D line in the league. And why not concentrate on stuff like that? These are some of reasons the Patriots are the most dangerous team in the NFL right now, a team that clearly can win it all even though it won’t play another home game until September. But if you want to compare the teams, and you start looking at how players stack up against players, you end up going nowhere fast. The Chargers have the best running back. The Patriots have the best quarterback. The Chargers have the all pro linebackers. The Patriots have the killer down linemen. The Chargers have a bit of an edge at tight end, though not nearly as much of an edge as Chargers fans think (because while Ben Watson has yet to prove that he’s on par with Antonio Gates, Watson has the benefit of having a better guy delivering the ball). The Patriots, though you might find it hard to believe, have a bit of an edge at wide receiver. You could go on and on all day. And then you could start to talk about balance. You could point out that if the Patriots are able to limit Tomlinson, the Chargers will have to rely on Philip Rivers, who struggled some in the latter part of the regular season, to come up big in his first-ever playoff start, whereas if the Chargers are able to hem in Brady, the Patriots can look to Corey Dillon, Laurence Maroney and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Faulk, a situation that would appear to favor the Patriots. Or you could note that New England’s defense can’t ever stop playing the pass (Tomlinson has thrown two touchdowns this season, six in his career), whereas San Diego’s defense can afford to bring DBs up to stop the run in some situations, which would seem to give an edge to the Chargers. And, again, you can do that kind of thing all day and end up nowhere. So in the end, you’ve got to talk about coaching. When you do that, one thing is obvious. Belichick, the best game planner in football, is gonna come in prepared to show the Chargers some things they’re not expecting. On both sides of the ball. And he’s going to make adjustments during the game based on what the Chargers show him. It’s a good bit harder to say what Marty Schottenheimer’s likely to do. Schottenheimer’s history, of course, is one of playing it safe, stubbornly sticking to game plans even when it’s clear they’re not working (and, in particular, stubbornly sticking with the run even in situations where he needs to get his passing game going), and losing big games as a result. Conventional wisdom says he stopped doing that this season, but I’m not sure that’s true. I guess Marty’s game plans have been a bit more freewheeling of late, but that’s easy to do when everything is working. At times when things have started to break down a bit, it seems to me, Schottenheimer’s tended to revert to form. In those situations, the Chargers have only succeeded because of Tomlinson’s superhuman talent. That won’t work against the Patriots. If New England’s able to slow down Tomlinson and start forcing Rivers to make bad decisions and commit turnovers, and Marty responds by going conservative, the Chargers are gonna find themselves in a deep hole that’s just gonna get deeper. The only thing I’m sure of here is that if Marty lets his team play, it’s gonna be a game, but if he digs in and does the Martyball thing, it’s gonna be a rout. And all I know is what’s come before, which has been a lot of Martyball. So I’m taking the Pats to pull off an upset, though I couldn’t begin to say whether this game will come down to the last play or be over by halftime.

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Wild Card Picks

January 5th, 2007 Comments off

Chances are two of my wild card round picks will be wrong. How do I know this? Well, it’s been a bitch of a year, and things aren’t looking any clearer to me now than they were in early September. Still, I’m determined to keep picking. So here’s what not to expect:

Kansas City (+7) at Indianapolis
OK, so we all know that the Colts can’t stop the run, right? We all know Indy has allowed an astonishing 173 rushing yards per game, 5.3 yards per carry, and 20 rushing touchdowns, which makes their run D officially the worst in the league. We also all know that Kansas City’s rushing offense, powered by Larry Johnson, has managed 134 yards per game, 4.2 per carry and 17 TDs. And that clearly does not bode well for the Colts. But are we also all aware that the only time the Colts have faced a Herm Edwards-coached team in the playoffs (a 2002-03 wild card round matchup between the 9-7 New York Jets and the 10-6 Colts), Indy was humiliated 41-0 (and Peyton Manning went 14 for 31 with two picks)? Or that Ty Law has intercepted Manning three times in the post season? Of course, none of that should be construed as meaning the Chiefs have this game in the bag. It’s gonna be very hard for Kansas City’s below-average pass defense to shut down Indy’s extremely potent passing offense, unless Law (or Patrick Surtain, Sammy Knight or Greg Wesley — or some combination of the four) manages another three picks. That’s hardly a given. The Chiefs have only managed 14 interceptions all season. And while I sort of suspect the uncertainty surrounding who’ll start at QB for Kansas City ultimately favors the Chiefs (it’s hard to prepare to face two quarterbacks), there’s simply no way to state with certainty that it does. So I guess where I’m going here is I kind of expect the Chiefs to manage the upset, but I won’t be shocked if it turns out I’m wrong. The only thing I ultimately feel confident in predicting is that if either team establishes a lead of 10 points or more any time after the middle of the second quarter, the game is over.

Dallas (+3) at Seattle
Seems like maybe Matt McBriar and Ryan Plackemeier could take the day off. It’s hard to imagine either team in this tilt needing to call on its punter, given that neither defense would appear to have any hope of slowing down, let alone stopping, the other team’s offense. Over the last four weeks of the season, during which time the team went 1-3, the Cowboys defense gave up an average of 33 points per game. That’s half again their season average. And those final numbers include 39 points allowed to the lowly Detroit Lions (a team that managed less than half that in an average game this season) in a rather meaningful game last weekend. The Seahawks, also 1-3 in the last quarter of the season (this despite the fact that both their starting quarterback and starting running back were back on the field after missing time due to injury), haven’t allowed nearly so many points as the Cowboys (largely hewing to within a few points of its season average of about 20 per game), but their secondary has been notably weak. They lost their last real starting DB in last week’s meaningless game at Tampa Bay. And that has the Hawks hoping that a trio of guys they picked up off the street this week can help them stop a Dallas offense that’s been good for about 361 yards (240 of them in the air) and 27 points per game this season. The only proven way to stop the Dallas passing attack is with interceptions, and even the Seahawks’ starting DBs didn’t manage too many of those this season (their 12 is tied for seventh least in the league). So what’s it all mean? I dunno. But here are my guesses: 1) Bet the over (it’s 46.5 as I write). 2) If you can find a prop bet on number of punts and you can put your money on fewer than six, you should be golden. 3) Expect whichever team has the ball last to win. I’m gonna say that’ll be Dallas, but I’ve got no real reason to believe it. It’s just a hunch, which is as good as you’re gonna get with this game. (Oh, by the way, whoever comes out on top is toast in the divisional round.)

NY Jets (+9) at New England
This is a tough one, not because it’s so close, but because it isn’t and it feels like it should be. Look, on one hand, anyone who tells you the Jets can’t win this game is an utter fool. The Jets can win. To begin with, they’ve already beat the Patriots in Foxborough once this season. So it’s clearly something they’re capable of. Plus, there’s no element of surprise in this one. The teams know each other. And the coaches obviously know each other. And there’s no question but that this Jets team has made a season-long habit of winning games they had no business winning. And you’ve gotta respect that. Nonetheless, it remains a fact that the Patriots are more than jut the home team, and more than simply one of the best post-season squads in NFL history. The Pats are also statistically superior to the Jets in every single aspect of the game. Every one. And not by just a little bit. New England has averaged 336 yards of total offense (123 on the ground, 213 in the air) and 24 points a game, while New York has managed only 306 yards (109 and 197) and 20 points. On defense, the Pats have allowed only 294 yards (94, 200) and less than 15 points a game, while the Jets have given up 332 yards (a huge 130 of them on the ground) and though they’ve only given up 18 points on average, that’s still 20 percent more than the Pats. The Patriots also have performed better on special teams. And in giveaway/takeaway ratio, a key stat to look at in assessing any game that’s likely to be hard fought, the Pats are +5 while the Jets come in at -3. So what is one supposed to do other than anticipate a Patriots victory? I mean, in the end, you’ve gotta figure that when the better team is playing at home, they’re more likely than not gonna find a way to win. By nine? Maybe, though I wouldn’t bet on. Games between division rivals are rarely so one-sided, even when they’re statistically as one-sided as this one.

NY Giants (+6.5) at Philadelphia
Look, I like the Giants. Really. I always have and I always will (though I’ve liked ’em more in the past and I’ll like ’em more again after Crybaby and King Douchebag are out of the picture). But I’m not gonna lie. I’m not only expecting the Eagles to take this game; I’m rooting for Philadelphia. There are a few reasons for that. First, as I’ve stated before, I’m a fan of Jeff Garcia. I like seeing him do well, especially at a time when Asshole Owens is faltering in Dallas. Second, I think the Eagles have a shot at advancing to the Super Bowl. The Giants don’t. Even if they get out of this weekend, the Giants aren’t beating Chicago or New Orleans. And I’d rather see Garcia get a chance to go all the way to Miami than the Giants get a chance to lose on the road next weekend. Third, and most important, I’m convinced that what’s best for the Giants over the long term is for Tom Coughlin to be gone. I’m certain he will be if the Giants drop this game, but if New York manages to advance, Coughlin’s probably gonna get another season. So I want the Giants to lose here so they have a better chance of winning next season. All that said, what I want or don’t want has nothing to do with anything. Here’s what does matter: The Eagles are the hottest team in football. They come into this game on a five-week winning streak that pushed them from third place in the division to the NFC East championship. The Giants enter the post-season limping, having lost six of their last eight games. Philly has the second most potent offense in the league. New York is ranked 14. Philly has an average defense. New York’s out downright bad. And, of course, the Eagles are at home. I’m taking Philly, giving the points and hoping the Giants are able to talk (or buy) Bill Cowher out of retirement.

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