Archive for January, 2009

Super Bowl XLIII Pick

January 31st, 2009 Comments off

Pittsburgh (-7) vs. Arizona

I wasn’t kidding two weeks ago when I said, in essence, that this was the Super Bowl matchup of my nightmares. Look, I’ve got nothing against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In fact, the only negative thing I can say about the team is that it’s quarterbacked by a guy who’s not nearly talented enough to be headed to his second Super Bowl in five years as a pro. And even then, the fact of the matter is that Ben Roethlisberger is a tough goddamned bastard who, in a weird way, has earned every bit of his professional success. I respect him as a football player even if I think he’s only a marginally good QB who happens to be blessed enough to play for a team with one of the most consistently outstanding defenses I’ve ever seen. No, I don’t think this Steelers D is the best the league has seen in any single season. It’s close, though. What I think is that the Steelers D has been better over multiple seasons than one can reasonably expect in the free agency/salary cap era. And that’s enough to get you to a Super Bowl as often as your offense can manage not to screw up too bad and as often as there isn’t an outstanding balanced squad in your conference. The thing that bothers me about Pittsburgh is the damned fans, who are close to as obnoxious a group as I’ve ever witnessed. You know, after Jets fans, who are insufferable and maybe Cowboys fans, though I find it as difficult to take Cowboys fans seriously as I do to take Yankees fans seriously (I know you’re supposed to hate both, but I ultimately just find them silly). If the Steelers win — by which I mostly mean when the Steelers win — I’m pretty much gonna have to turn off Sirius for the next two weeks just so I don’t have to listen to every idiot in Western Pennsylvania (which all evidence suggests is the entire population of the region) call in to crow about an accomplishment they ultimately had nothing to do with — the scientifically established benefits of waving yellow towels notwithstanding.

And there’s my problem. Because, hey, you know it as well as I do: We can talk about Arizona’s chances. We can talk about the Cardinals’ offense and what a great receiver Larry Fitzgerald and how Kurt Warner has played excellent football in two Super Bowls to date (though he won only one of them). We can even talk about how well Arizona’s D has performed in the playoffs. We can jaw about all that stuff all day if that’s what you want. I mean, a lot of other people are doing just that. But it doesn’t change the fact that the only way the Steelers are losing this game is if Roethlisberger loses it for them. And I don’t see that. I mean, seriously, Big Ben can hardly play much worse in this game than he did in Super Bowl XL and the Steelers managed to win that game 21-10. For the Cardinals to win here, Roethlisberger needs to turn the ball over deep in Pittsburgh territory at least two and possibly three times. And the Cards need to capitalize. With touchdowns, not field goals. If by some miracle that happens, Arizona could come out ahead. If not, the Cardinals don’t stand a chance. Here’s the big factor, in my mind: The Steelers D doesn’t need to blitz to pressure a quarterback. They get there with five pass rushers. And that makes them the perfect defense to take on Arizona; they can get into the backfield without sacrificing pass coverage or leaving themselves vulnerable to the run. That’s a hard thing to overcome. It requires perfect execution. And based on what I’ve seen so far this season, I simply don’t believe Warner and his crew have perfection in them.

So, sure, I’ll be rooting for Arizona. Right to the end. But I’m not expecting to walk away happy. I think the Cards make it a game into the fourth quarter, but I’m looking for the Steelers to put up a clinching TD late (quite possibly in the form of a pick six) and to make the final score 24-13.

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Conference Championship Picks

January 17th, 2009 Comments off

OK, let’s start off with an admission of the obvious: I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about here. I’ve been thoroughly befuddled by this NFL season since at least week one (and probably a good bit before that) and things simply aren’t coming into any clearer focus for me as the playoffs wear on. OK, sure, I went 2-2 both straight up and against the spread last weekend. On the surface, that ain’t bad considering three road teams came out of the weekend with wins, something that never happens in the divisional road. But there’s also the fact that I went into the weekend certain of exactly one thing: that the Carolina Panthers would crush the Arizona Cardinals. And we all know how smashingly well that predication worked out. So the one thing I “knew for sure” was a bust and two thirds of the stuff I outright guessed at worked out. I assume you’ll understand when I tell you I’m not inclined to do my touchdown dance here. (Or I wouldn’t be if I had a touchdown dance.) So how will conference championship weekend come out? I wouldn’t be able to answer that with any degree of certainty if this weren’t the penultimate weekend of play in the most topsy-turvy NFL season to which I have ever been witness. Which it is. So what the hell do I know? I’ll offer my guesses, such as they may be. If you’re smart, you’ll look for the actual outcomes to be precisely the opposite of what I predict. And all of this, of course, is just a long way of saying here’s what not to expect.

Philadelphia (-3.5) at Arizona
You know, on one hand, I have no reason (or OK, very little reason) to anticipate that Donovan McNabb will have as poor a showing in this game as Jake Delhomme had last Saturday night. On the other, I’m acutely aware of the fact that I was here a week ago saying there was no way Delhomme would fare as poorly against Arizona as Matt Ryan had in the wild card round. And my reasoning on the Delhomme thing was solid: He’s a veteran; Ryan’s a rookie. I’ve got nothing like that on which to hang my expectation that McNabb will play better against the Cardinals D than Delhomme did. That said, there are a couple of factors to consider. One is that McNabb is a better quarterback than Delhomme. Maybe much better or maybe only slightly better. But better. The other is that it remains hard to believe that an Arizona defense that ranked 22nd in the league against the pass through the regular season (giving up 221 passing yards a game, 7.2 per attempt and allowing 36 passing TDs while logging just 13 picks) has managed to reinvent itself so dramatically in the post-season (202 yards per game, 5.3 per attempt and three TDs to seven picks). And if, as I suspect, a cardinal can’t change its plumage, then you have to anticipate at the very least that Arizona will at some point revert to form and perhaps that the Cardinals are due for an outright horrible showing that drives a statistical correction. If the Cardinals can’t keep up the pace on pass D, it could be a very good afternoon for McNabb. Of course, if the Cardinals really have changed, it could spell trouble for the Eagles. Brian Westbook was a non-factor in the Meadowlands last weekend. And while you’d have to be a fool not to attribute that at least in part to the Giants defense, there’s also the fact that Westbrook has been playing hurt. There’s no reason to expect he’ll be the deciding factor against a Cardinals D that’s stopped the run about as well as the Giants D, particularly if the Cardinals’ offense is in high gear. Kurt Warner and the gang can put up points on you, and it’s hard to stick with the run when you’re working hard to keep up. So what is one to anticipate? I’m not sure. But I’m guessing the Eagles pass rush puts enough pressure on Warner to force a few mistakes and keep the game within reach for McNabb. And while I’m hardly certain, I’m willing to venture that the Cardinals defense really can’t keep up the pace for a third-straight week. That will give McNabb a chance to win the game and I have to think he’ll pull it off, if late. I’m thinking the Eagles score the go-ahead touchdown on the final meaningful play of the game, winning by a point.

Baltimore (+5.5) at Pittsburgh
If I’m gonna be wrong about just one of this weekend’s games (which is hardly a given; I might easily be wrong about both) I want it to be this one. Because if I’m right about this one and wrong about the other, that would mean a Pittsburgh-Arizona Super Bowl. And that would be me rooting for the Cardinals, which would suck, because a) I don’t want to root for the Cardinals (not that I want to root against them, mind you; it’s just that I have a complete inability to feel passionate about the Cardinals or anything remotely connected to the state of Arizona, which seems to me a rather pointless place, a geographic, sociological and political afterthought that should remain neatly hidden away in the corner of whatever desert it’s neatly hidden away in); and b) the Cardinals aren’t winning that matchup, which means I’d go in to Super Bowl XLIII essentially guaranteed to end up on the losing team’s side of things for the fourth year running, and that would be a class A drag. That’s a long way of saying I don’t foresee any outcome to this game other than a Steelers victory, though I sure hope I’m wrong. You know, under other circumstances, I might point out that the Ravens are a heck of a football team and note that it’s hard to beat a good team three times in a season (Pittsburgh narrowly won both regular season meetings). But the circumstances at hand, the ones that matter, are this: the Ravens are playing for the 18th consecutive weeks (during which time the Steelers have had not one but two bye weeks, one in the regular season and one in the first week of the playoffs); the Ravens are coming off a divisional round game at Tennessee that was absolutely brutal; and the Ravens are dealing with serious injuries to key players. I’ll believe you can win a game under those circumstances when I see it. And while I’d love to see just that, what I expect to see is a hard-fought game that ends in a three-point Pittsburgh victory.

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Divisional Round Picks

January 10th, 2009 Comments off

You know how I know the Eagles are winning on Sunday? Because I’m picking the Ravens to win on Saturday. Wait. I know that doesn’t make sense. But here’s the deal: One of the four road teams (all of which go into the weekend as underdogs by at least one score) is gonna find a way to win. That’s about what you get in the divisional playoffs round; the home teams, coming off a bye, go 3-1 or 4-0. This year, it’s gonna be 3-1. The Cardinals certainly aren’t winning; they’ve already lasted a week longer than they should have. And the Chargers almost certainly aren’t beating the Steelers. That leaves the Eagles and the Ravens. And I can’t bring myself to pick the Eagles even though they’re in a game that could go either way. But I can find plenty of reasons to pick the Ravens. That means just one thing: the Ravens will lose and the Eagles will win. Because if there’s one thing you can reliably bet on, it’s me picking wrong. So there you go. Bet Philly. Bet ’em big. And expect none of the following to actually occur.

Baltimore (+3) at Tennessee
I need Baltimore to lose this game. Because although I’m absolutely filled (overflowing even) with respect and admiration for Ed Reed, and although I love to watch the man play, I simply cannot stand to read or hear his name one more goddamned time. Seriously. OK, yeah, he’s a great, great, great safety. I get it. Now, shut up, already. It’s getting to be like that fucking “Bad Day” song (except for how that “Bad Day” song is horrible and was completely insufferable from the get-go, unless you’re the kind of dolt who enjoys really weak songwriting — which, as it turns out, just about everyone is) where it doesn’t matter what’s going on someone just suddenly decides, “You know what would be great? If I were to simply shove Ed Reed’s name into this … business meeting, conversation about collecting used milk jugs, prostate exam … . ” And it isn’t, great. Really. And it has to stop before I completely lose my mind. So, OK, maybe I’d be cool with the Ravens winning if they could do it on the strength of a great performance by Joe Flacco. But I think we all know that ain’t happening. Not in the face of Tennessee’s defense, a unit that gave up just six yards per attempt this season, picked off 20 balls and allowed just 12 passing TDs all year (that’s three quarters of a passing touchdown per game). No, if the Ravens are winning this game, they’re winning it on defense. And that’s gonna mean a big contribution from Ed Reed. Of course, the same goes for Tennessee (the winning on defense part, not the big contribution from Ed Reed part; the Titans don’t want to see Reed do much at all). And the question becomes which quarterback do you trust more to have a bad day, the rookie Flacco or the traditionally inept Kerry Collins. In the end, I’ve gotta look to Collins, not so much because I expect great things from Flacco (in fact it’s always safe to bet against rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs), but because I expect Collins to get more opportunities to screw up. Flacco won’t be asked to win this game. Collins might. And that’s as likely as not to translate to six points for Ed Reed, which means a) another week of listening to incessant talk about him and b) a Baltimore win. Let’s say by three.

Arizona (+10) at Carolina
Another thing I don’t need to hear another damned word about: how Arizona can’t travel east and win. OK, yeah, the Cardinals haven’t won a game in an Eastern time zone city all season. That’s great. But the Cardinals aren’t losing this game to geography. They’re losing this game to the Panthers, who are quite simply better than them in all three phases of the game. They’re losing to a defense that does an excellent job of bringing pressure on quarterbacks. They’re losing to a balanced offense led by a veteran quarterback who’s incredibly unlikely to use the same snap count on down after down. The Cardinals would lose this game in Arizona just as surely as they’ll lose it in Carolina. The only difference is that if the Cardinals were at home, they might have a shot of keeping the difference to less than 10, whereas in Carolina they don’t. Panthers by two touchdowns.

Philadelphia (+4) at NY Giants
Yeah, it’s true: This should work out to be a great game between two teams that know each other very well and that should be poised to trade punches all afternoon long. And, honestly, the only outcome that could possibly surprise me is a blowout — in either team’s favor. So what does one find to hook a pick on? I’m not sure. But if I’ve gotta pick something, it’s Donovan McNabb. I like McNabb. I respect McNabb. But in the end I don’t trust McNabb. He’s as likely to lose a game for his team as he is to win it for them. And that’s not only a less than desirable quality in a quarterback, but as close to a formula for losing in the post-season as you’re likely to find. I’m taking the Giants straight up and the Eagles with the points, but I’ll be neither shocked nor disappointed if McNabb and the Eagles prove me wrong.

San Diego (+6) at Pittsburgh
You think Darren Sproles is good for 160 yards and two touchdown’s against Pittsburgh’s defense? That’s it. That’s the only question I’m gonna ask and the only one you need to answer in relation to this game. My answer, for the record, is “Hell, no.” The Chargers’ defense will ensure that it goes down to the fourth quarter (and maybe to the last possession), but in the end, the Steelers win it by four.

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Wild Card Picks

January 3rd, 2009 Comments off

This is nuts, you know? Four games, four road teams favored. And, look, it’s the playoffs. These teams all ostensibly are among the NFL elite. You’d think at least one squad in that category would be able to manage a win at home. But when you look at these games — or at least when I look at them — it’s hard to see where the oddsmakers have got it wrong. They did, though. At least one home team, and maybe two, is gonna come out of this week with a win. Just don’t ask me which. Here’s a look at what not to expect.

Atlanta (-1) at Arizona
If Arizona had shown any inclination to run the ball during the regular season, you’d have to think they had a shot here. But they didn’t. And they probably don’t. The Cardinals have probably the least balanced offense of the 12 playoffs squads. They pass on most downs. And then on others, they pass. And, OK, yes, they’re quite good at throwing the football; the Cards averaged close to 300 yards per game in the air this season, second only to the Saints (who, one might note, didn’t qualify for post-season play, partially because, unlike the Cardinals, they weren’t part of one of the two weakest divisions in football). But if you’re the Falcons defense and you pretty much know what your opponent is going to do — what it needs to do to have any chance of winning — what’s your strategy? You play man-to-man underneath with a two or three deep zone. All day. Yeah, that invites the Cardinals to run the ball, but that’s OK, because the Cardinals aren’t going to run the ball. Not much, anyhow. And particularly not if the Falcons offense does what it’s best at, which is controlling the clock and the tempo of the game with run after run after run, with the threat that you can throw the ball, and throw it well, if you have to. (The Falcons were middle of the pack this season in passing yards per game, with only just over 200, but they were fifth best in the league in yards per attempt. In fact, Atlanta’s 7.93 yards per attempt topped Arizona’s 7.74.) If the Cards can manage to keep it close into the final five minutes of the game, they have a great chance of coming out ahead, but if you see Atlanta’s offense take the field looking to add to a lead of 10 or more at any point in the second half, it’s over. And that’s what I expect to see. Falcons by 14.

Indianapolis (-1) at San Diego
Sure, I can see the Chargers winning this game. In fact, I see the Chargers not only as the most likely of this weekend’s underdogs to come up with a win, but as perhaps the only team in the AFC standing between the Colts and another Super Bowl appearance (which would probably equate to hoisting another Lombardi Trophy). The problem I run into when I look at this game is that I’m not sure whether the Chargers are a team that got off to a rough (and kind of weird start), struggled some and then pulled it together to peak at exactly the right time — or just a plain old 8-8 squad that benefited from another team’s spectacular collapse and backed into the playoffs by winning an astoundingly weak division. It’s hardly going out on a limb to say that a lot of what happens here turns on the extent to which injured LaDainian Tomlinson is able to perform. If LT can keep the Colts defense honest, then the San Diego passing attack that led the league in yards per attempt (8.39) and tied New Orleans for the league lead in touchdowns (34), should be able to do some damage. Even then, though, it’s hard to imagine the Colts failing to keep up given that they’re facing one of the league’s worst pass defenses. They were certainly able to do just that back in November when Peyton Manning hung 255 yards and two touchdowns on the Chargers’ defense in San Diego en route to a 23-20 Indianapolis victory. So the key question, it seems to me, isn’t really about how healthy LT is but about how the Chargers are going to do this weekend something they haven’t managed to do all season: stop the pass. And how are they going to do that against the Colts, whose passing game is hitting on all cylinders. I’m thinking they’re not. So I’m thinking Indy wins this one — by three if the Chargers offense is working well and by 17 if it isn’t (you’ll not that both three and 17 are greater than one).

Baltimore (-3) at Miami
This game seems to me the most cut-and-dry of the weekend. Yeah, yeah, all credit to the Dolphins, a team that rebounded from a 1-15 finish in 2007 to win 11 games and take the AFC East crown away from New England (and to dispatch the Jets in the Meadowlands in week 17 in order to get there). There’s no taking anything away from that accomplishment. But this is the post-season. And this is Baltimore, a team that boasts the second best defense in the league, a team that surrendered 15.3 points per game this season and got there while facing some solid opposition. I just don’t see Miami’s bag of trick plays amounting to much in a matchup like this. And because of that, I don’t see the Dolphins standing half a chance. (Which probably means that in reality the Fins will be the only home team to win big all weekend). Ravens by a touchdown.

Philadelphia (-3) at Minnesota
There’s no secret about what the Vikings need to do in order to win: Establish the run and control the tempo of the game. If they can do that, they not only can win, they will win. And if they don’t they will lose. Because if the Eagles get a chance to unleash their pass rush on Tarvaris Jackson things are gonna get ugly for the Vikings offense — and they’re gonna get ugly quick. And the problem for Minnesota is that if I know that and you know that and every football fan in America knows that, chances are Andy Reid knows it to. That probably means the Eagles are gonna stack the box early on and dare Jackson to throw the ball. If he can do it — if he can get the ball to his receivers, and not surrender it to Asante Samuel, who will be facing man-to-man coverage — then he can open up running lanes for Adrian Peterson and put his team in a great position to win. Can Jackson do that? I haven’t yet seen anything that suggests he can. So I’m taking Philly and giving the points.

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