Archive for January, 2011

Conference Championship Picks

January 22nd, 2011 Comments off

Forget about the lines. The safe picks this conference championship weekend are the home teams. Probably. I mean, look, both Green Bay and New Jersey are six seeds. That’s not important in and of itself, particularly since it means they both come into this round having ousted the top-seeded teams in their conferences a week ago. But it does mean that neither team has played a home game in the playoffs. Two straight road wins is hard enough; three borders on impossible. In fact, only three teams ever have qualified for the Super Bowl by winning three playoff games on the road: The 1985 New England Patriots, the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, and the 2007 New York Giants. So the odds say we won’t be adding two teams to that list this season. And if you’re gonna play it safe, you probably have to assume we won’t be adding one.

Still and all, I’m taking one of the road teams. I’m not doing it to be contrarian. I’m not doing it to be cute. I’m doing it because I think one of them is gonna win. Which? Well, in reality, it’ll probably be the opposite of the one I pick. For my theory, though, you’ve gotta read on. Here’s what not to expect.

Green Bay (-3.5) at Chicago
I was certain the Packers would lose to the Falcons last weekend. And I could not possibly have been one bit more wrong. How did it happen? Aaron Rodgers. That’s how. I knew Rodgers was good, but I had no idea how good until I saw him go all William Tecumseh Sherman on Atlanta. That was easily one of the best performances by a quarterback in a post-season game that I’ve ever seen. You have to like the chances of any team with a quarterback playing at that high a level. And, yeah, the Bears had a nice win last weekend, too. But they beat the Seahawks, a team that had no business even making the playoffs, let alone progressing to the divisional round. So you’ll forgive me (or you will if you’re not a Chicago fan, I suppose) if I stop short of reading too much into that particular victory. To my mind, this game comes down to whether you trust Rodgers to find ways to move the ball against Chicago’s damned tough defense more than you trust Jay Cutler to get it done against Green Bay’s somewhat tougher D. Me, I’m gonna favor the better quarterback against the slightly (and I mean slightly) lesser defense there. I think Rodgers throws a pick at some point in this game. But I also think the Bears turn it over twice. So I’m taking the Packers and looking for them to win by somewhere around six points.

NY Jets (+3.5) at Pittsburgh
Ugh. I wish to hell there were some way for both of these teams to lose. Because, you know, the Frat Boys are the Frat Boys. Thoroughly unlikable. And the Steelers, great franchise though they may be, are quarterbacked by the infinitely detestable Ben Douchelisbagger, a man who, if there were any justice at all in the world, would be in prison. I can’t root for either team. And rooting hard against either one would feel a bit too much like rooting for the other. So I think what I’m gonna do is root for a blowout and a healthy bit if carnage. That is, I don’t care which team wins; I just want whichever one loses to lose by multiple touchdowns. And if a few guys, including but not limited to Douchelisbagger, happen to suffer season-ending injuries, well, let’s just say no tears will be shed in my living room. Thing is, I’m not counting on a blowout. I rather suspect that what we’ll get will be a close game. That’s certainly what we got back in week 15 when the Frat Boys went into Pittsburgh, hung tough, and came out ahead 22-17. And, with the exception of the fact that the Steelers will have Troy Polamalu back, I don’t see where these are substantially different squads than the ones that met five weeks ago. Still, Polamalu’s no minor factor (if he can hold up). And it’s hard to imagine the Frat Boys can find a way to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh twice in the same season. Plus, you get the feeling that New Jersey won their Super Bowl last weekend. Add to all of that the fact that it’s all but impossible to run the ball against the Steelers, which means Mark Sanchez is probably actually gonna have to play a good game this weekend if his team is to have a chance, and I just can’t see the Frat Boys coming out on top. I suspect New Jersey keep it close. Probably really close. But I do expect Pittsburgh to pull it out in the end, maybe by a single point. Then, with any luck, they’ll get their clocks cleaned by the Packers two weeks from now in Dallas.

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Divisional Round Playoff Picks

January 14th, 2011 Comments off

Go ahead and accuse me of playing it safe because I’m taking all of the home teams (straight up) this week. I’m fine with that. Because, look, home teams winning is just how the divisional round usually shakes out. The home teams this weekend are hosting games because they were the best or second best teams in their conferences during the regular season. They’ve had a week off to rest, heal and prepare. The visitors, meanwhile, have had to fight their way through the wild card round. And this season, three of the visiting teams in this round also were visiting teams in the wild card round. The Packers and Frat Boys are six seeds. The Ravens are the AFC five seed. And the Seahawks, the only surviving team that hosted a game last weekend, backed into the playoffs by “winning” the horrifically bad NFC West with a record of 7-9. Even after the upset victory over New Orleans last weekend, Seattle takes a losing record on the road to Chicago. And, sure, New Jersey and Baltimore, though seeded lower, were probably and certainly (in that order) better than the Indianapolis and Kansas City teams they faced last weekend. Green Bay was better than Philadelphia, too, though you’d hardly have guessed it based on how close the Packers came to losing at the end of the game. But none of those teams — not one—  is better than the squad it’s traveling to face this weekend. So I’m not picking any of them to win, though I do like two of them to cover. If that makes me predictable, well, I suppose I can live with that. Here’s what not to expect.

Baltimore (+3) at Pittsburgh

There’s exactly one thing I can say about this game for absolute certain: It’s gonna be brutal. Last time these two teams played, Ben Douchelisbagger ended up with a broken nose (and, no, not because he got punched in the head; that was in a different game against a different team — though it was still pretty cool to see). The time before that, the Ravens went into Pittsburgh and handed the Steelers their first loss of the season with a last-second touchdown; the final score, 17-14, reflected the fact that it was a hard-fought battle that left both teams beat to hell. I see no reason to expect anything other than more of the same. And while Jets-Patriots has been getting all the advance attention, I think this very likely will turn out to be the game of the weekend. How it’ll go, I’m not sure. But here’s what I know: The Ravens are a good road team, but they haven’t been terribly good playing in Pittsburgh. That win back in week four was the first in for the Ravens in Pittsburgh in four years, the first ever with  Joe Flacco at quarterback, and just the fifth since the team moved to Baltimore in 1996. That’s not exactly shocking; it’s hard to beat division rivals on their turf, harder still when those rivals are perennial contenders. And even when both teams have been contenders, things haven’t worked out well for the Ravens; they’re 0-2 in Pittsburgh in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean this year’s team loses, of course. But there’s not a whole lot of reason to think this year’s team will win. The Ravens did get their post-season off to a great start. But the Steelers are getting their post-season started at home, coming off a bye and facing an opponent that’s playing its second straight road game. There are a lot of advantages for Pittsburgh right there. There are also advantages to be found in the fact that while both of these offenses live and die by their ability to run the ball, it’s a whole lot harder to run against the Steelers, who allowed just three yards per carry during the regular season, than it is to run against the Ravens, who gave up nearly four yards per rush. It’s hard to score against both teams on the ground, but it’s easier to score against Baltimore through the air than it is to put up passing TDs against Pittsburgh. Unless the Ravens find a way to take the ball away from the Steelers two or three times, I just can’t see them coming out ahead. And I’m not counting on anyone having that kind of performance against a team with a +14 regular season giveaway/takeaway differential. So I’m taking Pittsburgh straight up in this game, though I suspect the difference will be more like a single point.

Green Bay (+2.5) at Atlanta

OK, it’s a huge oversimplification — I wanna make sure I state that up front — but here’s what I saw Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia: The Eagles played poorly from start to finish (couldn’t get out of their own way on offense, gave up 138 rushing yards, 4.3 per carry, to a team with a ground attack that was middling at best through the regular season, and missed two field goals, either one of which would have scripted the end of the game differently) and still had a chance to win in the final minute of the game. So tell me again how I’m supposed to be impressed with the Packers. Tell me again why I would possibly think Green Bay, playing its second consecutive road game, can go into Atlanta and beat a well-rested Falcons squad that’s more balanced than the Eagles and that beat Green Bay in week 12 (a point at which the Packers were playing their best football of the regular season). Because, me, I don’t see much hope there. Yeah, if Green Bay’s pass rushers can get to Matt Ryan and either put him on his back or hurry him into making bad decisions, they’ve got a chance to come out with another stolen win. But if they can’t get to Ryan consistently, they’re in for a long afternoon. And I don’t think Green Bay’s getting into the Atlanta backfield often enough to make that kind of difference. We’ll see on Saturday, I suppose, but until I actually witness it, I’m not buying the idea that the Packers can win this game. I’ll take the Falcons and, yes, I’ll give the lousy two and a half points. I’d be temped to give as much as double that.

Seattle (+10) at Chicago

Do I actually have to waste my time and yours actually discussing this game? Or can we just agree that while it was very nice for the Seahawks that they were able to rise to the occasion and eliminate the defending champs at home last weekend, there’s next to no chance they’re gonna be able to take that show on the road? Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe the Bears are a great football team. They’re certainly not a championship-caliber squad. Their defense is vulnerable to the pass and their offense can’t keep up with an opponent that puts up more than 24 points. But the Seahawks aren’t even a playoff-caliber team. Their wild card round win is already one more than they could ever have expected to pull off playing with the big boys. I’m not ready to give 10 points to any team Chicago faces, but I’ll definitely take the Bears straight up. They’ll take it by a touchdown.

NY Jets (+8.5) at New England

It’s been a thing this week to say, “Well, don’t expect a 45-3 blowout this time.” OK, um, no kidding. What exactly am I supposed to take from that? Yeah, Rex Ryan says he was outcoached back in week 13. That’s because he was outcoached. And his team was outprepared. And his players were outplayed. But you know what? It’s not like any or all of those things are gonna have to change for the Frat Boys to keep this one closer. They’re gonna keep it closer because 45-3 blowouts just don’t happen twice in a season when you match up a pair of playoff teams. New Jersey comes into this game 12-5. That’s not a record you achieve by being the kind of team that gets its doors blown off on a regular basis. Thing is, not getting blown out is a long way from not losing. And when it comes to looking at this game in advance, I think a lot of what was true in week 13 remains true today. As has been noted all over the place, if the Frat Boys are gonna have a chance to win this thing, they’re gonna have to find a way to get to Tom Brady. And that’s where New Jersey gets into trouble. Their defense is built to take away big-play receivers. It works a lot of the time. (Certainly worked well in the wild card round against the banged up and run deficient Colts.) But it’s not an effective strategy against the Patriots. Brady simply has too many weapons. Even if you manage to neutralize two targets, you’re still leaving Brady with options. And if you drop extra guys into coverage, you end up looking a lot of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. That leaves you one avenue: Get to Brady. The Frat Boys can’t do that consistently if they rush three or four. It’s not how their defensive front works. New Jersey gets to quarterbacks by blitzing; and you can’t blitz Brady. When you do, he picks you apart. So it’s not as simple for the Frat Boys as “figure out a way to get to Brady.” And on the other side of the ball, it isn’t nearly so complicated for the Patriots as “figure out a way to get to Mark Sanchez.” Because you don’t necessarily have to get to Sanchez. What you have to do is shut down the run and force Sanchez to beat you. When you do that, you put the kid into situations where he makes mistakes. He made more than a few in Indianapolis last weekend and lived to tell the tale. But here’s one way the Patriots aren’t the Colts: The Pats picked off 24 passes this season on their way to a historically great giveaway/takeaway differential of +27. The Colts picked off 10 balls and landed at -4. Sanchez can’t make the mistakes against New England that he did against Indianapolis. Simply cant. But what are the odds that he won’t? Not terribly good, particularly if the game is on his shoulders (the throwing one of which is hurt). So go ahead and tell me about how coaching and preparation are gonna turn Sanchez and the Frat Boys pass rush into something fundamentally different from what they’ve been for 17 games. If you can, I’ll have to concede that New Jersey has a chance to do something more impressive than avoid another rout. Until then, my thinking is this: A 42-point margin is highly unlikely, but it’s also entirely unnecessary. A single point will do the job. And the 17-20 by which I expect the Patriots to outscore the Frat Boys will be more than enough.

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Wild Card Playoff Picks

January 6th, 2011 Comments off

Here we are. Seventeen weeks of buildup and now the real football starts. And it starts on a mostly exciting note. There’s no getting worked up about the first of this weekend’s games. The Saints are beating the Seahawks pure and simple. The only person in the universe who may not know that is Pete Carroll, and you have to kinda suspect that even Pete knows it. After that, though, it looks like this should be a spectacular weekend of football, ending with what ought to be the hardest-fought game of the wild card round as the Packers take on the Eagles in Philadelphia. I’m excited. And that means I’m probably more prone to bad judgments than usual. Here’s what not to expect.

New Orleans (-10) at Seattle
You know who should be rooting for the Seahawks in this game? Fans of every NFL playoff team except the Saints. And, no, I’m not saying that because I think the Saints are particularly scary. (I mean, look, the defending champs are about as good a wild card team as you’re ever likely to see, and they look to me like an outfit with a solid chance to get to another Super Bowl. That’s just not my point here.) The Seahawks are a weak squad. And, you know, I don’t say this to take issue with the NFL playoff system —  everybody knows how it works and everybody’s playing by the same rules, which strikes me as fundamentally fair — but the truth is Seattle has no real business in this tournament. And whether you’re the Falcons or Bears looking for an easy first post-season matchup, the Eagles hoping for chance to bounce back from a tough divisional round game in Chicago by hosting a relatively easy NFC Championship, or the Packers looking for a back door into Cowboys Stadium, you’ve gotta like your chances with Seattle over any other team in the NFC. And if you’re any of the six AFC playoff teams, you certainly couldn’t hope for a better fate than to land in the Super Bowl and find yourself facing an NFC champion that stumbled to a regular season record of 7-9 (I don’t care how damned hot that team would be made out to be after winning three straight to get to the big show). So what does any of this have to do with how this game will play out? Next to nothing. But, honestly, what are you looking for me to tell you? That Seattle has a realistic chance to beat New Orleans? I can’t. Because they don’t. And, yes, I’m aware of the Saints’ serious injury issues at running back. Doesn’t matter. Seattle can’t run, can’t pass, can’t stop the run, can’t stop the pass and can’t protect the ball (and, OK, New Orleans can’t protect the ball, either, but the Saints are slightly less bad at it than the Seahawks). Also, Seattle “qualified” for the playoffs by tripping into a week 17 victory over St. Louis. So, yeah, I think rooting for a Seahawks win makes sense, expecting one not so much. Saints by 14.

NY Jets (+2.5) at Indianapolis
OK, listen, you play the teams that are on your schedule. That’s a fact. And no one’s asking the Frat Boys to apologize for the route they took to 11-5. But the full story is worth telling and it’s this: New Jersey beat New England in East Rutherford in week two (and got clobbered by the Pats in Foxborough in week 13), and dodged a bullet in Pittsburgh in week 15. Those are the Frat Boys two wins of the season over teams that finished with winning records. New Jersey’s other nine wins came against this stellar lineup: Miami (7-9), Buffalo (4-12), Minnesota (6-10), Denver (4-12), Detroit (6-10), Cleveland (5-11), Houston (6-10), and Cincinnati (4-12). They lost to Miami (in the Meadowlands) the second time around. They also lost to Baltimore and Green Bay at home and Chicago on the road. You seeing a pattern here? Because I know I am. And you know what? I don’t care if it’s personal or business. I don’t think New Jersey can stand up to Indianapolis either way. The Frat Boys are in a tough spot. You don’t succeed defensively against Peyton Manning by blitzing. Just like Tom Brady, Manning has the head to figure you out and the pocket presence to step up, recognize where your blitz has left you exposed, and pick you apart. Trouble for New Jersey is that their defense probably can’t succeed if it can’t make good use of the blitz. So what do you do? Well, if you can adjust, rush three or four and sit back and wait for your moments, you can potentially get Manning to throw a costly pick or two. But that strategy is tough to pull off when you don’t have an offense that can keep you in the game if it trends toward a shootout (which it will) and the Frat Boys simply don’t have the firepower or the experience to pull that off. I think this will be a game through the first half. But the Colts should start to pull away by the middle of the third quarter. And when all is said and done, I expect Indy to be on top by something on the order of nine.

Baltimore (-3) at Kansas City
The Chiefs haven’t won a post-season game since 1993 (well, it was January 16, 1994, actually, but it was the ’93 season). Their coach at the time was Marty Schottenheimer. Their quarterback was Joe Montana. They were demolished by the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship a week later. And they’ve bowed in their fist playoff game five times since, despite having thrice posted 13-3 regular season records and twice (in 1995 and ’97) earned the conference one seed. That ain’t good. And if this year’s squad is gonna turn things around, it’s going to need the offensive line to come up huge in terms of pass blocking. The Chiefs have succeeded on offense this season using their very productive rushing attack to set up an efficient passing game. Matt Cassel, fairly quietly, has racked up some rather impressive stats. But you can’t run the ball against the Ravens the way the Chiefs have run the ball against their regular season opponents. Kansas City should have some success on the ground, but it probably won’t be enough to worry the Baltimore defense into playing backers up and opening passing opportunities. That doesn’t mean those opportunities won’t be there. The Ravens have a one-man secondary, which means that if Cassel can get some time, he should be able to channel his inner Tom Brady, find open receivers, and keep the ball moving. Thing is, that’s easier said than done. The Chiefs offensive linemen are excellent run blockers, but I haven’t seen evidence that they’re excellent pass blockers. And if those linemen don’t play spectacularly this weekend, the Ravens pass rush is gonna be all over Cassel. That’s problematic. It’s also, ultimately, the reason I expect the Chiefs to extend their one-and-done run to six. I don’t think it’s a gimme for Baltimore, and I’m certainly not giving three points to a solid team playing at home, but I like the Ravens to come out ahead. I’m guessing they’ll do it by a single point.

Green Bay (+2.5) at Philadelphia
You know, on one hand, while week one was an awfully long time ago (and the Eagles and Packers teams that squared off back then are very different from the squads taking the field here), it’s hard to get your head around the idea that the Packers could beat the Eagles in Philadelphia twice in a single season. On the other hand, I just don’t believe Michael Vick when he says he’s 100 percent. That has nothing (OK, very little) to do with the fact that Vick is an established liar. I’m sure Vick either believes he’s 100 percent, wants to believe he’s 100 percent, wants his coaches to believe he’s 100 percent, or wants the Packers to believe he’s 100 percent (or, you know, all of the above). I just don’t buy it when a guy says on Sunday that he’s at 50 percent, upgrades himself to 75 percent on Monday and declares himself 100 percent on Wednesday. And I  really don’t think a quarterback whose success is based on mobility can come all the way back from a quadriceps injury in two weeks. So what happens if Vick can’t move around the way he’s used to? Well, the Packers pass rush eats him alive is what. Green Bay’s defense logged 47 sacks during the regular season, including a rather painful looking one of Vick by Clay Matthews late in that week one game. The difficulty there, for Philly, is that their offense really has to produce in this game, because the odds of their D shutting down Green Bay’s passing attack aren’t good at all. I thought a week ago that the Packers couldn’t win this game. I’m still not sure they can. But I’ve got a bad, bad feeling about the Eagles offense. So I’m taking Green Bay to pull off the upset here. We’ll see how that works out.

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