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Divisional Playoff Picks

January 12th, 2007

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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