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Wild Card Picks

January 3rd, 2009

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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