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Wild Card Playoff Picks

January 6th, 2011

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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