Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Wild Card Weekend Picks

No time for fancy intros this week: we've got playoff games to pick. IT'S GO TIME, PEOPLE! THIS IS NOT A DRILL! OR A VERY EFFECTIVE SYSTEM FOR MAKING YOUR OWN PICKS!

And with that, on to the... well, you know.

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New York Jets at INDIANAPOLIS (-3)

Two entertaining frauds in the clearly better AFC game. A month ago, I'd really like the Jets to do the deed here, because the Colts' run defense was just atrocious, and the Jets had a solid running game to take the pressure off scattershot QB Mark Sanchez. But in the stretch drive, the Colts shut down the Raiders on the road -- a fairly similar ground game -- and also survived Jacksonville and Tennessee twice. Otherwise known as four teams that are good with the power running game. So the Jets aren't going to be able to take the air out of the ball and limit possessions for the Colts offense...

and they also aren't going to be able to force Colt turnovers. The dirty little secret of the Jets' defense this year is that the world-class secondary is pretty ordinary by now. CB Darelle Revis hasn't had good hamstrings all year. CB Antonio Cromartie is boom-bust. Losing starting safety Jim Leonhard was a real blow, and now that the coverage is no longer lockdown, the lack of defensive pressure is highly noticeable. Oh, and since the coverage is an issue, blitzing also isn't a very good option. Add it up, and you get the Colts taking a lead, and Sanchez having to cover the gap. With a possibly wounded wing, in a loud dome, with a running game that isn't going to do him enough favors? Not going to happen. (And yes, Jets Fan, had you been going to KC, you would have survived an extra week. But don't worry, the Colts aren't lasting a whole lot longer than you are.)

Colts 27, Jets 17

NEW ORLEANS at Seattle (+10.5)

Unlike many NFL observers, I'm not offended by the presence of the Seabags in the playoffs. Just because nine of their losses were by over fifteen points -- no, seriously -- and they were utter dogbreath for months... well, whatever. it's kind of like puling about a bad All Star or Pro Bowl selection; it will be gone and forgotten about in a week or so, with no real long-term damage.

Now, the Saints aren't right; losses to the Ravens and Bucs show the blueprint on beating them. (Um, it involves punching them in the mouth a lot and forcing turnovers. Very, very tricky blue print.) And the Seahawks can play physically on defense for short periods of time at home. But they can't cover downfield very well, and the Saints have any number of deep ball options and mismatches that will take advantage, even if it's just intermittently. The defending Super Bowl champions are not going back. But they are moving on, and the chance for a back-door cover for the home team depends on their offense not making terrible mistakes when behind and desperate. Let's just say that it's much more likely to get worse in that situation then better.

Saints 27, Seahawks 13

BALTIMORE at Kansas City (+3

The Ravens have disappointed people as much as any 12-4 team can, with an offense that's been erratic and a secondary that's been highly vulnerable. They also take bad penalties as well as any team in recent history. But the Chiefs are the very definition of a paper tiger team, with a historically weak schedule that made QB Matt Cassel look competent (he's not very), and a defense that can be beaten down by a patient power attack. Against a Ravens team that has road playoff success in its past (remember that lovely beatdown in New England last year? I know I do), they'll need big plays in the special teams and a win in the turnover battle to pull off the home upset. And that's just now how you bet. But it will be close.

Ravens 24, Chiefs 20

Green Bay at PHILADELPHIA (-2.5)

Probably the worst possible wild-card matchup for the Eagles, who would have matched up better with the Bucs, Giants or Saints than the genuinely dangerous Packers. If either of these teams play their "A" games, they can easily go to the Super Bowl, though they probably won't.

So why go for the stumbling Eagles, who suffered a shocking loss to a going through the motions Vikings team when they could have gotten a bye? Well, there are a number of small factors that add up to usefulness. The first is that the Eagles have been able to stop the run relatively well in the second half of the year, and the Packer offense is prone to poor performance when they get too far out of balance. With TE Jermichael Finley out for the year, the single biggest historic weakness for the Eagle pass defense isn't nearly as big of a problem. And with the Bears pushing the Pack to a full game of effort last week, combined with the travel and road game and the Eagle starters taking the de facto bye against the Cowboys, that's another significant advantage.

There are, of course, worries. The Packer defense has been strong for months now, and this Eagles team does not win unless the offense puts up 30 points. In seven of the last eight quarters that the starting offense has been on the field, they've been very contained, with QB Mike Vick reverting to Bad Atlanta Mike in terms of turnovers and inaccuracy. The Packer special teams can make plays, and their secondary WRs scare me a ton in this game, especially with the Eagles' non-Asante Samuel secondary players being a turnstile. Eagles coach Andy Reid in a close game is a world of hurt that we've been living with for a long time. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is mobile, and the last two weeks has shown how vulnerable the Eagles are to that sort of thing. Odd, considering who they practice against.

But I'm thinking that the week off brings Vick back to life a bit, and hopefully did a world of help to WR DeSean Jackson, who really looked ordinary against Minnesota and for most of that Giants game, too. Vick's also been very good in the two-minute drill for much of the year, and I think the Packers defense gets exposed a bit here. Finally, there's this... bad things have happened to Rodgers in playoff games to date. There might just be something to that. This will be the best game of the weekend, and maybe one of the best of the year.

Eagles 34, Packers 31

Last week: 8-8

Year to date: 120-123-15

Career: 401-400-15

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