Friday, January 13, 2012

NFL Round 2 Playoff Picks: Now It's Serious

In some ways, this is the week that the playoffs really start. There are no teams that have just managed to win a weak division with no other reason to be here. The best teams are playing. Home field matters a lot. Everyone is watching every game. There are no more byes now, and everyone gets a good look to see if the favorites are really all that.

And yet, this is the week where you can still get well and truly exposed (see the 2010 Atlanta Falcons). Lose this week, and no one considers it a moral victory, or the sad end of a great year. It's just an opportunity lost, the confirmation that your organization, coach or talent isn't up to snuff, and something that you are going to be bitter about, if you root for the laundry.

And in other ways, of course, this is bullsquat. Elimination games in the regular season have the same desperate energy for the players as elimination games in the postseason, and if you think you are going to see a more back-and-forth or exciting game than last weeks' Steelers-Broncos, just because we're through to the final eight... well, probably not. But we can always hope, if for no other reason that these are the only games available, and if they are all dogs, that's no fun at all.

And with that... on to the picks!

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NEW ORLEANS at San Francisco (+4)

In past years, of course, this line would make everyone wonder what the hell is up. The (much) better defensive team, at home, with a bye... and they are a four point dog? To a dome team that has frequently struggled on slow tracks or in wet conditions (see last year's loss in Seattle)... but then you actually look at the players and situation, and the points look like a bargain.

The Saints have playoff experience all over the roster, and a bunch of players with Super Bowl rings. They've got the QB with the most passing yards in one season in NFL history, and a RB (Pierre Thomas) who looks back to his old electric self. They've got a defense that isn't very good, but isn't bad at forcing turnovers, especially when they are ahead. They've got the coach that got them their ring, played in a much better division, and have solid special teams.

As for the Niners, they have issues beyond the experience factor. They have struggled all year long to score touchdowns in the red zone. They have a coach that has never been here before, and a home crowd that hasn't had a real game to root for in the better part of a decade. That home field isn't as loud as it could be, given that it's open-air and an affluent crowd that doesn't scream as if their lives depend on it. And while their defense is outstanding, that's mostly been against the run, against teams that aren't that great. In this game, where Drew Brees is going to put it in the air 50+ times, they aren't going to be able to get pressure late; every defense wears out over time. And once they start giving Brees time, they'll lose; either through Brees picking them apart, or from him hitting the hot read against a blitz.

The way to beat the Saints is to get a lead and get off the field, to save your legs for late. The Niner offense doesn't score touchdowns enough to do the former, and the Saints are hitting on too many cylinders for the latter. It will be a close for a while... and then it won't.

Saints 34, Niners 23

DENVER at New England (-14)

When you watch the tape of the Bronco-Patriot game from earlier this year, it's awfully telling. To recap, the Tebows got off to a big lead with a first quarter where they ran for 200+ yards, then failed to sustain drives, avoid turnovers, and eventually got turned into hamburger by the Patriot onslaught. And on the road in a game where they look like they are playing with house money, against a presumptive favorite, it should just be a runaway for everyone who doesn't believe in divine intervention, right?

Not so fast. This Patriot team has a very bad habit of falling behind to bad teams; they did that for the last four games of the schedule. They've also got a surprising habit of not blowing out clubs; the Colts covered on the road when they were winless. So there's just all kinds of ways to get to the back door cover here, from the Patriots having some rust to the Broncos scoring against a prevent defense late.

Finally, there's this. New England hasn't won a playoff game in a really long time, since the Perfectriot year, actually. For all of the terror and evil genius here, they've taken the pipe a lot, and their fan base knows it. If this game is close, it could stay that way for a long time, as the Oh God It's Happening Again vibe spreads through the Masshole faithful. Hearing that collective dread just might be worth another week of Tebow. (Note: they won't, because the Patriots tight ends are unstoppable in the red zone. But they'll cover.)

Patriots 34, Broncos 24

Houston at BALTIMORE (-9)

Finally, the Ravens have a home playoff game, rest, and a thoroughly overmatched playoff opponent; it's a dream for Charm City fans, even more than if the Bengals had somehow made it to this game. The Texans' defense is good, but not as much on the road (see the Colts loss). TJ Yates isn't a bad game manager QB, but they are going to need more than that to win this game. Andre Johnson isn't really back yet, and Arian Foster is the kind of fumble-prone back that tends to have real problems in the playoffs. And the Ravens are healthy (Anquan Boldin, back for the first time in a month), prone to big games against overmatched teams when they don't sleep, and ready to feed off the energy of a blue-collar crowd that hasn't seen a playoff game in forever.

There's a reason this is the early game, folks. It's the one that's not going to be very much fun to watch.

Ravens 24, Texans 13

NEW YORK at Green Bay (-9)

With a few minutes left in the first half of the Week 16 do or die game against the Jets, the Giants were pinned against their own end zone after a punt. The partisan Jets' crowd was roaring. The offense had looked slow and low; the defense had done well to limit points, but weren't getting off the field. They were less than a half of diffident football, in a stretch where they had been one of the worst teams in the league, from having their season end.

And then Eli Manning hooked up with Victor Cruz, who made a man miss, turned on the afterburners, and changed the game and the season. And they just haven't looked the same way since.

We have, of course, seen all of this before; in the Perfectriot year, when a David Akers' figgie hit an upright and stayed out, and the team went on a magical luck and skill run that ended in David Tyree and Plaxico Burress in the end zone. I mention all of this, of course, on the off chance that Patriot Fan reads this site and can relive the pain. But the bigger point is this: the Giants are on some kind of roll.

As for the Packers... lost in the pinball year put up by Aaron Rodgers is the following. They don't have the same useful running game they had last year, because James Starks hasn't been 100%. They've dropped a lot of balls in the passing game recently, and have to get a rusty Greg Jennings back in the mix. The defense either gets a turnover or gives up points, and just aren't very good at all. The special teams are just ordinary, assuming WR Reggie Cobb doesn't break one. And as good as Rodgers is, he is prone to taking hits and running the ball in the red zone. It's really not all that hard to imagine a situation where he takes some damage, and the #1 seed looks very vulnerable.

I still think they win the game. Lambeau is a serious home field advantage, the Giants' can turn the ball over, and going against Rodgers, who is just the best QB I've ever seen -- no, seriously -- and his playoff record is just ridiculous. The Giants WRs are prone to bad mistakes, and on some level, I keep waiting for the midseason team to show up. And maybe they do... but not before a cover, and the best game of the weekend.

Packers 38, Giants 31

Last week: 2-2

Year to date: 134-116-8

Career: 539-521-25

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