Friday, January 3, 2014

NFL Wild Card Weekend Sunday Picks

Wisconsin's Idea Of Fun
San Diego at CINCIN- NATI (-6.5)

The case for San Diego: Balanced offense, with RB Ryan Matthews having his best year, RB Danny Woodhead making plays in the passing game, and a number of young receivers helping to rejuvenate QB Philip Rivers. Mostly intelligent play-calling, especially between the 20s. Offensive line is better than it has been in years, with T DJ Fluker in particular looking like a road grader. Defense has had its moments, particularly in the trenches. Special teams have not, unlike recent years, hurt them. Coming in with no pressure, since they sucked out so hard in last week's game against the Kanasas City JV. They were 6-2 against teams with a winning record, which seems out of touch with the biggest underdog point spread of the weekend. More playoff experience than you might think, and no expectations, could combine for some noise in a weak AFC.

The case against San Diego: Had to suck out so hard against the Kansas City JV. Rivers has been turnover prone in big games, and also seems like the kind of guy who'd get stabbed and eaten in a power outage. Have given up a ton of yards in the passing game, and that's not just from being in Peyton Manning's division. Lost in Cincy just one month ago, in a game where they never touched Bengal QB Andy Dalton. Do not force enough turnovers to scare anyone, and frankly, should not be here. Rivers has experience in the post-season, including 4 losses in his 7 starts. Experience is not always helpful.

The case for Cincy: Unbeaten at home this year, and punched this very same team in the mouth a month ago. Better record, with far fewer weaknesses; if Dalton just holds on to the ball, they could scare. Two quality WRs, two reasonable RBs, a good O-line and suddenly even HC Marvin Lewis can look smart. One of the best defensive front sevens in the playoffs, with the ability to take over games. Perhaps the best WR in the playoffs in AJ Green, with surprising depth, especially in the red zone. RB Giovanni Bernard has game-breaking abilities, and RB Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis is accomplished in short yardage. When they play to their abilities, a genuine dark horse contender to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. They were my preseason pick to do just that.

The case against Cincy: Head coach Marvin Lewis hasn't done very much at all in the playoffs. Dalton can play turnover popcorn with the best of them. Secondary can be had, and the team tends to play with emotion, for good or ill. Have never really overcome the loss of their best player, DT Geno Atkins. Home crowd can turn on them, and didn't exactly fill the world with confidence in their ticket-buying speed this week. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is rumored to be a hot coaching candidate for another gig, and guys like that tend to over-plan to impress. It's difficult to beat the same team twice in relatively quick succession, since it tends to bring in complacency. But all of that pales beyond the potential for Dalton, one of the streakiest QBs in the NFL, to just crap the bed. Cincy hasn't won a playoff game since, gulp, 1990, including two straight one and done visits in the last two years.

The pick: Cincy to win and cover. San Diego is better than you think, but so are the Bengals, and Rivers' post-season record doesn't seem so much better than Dalton's. This looks like the runt of the four weekend games, but it might be among the more entertaining ones, at least until the Bengal line superiority takes the air out of the ball.

Prediction: Bengals 27, Chargers 20

Green Bay at SAN FRANCISCO (-3)

The case for Green Bay: As healthy as they've been all year, with perhaps the NFL's best all-around QB. For the first time in months, they have a healthy WR corps, with WR Randall Cobb coming back from injury to get WR Jordy Nelson away from the slot, and WR James Jones back to his #2 slot. RB Eddie Lacy, even when less than 100%, is the best back they've had in years, and puts RB James Starks into a change of pace role where he can excel. Perhaps the best balanced offense in the post-season, which helps in what is expected to be bad weather. Special teams are better than past years, especially with K Mason Crosby having a bounce-back year, and the defense tends to make plays when they really need it.

The case against Green Bay: Have been manhandled by the Niners in recent matchups, and just might not have the beef up front to sustain drives. The defense is as weak across the board as the offense is good, which would really destroy their chance to come back from any kind of mistake or deficit. Home crowd is surprisingly reluctant to buy into this team, mostly because 8-7-1 just doesn't pass the smell test for them. Rodgers is an all-time great, but he didn't look quite like himself last week against a terrible Bear defense, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence against a Niner defense that might be the best in the NFL. They are a home dog with cause, given that won-loss record in the stumbling NFC North. (And sure, they'd have 1-2 more wins if Rodgers hadn't gotten hurt, but guys get hurt. It's football.)

The case for San Francisco: Playing their best football right now, with WRs Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree combining with TE Vernon Davis to give them a physically dominating presence in the air. QB Colin Kaepernick can make plays with his legs and has arm strength for miles, and can turn games around on individual plays with his freakish athleticism. STs don't get them hurt, and K Phil Dawson and P Andy Lee are both excellent. Defense isn't quite as startlingly powerful as in past years, but they also don't generally beat themselves with penalties or blown assignments, and they are good at overcoming adversity. They also just seem to match up well with the Packers, and aren't your typical California team in cold weather.

The case against San Francisco: Secondary weapons don't inspire, especially in multiple WR sets. Offensive line can look bad, though that tends to happen more against the exceptional fronts of the NFC West, rather than out of division rivals. The team that loses the Super Bowl tends to not get there the next year, and this team looked middling for much of the year, until Crabtree came back. Kaepernick really regressed this year, and he just doesn't seem comfortable throwing to anyone but Boldin, Davis and Crabtree, which could be a huge problem against a team with solid coverages, or in the event of a new injury. RB Frank Gore is more of a plodder these days, though still excellent at getting everything out of a hole. Had one less sack than their opponents, which is hardly what you'd expect from this outfit. Head coach Jim Harbaugh can freak out on a ref like no one's business, which isn't exactly an endorsement in a road game. They just seemed better last year.

The pick: The Niners to win and cover. They have Rodgers' number, and it's hard to ignore the won-loss record just for the puncher's chance that a great QB gives you. You know, kind of like when they played this game last year in the playoffs, or earlier this year. Just a little closer.

Prediction: Niners 31, Packers 27

Last week: 9-7

Season to date: 114-125-9

Career: 482-497-38

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