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NFL Picks – Wildcard Weekend

Heavy underdogs welcome the reigning champs, a rematch of the 2010 AFC Championship gets “personal,” the NFL’s top ground game goes toe-to-toe with the Raven defense, and the best QB in the NFC meets the league’s most explosive offense. As one NFL diva says, “Get your popcorn ready.” Wildcard Weekend is finally here.

I say it ever year; the first two weekends of the NFL playoffs are my favorite weekends of the year. I can focus entirely on each game for its full duration. I’m not worried about what fantasy players I have and how they’re doing. The weather is cold, defenses take over, and I finally have (good) football to watch on Saturdays.

Needless to say, I’m excited.

Last Week:  11 – 5 – 0
Season:     154 – 102 – 0

Saturday, January 8 (4:30PM ET)

(5) Saints at (4) Seahawks
All week I’ve listened to analysts and media folk tell me this game will be closer than everyone expects. I think this is what is referred to as, “Group Think.” Who started it? I have no idea. How can anyone believe the Seahawks have a chance? Because their stadium is the loudest in the league? That may count for intimidation purposes and one or two false start penalties, but last I checked, the scoreboard doesn’t reflect decibel level.
Let’s look at how Seattle fared against playoff or playoff-caliber teams this season. Within the first seven weeks, the Seahawks beat both the Chargers and Bears. Very impressive. Maybe they aren’t that bad. Oh wait, what’s this? Over the next ten weeks, Seattle fell to the Raiders, Giants, Saints, Chiefs, Falcons, and Buccaneers by a combined 136 points. The closest they came in any of the aforementioned games? 15 points. Whoof.
In case you forgot, Drew Brees and the Saints won a Superbowl last year. I can’t see a raucous stadium affecting their play. On the other hand, the loss of Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas will hurt the Saints. Who’s going to get the ball on 3rd and short or in the 4th quarter when New Orleans is looking to chew clock? Reggie Bush is a nice player, but he’s not a physical, between the tackles running back. He’s a receiver. I doubt this will cost the Saints this weekend but it will certainly make defending their crown more difficult as the postseason drags on.
If Sam Bradford’s receivers had hands, the Seahawks would already be on vacation. Instead, vacation begins Saturday night. SAINTS If I were Charles Barkley; Saints -10.5

Saturday, January 8 (8:00PM ET)

(6) Jets at (3) Colts
I rarely have a difficult time selecting a team to root for, especially in a playoff game. This is the exception. I want to root for the Colts because I like Peyton Manning and Indy’s uniforms. On the other hand, I kind of want the Jets to win so we get another Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh slugfest next weekend. If I had to choose which I wanted more, I think it’s the AFC North rematch.
Unfortunately, the Colts have the whole, “no one believes in us” thing working for them right now. Plus, they’re an experienced playoff team, and they beat a much better Jets defense in last year’s AFC Championship. Also, the Colts defense has tightened up against the run over the past three weeks as the Jaguars, Raiders, and Titans were each held below 80 yards, and only the Raiders averaged more than 3.0 yards per rush. Not impressed? The Raiders and Jaguars ranked second and third, respectively, in the NFL in rushing yards this season. If the Indianapolis defense continues its effectiveness in stopping the run, Mark Sanchez will bear the burden of outplaying Peyton Manning.
Is Sanchez capable? Yes, and no. At times this season, Sanchez outplayed the likes of Tom Brady and Matt Schaub. Other times, especially down the stretch, Sanchez looked out of sync and lost. Last season, the Jets could overcome a rough outing by Sanchez. Not this year. The New York defense has looked ordinary since taking a lashing from the Patriots on Monday Night Football.
Before upsetting the Bengals and Chargers en route to the AFC Championship game, the Jets won five of their final six regular season games. This year, the Jets head into the playoffs winning only two of their last five. COLTS If I were Charles Barkley; Colts -2.5

Sunday, January 9 (1:00PM ET)

(5) Ravens at (4) Chiefs
The Baltimore Ravens (like everyone else) played 16 games this season. Twelve of them were decided by seven points or less. The other four (all won by Baltimore) were against the Broncos, Dolphins, Panthers, and Browns. Better known as the first, second, fifth, and sixth picks in the 2011 NFL draft. What does this mean? It means, don’t expect the Ravens to walk into Kansas City and trounce the Chiefs.
Kansas City owned the NFL’s top rushing attack in 2010 headed by explosive back, Jamaal Charles. Charles is the most underrated back in the NFL. He only needs one cut before he’s running through the opponent’s secondary. While Chiefs’ quarterback Matt Cassel doesn’t get the publicity of some of his peers, he’s no slouch, either. Cassel finished in the top ten in passer rating and touchdowns, and owned the league’s second best touchdown to interception ratio behind you-know-who. Although the Kansas City passing game is a one-trick-pony (Dwayne Bowe or bust), the Raven defense must prevent the Chiefs from controlling the clock.
Enter Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and the Baltimore offense. If the Chiefs are successful in establishing a running game and eating the clock, the Ravens will need to make the most of their offensive opportunities. Flacco and the Raven offense have been wildly inconsistent this season, so fewer opportunities won’t suit them well. In my Playoff Breakdown, I argued that this is the year Flacco must step up and carry the Ravens. Sunday in Kansas City will be his first task. If Flacco is up to the challenge, Baltimore will advance, but if he and the Raven offense flounder… uh oh. I don’t think the Baltimore defense is good enough to win without an offense anymore. RAVENS If I were Charles Barkley; Chiefs +3

Sunday, January 9 (4:30PM ET)

(6) Packers at (3) Eagles
I could get carried away and write a novel detailing my thoughts about this game. Instead, I’ll limit myself to the four following points. Remember, as I declared in my playoff breakdown, the winner of this contest will be your NFC champion. (Fingers crossed.)
1. The Eagles can’t win this game without some help from their defense. It breaks my heart that the Eagle defense has turned to mush since Jim Johnson passed away. Aaron Rodgers is good enough to go head-to-head with Michael Vick and Philadelphia’s arsenal of weapons. Green Bay’s defense is good, too, very good, in fact. The Packer defense will make its share of plays to give Rodgers the edge. Therefore, it will be up to the Eagle defense to level the field. Considering the Eagle defense has done very little playmaking of their own this year, I’m not confident they’ll come through on Sunday. One thing is certain, though, if Sean McDermott can’t get the defense to elevate its play and help get the Eagles deep into the playoffs, he may be looking for work in the spring.
2. If Andy Reid wants to give his team the best shot at winning, LeSean McCoy and Jerome Harrison should combine for 40 rushing attempts. The blueprint for beating elite quarterbacks is simple: Run the ball consistently (and preferably effectively), control the clock, and score touchdowns in the red zone. Even the great quarterbacks can’t score when they’re watching from the sidelines. Additionally, the limited opportunities will help prevent the Green Bay offense from finding a rhythm. Do I expect this to happen? In a word; no. But it’s a nice thought.
3. The Eagle offense is good enough to drive the ball down the field. Reid should let them. Do the Patriots win because they score touchdowns from 40 or 50 yards out game to game, week to week? No. Long, clock eating drives drain a defense and keep the offense in sync. Missing on too many big plays early has proven to negatively impact the flow of Vick and the offense. Get them in a groove early, and look for the big plays once the defense gets comfortable and/or worn down.
4. Pray. The Philadelphia secondary is in for a long, long day.
If Reid surprises us and pulls out the playbook he used to knock off the Giants in the 2009 playoffs, I think the Eagles will win. Unfortunately, my experience as an Eagle fan leads me to believe Reid will opt for a shootout. PACKERS If I were Charles Barkley; Packers +2.5

*****

Last Week: 10 – 6 – 0
Season:    116 – 135 – 5

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