The Eagles were embarrassed for the second week in a row (to the Cowboys nonetheless), and I finished 0-4 in my playoff picks. Wildcard Weekend 2010 couldn’t have gone worse. The Divisional Round brings new life and the opportunity for redemption. Well, for me, not the Eagles.
Saturday can’t come soon enough. Fearing images of the Eagles’ defeat, I’ve avoided all things NFL related on the boob tube this past week. The opening of the NFL’s Divisional Round marks the end of this temporary boycott. I can finally enjoy football again. Needless to say, it’s been a boring week. In fact, so boring that I actually devoted two hours of my life to write about the Sixers (an embarrassing mistake, as informed by my brother). Next year I’ll consider decreasing the media avoidance length to a few days.
With the exception of a second half rally in Arizona, Wildcard Weekend was a bust. One can only hope the Divisional games will be as competitive and feisty as the current battles in late night entertainment.
Last Week: 0 – 4 – 0
Postseason: 0 – 4 – 0
Saturday, January 16
(4) Cardinals at (1) Saints (4:30PM ET)
Could the Cardinals recreate their 2009 playoff run? Kurt Warner is the most effective playoff quarterback remaining in the playoffs. (He’s a better playoff QB than Manning, Brees, and Favre. The numbers don’t lie.) Like so many great athletes, Warner elevates his play when the lights shine the brightest. With him under center, the Cardinals are a threat.
Depending on who you trust, Arizona is either the trendy upset pick, or the “lucky to advance” team. I don’t necessarily agree with either, but if I had to, I’d side with trendy upset pick. These teams are nearly identical; stud QBs, offensive artillery, average defenses. I know the Saints defense was highly regarded this year as a “big play” defense. While this may be true, I’m not buying that unit as a good defense. For a defense, it’s significantly easier to force turnovers when the opposing offense is trailing by multiple scores.
Regardless, I don’t expect either defense to win this game. However, if one were to surprise, it would be the Cardinal defense. They can rush the quarterback, and will look to erase the memories of last week’s embarrassment. I’m not holding my breath though. Rumor has it: After last Sunday’s events, Drew Brees has been waiting for the Arizona defense like an 11-year-old waiting for the next Harry Potter release. (I’ve been unable to confirm to this.)
The Saints tanked down the stretch of the regular season and their defense is flawed. I can’t ignore these truths. On the other hand, I’m not ready to pin my wagon behind a team that surrendered 35 second half points last week. Just can’t do it. Very little separates these teams. Home field will be the difference. SAINTS
(6) Ravens at (1) Colts (8:15PM ET)
With 2003 as the exception, the Colts and Ravens have met once a year since 2001. 2001 was also the last year the Ravens beat Peyton Manning and the Colts. In the understatement of the week: Baltimore is looking for revenge.
If you recall week 11, the Ravens contained the Indianapolis offense with greater success than any team this year. If it weren’t for devastating turnovers, notably an interception while in game winning field goal range, the Ravens would have ended Indy’s perfect season right then. Will Baltimore have similar success in limiting Manning on Saturday night? I’m inclined to say no.
When the Colts won the Super Bowl, Manning finished the postseason with three touchdowns and seven interceptions. If the Colts don’t defeat the Bears there, Manning is a playoff goat. The Colts won and Manning has been hailed a champion and one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time ever since. I’m not arguing with this recognition because he is one of the best all time, if not the best. However, Manning is not a sure thing in the playoffs. My gut tells me that changes this postseason. As impressive as the Ravens’ defense was last week, I expect Manning to exploit their feeble secondary.
Opposite Manning is Joe Flacco, who is either injured or too inept to sustain a passing game. As a result, the Colts can put eight men in the box to stuff the run. I know I predicted Manning to play well, but I wouldn’t be shocked if this turned into a close game. Baltimore, especially the defense, has a propensity to elevate its play in big games, and Manning is certainly capable of a playoff stinker. But, as I mentioned before, I think Manning is locked in this year. He needs that second title to augment his legacy.
There are too many things to like about this matchup. Manning and Ray Lewis mind games at the line of scrimmage. Reggie Wayne and Ed Reed battling in the secondary. My mom’s utter confusion when Greg Gumbel opens the broadcast with, “Baltimore looks to knock of the Colts! Next on CBS!” I’m already excited. COLTS
Sunday, January 17
(3) Cowboys at (2) Vikings (1:00PM ET)
It kills me to say this, but is there a more balanced team in the playoffs than the Dallas Cowboys? Pressure opposing QB? Check. Reliable secondary? Check. Run game? Check. Aerial attack? Check. It’s all there. For the first time in the Wade Philips era, the Cowboys’ talent is showing up on the field. Dallas is the hottest team in the conference, if not the league. The Vikings are in trouble.
I’ll cut right to the chase; Tony Romo will decide this game. We know what Brett Favre will do: A few amazing plays and a few horrible ones while chased by DeMarcus Ware. FOX’s commentators will undoubtedly follow with, “Brett’s just a gunslinger.” Thank you, Mr. Commentator, for that brand new information.
While Favre’s play is predictable, Romo is a wild card. If Jared Allen is harassing Romo all afternoon, the Cowboys will struggle. History has proven Romo isn’t effective when under consistent pressure (who is?). If Jared Allen is shut down a la Trent Cole, the Cowboy offense will be virtually unstoppable. Sounds crazy, but Allen’s performance may very well decide this game. Pressuring Romo will limit the damage done by Jason Witten and Miles Austin, and consequently force Dallas to run the ball. Stopping the run is Minnesota’s forte. To review, if Allen can disrupt the Dallas backfield, the Vikings should win.
The Vikings could also win by giving Dallas a heavy dose of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. Although, this is highly unlikely as Brad Childress is from the Andy Reid coaching tree. (If the football isn’t sailing through the air 40+ times a game, they’re bored.) To win, Childress must keep the offense balanced. A successful ground attack will give the passing game more opportunities. This is what the Eagles failed to do in two consecutive losses to the Cowboys. A good running game = a dangerous passing game, not vice versa.
The saddest part about this game, and the rest of the NFC playoffs for that matter, is that four dome teams remain. Gone is my wish to have an outdoor championship game in frigid temperatures. Instead, the game will be played in a controlled climate, on fast turf, and in front of a pampered crowd. Fans are always crazier when they’re cold and uncomfortable. On a positive note, if you had to choose a coach to blow his two challenges faster than Marvin Lewis did last week, Childress and Philips would be the top choices.
I didn’t pick the Cowboys last week because objectivity never applies to my Eagles’ picks. This week, I can’t go against the Cowboys. My only justification for picking Minnesota would be if I expected Romo to collapse. Based on his play over the last month, I don’t see that happening. Favre will commit more turnovers than Romo. The Cowboys and Saints and will meet again in the NFC championship. COWBOYS
(5) Jets at (2) Chargers (4:40PM ET)
Perception is easily altered, and often not in touch with reality. Just remember that before you throw down next week’s lunch money on the Jets. New York closed the season by defeating Indianapolis’ backups, and then Dallas Cowboyed (badly beating the same team in consecutive weeks) the crap out of the Cincinnati Bengals. Perception: the Jets are better than we thought. Reality: No, no they’re not.
The Cincinnati Bengals are/were a mirror image of the New York Jets; run the football, solid defense. Beating the Bengals was easy. New York did what they do better than anyone in football (ranked first in rush offense and overall defense). Adjustments weren’t necessary. Their defense outplayed Cincinnati’s and their ground game kept the Bengal defense off rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez. Thus, they won the game.
Stopping Philip Rivers won’t be so easy. The Jets are a sexy pick in the Divisional Round because of their Wildcard win and how they match up with the Chargers. The Chargers can’t run the football (ranked 31/32) and the Jets defend the pass better than anyone (ranked 1st by a mile). The San Diego defense is average against the run while the Jets are again, first. The matchups all appear to favor New York, except one… Size.
San Diego’s receivers are monsters. Their three main targets all stand 6’5 or taller. The Jets boast the best corner in football, Darrelle Revis. Something has to give. Charger receivers, Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd, have a six inch advantage over Revis and other corner, Lito Sheppard. I doubt this will matter much to Revis (5’11) because he’s that good, but Sheppard (5’10) will suffer. As will the poor soul(s) assigned tight end Antonio Gates. Even when blanketed, Rivers has proven he’ll give his receivers opportunities to use their size to make plays. You could argue the Charger passing attack is a series of isolated Hail Mary’s. I wouldn’t disagree. Their advantage here is substantial. Assuming Rivers is as accurate as he’s been all season; the Chargers passing attack will be virtually unstoppable, even with tight coverage.
Additionally, there’s absolutely no way Sanchez plays as well this week. His execution of the offense last Saturday was perfect. He made all the plays Carson Palmer couldn’t. However, if Ben Roethlisberger and Flacco failed to string together two solid playoff performances in their rookie seasons, I can’t expect Sanchez to do so either. CHARGERS
If I were Charles Barkley…
…I wouldn’t discuss last week’s abomination. While I claimed I was emotionally prepared to go 0-4, I really wasn’t. It will take months to regain my confidence. As is the weekly custom, there is one over/under as well (because I actually nailed my pick last week).
Arizona Cardinals (+7) at New Orleans Saints
Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts (-7)
Dallas Cowboys (+3) at Minnesota Vikings
New York Jets at San Diego Chargers (-8)
Last Week: 0 – 4 – 0
Postseason: 0 – 4 – 0
Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings Over 46
Last Week: 1 – 0 – 0
Postseason: 1 – 0 – 0
(Lines as of 1/14, 1:44PM ET, from bodog)