After more than two weeks of visiting family, hosting family, battling illness, getting fat, and watching my son turn into a seven-month-old version of Godzilla, I’m back. Just in time for the NFL playoffs. Let’s rank the 11 Superbowl contenders. (Sorry, Seattle.)
We’re Here Because Our Parents Know Someone
Chew on this: The San Diego Chargers finished as the NFL’s top ranked offense AND top ranked defense in 2010. At 9-7, the Chargers finished two games ahead of the Seahawks, who ranked 28th and 27th in total offense and defense, respectively. Currently, Seattle is preparing to host a playoff game while the Chargers have resorted to sending LaDainian Tomlinson hate mail. Different conference, Ryan. It’s irrelevant. Stop complaining. Fine then. Let’s look at the New York Giants. The Giants finished 5th in total offense and 7th in total defense. At 10-6, the Giants were three games better than the Seahawks, and smoked the Seahawks by 34 points in Seattle, too. Guess what the Giants are doing right now? That’s right; vandalizing Matt Hodges’ apartment.
I understand the current playoff format. I appreciate the importance of a division champion. However, when a division combines to go 25-39 and no team finishes above .500; there is no division champion. They’re all losers. One is just slightly worse at losing than the others. In 2010, the Seahawks were the worst loser in the NFC West. They don’t deserve a playoff berth, let alone a home playoff game. While I don’t expect, nor want, the NFL to change the current playoff structure after one odd season, I think the league should only permit the Seahawks to hang any “2010 NFC West Champions” banners or pennants in bathrooms throughout Qwest Field, and nowhere else.
More Bark Than Bite
New York Jets
Call me crazy, but this isn’t the hungry, the world is against us, nothing to lose Jets team that clawed its way to the AFC Championship game last year. Mark Sanchez has a bum shoulder and was floundering even before the injury. The defense, depending on the week, is just above average. Even Rex Ryan’s trash talk has fallen off since last season. The Jets went 1-3 down the stretch before bullying a Bills team that had already cleaned out their lockers. It’s obvious the franchise hasn’t recovered since cutting Danny Woodhead.
Seriously though, if the Jets have any hope of rebounding and making a playoff run, Shonn Greene should be the feature back. He’s a big, bruising back that will punish weary defenders this late in the season. In fact, Greene, who can slow the tempo and grind away at a defense, should have been the feature back once Sanchez started struggling. Instead, New York continued (and probably will continue) to give Tomlinson his carries despite limited success down the stretch (zero games of 50+ yards in his final six games).
Thanks For A Great Season
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs really blew it by losing to Oakland in the final week of the regular season. Instead of hosting the Jets, Kansas City now must face the Baltimore Ravens. I liked the Chiefs’ chances of beating the Jets. The Ravens? Not so much.
Win or lose, the Chiefs had a great year, so this game shouldn’t define their season. After all, getting to the playoffs will be a great learning experience for the young Chiefs. I especially can’t wait until Todd Haley learns first hand that passing on field goals in the playoffs is a no-no. The only question is; will one of his arrogant, foolish calls cost his team the chance at a postseason victory?
There are three things needed to win a Superbowl; a solid quarterback, defense, and a good coach. Kansas City is on the right path to fulfilling requirements one and two. Number three may need some tweaking.
It’s All Up To The Quarterback
Jay Cutler is immensely talented… and liable to self destruct at any time. As an Eagles fan, the Bears don’t scare me, at all. Yeah, Chicago trounced the Eagles earlier in the year, but I’m always going to feel pretty confident going against Jake Cutler in a playoff atmosphere. To be fair, Cutler has improved dramatically this year. When he’s been on, the Bears have been nearly unbeatable. Even in games when Cutler has struggled, the Bears hung around due to Chicago’s talented defense. Still, this is Cutler’s first playoff rodeo. I think the stage gets the best of him.
Amazingly, even at 12-4, the Ravens haven’t completely put it all together yet. When the defense is good, the offense is struggling and vice versa. Remember when Joe Flacco marched down the field in Atlanta to put Baltimore up with just over a minute left in the game? The defense promptly surrendered the game winning drive on the ensuing possession. A month later, the offense jumped all over the Texans only to have the defense give it all back before eventually winning the game in overtime. Similarly, the offense failed to come through in New England, Cincinnati, and at home against Pittsburgh. If Baltimore is to finally put it together in the postseason, they’ll need Flacco to do it.
Flacco has become a reliable NFL starter, but he needs to make the leap this postseason. Although his numbers look good, Flacco hasn’t wowed anyone with his play. The offense has been more inconsistent this season despite an improved receiving corps. While a struggling rushing attack hasn’t helped, Flacco is still responsible for the offense. He’s the one that will take this team to the AFC title game or send them home early. It’s that simple. The Baltimore defense is good enough to give the offense a chance, but the Ravens’ 2010 season will come down to how far Flacco takes them.
Even After 13-3, I’m Still Not A Believer
Unless the Seattle Seahawks poison the Saints prior to kickoff, the Atlanta Falcons will be one-and-done in the NFC playoffs. Home field advantage? Please. The Saints just won in the Georgia Dome two weeks ago and the Packers should have won in Atlanta last month if it weren’t for an untimely fumble and a lapse on special teams. If you gave me $1,000, I would put it all against the Falcons next weekend.
Atlanta is a good team with a good quarterback and a good defense. However, their defense is a little overrated and the offense relies too heavily on Roddy White. Furthermore, hosting a divisional round playoff game as the top seed is a lot of pressure for a team with relatively little playoff experience. I know I’m setting myself up to look like a big moron in two weeks if the Falcons host the NFC Championship game, but oh well.
The Wild Cards
Are you sitting down? Ok, I’ll wait until you have a seat…. Ready? Here we go. The winner of this weekend’s wildcard matchup between the Eagles and Packers will represent the NFC in Superbowl XLV.
Here’s why I think it could be the Eagles. Philadelphia is full of young, inexperienced (and arrogant) playmakers. Most of them are younger than 25. There’s no veteran on the team to remind these players they haven’t accomplished anything yet. Michael Vick may be a leader on the field but I’m not buying him as a locker room leader. Brian Dawkins, Brian Westbrook, Jeremiah Trotter; the Eagles don’t have one of those veteran voices this year. It’s no secret the Eagles have been mostly lousy over the past month. Until last Tuesday night’s disaster against Minnesota, the Eagles believed they were rolling. As long as the team was winning, the younger players believed everything was fine, even if they were winning ugly.
Secretly, I think Andy Reid was thrilled his team lost to Minnesota (after he stopped crying about losing the first round bye). A coach knows there is no better way to reach young players than losing. The Eagles were embarrassed against the Vikings, on national TV nonetheless.
As a result, the Eagles’ bandwagon has emptied significantly and the public has essentially written them off. Young players let praise go to their heads and take criticism and disrespect too personally. This immaturity actually favors the Eagles in their current situation. Losing to the Vikings may have been exactly what Philadelphia needed to wake up their young stars and right the ship.
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay is the complete opposite of the Eagles. Nothing has come easy this season for the Packers. They’ve been grinding since the season kicked off. In week one, the team lost its Pro Bowl running back for the year. A few weeks later, its Pro Bowl tight end and middle linebacker went out for the year as well. In a game Green Bay needed in order to stay alive for a division title, the Packers’ All-Pro quarterback went down with a concussion. Without question, the Packers earned their playoff spot more than any other team.
As we’ve seen in sports a million times before, overcoming obstacles galvanizes a team. It doesn’t hurt that Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFC (only the Bears have a defense that can really hope to contain him), or that the Green Bay defense is the most underrated unit in football (they allow 15 points per game, force turnovers, and have Clay Matthews terrorizing opposing quarterbacks). This isn’t a wild card team that slipped into the playoffs. The Packers are a Superbowl contender with new life as the NFL’s second season begins.
Tried and True
The Colts are old, they’re decrepit, and Peyton Manning’s offense is shorthanded. All these points are valid. Indianapolis has been here before, though. In fact, they finally won a Superbowl following one of their worst seasons in the Manning era. So forgive me if I’m not ready to give up on Peyton Manning this year, not yet at least.
Let’s say the Colts beat the Jets and head to Pittsburgh for round two. What is Pittsburgh’s biggest weakness? The offensive line. What’s Indianapolis’ greatest strength (outside of Manning, of course)? The pass rush of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
Sure, the Steelers should be able to run the ball at will against the Colts, but we’ve seen teams struggle defensively all year and then buckle down in the postseason before. Also, let’s not forget the Colts won Manning’s first title because a lousy defense resurrected itself in the playoffs. Is it likely to happen again? No. But it’s too early to write off another Manning/Brady AFC title game.
New Orleans Saints
I liked the Saints a whole lot more before Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Ivory, and a few other players were injured in the team’s finale last week against Tampa Bay. Regardless, New Orleans is the defending champion and still has one of the league’s best coaches on the sidelines. (You have no idea how hard it was to type that last sentence. I think I need to shower.) The defense is underappreciated and despite an inconsistent season, Drew Brees is still one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks when he isn’t throwing shovel passes to defensive linemen. Also, I’m not convinced this team is bothered by playing outside in the cold like other dome teams.
Earlier I predicted the NFC champion would be either Philly or Green Bay. I stand by that statement, but if it’s not either of those teams, it will be the Saints.
(I know, I know. I just “boldly” picked three teams out of a field of six – actually five once you discount Seattle. Just pretend the field is bigger. Thanks.)
Take a look at the Steelers’ losses this season; Baltimore, New Orleans, New England, New York (Jets). Compare those losses with signature wins; Atlanta, Baltimore. Pittsburgh beat bad teams to a pulp while struggling against the NFL’s elite. Are we sure the Steelers are as good as we think they are?
On the other hand, the Steelers have a two-time Superbowl champion at quarterback and the NFL’s best defense, so maybe I shouldn’t put too much stock in their regular season losses. If you can’t tell, I’m not sure where I stand on the Steelers. I need to marinate for another week.
On a semi unrelated note; I think both the Steelers and Patriots will have special rooting interests in the Saturday night contest between the Colts and Jets. I’m certain the Steelers will be rooting for the Colts as to avoid the Ravens next weekend. Conversely, I think the Patriots will be rooting for the Jets, so they can avoid the Ravens next weekend as well. Of course, neither team will admit as much, but we all know it’s true. Pittsburgh/Baltimore AFC North battles are a coin flip, and the Ravens smoked the Patriots in New England last postseason and should have won there again this season.
(Obviously, I’m assuming the Ravens win in Kansas City.)
Can’t Touch This
New England Patriots
Put it this way; Tom Brady’s touchdown-to-interception ratio more than doubles the NBA’s leading assist-to-turnover ratio. I don’t think that’s supposed to happen, ever. For the second time in four seasons, the Patriots look like a lock for a Superbowl title. I’m certainly a believer. They can run the ball, Tom Brady is Tom Brady, and the offense doesn’t rely on big plays to move the ball and score points (did you read that, Andy Reid?).
However, the pessimist in me remembers that defenses rule the playoffs, not offenses. It appears inevitable that the Patriots will meet either the Ravens or Steelers along the way, if not both. While New England has already beaten both teams, the Patriots are going to need their defense to come through for them at some point. If the New England defense can maintain the same level of play they’ve been at for the past month, they’ll be fine. Even if the defense struggles, Brady is a nice insurance policy.
The Patriots are the hands-down favorite. By a mile.