Thursday, January 13, 2011

12 comments NFL Playoff Divisional Round Picks

Well, we are back for another week of guessing the outcomes and somewhat analyzing the NFL playoffs. This week is the Divisional Round games and it looks like, on paper, there will be some good ones. Right now, Bill Simmons is in the lead, J.S. and I are in second place and Dylan is looming dangerously in last place. After I finished my part, I ended up hating all of my I am not sure what that means. I went first last week so this week Dylan can go first, followed by J.S. This is a long post, so you may want to take shifts reading it.


Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

Last Week: 1-3
Overall: 134-130-6

Among all the uncertainty surrounding the NFL playoffs, one truth stands tall above all else: Ozzie Newsome has played Madden. I'm not talking about the occassional gamer who plays friends when the opportunity arises, but the hardcore, take-out eating, headset wearing competitor who sits in front of the TV all day swinging deal after deal in franchise mode. As with every Madden franchise team, there are a few rules which guides every general manager's actions.

1) Drafting a QB does not equal rebuilding.

2) If your QB is not an outright star, you acquire another star QB or trade up in the draft to get your QB.

4) All players over 30 are traded unless they're greater than a 90 overall.

Joe Flacco, the franchise QB, was acquired by trading up in the draft. Since his arrival, the Ravens have had at least some playoff success each year. Ray Lewis and Derrick Mason are staples of the franchise and consistent stars.

So where am I going with this? Assembling teams on paper is a Madden strategy, not an NFL one. The Baltimore Ravens are historically built on running and defense. Especially this season, the Ravens have gotten away from this formula. Sure, they did finish 12-4 and Flacco had his best statistical season, but do you really trust a team whose success and failure completely depends on Joe Flacco?

When push comes to shove, I'll trust Big Ben. Even though the Steelers cannot protect him, this plays to Roethlisberger's greatest strength: making something out of nothing. In a matchup so close on paper, the QBs will make the difference.

The pick: Pittsburgh Steelers (-3) over Baltimore Ravens, 21-17

Green Bay Packers vs. Atlanta Falcons

My lack of infatuation with Matt Ryan is well known on this blog. As a matter of principle, I'm locked into picking the Packers. After thinking about the game while watching SportsCenter for the 10th time, I settled on three main reasons why I think the Packers will emerge victorious.

1) Matt Ryan's game winning drive against Green Bay won him widespread acclaim. But one moment from that game quietly melted away as the media gushed: Aaron Rodgers' fumble on the Atlanta 1 yard line. The ensuing possession lead to an Atlanta touchdown and a 14 point swing. As any athlete can attest to, turnovers of such magnitude are soul crushing. The QB sneak is one of the easiest and most successful plays in football. To see it both fail and result in a loss of possession gave Atlanta the necessary spark to defend their home field while taking all the air out of Green Bay. Although the stage and magnitude were greater, Rodgers' fumble destroyed morale as did the tuck rule reversal in the Oakland/New England divisional playoff game. After the play was reversed, Oakland was still winning. Vinatieri still had to hit two field goals in the snow. But every player on the field knew that once New England regained possession, the game was theirs.

2) Despite his inexcusable turnover and Green Bay's loss of will power (the Packers did not look the same the entire game until their final possession), Rodgers threw for 344 yards. The 17 points they amassed did not mirror their offensive domination.

3) The Saints' victory at Atlanta in Week 16 did more damage to Atlanta's mental state than I can describe. Matt Ryan may have lost only twice at home in his entire career, but the Saints discovered and exploited a chink in the armor. Going into this week's matchup, Ryan and the Falcons have a recent memory of home field failure and cannot fully rely on the comfort of playing in Atlanta. As with Pittsburgh and Baltimore, we're looking at a close game. Green Bay and Atlanta, however, have different mentalities. While the Saints' defeat of Atlanta will add to Green Bay's already strong belief that they can beat Atlanta at home, Atlanta knows that maybe they can lose. It is this slight doubt on which Green Bay can pounce.

The pick: Green Bay (+2.5) over Atlanta Falcons, 27-20

Chicago Bears vs. Seattle Seahawks

There are many reasons to pick the Seahawks. They have the ever-powerful nothing-to-lose mentality. They have momentum. They can lay claim to one of the greatest runs in NFL history (yes, NFL history. I'd be impressed if anyone could come up with a more impressive/clutch run). They have the support of the entire country (I can't completely put my finger on it, but Chicago is extremely unlikable. Maybe its Jay Cutler's obnoxious attitude, Mike Martz infuriating refusal to run the ball or Lovie Smith's consistently even-keeled approach. His lack of emotion sometimes gets me riled up. Argue a call, throw the headset. Do something!).

The overwhelming non-football reasons to pick the Seahawks have sent me running in the opposite direction. The Seahawks' win over heavily favored New Orleans may have prompted them to cross the dangerous confidence/over-confidence line. It is imperative for Seattle to understand that they are a significantly worse team. They must stay humble. They must believe without knowing.

In a convoluted way, Chicago has somehow become the underdog. The general public believes in Seattle to the point that 75% of the money is being placed on Seattle to cover the 10 point spread. Seattle has unwittingly provided the Bears with an added impetus besides simply winning a playoff game: shutting up the public. For the entire season they have listened to critics proclaiming that their team is not worthy of its record. To compound the issue, everyone has jumped aboard an 8-9 bandwagon instead of believing in the favorite. Players claim that they do not need extra motivation, but Chicago has all the bulletin board material they need to blow out Seattle.

The pick: Chicago Bears (-10) over Seattle Seahawks, 31-13

New York Jets vs. New England Patriots

Antonio Cromartie did not add extra fuel to the fire. Tom Brady already hated the Jets, and the Jets already hated Tom Brady. In the Jets week 2 win over the Pats, LaDanian Tomlinson and Shonne Greene (of all the awkward names and spellings in the NFL, "Shonne" is my runaway favorite and "LaDanian" is in the top 10) racked up 128 yards on the ground and completely slowed down the game. Despite Mark Sanchez's clear improvement this season, the Jets offense completely relies on the success of its backs.

Tom Brady may be the league's MVP and one of the all-time greats, but his greatest vice is one which the Jets exploit: emotion. We already know about the animosity between the two teams. Imagine a scenario in which the Jets take an early lead, followed by failure after failure by the Pats offense. By the 3rd quarter, I can easily see Brady beginning to force throws and show obvious signs of frustration. Knowing Rex Ryan, he will throw the kitchen sink and then some at Brady once he sees the game beginning to slip away.

The only way the Jets stay in this game is if they manage to avoid a 1st quarter thrashing. The calling card of the Patriots over the last decade has been intimidation. A staple of the Belichick regime is to pound teams into the ground and throw some more dirt on top of them. Rarely does he take Brady out of the game. His running up of the score consistently drives fear into his opponents. When a team goes down 14-0 early in the game, images of last week's crushing begin to creep into their minds. In week 13, this exactly scenario played itself out. The Jets were so demoralized and fearful of a blowout that it happened even quicker than they could have imagined. Don't expect the Jets to collapse in the 1st quarter the third time around. If anything, I expect the Jets to come out cautious and conservative in an attempt to ease into the game. Just as they did with Indianapolis, they will keep it close by running the ball and hope Sanchez can make a play in the 4th (as he has done all season).

If the Pats cover the spread, they will do it in an embarrassing fashion. But I'm of the mind that the Jets will get it together and make this a tight one.

The pick: New England Patriots (+8.5) over New York Jets, 27-23



Line: Pittsburgh -3.5

Pick: Pittsburgh 13-9

The rumors about the Baltimore offense were true - they can't stretch the field. I don't think I saw Flacco throw more than 15 yards through the air on any play on Saturday. I probably did but I don't remember it. Part of it may have been the excellent game Tamba Hali had bringing pressure (that's a good player right there) but if Flacco thinks that he didn't have much time to throw last weekend, he ain't seen nothing yet. Boldin is a great receiver (he and Heap were fantastic) but this is one skill he just doesn't have. You know what this means don't you? That's right boys and girls, linebackers and safeties. Polamalu, Timmons, Woodley, Harrison, Farrior are licking their lips about taking on Flacco here. And he won't be able to hide behind the run. Rice eventually beat down the Kansas City line in the fourth quarter last week, but by then the game had basically been decided by Cassel's serial turnovers (and ended with a shitty 57 yards on 17 carries anyway). Pittsburgh's run defense is historically good (they gave up fucking 3.0ypc this year, 62.8 yards a game, the former was the best in three years, the latter in four). Besides, he's not the same, brutalising runner that destroyed New England this time last year, a fact his season stats displayed. He remains an excellent receiving back, but then we have the issue of those linebackers, stalking over the middle again. They are comfortably the best linebacking corps in the NFL. If you're gonna beat Pitt, you need to beat them deep, take their relatively mediocre corners on, and force Polamalu into serious, 20 yards deep, coverage (to be fair, Baltimore did this, out of necessity on their final drive this year in Heinz field and got the winning TD). A few big third down catches from Boldin notwithstanding (not sure Heap is capable, at this stage of his career, of repeating that 10 catch performance last week, which was 1/6th of his season total), how the hell does Baltimore move the ball here?

As for Pittsburgh, I have always had a toe in the water of Roethlisburger. I'm not a huge fan, but I think he's unequivocally better than Aaron Rogers, for instance. His offensive line has always been below average (at least since Alan Faneca bolted) and the last three seasons has been an abortion (8th worst in conceding sacks this year, 2nd worst last year, 5th in 2008 etc). It's bottom five in the league. Yet Big Ben always keeps the offensive afloat - often (especially against bad teams it must be said) it's very good. What's so surprising (and impressive) to me is how good Ben is deep. You'd think a team with an up and down running game, (probably due to) a poor O-Line, would be very big on slants, screens, quick outs and the like. But this is not the case. Nor is their TE, the solid Heath Miller, a particulary key cog. I think Ben is the best deep passer in the NFL, including Rivers. He's 5th of all time in YPA, and picks his spots brilliantly. He does it in and out of the pocket, on the run, under pressure, and he does it consistantly, with a variety of receivers. This year, no Holmes? No problem. He's made Mike Wallace one of the most electrifying receivers in the game (5th in receiving yards, only Jackson had more YPC, and he had 13 less catches). Yes Ed Reed is back there, both these guys obviously know each other fairly well. The difference is, I think, that I expect turnovers to be a big presence in this game, maybe 5 in total. And when everyone is getting turnovers, their normally huge effect is seriously diluted. Both teams will get theirs here - besides one anticipated big completion by the Steelers, it's what I see as the main way these teams will generate offense. And the big ones are going to be the ones inside ones 30 yard line. Roethlisberger's poise in the playoffs and on big drives also makes me feel good about this pick. I don't think Reed and co. take too many from Ben in here (he has thrown 1 interception since November 14), if there's a pick, it should be well downfield, and then the Ravens still have to battle for first downs.

Certainly there are only two things which can make it impossible for a team to win - serial turnovers or implosion of the O-Line followed by like 6+ sacks. But Baltimore, who have a far superior line, aren't really a great pass rushing team anymore (they had just 27 sacks, only Denver, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville had fewer). Actually, they are kind of old. Suggs is obviously still a factor, but no one else is. As much as I love Ed, he's never going to be a pass rusher, and that high quality D-Line is designed for run stopping - and do so very well. Lewis is not much of a blitz threat at this stage of his career, he's there because of his elite tackling skills and veteran savvy on coverage when necessary. The Pittsburgh O-Line, backed up by a huge, standing in tackles, Roethlisberger, should be able to do enough in the passing game. The run? I don't anticipate that being much of a factor for either team. Yeah they will try, obviously, this is Pittsburgh and Baltimore, but it's only going to lead to the puntathon we're likely to see in this game. Pittsburgh to shade the Ravens in the turnover battle, one long, key completion from Ben, one time sapping 4th quarter drive, showing poise and home crowd cheering them's an awkward line, 3.5 points, but I'm willing to go with Pittsburgh.

So you can take Roethlisberger, 8-2 in the playoffs, 61.9% completion, 8.05YPA, 15TD, 12INT. Or Flacco, 4-2 in the playoffs, 53.2% completion, 6.01YPA, 3TD, 6INT. And they met, two years ago...numbers there were Roethlisberger 16/33 255 yards, 1TD, 0INT vs Flacco 13/30, 141 yards, 0TD, 3INT. Is Flacco better now? Sure, but he'd wanna be way better. The Steelers are 7-1 in their last 8 playoff games. You let them get here, they're pretty good. This is right about where the Ravens finish up their season annually.


Line: Atlanta -2.5

Pick: Atlanta 24-20

So this whole analysis is going to be an ambivalent Jimmy staring into the screaming, frothing at the mouth, disciples of Aaron Rodgers and wondering what to do. Neither team excites me, no matter how many times I hear talking heads say "most dangerous team in the NFC". I am not buying into the hype at all, but also picking Atlanta does not interest me in the slightest. To me, all year they have encapsulated the spirit of the NFC; don't turn the ball over (3rd least in NFL), run ok, have one receiving threat, play reasonable defense and have a strong home field and you can be the top seed. That's all it takes folks. Just don't fuck up, no need to be at all outstanding. Most uninspiring top seed ever. And in the green corner we have a team that nearly lost a game it totally dominated on the final drive, fucked up its clock management badly, plays tentative in big spots, won just 10 games in the regular season (letting the fucking Chicago Bears claim top seed), is injury ravaged and lost a playoff game last year giving up 51 points last year. Can I pick no one?

Looking first at the Packers; the one thing that struck me about that Philly game was how fucking terrible the Eagles defense was, and how irresponsible I was to neglect it totally from my preview. Green Bay were just moving the ball at will, it is incomprehensible to me they scored only 21 in that game. I literally do not know how what I saw equaled just 21 points. In many ways, that sentiment sums up my feelings for the Packers - it all looks great, the results are somehow less than satisfying. Certainly Rodgers looked very solid, completing to a number of targets, and Greg Jennings showed off his impressive after the catch skills. I cannot believe how much Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were on their knees for Green Bay (they were deathriding Philly all night - with 7:50 left in the second quarter they were discussing the inevidability of a Green Bay win), and indeed the media in general. I feel a hurricane of belief in this team and feel almost compelled to pick them. I'm honestly not trying to be overly contrarian, I just don't see it. Please, spare me your James Starks rantings (Joe Buck sure didn't). Just, don't. I'm not even going to bother talking about it - terrible Philadelphia defense, just awful, thats what brought that about and flukiness. Still no run game, still no tight end threat, still no receiving threat out of the backfield, still no special teams, still no offensive line worth it's salt. It's receivers (even if there are 4 good ones), QB and a reasonable defense or bust. That's it. If Rodgers was in the Brady/Manning (with standing room for Roethlisberger and Brees) class, maybe. But he's not. Makes them easy to plan for as far as I'm concerned.

As for Atlanta, what can you say? Even my boy and goal line darling Michael Turner (3rd in rushing but just 4.1ypc) looks rather pedestrian by his standards now. Matt Ryan? He's solid, dependable, you have to be impressed how he came out of the box ready to play quarterback in the NFL, but not much more than that. Roddy White is a very special player, one of those do it all receivers that seems particulary good shooting across the middle of the field and suddenly taking off, but also is good on streaks and can play as a possession receiver if necessary, Evergreen Tony Gonzalez (3rd in receptions amongst TE), a reasonable O-Line anchored by Tyson Clabo. On the whole it's a very good, consistant but not spectacular offense. The defense has improved, but its best player is nearly 33 and in his 11th NFL season. It's best player in the secondary is Mr Underrated Brent Grimes (23 passes defensed, tops in the league, here, here, here) but he is still Brent Grimes for God's sake. Although it must be very cool for Dunta Robinson (who has big play ability and always reminded me of Asante Samuel) to leave Houston and take the bottom out of its pass defense, and join a team where the improved D was a key ingredient in a playoff return. Everything about this team is solid, but vanilla (15th in passing offense, 12th in rushing offense, 10th in rushing defense, 22nd passing defense). This is just the kind of #1 seed that is one and done. I can absolutely understand the line being this low for a team that is 20-2 at home with its franchise QB behind the wheel if (and it's a big if) you really do think the Packers are the most dangerous thing since Jaws. I just don't. If they beat the Falcons, I'll be right there leading the cheer squad against the Bears - they match up beautifully against them and would have made a strong case with victories in Linc and Georgia Dome, they can win my vote. If it's against the Seahawks, I'll be busy enough dealing with pitchfork popsicles and brimstone snowballs to know what I'll do.

I could tell you that my Football Outsiders Aaron Schatz stat this time is that Atlanta had the best 3rd and short defense in the game and Green Bay one of the worst 3rd and short offenses in the NFL. I could tell you that Atlanta had the best kick return game on average and Green Bay still has terrible coverage. Still that 20-2 number hangs over everything, and to pick a team that nearly lost a game where a team didn't play an NFL defense and had an injured QB and star wideout to make Atlanta 1-2 in their last three after starting 19-1 under Ryan in Georgia is a bit hard to swallow. Plus, if it's close (and it almost certainly will be, especially if the Pack win) advantage Atlanta - Green Bay are 5-6 in games decided by a score or less this year, Atlanta are 7-2. I feel if I picked Green Bay the only reason I'd have is that everyone else is. This goes to my record, so I can't go with that. The Falcons it is.


Line: Chicago -10.0

Pick: Chicago 34-7

First, a prelude, in case you won on picking Seattle to win outright last week.

Everybody gets one.

And what a cartoonish win it was. I read about 50 previews of last weeks wild card round and of those I think maybe 4 actually picked the Hawks even against the spread. I was the only one in our competition to do so. I don't say this to brag (ok, I do, after all, all we are playing for is bragging rights here, Bill Simmons isn't even aware of our existence), but to give my next words some added gravitas; the Seahawks have no fucking chance whatsoever in Chicago. The great thing about these Seattle previews is that you don't even have to worry about the numbers, you just have to have a feel for how sports play out. If Seattle had muddled through with a 9-7 record and won that NFC West, a lot of people would have found it trendy to pick the upset, but Seattle probably never would have won. Bit like the couldn't do the Rocky/Drago thing if it's like, Tyson/Holyfield. At that point the mental stuff goes out the window and it's about skill. Bluffing doesn't work in the NFL. You have to be absolutely written off (Giants/Pats) to be able to use this loophole in sports analysis I feel. Mind you, going back to Rocky/Drago, if you remember the end of that film, the Russians start to cheer Rocky. If there's any QB in the NFL who could play the despised Drago, it's Jay Cutler, who's just a complete dick and Chicago barely believes in him to begin with. On his third pick the cheers for the lovable Matt Hasselbeck may begin, who knows. Reading articles on ESPN, I came across a comment, quite a lengthy comment, from a Seahawks fan, desperate to believe, breaking down the possible (theoretically) scenario of the Seahawks winning this game. The first sentence began "look, if Russel Okung can just block Peppers...". I'll stop you right there. Russel Okung is a rookie offensive tackle (an INJURED rookie offensive tackle) against one of the truly dominant ends of the last ten years (along with Allen, Strahan and Freeney). Just stop man. Stop it. No.

But you may ask what's changed in my attitude towards the Hawks from just one short week ago? Two reasons. One is that you really do get only one chip to use in the "we had no fucking chance but won" Rocky thing. You can't keep going to the well. It's like a powerup. Once it's gone, it's gone. Think you're seeing that Marshawn Lynch run again this week? They call it lightning in a bottle for a reason, it's lightning, it's a bottle, bringing the two together is nearly impossible. You can't inspire people to "do the unthinkable" and then do it again the next week. Defeats the whole purpose of the concept of "unthinkable", makes it routine. And if they have to go to war on their own merits, in Chicago, they are going to get killed, the pick is a fair reflection of the talent level of the two teams. It might be a bit harsh on the Seahawks, which brings me to the second reason; they will be fucking exhausted. I know people that are hardcore Seahawks fans. Maybe it played into my belief in them last week, certainly I WANTED to believe in the Seahawks. As such I sort of became an honorary Seahawk fan myself on Saturday. Watching that game was physically, mentally, emotionally exhausting. I needed a nap after the Jets/Colts game (it finished in the afternoon here in Australia) I was so drained. Every play you were waiting for it to all fall apart. The 17-7 lead, the dramatic comeback, the 4th and 1 that wasn't converted, the subsequent FG drive that was stymied due to offensive penalties and never eventuated, the New Orleans hunting them down like a cheetah in the fourth quarter, and then the Lynch run. It killed me. And I'm not a player. I'm not even a fan. I know a fan. Takes way, way too much out of you and there's not a lot left the next week, crossing the country, to actually play a game of football. They have already played their Superbowl - mentally this is Seattle's offseason.

So there you go. I'm not even gonna analyse the game or the numbers, Chicago will win, and probably slaughter them. If anything the loss earlier in the year makes me more certain rather than less. But what about this Chicago team? I feel I should love them really. I was pretty high on that 2006 team, loved Hester as a missile on special teams (this year - led the league in PR by nearly two yards per and had 3TD's, only Dez Bryant even had 2, the team was #2 in KR average), plus blocking kicks everywhere, great kickoffs, the whole shebang. The defense (which had the brilliant, cerebral Urlacher cleaning up on coverage, best coverage linebacker I've ever seen) which was tremendous on every level (this year - 3rd in opposition QB rating, 2nd in rushing ypg, 6th in 3rd down %, 9th in total 1st downs against, 3rd in takeaways). They just needed an offense that would get a couple of first downs and for the love of God, don't give the ball away. Rex Grossman killed several bets of mine that year. But now they have super Rex. What Rex always wanted to be when he grew up. Lots of INT's (4th) but at least some yardage (11th in YPA) and TD's to go along with it. And the sacks, ah, the sacks (56, worst in the league). A Mike Martz staple that has this offense just about the most unpredictable unit in the postseason. Lots of points (seriously, go check it out, 30+ in three of their last six) but inconsistancy in the form of turnovers and conceding big defensive plays, this is a Mike Martz offense at its best. No matter what you say though is that the D and special teams are broadly back to where they were in 2006, the offense is probably, even with the sacks, significantly better than that version (Grossman to Cutler is a massive upgrade) and the NFC is marginally worse. Chicago is some kind of chance to take this conference, and if that's the case, they will destroy Seattle.


Line: New England -9.0

Pick: New York 24-21

Anyone that has seen my picks over the last two years knows how much I fetishise the well established "sure things" in the NFL. There are so few (Pats, Colts...Steelers are close) of these truly "expertly run" franchises. I have yet, in five opportunities, to pick against Indy or New England. Considering these picks are using the spread and I have laid the points on every occasion, it's fair to say I have a hard on for consistancy and view one year, or even two year, wonders with suspicion. As such, when I pick in games involving these teams, a team really needs to establish two things for me to pick them. The first is "can they even win" before I get to "will they win".

I think the Jets can. And I say this after a lot of back and forth with myself because, as you can tell after last week, I have serious reservations about the Jets offense, which were not really comprehensively answered on Saturday night. Not only did Sanchez have a Rick Ankiel-esque first half, but Edwards and especially Santonio Holmes dropped a lot of key passes. In addition to this, I have Patriots-specific queries about their defense. The Patriots key weapon in the passing game have been those dual tight ends (they might have the best tight end pairing in the game) in Gronkowski and Hernandez (14th and 16th in receiving yards for TE, only two TE on any one team to have at least 500 yards each), both impressive players - who covers them? I am not impressed with the coverage skills of Bart Scott or David Harris at all, Jacob Tamme had a reasonable night (46 yards on 5 catches) last weekend and these two are way better. And we know their safeties are weak (eg. Garcon's huge catch). Also, the MO on stopping the Patriots (and great QB's in general) has been bringing pressure. You might think the Jets excel at this, and maybe they do, but not without blitzing. Certainly there was no strong and consistant pass rush against Manning, and the Pats O-Line is much better (especially considering Diem's unexpected loss). The lack of consistant pass rush from "normal" defenses has been a perplexing issue for the Jets all season.

So why do I think the Jets can win? For one I was super impressed with Revis against Indy. Wayne had one yard of receiving. One. And don't think Peyton would just wave the white flag about Revis being on him - he was looking. No dice. If you say to me no team in the league is better at working without its best receiver than New England, I'd agree with you, but it still makes things tough. If he can basically shut Wayne out, he will do the same to Branch. In fact it may be more effective against the Pats because he can be matched up against the hot hand (there's no rule to say he can't line up as the nickel against Welker if necessary, for instance). No player was more responsible for the Jets win last week than Revis, he's been down much of the year with injury and other issues, but he's back to his best. Even a team as versatile and a QB as amazing as Brady will struggle, knowing how much they love to throw, with Revis in the mix. Then against the run, the Jets will give nothing away, they conceded less than 91 yards on the ground this year, 3rd in the league. The rush was the surprise secret weapon for the Pats this year, 9th on the ground with just over 123 per game. Green-Ellis/Woodhead vs Jets run D, give me the Jets to win that contest. Suddenly weapons are being taken away from the Patriots. Secondly, they've have. Not just once, but twice. They've split the last four games with the Patriots. They've even split the last two games in Foxboro. They know this team, they know the defense. They know the offense (as well as is humanly possible anyway, ridiculous offense). They know Bill Belichick as well as anyone can. They probably deserve the tag road warriors; they are 3-1 on the road in playoffs the last two years, including games against San Diego (a huge road trip, where I think they were bigger outsiders than this game) and Indianapolis (an established power and team that had their number). They are great in close games (9-3 in their last twelve decided by a score), and if they are to win here, obviously it will be close. If they win, I'd put my soul it will be by one score max. New England are 4-4 in their last eight playoff games and have lost their last two and it's difficult to say Baltimore last year or the Giants three years ago were demonstrably better than this Jets team. They can be had.

But will they win? That's a whole different kettle of fish. I think they will. The Jet's offensive line was the most dominant unit of any unit on any team last weekend. I know Indy isn't that big up front, but outside Vince Wilfork (who I have lots of respect for), New England are soft in the front seven as well. I have no idea who the two dudes next to Wilfork are, the Ty Warren injury could really hurt the Pats here. I think I grew a Gandalfesque beard during those drives in the second half on Saturday night, and they barely asked Sanchez to lift his arm. Just absolutely killed Indy. They took Manning out of it. And a middling defense that had played its heart out in the first half just collapsed. They couldn't WAIT for the Jets to score and get off the field. They were just exhausted and it showed. Indy had three drives in the second half. New York ran 37 plays against just 27 for Indianapolis. They ran 25 times to just 12 passes (playing from behind or tied for most of the half). And they did it, they consistantly got first downs. Three times on third down they ran, and made it. A better offense would have put 28 on them in that half, but that was never New York's goal. Now while Indianapolis is a good offense, New England is an exceptional offense, but I don't think they put 31 on them here, the Jets will need to get into the 20's this time though. But remember, this kind of game has happened to New England before. Last year. Mauled by a brute of a Baltimore offensive line. Big O-Lines and big bruising backs (Shonn Green leans that way a little, not perfect but still) give the Patriots big problems (230 yards rushing by Cleveland in their win, Baltimore rushed for 234 in last years playoffs). Sure, New England are better, but probably only a little bit defensively. New York's D isn't reliant on turnovers, which is good, because they get one, max. I rarely pick upsets of this magnitude outright, and in a similar position last year against the Chargers, I backed out of picking them outright by a point. This time, balls out - they follow the same blueprint as the Ravens last year and squeak past in the upset.


Baltimore Ravens v. Pittsburgh Steelers

1. Peter King stated in this week's MMQB that the last four games between the Ravens and Steelers have been decided by a field goal. It would probably be too optimistic to think this won't happen again, but I don't think it will. These two teams have already played twice this year and each has won at the other team's home stadium. I think everyone would be disappointed if this ended up being a blowout in any fashion. One thing that seems interesting to me is the Ravens really took care of business last week against the Chiefs. They put the Chiefs away in the 2nd half of that game, can they use this momentum to go into Pittsburgh and beat a Steelers team that hasn't really been challenged by a good team in nearly a month? Momentum means a lot in the playoffs, especially over the past couple of years, and the Ravens have the momentum.

2. I stated last week that teams can run the ball against the Ravens and I still believe this is true. The Ravens managed to shut down the Chiefs in the 2nd half of the game last week, but in the first half it was shown that teams who are dedicated to running the ball can run it against the Ravens. The Steelers have seemed more dedicated to running the football this year and it helps that Rashard Mendenhall broke through and became a good running back. I am still not sold on the Steelers offensive line in terms of pass protection. I think it is the weak point of the offense and if a team, like Baltimore, blitzes well then they are going to be able to get to Ben Roethlisberger. Part of what has covered up for the Steelers inferior offensive line is Roethlisberger's ability to evade the rush, so he will probably be doing some moving around the pocket in this game as well. The Ravens statistically stop the pass poorly, so I see the Steelers coming out and trying to stretch the Ravens defense a bit so they can open up some running lanes.

3. I didn't think Mike Wallace could keep up with how he had performed in 2009. I was wrong. I thought his move to the 2nd receiver would prevent him from being able to go as deep as often as he did in 2009. I was wrong again. Hines Ward had a down year for him this upcoming year, so it will be vitally important for Emmanuel Sanders and Heath Miller to step up and make some catches in the passing game. The Steelers are going to need to stretch the Ravens out and force them to defend the middle of the field so they can open up running lanes to run the football and perhaps sneak Wallace deep behind the safeties.

4. Defensively, the Steelers are the best team in the NFL at stopping the run. The first two games this year the Ravens have tried to run the ball against the Steelers but have only run for just over 100 yards in the two games they went against the Ravens. It seems the Ravens did not find the secret to moving the ball on the ground against the Steelers. There really isn't probably a secret, it just happens the Steelers have an elite set of linebackers that are dedicated to stopping the run. I guess my question is whether the Ravens are even going to make an attempt to run the ball, or just run the ball enough to keep the Steelers honest. I have my money on the Ravens pulling a "New England Patriots" move and using the short passing game as the running game in an effort to keep the Steelers linebackers from blitzing Flacco at will.

5. Through the air, the Ravens weren't nearly as good as I feel like they should have been. I stated this last week also, I realize that, but I still have this overwhelming feeling the Ravens offense underachieved this year. It is possible to pass the ball effectively against the Steelers and the Ravens need to have their "A" passing game make an appearance like it did last week against the Chiefs. I can analyze this game all day, but this game could end up being decided by the kickers, which are Billy Cundiff for the Ravens and Sean Suisham for the Steelers. This game is going to be close, but I think the Steelers ability to stop the Ravens from running the ball and a few big plays on offense will overcome the Ravens defense that is going to try to make Roethlisberger's life in the pocket a difficult one. I see the Steelers pulling it out in the fourth quarter by a touchdown.

Pittsburgh Steelers (-3) over the Baltimore Ravens 24-17

Green Bay Packers v. Atlanta Falcons

1. This is a tough game to pick. I had the Packers in the Super Bowl before this year and I think they can still make it. On the other hand, I think no matter whether the Falcons are "boring" or whatever the national media has chosen to call them, they are the best all-around team in the NFC. I heard three of ESPN's assholes arguing over whether the Falcons were lucky or not on ESPN's First Take a couple of days ago. Maybe they are lucky, maybe they aren't, but if the Falcons were lucky during the regular season who is to say their luck will stop now? I know there are people disappointed we aren't getting a Falcons-Eagles matchup, because Vick coming back to the Georgia Dome would be such a thrill to see, but this should be a really good game.

2. Yes, when you look at the Falcons rankings they don't look very strong. They aren't in the Top 10 on defense or offense in passing yards gained/given up and are 12th in rushing yards gained and 10th in rushing yards given up. They seem to be an above average team that doesn't have any overwhelming strengths or weaknesses. But...the Falcons have a strong quarterback that doesn't lose often at home, homefield advantage in a loud dome, an elite running back, an elite wide receiver, and a still-elite tight end. Their defense is young and fast. They are a dangerous team. Throw in the fact I believe neither the Seahawks or Bears match up with strongly with the Falcons and if they get by the Packers they may have an easy road to the Super Bowl in the next round. Of course that's why the games are played. My point is that the Falcons aren't an overrated #1 seed team or a boring team.

3. Now it is time to nitpick the Falcons. I think the kind of team that can beat the Falcons are a team that has the defensive front seven to stop Michael Turner and the cornerback depth to put a corner on Gonzalez and not have to worry about Roddy White killing them. I think the Packers have that. I say "I think" because Jason Avant killed them last week in Philadelphia, so that kind of ruins the theory I just presented, and if the Packers can't let that happen against the Falcons. The Falcons offensive line is going to have to be alert to pick up the blitzes and whatever else the Packers defense throws at them. The Packers did not handle Michael Turner well last time they played the Falcons, so the first order of business is bottling him up. If the Atlanta offensive line picks up blitzes and makes room for Turner to run there isn't a way Atlanta loses this game. A Green Bay defense that isn't blitzing effectively isn't an effective Green Bay defense.

4. Defensively, Green Bay has a different challenge from last week. Philadelphia didn't have quite the cornerbacks that the Falcons have in Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. Last week against the Eagles the Packers ran the ball effectively and that will be key this week as well. James Starks, or whoever runs the ball for the Packers, has to gain yardage on the ground and give Rodgers a chance to spread the ball around and possibly take advantage of the relative young age of the Falcons safeties. The Packers can't let the Falcons safeties sit back and not have to worry about the run. If the Falcons are able to make the Packers one-dimensional then the quick defensive line of the Falcons can get to Aaron Rodgers who is hiding behind a somewhat shaky Packers offensive line.

5. I believe the Packers are going to continue to try and run the ball, and I believe they will run the ball effectively. For a team with two good cornerbacks, it is odd the Falcons are 22nd in the NFL in passing yards allowed. The Falcons have been in close games too, so that's not just a result of teams trying to come back. Pressure on Rodgers is essential and I am not sure if the Falcons will be able to do that. Green Bay can throw the ball and when they are running the ball well, this only helps the passing game. I think the Falcons can run the ball on Green Bay, but I also believe the Packers will be able to get pressure on Matt Ryan and force him into a bad decision or two. Maybe I am counting too much on my Super Bowl pick or maybe I am discounting just how good the Falcons are (which I doubt because I think they are very good), but I think the Packers can beat the Falcons in Atlanta.

Green Bay Packers (+2.5) over the Atlanta Falcons 28-24.

Seattle Seahawks v. Chicago Bears

1. I didn't expect to see this matchup in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. As the cliche goes, that's why you play the games. The Bears lost at home to the Seahawks the last time they played each other and they were completely unable to run the ball in that game. I have had a hard time predicting which way this game would go. The Bears could come out and avenge that first loss to the Seahawks by beating them like it seems like on paper they should or the Seahawks are going to be motivated by that win against the Saints at home last week and continue their attitude of having nothing to lose...which will get them a road win in Chicago. I think the winner of this game isn't making the Super Bowl regardless, but that is beside the point. Of course my opinion could change next week.

2. The good news for the Bears is that this game is on national television, so Julius Peppers may see fit to try really hard and not disappear. The bad news is Peppers really enjoys disappearing in the playoffs, so we'll see which Peppers shows up this week. I know, I'm just being bitter towards him. I am in quite a situation. The Bears stop the run really well, but the Seahawks don't run the ball really well. So it seems obvious the Seahawks may not run the ball well, but they have to run the ball well to win. Take away Marshawn Lynch's long run and he had an efficient, but not overly spectacular, day. Of course you can't take away the run, but I would imagine the Bears will tackle a little bit better than the Saints did on that specific play. I would like to think the Bears defense is going to find a way not to allow Hasselbeck to bomb on them like happened to the Saints defense. What I am saying is I see the Bears defense with a big advantage over the Seahawks offense.

3. When the Seahawks are on offense I look for a similar gameplan as last week's win against the Saints. They will want to run the ball and then throw the ball deep. I don't think they will have as much success against the Bears, simply because the Bears will try to be more disciplined than the Saints were. I think Roman Harper intentionally stayed out of position during the entire game because he was throwing the game. Maybe it just felt that way. The Seahawks are going to want to run the ball and then would be wise to use John Carlson to break up the Cover-2 a little bit. I figured Carlson would be big last week against the Saints and he was. The Bears want to get at Hasselbeck with the front four and force Hasselbeck to throw into coverage and force him to drop more passes in perfectly like he did last week. The Bears are 20th in the NFL in passing yards allowed, but Seattle is 19th in passing yards on the year.

4. The Bears need more from Matt Forte in this game and Mike Martz and Jay Cutler need to stay within themselves. The Saints were able to score on the Seahawks defense last week, though the Bears offense is much less impressive than the Saints offense, ranked 28th in rushing yards and 22nd in passing yards. I'm not sure I completely trust the Bears offensive line still. They have to protect Cutler to prevent him from trying to do too much. Cutler got sacked 3.25 times per game this year and also threw 16 interceptions. So if he is hurried, he will make mistakes. The key to this game is Forte. If he is able to run the ball effectively then this will allow Cutler fewer clogged passing lanes to throw the ball through and will take some pressure off of him. If the Seahawks can stop Forte and the Bears running game then we could see another 43% completion percentage from Cutler, like he had in the first game.

5. Can Seattle pull out another great performance and make it to the NFC Championship? Last week's game against New Orleans was a near-perfect offensive showing and I question whether they can do that again. I feel like they proved they deserved to be in the playoffs, so will there be some complacency? Seattle is on the road this week, where they were 2-6 this year, though one win was a win in Chicago. Seattle really needs to try and run the ball. The Bears will dream of putting the Seahawks in continuous third-and-long situations and dare Matt Hasselbeck and the Seahawks offense to beat them. Of course the Seahawks will be doing the same thing to the Bears. As far as quarterbacks go, I trust Hasselbeck more than I trust Cutler. I think the Bears will manage to protect Cutler and run the ball well enough to score 20+ points. The Bears won't allow Hasselbeck to bomb on them like he did against the Saints. For me, it comes down to which team is better overall and I think that is the Bears.

Chicago Bears (-10) over Seattle Seahawks 24-10.

New York Jets v. New England Patriots

1. I know the Jets are big on talking. It is a part of what makes them such a good team and is a part of what makes people dislike them so much. So naturally, the Jets have been talking all week about whether Brady pointed at their bench in the 45-3 ass whipping a few months ago and just generally describing how they hate the Patriots. Rex Ryan has even tried the motivational ploy that anyone can see through, except for ESPN who reported on it breathlessly, about how this game is between him and Bill Belichick. Ryan wants to take some pressure off his team and make it about him. It is a ploy and obviously it worked since ESPN reported on his statements like Ryan really believed this game was about him. This will be an interesting game simply because neither side really likes each other at all. The Jets have beaten the Patriots this year, but the Patriots absolutely destroyed the Jets the last time these two teams played. The Jets want revenge and the Patriots want to roll on the Jets just like that again.

2. A number that really surprised me is the Patriots were 30th in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Granted, they gave up many of those passing yards because they were so far ahead of other teams and other teams had to pass the football. So this number may mean nothing. I'm not saying the Patriots don't have a good secondary, but even in the closer games teams had been able to pass the ball on the Patriots effectively. The Jets aren't exactly the type of team that will start bombing down field on the Patriots, but this number could be an indication the Jets could have success throwing the ball. That's how they beat the Patriots in early in 2010, by running the ball effectively and throwing the ball effectively. The Jets threw the ball 30 times in that game and rushed the ball 32 times. I don't believe the Jets will necessarily play it quite as close to the vest as it may seem in the first half.

3. Defensively, the Patriots are going to want to shut down the Jets running game and force Mark Sanchez to throw the ball. Those who watched the game on Saturday night saw that Mark Sanchez isn't the most accurate quarterback in the NFL. When he had to place a ball in a tight(er) space or drop the ball over a receiver's shoulder he wasn't always able to do it. The Patriots know shutting down Shonn Greene and Tomlinson is the key to beating the Jets. The Jets don't have to run the ball well to win, but they need to be in manageable third down situations in order to give the offensive a good opportunity to convert. I have a ton of respect for Bill Belichick and I think he will have an excellent gameplan to do this.

4. The Patriots are an offensive juggernaut. The fewest points they have scored all season in a game is 14. They haven't scored less than 31 points in a game since November 7. The Jets are not going to be able to outscore the Patriots. The Patriots are going to want to jump on the Jets early just like they did last time. The Jets are going to want to knock Tom Brady down and throw off his timing because they don't like him and it helps them win the game. This is easier said than done. The Jets did not blitz Peyton Manning all that much last week and instead chose to fill the intermediate routes with defenders. In theory, this could work against the Patriots, but I have a feeling the Jets are going to try and blitz Brady more than they blitzed Brady, just so they can knock him down. The Jets have to stop Gronkowski and Hernandez from killing them in the middle of the field and I think the Patriots are going to try and take advantage of how Brodney Pool seemed to be playing aggressively on the short routes last week against the Colts.

5. It is not that simple, but the Jets have to run the ball and throw the ball effectively on first down in order to stay out of third down or convert easier third downs. The Patriots want to spread the field and let their talented tight ends work the middle, while giving Brandon Tate a few shots deep. The emotional part of this matchup aside, this game comes down to whether the Jets can get to Tom Brady and throw him off his game. Personnel-wise, I think New England has had a more talented set of receivers in the past, and that may actually be favorable for them. There's no Randy Moss that Darrelle Revis can latch onto and defend. Wes Welker is a great receiver, but I don't know if I see Revis defending him all game. Revis shut Reggie Wayne down last week, would the Jets put him on Welker when Welker is in the slot? I picked the Jets last week partly because the quarterback they were facing was out of weapons. Tom Brady isn't out of weapons and I am not sure even if the Jets manage to keep the Patriots under 30 points they can win this game. The Patriots seem to be on a mission and I don't think the mission stops this week.

New England Patriots (-8.5) over the New York Jets 30-20


ivn said...

Ravens/Steelers: yeah, I think the Steelers are going to win this game. it won't be a blowout but I think they'll pull it out.

Packers/Falcons: toughest game to pick. BDD on deadspin pointed out that the Packers are that chic road team that might end up falling flat on their faces, which I completely agree with. I have no idea what to expect from this Packers team. on the other hand, the Falcons remind me a lot of the Martyball Chiefs and Chargers teams that always wound up melting down in the playoffs, so this could go either way. this game could end up with Matt Ryan throwing four straight incompletions in Roddy White's general direction while Mike Smith stares dumbfounded out onto the field with a purple face. or the Falcons could take care of business at home, force the Packers to be one dimensional, and knock Rodgers around a bit. since I had the Falcons coming out of the NFC before the season, I'll stick with them and go with the latter.

Seahawks/Bears: I believe! Seahawks 27, Bears 17.

If you say to me no team in the league is better at working without its best receiver than New England, I'd agree with you, but it still makes things tough. If he can basically shut Wayne out, he will do the same to Branch. In fact it may be more effective against the Pats because he can be matched up against the hot hand (there's no rule to say he can't line up as the nickel against Welker if necessary, for instance).

yeah, they did that on the last Monday Night game (putting Revis on Branch or Welker) and it didn't work out too well for them. their secondary really isn't all that great outside of Revis.

I remember way back, nine years ago, when Lee Flowers said of the Bucs: "They talk so much, and they go to the Pro Bowl because they talk. They ain't nothing but paper champions. That's all they are, and that's all they're ever going to be."

and I feel that describes the Jets to a tee. they just don't impress me all that much, I'm sorry. Santonio Holmes is the only guy on the roster who's ever played worth a damn in a big game. I may end up eating my words but I just can't see the Jets winning this.

Nunyer said...

I'm a horrible gambler... which is why I haven't bet on a sporting event in probably 15 years. Except maybe the occasional NCAA Tourney bracket for kicks... But that never stopped me from making picks for entertainment purposes only.

Baltimore / Pittsburg

I don't trust Flacco nor do I trust the Steeler offensive line. I'm getting a weird "bend but don't break" vibe for both defenses. I think there are lots of FGs and red zone stands. Steelers win, but don't cover.

Green Bay / Atlanta

The Falcons establish a ground game and keep the Packers pass rush + press coverage defense from wreaking havoc. Atlanta wins 24-17

Seattle / Chicago

I think the "We Got Nothing to Lose" train gets derailed in Chicago, but the Hawks make it interesting thanks to Cutler mistakes. Another playoff QB who I simply don't trust with my imaginary betting dollars. Bears win but don't cover, 23-14.

New York / New England

Just a gut feeling, but the Pats walk away with this one. They dare Sanchez to win via the passing game and he comes up short. Some meaningless 4th quarter scores from the Jets make it look less embarassing. New England rolls 38-24.

Bengoodfella said...

Ivn, I have given my opinion at length. I will say it was tempting to pick the Seahawks again. I just couldn't do it though. I don't like all the talking the Jets have done either. I don't think they win the game at all.

Nunyer, I am a terrible gambler. Horrible, as you can see. Most people I have talked to seem to be picking the Steelers over the Ravens. It's weird, people are discounting the Ravens and the line on the game is so close.

I think your picks will end up probably being more right than mine. We'll see I guess.

Dylan said...

As BGF said, I'm not going to reiterate my opinion so you have to listen to it again. Gambling is a crapshoot. While I can proudly throw out my predictions in this blog, I'm not confident enough to put my money where my mouth is. I'm already off to a 1-3 start, so anyone who contradicts me may just have gotten it right. Even on the season, I barely finished above .500.

I'm a little nervous about everyone taking the Steelers. It seems that public perception plays an intangible role on football games. It's not like players do not watch SportsCenter and follow themselves on the various sports sites. While the greats may ignore them since they're plastered all over ESPN all the time, I find it hard to believe that the other 95% turns a blind eye. Seeing their teams trashed has to be an extra level of motivation.

FJ said...

Tom Brady may be the league's MVP and one of the all-time greats, but his greatest vice is one which the Jets exploit: emotion. We already know about the animosity between the two teams. Imagine a scenario in which the Jets take an early lead, followed by failure after failure by the Pats offense. By the 3rd quarter, I can easily see Brady beginning to force throws and show obvious signs of frustration. Knowing Rex Ryan, he will throw the kitchen sink and then some at Brady once he sees the game beginning to slip away.

I'm not sure anyone in the country would agree with you on this - "failure after failuire" of the Pats offense, and suddenly they'd become so frustrated they couldn't score any points..? Well, kudos for taking a contrarian viewpoint for the sake of it.

Tom Brady has led his team to plenty of tough, close playoff & regular season wins, games the Pats may have had no business winning. It wasn't until 2007 that we saw a Pats team that bothered to "run up the score". They ran up the score a few times in 2007 on bad teams because they were having a lot of fun out there, and suddenly we have revisionist historians telling us this was the way it always was...really? Take a look at the 2001, 2003, and 2004 teams and find out how many times they ran up the score. They were certainly always capable of putting points on even some of the best defenses, but many of their wins were close games with good defensive stands that won it for them.

Re: think he can't come back if the Pats get into a deficit early (he's done it a couple times even this season) is to ignore his entire career.

Bengoodfella said...

FJ, yeah...I kind of agree with you. Simply because I don't see the Patriots offense failing much. I will say if the Pats offense does fail then Brady may get frustrated, but I don't think it will happen. I know Brady hates the Jets so it may bother him a bit to not be able to get anything going.

To be fair to Dylan, I am not sure he ever mentioned anything about running up the score...he just said Brady may get frustrated if the offense fails time after time.

Dylan said...


I did not mean to imply that the Patriots have always run up the score. As you said, it's a trend of the last few years. I guess I should have clarified my comments regarding the Patriots' offensive failures.

I'm aware that Brady wins plenty of games that he does not deserve to win. I was simply basing that statement off of the games that the Jets and Pats have played against each other over the last three years (the teams have split games in each season). In all of the losses, Brady's frustration became plainly obvious. Against any other team, his cool head is his trademark. But against the Jets, he seems to not be able to control his emotions (at which my Jet fan friends rejoice). Cromartie's claim that he points at the Jets all the time was not unfounded. Brady loves beating the Jets. Yet when the Jets are beating the Patriots, Brady gets away from what makes him great and tries to win the game in one play.

I did not intend to take the contrarian point of view just for the sake of it. Ironically, in the podcast I'm about to post, I berate Skip Bayless for exactly that. I was simply basing those comments on what I've seen out of the rivalry for the last few seasons. But I clearly did not clarify this in my statement, so I understand how you could have read it that way. So I apologize for that. I hate people who play devil's advocate just because, so I"m mortified that I did exactly that.

Dylan said...

I also did not mean to imply that he cannot come back if they go down. If anyone can, it's clearly Brady. I just think that if any team can somewhat impede him in a comeback, it's the Jets simply because of the emotional aspect. If it comes down to a game winning drive, the Jets are screwed, as you and I both know.

Bengoodfella said...

Dylan, I thought of the podcast and FJ's comments. I chuckled. I'm just proud that we understand the actual meaning of irony.

So I guess you were just saying Brady gets more emotionally invested in this game, so he may also make more mistakes b/c of that.

Bengoodfella said...

Also, I'm pumped for the podcast. Anytime I get to talk about "The Hills" in public and make fun of the girls on that appear on the show it makes my day.

I think we should do an entire podcast on athlete's girlfriends. Clearly, I am kidding.

J.S. said...


Bengoodfella said...

Great run. You are right. It's awesome. I can't help but wonder if he will do it again this week. Probably not.