Friday, January 3, 2014

3 comments NFL Playoffs Wild Card Weekend Picks

This time of year it has become a tradition for me and some others to make our NFL Playoffs picks against Bill Simmons. So I am going to be making playoffs picks for the fifth consecutive year. The way it works is Bill posts his Friday column with his pick (which he hasn't done yet, so I will post his picks when he gets the opportunity to post the one column per week he writes) and the spread for each game, Peter King posts his picks on Thursday, and I keep score on how well Bill, Peter and the rest of the participants are doing. I will be making my picks against Bill Simmons, Peter King (though he doesn't use the spread, just outright picks the game, so I will pretend he is using the spread), and anyone else who wants to join. I am going to keep a tally on the right side of the blog on each participants' record. If anyone wants to participate, put your picks in the comments by 3pm on Saturday and I will add your name to the tally on the right side of the blog. I'm going to try to keep it to the first 5-7 people who put their picks in the comments along with Peter and Bill so we have about 8-10 participants...if even that many want to participate.

When it comes time for the Super Bowl, the tiebreaker will be the number of points scored in the Super Bowl. These are the lines I will be using for these games.

Here are Peter's picks. 

Here are Bill's picks.

Kansas City Chiefs v. Indianapolis Colts (-1.0)

New Orleans Saints v. Philadelphia Eagles (-2.5)

San Diego Chargers v. Cincinnati Bengals (-7.0)

San Francisco 49ers (-3.0) v. Green Bay Packers

Kansas City Chiefs v. Indianapolis Colts

I have to admit that I really don't believe the Chiefs are as good of a team as their record indicates. They are 1-5 against teams that have made the playoffs this year. The good news is they have beaten all of the teams they were expected to beat, while the bad news is the only win they have against a playoff team is against the Philadelphia Eagles back in September. I really do hate playing the "soft schedule" card, but the Chiefs are a good team that has had a favorable schedule and hasn't shown me they can beat a good team. The Colts on the other hand are 4-2 against 2013 NFL playoff teams, including wins over the #1 seeds in both the AFC and NFC. So if this game were decided by performance against 2013 NFL playoff teams then the Colts would win handily, which the Colts did actually win handily when these same two teams played three weeks ago.

Andrew Luck had another Hall of Fame-caliber season while Alex Smith was so consistently consistent in being consistently below average at passing the football he receives and deserves kudos from NFL sportswriters for not screwing up. It's a low bar to reach, but dammit, Alex Smith reaches that low bar. Of course Chase Daniel almost led a depleted Chiefs roster to a win over a Chargers team that desperately needed a win to make the playoffs, but pay no attention to that and in no way should that reflect on Alex Smith. As much sarcasm as I use to refer to Andrew Luck, I think the quarterback matchup strongly favors the Colts. Neither team can stop the run, but the Colts at least have shown they can stop the pass (13th in the NFL), while the Chiefs being 25th in the NFL in passing yards allowed seems to tell me the Chiefs can't stop the pass. Of course, depending on who you ask, the Chiefs defense may be underrated. Basically, the Chiefs were able to force turnovers and give their offense good field position. I would be interested to see what the Chiefs defense looked like against the five playoff opponents (like the Colts are) they played, rather than with games against the Jaguars, Giants, Raiders, Texans, Browns, Bills and Redskins thrown in there. The problem with the Chiefs forcing turnovers and relying on this for good field position is the Colts offense only turned the ball over 14 times this season, good for 1st in the NFL.

I'm making this pick sound really easy so far and I feel like it probably is. Perhaps too easy for me. I think the Chiefs can run the ball and I don't think Alex Smith is a bumbling idiot who can't complete a pass and will just turn the ball over to the Colts defense, but I don't think he is going to win this game for the Chiefs. I think the Chiefs have been living right all season and while they will be able to tee off a bit on Andrew Luck defensively because the Colts don't have a very scary running game, Luck has shown he can take care of the football, and the Colts have to be smart enough to give Donald Brown more touches than Trent Richardson, right?

The Chiefs have taken advantage of a pretty soft schedule. I know they can run the football and advanced metrics say the defense is better than the numbers show, but the Colts are at home and I don't think the Chiefs are going to be able to force the turnovers that would help them win a road playoff game. I know this isn't the Super Bowl and Alex Smith has had success in the playoffs, but there is a ceiling that comes with having Smith as a team's quarterback and the Chiefs defense isn't the 49ers defense. Smith isn't going to generally win games for his team and the Chiefs defense is going to need to set the Chiefs offense up with good field position to win this game. I don't see that happening.

Indianapolis Colts (-1.0) over Kansas City Chiefs 31-17

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles

I have real struggles about this game. I like to watch a playoff game and have a rooting interest with one of the teams, but I dislike both of these teams and don't want either team to win. I don't like the Saints, but if they win then they have to go to Seattle to play, which means they would have to find a way to score on a Seahawks defense they couldn't score against a few weeks ago. Watching the Saints lose to the Seahawks would be fun. I could cheer for the Eagles, but then if the Eagles win (not that who I cheer for impacts the game, but I want to understand the ramifications of cheering for one team over another) they will come to Carolina to play the Panthers. Quite frankly, the idea of playing the Eagles scares the shit out of me. Too much offense, too many unknowns. So out of principle I can't cheer for the Saints and out of fear I can't cheer for the Eagles. Throw in the fact I predicted the Saints to make the NFC Championship Game and one would think to be consistent I would have to pick the Saints to win this game and I become even more confused. Regardless...

This should be a fun game because it pits the NFL's second best passing attack against the NFL's best rushing attack. It's the NFL's worst passing defense against the NFL's second best passing offense and a team that loves to blitz against a team that loves to get plays off quickly and take advantage of matchups created on the field. It should be fun to long as neither team wins since I don't like either team. I'm pretty sure a playoff game can't end in a tie and I have to pick a winner. The one supposed disadvantage of the Eagles offense is they have a tendency to score points too quickly, if that even makes sense. The Eagles are last in the NFL in time of possession and the key to beating the Saints and Drew Brees seems to lean more towards allowing Brees LESS time to have the football and try to score points. So as effective as the Eagles offense can be, they need to be careful about giving Brees and the Saints even an extra possession in the game, which of course goes against the quick-strike philosophy that Chip Kelly favors.

Of course the Eagles' offense is about getting favorable matchups and exploiting those matchups and the Saints offense led by defensive genius Rob Ryan likes to blitz...which is a good way for an offense to find favorable matchups. Throw in the Saints are 19th in the NFL in rushing defense and it seems the Eagles aren't going to have an issue scoring points either. There's also the whole 3-5 record the Saints have on the road this year, which suggests merely playing in Philadelphia is a disadvantage in itself. If it sounds like I'm rambling, I probably am.

The Eagles have lost one game since October (to the Vikings...of course), while the Saints have lost three of their last five games (to Carolina, St. Louis and Seattle...all on the road). The Saints run the ball to break up the monotony of throwing the football around the field and because they want to allow Pierre Thomas to get the football just enough to make innocent bystanders wonder why he doesn't get the football more. I'm probably ignoring the "road effect" that seems to plague the Saints, but they do have a road win against Chicago way back in October. I think the Eagles are going to be successful running the football on the Saints, but I really believe the key to beating the Saints and Drew Brees is to keep him off the field and don't turn the ball over. The Eagles can probably do the second part, but I don't trust a shaky secondary against a quarterback like Brees when he has receivers like Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston. I don't trust the Saints on the road and I don't want the Saints to win the game. Even if the Eagles come out strong and get a 10+ point lead I can still see Drew Brees and the Saints offense having the ability to come back and win the game. I think the one extra possession that Brees gets in this game will end up making the difference.

New Orleans Saints (+2.5) over the Philadelphia Eagles 24-23

San Diego Chargers v. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are my Super Bowl pick from the AFC and the year has played out pretty much how I expected with them. So...this pick is probably going to be obvious knowing that...but do I have them cover the spread or not? Stay tuned (or don't). I don't know if this has gotten enough play in the media, but Mike McCoy and his coaching staff have done a hell of a job in getting Philips Rivers straightened back out. Over the past two years it feels like there was a question of whether the Chargers would possibly move on from Rivers or make him available in a trade if he couldn't fix the problems that plagued him. It turns out taking away his best offensive weapons actually hurt his ability to perform well at the quarterback position. Once you have adjusted to the shock of learning that, also know the Chargers drafted Keenan Allen and then signed Danny Woodhead to help Rivers out on offense and it worked. I can't fathom how giving Rivers Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem with an injured Antonio Gates in any way negatively affected Rivers and on-field performance. Great job by McCoy and his staff in San Diego to see that Rivers didn't just magically forget how to play the quarterback position and take steps to gather talent as opposed to wave goodbye to offensive talent.

I also find it interesting that I am reading a lot of "But Andy Dalton threw four interceptions last week, so are we sure we can trust him in the playoffs?" talk. Dalton has thrown 20 interceptions this year. Him throwing interceptions isn't new. There is a larger sample size than just the last game to suggest Dalton may turn the ball over more than the Bengals would like him to. The Bengals have lost in the Wild Card round of the playoffs over the last two years, mostly because they have played road playoff games against the Texans, so I'll be interested to see how they perform at home against the Chargers. The Bengals have already beaten the Chargers once at home on December 1, by a score of 17-10 (and the line on this game is 7 points...never say Vegas gets over-creative at times).

Ryan Mathews finally became the 1,000 yard rusher that has showed false promises of being over the last few seasons and the Chargers were a respectable 13th in the NFL in rushing yards. Still, they are a better passing team and have the 4th ranked passing offense going against the Bengals 5th ranked passing defense. There are three keys to this game as I see it. The first key being whether the Bengals can get production from another receiver not named "A.J. Green" which won't allow the Chargers to roll coverage over Green's way. Of course Dalton still favors the "Throw the ball in the air and hope Green catches it" play that Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson have perfected, so there's really no way to defend that. The second key is whether the Bengals can get pressure on Philip Rivers to disrupt the Chargers passing game. The Chargers only allowed 30 sacks on the season (fourth-least in the NFL), while the Bengals were 10th in the NFL with 43 sacks and are second only to the Seahawks in holding opposing QB's to a 74.2 QB rating and 5.9 yards per attempt. The Bengals are very good at pressuring the quarterback even when they don't get sacks basically. They gave up 22 touchdown passes and had 20 interceptions this year. If the Bengals can find another receiver and get pressure on Philip Rivers then they are going to win this game. The last key is whether the Chargers can stop the run and run the football in this game. I am on record as saying the Chargers are still a passing team, but they gave up 164 yards on the ground to the Bengals in the first game between these two teams, while only running the ball 24 times compared to 37 pass attempts by Rivers. Both BenJarvus Green-Ellis Masters-Phillips Smith Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy and Gio Benard averaged four yards per carry in the first game and got 34 carries between them. That can't happen again and Mathews needs at least 20+ carries by himself.

I do think the Bengals are going to win this game. I wasn't very impressed with how the Chargers needed an officiating error to beat the Chiefs at home when the Chiefs were playing a bunch of backups last week. Of course, now that I have said that the Chargers will go on a Super Bowl run just to shove my doubts right back in my face. The Bengals have a really good defense that will be disrupt the Chargers passing offense and finally have two running backs who can help take the load off Andy Dalton so he doesn't have to show off how he can win a game where he throws four interceptions. Given Dalton's history, I don't feel comfortable saying the Bengals will cover the spread though.

Cincinnati Bengals over San Diego Chargers (+7.5) 30-24

San Francisco 49ers v. Green Bay Packers 

Well, my other NFC Championship Game participant was the San Francisco 49ers. So it would make sense that I pick them to win this game. The Packers are 6-2 with Aaron Rodgers as their full-time quarterback and 2-4-1 with another quarterback at the helm. So I don't know if I would consider the Packers to be a 8-7-1 team. I feel like they are better than that. Of course, either way the 49ers are a 12-4 team that has to go on the road for a playoff game because apparently coming in second in the division with a 12-4 record isn't "earning" a home playoff game, while winning the division with a 8-7-1 record is "earning" that home playoff game (followed by the Packers struggling to sell the game out). I think it's silly a team with a 12-4 record has to go on the road to play a team with a 8-7-1 record simply because that 12-4 team didn't win their division, but again, those are the rules.

The 49ers are an interesting team to me. They still are a very good defensive squad, while I feel like they are a better passing team than their ranking of 30th in the NFL suggests, especially with Michael Crabtree back. They have lost to the Seahawks, Colts, Saints and Panthers. They have beaten the Packers, Seahawks, and Cardinals twice. Of course, three of those wins came at home. Colin Kaepernick has historically torched the Packers defense and the Packers defense isn't exactly on a hot stretch right now by giving up 20+ points over their last 10 games. Granted, this was impacted by not having Aaron Rodgers, but the Packers actually have a negative point differential on the season. In short, I do not trust the Packers defense right now. I think they are a sieve and can't stop the 49ers running game, which will obviously lead to the 49ers having better options in the passing game. The 49ers are a really good running team and the Packers are 25th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, so you can see the direction Greg Roman will take the 49ers offense on Sunday.

The Packers create sort of a problem for me. I love Aaron Rodgers in a completely friend-like way (don't want to spread any more rumors about Rodgers' sexuality) and his impact, along with Randall Cobb coming back, would normally lead me to choosing the Packers to win a home playoff game. Especially against a team like the 49ers that seems to have struggled on offense at times this year (of course the 49ers have been scoring 20+ points in six of their last seven games). I just can't trust the Packers to stop Colin Kaepernick based on recent history and even if this belief wasn't based on recent history, I have seen enough Packers games to know the defense likes to create turnovers but also tends to give up a lot of points. Kaepernick threw for 400 yards in September when these two teams met, while he ran for 181 yards in the NFC Divisional Round last year. He seems to have the Packers' number.

In the first game this season between these two teams, the Packers did a great job of shutting Frank Gore down, while Eddie Lacy was also kept quiet by the 49ers defense. The Packers committed two turnovers to the 49ers zero turnovers, while Aaron Rodgers threw for 333 yards against the 49ers defense. This seems obvious, and it is, but can the Packers stop Colin Kaepernick? That's the key to the game. When they have stopped the 49ers from running the ball, Kaepernick has passed the football. I know Aaron Rodgers is going to score points for the Packers, but do the Packers have the defensive strength to stop the 49ers from running the football and dominating the line of scrimmage? I want to say they do, but I have believed in the Packers defense too many times before and been burnt. I think Rodgers and the Packers offense can keep the game close, but the 49ers are going to sack Rodgers more than the two times they sacked him in the first game. I think the 49ers are simply the better team, even with the Packers playing at home. It's time to invest some more draft picks in the defense, Ted Thompson.

San Francisco 49ers (-3.0) over Green Bay Packers 24-14

I plan to post with more frequency starting next week since the holidays are over. If you don't want to participate in making wild card weekend picks, feel free to mock my picks in the comments. 


Frank said...

three outta four ain't bad (outright, anyway)

Matthew Cleary said...

Weird weekend with the two pushes. I did enjoy your column and also Simmons column. I agree with Simmons in that during the playoffs to stay away from coaches like Reid and McCarthy. I've made a decent amount of money over the years fading the public especially when they are all on the "Saints can't win on the road" bandwagon.

Bengoodfella said...

Frank, I guess so. I wish I had gotten the fourth one right too. I wanted to go perfect.

I noticed that stat that the Packers are 3-5 since 2001 at home. Very weird. I know that isn't Mike McCarthy's fault, but he's had a mediocre defense for a few years now. Even when the Packers won the Super Bowl, the defense was good in the playoffs but wasn't great during the season if I remember correctly.

The Saints can win on the road. They just can't always beat great teams on the road. I felt like Brees was going to win the game in Philly. Just a gut feeling. Of course the same gut feeling told me the Colts would cover.