A fantastic weekend of football coming up in the NFL. Four matchups and not a single clunker. We have games from the two biggest rivalries in the AFC, the two best teams in the NFC, and the luckiest team in the league versus America’s adopted underdog. Here are my picks:
Baltimore (13-4) at Pittsburgh (12-4, -3)
This game is pretty simple: one team is going to win by a field goal. Here are the results of the seven Ravens/Steelers games since Joe Flacco entered the league in 2008 (away team first):
12/5/10 – Pittsburgh 13, Baltimore 10
10/3/10 – Baltimore 17, Pittsburgh 14
12/27/09 – Baltimore 20, Pittsburgh 23
11/29/09 – Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 20 (OT)
1/18/09 – Baltimore 14, Pittsburgh 23 (playoffs)
12/14/08 – Pittsburgh 13, Baltimore 9
9/29/08 – Baltimore 20, Pittsburgh 23 (OT)
Five of those seven games were decided by a field goal. And even that’s deceptive. Pittsburgh won by 9 in the 2009 playoffs only after Flacco threw a late TAINT and won by 4 in the 2008 regular season on Ben Roethlisberger’s TD pass with 43 seconds left.
So basically we just have to figure out which team is going to win by three.* Let’s roll through some considerations.
* This could be the first game ever where I’d actually think about taking “push” if someone offered it.
At first I thought that Baltimore might be better than Pittsburgh this year based on their head-to-head matchups. They both finished 12-4 and the Ravens had the season series in the bag in the closing minutes in Pittsburgh in Week 13. The Ravens had the ball facing second and five on their own 43, up 10-6 with 3:20 left. Inexplicably, Joe Flacco drops back to pass.* Troy Polamalu comes around the outside, strips the ball and LaMarr Woodley returns it to the 9-yard line. The Steelers punch it in and steal the division from the Ravens just like that.
* I like going for the win in this situation as much as anybody. But, come on, if you’ve held the opposing team to six points in the first 57 minutes of the game, you absolutely have to run the ball, punt if necessary, and take your chances that they can’t drive for a touchdown in the last two minutes.
But then I looked back to the Week 4 game. Flacco needed to drive the ball forty yards in the last 55 seconds for a last-minute touchdown to give the Ravens a 17-14 win in Pittsburgh. Charlie Batch was at quarterback for the Steelers. Yeah, I’d call the season series a wash.
Then I thought about giving the edge to the Steelers based on the home field advantage. Road teams are 3-4 in this series since 2008 and won both games this season. Another wash.
My favorite tiebreaker in these tight games is which quarterback I trust more. Roethlisberger’s playoff record: 8-2, 2 Super Bowls, 1-0 vs. Ravens. Flacco: 3-2, 0-1 vs. Steelers. Huge advantage for the Steelers. If you’re going to go down with someone, you’d rather it be with Roethlisberger than Flacco. And yes, that was a subtle Big Ben joke.
To top it off, 62% of the public is on the Ravens this weekend – the highest of any team. Enough said. Steelers win 20-17.
Seattle (8-9) at Chicago (11-5, -10)
How quickly things change: just a week ago, fans considered Seattle a joke and I actually picked against them getting 10.5 points at home. A few poor decisions from Sean Payton and one highlight reel Marshawn Lynch touchdown run later, and suddenly the Seahawks are America’s darling and a trendy pick to upset the Bears this weekend.
It’s not difficult to see why. The Seahawks put everything together and looked incredible last weekend against the defending champion Saints. Matt Hasselbeck had the game of his life, throwing for 272 yards and four touchdowns. That was the first time he threw more than two touchdowns in ten career playoff games and only the sixth time he’s thrown four touchdowns in a game since his career began in the late 1970s. And his best receiver was Brandon Stokley. I didn’t know Stokley was still alive. I can only assume is immortal, so that’s another huge advantage for Seattle. Then there’s the 23-20 Seahawk upset victory over the Bears on the road back in Week 6.
Meanwhile, the Bears have Jay Cutler, who holds the record for most times making an entire fan base say “are you shitting me?” in unison. In his defense, he has decreased his interception total from 26 last season to 16 this season. He has compensated for that by increasing his sack total from 35 last year to 52 this year, capped by an insane nine first half sacks against the Giants. Cutler has never won a bowl or a playoff game before. The last time he played in a playoff game of any kind? The 2000 Class 3A Indiana High School State Championship. Again, in his defense, his team won that game…but I think the Bears should pack some extra pants just in case.
This game will come down to which Seahawk team shows up for the game. If it’s the team that struggled to finish 7-9 this season, the Bears win easily. If it’s the team from last week’s Saints game, the Seahawks could actually pull off a second straight huge upset.
Again, I’ll point out the same statistic from last week – the Seahawks either win (8 times) or lose by more than 15 (9 times). Last week, I didn’t think the Seahawks could win outright, so I picked the Saints. This week, I do think the Seahawks can win outright. They’ve already done it once this season and are playing better football now. Naturally, I’ll end up way off, but for now Seattle is the pick. Seahawks win 31-21.
New York Jets (12-5) at New England (14-2, -8.5)
The Jets spent the week trash-talking the Patriots. Antonio Cromartie called Tom Brady an asshole and Rex Ryan called the rivalry personal. Brady shrugged it off, saying that he’s been called worse. Then wide receiver Wes Welker did this at a press conference, presumably as the entire team cracked up behind the curtain:
Call me crazy, but I think the Patriots might come out a tad bit looser than the Jets. The Patriots are already a better team than the Jets – they beat them 45-3 on this same field just a few weeks ago. Trash-talking yourself into a corner might not have been the best approach to this game, although it is certainly the most amusing.
I just can’t see any way the Jets win this game. Of course the last time I said that, I picked the Saints to dominate the Seahawks. If you’ve learned anything so far, you should immediately go put your money on the Jets. The Patriots win 41-14.
Green Bay (11-6) at Atlanta (12-4, -2.5)
If I couldn’t provide any objective analysis last week, I definitely can’t this week. Am I terrified that #1 seed Atlanta isn’t even favored by the standard 3 points at home? Am I even more terrified that the majority of the public is on the Packers? Am I most terrified that the Packers have become a trendy Super Bowl pick? Yes, yes, and yes. The Packers still win 24-21.