NFL Divisional Weekend Picks

January 14, 2011

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.

NFL Wild Card Weekend Picks

January 8, 2011

Here are my picks for the NFL divisional round:

New Orleans Saints (11-5, -10.5) at Seattle Seahawks (7-9)

If the BBVA Compass Bowl is the appetizer before the meal that is the NFL wild card round, this game is at best the salad before the good stuff is served. Joe Posnanski had a good piece the other day about just how bad these Seahawks are. It’s pretty much a given that they are the worst playoff team ever. They are the first losing team ever to make the playoffs and before this season only seven .500 teams had ever qualified for the postseason. But Posnanski points out that it goes deeper than that: not only are the Seahawks a 7-9 team, they are a really bad 7-9 team. In the last five years, 16 teams have finished 7-9; the Seahawks have a worse point differential than all but three of those teams. They are just a bad team.

Meanwhile, the Saints might just be the best team in the NFC right now. Aside from their meaningless last game, they won seven of eight to close the season, losing only at Baltimore.* They did lose their top two running backs (Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas) to injuries for this game, but it’s not like Julius Jones and Reggie Bush are terrible. The Seahawks are 21st in the league against the run…and that’s after playing six games against NFC West teams (19th, 25th, and 32nd in rushing offense). I think the Saints will be alright if they want to run and, even if they somehow can’t, they have the third best passing offense in the league to fall back on.

* I get when teams rest their starters for the last game of the season if it doesn’t matter. It’s not a big deal that the Saints played Chase Daniel in the fourth quarter of last week’s game that was meaningless to them but a must-win for the Bucs. But the Saints were down 23-13 with two minutes left facing a fourth and one from their own 49. They PUNTED. Now that’s just nuts. It’s one thing to try to win with your backups in. It’s a completely different thing to just stop trying to win completely. I’m hesitant to say you should punish them for this type of behavior, but Sean Payton and Raheem Morris are good friends…isn’t that borderline collusion?

The other common theme I keep hearing is that Seattle has a great home field advantage. That’s certainly true – the crowd was a huge factor in throwing Sam Bradford off his game in the win over St. Louis to qualify for the playoffs. But they also finished only 4-4 at home with only one victory over a winning team (27-20 over 9-7 San Diego). Home field advantage will help, but it won’t help that much.

Finally, there’s this: in their nine losses, the Seahawks have lost by at least 15 points every game (coincidentally, their closest loss was 34-19 at New Orleans). That means that if you want to pick Seattle to cover the spread, you better think they can win the game. I don’t. New Orleans wins 35-14.

New York Jets (11-5) at Indianapolis Colts (10-6, -2.5)

In his column this week, Bill Simmons helpfully points out that the Jets have been building towards this game since they lost in the AFC Championship Game. If they lose, it will be a huge disappointment. The Jets are certainly a better team this year and the Colts are surprisingly just not very good.

Indy has only played five games against teams that finished with a winning record and could only manage a 2-3 record. Manning leads the #1 passing offense in the league, but beyond that this is a very mediocre team – they can’t run the ball (29th in the league) and their defense is below average (20th in total defense). Though they won their last four games to grab the #3 seed, let’s not forget that this was a team facing elimination all the way back in Week 15 – a loss to the Jaguars would have kept Peyton Manning and company out of the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

The Jets finished with an 11-5 record, improving from last season’s 9-7 finish. Plus they’re just a fun team to watch. In a normal year, they would have been the team with the most drama in the league: sexually harassing a reporter, dong shots, masseuses suing former quarterbacks, foot fetish videos, and coaches tripping opposing team’s players. Unfortunately, this isn’t a normal year and the Jets finished a distant second to the Vikings in the drama department.

The Jets’ have one of the best defenses in the league and most think that the key matchup will be Manning versus the Jets defense. I disagree – I think the key matchup is the Jets vs. the Jets. The Jets have one of the more bipolar teams in the league. Their last five games were: a 45-3 loss to the Patriots, a 10-6 loss to the Dolphins, a 22-17 victory over the Steelers, a 38-34 loss to the Bears, and a 38-7 victory over the Bills. Good luck trying to figure that one out. There’s not even a common theme going through those games. They beat good teams (Steelers) and lose to good teams (Patriots and Bears). They beat bad teams (Bills) and lose to bad teams (Dolphins). Their offense plays well (Bears and Bills) and plays terribly (Patriots and Dolphins). Their defense plays well (Dolphins, Bills, and Steelers) and plays terribly (Patriots and Bears).

All this means is that one of two things will happen in this game. First, the more talented Jets team comes out playing well and asserts their will on the Colts. Manning can only do so much with the Colts’ subpar receiving core against the swarming Jets D. LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene have great days against the weak Colts D and Sanchez does just enough to keep them guessing. The Jets cruise to a fairly easy victory.

The other option is that the awful Jets team that got destroyed by the Patriots and lost to the Dolphins at home shows up. The Jets’ offense looks shaky and Manning picks apart the defense as easily as Tom Brady and Jay Cutler did. The Jets are still the more talented team, so the game is tight, but the fourth quarter turns into Peyton Manning at home in the playoffs versus Mark Sanchez on the road in the playoffs. I’m not Rex Ryan, but I’m guessing he’s not a fan of that matchup.

I think it’s a coin flip between these two scenarios. But if I’m a Jets player (or fan), I’m terrified of Peyton Manning taking over in the second scenario…and I come out tight and make that scenario a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Colts pull out the victory 28-24.

Baltimore Ravens (12-4, -3) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)

Tough game for the Chiefs last Sunday. With a win against the Raiders, the Chiefs would have locked up the #3 seed and playoff games against the Jets and Steelers in the first two rounds. They didn’t just lose. They were destroyed 31-10. Offhand, I can’t remember a team so triumphantly blowing a game in the last week of the season with playoff implications on the line. Now the Chiefs get the Ravens and potentially the Patriots in the second round.

Kansas City benefited from a ridiculously week schedule – they played a grand total of two teams with winning records (finishing 1-2 with one win against San Diego and losses to San Diego in the rematch and Indianapolis). They haven’t made the playoffs since the 2005 season. Meanwhile, Baltimore is filled with veterans that have been there, done that. They finished 12-4 with a much tougher schedule, playing seven games against teams with winning records and finishing a respectable 4-3 in those games.

And you know what? I’m still picking the Chiefs to upset the Ravens. This game has too many red flags for me. First, the Ravens are only a 3-point favorite. Given the facts of the previous paragraph, that is stunningly low. Second, on a related note, everyone is on the Ravens for the victory. Every year at least one wild card game seems too easy to pick. This is the game this year.

Finally we have the biggest reason I’m picking the Chiefs: Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs have some of the best fans in football – I guarantee that there are already at least 20,000 fans out tailgating 24 hours before the game. They will be LOUD. Joe Flacco has been very shaky at times this year and that crowd will get to him. I expect the Chiefs to come out a bit nervous, but the crowd will rattle Flacco and keep the Chiefs in the game long enough for them to calm down. Kansas City eventually pulls the upset, 20-17.

Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6, -3)

Come on, you can’t expect me to make an objective analysis of this game. I’m a homer. The Packers win 28-24.