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NFL Conference Picks

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Whatever happens on Sunday, at least one thing will be sure: the Super Bowl will be a good game.

Some matchups are obviously more desirable then others, but even the worst matchup (New York v. Minnesota) is still a great game. On paper, anyway. And on all the talk shows that kick into high gear this season.

After all, this is the time of year where not much else happens in football. Nothing usually happens, although this year the Super Bowl has been wisely scheduled to follow the Pro Bowl – no more bye week that means absolutely nothing.

That, I suppose, is the best thing of all to look forward to. Breakdowns and picks after the jump, home team in CAPS. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

January 24, 2010 at 2:59 am

The NFL Playoffs are interesting, if not exciting – NFL Divisional Picks

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These NFL playoffs haven’t really been all that exciting.

I say that fully including the barn burner between the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals last Sunday. That game aside, there wasn’t a single one that really kept me glued to the screen, rapturously paying attention.

But that isn’t to say that these playoffs haven’t been interesting – a key difference.

Every game thus far has been interesting. There’s plots, subplots, storylines  tracing back years. It may not be catchy, but there’s a lot of substance.

Take the Philadelphia/Dallas game. It wasn’t tightly contested, the outcome wasn’t in doubt after the second quarter. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth watching. After all it had:

  1. Michael Vick making some key plays when Donovan McNabb couldn’t – was he boosting his own profile? Sowing seeds to raise his own profile on the Eagles? Or was it a last gasp by a fading star?
  2. Another game where McNabb was pretty good in defeat – if he wasn’t so mobile, doesn’t he get sacked more? Or does his mobility give the Eagles offensive line a false sense of security?
  3. Tony Romo making a convincing case for the “Can’t win in December/playoffs” line being sent to the scrapyard
  4. A dynamic explosion by the Cowboys in the second that was – admit it – fun to watch. Even if the rest of the game wasn’t.

Perhaps it’s just me who likes these little things (I also like guessing what the storylines coming out of the game will be), but it’s foolish to just write the games off. That extends to this week – and I’ve thought up four interesting storylines that I’ll be interested in watching unfold.

Anyway, here’s my picks for the Divisional Round. Home team in CAPS.

NFC

NEW ORLEANS over Arizona

The main thing I really took away from the Cards/Packers game wasn’t anything about either quarterback or either defence. It was that the Cards were lucky, very lucky. They almost got burned on a long pass in OT, they won the game on a blitz where nobody covered Michael Adams on Rodger’s blind side. Luck wasn’t exactly on their side the entire game, but it was there in overtime.

That’s well and all, but it leaves me feeling shaky. They had a hard time defending against Rodger’s passing and choked away a 21-point lead in the second half (at home, no less). They can score and they ran all over Green Bay’s defence – but at the same time, the Packers had the best defence in the NFC (statistically speaking – the Packers were 3rd in points allowed per game, first in rushing, total yards per game).

Still, I can’t shake a feeling that the Cards are sizzle and no steak – they allow a lot of points because they can outscore a lot of teams. I can’t shake how Warner is practically ancient. I can’t shake how well they’re doing sans Anquan Boldin, either. They’re a team that I feel is ready for a drop.

Enter the New Orleans Saints.

You want to talk dynamic offenses? The Saints have scored more, moved the ball more, gotten more first downs then any other team in the playoffs. Sure, they can’t defend, but that almost doesn’t matter against a team like the Cards – this game will come down to who has the ball last; it’s last weekend redux. I like the Saints solely because they’ve been far more explosive this season.

What’s interesting about this match?

  1. It has the makings of a QB duel – two high-powered offenses throwing against teams that don’t defend the pass well. If any game has potential to outdo last week’s Green Bay/Arizona game, this is the one.
  2. The Cards are a streaky team; they tend to score in bunches. If they can’t get it going early, will it be too late?
  3. Will this be Kurt Warner’s final game? Will that be something the team keeps in mind – ie, Steelers winning one for Bettis a few years ago.
  4. The Superdome. How will Saints fans react if the Saints are anything less then stellar? Or, for that matter, how will they react if they are stellar?

Dallas over MINNESOTA

Call it momentum. The Cowboys are on a roll and really looking good. Especially Romo, who has thrown as many touchdowns since the start of December as he’s thrown interceptions all season.

They blew away Philly on the back of a 27-point second quarter. They shut out two of their last three opponents. They’re a team that I just have a feel for; in a tough NFC East they played their way into the playoffs, won the last game of the season to secure a home game and then beat the Eagles again to advance. I have a good feeling about them; they’re not a team that lucked into the second round.

I can’t say I feel the same about the Vikings. I should. but I can’t. I don’t trust their eight and 0 record at home this season. I don’t know if I trust Adrian Peterson. Or Farve.

See, the Dallas is not good against the pass. They’re in the lowest third of the league, with a little over 218 allowed a game. I feel like Farve will have a good game against them: he just  had two 300+ yard games in a row.

But the Cowboys are good against the run, ranking behind Green Bay, Minnesota and Pittsburgh. If they can limit Peterson’s damage, I have a feeling that Farve will throw himself out, so to speak. He’s 40 years old, I don’t think he has another huge game left in him.

What’s interesting about this match?

  1. Adrian Peterson. Dallas can defend against the run, but can they stop the best running back in the playoffs? In an October game against Baltimore – The Ravens rank just behind the Cowboys in rushing defence – Peterson ran for 143 yards on 22 runs. Will that happen again?
  2. Can Dallas keep up the momentum? I’m not the only person who’s been getting a 2007 NY Giants vibe from the Cowboys this year. This game will be their biggest test – if they can beat the Vikings at home, they have to become a favourite to make the Super Bowl.
  3. Was Dallas’ win a fluke? If you discount their 27-point quarter against the Eagles, they only scored seven points and moved 257 yards; Philadelphia was almost as effective, with one touchdown and 238 yards. Is it fair to wonder that if the Cowboys didn’t explode in the second, they might have lost the game?
  4. The ‘Brett Farve’s Final Game’ clause is in full effect here. The last time I remember it being this strong? His overtime loss to the ’07 Giants. Keep that in mind.

AFC

INDIANAPOLIS over Baltimore

I wouldn’t count the Ravens out, really, but this would be a tough game for them to win. They’re on the road, playing a very tough offense… but you already knew that, didn’t you.

As much fun as watching that side of the game – Manning throwing to Wayne against Ed Reed/Ray Lewis – will be, it’s the other side that matters more.

Look at the one game between the Ravens and Colts this season, a 17-15 win by the Colts. The key to take away from that game: how throughly the Colts defence shut down the Ravens. In that game, the Ravens kicked five field goals and missed one more. They were in Baltimore’s red zone five times and couldn’t score a touchdown – even from the one-yard line. Why? The Colts defence came up big when it mattered: with the Colts leading 14-12 in the fourth and the Ravens with a first and goal from the one-yard line, they shut down the Ravens – an incomplete pass and two rushes that went nowhere.

That’s the advantage for the Colts in this game. They’ve shown that they don’t bend under pressure and can stop the Ravens when they need to. The Ravens, on the other hand, haven’t shown they can pound the ball past the Colts.

This even goes to last week, when they won the game on turnovers and with their defence. Yes, that big run right at the start of the game was a shot across the Patriot’s bow, but it was how they limited the Patriots to six yards total and caused three turnovers on the Patriots first four that did New England in.

Back to the Ravens defence for a second. In their last two meetings, they allowed 48 points, 709 yards and six touchdowns to the Colts. Manning has completed almost 70 per cent of his passes against them. He’s shown that he can easily pick apart the Ravens’ secondary when he wants to. For a team that prides itself on a tough defence (ranked third overall in the NFL and eighth against the pass), Manning is something outside of their control. They have shown time and time again that they cannot limit him.

That’s why if the Ravens want to steal this game, they’re going to have to crack the Colts defence. And they’re not going to do that.

What’s interesting about this match?

  1. Will Joe Flacco finally lead the Ravens into the end zone? In both of his games against the Colts, Flacco has never thrown a touchdown against the Colts; the Ravens haven’t scored a touchdown, either.
  2. Will Manning be rusty? He hasn’t played major minutes in a game since December 17th, almost a month ago. Or will the extended rest pay off for Manning and the rest of the Colts offense?
  3. How will Pierre Garcon play? With some of his family involved in the horrific earthquake in Haiti, will he play the game of his life?
  4. How many times will the announcers bring up Marvin Harrison? And how many times will they compare his situation to that of Ray Lewis? (My guess: once, which is one time too many)

SAN DIEGO over NY Jets

I want to call the Jets lucky to be where they are. And while there’s always a little luck in the playoffs, it’s grossly unfair to say that any team lucks into the second round of the playoffs.

The Jets have slugged their way here. They are not a great team, but they’re one of the harder teams to get past: just look at their defence, one of the best in the playoffs. Look at the stats their defence puts up: just under 154 passing yards allowed per game (first in the NFL). About 252 total yards allowed per game (first in the NFL).

Going into a game against a pass-happy team like the San Diego Chargers, one would imagine that they’ve got a nice shot at stealing a win.

But for all the stops the Jets can make (and they make more then a few), look at how many turnovers their defence creates. They’re right near the bottom of the league with 11 forced fumbles. They’re right in the middle of the league with just 17 interceptions. Their defence isn’t quite as intimidating when it can’t create turnovers.

Look at their schedule. The Jets have lost to pedestrian teams all season: there’s a 22-24 loss to Jacksonville in week 10. A 30-25 loss to Miami in week eight. A 7-10 loss to Atlanta in week 15. All of those teams were .500 or other at the time of those losses.

What about their wins? Most of their late-season wins to get to the playoffs have been against weak teams (Buffalo, Carolina, Tampa Bay) or teams that had already clinched a playoff spot (Indianapolis, Cincinnati). They had an easy schedule, with 10 games against teams at .500 or under. They barely made it into the playoffs, thanks to late-season collapses by Denver and Pittsburgh. They only clinched in the last game of the season; it could have just as easily been Houston playing last week.

On the other hand, the Chargers are one of the best teams in football right now. They overcame a slow start, losing three of their first five games, then ripped off 11 straight wins. That streak includes wins over Philadelphia, Dallas, Cincinnati and a 32-3 crushing of Denver that likely spelled the end of the Broncos season.

They are more then a match for the Jets. Phillip Rivers has thrown for more then 4200 yards, for 28 majors and completing more then 65 per cent of his passes. All on a team without a wideout that grabs your attention: Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd are all big parts of their pass attack.

And this is on a team that was seemingly built around LaDainian Tomlinson, one of the best running backs of the decade. Although LDT has statistically taken a step back this season (his yardage and number of carries are continuing a downward trend), he’s still scored 12 majors.

What that all means is that the Chargers are balanced. Better balanced then any other team right now. Balanced like the suspension on (noted Chargers fan) Jimmie Johnson’s #48 Impala. They have more then enough to overcome anything the Jets can try and stop them with.

On the other side, rookie Jets QB Mark Sanchez is playing in what should be a good venue for him. San Diego is warm and sunny, conditions that he’s surely used to playing in (thanks to his USC days). Add that to the Jets very good running game (ranked first overall in the NFL with 172 yards a game and 21 rushing touchdowns) and it’s not like New York will be stranded.

San Diego’s defence is, at best, pedestrian. They can’t defend the run (20th overall with 11 yards per game). Does that mean the Jets will spend the day pounding the ball up the Chargers gut? Or, if they go down early, will they be forced to start making passes and fall right into the Chargers trap?

What’s interesting about this matchup?

  1. How will Rex Ryan use Sanchez? He’s playing in a familiar climate and should be in good position to pass – but the Chargers can guard the pass. Will the Jets be forced to chip away at a lead with a steady running game?
  2. How will Chargers tight end Antonio Gates play? In his las four games, he’s scored a touchdown in each – but is averaging just above 40 yards receiving. If the Jets can shut down Jackson, can Gates become Rivers bailout guy?
  3. This game will answer two nagging questions: one, does LDT still have his fastball, or has the years caught up to him? And second, just how good is the Jets defence, anyway? Granted, the Bengals were shut down, but that win was almost as much on Carson Palmer’s terrible day as it was anything the Jets did.
  4. Can the Jets kill the clock? With a great running game, one would imagine that the Jets gameplan is geared more to keeping the Chargers offence sitting on the sidelines then it is to putting up big numbers. And while that has worked in the past, it can also be disastrous, like when the Colts took apart Miami earlier this season. It will be interesting to see if the Jets can limit the potential damage – and if the Chargers will quickly move around.

Last week: 3 of 4

Overall (playoffs): 3/4

    These NFL WIld Card Weekend Picks are Superbad

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    I had a discussion the other day with a friend on the best movies of the decade. We threw around a lot of titles but didn’t really come to any conclusions: was it No Country for Old Men? Almost Famous? Inglorious Basterds?

    Anyway, a couple nights later, I caught Superbad on Showcase. I hadn’t seen that movie since it came out a few years ago and frankly didn’t want to; I got really tired of people making McLovin jokes.

    But as I watched it, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Two years later, it still felt fresh. It felt fresh the next day when I watched it again. And it felt fresh yesterday when I shelled out five bucks for a used copy.

    Is it the best movie of the decade? Maybe. But without a doubt, it’s the most quotable. And with a nod to Bill Simmons, it inspired me and my buddy Bernard to hand out quotes for my NFL Playoff picks.

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    NFL Wild Card weekend pre-game notes

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    It seems like Bizzaro World, or something, for the first week of the NFL Playoffs. Not only are the Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons playing this week – the Falcons are even favoured! It’s quickly becoming cliché, but this is a rare playoff weekend where all four road teams are favoured.
    Which is exactly how it should be.

    Saturday games

    Atlanta Falcons @ Arizona Cardinals

    Here’s a fun stat: The Cardinals point differencial (the difference between how many points they’ve allowed and how many they’ve scored) is just one. One single point. That’s gotta be some kind of record low for a team in the playoffs, let alone one with a home game. Still, they’re a team that can put up a ton of numbers.

    And the Falcons will be a test. They’re a young team that’s never played a playoff game – and by simply making the playoffs, one could argue their season is already a success. Will they have the drive to win? Perhaps, but it’ll be close, so I’m taking the experience – I like the Cardinals in a shootout.


    Indianapolis Colts @ San Diego Chargers

    On the heels of a crushing win over the Broncos, the Chargers look to be on an offensive roll – they’ve won their last four games. For the first time this season they look on the field like they do on paper. But a closer look reveals a weak defence that’s especially porous against the throw.

    And if the Chargers are hot right now, the Colts are on fire; they’re the winners of their last nine games. I like Manning to have a big day against the Chargers’ defence while the Colts win big, by much more then the -2.5 points Vegas is giving them.

    Sunday games

    Baltimore Ravens @ Miami Dolphins

    Much like the Falcons, one could argue the Dolphins season is already a success; on the heels of their famed “Wildcat” offence, they’ve turned from a one-win team to winners of the AFC East, even beating the Patriots twice.
    But for all of their offensive prowess lies a pretty average – tepid, even – defence. They’ve allowed a ton of yards against the pass, which is what will cost them here.

    In fact, the only major question in my mind here is by how much: in their lone meeting with the Ravens, they were crushed 27-13, with Joe Flacco throwing 17 for 23 in the process. And since the Ravens have only improved since then, I think he’ll have a similar day, winning easily. Take the points on this, a line of just -2.5 for the Ravens just seems too small here.

    Philadelphia Eagles @ Minnesota Vikings

    Despite only making the playoffs by the barest of margins – they had to beat Dallas and need both Tampa Bay and Chicago to lose – the Eagles are a solid team and one that can easily sneak to the NFC Championship game. Why? They’ve got the best defence in the conference – and maybe in the league.

    Yes, that’s right. Better then the Vikings defence. Better then the Giants. And maybe even better then Pittsburgh’s – they allowed only a few more points in a much better conference. I’d expect them to be able to handle Minnesota, which didn’t look all that good last week, when they played for a playoff spot.

    Quick recap:
    Cards, Colts, Ravens and Eagles.

    Quoth the Ravens? – Weekly NFL Notebook

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    Forgive the cliche, but these Baltimore Ravens, they’re a weird team and they’ve got me all muddled up. First time all season I’ve seen them play and they disappoint, albeit against one of the best teams in the NFC, the Giants.

    The phoneme rookie Joe Flacco, who was perfect for a stretch these past few weeks, came fast and sudden back to Earth, throwing two picks (one returned for a touchdown) while the vaunted Raven defence looked old and decrepit against the continual running attack of the Giants.

    Take that 77 yard rush by Ahmad Bradshaw against at the start of the fourth: Lewis over-attacked his man and was woefully out of position. Bradshaw got a nice block and boom, hit a seam (or daylight, or whatever cliche you like most) and it was damn close to a touchdown.

    So what happened to the Ravens defence? Up until that game, they were good against the run… but they couldn’t make stops. The Giants line was carving into them, opening holes for both Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Their linebacking corps was thusly overworked – sometimes it looked as if they didn’t know what to do. They bit early and found themselves attacking the line earlier.

    Which helped him had a solid passing day (13 of 23, for 153 yards, one TD and one INT), but remember – it was the rushing that decided this game. It gave the Giants an early lead, helped them keep the Ravens off the field and was the major reason they won.

    Where do they go from here? Down, way down. They’re six and four, but a bad six and four. They’ve already gotten to beat up on helpless teams like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Oakland and Houston. To my eyes, their only solid win was over Miami, back in October. One gets the idea that maybe they’ve already peaked as a team.

    We’ll soon find out if they’re wheat of chaff, for here comes the hard part of their schedule: Philly, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Jacksonville. Four teams they’ll be hard pressed to beat. It’s likely they’ll still finish second in the North, but it’s unlikely they’ll make the playoffs.

    *****

    Once again, Houston and Indianapolis had a wild shootout affair. And just like last time, it ended with a Houston miscue.

    For reasons what I don’t quite grasp, bottom-of-the-barrel Houston always comes out swinging against the Colts. In a game where defence meant almost nothing for the majority of the game, both teams racked up yardage and points: Houston had over 350 total yards and Indianapolis had 474 yards, with Payton Manning throwing for 320 of them.

    Think about that: 320 passing yards. That’s more then Oakland, Chicago or Cincinnati managed all day. That’s a monster day, yet he only had two majors. One might think that he would have had more scores… but one would be wrong. You don’t get that many yards without a strong running game, one that makes the linebackers cheat up and plug holes. And Joesph Addai’s line for today (105 yards, one TD) reflects this.

    Houston, on the other hand, had a more balanced game: 177 on the ground, 179 in the air. And although Rosenfels had a quiet day, he played well – except for his last drive. He completed 70% of his passes and helped engineer a good game for the Texans: they were outplayed on the other side of the ball by a wide, wide margin (nearly a ten minute difference in time of possession, for example) yet they were in the game right until the end.

    But the end was the same as last time, although not quite as heartbreaking for Texan fans. Rosenfels was picked off, for the first time in the game, with just 38 seconds on the clock. But other then that, it was a good drive – quick outlet passes, moving the chains, not eating a lot of time of the clock.

    All in all, it was fun game to watch. I like the Texans; they’re a lot better then they get credit for. At least sometimes, anyway. In a year or two they could be a team to watch. And the Colts look like they’re back. Forget the Titans being undefeated, the Colts have a good shot at the division in my books.

    *****

    A tough, physical game in Pittsburgh came to an odd close, with the league’s first 10-11 score. Pittsburgh looked good throughout, and the final score doesn’t reflect how well they did actually play.

    It’s odd. With a low score, it’s easy to think this was a defensive battle. But it really wasn’t. It was a slogging kind of game, one where both teams went on long marches.

    Ben Roethlisberger looked great for the first half, at one point throwing for something like 10 of 11. He finished the game with 31 completions and 308 yards.

    But yet, their passing game was lacking: he didn’t throw for a major and was under constant pressure: he was sacked four times. The majority of his completions went to (no surprise) Hines Ward, who finished with 11 catches and 124 yards.

    One might think that when the Steelers dominated so much that they’d have won easily. But it was a weird game: Pittsburgh was able to move around the field with ease, but didn’t get into the end zone all game, unless you count an early safety.

    No, it was San Deigo, who despite having half the yards the Steelers did, a six minute difference in time of possession and a lousy game from Phillip Rivers (15 of 26, 159 yards and two INT) led for most of the game and led late.

    It was all about LT on this snowy, ugly day in Pittsburgh. He scored the lone touchdown of the day, a three yard score up the middle, and it was the most important score of the day. LT spent a good chuck of the match pounding the ball up the middle, never for much, getting chunks of turf stuck to his helmet.

    This was latest in a string of odd games for the Chargers, who seem to be getting more then their share of bad breaks this season. That missed call against Denver; a heartbreaking comeback by Carolina in week one; that surprising Miami upset, when the Dolphins broke out everything in the playbook.

    The Chargers are now four and six, second in the AFC West. That’s two wins behind both Denver and anybody likely to win the wild card. But don’t count them out: they’ve only lost one game at home thus far – and four of their next six are at home. They can still bounce back.

    *****

    Other Notes: After jumping to the Cincinnati/Philadelphia game, Fox cut away again from an overtime game. When will the NFL realize that cutting to a close game, then cutting away as per some anarchic rules, doesn’t serve make any sense? What’s the point of going to going to it, getting the viewer invested in it, then leaving them hanging? I suppose there’s the bonus aspect of it – but wouldn’t going to an extended postgame show serve the viewer just as well? … The Seahawks didn’t play well, but they certainly took advantage of their chances: they scored three touchdowns on drives of less then 20 yards … Somebody on the Raiders has to, absolutely has to show Jamarcus Russell how to manage a game. The Raiders last drive, where Russell hung around and watched time tick away was maybe the worst clock management I’ve seen this year. If the Raiders want him to pan out, they should really look to finding him a mentor, since he doesn’t seem to be learning on the job… Can the Titans go undefeated? Who knows – their rushing game is looking atrophied, but their passing game is dynamic. Just when one thinks they’ve got them figured out (a clock controlling team that outsmarts you), they shift gears and become some other beast entirely. If I had to bet, though, they’ll lose two of their last three, when they let Collins rest up for the playoffs.