Wild Card Weekend Picks
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Best game: Eagles and Cowboys. Worst game: Whatever Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are calling. Lets get right to the picks.
NY Jets at Cincinnati
After a Week 15 loss to the Falcons, the Jets needed a minor miracle to make the postseason. After *finding a way* to beat the 14-0 Colts the next week , they not only were likely to make postseason, but needed only to win their final game to get the 5th seed. The Jets nearly lost everything by virtue of being swept by Miami: any scenario in which Miami had even tied the Jets in record would have eliminated New York from postseason contention.
The Bengals have been in for awhile now. The story of this season was that, in perhaps the NFL’s toughest division, the Bengals beat everyone to go 6-0. Of course, they benefitted from playing every division opponent on their schedule prior to December, at which point, they have gone back to playing Bengals football.
One of the reasons that this match-up is interesting is that both teams approach the game uniquely, but largely the same. Both teams use a lot of 6 OL sets, and have strong offensive lines. Cincinnati’s Kyle Cook and New York’s Nick Mangold might be the two best centers in the game today. The Bengals are finding out about Lavarneus Coles what the Jets knew last season. It’s hard to quantify what they are missing with T.J. Houshmandzadeh in Seattle, but I’d imagine it’s quite a bit. The Bengals passing game is hardly the terror it once was, in fact, it’s probably one of the ten weakest passing games in the league.
It’s got nothing on the Jets non-existant passing game, though. The Jets are the kind of team that if they throw 20 times in a game, they’re in trouble.
For Cincinnati, they really couldn’t ask for a better match-up to win their first playoff game since 1990. The Jets are the NFL’s best defense, but they are a team that can be beaten through methodical football focused on a rushing attack. It’s easy to predict how this game will be won, since both teams play the same game, but it’s hard to predict who will win it. I’m flipping my pick from most of this week and taking the Bengals. I think the Jets are the better team, but the Bengals got a big advantage by getting to see all of Rex Ryan’s exotic blitzes last week. At home, I think they’ll play well enough to make Mark Sanchez a factor, in which case, it may not be all that close.
Philadelphia at Dallas
If history was to dictate this game, the Cowboys don’t have a fighting chance. Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid have never failed to win at least one postseason game in any year they have made it to the playoffs. Neither Wade Phillips nor Tony Romo have ever won a playoff game. Cowboys…drought…1996…etc.
More recent history suggests the Cowboys do have a chance, because they swept the Eagles to win the division this year. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this game is the fact that both of these teams are talented enough to go all the way and win the super bowl THIS season, but obviously, the loser of this game will be done before they can get started. The Eagles are in a bit of a bind, because even if they can draw up a plan to defeat the Cowboys, they just have the Saints next week in the Superdome, a bad match-up for the pass-happy Eagles. First things first though, they need to find a way to beat Dallas.
The key to the whole game is the Dallas defense. If it shows up at it’s strongest, like it has played most of the second half of the season, the Cowboys are a very legit threat to beat the Eagles and go all the way to New Orleans for a rematch. The problem comes if they fail to get pressure on McNabb in the first half of the game, and he starts to hit those long plays downfield, the Cowboys simply won’t be able to sustain against the Philadelphia defense. This should be a better game than either of the two regular season match-ups, but I’d be foolish to put any faith in the Cowboys here. The Eagles will win.
Baltimore at New England
I don’t think Wes Welker’s injury is going to limit the Pats very much. For one thing, he had become a limiting factor of sorts on the Pats offense: so good at what he does that the team loses balance and just becomes a series of Welker option routes. Even when Brady successfully got the ball to Moss this year, it seemed forced. In fact, some of Brady’s best throws to Moss were not even dictated by the coverage at all. With Welker out, and Julian Edelman playing his role in the offense, it would be easy to think of the Patriots as a one dimensional team, but this gives them an opportunity to re-commit the running game and let Brady get back to doing what he does well.
I think if the Pats can overcome the Ravens in this one, they would have to be considered one of the most dangerous teams in the field. The problem, particularly with the Welker injury, is that the Ravens are a very underrated football team that has a great chance to strike while the Patriots are trying to identify a go-to play or two that they can win with in the playoffs. When the Patriots were winning all their titles back at the beginning of this decade, they were doing so with barely functional receivers, sort of like the group that the Ravens have now. Derrick Mason is your Troy Brown equivalent. Mark Clayton is David Givens. Kelly Washington is, Deion Branch? Anyway, the Ravens have a passing game again now that Todd Heap has resurfaced as a receiver after 4 years of blocking hibernation. Having two NFL quality offensive tackles will do that for you.
Ray Rice is the reason that the Patriots will not overcome the Ravens, dangerous as they are can be. The explosive second year back is a primetime performer. Though this game will be played in the middle of the day, Rice and backfield mate Willis McGahee are playing as well as any tandem of backs in the NFL right now, and not just on running plays. The duo is great on passing plays as well. The Patriots defense figures to be helpless to slow down these two plus Heap, and while I can’t tell you what to expect from the Pats offense, I’m probably more confident that the Ravens will win this one than with any other pick this week.
Green Bay at Arizona
For the year, Green Bay has long been the best of these two teams, and there’s really no doubt that they should have a slight edge going into this match-up. But the Cardinals have been here before. And while there’s no Jake Delhomme in the second round to help propel this team towards the super bowl, Green Bay is an opponent that definately favors the Cardinals.
For one thing, Arizona is an even better coached team than they were a year ago. Ken Whisenhunt is a constant, one of the best coaches in the NFL, but both of his coordinators are better preparers than Clancy Pendergast and Todd Haley were a year ago. Adrian Wilson is a superstar once again in this defense. Darnell Dockett is probably the best, or second best, 5-technique in the NFL now that Richard Seymour plays in a 4-3 front. And this season could be the final opportunity for Kurt Warner to present to the world his case for being a hall-of-famer.
The Packers are excellent at designing pressures to get hits on Warner, but this is a Cardinals team that can choose to punish them with the run, or beat them with the passing game. It looks like Anquan Boldin will miss this one, but Steve Breaston is more of a mismatch for the Packers to deal with anyway.
I expect Aaron Rodgers to be marginalized in this game by a strong Arizona pass rush, and soft, yet complex zone coverage schemes that take away the Packers’ ability to use their speed to strike quickly. Ryan Grant has a good chance to be successful on the ground, but I don’t believe Green Bay will stick with the run long enough for it to matter. For the Packers to win, they’ll have to find a way to generate points with their defense. It can happen, but until it does, I like the Cardinals.