Thursday, January 7, 2010

NFL Playoff Predictions

1 – Indianapolis Colts
2 – San Diego Chargers
3 – New England Patriots
4 – Cincinnati Bengals
5 – New York Jets
6 – Baltimore Ravens

1 – New Orleans Saints
2 – Minnesota Vikings
3 – Dallas Cowboys
4 – Arizona Cardinals
5 – Green Bay Packers
6 – Philadelphia Eagles

We kick off the first round of the playoffs with an unprecedented 3 rematches from the previous week’s slate of action. Each of those contests was a one-sided affair, with the road team winning two of them. In addition, the Patriots and Ravens hooked up in week 4, so everyone should be somewhat familiar with their opponent. Below are my breakdowns for each of this week’s contests.

Wild Card Round

Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots (Sunday at 1:00 on CBS)

Offense: 9th in points (24.4), 5th rushing (137.5), and 18th passing (213.7)
Defense: 3rd in points (16.3), 5th rushing (93.2), and 8th passing (207.2)

Offense: 6th in points (26.7), 12th rushing (120.1), and 3rd passing (277.2)
Defense: 5th in points (17.8), 13th rushing (110.5), and 12 passing (209.7)

That week 4 matchup took place in New England as well, and the Patriots emerged victorious 27-21 in a game that the Ravens had a chance to win late. Can they pull off the upset against a team they’ve never beaten? Despite finishing the season winning 3 of their last 4 contests, the Patriots aren’t entering the playoffs with much swagger. Those three wins came against the Panthers in Matt Moore’s second start, the hapless Bills, and the floundering Jaguars. Can they turn it on and make a serious run at another title?

A beleaguered Ravens secondary got a bit of a reprieve when Wes Welker went down last week with his knee injury. Without the best possession receiver in the game, Julian Edelman will be pushed into action where he’ll attempt to keep defenses honest and not overload to Randy Moss’ side of the field. The Ravens will also get the Patriots four-headed rushing attack made up of Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, and Kevin Faulk, but stopping the run has never been their problem. Maroney’s recent fumbling issue may give Morris and Taylor more early opportunities.

Ray Rice ran for 103 yards on 11 carries and caught 5 passes for 49 yards the last time these teams met. Expect the second year back to garner quite a bit of attention from the Patriots’ defense this week, as the plan lately has been to shut down Rice and force Joe Flacco to beat your downfield. It’s worked more often than not, as Flacco’s play was erratic down the stretch. Derrick Mason is still a weapon on the outside, but he’s the only one the Ravens have, and they’re in a lot of trouble if they can’t get Rice going early.

The Ravens were 3-0 when these teams met in week 4, and three weeks later they were 3-3. In fact, the Ravens are 1-6 this year vs. teams in the playoffs. Their lone victory came against the Chargers in the second week of the season. I see Tom Brady stepping up and Bill Belichick making the right defensive calls in this matchup, allowing the Patriots to go to 6-0 all time against the Ravens. Late in the year, both Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger were able to march their offenses consistently down the field against Baltimore. I look for more of the same this week with Tom Brady as the Patriots win easier than the score dictates.

Patriots advance: 27-17

New York Jets @ Cincinnati Bengals (Saturday at 4:30 on NBC)

Offense: 17th in points (21.8), 1st rushing (172.2), and 31st passing (148.8)
Defense: 1st in points (14.8), 8th rushing (98.6), and 1st passing (153.7)

Offense: 22nd in points (19.1), 9th rushing (128.5), and 26th passing (180.6)
Defense: 6th in points (18.2), 7th rushing (98.3), and 6th passing (203.1)

These teams met last week in the league’s final regular season contest. Calling it a contest might not do justice to the word, as the Jets literally ran all over the Bengals, grinding out 257 yards on their way to a 37-0 victory. Winning QB Mark Sanchez threw only 16 passes and managed a meager 63 yards in the win, but I’m guessing the defense forces him to make a couple plays this time.

The Jets offense features about as big a disparity in offensive production as you can get. The rookie Sanchez hasn’t been asked to win many games as the Jets continue to ride the legs of Thomas Jones and the offensive line. Shonn Green saw his role expand down the stretch, and there’s nothing more that Rex Ryan would love to do than run the ball another 57 times this week. If they can do that, this one won’t be close either.

After being inactive for last week’s finale, Cedric Benson will be asked to shoulder his team’s offensive load. Will he be nearly as successful as his Jet counterpart? Not if Carson Palmer looks like the less experienced passer of the two again this week. What happened to that guy? He did have the one impressive outing at the Chargers in week 15 where he threw for 314 yards and two scores, but Palmer failed to pass for 150 yards in 4 of his last 6 contests. Included in that run of mediocrity was his horrid performance last week where he was 1 of 11 for 0 yards in New York.

I have a hard time seeing the Bengals mounting much of an attack against the surging Jets. Benson has had quite a year, but he’s going to be running head first into a blitzing defense that will stack the box to stop him. Darrelle “the Island” Revis will shut down a hobbled Chad Ochocinco, and Carson Palmer will be forced to try and make plays against rest of the league’s #1 passing defense. I don’t foresee another 37-0 throttling, but despite this game being in Cincinnati, I think the Bengals come up losers again. The Jets will want to put this one out of reach early and take the crowd out of play. If not, a rowdy stadium might rattle Sanchez enough for the Bengals to hang in there. I think it’s close for a half, but New York pulls away late. The Bengals peaked too soon this year.
Jets move on: 23-7

Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys (Saturday at 8:00 on NBC)

Offense: 5th in points (26.8), 22nd rushing (102.3), and 10th passing (255.6)
Defense: 19th in points (21.1), 9th rushing (104.7), and 17th passing (216.4)

Offense: 14th in points (22.6), 7th rushing (131.4), and 6th passing (267.9)
Defense: 2nd in points (15.6), 4th rushing (90.5), and 20th passing (225.4)

Onto the NFC where the Eagles and Cowboys will hook up for the third time this season. Just a few weeks ago, the Eagles looked like the team heading into the playoffs with momentum, but this week they’ll return to the scene of week 17’s 24-0 beatdown looking to avoid going 0-3 vs. the Cowboys this year. In that 24-0 pasting, the Eagles managed only 10 first downs (1 rushing) to Dallas’ 21 and had the bell less than half as long as the Cowboys. Dallas also doubled Philly’s offensive output, 474 yards to 228.

While Carson Palmer may be the playoff’s coldest passer, Tony Romo is one of the hottest. The Dallas QB threw for over 300 yards in 4 of his last 6 matchups, including games against Oakland, the Giants, New Orleans, and these Eagles. He’s also cutting down on the mistakes, throwing only 2 INTs over that 6 game stretch. Romo threw for a combined 618 yards in his two games against Philly this year, including 311 in their most recent encounter. Philadelphia hasn’t had an answer for Jason Witten this season, allowing the always open TE to rack up a combined 13 catches, 119 yards, and 1 TD against them this year. Miles Austin was held fairly quiet in the first matchup, a 49 yard score being his only reception, but he caught 7 for 90 this past Sunday. Philly can allow big days to Witten OR Austin and have a chance at a win, but you’re not going to move on when both those guys go off. I haven’t even mentioned the Dallas running game that had two rushers gain 90 yards this past week. Look for Marion Barber and Felix Jones to get nearly an even split in touches and find success once again.

The Dallas defense sacked McNabb 4 times this past week and did so 3 times in their first matchup. A banged up offensive line missing starting center Jamaal Jackson (who was lost for the year after sustaining knee injury against the Broncos) will need to give McNabb more time to pass if they want to have a shot at getting the W. They can’t put up another 4.8 yards per pass play and advance to the second round. The Eagles aren’t a huge running team to begin with, but Brian Westbrook looks sluggish since returning from his latest concussion. They’re not going to win this one on the ground, so McNabb will need to sustain drives with his arm. One player he can count on is TE Brent Celek who caught 7 passes for 96 yards against the Cowboys in the finale. Celek scored in their week 9 matchup and has been McNabb’s most consistent target all year long. For the Eagles to have a chance, either DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin will need to get the better of Terrance Newman or Mike Jenkins and give McNabb a vertical threat to keep the Cowboys honest.

It’s hard to beat a team 3 times in one season, and while I think this contest will be closer, I still have Dallas coming out on top. They’re just too hot at this point for a shaken Philly team to stop. The Eagles give up points and big plays, and I think in order to have a chance of winning, they’re going to have to turn Dallas over at least 3 times. Will that be enough? I don’t think so. Felix Jones shines bright in this one.

Dallas makes it 3-0: 24-20

Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals (Sunday at 4:40 on FOX)

Offense: 3rd in points (28.8), 14th rushing (117.8), and 7th passing (261.2)
Defense: 7th in points (18.6), 1st rushing (83.3), and5th passing (201.1)

Offense: 11th in points (23.4), 28th rushing (93.4), and 12th passing (251)
Defense: 15th in points (20.3), 17th rushing (112.8), and 23rd passing (233.7)

Our final rematch features the surging Packers against the Cardinals, winners of the NFC West. Does everyone realize that the Packers are a last second Roethlisberger-Wallace TD away from finishing the season on an 8 game winning streak after that circus-like loss to the Bucs? These guys are on fire. They continued their winning ways last week against the Cardinals, emerging from the desert 33-7 victors. Is there any reason to think they can’t do it again?

The Cardinals may not have attempted to show much this past week, but what they did show wasn’t pretty. Matt Leinart demonstrated that Cardinal fans better hope Kurt Warner returns for another season, and three key players, Anquan Boldin, Calais Campbell, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, are now limping into the playoffs with injuries. Boldin has been hobbled this week with an ankle injury and is very questionable to play. Campbell broke his thumb last week, had surgery on it Monday, and will play with a cast on hand Sunday. DRC limped out of last week’s game early on with a bruised left kneecap. Bad time for injuries to key players. Arizona didn’t attempt to run much last week, but had they done so, they probably wouldn’t have found much success against the league’s #1 rated rush defense. Beanie Wells has assumed lead tailback duties from Tim Hightower, but it’s hard to see the run being heavily featured in this matchup. If Anquan is limited or inactive, the Cardinals must have a big game from Steve Breaston. The Packers will no doubt roll coverage to Larry Fitzgerald’s side of the field and force someone else to beat them. It will be up to Breaston to give the Cardinals a chance.

Aaron Rodgers is on a better roll than either Tony Romo or Philip Rivers as we head into the postseason, and that’s certainly saying something. He has a 14-2 TD/INT ratio since the bizarre Tampa loss, and his offensive line has stepped up their protection as well. Not that Rodgers needs any help, but Arizona owns the worst pass defense in these playoffs. The ageless Donald Driver and youngsters Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley give Rodgers three reliable targets in the passing game. I think Ryan Grant will get his customary 15-20 carries, but this game will be put on Aaron Rodgers’ shoulders.

I’m having a hard time seeing a scenario where Arizona wins this one. The Cardinals won’t be able to run the ball on the Packers, and if Anquan is out, it’s going to be really tough to consistently get this offense into scoring position. Nothing against Breaston, but Boldin starts for a reason. I think the Packers win this one in the second quarter and keep the Cardinals at bay in the second half.
Packers advance: 34-17

I don’t feel terribly comfortable picking all three teams that won last week to beat their opponent once again, but each of these matchups features teams heading in opposite directions:

Jets – won 5 of 6 (should have beat the Falcons at home)
Bengals – lost 3 of 4 (win was an ugly 17-10 victory over the Chiefs)

Cowboys – 3 game winning streak started with handing the Saints their first loss
Eagles – won 6 straight prior to last week, but played a sloppy game vs. Denver and got beat bad by Dallas

Packers – on fire winning 7 of their last 8
Cardinals – last 4: lost at SF, struggled to beat the Lions, beat the NFL’s worst team, and got pasted by GB

Going Forward
Below are my predictions for the rest of the playoffs. I’ll save the writeups for the week of the actual matchups, as I’m sure I’ll be wrong with my early predictions and need to reorganize my thoughts.

Divisional Round (team in bold indicates projected winner)
New England @ San Diego
NY Jets @ Indianapolis (barely)
Dallas @ Minnesota (barely)
Green Bay @ New Orleans

Conference Championships
San Diego @ Indianapolis
Green Bay @ Minnesota (Favre isn't losing to the Packers)

Super Bowl
San Diego vs. Minnesota

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