With the playoff field set, here’s how I see the first weekend’s slate of games playing out.
#5 Saints (11-5) @ #4 Seahawks (7-9)
This year’s opener is the biggest mismatch, on paper and on the field. The defending champions come into this one as double digit road favorites where they’ll face a well-publicized sub .500 Seattle team that they beat handily in New Orleans just before Thanksgiving 34-19. In that contest, Drew Brees threw for a season high 4 TDs and 382 yards. The Seahawks own one of the league’s worst pass defenses, surrendering 31 TDs and forcing only 12 turnovers on the season. That disparity won’t win many games, especially against offenses and QBs of New Orleans’ and Brees’ caliber. That said, I don’t expect this to be the one-sided snoozer that many are projecting.
Qwest Field is probably the biggest home field advantage in the league, and the Seahawks will need every decibel of support from their fans to have a chance in this one. Chris Clemson is Seattle’s best pass rusher, and I expect Brees to be very well of his whereabouts all afternoon. The Seahawks will need Clemons and Raheem Brock to at least get in Brees’ face early and often; disrupting the Saints’ offense and keeping the home fans fired up. Then there are the Saints’ injuries. Leading rusher, Chris Ivory, was placed on IR this week with a foot injury, and Pierre Thomas sat out last week after experiencing soreness in the same ankle that caused him to miss a large portion of the regular season. Leading receiver, Marques Colston, had his knee scoped a week ago; odd timing considering the looming playoffs, which may indicate a serious issue with the knee. Breakout rookie tight end Jimmy Graham is hindered with a left ankle injury, and Reggie Bush looks slow coming off the fibula injury that forced him to miss eight games. Defensively, second year standout, Malcolm Jenkins, left last week’s game against the Bucs with a knee injury. He’s expected to face Seattle, but that knee will be worth keeping an eye on. The combination of Saints injuries and home field advantage will give Seattle a big shot in the arm. Unfortunately, Seattle has no offensive running game of which to speak (NFL 2nd worst 89 ypg), so they will have a hard time keeping Brees on the sidelines for extended periods. Despite leading the Seahawks to a big win last week against the Rams, I think Matt Hasselbeck gives the team a better chance to win than does Charlie Whitehurst. Gregg Williams is going to have his defense do what they always does, attack the passer, and having the veteran Hasselbeck, who has a better vertical game, under center is the wise way to go in my opinion. Still, I expect to see a concerted effort by Seattle to run the football, with a heavy mix of play action passes to keep the defense honest. You’ve got to think they’ll try to maximize one of their few advantages, and that’s Mike Williams’ size on the outside. If anyone is going to make a play in the passing game for the Seahawks, it’s him. The atmosphere in last week’s emotional, division-winning victory over the Rams will look like a golf clap compared to what the Saints will be stepping into Saturday.
Vanilla would be the way to go offensively, at least early on, if I’m Seattle. I just don’t believe they’ll be able to afford opening things up and trying to keep pace with the Saints. They simply don’t have the horses. That said, the Saints are clearly the superior team, and due to both his talent and necessity, I expect Sean Payton to put this one on Brees’ shoulders and ask him to win it. I like Lance Moore to be a big factor in this one, as Brees will likely look to him in the short/intermediate zones if Seattle’s pass rush is having any success. This matchup plays out much closer than the last time these two squared off, but the Saints emerge victorious again, holding off a Seahawks team that keeps it close throughout.
Saints 31 – Seahawks 23
*The Saints placed Pierre Thomas on IR after I wrote this piece. Expect Reggie Bush to be more of a factor (or at least asked to be), and I’m sticking with my prediction.
#6 Jets (11-5) @ #3 Colts (10-6)
Rex Ryan led defenses haven’t fared well historically against Peyton Manning led offenses, including last year’s 30-17 Colts’ AFC title game victory. In that contest, the Jets were the hot team heading into the playoffs, winning five of their last six regular season games, including a week 16 win in Indy, where Colts’ coach Jim Caldwell infamously sat his starters with a lead. That “controversial” win was Ryan’s first and only victory over a Peyton Manning offense in six meetings. The Jets went on to spank Cincinnati two weeks in a row and beat the Chargers in San Diego before falling in the title game to the Colts. This year the Jets enter the postseason with a little less bravado. They’ve lost three of their last five, losing three of their last five games. In that span, they surrendered a combined 83 points on the road in New England and Chicago, and lost at home to the Dolphins.
Enter Indy. This isn’t the same Colts’ team who usually coasts into the postseason. Resting starters wasn’t an option for Caldwell this year, as they needed to win their last four contests to secure a postseason appearance. Manning led the league in passing attempts and completions, but one stat that stands out to me is the number 91.9. That’s Manning’s passer rating this season, his lowest number since 2002. A large portion of that drop off can be attributed to the injuries to Dallas Clark and Austin Collie who missed a combined 17 games this year. Manning had to play nearly half the season, 7 games, without both of those players. Reggie Wayne is still Reggie Wayne, but Pierre Garcon was still too inconsistent for the Colts’ liking. Jacob Tamme stepped up big time in Clark’s absence, catching 67 passes in 10 games. With Darrelle Revis expected to blanked Wayne and Antonio Cromartie on Garcon, Tamme will be counted on to keep the chains moving. The Colts still don’t run the ball terribly much, but they are getting Joseph Addai back just in time. The veteran runner missed half the year with a shoulder injury, and I think his absence in the passing game, as both a receiver and protector, was really felt by this offense.
LaDainian Tomlinson started off on fire this year, looking like the back from a few seasons ago, but he hasn’t rushed for 50 yards since before Thanksgiving and didn’t catch more than 2 passes in any of his last 5 games. Shonn Greene didn’t have the breakout year many were anticipating, but I fully expect him to the primary focus of the Jets offense, at least early on, in this contest. The Colts are still susceptible to the run as guys like Arian Foster (combined 333 rushing yards in two games), Maurice Jones-Drew, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Mike Tolbert, Tashard Choice, and Chris Johnson were able to near or break the 100 yard mark. Mark Sanchez is no longer a rookie, but I don’t see Ryan putting this one on his shoulders, in what should be the second loudest venue of the weekend. I anticipate several situations where the Jets run the ball two or three plays in a row and then take a shot deep downfield with Santonio Holmes. If the Jets are to win this game, I think it’s the former Super Bowl MVP who proves to be the difference maker. Manning and the Colts are going to score, and while running the ball and keeping Peyton on the sidelines is a solid game plan, they’d be wise to go vertical occasionally and take advantage of Holmes’ deep game ability.
The Colts haven’t exactly entered the playoffs on fire despite winning those last four games. What I do see is a more focused Manning, totaling a 9-2 TD-INT ratio and three triple digit passer ratings in those contests. The Jets cannot afford to let Manning light up the scoreboard because I don’t have confidence in Sanchez’s ability to keep pace. The Jets must create turnovers in this one because the only way I see them winning this one is if Manning gives them a short field on a couple of occasions and they’re able to convert those opportunities. The Colts will score, and I expect Manning’s success against Ryan led defenses to continue.
Colts 30 – Jets 17 (repeat score of last year’s conference championship)
#5 Ravens (12-4) @ #4 Chiefs (10-6)
This one appears to be the second most lopsided contest of the week, but there are a few reasons to give the Chiefs a sizeable shot at emerging victorious. For starters, they’re 7-1 at home this season; their only defeat coming in a fairly meaningless week 17 loss to the Raiders. They’re the #1 rushing team in football at over 164 ypg, led the explosive Jamaal Charles, the league’s second leading rusher. Matt Cassel made quite an improvement in his second year with the Chiefs, finishing among the league’s best in TD-INT differential at 27-7. He also scored a higher passer rating than Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Matt Schaub. Then there’s Dwayne Bowe, the enigmatic receiver who can takeover any game in an instant. Bowe and Cassel don’t exactly have Manning-Wayne chemistry, but the two did have the most scoring connections (15) in the league this season. All that, and they’re still a field goal home dog. Why? Well, the Chiefs didn’t exactly play the toughest schedule in league history, facing only two teams that made the playoffs (a loss at Indy and a win at Seattle). Their 10 wins came against San Diego, Cleveland, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Buffalo, Arizona, Seattle, Denver, St. Louis, and Tennessee. Those 10 teams combined for a whopping 61 wins, and 6 of them will be picking in the top 10 of this coming draft.
Compare that to the quality wins on the Ravens’ resume. Their opponents combined for 85 wins, and that group includes playoff teams in the Jets, Steelers, and Saints. No, this isn’t the elite Ravens defense of several years ago, but they were 5th in the league this season against the run, averaging just under 94 ypg. The Ravens are the more tested team of the two, and a guy who has (quietly) passed most of the tests he’s faced is Joe Flacco. In his third year, Flacco improved in the key categories of yards, touchdowns, interceptions, and passer rating. Anquan Boldin didn’t exactly light up the stat sheet, but his acquisition took some attention off of Derrick Mason and aided Todd Heap in putting up the highest ypc average of his career. It’s not a dynamic offense, but they’re secure with the football (+7 turnover differential for the year). Flacco’s efficiency and the big play ability of Ray Rice out of the backfield are big reasons why the Ravens made the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Rice’s numbers were down this season, but if you spent much time watching their games (especially late in the year), you’ll notice that the offensive line wasn’t getting a consistent push and running lanes were near non-existent. The Chiefs aren’t the Steelers when it comes to run defense, but they did limit league leader Arian Foster to 71 yards on 18 carries. I expect them to be pretty stout up front come Sunday. I’m a believer that unless you’ve got a Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, or Aaron Rodgers, you need to be able to run the football in the playoffs in order to win. I expect the Chiefs to stack against the run and the short passing game, daring Flacco to beat them deep with the not-so-young Boldin-Mason combo. It will be fun to watch because Rice is a guy who can take it to the house in an instant if you don’t play assignment defense.
A deeper delve into the numbers highlights another area I think the Chiefs can take advantage of to pull off the upset. The Ravens were in the bottom third of the league in pass defense, including weak performances against Matt Schaub (393 yards), Ryan Fitzpatrick (382), Matt Ryan (316), Kyle Orton (314), and Carson Palmer (305). Combine that with the fact that the Ravens finished 27th in the league with 27 sacks (or to offer some perspective, just 1 more than the Bucs, a team who will/should desperately seek a pass rusher this offseason), and it’s not hard to see why this should be a very close contest. The Chiefs’ offensive line allowed 32 sacks on the year, 8 less than their Baltimore counterparts. If left tackle Branden Albert is able to corral Terrell Suggs, Cassel and Bowe should have time to connect on a few big gainers.
On one hand, I think the Ravens are a team that can make it to the Super Bowl, but on the other hand, it wouldn’t shock me to see them eliminated Sunday. Yes, Baltimore is overrated, but as much love as Kansas City is getting for winning their division, I remind you that the road to get there wasn’t terribly tough sledding. I want to pick the Ravens, but something tells me that the combination of home field advantage, the historical success of home playoff dogs, the tidbits mentioned above that favor the Chiefs, and the overall lack of a shot they’re being given by the media will lead to an upset. The Chiefs shock the world (sort of) and move on to the second round.
Chiefs 20 – Ravens 17
#6 Packers (10-6) @ #3 Eagles (10-6)
They saved the best for last. In my opinion, this is the marquee matchup of the first round. These two kicked off the season against each other with the Packers winning in Philly 27-20. On one side you have a QB who’s capable of taking over any game with both his arm and legs. On the other side you have Michael Vick. Ha ha. Yes, Vick is probably the second most likely MVP candidate (behind Tom Brady), but Rodgers is the primary reason I think the Packers have a seriously legit shot of winning the whole thing. Brett Favre’s former protégé finished behind only Brady and Philip Rivers in passer rating and fifth in total yards per game. Finish first in that category was the comeback player of the year, Vick. After opening the year as the starter, then going down with an injury and temporary losing his job to Kevin Kolb, Vick took advantage of another starting opportunity when Kolb got hurt, and he never looked back. I believe that the QB who plays the better game Sunday will be the one still playing a week from now.
The Eagles aren’t exactly entering the playoffs on the highest of notes. After pulling off the huge comeback against the Giants with DeSean Jackson’s game ending punt return TD, the Eagles lost their last two games, including a major upset in the Tuesday night matchup against the Vikings. The Dallas loss last week wasn’t nearly as disappointing, as they had nothing to play for. They had nothing to play for because of that Minnesota loss. In position to control their own destiny and earn a first round bye, the Eagles lost a game they should have won and aren’t quite the favorite folks anticipated they’d be a month ago. Vick will be good to go Sunday against the Packers, but he’s pretty banged up because defenses are increasing the frequency with which they get to him. Teams are doing a better job of containing him, eliminating the big plays, and forcing him into uncomfortable passing situations. A player I don’t think they are taking full advantage of is second year back LeSean McCoy. Shady finished 6th in the league in total ypg of all backs and had 12 more receptions than any other runner. McCoy is obviously getting touches, but I believe it’s the timing of those touches that needs tweaking. I’m talking about red zone opportunities. That’s a prime area to utilize a guy with his quickness and hands. Despite the 78 receptions and 1,080 rushing yards, McCoy only found the endzone 9 times. He’ll need to be a big factor if the Eagles hope to win Sunday. Deep threat DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are two of the game’s most dangerous receivers, but the two combined for just 68 yards on 6 catches when these two teams met in the regular season opener. They cannot do that again and expect to be playing next week.
With last week’s victory over the Bears, the Packers clinched the last playoff spot in the NFC. This team is far better than their record indicates. Their six losses were by a combined 20 points, two of them in overtime, and no loss was of a margin greater than four points. In addition to the two overtime losses, their other defeats came at the hands of the playoff bound Bears, Falcons, and Patriots, and a Lions team I’m confident they would have beat if Rodgers had not sustained a concussion in the first half of the game (lost 7-3). As I’ve mentioned before, I believe Rodgers and Philip Rivers are the Peyton Manning and Tom Brady of this decade. Rodgers’ control of the offense and ability to consistently hit big plays downfield keep them in every contest. He’s doing it all with virtually no running game, and a 35 year old Donald Driver as his #2 receiver. Nothing against Driver, but his better days are behind him. I’d put Greg Jennings up against just about anyone, but the early season loss of Jermichael Finley impacted his production as much as anyone’s. James Jones is a guy I like, and if the Packers are going to make a playoff run, he’s going to have to be a contributor.
Both teams have talent of the defensive side of the ball as well. In attempts to repeat their performances the last two times these teams faced off, Asante Samuel and the Eagles secondary will do their best to force two more interceptions by Rodgers, while Clay Matthews and the Packers will try to get another six sacks. It’s not just the proven veterans getting things done. Rookie Jamar Chaney stepped in for an injured Stewart Bradley late in the season and became a tackling machine for Philly. For the Packers, Desmond Bishop exploded in his fourth season, replacing Nick Barnett and becoming a big time contributor. Philly’s defense has the reputation of an attacking, blitzing defense, but they’ll be the second best unit on the field Sunday. The Packers trail only the Steelers in points allowed per game with 15. Conversely, the Eagles rank 21st in the league with 23.6 points allowed per contest. Not counting last week’s snorefest against the Cowboys, the Eagles defense surrendered at least 24 points a game in its last 5 meaningful outings of the year. Of those opponents, only the Bears are in the playoffs. The Packers on the other hand allowed a combined 27 points to the Giants and Bears to close out the year, two teams that the Eagles gave up 31 points each to in the latter part of the season.
I expect the Packers to make a deep run in the playoffs, and in order to do so, they must get that first win. I think Aaron Rodgers, not Michael Vick, controls the tempo of this contest and leads the Packers to a divisional round meeting with the Falcons, a team some say they would have beat in November if not for a questionable late call. I’m an admitted Rodgers fan, but I’m really liking the mood/mojo of this team. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if we’re still talking about the Packers a month from now.
Packers 31 – Eagles 26