Friday, January 14, 2011

2010-2011 NFL Playoff Predictions - Divisional Round

Hot 1-3 start huh? The team in which I was most confident, the underdog Packers, emerged victorious in Philly, but the rest didn’t go according to plan. The Seahawks shocked the world and knocked out the defending champs. The lack of effort on defense and special teams has the Colts watching this week’s action from home, and in what was thought to be an unlikely feat, the Chiefs actually looked worse against the Ravens than they had in week 17 against the Raiders. Here’s to hitting at least .500 this week.

Saturday, 4:30
#5 Ravens (12-4, 1-0) @ #2 Steelers (12-4)
Baltimore was clicking on all cylinders last week in Kansas City, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They sacked and intercepted Matt Cassel three times and recovered two fumbles. Dwayne Bowe did not have a single pass thrown his way, and Cassel completed a paltry 9 of 18 passes for 70 yards, or 38 less than Todd Heap accumulated. The Ravens’ veteran tight end was Joe Flacco’s security blanket all day, leading the team with 13 targets. Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, and TJ Houshmandzadeh combined for only 7 receptions, but Ray Rice was once again a force in the passing game, hauling in 5 passes and scoring the go ahead TD in the second quarter. Billy Cundiff chipped in three short FGs, and the Ravens left town with a 30-7 win.

Things won’t be nearly as simple for the Ravens this week as the head to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers for the third time this season. Both of their first two matchups were decided by 3 points with the visiting team winning both times. In the first contest, Joe Flacco hooked up with Houshmandzadeh for the go ahead score with under a minute to go to give the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers their first loss of the year after three victories. Pittsburgh got its revenge late in the year when, once again, Troy Polamalu came up with the big play, forcing a Flacco fumble that led to the Steelers’ game winning score.

Pittsburgh has gotten the better of Baltimore of late. The Steelers swept the slate two seasons ago, including the AFC Championship game, a victory that catapulted them to a Super Bowl win against the Cardinals. What I can say with some certainty is that neither running game is likely to dominate the proceedings. When these two met back in October, they combined for 154 yards rushing on 54 carries, or a 2.81 yard average, a full yard short of both teams’ regular season averages. The second meeting made the first look like a track meet. In that one they totaled 97 yards on 44 carries for a meager 2.2 yard average. The Ravens did rush for 142 yards last week against the Chiefs, but much of that total, 65 yards to be exact, came on a 10 minute fourth quarter drive after the game was out of reach and the Chiefs were out of hope.

You would think getting a big game out of Ray Rice would be necessary for the Ravens to beat the Steelers, but you would be wrong. In Baltimore’s win at Pittsburgh, Rice ran for only 20 yards on 8 carries and caught just 1 pass for 9 yards. Rice totaled a meager 50 yards in the second meeting, the game in which Flacco’s fumble led to Pittsburgh’s victory. With the running game struggling (offensive line unable to create lanes) and now facing Pittsburgh, Joe Flacco is going to have to win this one for the Ravens. Although not as vulnerable as the Ravens, the Steelers can be thrown on. Drew Brees (305 yards) throws on everyone, but giving up 281 to rookie Colt McCoy wasn’t a highlight of Pittsburgh’s season.

Rashard Mendanhall, on the other hand, was. Running for 1,000 yards for the second year in a row, Mendenhall also blew away his previous career high with 13 scores on the ground. While he only totaled 13 more yards than Rice in the second meeting, Mendenhall was responsible for 2 scores in the first contest with Charlie Batch under center for the Steelers. Upon returning from suspension, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t take long to find his form. After the home loss to the Patriots in November, Roethlisberger had an 8-1 TD-INT ratio down the stretch. That one interception came against the Ravens and resulted in no harm to the Steelers. Still, I don’t think Roethlisberger himself is the key to this one. In my opinion, the deciding factor in this game is going to be the play of Pittsburgh’s offensive line. Can they protect Ben from a taking a constant pounding, specifically from Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata? Despite losing, the Ravens took down Roethlisberger 3 times last month.

I don’t like the competition Pittsburgh faced down the stretch. The Steelers won 7 of their last 9, but among the victims were four of the teams picking in the top six spots of the upcoming draft; Carolina, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. If Steve Johnson doesn’t drop a pass that landed in his lap, this game is being played in Baltimore.

You’re not going to run on Pittsburgh, and you know they’re going to attack attack attack the entire game. For Baltimore, I think you’re going to see a lot of what worked last week, and that’s Flacco rolling out and picking up key yards with the short passing game and his legs. Extra attention will be paid to Heap after last week’s performance, and the Steelers won’t allow Rice to beat them. Fortunately for the Ravens, the combination of Heap, Houshmandzadeh, and Boldin gives them the large targets needed to work the middle against this defense and keep the chains moving. They’ll also likely look to isolate Mason or Boldin on the edge and take advantage of one on one matchups against Steeler corners, the clear weakness of their defense. The Ravens (Flacco) need to maintain manageable situations, and that’s where I think Flacco’s composure will be key. Take what the defense gives you, and don’t force what isn’t there. Not to get too far into it, but I believe this Ravens team, especially the defense, is going to raise the focus and intensity to another level in support of Ed Reed and the unfortunate situation with his brother. With the Browns and Panthers being the last two teams the Steelers faced, the black and gold haven’t played an opponent of the Ravens’ caliber since their 12/19 home loss to the Jets. Similar teams, similar results?

I always love watching these two teams square off, as they’re sure to be the most intense, physical football fights of the year. Pittsburgh has won their last 6 against Baltimore when Roethlisberger is under center, and Flacco has a 4-5 TD-INT ratio in Pittsburgh. Numbers be damned. I’m going with momentum and, I believe, the hungrier team. I’m calling for the upset as the Ravens hold off a late Steelers surge, defeat Pittsburgh at home for the second time this season, and move on to the final four.

Ravens 23 – Steelers 20

Saturday, 8:00
#6 Packers (10-6, 1-0) @ #1 Falcons (13-3)
Here’s my favorite matchup of the weekend. The Falcons earned the #1 seed in the NFC, and their reward is a date with the red hot Packers. While Atlanta was enjoying the week off, Green Bay went up to Philly and eliminated the Eagles thanks to a stout defense, three Aaron Rodgers TDs, and 123 rushing yards by rookie James Starks. While Green Bay was clearly the better team on the field last week, they had some mistakes that could have cost them the game. Special teamer Brandon Underwood made a huge mental mistake covering a Philly punt after going three and out on their first possession which allowed the Eagles to retain possession in Packer territory. David Akers ended up missing a FG five plays later, so while the miscue didn’t lead to points, those are the mistakes that championship teams avoid. At the start of the second half Aaron Rodgers fumbled when he was sacked by Darryl Tapp on his own 25. Michael Vick threw a touchdown pass to Jason Avant two plays later, and the Packers’ lead shrunk to 4. I also think that Mike McCarthy’s game plan was too conservative and his clock management poor, it they would have cost them the game had Michael Vick been a little more accurate with his last pass. Rodgers is one of those guys who I believe does worse when trying to scale it back and play not to lose. Playing not to lose won’t work this week against the Falcons. I’d be shocked if we didn’t see Green Bay open it up a bit more this week.

To me the Packers are getting hot at exactly the right time, and with 8 TDs and just 1 INT in the three games since returning from a concussion, there may not be anyone hotter than Aaron Rodgers. Since Ryan Grant went down at the start of the year, the Packers have gone most of the season without much of a run game. They’ve been the NFC’s Colts, relying mainly on their QB’s arm to put points on the board. Another guy getting hot at the right time is rookie runner James Starks. Now, I have my share of misses when it comes to the draft, but one guy I was big on for a long time heading up to last year’s selection special was Starks. He reminded me of a less physical Adrian Peterson, a decisive runner capable of taking over a game with nice combination of power and speed. I expect Atlanta to put up more of a fight than Philly, so I don’t think we’ll see another 123 yards from Starks this week. Still, he’ll likely get another 15-20 touches, and anything more probably means the Packers are in good shape.

The last time these two squared off, it was an exciting encounter, one of the season’s best, culminating with a Matt Bryant 47 yard field goal with less than ten seconds left to play. As they did last week against the Eagles, the Packers failed to maximize their opportunities and coulda/shoulda left with a win. After a 1st and 10 at Atlanta’s 13 they had to settle for a FG. Another drive ended on a 3rd and 1 at Atlanta’s 1 when Rodgers fumbled. They also failed to convert 3rd or 4th down and 1 at Atlanta’s 41 later in the game. Another incident I’d classify as a miscue was when they didn’t challenge a 4th down conversion on a pass to Tony Gonzalez that would have been overturned. Atlanta ended up scoring its first TD on that drive. The worst of the bunch had to be the one that came following Rodgers’ missile to Jordy Nelson near the endzone boundary to tie it up. A combination of bad kick coverage and a facemask penalty on the ensuing kickoff set up Matt Ryan and the Falcons inside Packer territory. Six plays later Bryant won the game.

I think Atlanta’s game plan is going to be pretty simple – pound the ball with Michael Turner to shorten the game, keep Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines, limiting his scoring chances, and try to force a couple of turnovers when the Packers have the ball. Michael Turner ran for 110 yards when these teams met in November, but the bruising back ran for only 115 yards combined in his last two games of the season. Since that meeting, the Packers only allowed one back (Matt Forte, 90) in 6 games to run for more than 51 yards. Atlanta’s pretty sound against the run, but following the game against the Packers, they allowed LeGarrette Blount and Jonathan Stewart to run for a combined 236 yards in back to back weeks. The Packers are clicking. BJ Raji is a handful up front, and Cullen Jenkins is getting healthy again. Clay Matthews and breakout linebacker Desmond Bishop are always around the football, and the secondary is supported by cagy veteran Charles Woodson, underrated Tramon Williams, and ball hawking free safety Nick Collins. Looking to get the better of that bunch is Matt Ryan, the Falcons QB who is 20-2 in his three year career at home. Ryan was the epitome of efficiency completing 24 of 28 pass attempts against the Packers in November, but Roddy White was held to his second lowest yardage total of the year. Although I know they’d like to get White loose a bit more, I don’t think they’ll stray much from the original script in this rematch.

Rodgers threw for 344 yards last time, completing 74% of his passes to 8 different receivers. Greg Jennnings was the primary receiver in that game, catching 5 of 8 targets for 119 yards. His one catch performance last week against the Eagles was due nearly entirely to the Eagles shading coverage his way the whole game. As talented as Jennings is, it’s not like Rodgers doesn’t have anyone else to throw to. Donald Driver, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Andrew Quarless, and Brandon Jackson all figure to have the ball thrown their way a few times Saturday. I believe Rodgers was a little amped up at the start of the game against Philly as everything he was throwing early was high and hard. For his sake, hopefully he’s gotten that out of his system because he’ll need to hit the ground running against the Falcons in order to move on. Another plus for Green Bay is that Atlanta may be without veteran nickel corner, Brian Williams. Losing an experienced member of a thin secondary before facing Aaron Rodgers isn’t exactly ideal.

The Falcons haven’t won a meaningful game in over a month while the Packers have been in playoff mode for at least three weeks. I had high hopes for the Falcons this season, and they’ve exceeded expectations thus far. I believe the winner of this game is playing in the Super Bowl, and as good as the Falcons have been this year and at home during Ryan’s career, I think the Packers are just playing too well. Green Bay’s defense does a better job of forcing Ryan and the Falcons into more unenviable down and distance situations, and Aaron Rodgers doesn’t fumble on the goal line this time.

Packers 27 – Falcons 23

Sunday, 1:00
#4 Seahawks (7-9, 1-0) @ #2 Bears (11-5)
Here’s another game where I think the home team is going to do their best to control the tempo and keep the other team’s offense on the sidelines. The Bears witnessed the Seahawks more than hang with the high scoring Saints, putting up 415 total yards, including Marshawn Lynch’s “oh my gawd” game sealing 67 yard score. Matt Hasselbeck and his ailing hip did a nice job of spreading the ball around, finding Mike Williams, Ben Obomanu, and Brandon Stokley a combined 14 times for 184 and 2 TDs. When Seattle’s defense is clicking, they’re active and consistently keep the action in front of them. No they didn’t turn Drew Brees over in 60 pass attempts, but they kept the Saints scoreless on six drives, including three in a row in the second quarter.

Even with Mike Martz running things offensively for the Bears, they’re not going to throw the ball 60 times like the Saints. Chicago would be wise to take advantage of the wintery conditions and pound the ball repeatedly with Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. Jay Cutler took a lot better care of the ball this season and has his team’s fan base feeling confident in their QB rather than holding their breath, waiting for the next mental mistake. Still, leaning on Forte, a guy who rushed for at least 90 yards in each of his last three games (Vikings, Jets, Packers) and was the only back to run for 100 against the Jets this year, seems like a wise move. When Cutler is able to throw, he’ll be doing so against one of the game’s more porous secondaries. Seattle’s pass defense’s 31-12 TD-INT ratio ranks at the bottom of the league, and Chicago’s shifty Johnny Knox was able to take advantage to the tune of 120 yards on 5 receptions the last time they met.

Like the Packers and Falcons, these two teams met in the regular season as well. Although in this one, the visitors got the victory. If Seattle is as active defensively this time as last, it’s going to be another long day for Cutler. In that first matchup, the Seahawks sacked Cutler six times and was one of only five defenses to hold him without a TD. The Bears’ QB digressed a bit since beating the Lions back in December. In each of the four games since, Cutler has failed to complete more than 58% of his passes. He also has a 6-6 TD-INT ratio, compared to the 17-10 he put up in his previous 12 starts. While Lynch and Justin Forsett both scored during the first meeting, it was big Mike Williams who did most of the damage. Catching 10 of his 15 targets for 123 yards, Williams was easily Seattle’s most productive receiver. The Bears must do a better job of getting into the body of the broad receiver because if he’s allowed to be Hasselbeck’s possession guy all day, it’s going to be another long one for the Bears.

If Seattle is smart they don’t kick to Devin Hester. Is giving the Bears the football at the 40 really that much worse than rolling the dice with a guy who can take it to the house every time? Are you really going to let the kicking game decide your fate on the road in the cold? The forecast is calling for a high of 20, but wind and snow should not be factors. If Seattle is to pull off a second straight upset, they first and foremost need to stop the run. Aside from the 208 they surrendered in the lopsided loss to the Bucs, the Seahawks finished the year much better in this area. Seattle went without committing a single turnover in the early season matchup, and they’ll need similar security to have a shot at a second win at Soldier Field. Keep in mind that this will be Cutler’s first playoff game. Will he play anxious early?

Safe to say this is the least attractive matchup of the weekend, but I think it will be closer than the 10 point spread suggests. Seattle’s playing inspired football, and call me stubborn, but I’m still not sold on this Bears team. Their fortune this season is well documented. Seven of their eleven wins have been by a margin of seven or less. In addition to the loss to Seattle, the Bears were beaten on their home turf by the Redskins, a team that went on to lose seven of their remaining nine games after their win in Chicago.

I was all ready to pick the Saints against the Bears this week, but I’m hesitant to pull the trigger on the, still sub .500, Seahawks despite the emotional high they’re on. Can they beat the Bears a second time this season, in Chicago? After last week’s stunner, I certainly won’t dismiss their chances. This one stays close throughout, but I’ve got to think the Bears wear them down in the fourth quarter and live to play another week.

Bears 27 – Seahawks 20

Sunday, 4:30
#6 Jets (11-5, 1-0) @ #1 Patriots (14-2)
We start and end with divisional rivalries, and this one just got a little chippier with Jets corner Antonio Cromartie speaking his mind about Patriots QB Tom Brady. Like him or not, I’m not sure I’d run my mouth about Tom Brady just before facing him, especially considering he lit up the Jets for 325 yards and 4 TDs the last time these two met. To get this far, the Jets had to beat the Colts in Indy, and I can’t say I was terribly impressed with their win. It took bad defense and worse special teams play by the Colts for the Jets to pull off a 1 point win; the type of shoddy play they won’t get from the Patriots. In the Wild Card game, Mark Sanchez pulled another Jekyll & Hyde. After starting the game 3 of 4, Sanchez went 6 of 15 for the rest of the first half with an interception, and his Jets were lucky to be down only 7 at the break. The second half was a different story, as Sanchez was a perfect 5 of 5 on his first drive of the half, guiding the Jets to a score that gave them their first lead of the game. After a couple of incompletions and a failed series, Sanchez finished the game winning drive 3 of 3 for 38 yards and watched as Nick Folk kicked Indy out of the playoffs.

The Jets are likely to find a little more resistance this week as they head to New England and face the best team in football. The Patriots suffered two defeats on the year – one of those “bad spot” games in Cleveland and their first hookup with the Jets. Want numbers? 31-1. That’s the Patriots’ record at home with Tom Brady under center since the last time the Jets beat them in Foxboro. That one loss is last year’s upset in the Wild Card round at the hands of the Ravens, and the last loss to the Jets at home happened November 12, 2006. For a bit of reference, a day earlier, USC freshman Mark Sanchez was backing up John David Booty in a 35-10 win over Oregon. Read carefully – Tom Brady does not lose at home.

He did, however, lose at New Meadowlands back in September in the less remembered of the teams’ two encounters. Good Sanchez showed up that week and threw 3 TDs as the Jets beat the Pats without Darrelle Revis for the second half of the game. Go figure. Then Bad Sanchez took a trip to Foxboro last month, completed half his pass attempts, threw for less than 5 yards per pass, and was picked three times. That 45-3 beatdown by the Patriots was emasculating. In addition to Sanchez’s shoddy play, the Jets were horrendous on defense, surrendering 405 total yards (114 yards over their regular season average), 4 TDs to Brady, and another 2 to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. In his third season, Green-Ellis busted out for 1,000 yards and eliminated the need for the RB rotation of mediocrity the Patriots were trotting out there for a while. Next to pitching another 42 point whopping, the Patriots would probably like nothing more than to be able to feed Green-Ellis 20 times. He carried at least 18 times in four of their last five games, and the Patriots’ average win margin in those four games was 33 points. BJGE + 20 = big W.

As destined for greatness as these Patriots appear to be, they’re poor against the pass. They surrender nearly 260 yards a game through the air and allowed 25 passing scores but led the league with 25 INTs. Most of the credit goes to rookie corner Devin McCourty who leads the team with 7 picks. What this says is that, while they may bend at times, they, as a unit, are able to consistently force and capitalize upon opponents’ mistakes. The problem for Jets fans is you never know what you’re going to get with Sanchez, and there’s no way Rex Ryan wants to put the game on his shoulders. Ryan will want to ride the running duo of Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson as much as possible. The two combined for 152 yards on 35 carries against the Colts, and Tomlinson scored twice. Neither broke loose in either matchup against the Patriots, but they combined for over 100 yards in each contest. After a hot start, Tomlinson has worn out a bit down the stretch, and Ryan will look to use the more physical Greene to soften up the Patriots’ defense. Unfortunately for the Jets, they were dealt a pretty big setback when Damien Woody was placed on IR this week with a torn Achilles. Watch for Tully Banta-Cain to really test replacement Wayne Hunter’s ability to keep Sanchez upright.

Speaking of injuries, the Jets might be without one of their biggest weapons, return man and offensive utility man, Brad Smith who is nursing a groin injury. I’m not sure it will end up being a net loss because if Smith misses the game Antonio Cromartie is likely to get the call on kickoffs. Last week Cromartie returned two kicks for a total of 88 yards, including 47 on the return that set up Folk’s game winning kick. His contact avoidance works well when he has the ball in his hands. Facing the daunting task of taking down the league’s highest scoring and most turnover averse team in their place, expect Ryan to reach deep into his bag of tricks. Whether or not Smith suits up, expect to see Cromartie’s game changing speed put to use on special teams at some point.

How are the Jets going to slow down Tom Brady? He completed 68% of his passes and had an 18-2 TD-INT ratio on his home field. With Drew Coleman getting banged up in practice this week, the Jets may be a bit thinner in the secondary. That’s not what you want to hear going against Brady and an offense that didn’t skip a beat after they traded away Randy Moss. Four receivers caught at least 40 passes this year, including rookie TE Aaron Hernandez who compiled 9 receptions, 152 yards, and 1 TD in his two games against the Jets. Deion Branch was brought back after Moss was dealt and has scored four times in his last five games. Another sore spot for the Jets is Danny Woodhead, the diminutive back who got a bit of revenge on his former team when he gained 104 yards on 4 receptions in the 45-3 slaughter. There are so many ways for the Patriots to attack you, and you know that Bill Belichick will have devised a multitude of plays and a variety of solutions for any puzzle Ryan throws his way.

I think it’s 32-1 after this one, not 31-2. No repeat of September 19 or 2006.

Patriots 34 – Jets 20

....................RIP Drew - Thanks for your support and friendship


  1. in the nfc, i picked the saints. i thought they were peaking at the right time, they were under the radar, and i had brees as the best quarterback in the nfc. uhhhh...

    in the afc, i had the ravens, because i thought they matched up well with the pats, even though i had very little faith in joe flacco (i dont know if you heard my comments to mr. cameron yesteday) to make a big play if needed. uhhhh....

    it's easy to see why the teams not left standing are gone IN RETROSPECT, not so much at the time (i.e., the 'if you so smart why ain't you rich?' method of team evaluation). new orleans and indy were missing pieces, and in the case of the colts, have a horrible head coach, maybe the worst active today in the nfl. new england was not going to beat a team that could lock them up on the outside, and for whom they did not have a walkthrough tape. seattle is not a good team. the moment was too big for cassell and the chiefs. the falcons are a solid team without enough game changers; i watched them a lot this year, and i kept thinking they didnt have explosive plays. i have no faith in andy reid to make a risky decision when one is needed, and vick, who has herpes, is not a december quarterback.

    a healthy bucs team is in the nfc final four. you could have bet on that.


  2. The Bucs did stomp Seattle and always give New Orleans trouble, so I could see them getting past either of those teams. I think Atlanta would have been a little tougher, and as down as I am on the Bears, I don’t think we would have beaten them up there.

    New Orleans was just too banged up. Reggie Bush isn’t an NFL running back, so being without Thomas and Ivory was too much. Jimmy Graham being out had an impact too, but Seattle just seemed destined to win that game at home.

    The Ravens are so disappointing. You just knew that somehow they would make things hard on themselves last week before it was all over with. They, more than Philly I think, are the one team that could either go out in the first round or win the whole thing. No I didn’t hear your Flacco comments. I don’t know if it’s him, Cam Cameron’s play calling, or the fact that Anquan, Mason, Housh, and Heap are incapable of separating from NFL cover men. The offensive line forgot how to run block, so Flacco had less of a run game to lean on this year. I think getting a field stretcher in the draft would go a long way for this offense.

    Back in December I picked the Packers to beat the Patriots in the Dallas. I’m sure anyone who read it laughed at it seeing as how the Packers were 7-4 at the time and coming off that loss at Atlanta. I just think that Aaron Rodgers is on the verge of establishing himself as THE quarterback in the NFL. He has “it”. It’s a different “it” than what Roethlisberger has. Ben always seems to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line and comes through in heroic fashion more often than not. Sanchez’s “it” is that he somehow wins (4-1 in the postseason) without having the strongest or most accurate arm. He gets a lot of help from his defense, but they win when he limits his mistakes. Rodgers, in my opinion, is developing Peyton-like ability to have complete control over the action when he’s on the field. He reads the defense and figures out exactly what they’re planning on doing and calmly executes; hitting any number of receivers in stride or tucking it and picking up key yards with his legs. I don’t like his fumbling issues, but he does a great job of waiting for plays to develop and maximizing what’s there without breaking the play’s rhythm, feeling hurried, and bailing.

    Now they’ve got a healthy Starks, a guy I loved coming out and had mocked to the Bucs, running out there like a lite version of Adrian Peterson. Kuhn is a great asset with the ability to pick up short yardage, block, and help in the short passing game. That defense is tough, especially with a healthy Cullen Jenkins next to BJ Raji. I love Tramon Williams and am glad to see him break out in the playoffs. I hope I’m not jinxing them, but I love their chances to be the last ones standing.

    And in case you're interested, I'm going to have some draft stuff up here real soon. I have a revised set of rankings to post and am trying to finalize a second mock.