WILD CARD WEEKEND!!
Pardon the military metaphor. Playoff football is a different animal. It’s faster and harder…and when its over, it is over. One and done. The Wild Card round kicks off today with two games featuring teams that squared off in Week 17 of the regular season. Tomorrow’s games will also feature two rematches. This year’s playoff round, then, will showcase teams who have a high degree of familiarity with one another. Among those teams, perhaps no teams know more about one another than the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. With all of this familiarity, I believe this year’s Wild Card games will be decided by two factors: force and deception.
When teams know one another well, playoff games impose a premium on strategy and tactics. That means teams can win games they might otherwise lose by changing their tendencies. For the Jets, that might mean opening up the game by attacking the Bengals down the seam with Dustin Keller and Thomas Jones, rather than running into the teeth of the top-ranked run defense. For the Eagles, it could mean that Andy Reid gives the Cowboys a steady diet of the run game out of passing formations. Maybe DeSean Jackson is a decoy today and the true game plan is to work the ball to sure-handed players like Jason Avant. So, who ya got??
Game 1: New York Jets at Cincinnati Bengals. Last season, two rookies made it to the playoffs. This season, Mark Sanchez will “lead” the Jets into The Jungle. The Jets defense is equal to, if not better than, the Baltimore Raven defense of 2008. Last year, the Ravens went on the road to sunny Miami and abused a one-dimensional offense led by a weak-armed quarterback. That’s not on the menu today. The Bengals are not a high-scoring outfit, but they’re not one-dimensional either. Carson Palmer, unlike Chad Pennington, can make a defense pay with the deep ball if a safety wants to peek into the backfield. That’s just one reason why Palmer has routinely beat the Ravens (and Rex Ryan defenses) throughout his career. His two wins this season over the Ravens elevated his career record vs. Baltimore to 8-3. I don’t know if the powerful combination of Cedric Benson and Larry Johnson will eventually soften up the Jets defense (with an injured David Harris), but if the Bengals defense can force Sanchez to throw against Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, the Jets are going to be in for a long, long afternoon. I’ll take the Jungle Cats to play hard and bring the pain. Cincinnati 31, New York Jets 17.
Editor’s Postscript — How does Carson Palmer allow Cedric Benson to waste a 169-yard rushing effort? Benson looked great. I’m waiting for the research team to come back with numbers on playoff teams (especially 10-win playoff teams) who have lost home playoff games while running for 169 yards in a game. I like Mark Sanchez, but I didn’t he’d be ready to perform that well this season. Carson Palmer was terrible today. Shane Graham was worse. The Bengals didn’t dominate, but the defense played well enough to win. The offense and special teams snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
As far as I can tell, the ONLY team in NFL history to lose a home playoff game with 169 rushing yards or more were the 2003 Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs lost an epic shootout to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts 38-31. That team led the NFL in scoring, but ranked 19th in points allowed, 30th in rushing yards allowed, 20th in passing yards allowed, and you get the picture. Priest Holmes ran for 176 yards and 2 touchdowns. (Jets FB Tony Richardson led the way for Holmes in that playoff game.) So, how poorly did Carson Palmer and Shane Graham need to play in order for the Bengals to lose this game to a team that threw a mere 15 passes. Unbelievable!!!
It will be interesting to see how the Colts perform against the Jets if Darrelle Revis (clearly the best cover corner in the NFL) can take Reggie Wayne away from Peyton Manning.
Game 2: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys have the top-ranked scoring defense in the NFC. With all of the powerful offensive teams that the Cowboys have played, only the Giants have had considerable offensive success against them this season. The Eagles are averaging all of 8 points per game vs. the Cowboys. Philadelphia has lit up the rest of the league for about 30 points per game. Does Dallas have their number? From where I’m sitting, it’s hard to tell.
In their first meeting this season, the Eagles had a drive stall deep in Dallas’ end that resulted in a field goal by David Akers. With more than 4 minutes remaining, the Cowboys were able to run out the clock. The Eagle defense was unable to get a stop and put the ball back in the hands of an elite offense. In the second game, Philadelphia’s offense was missing in action. I suspect a great deal of that was intentional. Another part of it was due to the fact that these might be your daddy’s Cowboys. Maybe, just maybe, this defense is for real. Maybe this team that held the San Diego Chargers to 20, limited the Saints to 17 points, and shutout the Eagles with a bye at stake is just as legitimate as they appear to be. If they’re not, this is one of the best magic tricks I’ve ever seen.
I like Dallas’ commitment to the run. I like the dynamic trio of Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. I like Tony Romo’s newfound sense of ball security. I like the explosive Miles Austin. I like Jay Ratliff in the middle. I like the vocal leadership of former Atlanta Falcon MLB Keith Brooking. I also like the corner speed of Terrance Newman and 2nd year star of the future Mike Jenkins. What I don’t like is that the Cowboys haven’t won a playoff game in 13 years and there isn’t a soul in that clubhouse who knows much at all about winning in the NFL. No one in Dallas has a championship pedigree: not Jerry Jones, not Wade Phillips, not Tony Romo. The Eagles, conversely, have tons of experience in big games — but they STILL don’t have linebackers. I know Andy Reid is going to go deep in his Bill Walsh-style playbook and pull out a funky Packer-esque play from the early 90’s that has Leonard Weaver doing something he’s not expected to do. I know that Maclin or Westbrook is going to throw a pass to someone who will be wide open. I know that Michael Vick is going to impact the final score — particularly because his RED ZONE presence is game changing — and therein lies the rub. Philadelphia 24, Dallas 23.
Editor’s Postscript — I don’t have the foggiest notion of what I was thinking this afternoon when I finalized this pick. It seems that everything was going fine until I started talking about some of the Eagles players at the very end of the write up. It’s all the more bizarre since I picked the Cowboys over at TSF. I’m done with the Eagles. I’m not picking them to do anything in the post-season ever again unless they’re playing a team that is decidedly weaker and more finesse oriented than they are. This game went exactly as I anticipated (given the way the season played out and the changes that the Cowboys have made) — and then I go crazy and pick the Eagles. Well, Leonard Weaver did something he wasn’t expected to do — TWICE. Michael Vick did impact the final score. And, as it turns out, the Eagles simply didn’t have answers to something that didn’t seem all that complicated. If the Cowboys are covering DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin with 4 players, shouldn’t you attack down the middle of the field with Celek and Avant? The Eagles have a ton of work to do. They need to draft 2 or 3 linebackers and a few cornerbacks and some new DTs. After that’s done, they need to work on their strength and conditioning program, then really hit those tackling drills hard. They were as overmatched in the last two weeks as the Cowboys were in losing 44-6 last season.
I think when it’s all said and done, the Cowboys will look back on 2008 as a defining franchise moment. The end of last season was punctuated not just by that dreadful loss to the Eagles, but by grueling physical losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and at home to the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens shut down the old Cowboys stadium with an emphatic rushing performance. That game showed America that the Cowboys were just pretenders. Dallas has come back tougher (physically and mentally). This team protects the ball and makes a concerted effort to force turnovers. The Cowboys appear to be doing the work that is required of great teams.
GAMBLING WITH GUSTO: I missed the over/under on both games by a combined total of 1 point.
Game 3: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots. I’ve been down on the Patriots for two seasons. Last year, every time the Patriots played a quality opponent, they were blown out. They didn’t have the 2009 Comeback Player of the Year. He was recuperating from his Pollardization. Brady is back, but this team is continuing to struggle against tough competition. New England was throttled in New Orleans. They lost to Denver, split with the Jets and succumbed to fear in losing to the Colts. The Patriots beat the Ravens in Week 4 by six points in a game in which Joe Flacco threw 47 passes — even though Ray Rice had 100+ yards on 11 carries. The Ravens have come to realize that Ray Rice is a legitimate running back between the tackles. This poor man’s Maurice Jones-Drew is poised to take the game to the Patriots — but a word of caution…the real MJD has never won a game vs. New England.
If the Ravens are going to win this game, I believe they’ll have to use Rice, McGahee and LeRon McClain. The Patriots, for all their troubles on defense, have usually been able to take at least one option away from a team. If Rice is that option, I suspect McGahee and McClain will get their Irish up and rock the house. The Ravens feel like they were robbed in the first meeting. There was a lot of talk about the officiating — just like last year vs. the Steelers. That loss to the Steelers on the heels, er, toes of a Santonio Holmes catch at the front of the end zone meant nothing in the playoffs. What mattered then was the immaturity of Joe Flacco and the physicality of a defense that forced McGahee from the game. The Patriots have Brady, but will miss Welker…just enough to lose this game and force the franchise to consider re-tooling just a bit more. Baltimore 34, New England 28.
Game 4: Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals. So here is my dilemma in picking this game… The Green Bay Packers have an excellent pass defense. Only one team has amassed 300 passing yards vs. the Packers and only one team has managed to escape without turning the ball over. That team — the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers beat the Packers, at home, late in the season 37-36. The Packers rebounded well and closed out the season with a convincing win over the 2nd team of the Arizona Cardinals. Here is the heart of it: the Cardinals are “Steelers West.” From head coach Ken Whisenhunt to Russ Grimm to DB Bryant McFadden to special teamer Sean Morey, the Cardinals are a team seeking to forge steel in the desert.
And the Cardinals have better offensive weapons than the Steelers. If Pittsburgh could scorch the Pack for 503 passing yards, a healthy Kurt Warner supported by Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells should be able to do some real damage — right? Anquan Boldin is hurt, but you need a sledgehammer to keep him out of the lineup — right??
I like the Cardinals. I like Adrian Wilson and Karlos Dansby and Darnell Dockett. I like them more than Atari Bigby and Nick Barnett and B.J. Raji. I like that Arizona believes in running the ball in the post-season and I like their backs more than I like Ryan Grant and Ahman Green. (I know that’s bizarre — but I don’t like Ryan Grant after contact. He goes down too often after the first hit…and Ahman Green is a big time fumbler. I suppose Hightower and Wells could be in that group as well, but I like their weight to be a factor behind the Cardinal offensive line.) Green Bay is thin in the secondary. Oddly enough, as the team lost Aaron Kampman, Clay Matthews and other guys in Front 7 stepped up big to increase pressure, cause turnovers and make life easier for the new kids on the block. The secondary, though, over the last 8 games hasn’t had to face offenses with dynamic passing offenses. Dallas’ offense was still finding itself when they met and were held to 7 points. (Dallas proved as much by scoring 7 points the next week in a win over Washington.) The Packers big men haven’t had a moments rest in quite some time and two flights to the desert in two weeks will have a cumulative effect on those 4th quarter legs. Arizona 41, Green Bay 17.
Sunday Update —The latest out of AZ is that Anquan Boldin is out and that Kurt Warner may retire after this season. In that case, all bets are off. I’ll take the Packers to win this game…and coincidentally, I really like how they match up against the Cowboys and Saints. Green Bay 33, Arizona 24.
So, we’ll see how it goes.