by Ryan Meehan
We have entered the NFL playoffs, and all that has happened up until this point means nothing now. Wild card weekend gives us some great matchups, two of which are familiar from recent memory and two others that we could be seeing a lot of in future playoff scenarios. We have a fresh new batch of rookie quarterbacks that are changing the face of the pro game as we know it, while experienced QBs like Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, and Tony Romo will be watching from their living rooms.
Which is something that I’d like to discuss for a moment, if only briefly. I can’t believe how much time ESPN spends in the moments following week seventeen covering the teams who didn’t make it as opposed to the teams who worked their asses off for a postseason slot. I’ve heard more information in the past 96 hours surrounding the Dallas Cowboys than I need to hear in the nine months before their next game. As a Giants fan, sure I’d like to find out where changes are going to be made but not right now. It’s time for the playoff teams to shine. We should be talking about the Vikings and the Colts: Two teams who were atrocious last year are now front and center in the playoff race, instead the sports news landscape is chock full of the Lovie Smith firing and what the different Chicago Bears have to think.
So in this column, that’s not what we’re going to do. We’re going to strictly focus on the teams that DID make the playoffs, and how next week will shape up. We start in Houston, where the Texans will play host to the Bengals for the second year in a row.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) +4.5 at Houston Texans (12-4) Over/Under: 43.5
Saturday 4:30 EST/3:30 CST
The big story here is that after dominating all non-Wisconsin areas of the NFL for almost three months, the Texans have looked very shaky in the last month or so. Usually when there are questions about a team like this you could always say that they are missing a key component, but with the Texans you cant’t do it. You simply can’t blame any squad on that team for anything. Yeah, their special teams probably isn’t all that great but look at the bigger picture. The defense? Awesome at times. The offense? That’s even harder to pin blame on because they have a great receiver in Andre Johnson and a phenomenal backfield horse in Arian Foster. My point here is there isn’t really any excuse for the Texans to lose this game – it’s at home, they’re healthy, and they know the recent Bengals well enough to pull it off. But which Matt Schaub will we see? Will we see the Matt Schaub who looks like an elite AFC quarterback when he’s got everything rolling for him, or will we see the Matt Schaub who looks as uncoordinated as that lardass “Stump The Schwab” guy that ESPN employs as a statistician for ESPN? My guess is that we’ll be looking at somewhere in the middle with that, and then they will just need their defense to get off the field as soon as possible to avoid getting winded on any 14 play drives. It should be very doable.
The Bengals are on a roll and after a recent victory over the Steelers, appear poised to take the AFC North crown from the Ravens here sometime soon. Even though Dalton can string together a great aerial outing when need be, they have largely depended on their running game led by BenJarvus Green Ellis. Ellis is having hamstring problems and did not suit up on Wednesday, but they expect him to start this weekend. They do have other running backs that can play well, so either way that’s where they will likely stay from a strategic standpoint although Cincinnati hasn’t had a rushing touchdown since Dalton scrambled for one in the third quarter of a win in Philadelphia on December 13th. Andy Dalton will really need to steer clear of any turnovers – the Bengals can’t turn the ball over and win this football game. No way, no how. But if he can get into a good rhythym there is a possibility of success. Either way, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has already stated that if they are forced to have Dalton throw the ball 35 or 40 times that they are going to be “in trouble”.
It’s my belief that the Texans will squeeze this game out the way the Falcons were squeezing out wins in the middle of their season. The spread makes this a horrid bet to take on either end, so if you gamble on this game you’re crazy. To be perfectly honest with you, I could see the Bengals matching up well against any of the other first round teams BUT these guys. I foresee a last minute rally by Houston to retake the lead in a game they had control of 2/3 of the time anyway and force an overtime. And then I see kicker Shayne Graham busting one through the uprights in the bonus round to give the Texans the victory.
Prediction: Texans 27, Bengals 24 (OT)
Minnesota Vikings (10-6) +7.5 at Green Bay Packers (11-5) Over/Under: 46.5
Saturday Night- 8:00 EST/7:00 CST
In this game the teams involved will get a chance to see each other of a third time this season. Right now both of them are playing inspired football, but the Vikings feel a little bit hotter. I don’t believe that hotter is going to translate to a win in this case, but they are just that. They crushed any remaining chances the Bears had of getting into the playoffs by getting down the field and putting the game away at the last minute, and the Packers do have defensive weaknesses in some places so there’s a lot for the Vikings to exploit here. Minnesota really only has one blemish on their schedule being a loss to Tampa on a Thursday night, and save that every other team they lost to will be playing this week or the next. Their defense has played much better than a lot of people had expected, and they are led by Jared Allen who is making his own case for the HOF with each year he continues to play. This will be the coldest game that Christian Ponder has played in his career, with the temperature dipping into the low teens on Saturday night. Adrian Peterson also has given his coaching staff the vote of confidence that not only is he willing to take more handoffs, he’s also volunteered to play on special teams and even extra points. Minnesota’s coaching staff has confirmed this, and as you might imagine they won’t be honoring any of those requests in the freezing cold with a guy who had such a severe injury rehabilitation process during the past 18 months. If they can just forget all that and make sure he gets between 20 and 25 carries, that’s their best game plan. That’s what’s worked for them up until this point, so no need to change anything. It’s been a great year for the Vikings, one that has far exceeded their expectations on all fronts.
But very much in the same manner, the Packers have also had a great year. Fresh off of getting screwed in week two, they won six out of their next seven including a 42-24 drubbing of the then undefeated (and seemingly unstoppable) Texans IN Houston. Not to keep bringing the Seattle game up but the Packers handled the loss that wasn’t with dignity and respect, and I’ll never know how Mike McCarthy was able to get eleven players back on the field to kick that extra point when everyone in Washington State was already in their living rooms. They won four of their last five, and since they were already in the playoffs the week seventeen loss was essentially meaningless. In week sixteen they destroyed the Tennessee Titans at Lambeau 55 to 7, and much like the Vikings with the exception of the Giants game every team that beat them is in the postseason. It’s no secret that Rodgers has the leg up when it comes to the quarterback position, but he also has all of his receivers back and healthy which is a huge advantage for him. Add that to an increasingly focused Clay Matthews and the Pack has the clear advantage.
I like the Packers here because it is their domain. While last year the Giants were also hot coming into Wisconsin, they also were used to playing outside, which the Vikings aren’t. Taking Green Bay to win this game by four after a lot of offense early that will slowly give way to a less than eventful second half. But by then, everyone will be drunk so it shouldn’t matter. At first when the line for this came out it was eight points and I said to myself “Wow”, but then when I thought about it again I could see how that’s fair but I still wouldn’t take them to cover.
Prediction: Packers 31, Vikings 27
Indianapolis Colts (11-5) +7 at Baltimore Ravens (10-6) Over/Under: 47.0
1:00 EST/12:00PM CST
Although it seems like a predictable thing to go for the feel good story of the year, in this case it also makes sense because the Baltimore Ravens are one of the more beatable teams in the playoff pool this year. Although Lewis is back in the mix and ready to rock (complete with his very premature announcement of retirement whenever the Ravens bow out) and their defense should be stronger than it has been during the past three months, that offense still scares me a bit. Their best option in my mind is to utilize Torrey Smith and Ray Rice to the best of those two players’ abilities and balance that offense out at much as possible. If they run the ball too much, Indy will know what’s coming and will be able to stuff them in the second half. But then again if they air the ball out too much, the Colts will know that there’s only so much Flacco to go around so they will start playing a nickel setup. I know I give Flacco a lot of shit because I don’t personally think that his playoff experience is a reflection of his actual skill level, but he has earned a little bit more respect this year. When Ray Lewis was removed from the field of play as the team’s leader, Flacco stepped up and really assumed the role of captain well. He gets to hand the ball off a lot, but he also makes some great throws. But the question remains – can he make several series’ worth of great throws and step up to the next level? If they win this game, we’re going to find out.
The Colts are much better on defense than they have been in recent years. They’re stronger, faster, and are getting better starting field position. With Peyton Manning at the helm, special teams weren’t as urgent as they are nowadays. With a rookie quarterback (even one who has the incredible skill set that Andrew luck possesses) every yard is crucial and you want to give him the shortest field possible to work with. He may not work the best under pressure (completion percentage is around 50% when he’s being hurried) but he’s managing the games well enough to come out with wins. And of course, they are playing for their coach Chuck Pagano amidst his recent struggle with leukemia so they have the most inspirational NFL story in the past two decades working in their favor. None of this was more evident than last week’s win over Houston in a game the Texans had to have and the Colts really didn’t need to blow themselves out playing in.
Even after all that, I still can’t bring myself to pick against the Ravens at home. I’m just not going to be bold enough to take them to cover the spread. I don’t personally see either quarterback having a breakout game in this one, but if for some reason one of them does I would watch the hell out for whoever that is in the next round even with New England and Denver gnashing their teeth with the smell of blood in the air.
Prediction: Ravens 26, Colts 23
Seattle Seahawks (11-5) -3 at Washington Redskins (10-6) Over/Under: 46.0
4:30 EST/3:30 CST
This is the game that everyone will be gunning to see in my opinion because it’s basically professional college football. It’s two very young rookies leading two fiesty teams that a lot of analysts had missing the postseason. Seattle has won five in a row, and Washington has won seven straight. The Redskins are known to the general public as “that team who RG3 plays for”, but they are based around running back Alfred Morris who broke the single season franchise running record last week in the victory against Dallas and is not getting anywhere near the respect he deserves for doing what he’s done as a rookie. Of course one of the main reasons he hasn’t been considered for rookie of the year is the fact that he’s been overshadowed by Robert Griffin the Third who is having an incredible year. Griffin had an issue with his knee but it appears that it’s healing quite well. He’ll be wearing a knee brace during the game which might limit his ability since those things are a bitch to run with, but keep in mind he’s a much better athlete than anybody you might know who’s had to wear a brace like that. So far with the exception of his week one win against the Saints we haven’t seen a lot from the passing end of what Griffin proved he was capable of in college.
That’s why the matchup between the Seahawks’ secondary and the Redskins’ wide receivers will be so crucial. Much like Morris, Richard Sherman is very underrated and you’re going to want to watch the matchup between him and Pierre Garcon. It will also be interesting to see how Seattle utilizes veteran cornerback Marcus Trufant to cover for Sherman when the Skins switch it up. On the offensive side of the ball, obviously the Seahawks’ game plan will be structured around how Russell Wilson is able to spread that offense out so that he can run when given the opportunity. However I have a feeling that the Redskins will be expecting that, so Seattle’s best option here is to give the ball to Lynch as much as possible hoping that they can create a hole up the middle. Although this will be very difficult, I can only imagine that there is so much footage of Wilson’s work this year and so much emphasis will be placed on stopping him on rollouts that running Marshawn Lynch up the middle will actually be the most covert option. And I can’t imagine that Sidney Rice is going to have a huge day, especially after that hit in early December where he won the game against the Bears but momentarily lost consciousness. I’ve thought that was one of the scariest things I’ve seen in the NFL in a long time, and I can’t see that his career will ever be the same. Jacob from Jacob’s Sports Commentary (http://sportspicker1.wordpress.com/ made an excellent point about the Seahawks – about how they are “starting to remind me of the Giants. They have the power to beat any team, but they also have the power to lose with any team.” That very true, and precisely why I am jumping off of that bandwagon. I saw that happen to those same Giants, and the Bears as well, and I’m not falling for that crap three times in one season.
Obviously the test here for everybody is going to be if the Seahawks can exist outside of the bubble that is their home stadium. I’m going to say that without the twelfth man they can’t do it, and for the record I want to say that I think it’s crazy how many people are expecting the Seahawks to go deep into the playoffs when the NFC is this stacked. It’s completely insane, and I think Washington’s front seven is going to eat them alive at home. Inside linebacker London Fletcher will be looking to add to his career total of 1,935 tackles so it could be a long day for Seattle.
Prediction: Redskins 20, Seahawks 16
I do understand that I have picked all four home teams to advance to the next round, and I am very well aware that I have been burnt by doing this in previous years. However in this case, I honestly believe that these four teams have the best chance of winning and present me with the best opportunity to avoid being humiliated in the week that follows. Some times it takes me a lot longer to realize when to drop the stubbornness than others, but in this instance I really feel good about these picks.
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