This weekend brings us the first round of the NFL playoffs. I’m going to make an attempt at picking the winners.
I’ve said that teams can win championships in one of two ways: Have overwhelming talent that just blows everyone else away (like the 1994 49ers) or have a good team that has things break its way or gets on a hot streak at the right time. (like the 2007 Giants)
I don’t believe there is a team out there with overwhelming talent. Sure, the Colts and Saints were both good in the regular season, but I don’t think anyone looks at them and wonders how they’ll ever manage to defeat them. So that means that the Super Bowl winner is going to be whichever good team (and generally you don’t make the NFL playoffs without being a good team) gets the most breaks or goes on a hot streak.
Some of the potential breaks involve which opponents a team will have to face. Some teams simply match up better against certain opponents. Game location can also play a big part in a team’s success. This year, three of the four top seeds play in domes (and the fourth plays in San Diego) so in the later rounds, weather shouldn’t be too much of a factor.
In determining which teams might go on an extended run, I also look for teams that are the absolute best at doing something. The 2007 Giants weren’t a great team, but they rushed the passer better than any other team, and that led them to victory.
On the other hand, if a team has a subpar coach, then I have to think their chances at a title aren’t so hot. Along the way, there are too many opportunities for a coach to make a mistake that will absolutely kill his team at the wrong moment. Similarly, if a team’s quarterback can’t be relied on in clutch situations, it usually doesn’t bode well for a team either. Warning: this factor can be slightly overrated. Some quarterbacks have been known for making late game comebacks. Part of the reason that they needed to make a late comeback is because they played so poorly prior to that point.
With all of that in mind, I look at the games and the teams involved.
Jets (+3) at Bengals
New York Jets
They have a rookie head coach in Rex Ryan and a rookie QB in Mark Sanchez. Normally this is not a recipe for success. Last year, the Ravens did pretty well with a similar situation, but their QB Joe Flacco was making plays for them, while the Jets seem to be praying that Sanchez doesn’t screw up. The Jets were quite lucky just to make the playoffs. They were fortunate enough to play teams that were resting starters, and they had a lot of other competitors suffer important losses. While this may indicate that they aren’t due for a long run, it could also be a sign that fortune is on their side. Sometimes, when teams are playing with “house money”, they go on a great run because there’s no pressure on them. Despite Sanchez’s potential to blow the game (although I don’t think coach Rex Ryan will allow him to), I think they somehow squeak out a victory in a close, defensive battle.
After recent years of being one of the most dysfunctional teams in football, the Bengals had a surprisingly good season in winning the AFC North. This will be QB Carson Palmer’s second career playoff game. In his first, four years ago, he suffered a horrific knee injury in the first quarter that he’s really just now recovering from. Maybe that will inspire him to play great, but I think it may take him a little while to get going and this will limit the Bengals at least in the early going. The Bengals strength is moving the ball slowly down the field, but that also means their weakness is a lack of big plays. At some point in the playoffs, you need someone to make a big play for you, and I don’t think the Bengals have anyone capable of it. Chad Ochocinco is a big name, but he’s really not a big play wide receiver.
I’d say they might be inspired by the death of Chris Henry, and I know the media loves to promote a good “his death inspired us” story, but I don’t see it happening. They lost their first game after Henry died, so why would they suddenly gain extra motivation now? I think they get off to a slow start, and never really recover.
Final score: Jets 13, Bengals 6
Eagles (+4) at Cowboys
Just a week ago, the Eagles were one of the hottest teams in the league, having won six straight games. They were set to play the Cowboys, knowing that if they won, they’d have the division title, and a first round bye. Instead, they got blown out by the Cowboys 24-0, looking completely outmatched. Now they have to play the Cowboys again. There’s two ways of looking at what happened last week:
1. The Eagles were exposed. They had caught a break with their schedule, and only were winning due to playing poor teams. When they faced a playoff team in the regular season, they were 0-4.
2. Sometimes when a team is doing well, they’re getting a lot of breaks, and everything is going their way. Then, they suddenly have a game where everything goes horribly wrong for them. Afterwards, they go back to winning.
If #1 is true, then the Cowboys are simply a lot better than the Eagles, and they’ll get beaten again this weekend. However, if #2 is true, then the Eagles should be in decent shape, at least for this week’s game. (Of course, this ignores the fact that they actually played poorly in the second half of the previous game. But they did pull out a win at the end of that game, so maybe that doesn’t really mean much)
Hard to decide which is the case. One factor in the Eagles favor: The point spread for the game is telling me something. Typically, an NFL team will get 3 points if they’re at home. Before last week’s game, the Cowboys were favored by 3 points at home, indicating that the general opinion was that the teams were about equal. After last week’s blowout, the spread for the playoff game is only 4. And this is the Cowboys – the country’s most popular team. They usually have spreads a bit skewed in their favor. Keep in mind that point spreads are based on how bookmakers think that people will bet, but it’s still a bit telling.
Anyway, as far as positives go, the Eagles are the best in the league at making plays on offense. And often times in the playoffs, victory comes down to just a big play or two. With Donovan Mcnabb, DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, and Asante Samuel (Yeah, he’s a defender, but his interceptions often lead to TDs), they have plenty of guys who can make a game changing play. On the other hand, when the big plays aren’t there, the Eagles have a lot of trouble scoring. At some point, a team has to be able to sustain a long scoring drive, and the Eagles haven’t shown they are capable of it.
Plus, coach Andy Reid is almost guaranteed to make a crucial mistake somewhere down the line. And it wouldn’t be the playoffs without at least one inexplicable Donovan McNabb play. Ten years of watching these guys has brought us to expect that. For whatever reason though, the Eagles under Reid have done especially well in the first round of the playoffs, and I see that continuing here. Things can’t possibly go as poorly as last week, and I see someone making a huge play and pulling off the upset. Or maybe I’m just being a huge homer. Sue me.
Before December, everyone was talking about how Cowboys QB Tony Romo always played lousy after Thanksgiving, and the Cowboys usually ended the season on a low note. When the Cowboys dropped their first two games after Thanksgiving, that talk intensified. Unlike past seasons, they suddenly turned things around, winning their next three, including a win over the previously unbeaten Saints. Not only that, but they’ve shut out their last two opponents. Plus, Tony Romo has been playing as well as he ever has. The Cowboys seem to have superior talent, a relatively easy path to the Super Bowl, as well as probably being the hottest team in the league now.
People will point out that the Cowboys haven’t won a playoff game in 12 years, as if this is a predictor of future success. I don’t put much stock into those things. Just because somebody hasn’t done something, it doesn’t mean they never will. At some point, the Cowboys will win another playoff game. However, I don’t think it will be this season.
First, while they destroyed the Eagles last week, that game means nothing once this week’s game begins. The Cowboys don’t get to carry over any of their 24 point margin of victory. And I think some overconfidence may come into play. When you beat a team that badly, maybe you start to believe that you are that much better than them, and that victory is assured. Of course, the opposite could happen, and the win might give them the right amount of confidence needed to succeed.
Regardless, until Romo proves otherwise, it’s hard to predict that he will play well in the playoffs. I also think Dallas coach Wade Phillips is not a good coach, and is due to make a huge mistake or two. I’m guessing that Cowboys fans spend another year hanging their heads after the Eagles end their season.
Final score: Eagles 26, Cowboys 21
Packers (-1.5) at Cardinals
The defending NFC champs spent most of the season under the radar. They just kind of crept along, easily winning their crappy division, but never seeming to make much noise nationally. Of course, that’s better than we get from most runner-ups who rarely make the playoffs the following season. I think the Cardinals are dangerous. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the best players in the league, and last year almost singlehandedly carried the team to a title. With nothing to play for last week (their playoff seeding was pretty much assured) the Cardinals pretty much didn’t even try against the Packers. This week, the teams will face off again, and you’d expect a little better performance from the Cardinals.
Their QB Kurt Warner isn’t glamorous, but he’s a proven winner, and usually makes some plays that help his team to victory. Aside from the possible bad karma that last week’s tank job may bring them, there’s no reason to pick against the Cardinals. And yet, I am doing so.
Green Bay Packers
They were my preseason pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. They had a shaky start to the season, including two losses to former QB Brett Favre, but (You might have heard about this) they’ve pulled things together recently, and played very well down the stretch. I’m still not convinced that Aaron Rodgers is actually a good QB and not just a good fantasy QB (i.e. He puts up good numbers that don’t really help his team win) and I’m really not convinced that their offensive line is capable of winning a championship.
Despite those facts, (And maybe this is all just a desire to see my preseason prediction come true) I’m going to pick them to win this game. While I may have said the opposite about the Cowboys’ season ending performance, I think that the win over the Cardinals will give the Packers some needed momentum heading into this one. (Once again, I’m a homer, and I can and will manipulate facts to serve my purpose!) My biggest reason for picking the Packers is that if they win, they’ll probably face the Vikings yet again. If this NFL season has had a major storyline, it’s been the whole Favre saga. It seems fitting that the teams will face each other once more, and the only way for that to happen is if the Packers win. So they are my pick.
Final Score: Packers 30, Cardinals 28
Ravens (+3.5) at Patriots
My preseason pick for AFC champion was the Baltimore Ravens. And like my NFC pick, they made the playoff field as a Wild Card. Second year QB Joe Flacco didn’t make the huge improvements expected by most people. He hasn’t looked bad, but at a lot of times, he’s looked like a second year QB. As hardcore Ravens fan Sweaty pointed out, when matched against star QBs, Flacco has shown a tendency to try to do too much, and consequently, made some big mistakes. Unfortunately for him, the Ravens will be facing the Patriots, who have Tom Brady at QB. Plus, coach John Harbaugh (an Andy Reid disciple) has made some shaky coaching decisions this year, including one time management gaffe that cost his team an upset of the Colts. While I don’t know if he should be considered a weakness, the coaching advantage clearly goes to the Patriots.
So do the Ravens have a chance? Yes. First, these aren’t the 2007 Patriots, so the opponent isn’t too overwhelming. And the Ravens have an impressive running game, led by Ray Rice. There have been lots of underdogs who’ve used a strong ground game to keep things close. And if things are close, there’s always the chance that defensive playmakers Ed Reed and Ray Lewis can make a game winning play.
New England Patriots
When an NFL player suffers a horrific knee injury, they almost never look as good in their first season back. Tom Brady hasn’t been bad this year, but he certainly hasn’t been at his pre-injury level. In addition to the rehabbed knee, Brady has suffered other various injuries to his ribs and fingers. Making matters worse for the Pats is that their go-to receiver, Wes Welker just suffered a season ending injury. When you’re a pass dominant team, and your QB is hurt, and your most reliable receiver is out, that isn’t usually a good recipe for success. Their other big name receiver, Randy Moss, took a lot of criticism this season for supposedly giving up in a game. While the Pats quickly tried to minimize that controversy (and he’s played pretty well since then), it’s been shown that Randy Moss isn’t necessarily a guy you want on your team when things aren’t going your way.
Bill Belichick has taken some criticism for his coaching moves this season, but he’s still easily among the best coaches in the league. He could very well lead the Pats to a resounding victory. But, in the end, I see the Patriots looking a little shaky on offense, and that will give the Ravens the opening they need.
Final Score: Ravens 16, Patriots 13