Friday, January 21, 2011
NFC Championship: Green Bay (12-6) at Chicago (12-5), Green Bay favored by 3 1/2
Not often you will find a 6 seed favored over a 2 seed in a Championship game but that is the kind of statement the Packers made in their beatdown of Atlanta last week. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers became a true, national name with his outstanding performance, and America took notice of just how good the Packers are. I certainly noticed, as after picking against the Packers the last two weeks, I am determined not to make that mistake again. This is the third meeting between these two bitter rivals, and amazingly, just the second time in history they have met in the playoffs. Chicago won the first game they played this season at Soldier Field, 20-17 and then lost the rematch at Lambeau, which earned the Packers the final NFC playoff spot, 10-3. I don't want to focus on those games too much as they literally mean nothing to this contest. All year, the Bears have won but I have never taken them seriously as a contender. I am not sure if it is because I still have memories of Jay Cutler from last season, or because I remember the Bears losing to the Redskins at home, and the opener when they should have lost to the Lions at home. That being said, they seem to match up well with Green Bay. Their defense is able to slow down the Packers attack, something the Falcons looked incapable of doing last week. However, this game will be won on the backs of the Packers defense. The offense got most of the headlines in the Falcons win, but it was a pick six by Tramon Williams to end the first half that put the game on ice. I don't think Matt Forte will get going as much as the Bears need him to, and I expect Cutler to be harassed by the Packers all day. Playing mistake free football against the hapless Seahawks doesn't convince me that Cutler can do it against a top tier defense like Green Bay's. People keep talking about this nonsensical homefield advantage the Bears might have because of how lousy the field is at Soldier Field. The Bears were just 5-3 at home during the regular season, and I am sure the turf wasn't any better then. This game could be played in Somalia and it wouldn't matter. As of right now, the Packers are a superior football team to the Bears and they will return to their first Super Bowl in thirteen years.
Prediction: Green Bay 24, Chicago 13
New York Jets (13-5) at Pittsburgh (13-4), Pittsburgh favored by 3 1/2
I think the Jets are still celebrating their win over the Patriots last weekend. They definitely surprised me by pulling out the win. I knew they would keep it close but never thought they could actually beat what had seemed like an invincible Patriots team. Now they try to complete an incredible trifecta and beat the Steelers. If they win they would have beaten the top 3 seeds in the AFC on the road, and also beaten teams with QB's that all have won Super Bowls. The Steelers were lucky to get to this round, as they seemed down and out trailing the Ravens by 14 at the half. Then the Ravens imploded, and the Steelers made some big plays to once again beat their rivals in the playoffs. Both teams expended tons of emotion in their Divisional round games but their is one crucial difference. The Steelers expected to beat the Ravens and acted accordingly. The Jets may say they expected to beat the Patriots, but the way they celebrated indicates otherwise. Emotion plays a big part in sports, and yes the right to play for the Super Bowl is more than enough motivation. I just don't know if the Jets can reach the level necessary to be ready for this Steelers game. The Jets won at Pittsburgh a month ago and it was for two main reasons. Their special teams broke a TD with Brad Smith, and they were able to get a running game going, something that not many teams have done against the Steelers. If Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson play like they did a month ago, then the Jets have a great chance. If they struggle and the Jets have to rely on Sanchez making all of the plays, even with his weapons such as Dustin Keller, Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes, and Jericho Cotchery, then that will spell trouble. Having Troy Polamalu available in this one will be a huge difference maker. The Steelers are a far better defensive team when he is in the lineup. I have gone back and forth on who I expect to win but when thinking through it I come to more reasons why I think the Steelers will win than reasons why the Jets will win. It will be close and come down to the finish, Jets cover, Steelers win.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 19, New York Jets 16
Last Week Straight Up: 1-3
Overall Straight Up: 86-68
Last Week Against the Spread: 1-3
Overall Against the Spread: 76-75-5
Friday, January 14, 2011
AFC Divisional Round: Baltimore (13-4) at Pittsburgh (12-4), Pittsburgh favored by 3 1/2
Both games between these teams this season were decided by three points, with the road team winning each game. Over the years these teams have been as evenly matched as possible, except in the playoffs. The Steelers have met the Ravens twice in the postseason, both times at home, and came away victorious. They last met in the AFC Championship game two years ago, where rookie Joe Flacco seemed overwhelmed and threw a game sealing interception to Troy Polamalu. Flacco has 2 more seasons, and 3 more road playoff games under his belt since then. He isn't an elite quarterback but he is certainly serviceable, especially with weapons like WR Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, TJ Houshmandzadeh, and to a far lesser extent Donte Stallworth. That being said the passing game isn't the difference maker in this game. The difference maker, as he always is for the Ravens offense is RB Ray Rice. Rice has to at least be serviceable to take some of the pressure off of Flacco.
The Steelers are rested and ready to go. They ended the year with consecutive blowouts, albeit against awful teams. Ben Roethlisberger returned from his rape and played very well this season. RB Rashard Mendenhall grinded out 1,273 yards and 13 TDs. WR Mike Wallace seems to have usurped Hines Ward as Roethlisberger's go to guy. But why am I wasting time talking about these teams offenses? This game is about defense baby! The hits will be jarring, and the scoring minimal. Both teams are built on defense, and have big time players. For the Ravens it is Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Ed Reed. For the Steelers it is James Harrison, Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu. Polamalu has been nursing an Achilles' injury but is expected to play. It has been stated ad nauseum what a difference Polamalu makes to that Steeler defense. If he wasn't playing I wouldn't have taken more than two seconds to pick the Ravens in this game. Even with him playing, I still like Baltimore. These teams are so evenly matched that I can't point to a true football reason as to why. I just think the Ravens are finally due to beat the Steelers in the playoffs.
Prediction: Baltimore 17, Pittsburgh 14
NFC Divisional Round: Green Bay (11-6) at Atlanta (13-3), Atlanta favored by 2
When these teams played in November it came down to a Matt Bryant field goal propelling the Falcons to a 20-17 win. Statistically, the Packers dominated the game but squandered opportunities by failing to convert in the red zone and turning the ball over. The Packers seem to be a chic pick in this game, which isn't surprising considering the Falcons lack of name value to the casual fan. Maybe after Saturday night, people will start to realize just how good Atlanta is. Their QB Matt Ryan is 20-2 in his career at the Georgia Dome. They have a bruising RB in Michael Turner, who rushed for over 100 yards in these teams first meeting. They have one of the best receivers in the game in Roddy White, and a future Hall of Famer TE Tony Gonzalez. The Packers beat the Eagles because Philadelphia never established their running game. No disrespect to the Packers defense, which in a surprise twist has actually carried the team this year, but Turner is going to give them fits.
The Packers offense has been good but not the flashy, high powered offense most expected. Losing Ryan Grant in the first game was huge and the main reason I picked the Eagles last week was I was expecting the Packers to be once again one dimensional. Then out of nowhere came James Starks, who rushed for 123 yards, more than he had rushed for all season. The entire time watching that game, I kept asking to no one in particular, who the hell is this guy? Starks may have caught myself and the Eagles off guard, but the Falcons will be ready for him on Saturday. Defensively, I think John Abraham will have a good game and be in Aaron Rodgers face for most of the game. Homefield plus more talent, and a slightly better team will lead to a Falcons win.
Prediction: Atlanta 24, Green Bay 20
NFC Divisional Round: Seattle (8-9) at Chicago (11-5), Chicago favored by 10
I don't even think Seahawks fans though they would beat the Saints last weekend. The Seattle offense had done nothing all season to suggest they could compete with New Orleans in a shootout but that is exactly what they did. Matt Hasselbeck turned the clock back about four or five years, throwing 4 TDs. RB Marshawn Lynch turned the clock back to his rookie season, having a huge game, including that scintillating touchdown run that sealed the win. A trip to the NFC Championship, seemingly impossible just last week, is a real possibility. Especially because the Seahawks return to Chicago where they already beat the Bears once this season.
I haven't bought into the Bears all season. They seem like a very fraudy 11-5. Their offense doesn't impress me much (Shania Twain), but I will give their defense props, as it seems to have gotten closer to its 2006 form. Jay Cutler has cut down on the interceptions this season but watch out for his nerves in this game. Cutler hasn't played in any sort of postseason game since high school. I think he will definitely come out shaky on Sunday. That means that RB Matt Forte will have to get going and it also means that the Bears offensive line will have to do a way better job protecting Cutler than they did in the first meeting. I think Seattle caught lightning in a bottle with their performance against the Saints and it is not something that they can replicate two weeks in a row.
Prediction: Chicago 24, Seattle 15
AFC Divisional Round: New York Jets (12-5) at New England (14-2), New England favored by 8 1/2
It's the shit talkers versus the shit kickers. The Jets win some but talk more, while the Patriots talk little and win lots. I enjoy Jets coach Rex Ryan's bravado but you would think he would know better than to poke at the Patriots. You can get away with that against the Colts and Peyton Manning, but no one poked the Patriots and lived to tell about it. Ryan does have some reasons to be confident. His team matches up well with New England. They have a running game behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene that can exploit New England's leaky defense. His defense, when it plays to its capabilities, can at least contain the high powered Patriots offense.
However, Rex and the Jets are at a severe disadvantage in two very important ways. One, is at the quarterback position. Tom Brady versus Mark Sanchez, I mean, come on, its not even a fair fight. However, that isn't what guarantees a New England win. Peyton Manning is way better than Sanchez and the Jets still found a way to win. No, what seals the Jets fate will be their inability to create pressure on Tom Brady. The Jets have struggled to find a consistent pass rush all season and it will prove to be their demise. Its not really a secret on how you beat the Patriots, you pressure Tom Brady. The problem is, Brady plays behind a terrific offensive line, and also Brady is excellent at making quick reads and getting rid of the ball instantly. Brady is going to pick apart the Jets secondary just like he did in their Monday night meeting. Now, I don't expect another 45-3 ass whooping, as I expect the Jets pride to allow them to keep this one competitive. But the only thing that is keeping the Patriots from another Super Bowl championship is if they beat themselves.
Prediction: New England 27, New York Jets 20
Last Week Straight Up: 2-2
Overall Straight Up: 85-65
Last Week Against the Spread: 2-2
Overall Against the Spread: 75-72-5
Monday, January 10, 2011
#1 Auburn (13-0) vs. #2 Oregon (12-0)
They say defense wins championships but don't tell that to Auburn or Oregon. These teams have made it from being outside the Top 10 to one win from a championship on the backs of their prolific offenses.
The Tigers are led by their Heisman Trophy winner and controversial QB Cam Newton. Newton put up some astronomical numbers this season. He was a 67% passer, throwing 28 TDs and 6 INTs, and he led the Tigers in rushing with 1,409 yards and 20 TDs. Without him, the Tigers are probably 7-5 and would have already played in the Insert Shitty Bowl Name Here game. If he plays well they win tonight, if the Ducks contain him, Auburn is in deep trouble. You may not know it but the Tigers do have other options on offense besides Newton. They include RB Michael Dyer (950 yards rushing, 5 TDs), and WRs Darvin Adams (48 catches, 909 yards, 7 TDs), and Terrell Zachary (585 yards, 4 TDs).
The Ducks are more known for their rushing attack and if you asked most people, they probably couldn't even name Oregon's QB. In case you can't his name is Darron Thomas. He hasn't garnered much attention but that's not because he hasn't played well. Thomas finished the season with 28 passing TDs, 7 INTs, 2,518 yards passing. He may not be the threat that Newton is running the ball, but it is something the Tigers will have to be aware of. The Ducks most dangerous player is RB LaMichael James. James finished third in the Heisman voting and with good reason. He rushed for over 100 yards in every game he played but two, and in those he just barely missed the mark by 6 and 9 yards, respectively. He rushed for over 200 yards in a game three times and finished the year with 1,682 yards and 21 TDs. Much like Newton, if James plays the way he is capable of then the Ducks will have a great chance. If he struggles, the Ducks will have almost no shot. Thomas' favorite target is WR Jeff Maehl. Maehl had 68 catches for 943 yards and 12 TDs.
Both teams aren't known for defense but do have some play makers. The Tigers most well known defensive player is defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Only thing is Fairley is known as much for his dirty hits as he is known for being a defensive menace. Auburn was 54th in the nation in points allowed, giving up 24.5 per game. Auburn's defense has been gashed at times this season and their is potential for the Ducks to blow them out of the water. The Ducks defense gave up just 18.4 points per game, but they also faced lesser offensive competition than Auburn. Despite not giving up many points, they did give up tons of yards, including three games where they allowed over 500 yards of offense.
Everyone thinks both of these teams will put up 40 plus points but I don't think that will happen. I think there will be plenty of points but if you are a betting person I would bet the under on the over/under of 73. Neither team has played in over a month and when you combine rust with nerves this game is bound to have a sluggish start. I think by the second quarter both teams will get their nerves in check and then we will see a track meet. Auburn has been battle tested by the SEC all year and has had to crawl from behind countless times this season. Oregon has only been seriously challenged a few times and I don't believe has faced the amount of pressure and scrutiny Auburn has faced. I believe James will have a big game and I think Thomas will play well but I think Auburn is just a little bit better. I am nervous about this pick because it seems to be the prevailing sentiment, but I like Auburn in this game anyway. I can't pick against a talent like Newton, who week after week has found a way to will his team to wins. I think he shines on the big stage, earns MVP honors and gives Auburn their second national championship.
Prediction: Auburn 35, Oregon 30
Overall Record: 75-17
Friday, January 7, 2011
NFC Wild Card: New Orleans (11-5) at Seattle (7-9), New Orleans favored by 10 1/2
People are apoplectic about the Seahawks not only making the playoffs at 7-9, but gasp, getting to host a playoff game! To which I say big deal. Homefield advantage is overrated as it is and the Seahawks are going to get bounced by the Saints whether at home, on the road, or in Zimbabwe. The Saints crushed the Seahawks at the Superdome earlier this season and I don't expect it to be much different in Seattle. The Seahawks lost their 9 games this season all by 15 points or more. I at least think that streak will come to an end this weekend. They will have QB Matt Hasselbeck for this one, but based on his play for most of the season its hard to tell if that is a good thing. There isn't really anything the Seahawks do very well. They can't run, pass, stop the run, stop the pass, etc. The crowd at Qwest Field will be loud but they can't make the Seahawks actually beat a decent team, as has been proven by the Seahawks blowout home losses to the Giants and Chiefs. The Saints aren't nearly as good as they were last year, somewhat due to injuries to their running backs all season, which has hurt QB Drew Brees. The Saints will be without both Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas the rest of the season, and will have to rely on former Seahawk Julius Jones, and Reggie Bush. Brees has made way more mistakes this season but he still can get the ball to his receivers and score quickly and in bunches. The Saints defense, while not as opportunistic as last season, actually seems more stingy and not as reliant on creating the turnover. The only way for Seattle to have a chance is if their defense can somehow play like they did against St. Louis last week. Also, it is imperative that Leon Washington be a factor in special teams. I don't think this will be a complete rout, but the Saints win, no doubt about it.
Prediction: New Orleans 27, Seattle 14
AFC Wild Card Round: New York Jets (11-5) at Indianapolis (10-6), Indianapolis favored by 2 1/2
These two get the Saturday prime time slot and with good reason, as they meet in a rematch of last season's AFC Championship. Both teams will look different in major areas from that game. The Jets have added Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson on the defense, and LaDainian Tomlinson and Santonio Holmes on the offensive side. The Colts will be without Dallas Clark, and Austin Collie, who are both out with season ending injuries. The Colts are coming into the playoffs on the strength of a four game winning streak but they have had to fight and scratch for every win this season. The Jets stumbled a bit late in the season but have proven to be a road tested team, going 6-2 on the road this season. QB Mark Sanchez started off the season hot, hit a rough patch, but showed some good signs in his last two games against the Steelers and Bears. The Jets offensive line will have their hands full with Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. Sanchez has to be prepared to do some quick thinking in this game, but the Jets line also has to make sure he isn't taking hits the entire game. If they give him enough time I think Braylon Edwards, Dustin Keller, Jericho Cotchery, and Holmes can make plays and exploit the Colts secondary. Peyton Manning has owned Rex Ryan led defenses over the years but I think this is the time Rex gets a measure of revenge. Manning has done an amazing job with depleted options, but now the Colts will be facing nothing but the best the league has to offer. I think Manning will try to force things and will cause some turnovers. Sanchez will do just enough, and the running game behind Shonn Greene and Tomlinson will make enough plays to carry the Jets to the slight upset.Prediction: New York Jets 24, Indianapolis 21
AFC Wild Card: Baltimore (12-4) at Kansas City (10-6), Baltimore favored by 3
To me, this is the easiest game to pick this weekend, even easier than Saints over Seahawks. The Chiefs peaked a season early I think and after winning the division are basically spent. They played their starters at home against Oakland last weekend and were completely dominated. Their QB Matt Cassel has put up impressive stats but as he showed against the Raiders he is still susceptible to making very questionable decisions. The only chance the Chiefs have is if Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles are able to get past the Ravens ferocious front line. Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe can get open and be a difference maker, but simply having the passing game be effective won't be enough to help the Chiefs. The Ravens are in the playoffs for the third straight season and it is old hat for them at this point to go on the road in the playoffs. The Arrowhead crowd will not intimidate them and I don't expect them to be much of a factor. I think Ray Rice will have a good game, and I think Joe Flacco will manage the game as needed.
Prediction: Baltimore 28, Kansas City 14
NFC Wild Card: Green Bay (10-6) at Philadelphia (10-6), Philadelphia favored by 2 1/2
This will be the best game of the weekend. This is a rematch from the opening weekend of the regular season but as tends to happen over 17 weeks, a lot has changed. Michael Vick is entrenched as the Eagles starter and turned a team that looked like it was in rebuilding mode, into a Super Bowl contender. The Packers lost RB Ryan Grant in that game, and have basically eschewed a running game for the entire season. The Packers won that first game, jumping out to a big early lead and knocking Kevin Kolb out of the game. That is when Vick came in and began to bring the Eagles back, showing the same amazing athletic ability that made him so much fun to watch at Virginia Tech and Atlanta. If Kolb never gets knocked out of that game, the Eagles would have never made the playoffs with him as the starter. I think Kolb is decent, but Vick and his speed fit this offense so perfectly. If Vick can get the necessary time to make plays, it is impossible to keep up with the speed of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and LaSean McCoy. The Packers defense is better equipped than most defenses to handle that but no one can match the Eagles stars in a foot race. The Packers offense, led by Aaron Rodgers, has been good this year but not great as people expected. I believe the biggest reason for that has been the loss of Grant. FB John Kuhn has made some plays, but their new starter Brandon Jackson, while a Cornhusker, has not done enough. The Eagles defense hasn't been all that amazing for a second straight year, and has mostly been covered for by Vick and the offense. I expect a back and forth, constant lead changing game, with David Akers kicking the winning field goal in overtime.
Prediction: Philadelphia 20, Green Bay 17
Last Week Straight Up: 11-5
Overall Straight Up: 83-63
Last Week Against the Spread: 8-8
Overall Against the Spread: 73-70-5
Monday, January 3, 2011
Orange Bowl, Monday, January 3rd
#4 Stanford (11-1) vs. #13 Virginia Tech (11-2)
The Hokies are used to playing in BCS bowl games, specifically the Orange Bowl, making their third Orange Bowl appearance in four seasons. The experience will be completely new for the Cardinal and they better enjoy it, as the man responsible for them getting there, coach John Harbaugh, is likely leaving after this game. The Hokies reaching the BCS seemed far fetched after they started the season with two losses, including an incredibly embarrassing loss at home to James Madison. However, any true Hokie historian shouldn't be too surprised, as Tech has made a habit out of losing big games early, then doing well when the pressure is off. That might be a good thing for tonight's game though, as most consider them to be pretty big underdogs to Stanford. It is easy to understand why, as the Cardinal are clearly a better team both offensively and defensively. The Cardinal are led by QB Andrew Luck, who will likely be the first pick in the NFL Draft if he decides to leave school early. Luck finished second in the Heisman voting on the strength of 3,051 yards passing and 28 TDs. Luck also completes an incredible 70% of his passes. Other dangerous offensive weapons for the Cardinal include RB Stepfan Taylor (1,023 yards, 15 TDs) and WR Doug Baldwin (56 catches, 9 TDs). Because of Luck the Cardinal defense doesn't get much attention but they held opponents to just 17 points per game, and had three shutouts this season. Tech's offense matured this season and it correlated with the maturation of senior QB Tyrod Taylor. Taylor had by far the best season of his career and earned ACC Player of the Year honors. The Hokie running game is a three headed monster led by Darren Evans and contributed to by Taylor and Ryan Williams, who is questionable for the Orange Bowl. Taylor spreads the ball around to many different targets, including WRs Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, as well as TE Andre Smith. I think both offenses will find success in this game but I think Stanford and the steady leadership of Luck will be too much for the Hokie defense to stop. Tech's run of eleven straight wins is impressive but Stanford will be by far the best team they have played all season.
Prediction: Stanford 31, Virginia Tech 20
Sugar Bowl, Tuesday, January 4th
#6 Ohio State (11-1) vs. #8 Arkansas (10-2)
Besides the National Championship game, this is probably the most anticipated BCS bowl. The Buckeyes don't have much history in their favor. Ohio State is 0-9 lifetime against the SEC in bowl games, and the Big Ten is coming off an absolutely embarrassing day on New Year's. Big Ten teams went 0-5 in bowl games that day, including 0-3 against the SEC. If the NCAA had any balls then the outcome of this game wouldn't even be in doubt. The Buckeyes had 5 players suspended for the first 5 games of next season, including QB Terrelle Pryor. Despite those suspensions, for some reason, those players are being allowed to play in this game. Pryor isn' t a prototypical QB but he did put up outstanding number this year. 2,551 yards passing, 25 TDs, 11 INTs, and a completion percentage of 65.8% is nothing to sneeze at. Pryor is also always a threat to run the ball, but the Buckeyes primary ball carrier is Dan Herron. WRs Dane Sanzenbacher, and DeVier Posey are Pryor's favorite targets and both had over 50 catches. Where the Buckeyes truly shine is on defense, giving up just 13.3 points per game. They will have their work cut out for them trying to stop the Razorbacks high powered offense. QB Ryan Mallett is coming off his second straight 30 touchdown season. He threw 3 TDs or more in a game eight times this season. He threw the ball less than he did last season and alot of that had to do with the emergence of RB Knile Davis. Davis comes into the Sugar Bowl having rushed for over 100 yards in four straight games. Despite Mallett's big stats, he doesn't have a standout big play receiver. Surprisingly, Jarius Wright and Joe Adams both have fewer catches and yards than their Ohio State counterparts Sanzenbacher and Posey. It's almost cliche at this point but I think the speed that the Razorbacks have will be unlike anything the Buckeyes have seen by playing their Big Ten schedule. I will be shocked if Arkansas doesn't at least double the Buckeyes average of giving up just 13 points per game. The Razorbacks defense is a major question mark, and the last time they played a quarterback as diverse as Pryor, was Cam Newton, and they gave up 65 points in that game. However, while somewhat comparable, Pryor isn't in Newton's league. I was having trouble picking this game, but the SEC whitewashing of the Big Ten on New Year's Day has me convinced that Arkansas will beat the Buckeyes.
Prediction: Arkansas 28, Ohio State 24
Overall Record: 74-16