Divisional Playoffs (Jan. 15 & 16, 2005)
When it comes to the NFL playoffs, the pundits like to trot out statistics about domed teams and cold-weather teams and visiting teams. If you play in a dome at home, and you're on the road in an open-air stadium, you don't stand a chance, right? I guess the won-loss statistics back this stuff up. Nevertheless, I gotta go with instincts. This year, the NFC has certainly looked like the NDC (National Dog Conference). .500 clubs abounded, and not only did two of 'em make it into the playoffs--Vikings and Rams--but they both advanced in the Wild Card round. So as far as I'm concerned, anything could happen. The AFC looks a little more predictable, but it's risky indeed to pick against those Patriots. Call me crazy, but I like how these predictions feel.
New York Jets @ Pittsburgh Steelers
The Jets don't have much of a chance. They're on the road against a typically hard-hitting Pittsburgh team. Bettis and Roethlisberger, who gets to throw to Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle-El, will probably be too much for the Jets' admirable defense. Curtis Martin would have to have an all-world day running the ball for the Jets to have even a flicker of an offensive breakthrough. Pennington is good, and he has some talented guys to throw to, like Santana Moss and Justin McCareins, but overcoming all the odds is simply too tall of an order.
Final score: Steelers 24, Jets 17
Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots
The Patriots have enough talent, charisma and mystique to win this game. Not to mention home-field advantage, playing outdoors in chilly weather against a dome team. They also have Tom Brady and Corey Dillon, and the latter has all kinds of incentive to prove that he's a great running back in this, his first-ever playoff appearance after toiling for years with lousy Bengals teams. But the Pats' defense is hurting seriously. The defensive backfield is a patchwork job at this point, with last year's playoff star Ty Law out for the season. Law intercepted Peyton Manning three times in last year's AFC Championship Game. Instead, the Pats just signed retread journeyman Hank Poteat to their playoff roster, in an effort to shore up the secondary. Not a good sign. Heck, even a very good and healthy secondary would have its hands full facing Manning and his minions. (Just ask the Broncos, who have All-Pros Champ Bailey and John Lynch in their secondary and got their asses whipped last week.) So how do the Patriots shut down the Colts' passing attack? Their only chance is to bring it hard against Peyton, using their aggressive front seven linemen and linebackers. No doubt crafty Pats coach Belichick is scheming, but if Manning can get useful yardage out of Edgerrin James, he should find sufficient opportunity to get the ball to those dangerous receivers. Either that, or he'll simply light up the Pats' secondary like a Christmas tree. It's a huge game for Manning: the chance to prove he's as good as the records say he is. The Colts defense isn't perfect by any means, but they're playing aggressively and young Dwight Freeney is coming into his prime. They'll stave off Brady & Co. efficiently enough.
Final score: Colts 28, Patriots 24
Minnesota Vikings @ Philadelphia Eagles
How good are the Vikings? Well, there's only one other question more perplexing, i.e., How good are the Eagles? Supposedly, the Eagles are the cream of the NFC. Well, they were with Terrell Owens, anyway. But he's injured for the rest of the year. There's talk that TO will make it back for the Super Bowl. Fuggeddaboutit. The guy's a severely wounded bird, and the Eagles aren't the same on offense without him. McNabb's good, but he's been known to make errors too. He's back to throwing to his mediocre receivers and relying on a ground game that features Brian Westbrook. Westbrook has his moments, but exactly how good is he? What's really scary is that there's talk that aging Dorsey Levens may be shouldering more of the burden out of the Philly backfield. Levens has shown flashes of his past skills, but he was never that good even when he was a youngster. If the Bizarro Levens shows up, things could get pretty ugly. Which means that this game could come down to the Eagles' defense shutting down QB Daunte Culpepper and receivers Randy Moss and Nate Burleson. Without a doubt, the Vikings are a conundrum. They have serious talent on offense, including their running backs-- Michael Bennett, Onterrio Smith, Mo Williams--who are mostly unheralded but are pretty tough customers. (Alas, Williams won't play due to injury. Mewelde Moore has shown flashes of talent in a support role off the bench.) The Vikings defense intercepted Brett Favre four times last week, and the unit as a whole looked a lot more aggressive in the upset victory over the Packers. Fact is, the Vikings have a chance here. Owens is worth 14 points to the Eagles in a big game like this, but he won't be there to provide them. Which means if Culpepper brings his brilliance, the Eagles will fall (again).
Final score: Vikings 24, Eagles 20
St. Louis Rams @ Atlanta Falcons
Michael Vick is another conundrum. Yeah, he's a great athlete. His highlight reel is vastly entertaining. But I dunno. The Rams come from Missouri, the Show-Me State, and Vick'll definitely have to show them he's the real deal. It's hard to know if the Rams are truly on a roll. They've won three straight, and they pulled out a victory on the road last week, but the Seahawks they vanquished are simply the most gutless squad around. Still, QB Marc Bulger looked pretty good throwing to his receivers, who are a well-disciplined bunch. The Rams also have rookie running back Steven Jackson, who is capable of a breakout game of serious proportions. And maybe even Marshall Faulk has one great game left in him. The Rams' defense is only so-so, but they might get Vick to run around alot, which always looks good on camera but often looks bad on the final scoreboard. Warrick Dunn is still a gifted back for the Falcons, but there's no guarantee he'll bring his A game. It's the Falcons' defense that will have the most to say in this game. They're supposed to be pretty good, if not an elite NFL unit. They could harass Bulger and shut him down, while Vick runs and passes his way into the playoff record books. Both teams are dome teams, for whatever that's worth. If the Rams fail, we can't blame it on the weather or the fake turf. But it says here that Bulger and Torry Holt and Kevin Curtis and Jackson and/or Faulk have the talent to ratchet it up for a surprise victory. They could take an early lead, Vick could panic, and the Falcons could fly away.
Final score: Rams 23, Falcons 20