Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Wild Cards Tank, Interesting Matchups Await in Divisional Playoffs

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. This year’s wild-card entries in the NFL playoffs were by and large teams that struggled just to get into the postseason. So when all four lost last weekend, by hook and by crook, perhaps justice was done. Getting to the Super Bowl is a survival-of-the-fittest proposition, and it’s a secure feeling knowing that the very best teams have advanced.

As for the losers, we’ll be brief:

Kansas City Chiefs—Peyton Manning was off for the Colts, but the Chiefs couldn’t take advantage of the situation. Instead, their running game was gridlocked, they didn’t use the passing game effectively, and playing decent defense only became painful to watch as the Colts’ offense—even with Manning throwing three interceptions—eventually wore them out. Mediocrity has no place in the postseason. Sayonara, Chiefs.

Dallas Cowboys—Tony Romo gets the rest of his life to ponder mishandling a field goal snap that probably would have won his team the game against the Seahawks. Both teams ran hot and cold, but, as predicted here, it was a fair matchup and a damn exciting game. I still think the Cowboys are the better team, but they didn’t exactly blow the ‘Hawks away. And, as we all know, mistakes’ll kill ya.

New York Jets—They hung in there for a good while, and when it was 23-16, they still had a fourth-quarter shot at the Patriots. What can we say? Tom Brady may not have all the theatrics of Peyton Manning, but he’s a great quarterback. If playoff performance is how we gauge the great ones, Brady remains the king of contemporary pro football. The Jets simply weren’t good enough.

New York Giants—It went down to the wire against the Eagles, and the Giants aren’t a bad team. But they end the year at 8-9, and that’s nothing to crow about. Now they need to go find a running back to replace the retired Tiki Barber. And the verdict’s still out on Eli Manning. They probably don’t need that many spare parts to get their engine running again at full throttle, but it remains to be seen if Tom Coughlin is the guy to advance their program.

We were 2-2 against the spread on Wild Card Weekend, with the Colts and Patriots looking stronger than anticipated. The divisional matchups look very tough to predict, but the home teams have to like their situations. Straight-up predicted scores are followed by the predicted winner ATS.

Spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.


Indianapolis Colts (13-4) @ Baltimore Ravens (13-3)
Saturday, January 13, 4:30 p.m. EST, CBS

Maybe it’s good for Indy that Peyton Manning got a mediocre game out of his system against the Chiefs. He’s going to need all he can muster against the Ravens’ defense, which isn’t all Ray Lewis anymore. Now there’s Adalius Thomas and Terrell Suggs to worry about, both young turks with killer instincts. Of course, Lewis is still hanging around, and playing good football. The Ravens’ offense isn’t a terror, but it’s consistent and efficient enough to grind out yardage and make scoring plays when it counts. This is a huge test for Steve McNair, who brought his talent and experience to Baltimore to lead them to the playoffs. He’s done just that, but he’s got to avoid his occasional penchant for the inopportune interception and also get at least 70-80 yards out of on-again/off-again RB Jamal Lewis. Will the Colts’ defense step up again as it did versus the Chiefs’ running game? That’s a huge factor here. This one could go any number of ways. If the Ravens’ D is on its game but its O is not, it might be a very low-scoring affair. If Manning is hot but the Colts’ D reverts to form, scoring could be rampant. This is the playoffs, where defense always seems to count the most. Look for the Ravens to be aggressive and physically punishing, and look for that to take its toll.

Prediction: Ravens 20, Colts 17
ATS: Colts (+4)

New England Patriots (13-4) @ San Diego Chargers (14-2)
Sunday, January 14, 4:30 p.m. EST, CBS

It’s sure hard not to favor the Patriots. They’re getting to be the New York Yankees of pro football: You can’t help but respect them, but you also want to see them lose because they’re so formidable. They’re going to have to confront the Chargers’ defense here, which, when it wants to turn it on, can be overwhelming. The Jets, for all their effort last week versus the Pats, simply are not the Chargers when it comes to pressuring the quarterback, and Tom Brady will have to be at his sharpest for his team to have a chance. But probably the biggest consideration in this game is the performance of Chargers QB Philip Rivers. He’s had a very productive year and clearly has high-caliber skills. But he’s also never been in a playoff game before. If his running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, breaks out big-time, maybe Rivers won’t have to think so much, but you can bet that Pats coach Bill Belichick is scheming with that very fact in mind. Shutting down LT and pressuring Rivers will be a mighty feat to pull off. Then there’s the Marty Factor. Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer has a history of jinx in the NFL playoffs. His career regular season coaching record is 200-126-1; yet he’s only 5-12 in the postseason, including some gut-wrenching losses back when he coached the Cleveland Browns in the ‘80s. More recently, following the 2004 season, he lost a home playoff game to the Jets. He’s the Robert E. Lee of his profession: a great leader, but greater glory eludes him. Now he faces Belichick, who I suppose is Ulysses S. Grant—the unlikable winner type. This should be a terrific game. Maybe LT can win it all by himself, and Marty can relax. That seems unlikely, though. (Factoid of interest: Chargers are undefeated at home in 2006.)

Prediction: Chargers 20, Patriots 14
ATS: Chargers (-5)


Philadelphia Eagles (11-6) @ New Orleans Saints (10-6)
Saturday, January 13, 8 p.m. EST, FOX

The #3-seeded Eagles kinda get screwed here: They played a wild-card game on Sunday, but now play on Saturday, losing one day of preparation. (Meanwhile, the NFC’s #4 seed, the Seahawks, who played their game on Saturday, get an extra day on their schedule, since they play the #1-seeded Bears in Chicago on Sunday.) Plus the Eagles have to travel to New Orleans, where they lost in the regular season, 27-24, back in Week 6 when they had Donovan McNabb healthy. It all bodes negatively for feisty Philly, who also lost valuable DB Lito Sheppard to injury against the Giants. Can Jeff Garcia continue the magic? Does Brian Westbrook have another killer game in his bruised-up frame? History is not on the Eagles’ side. The Saints are rested, have some youth in Reggie Bush, and their QB, Drew Brees, has been exceptional all year long. It’s an upset if Philly wins, though not an impossible task. But somehow it seems like their drive to the Super Bowl, fueled mostly by character and heart, ends here.

Prediction: Saints 24, Eagles 16
ATS: Saints (-4.5)

Seattle Seahawks (10-7) at Chicago Bears (13-3)
Sunday, January 14, 1 p.m. EST, FOX

More than talent, the Seahawks seem to have luck. That might help them against the Bears, who destroyed them 37-6 in Soldier Field in Week 4. Otherwise, the Bears have built an impressive record against decidedly unimpressive competition. They only played two teams this year who finished above .500: the Jets (whom they beat 10-0) and the Patriots (to whom they lost, 17-13). The Bears can be had, without question, but are the Seahawks the team to do it? Yes, if Bears QB Rex Grossman plays so badly that he gives them the game. No, if Grossman plays fairly well enough, and the Bears’ defense and special teams show up like they’re capable of doing. Seattle was lucky to get past the Cowboys last week, but going into Chicago with a banged-up secondary, and with QB Matt Hasselbeck and RB Shaun Alexander still not performing up to expectations, they’ve got a steep hill to climb. If Bears RB Thomas Jones put forth an aggressive blue-collar effort and the Bears’ D swarms to the ball, the rest should take care of itself. Keep your eyes on Bears return man Devin Hester. Chicago hasn’t seen his like since Gale Sayers.

Prediction: Bears 24, Seahawks 13
ATS: Bears (-8.5)

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