Friday, January 13, 2006

NFL Playoffs - Divisional Round

Last week: 3-1

Stupid Giants. Or, as Tiki Barber would say, Stupid Coughlin.

Tiki's a veteran. He should know better than to do that. The coaches couldn't have adjusted with success if they had wanted to. The line wasn't blocking, the QB looked mystified, and the Panthers basically had a field day for three hours because of it.

Meanwhile, the Redskins won a game despite only having 120 yards of offense and losing their best defensive player in the third quarter because he decided it would be a good idea to spit in an opponent's face. The champs won easily thanks to OMG TOM BRADY (oh, and Willie McGinest was good, too). And Pittsburgh overcame a 17-7 second-quarter deficit to show the Bengals exactly why Carson Palmer is the starter and Jon Kitna isn't.

On to the divisional playoffs, where upsets are common, and we get at least one more week of Irrational Brady Love, which is on the verge of replacing Irrational Favre Love as the most annoying on television in the fall and winter. Catch the fever.

Because I got lucky it worked so well last week, we'll list the games in order of my confidence in the picks on these games, starting with the least confident.

--> Carolina at Chicago, 3:30pm Sunday, FOX
The Bears have a great defense. Harris. Brown. Urlacher. Briggs. Brown. Vasher. Some unbelieveable talent back there. Great ballhawks and some solid grinder types that make sure the running game doesn't get off the ground. They're well-coached, too, with Lovie Smith letting coordinator Ron Rivera do the grunt work. The Bears will come after DeShaun Foster and Jake Delhomme all afternoon, making it exceptionally difficult for Carolina to sustain any offense, something that wasn't a problem for the Panthers last week.

--Let Carolina push them around
--Fail to protect their young QB who will be making his first playoff start
--Let Carolina hold the ball for FORTY-THREE FREAKING MINUTES!!
--Single-cover Steve Smith with the small/old/slow/worthless Terrell Buckley
--Fail to do anything to spread out the Carolina defense

Now, Carolina can pull this upset. The Bears sacked Delhomme eight times, notable because Carolina only allowed 28 sacks the whole season. I don't think it will happen again to that extent, because I think Carolina will be better prepared. There's no way they let the Bears front four slaughter them like that again. If anything, look at what happened when the Bears played the Packers a second time (Christmas Day). Even the injury-riddled, incompetently-coached Packers were able to slow that rush down in the second meeting, which came after the Bears almost killed Favre at Soldier Field. You can't even use the "They didn't have anything to play for" argument, because a Bears loss would have opened the door for Minnesota to potentially win that division.

I'm not sold on Rex Grossman. Maybe I will be after this game, but I'm not right now. I don't think he's been that impressive, and I think it was a huge mistake to not play him in the Minnesota game. I don't see the Bears moving the ball consistently against the Panthers, and I don't see the Panthers doing it to the Bears, either. The Bears have been ballhawks all season, but the Panthers took it away five times last week in a road playoff win.

I am not very confident, but I'm taking the road team.

The pick: Carolina

--> New England at Denver, 7pm Saturday, CBS
Tom Brady. Tom Brady. Tom Brady. Tom Brady. Tom Brady. Tom Brady.

You gotta love Brady, declared "underrated" this week by the legendary John Madden. Now we get to see Brady and his disrespected Patriots in their first road playoff game since the 2001 season. And this time, they don't have Kordell Stewart to lean on.

My respect for New England makes this a tough pick. The Patriots have been great at responding when people questioned them. They have rallied when they need to rally, getting great defensive performances when they needed them, ran the ball when they needed to run it, and had Brady playing great when nothing else worked. And if these things happen again on Saturday night, the Patriots will move on.

However, if Denver can run the ball, stop the run, avoid mistakes, or slow Brady down, they're going to end the Pats' run and, for now, the ridiculously premature dynasty talk.

I think it will happen. Note use of the word "think".

Denver hit a lot of big plays in their earlier win over New England. Grizzly Plummer threw two long TD passes, and Tatum Bell broke a 68-yard TD run. With Tedy Bruschi expected back, this probably won't happen again.

Plummer has been great for Denver this year. He's cut down on his mistakes, been much more efficient, and has been a better decision-maker. Unlike the 2001 Steelers, where Kordell was mainly an aberration during the season (and proved it every now and then), Plummer has been pretty consistent, especially at home.

The Patriots haven't gotten much out of Corey Dillon this year, but they'll need it to stay in this thing tomorrow night. If everything falls on Brady's shoulders, the season will be over. But I have yet to see anything from Dillon that would convince me that he can be relied on.

The story on Saturday will be Denver's ability to run the ball, coupled with New England's inability to run the ball. The Colts won't get their rematch.

The pick: Denver

--> Washington at Seattle, 3:30pm Saturday, FOX
120 yards. That's all. And they won! Incredible.

Great work by the Washington defense, which has flown under the radar this season thanks to the Bears' defense. The Redskins will need it again this week, as they fly west to take on a Seattle team that hasn't lost a real game since September (let's not count the last game in Green Bay, where the Seahawks weren't really trying).

The difference in this game is the ability Seattle has to attack you all over the field. Hasselbeck is a very good passer, and they have a top-three RB in Shaun Alexander, who is still amazingly playing for a 2006 contract. They have a coach in Mike Holmgren who is determined to prove he can win in January without Brett Favre at QB.

And, by the way, Seattle's defense, which got valuable rest time thanks to their ability to clinch home-field advantage a week early, is pretty good. They'll slow down Clinton Portis until Mark Brunell proves he can throw the ball to win. Oh, and I'm guessing they'll take adequate care of Santana Moss. The Redskins are just too thin and too reliant on their defense, which was all over the place last week. Now they have to travel cross-country to play a rested team that's determined to prove they belong where they are.

The pick: Seattle

--> Pittsburgh at Indianapolis, 12pm Sunday, CBS
It was nice to see the Steelers prove last week that they didn't need a strong running game to win in the postseason. For just the second time in Bill Cowher's reign, they won a road playoff game, and they did it behind their second-year QB's throwing ability.

Ben Roethlisberger might have a terrible beard, but he played well in Cincy. He was efficient, and he may have proven that last year's playoff struggles were nothing more than a learning experience.

However, Indy's defense is better than Cincinnati's. By a lot. The Colts have Dwight Freeney and friends up front, and they'll slow down anything Pittsburgh tries to do on the ground, along with providing more than just some token pressure on Big Ben. They have playmakers all over the field on defense, and they're well-rested. Pittsburgh will have trouble scoring points.

The Indy offense is ready, too. Keep in mind that Cincinnati moved the ball at will until Jon Kitna turned into Jon Kitna in the second half. The Bengals had 17 points at the break, and they looked unstoppable at times offensively. The Steelers defense, to their credit, buckled down and made some huge plays in the second half, but I don't think the formula will work for them this week. They'll slow the Colts' attack down a little bit, but it won't be enough to keep the season from ending.

It will be close for a time, but look for Indianapolis to run the ball effectively in the fourth quarter, and they'll get just enough from Peyton Manning to advance.

The pick: Indianapolis

No comments: