Saturday, January 5, 2013

My NFL Postseason Picks: Wildcard Weekend

Hello all, it’s the beginning of the best postseason in major sports this side of March Madness.  The NFL playoffs kickoff today. Below is the Breakdown of each game.  Of note, I will include the line, the Over/Under, and what I think the score will be.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have been on a winning streak since beginning the season 3-5.  Since their week 9 loss to the Broncos, the Bengals have gone 7-1.  The defense, which has a litany of former first round talent, has allowed the 8th most points in the League this season (spearheaded by Defensive Tackle Geno Atkins).
Their run was fueled by feasting off of poor teams. The biggest question mark for this team, is how they will do against the better teams they’ll face in the Playoffs?  The Bengals played 3 playoff teams (the Ravens twice) this season, going .500 in four games;  that stellar defense that gave up 20 points per game, allowed more than 30 in such contests.


Houston Texans (+4.5)

Houston comes into the playoffs limping a bit as they lost their grip on first place (and a first round bye) with their loss to the Colts in the final week of the regular season. Add that to a 1-3 record over the last four weeks, and the former darling of the AFC has lost some support nationally from analysts and pundits.
Offensively, only the Texans can boast a 1500+ yard Wide Receiver, a running back that hung up 1400 yards for the season, and a QB that topped 4,000 yards this year.  Their balance is completely unmatched with pro bowl-level talent at all of their offensive skill positions. The Texans ranked 8th in points scored this year at 26 points per game.

Defensively the team has been inconsistent.  Houston has given up 30+ points four times this season, but has also allowed single digit points three times. Defensive Lineman, J. J. Watt, has been in the Defensive Player of the Year discussions since the season began and anchors a line that has shown the ability to pressure the QB consistently with 44 sacks on the season (tied for 5th overall this year).

There’s really nothing wrong with this team.  It’s just that Matt Schaub has never won a playoff game, and it seems like this franchise has been talented for awhile with no tangible form of success to show for it whatsoever. They’ve suffered some humiliating losses to the Packers and Patriots (they gave up 42 in each affair), but they’ve also been in the discussion for the League’s best team right up until the end of the regular season.

The Bengals are hot. Regardless of the class of their competition, they could only beat who was put in front of them. But their poor defensive showings against the class of their schedule worry me. Add that to the fact that Houston only lost two home games, and I’ll avoid the chic pick and go with the Texans 27-24. Over/Under 43.0.

Minnesota Vikings (-7.5)

It’s nice in 2013 to have a throwback team based on running the ball.  This is all about Adrian Peterson and how effective he will be in the contest.  Usually a look back to the schedule and how they fared against top competition would be necessary, but the combatants are divisional rivals and just played last week.  The Vikings prevailed late in that contest as Peterson willed them down the field late for a game-winning FG to cap the final drive of the game.

Christian Ponder has only thrown one interception in the four-game winning streak that the Vikes have enjoyed since week 14. The team is not overly talented outside of the RB and offensive line, so limiting turnovers will be at a premium in this final contest of the year between the AFC North rivals. In the games where the Vikings have limited themselves to one turnover or fewer, they are 7-1 (3-5 in all other contests).


Green Bay Packers

The Packers have managed to fly under the radar most of the season.  After starting off poorly, and surprising experts by losing to the Seahawks (albeit in controversial fashion) and the Colts (who no one predicted would be a playoff team), they finished the season strong going 9-2 over their last 11 contests.  Everyone knows that the Packers can score with arguably the best QB in the League. Additionally, WR Randall Cobb has emerged as Greg Jennings recovered from injury this year.

The real story has been the Packers defense as they lost Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson for stretches of the season (although both will be playing today). Also of note, they’ve been historically gashed by Adrian Peterson with a two game total of over 400 yards. 

Matchup: It’s as simple as this, limit Peterson to a mortal’s amount of yards and they will win the game.  Easier said than done…and they haven’t been able to say it or do it in their two previous meetings. The League’s best QB vs its best Running Back; I don’t believe the Packers will stop Borg.  Resistance will be futile for Green Bay and they will fall 24-21 to the Minnesota Vikings. Line 45.5. 

Baltimore Ravens (+7)

The tone of this game completely changed once Ray Lewis announced his retirement from the NFL after this season.  Previously, it had been all about the Colts, and whether the Ravens could continue to play well on Defense to help their inconsistent offense led by QB Joe Flacco.  With his start Sunday, Flacco becomes the first Quarterback to start a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. 

The Ravens are 1-4 over the past 5 games.  Because they clinched early, the Ravens seemed to have relaxed and lost their edge. Baltimore also fired its Offensive Coordinator following its Week 14 loss to the Washington Redskins, and replaced him with Jim Caldwell who was formerly the QB coach for the team. Since Caldwell took the reins of the offense, the team has averaged 22.3 points per game.  Before the replacement, Baltimore averaged a full FG more with 25.5 points per contest.


Indianapolis Colts

The team did a masterful job of handling a potentially awkward situation at the Head Coach position.  Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with Leukemia at the beginning of the season and Bruce Arians was tagged to takeover.  Arians did a wonderful job helping star rookie QB Andrew Luck to improve steadily throughout the season and steered the team into the playoffs before Pagano came back to win the season finale.

More important than the coaching carrousel has been Luck’s maturation, specifically his dearth of turnovers over the past three weeks, after being among the League’s leaders midway through the season.  Despite the fact that the team beat the playoff teams of the Texans, Vikings, and Packers, they failed to beat a team over .500 on the road.

Matchup: There are some great storylines to this game; Ray Lewis’ exit and Pagano’s return are paramount among them.  I have a hard time seeing a rookie QB (that has a tendency to be loose with the ball) beating a ball-hawking defense led by the most dangerous Defensive Back in history in Ed Reed. 27-21 Baltimore. Over/Under 47.

Seattle Seahawks (-3)

I can’t even begin to be objective about this team.  I screamed that teams would regret that they didn’t take Russell Wilson in last year’s draft. Wilson was dynamic at NCSU and featured beautifully at the University of Wisconsin.  Pete Carroll took him in the 3rd round and had a legitimate QB competition in training camp, despite the fact that the team spent $10 Million on free agent QB Matt Flynn.  Wilson beat Flynn out, and has marched to the head of the Rookie of the Year class.  He has continued to improve on a team that already featured a fantastic running back in Marshawn Lynch.  Between Lynch and Wilson, Seattle boasts a strong running game that allows it to use play-action and option-read plays to get the ball down the field in the passing game.

The most exciting thing about this team may not be the Pro Bowl RB, or the ROY-candidate QB.  Seattle’s defense is physical, fast, and swarming.  They’re effective too, the defense surrendered the least amount of points in the League this year.  Brandon Browner returns from suspension for use of performance enhancing drugs, and will start alongside Cornerback Richard Sherman.  The team has the most physically imposing tandem of corners in the league, if not the outright best at the position.


Washington Redskins

Robert Griffin III is the League’s most exciting player.  One of the most accurate deep ball throwers in the league is also its fastest…at least he was, until he was hurt in the Ravens game.  Griffin missed the next game and the Redskins showed exactly how well coached and deep it was when backup Kirk Cousins led the team to a must-win game over the Browns.  Indeed, Griffin may not even be able to beat out a fellow rookie on his own team for the coveted ROY award.  Alfred Morris had 1600 yards rushing this season and joined the pantheon of Running backs that Coach Mike Shannahan uncovered late in the draft (6th round) that ascended to the League’s elite.

Despite losing All-Pro Brian Orakpo early in the season, Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has the defensive squad playing extremely well.  In their finale against the Dallas Cowboys, they stifled and confused Tony Romo into three interceptions that ultimately cost Dallas the game and their chance at the postseason.

Matchup: This matchup is the perfect “Good Look/Bad Look” game.  It’s a good look that, due to this matchup, we are guaranteed that one of the three rookie sensations at QB will be in the next round.  Obviously that also means that this matchup also guarantees that one will be going home as well. 
The Redskins and Seattle are mirror images of one another, dynamic QBs at the head of run-first teams.  Add two really good defenses, and it has the makings for a tough game filled with big plays.  With RGIII still gimpy from his LCL strain, I think Wilson & Co. will beat the Redskins in the Nation’s Capital. 28-21 Seahawks. Over/Under 45.5.

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