What wild Wild Card weekend last weekend! Bumped the season record to 138-118 by going 3-1. Another round of fantastic match-ups this week.
- Balt @ Pitt. Last week I ripped Balt for not having a killer instinct – for not being able to close out teams they should close out. Well, they closed out the Chiefs big-time, playing a tremendous overall game. They left no doubts about how good they can be as they demolished a quality team. This week, they get to face their arch-rival in Pitt. Sometimes when I think about these two teams, I confuse them because they are so similar. Both are known for defense. Both have some quality WRs. Both have solid running games. Both have wily old veteran TEs. Both have smart, intense, no-nonsense coaches. Both have very good QBs (but also QBs who can mysteriously disappear from games). Both have safeties that give opposing QBs nightmares. Both have LBs who scare the crap out of opposing offensive skill players (and me). Both finished with 12-4 records. The more I think about this game, the more I think it would be most appropriate here to predict a tie. Balt 23, Pitt 23. First tie in the playoffs ever. Both teams move on to face NE. What, not possible? Fine. While my pre-season pick for the Super Bowl was Green Bay/Balt, I think Balt’s streak of quality play comes to an end this weekend. In fact, I see a Polamalu pick being the final blow. Pitt 23, Balt 20.
- Green Bay @ Atlanta. Before the season, I thought the Pack would meet Atlanta for the NFC Championship game. Almost. Atlanta is very sound, very well coached, talented, disciplined, intelligent and brutally difficult to beat at home. While their defense is only OK, they do have a very good, very balanced offense and a quality special teams unit. Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, Ovie Mughelli, John Abraham – these are all guys in the top 5 at their respective positions (actually I’d put Ryan at about #6 or #7 for QBs in the NFL). Picking against Atlanta in any game pre-Super Bowl, frankly, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But on the other side, there is a very hot Packer team that doesn’t seem to know that they should be intimidated by the NFC’s #1 seed. The Packers took down Philly last week with a sensible game plan conceived by Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers and executed by the players. Because McCarthy knew that defensively, Andy Reid would be focused on shutting down Rodgers’ passing game to his favored WRs, McCarthy astutely directed a majority of Rodgers’ passes to RBs, FBs, and TEs. (Only 7 of Rodgers’ 18 completions went to WRs.) Reid and Philly simply weren’t prepared for this. Of course, they also weren’t prepared at all for McCarthy calling 23 run plays to the unknown RB James Starks. GB finally has a threat in the backfield – something that wasn’t there for the Week 12 match-up between these two. But McCarthy very much tailors his weekly game plan to his opponent’s defensive weakness- so as much as James Starks was the unlikely hero last week, I wouldn’t be surprised if his role was reduced a bit in this one due to Atlanta’s questionable pass D. He’ll get touches for sure as McCarthy will again work hard to establish the run early (to set up play action) – and if he happens to go off, he’ll get more touches yes. But I’m expecting Atlanta’s D will do a decent job stopping Starks, but a not-so-decent job stopping the passing game. Rodgers and company lit up the Atlanta D back in Week 12 and I think McCarthy will eventually rely on Rodgers to win this game. This is one of the most difficult picks I’ve had to make in a long time. I think ultimately, as much as I’ve talked about offense here, the key to this game will be the Packers’ defense turning Matty Ice into Matty Slush. Green Bay 27, Atlanta, 23.
- Seattle @ Chicago. The upset picker in me (and the Packer fan in me) really wants to take Seattle here. But for some reason, I can see the Bears not only beating Seattle, but crushing Seattle. I don’t see a Hasselbeck gem this week like he had last week. I don’t see any Beast Mode runs by Marshawn Lynch. I don’t see Seattle playing so freely and comfortably with nothing to lose. Instead, I do see a Chicago defense that will suffocate the Seattle offense. I think the Bears’ D is a bit overrated frankly, but at home against Seattle in the playoffs, I think they will be very difficult to penetrate. The O-Line of Seattle is suspect and I expect the Bears to bring plenty of pressure with just 4-5 guys, making life miserable for Matt Hasselbeck. I also see Jay Cutler having to do relatively little as Matt Forte and Chester Taylor run wild, exposing the Seattle defense for what it is: bad. And I also see Devin Hester and Manning doing some return damage. Sorry Seattle, your unlikely run ends here. Chicago 31, Seattle 13.
- NYJ @ NE. I’ve come across this comment now several times when reading previews for this game: “what happened during the season means nothing now because it’s the playoffs”. Ummm… that’s not true. NE absolutely destroyed the Jets at home toward the end of the season because NE has developed into a really good team and the Jets are in decline. (I know, the Jets beat the Colts in Indy last week – but the Colts were arguably the weakest team to make the playoffs this year). One of the factors in the Jets’ decline that few people have talked about is the devastating injury to the true defensive leader of the Jets – safety Jim Leonhard. The Jets were 9-2 with Leonhard and are 2-3 without him down the stretch. In fact, in their first game without Leonhard, NE rolled the Jets to the tune of 45-3. Brady carved them up then and Brady should carve them up this weekend too. What I find annoying is that Rex Ryan won’t shut up about how good Darrelle Revis is, ridiculously claiming last week that he’s the best player in the NFL – yet I’m not even sure Revis is the most valuable player on his team – I’d say Jim Leonhard is. (The Jets were much better earlier in the year when Revis was injured than at the end of the year minus Leonhard). In fact, when taking together Ryan’s recent “best player in the NFL” comment with his staunch defense of Revis for Defensive Player of the Year last year – I’m beginning to wonder if Revis has nice feet or something. NE 27, NYJ 16.