TheDC sports columnist Andy Hayes: NFL playoffs wild card weekend picks

Andy Hayes Contributor
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Quick note to readers – sorry for not having picks for Week 17 of the season. A surgery derailed my writing plans for the week. Of course, in my spread pool for Week 17, I had my best week of the year at 13-3! Anyway, my final record for spread picks for the year was 135-117. Not bad but not great either.

For the playoffs, I will review each game and offer up a projected final score. Need to preface the picks for this week by saying that all of these games could go either way (yes, even the NO/Sea game) – very difficult set of games to pick. I happen to think that all 4 of the visiting teams are the teams that would win on a neutral field – but the homefield advantage can be huge in the playoffs.

Balt @ KC. Balt’s team identity under John Harbaugh is odd. They are a cold-blooded group with brutish style, but at the same time, they don’t seem to have the killer instinct needed to bury their opponents. They’ve played in lots of close games this year. They haven’t closed out opponents they should have closed out. They do have the pieces in place to go deep in these playoffs, but I can see Balt losing one of these weeks because they finally end up on the wrong end of a close game. (Interestingly, my preseason pick for the Super Bowl was Balt vs GB – two teams that lack a killer instinct. Perhaps part of the reason Balt doesn’t have a killer instinct may be because Jon Flacco shows very little emotion on the field. He needs to get mad. Ray Lewis should hit on his sister or something before the game to get him revved up…) On the other side, KC’s identity even more uncertain. They have some impressive victories and some really questionable losses (like last week at home against Oak – when coach Todd Haley set his team up to feel deflated by mistakenly playing his starters most of the game). KC’s problem is that their offense is overly reliant on Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe. If Balt can slow down the run in particular, they could double up Bowe and really render KC’s offense unproductive. As well as Charles and Bowe have played this year, I think Balt will likely succeed in slowing them down – meaning KC’s only chance offensively may be to get other guys involved like WR Chris Chambers, WR/RB Dexter McCluster or TE Tony Moeaki. Balt 24, KC 16. (For what it’s worth, if KC hadn’t played their starters last week and/or had played their starters and won, I might have taken KC in this game.)

New Orleans @ Seattle. New Orleans has already handled Seattle this year (34-19), they are favored by 10.5 points, they are the reigning Super Bowl Champs and oh…Seattle is awful. Almost seems like a bye week for the Saints. But the fact is, this game is a scary one for New Orleans. They are under a lot of pressure this week. They are expected to win. Seattle is brutally tough to beat at home, Matt Hasselbeck is 4-0 in the playoffs at home for Seattle, and New Orleans will most likely play this game without 4 of their key players: lead RBs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, DB Malcolm Jenkins and emerging touchdown machine, TE Jimmy Graham. With the injuries to Ivory and Thomas, it would seem obvious that Sean Payton would consider just giving RB Reggie Bush a fuller load. But Payton doesn’t like doing this and he may end up giving someone like Julius Jones the additional plays. This wouldn’t be smart. Brees likes the security of having one of his reliable RBs to throw dump off passes to and this year, at times when he hasn’t had that option, his tendency has been to force throws. And Brees ranks #2 this year in interceptions thrown (22) behind Eli Manning (25). Bush should get lots of playing time in this one but I’m not sure he will – whether Payton does this or not could be the difference in this game. On the other side, Seattle is led by a hyper coach, they play in a hyper environment and they have at least some talent. Ultimately, I expect Seattle to make a game of this, but Brees and company should overwhelm down the stretch. New Orleans 27, Seattle 23.

NYJ @ Indy. The Colts are lucky to have drawn one of the weaker overall teams in the playoffs – a Jets team that is fortunate to be in the playoffs. Problem for Indy is that they simply don’t match up well with the Jets. Led by Manning the Indy passing game is still quite good, but he’ll be throwing at a quality secondary that features 2 high quality cornerbacks (Revis, Cromartie). The loss of underrated S Jim Leonhard has seriously hurt the Jets over the last few games, but the Jets #6 ranked pass D should still give Manning trouble. Indy’s running game has improved lately, but will face the #3 run defense. Indy’s own run defense has also improved lately, but they are still ranked #25 in the NFL – and they will face the #4 NYJ rush offense. Something tells me that despite the huge leadership advantage the Colts have with Manning over Sanchez, the Jets will come out of Indy with a hard-fought win. Then they will get pummeled by New England next week. NYJ 24, Indy 20.

Green Bay @ Philly. The 2 keys to this game are keys few analysts are talking about: the Philly defense and LeSean McCoy. Philly’s defense is ranked right in the middle of the NFL overall (with respect to average yards allowed per game). They have not been too impressive this year. They haven’t been able to get into a good rhythm this year and they have been plagued by inconsistency. Can they smother the Packers’ running game and slow down Rodgers? Easier to stop the run, tougher to stop Rodgers. One critical factor in this game will be how often Philly decides to blitz. If they get blitz happy, Rodgers could destroy them and the Pack could coast to victory. Frequent blitzing would not be smart. However, if the Eagles are able to get pressure with just 4-5 guys consistently, Rodgers could really struggle. Rodgers struggles most when defenses pressure well with their D-lines allowing the rest of their defenders to sit back and clog the passing lanes. As far as LeSean McCoy, he is the leading receiver among RBs in the NFL. Vick and the Eagles use him brilliantly. He is also good at running the ball. A good number of times over the course of Philly’s season, McCoy has taken a broken play and turned it into a huge gainer – often because of Vick’s improvisation. I expect DeSean Jackson to struggle with the underrated CB Tramon Williams, and I expect Jeremy Maclin to have a decent game as Charles Woodson will likely be heavily involved in non-coverage-related activities- but it’s the play of LeSean McCoy that could very well determine the outcome of this game. One last thought: field position will likely be a quiet factor in this game. Both Reid and McCarthy like playing the field position game. Packers punter Tim Masthay has been on fire lately and Philly’s Sav Rocca is not bad himself – should be an interesting battle. GB 30, Philly 27.