2011 NFL Divisional Round Playoff Predictions

e second half of their NFL Wildcard game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, USA, 09 January 2011. EPA/LARRY W. SMITH fotoglif882326

I started off the NFL playoffs by hitting 3 of 4 last week in the Wildcard Round. I nailed the Seahawks, Jets and Packers, but I talked myself out of the Ravens earlier in the week. If the regular season is any indication, then I have a 1-3 weekend coming up…

The sides this weekend are way too hard to predict. I honestly would be guessing at whom to take with the spread, which is why I focused on the totals in the Divisional Round. But for those that are interested, I did offer a glimpse as to which team I would lean towards.

Enjoy and as always, Merry NFL Playoffs.

Ravens @ Steelers, 4:30PM ET, Saturday
Trying to decide between these two teams is like asking a parent to pick which identical twin he or she wants to keep and which one it wants to give away. (Kind of morbid I know, but it’s all I could think of on a Friday afternoon when my mind is on this weekend’s games. So back off.) Earlier this week, I loved the under in this matchup because you have to figure that the defenses and kickers will be busy. But then I saw a couple of trends that made my jaw drop. The over is 9-1 in the Steelers’ last 10 home playoff games and 5-1-1 in the last seven meetings between these two teams in Pittsburgh. The total has also gone over in 18 of Pittsburgh’s last 21 games in January. This matchup has 13-10 written all over it but with those stats, how could you not take a chance on the over with it sitting at 37? If I had to choose a side, I would go with the Ravens +3.5. But that’s only because I think this is will be a field goal game either way and therefore the hook would come in handy.

Packers @ Falcons, 8:00PM ET, Saturday
This is the best matchup of the weekend in my opinion because it might as well be a conference championship game. That’s how good both of these teams are and the only reason the Packers are a No. 6 seed is because they had to overcome injures all season. While everyone focuses on Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan, I think the key to this game will be the two defenses. The Packers haven’t given up more than 17 points in three weeks and the Falcons haven’t given up more than 18 points in four weeks. Both defenses are playing at a high level right now and given what’s at stake, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a relatively low-scoring game. The Falcons have to get Michael Turner going in order to slow the tempo of the game down and keep Rodgers on the sidelines. They can’t get into a shootout and considering neither of these teams turns the ball over much, I like the under.

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2011 NFL Wildcard Predictions

Seattle Seahawks’ linebacker Will Herring (54) celebrates after intercepting a St. Louis Rams pass in the fourth quarter of the NFL’s Western Division Championship game on Sunday January 2, 2011 at Qwest Field in Seattle. The Seahawks beat the Rams 16-6. (UPI /Jim Bryant)

Here’s some fade material for your NFL weekend…

Saints @ Seahawks, 4:30PM ET, Saturday
I don’t have the stones to predict an outright win for the Seahawks and even if I did, I wouldn’t want to be accused of going against the grain just for the sake of going against the grain. Plus, I don’t think Seattle has enough weapons to slow down Sean Payton’s offense for four quarters. That said, I love the 10.5 points here. When I first saw the spread for this matchup, I racked my brain trying to figure out if I had ever seen a road team lay that many points in a playoff game before. I couldn’t think of one because there hasn’t been. The Seahawks are the biggest home underdog in NFL playoff history. Look, this isn’t college football. It’s hard enough for a home team to cover as a double-digit favorite in the NFL, let alone a road team to cover such a large spread. And considering the Saints won’t be able to run the ball, the Seahawks should be able to keep this game somewhat close. Seattle is still one of the toughest environments to play in – I don’t care how poorly the Seahawks are performing. This one will be much, much closer than most people think.

Jets @ Colts, 8:00PM ET, Saturday
By now, everyone is aware of the hold Peyton Manning has on Rex Ryan. He’s 5-1 against Ryan-led defenses and has thrown for 1,513 yards and 12 touchdown passes to only two interceptions. That said, I think the Jets will control the tempo of this game from the start and leave Manning on the sidelines. The best way to beat Peyton is to limit his opportunities to beat you. You’re never going to be able to completely shut him down (even in his four-interception game against the Chargers he still tossed two touchdown passes), but allowing him to speed up the tempo of the game is forbidden. He wants to have the ball in his hands so that he can attack your defense. Therefore, the Jets have to run the ball with success and grind the tempo of this game to a screeching halt. I expect this game to be boring and if it is, the Jets win outright.

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NFL Wildcard Weekend Preview: How the Seahawks can beat the Saints

A New Orleans Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees is seen in the slide line as the Saints play the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Banks Stadium in Baltimore on December 19, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

I hate standard game previews. Do we really need to know that Team A needs to run the ball to beat Team B? Thanks for the thrilling commentary, captain obvious.

That said, I do love me a good X’s and O’s piece, so below I’ve broken down how the Seahawks can beat the Saints (and vice versa) in the teams’ Wildcard matchup this weekend. Feel free to let me have it in the comments section if I write something along the lines of, “If they run the ball effectively.” There’s no need for me to repeat something Mark Schlereth is going to tell us on “NFL Countdown” leading up the game.

SAINTS WIN IF: They show up? Seriously though…Pete Carroll announced on Thursday that Matt Hasselbeck will start for the Seahawks this weekend. If that’s the case, New Orleans’ defensive coordinator Gregg Williams may actually want to dial down his pressure. Charlie Whitehurst has been a career backup and has zero playoff experience, so it makes sense to force him to make snap decisions by sending pressure. But although he’s struggled mightily over the past couple of weeks, Hasselbeck is a playoff veteran who knows he has to get the ball out of his hands quickly when faced with a heavy rush and he usually can find his hot routes. When the Hawks played the Saints in Week 11, Hasselbeck went 6 for 6 for 128 yards with a touchdown and a perfect passer rating of 158.3 when New Orleans sent six or more pass rushers. Williams has always been known for being an aggressive playcaller and there’s no reason to change that approach now. But there’s obviously a difference between being aggressive and being overly aggressive. The Seahawks’ running game has been inconsistent so if the Saints can get them in obvious passing downs, they may have more success sitting back in coverage and making Hasselbeck throw into tight windows. We know the Saints’ offense can score but that doesn’t mean they need to get into a shootout. If Seattle strikes for a couple of big plays early in the game because Williams is too aggressive, the Seahawks may start believing they can win.

SEAHAWKS WIN IF: There’s no doubt the Hawks are up against it. They’re outmatched in almost all phases of the game and nobody would be surprised if Drew Brees marched the Saints up and down the field on them. That said, the Seahawks still need to be aggressive. I don’t want to say they don’t have anything to lose because that’s garbage; they have a playoff game to lose, which is pretty significant. But at 7-9 they are playing with house money so there’s no reason to be conservative. Hasselbeck (366 yards, 1 TD, 104.9 QB Rating) will have to play just as well as he did in the first meeting between these two teams for the Seahawks to have a shot. The defense also needs to be aggressive, especially if, as expected, the Saints can’t run the ball. If Brees is going to beat you, make him beat you while throwing under duress. He may throw for 300 yards and a couple of touchdowns, but he also threw 22 interceptions this year so obviously he’s prone to turning the ball over. One or two turnovers can make all the difference in the final score. (Just look at the Bucs’ win over the Saints in Week 17.)

NFL Divisional Round Preview

Before I get to my Divisional Round Preview, I’d like to send all of the losers from Wild Card Weekend off the only way I know how: By jabbing them one final time.

Atlanta Falcons: Hey Mike Smith and Mike Mularkey, his name is Jerious Norwood. He’s #32 and he’s one of the best playmakers on your offense. Might want to think about using him more the next time an opposing defense figures out how to shut down Michael Turner.

Indianapolis Colts: Seven trips to the postseason in the last seven years and you only manage one Super Bowl appearance with a three-time MVP at quarterback? Dear Barbara…

Miami Dolphins: Chad, I love you man and I love your story this season. But you can’t force passes down field into double coverage and expect good things. You should have kept doing what you did all season and what you did in your first possession of the game – hit the high-percentage passes and let your receivers get the yardage.

Minnesota Vikings: Did anyone else scratch their head when Brad Childress declined a holding penalty on third down early in the first quarter that would have moved the Eagles on the edge of field goal range? Instead, it brought up forth down and David Akers drilled a 43-yarder to give Philly a 3-0 lead. Childress basically said, “I’m not sure if my defense can hold the Eagles on 3rd and 14 – better give up the field goal so we don’t give up a potential touchdown instead.” You never give your opponents points in the playoffs. Never. Not even a field goal. Force them back, force them to make a play and force them to earn the points.

Myself: I went 1-3 with my Wild Card Predictions last week. Seriously? You went with the Colts in the playoffs? A rookie in Matt Ryan? The Vikings over everyone’s sleeper team in the Eagles? You’re a freaking bum. (Ironically I went 3-1 in a family football pool because I came to my senses and picked San Diego and Philly.)

Moving on…

Chris JohnsonBaltimore Ravens (11-5) at Tennessee Titans (13-3)
Saturday, January 10, 4:30PM ET
Opening Odds: Titans –3
Over/Under: 34.5
Game Outlook:
No disrespect to the Giants and Eagles or any other team playing this weekend, but this is easily the best matchup on the divisional playoff schedule. Did you see what Ed Reed and the Ravens did to Chad Pennington and the Dolphins last week? They held them to only 276 total yards, forced five turnovers and surrendered only 52 rushing yards. And although they used a lot of gadget formations throughout the season, it’s not like Miami’s offense was a dud this year. Granted, the Titans have the seventh best rushing attack in the league and rookie Chris Johnson brings an added dimension to the field, but Mike Heimerdinger has his hands full this week trying to come up with a game plan to move the ball against a Baltimore defense allowing just over 15 points a game this season. That said, it’ll be interesting to see how rookie quarterback Joe Flacco does against the seventh best defense in the NFL. Flacco passed with flying colors last week while playing mistake-free and running for the game-clinching score in the fourth quarter. But he’ll have to do a hell of a lot more than complete 9 of 23 passes for 135 yards against a Tennessee defense that could have DT Albert Haynesworth and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch back on their defensive line. If both players are in the lineup Saturday, Flacco is going to feel the heat up the middle and from the edges so he better get rid of the ball in a timely manner. Overall, this is the best defensive matchup of the year and this game will probably come down to who doesn’t turn the ball over.
X-Factor: Chris Johnson, Titans RB
The only time the Dolphins found success last week was when they used the Ravens’ aggressive style against them and slipped backs out in the flats. Pennington was able to hit Patrick Cobbs and company for seven to 10 yard gains and the Titans could employ the same method. Johnson is a homerun threat and more than capable of taking one to the house every play. Tennessee has to get the ball in this kid’s hands and force the Ravens to miss tackles in the open field, which they have the penchant for doing at times.
Prediction: Titans 16, Ravens 13.
I’m not going to bite on this potential upset. The Ravens’ defense is absolutely nasty, but Flacco worries me against a ball-hawking Tennessee secondary and I think the Titans are going to shut down Baltimore’s running game. This game comes down to which team makes fewer mistakes and I’ll take a veteran in Kerry Collins over the rook Flacco. (Word to the wise though, Kerry – stay away from Ed Reed’s side if you can.)

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NFL Playoff Preview: Wild Card Weekend

What a bizarre season this has been. Two teams that many pundits figured would meet in the Super Bowl – the Cowboys and Patriots – didn’t even make the playoffs. While two teams expected to dwell the cellars of their respective divisions for another season – the Dolphins and Falcons – will be playing in round one of the postseason, which kicks off this weekend.

Below is a complete playoff preview for the four Wild Card games this weekend. In each game preview you’ll find a matchup breakdown, a player to keep an eye on, odds, and a predicted score. (What’s a game preview without a prediction?)

Rather amazingly, all four home teams are underdogs this weekend.

Matt RyanAtlanta Falcons (11-5) at Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
Saturday, January 3, 4:30 PM FOX
Opening Odds: Falcons –2
Over/Under: 51
Game Outlook:
Outside of having to face Kurt Warner and a Cardinals’ offense that averages over 290 passing yards a game, this is a great matchup for the Falcons. Arizona has had issues stopping the run over the past couple weeks and before Edgerrin James cracked 100 yards Sunday against the Seahawks, no Cardinal rusher hit the 100-yard mark in the previous seven games. Offensively, that means Atlanta can do what it does best – put the game in the hands of Michael Turner. “The Burner” is coming off a 208-yard rushing performance in Week 17 and hasn’t shown signs of wearing down despite this being the first season that he’s had to carry the full rushing load. Look for the Falcons to try to wear down Arizona’s front seven throughout the game and keep the Cards’ explosive offense on the sidelines. Once the Cardinal safeties start to creep up to stop Turner, Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey can start taking shots down the field with rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. Defensively, the Falcons will have to keep their safeties back in coverage and rely on their front seven to stop the Cardinals’ run game because corners Chris Houston and Dominique Foxworth can’t contain Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in one on one coverage. Although Boldin has missed the final two games with a shoulder injury, he’s expected to play, which is obviously huge for Warner and the passing game. But if they can’t run the ball they’ll be to one-dimensional and the Falcons will be able to sit back in coverage.
X-Factor: John Abraham, Falcons DE
Abraham has been an absolute beast this season and if the Falcons can build a decent lead with their running game, it will allow Abraham to pin his ears back and head straight for the quarterback. Atlanta has done a nice job rotating their defensive linemen all season to keep them fresh and if Abraham can get pressure on Warner, he’s bound to make mistakes and turn the ball over.
Prediction: Falcons 30, Cardinals 27.
Atlanta’s secondary is a concern (especially with safety Lawyer Milloy nursing a back injury), but the Vikings exposed the Cardinals two weeks ago and the Falcons will use the same blueprint.

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