Friday, January 14, 2005

NFL: Week 19 Picks (Divisional Round)

Games are listed in time order. Saturday's games are at 4:30 and 8:00. Sunday's games begin at 1:00 and 4:30.

Beware the pitfalls of picking too many upsets this week. Despite three of four underdogs winning last week, the divisional round is another story. The favorites are tougher and have had more time to prepare. I'm only selecting one upset this week, although there is a conceivable chance of an upset in all four contests.

New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers... Pittsburgh
If you’re looking for an upset, it’s unlikely to happen here. There are reasons to believe that the Jets can make the game competitive. They kept it close last time in Pittsburgh before getting fooled by a Jerome Bettis HB option pass. The Jets still have the NFL’s best rusher in Curtis Martin. If he has a 200-yard game, it would keep the game tight. I’m mildly concerned about Ben Roethlisberger in his first playoff game. That might just be me getting nervous for no reason. If any rookie QB is equipped to handle the pressure of a big game, it’s Big Ben. However, playoff games are much different than regular season ones. We won’t know for sure until the game on Saturday. The Jets will have to utilize their speed receivers and try to work the ball downfield. This means having Chad Pennington throw the deep ball and try to break a long TD reception. Expect backup RB LaMont Gordon to be utilized in a change of pace measure. I almost would have felt better had they not had the bye week. The Steelers had so much momentum going, especially after beating Buffalo in Week 17. On the plus side, Pittsburgh has had three weeks (they rested their starters in Week 17) to get Roethlisberger, Burress, and Staley healthy. I like Pittsburgh to win because of their ability to run the football. Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley combine to make up a premiere NFL rushing tandem. The Steelers will try to put Roethlisberger in as few “uncomfortable situations” as possible. If you look back to their Week 14 meeting, which Pittsburgh won 17-6, they ran Bettis and Staley 26 times for a combined 108 yards. Pittsburgh played much smarter in that encounter, committing only two penalties compared to 12 for the Jets. Overall, Pittsburgh has been very difficult to beat this season. I don’t see any glaring weaknesses that prevent them from beating the wild card Jets. The Steelers simply have a better defense, with which they can control the clock and maintain decent field position. Still, I expect a close game that will be enjoyable to watch.

St. Louis Rams at Atlanta Falcons... Atlanta
It’s hard to tell whether the Falcons are worthy of their number two NFC seed. Personally, I have a hard time picking any 8-8 regular season team to win a divisional round playoff game. Mike Vick has shown the ability to play well in playoff games. Back when the Packers were nearly invincible at Lambeau, a young Vick was able to go in and win a playoff game. Clearly, the Falcons are only good because Vick is on their team. When he got hurt last season, their team stunk. In late season games last year when he returned, Atlanta looked great. St. Louis has a few factors working in their advantage. The Rams like to play on the artificial turf in St. Louis. Fortunately, the Georgia Dome has artificial grass as well. Secondly, Marc Bulger has a QB rating of over 100 in his last three games. Even though Vick had a mediocre passing season, he was able to run for over 900 yards. He poses challenges to the Rams defense that weren’t presented by immobile quarterbacks like Matt Hasselbeck and Chad Pennington. The Falcons defense has the ability to make big plays. They recorded 48 regular season sacks and returned four interceptions for touchdowns. This game comes down to which Marc Bulger shows up. Despite his recent success, St. Louis is turnover prone. That plays right into the Falcons hands. On the other hand, Atlanta has been anything but spectacular this season. They’ve benefited from a number of close wins and a fairly easy NFC South schedule. In the end, I trust the coaching of the inexperienced Jim Mora, Jr. to out manage the unpredictable Mike Martz.

Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles... Philadelphia
I realize that a lot of experts will suddenly forget about the Vikings season of futility and jump on their bandwagon this week. These are the same people who thought Minnesota had zero shot to beat the Packers. Try and remember a few things. First, Green Bay’s home field hasn’t been great the last few years. Brett Favre has lost two home playoff games in the past three seasons. Favre, despite all his regular season successes, hasn’t played great in playoff games recently. I’m not trying to rehash last week’s game. However, it must be noted that the Vikings didn’t just beat the ’85 Bears. The Vikings are the type of team you never should get too confident in. When you think they’re world-beaters, they disappoint. Just when it looks like they’re dead, Minnesota will surprise you with a victory. For the Eagles, this game comes down to preparation and mental toughness. Even without Terrell Owens, this is a similar Eagles offense to the one who made last year’s NFC Championship Game. They have been able to get by without a game-breaking receiver in the past. The bigger question is whether Freddie Mitchell and Todd Pinkston can step up and replace Owens’ 77 catches. If I’m coach Andy Reid, I lean heavily on the playmaking abilities of Donovan McNabb. If the OL gives him enough time, McNabb can find holes in the Vikings secondary. Additionally, Brian Westbrook will be relied on to make the big offensive plays. Westbrook’s absence in last year’s playoff game versus Carolina is pointed to as a big reason why Philadelphia missed an opportunity at making the Super Bowl. In closing, Minnesota has their work cut out for them. I know that Daunte Culpepper could have another spectacular game and throw three touchdown passes to hobbled WR Randy Moss. The Vikings defense could conceivably play a second uncharacteristically good game and contain McNabb & Co. Unfortunately for Minnesota, the Eagles have a much more solid defense than the one they faced last week in Green Bay. McNabb by himself is probably capable of winning this game for Philadelphia. I’m not saying the Eagles are invincible, but I do think they have the playoff experience and resolve to defeat the mediocre Vikings.

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots... Indianapolis
The last game of this playoff weekend may very well turn out to be the best contest. It’s a tribute to Bill Belichick and the job he’s done that New England comes in a 2.5 point favorite. Many have criticized kicker Mike Vanderjagt for his ill-timed comments, but the Patriots are ripe for the picking. New England’s biggest hindrance is the loss of key secondary players. Both their starting cornerbacks, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, are lost for the season. Their replacements, Asante Samuel, Eugene Wilson, and Randall Gay are banged up as well. New England was forced to sign free-agent CB Hank Poteet this week to fill in these vacancies. In addition to the losses in the secondary, pass-rushing DE Richard Seymour is questionable. I saw in the Miami/New England game in Week 15 where Troy Brown, the team’s star WR, was forced to play defense and got burned by Derrius Thompson in the last minutes of that game. New England may try to blitz Manning and force him into making mistakes, but that poses dangers as well. If Manning keeps his cool and avoids committing costly turnovers, he could throw long receptions to Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Stokely. For New England to win, they must keep the game close early and avoid getting down by ten points in the 1st Quarter. We’ll probably see Charlie Weis run Corey Dillon on first down. One of the Patriots strengths is their ability to get in 3rd and short opportunities. It’s much easier to manage 3rd and 5 than 3rd and 10. If Dillon is unable to have success controlling the clock and field position, I’d take Manning to beat Brady in a shootout. While Brady is certainly a premiere playoff QB, Manning may have developed enough over the past year to find a path to victory. The one intangible that favors New England is their ability to win close games. With the notable exception of the Miami game, New England almost always finds a way to win. That’s why they are 29-2 in their last 31 games. It’s incumbent that the Colts come in prepared to win in the 4th Quarter. This means that Mike Vanderjagt cannot miss a crucial FG and Peyton Manning must keep errors to a minimum. When it comes down to making the selection in this game, it’s hard to ignore the trends that New England has established over the past two seasons. On the other hand, trends aren’t always indicative and you have to see when those trends are likely to be reversed. The fact remains that Indianapolis is in a much better position than they were last season. In the AFC Championship game of 2004, the Colts lacked TE Dallas Clark. Now, they have three receivers with over 1000 yards and ten touchdowns, along with a 1500-yard running back and weapons at tight end. With the new strict NFL defensive rules, Patriots cornerbacks might get called for a lot of pass interference and holding calls trying to contain Indy’s playmakers. A few early penalty calls would be enough to spook those defensive backs and allow Manning to get the big pass completions needed for victory. I feel that Peyton Manning and the Colts are facing a must-win playoff game on Sunday afternoon. For his 49 regular touchdowns to mean anything, he has to validate it on Sunday and play big when it counts.


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