Wednesday, January 5, 2011

2010 "Expert" NFL Playoff Predictions

The National Football League's postseason is here, so let the prognostications begin. Back in September, I originally thought that Green Bay would defeat Indianapolis in the Super Bowl. I correctly selected seven of the 12 playoff teams - not the best percentage, but who forecast that the (still) hapless Seahawks or even the Chiefs in the playoffs this year? But, this column is meant more for discussion, debate, and enjoyment. So, here goes nothing.

Wild Card Round

New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts
This matchup could not be more of a battle of contrasts. Jim Caldwell - calm, mild-mannered, team manager. Rex Ryan - brash, outspoken, and more of a "details" guy. Peyton Manning - NFL superstar, veteran leader, can read a defense like nobody's business. Mark Sanchez - game manager, sophomore QB, makes erratic throws at times. Indy's running game - a huge question mark with three decent but unspectacular options in Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, and Dominic Rhodes. Jets' runners - LaDainian Tomlinson is a first ballot Hall of Famer, but his production has slipped significantly lately while Shonn Greene has been steady, although not the impactful halfback the Jets would have expected based on how he finished 2009. Indy's receiving corps has taken major hits with season-ending injuries to Dallas Clark and Austin Collie. Blair White and Jacob Tamme have filled in, but the weight falls on Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon to get open for Manning. Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards are great weapons at the wide receiver position, and Dustin Keller could be a nightmare matchup for Indianapolis' defense. The Colts' speed pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are most effective when Indianapolis gets a lead. If this game remains close and New York can run the ball, expect the threat of those defensive ends to primarily be neutralized. Gary Brackett is a beast of a linebacker, who is all over the field. Antoine Bethea has bolstered the Colts' secondary since Bob Sanders found himself on injured reserve yet again. The Jets' defense was touted as the league's best before the season began. They have faltered a bit down the stretch. Darrelle Revis is still a fantastic cover corner, but his dominance has not achieved his 2009 levels. Jason Taylor is no longer a preeminent pass rusher. The linebacking corps is often left vulnerable by the risky, blitzing schemes that are called by Ryan at almost every opportunity. Special Teams - the kicking game favors Adam Vinatieri and the Colts due to Nick Folk's penchance for missing makable field goals. However, Brad Smith is an elusive return man for the Jets, and could provide an offensive spark if a gimmick play is called at the opportune moment. 
Rob's bold prediction: the Jets pull the upset and defeat the under-manned Colts by forcing Manning to rely on underneath routes. Sanchez plays adequately, but it's the defense that earns the victory. Jets 24, Colts 20.

Can Revis Island make an appearance against Peyton Manning's depleted receiving corps?

Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs
The state of Missouri went from absolutely inept in 2009 (St. Louis was 1-15 and Kansas City was 4-12) to nearly having both its teams winning divisions this year. Matt Cassel has shocked many (myself included) with his precision, and ability to lead the Chiefs to the AFC West crown and a playoff berth. Jamaal Charles is averaging over 6 yards per carry. No, that's not a misprint - 6 yards!! Dwayne Bowe had a huge comeback season this year with 15 touchdown receptions. Meanwhile, Tony Moeaki exhibits great hands at the tight end position. Tamba Hali creates havoc in the opposing backfield and the defensive secondary features playmaking youngsters, Brandon Flowers and Eric Berry. The wild card on the team is the shifty return man / running back / wide receiver Dexter McCluster. Supposedly, Kansas City looked ahead of their final regular season opponent, Oakland, by preparing for the Jets and got trounced 31-10. Now, they face a more seasoned team in the Baltimore Ravens. Joe Flacco has led his Ravens to road postseason victories over his first two seasons, so facing a hostile Arrowhead Stadium crowd likely will not phase him. Ray Rice is a dual threat out of the backfield and Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Todd Heap offer Flacco options all over the field. Then, there's the vaunted Ravens defense. They are best suited for stopping the run with Haloti Ngata at nose tackle, Ray Lewis still runs sideline to sideline to make plays. Terrell Suggs has revved up his motor over the past two months by intimidating QBs with his relentless pass rush. The cornerback position is especially weak for Baltimore, however Ed Reed makes up for many liabilities with his ballhawking mentality. It is youth versus experience, upstarts against veterans. If you look closely at the past four games, the Ravens won...but, "Cool Joe" Flacco has looked lost. He has all these options, a good running game, a talented offensive line and the wins are there, but the stats aren't. 
Rob's bold prediction: the Chiefs' home field advantage is not overcome in back-to-back weeks. Baltimore's offense does not score enough points. Chiefs 21, Ravens 13.

Will Arrowhead's aroma of barbecue distract Joe Flacco and company?

New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
Well, it's nice to know that we have at least one worthy playoff team in this matchup. The Saints are defending Super Bowl champions and deserving of their 11-5 mark. They have all-world quarterback, Drew Brees. He distributes the ball so well to whoever the open guy is. That could be any one of the weapons in the arsenal - Marques Colston, Robert Meacham, Reggie Bush, Jimmy Graham, Lance Moore, etc., etc. Sean Payton has a very pass-happy offensive gameplan for New Orleans. So, running backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush aren't primary options. Their defense forced turnovers consistently in 2009, but guys like Will Smith haven't put as much pressure on QBs and ball-magnet safety Darren Sharper has been out most of the season. But, Jonathan Vilma still leads a reliable group of linebackers. Then, there's the 7-9 Seahawks. They're not a playoff team but unfortunately, they are. I think it would be a disservice of me to try and break down the prominent players on the Seahawks because there aren't any. The only one worth mentioning is the 12th man - the home crowd at Qwest Field. They're the loudest stadium in the league, but it won't affect Brees and company.
Rob's ho-hum prediction: Saints 34, Seahawks 10 in a yawner. I'm bored even writing about this one.

Anybody who thinks this man is a legitimate NFL quarterback deserves to be ridiculed.

Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles
By my estimation, these teams are mirror images of one another. This contest could be an absolute shootout, rivaling that of the Green Bay / Arizona playoff game from a season ago. Michael Vick and Aaron Rodgers with their respective passing games will give viewers the most entertaining game of the weekend. Having said that, Philadelphia's offensive line has allowed a few too many hits on their redemption story QB down the stretch and Green Bay has seen Rodgers face two concussions recently. Neither team is known for running the ball - the Eagles because of their West Coast passing offensive philosophy, the Packers because of a season-long injury to their starter, Ryan GrantLeSean McCoy is a versatile runner for the Eagles, but his forte is getting out of the backfield as a receiver. Don't be surprised if there is between 700 and 800 passing yards between the two teams and 60 to 70 points scored. The triple threat of Eagles receivers DeSean JacksonJeremy Maclin, andJason Avant spread out the field to allow Vick to use his arm or, more dangerously, his legs. Greg Jennings and Donald Driver are the recipients ofAaron Rodgers' laser rocket passes. Both defenses feature elite pass rushers in Clay Matthews, Jr. and Trent Cole. Each secondary has a lurking defensive back that can find the ball, if the opposing quarterback makes an errant throw; Rodgers and Vick should be mindful to avoid Asante Samuel and Charles Woodson. Expect both defenses to dial up the pass rush because (1) neither team has a dominant running game, (2) the vertical passing game is the biggest threat for both offenses, and (3) the backup QB for both teams is not nearly as capable as the top dog. I think that the difference between the two teams is the defensive coordinator positionDom Capers will show some wrinkles that will fluster Philly's offensive braintrust (Andy Reid, Marty Morninhweg, and Vick) with the pre-snap look of the amoeba defense. If Jim Johnson hadn't succumbed to cancer and was still spitting along the Philadelphia sidelines as the top "D" man, I'd pick the Birds.
Rob's hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing prediction: The Cheeseheads makes one timely play on defense to bring a Philly scoring drive to a halt. Packers 34, Eagles 28.

Michael Vick would have a long day if he saw enough of Clay Matthews, Jr. to determine what shampoo he used.

So, there you have my first round predictions. I'm not going to go into an exhaustive discussion on subsequent games because the matchups could certainly change, but I do have a general feeling of how I think things will shake down as the playoffs progress.

Divisional Round

New York Jets at New England Patriots (projected matchup)
Tom Brady will pick apart the Jets, not to the tune of 45-3, but it will still be an easy victory.

Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers (projected matchup)
The Steelers' run defense will contain the Chiefs' ponies, making them one-dimensional. A close game because of special teams, but Pittsburgh prevails.

New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears (projected matchup)
I usually look at QBs when making selections as playoff rounds go deeper. Brees vs. Cutler? I'll take Brees and New Orleans.

Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons (projected matchup)
A tantalizing rematch of an outstanding regular season game where Atlanta kicked a last second field goal to win. Matt Ryan and crew are a year away from a Super Bowl. The Cheeseheads are victorious.

Conference Championships

Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots (projected matchup)
The Pats (and more specifically Tom Brady) are the Steelers' kryptonite. The curse continues...New England goes back to the Super Bowl after a three-year absence.

Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints (projected matchup)
The most difficult matchup for me to predict. Two excellent teams, but I'm going with Green Bay. Brees makes an inopportune mistake to allow Rodgers and GB to head to Dallas.

Super Bowl

As much as I would like to stick with my preseason selection of Green Bay to win it all, I can't foresee anyone defeating the Patriots. Brady is picking apart defenses so easily right now. If someone could force him to throw a few interceptions, I would predict a Patriots loss because they give up a lot of yards and points. But, no one is doing that right now.

Mr. Gisele Bundchen might hoist Lombardi for the fourth time in his career, this time with floppy hair.

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