Friday, January 07, 2011

NFL -- Wildcard Weekend Picks

In a very strange twist of events, for the first time in as long as I can remember, it looks like all four of the lower-seeded teams in this weekend's Wilcard Round games in the NFL have a good argument that they are actually the better team in their respective matchups. I mean, obviously the defending Superbowl champion Saints are far better than the embarrassing 7-9 Seahawks, who will host the Saints on Saturday due to the NFL's playoff seeding system that puts all division winners ahead of all wildcard teams right off the bat. That same system also has the 11-5 Jets travelling to the 10-6 Colts on Saturday afternoon, although that is at least a much closer matchup where you could easily see either team finding a way to win. And in the Sunday games, it's the 12-4 Ravens visiting the 10-6 Chiefs in the early game in another matchup of a far better record travelling to a far worse record team due to the NFL's divisional structure. And then Sunday's late game is what most are viewing as the best game of the weekend, a matchup of the 10-6 Packers visiting the 10-6 Eagles, but when the two teams played heads-up in Week 1, the Packers bested the Eagles in Philadelphia, albeit with Kevin Kolb at quarterback in what seems like it was about 10,000 years ago. I'm not sure I can ever recall a situation where all four of the road teams have a good argument to actually be the superior teams, and in particular where three of the four matchups feature a team with a better record on the season going on the road to play at a team with a worse seasonal record, doubly in particular in this case with two of the matchups being a road team visiting a home team with at least two fewer wins on the year.

All that said, the Vegas lines on these games are adjusted accordingly to take into account all of the above, and the end result is four games which are all pretty much hard to pick. With that in mind, I'm going to deviate from what I did during the regular season and just force myself to make picks for all four games, and see what happens. Whether I will really bet these lines in real life remains to be seen, but unlike my regular season predictions where I pretty much only posted picks on the games I had good confidence in, I'm planning to go ahead and just make my guess for each playoff game from here on out and see how I do.

For starters, I like the Saints over the Seahawks, even giving the 11 points Vegas has come up with for the line between one of the league's hottest teams and defending league champion and a truly bad sub-.500 divisional winner. In looking at Seattle's schedule, if you throw out Carolina and Arizona -- perhaps the league's two worst overall teams -- Seattle's total scores over its last 8 games have been, in order of most recent to least recent: 16, 15, 18, 21, 24, 19, 7, 3. The 21 and 24 both came in blowout losses as it is, and included a fair amount of trash time late in the game where those last points were not defended by the opponents with nearly the ferocity that the Seahawks are sure to run into this weekend in the Saints who are defending their Superbowl title. And, the 'Hawks are either looking at Charlie Whitehurst again at qb this weekend, or a beat-up Matt Hasselbeck at something like 70%. Basically, I'm thinking the Seahawks are going to score mid-teens in this one (unless the Saints run up 40), and the Saints should be able to pile on some serious points with their offense. New Orleans already scored 34 points at home against the Seahawks when they played in mid-season, and the Saints have put at least 30 on the board in 6 of their last 8 games to boot. This one looks to me to be a low-30s to mid-teens affair, which means the 11 points is not likely to be enough to cover the massive chasm in skill between these two squads. Especially with Seattle's average margin of defeat this season sitting at over 21 points, I'll take the champs and lay the points here, albeit a huge line for a road favorite in the playoffs.

In the second game on Saturday, it's the Colts favored by 3 points at home against the Jets, which is also a rematch of last year's AFC Championship. Only, this year, both teams seem a little worse than they were last year, and it seems to me that whoever wins this game is going down hardcore next week, regardless of which team wins and which team they play in the conference semis. That said, something tells me that Rex Ryan and the Jets will find a way to defend well enough against the Colts' incredibly one-dimensional offense, as Indy is the #1 passing team in the league but the #29 rushing squad. They're going to be an easy game plan in relative terms for what is still a strong defense in New York, and even the return of Joseph Addai a few weeks ago is likely to do a whole lot to remedy this big imbalance. In addition, the Jets' Mark Sanchez has had an inconsistent year, having particular trouble against aggressive, talented defenses, but the Colts just don't have one. They are 13th against the pass on the season, and 25th against the run. This means the pressure will likely be off of Sanchise to make things happen with his arm, and when he needs to make a play, the Colts have just not had a great time this year coming up with the big stops on any kind of a consistent basis. In all, I think this is a close game, but with the Jets getting 3 points on top of a favorable matchup, I think New York is where the value lies for this one.

Moving to the early game on Sunday, the AFC West champion Chiefs are getting three points at home against the Ravens, and even though I have been behind the Ravens as a dark horse Superbowl candidate all season long, I think this one could be a tougher matchup for Baltimore than most people seem to think. Yes the Chiefs haven't been good for several years before this one, but this is a deceptively good team, with the NFL's #1 rushing attack, a wideout with 1170 yards and 15 touchdowns, and a quarterback who threw 27 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions on the season. Although the Chiefs' defense is pretty much average at best, the Ravens don't exactly feature the type of offensive onslaught that is likely to give KC trouble, and the Chiefs have perhaps the single best home-field advantage in the NFL, losing in KC only in the last game of the season this year after the Chiefs had already clinched their first divisional crown since early in the last decade. Although I have a definite worry that the Chiefs faced only two playoff teams in 16 games all season long (one of them being 7-9 Seattle!), the Ravens no longer have the incredible team defense that they did a decade ago. I could see the Ravens squeaking one out in KC for sure, but on balance with the Chiefs having a lot going for them in this game and that incredible home field advantage, I think taking KC plus 3 points is the value pick here.

And then we come to the toughest game of the weekend to pick, both from a spread standpoint and for me from a personal standpoint as well, being a lifelong Philly fan. The Eagles are favored by 3 points at home against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, who sneaked into the playoffs with a Week 17 win over the Bears to knock the Giants and Bucanneers out of postseason contention. In the Packers' favor, Aaron Rodgers is pretty much the class of the NFC as far as quarterbacks go, and the team has a solid defense as well to boot. Andy Reid's amazing postseason ineptitude is another big plus that simply cannot be overlooked from Green Bay's perspective, as his in-game management is basically as bad as any coach in the league today. On the Eagles' side of the ledger, though: the game is in Philly, and the Packers were just 3-5 on the road this season, with one of those road wins over the Kevin Kolb-led Eagles way back in Week 1 -- a totally different team -- and another against the hapless Vikings back in Week 11. This is simply not a good road team, who managed to lose during the season at the likes of Washington and Detroit in the second half. The Packers are also another of these totally one-dimensional teams like the Colts, with the Pack ranking as the league's 5th-most prolific passing team but just the 24th-best running squad. And let's not forget that Packers' head coach Mike McCarthy is almost equally poor at game management as Andy Reid, so it's not like there should be a big advantage either way there. This one is so hard to pick, because the Pack's total give-up on the running game is going to make things much easier to game-plan for Andy Reid, and Reid does know how to win a game in the early rounds of the playoffs, and in this case he's facing a team that has not played well at all on the road overall on the year. But the Packers should benefit from the general beat-up nature of Mike Vick at this point in the season, and the game plan that the Giants twice put together as well as the Vikings most recently in showing how to take Vick out of his comfort zone pretty easily. I could go back and forth on this one all day, so in the end I think you have to take the points and go with the Packers, who could easily win the game outright, but could even lose a close one and still get you the winning pick for the game.

So in all, I'm laying the big points on the road in the one totally lopsided matchup on Saturday, but otherwise I am taking the points and the road team in the close matchups at Indy and at Philly, and am again taking the dog and the points at home with the Chiefs. Other than the Saints - Seahawks, this may be the best set of Wildcard Round matchups in recent memory in the NFL.

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Blogger Tilt said...

I love KC tomorrow, but I'm curious if you have any opinions to my latest post. Maybe you could do a column on how I'm wrong and Simmons/Dilfer are right?

5:12 PM  

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