Tuesday, January 5, 2010

NFL Wild Card Weekend Picks

Wild Card Weekend is historically the fool's gold weekend of the NFL season. The real Super Bowl contenders are home watching the games, resting their players, secure in the knowledge that on average, three out of four of them will be moving on to the conference championship game in a week. This weekend is for giggles and gamblers and the doomed fans of not quite good enough laundry, and while you can dream about Big Mo Men Tum giving you the edge you need to overcome rest and home field, it's a dream.

Except, of course, in the more recent years of the league, where Random Chance seems to be the biggest determining factor driving events. A week ago, the Eagles were a trendy choice as the hottest team in the NFC; now, they are the longest longshot on the board, and their fans range from funeral to mutinous. In another week, everything could be back to square one again, because that's just the way it is now. Teams are an injury and a turnover away from hitting the rail, and we're supposed to be picking these games with confidence. I have none, and if you do, maybe you're watching a different league than me.

In the NFC, only the Cardinals have less than 11 wins, and in the AFC, the Chargers and Colts are in a class by themselves. Which means that everyone is looking for a dark horse in the NFC, and chalk in the AFC. I still believe in the Old Ways of home field and rest, and think that we're going to see a Chargers vs. Saints Super Bowl. But given my sub .500 efforts this year, I'll understand if you go in another direction.

And with that... on to the picks!

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JETS at Bengals (-3)

Three of four games this weekend are rematches from last weekend, of course, and the Jets vs. Bengals game is the most perplexing of the bunch. New York utterly dominated the AFC North champions... but that team had no interest in winning the game, since it would have given them a Texans team that they don't like as a matchup. The Bengals played most of their starters in the first half and did nothing, but they didn't run anything from their real playbook, and also didn't use #1 RB Cedric Benson. It's also very possible that top WR Chad Ochocinco wasn't at full speed.

But here's the thing about this game: it doesn't really matter if the Bengals were playing possum. The Jets will win or lose this game by themselves.

The dirty little secret of this Bengals team is that they are going to be *someone's* easy out; it's just a matter of when. The offense isn't versatile enough beyond Ochocinco, especially after the loss of WR Chris Henry; the Bengals just don't have a good threat out of the backfield or from the tight end position, and in today's NFL, that's two less weapons then they need. Add in the relative lack of mobility for QB Carson Palmer, and it's a pretty simple offense to stop: just take away Benson and Ochocinco, neither of them a top 10 talent, and they are done. Even when they are hitting on all cylinders, they aren't putting up more than 24 on anyone...

Unless, of course, they have a short field. Which is how the Bengals can win this.

Jets rookie QB Mark Sanchez has been a turnover machine, even in limited use from injury and hyper-conservative play-calling. His pocket presence isn't good on strips, his short range game is prone to telegraphing, and the only thing that he does really well right now is throw the deep ball. But he can just hand the ball off, and the Jets' offensive line is just beastly, as are the power RB combo of Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene.

Perhaps I'm just getting fooled by the SNF game, and the Bengals defense will not go quietly into that good night... but this Jets team, assuming Sanchez doesn't crap the bed, is just too good on the lines. There's also the fact that the world has caught up to the notion that Darelle Revis is liable to do something spectacular on a national stage, and that I can't see Benson get more than 80 yards on the ground... and the home team will need about 1.5 times that, really. It'll be physical and not easy, but it will also be an upset.

Jets 20, Bengals 16

Eagles at COWBOYS (-4)

One of the great dumb canards is how hard it is to beat a team three times in a year. It's not justified by the numbers, nor by the teams that will be on this field, and for whatever reason, this Dallas team is a matchup nightmare for the Eagles. It goes beyond TE Jason Witten and the competent Dallas running game, and beyond the defense that can get pressure on Eagles QB Donovan McNabb without blitzing. It's all of these things and more, with the special touch that is QB Tony Romo.

Alone among NFC East rival QBs, Romo is a special worry for the Eagles defense. His mobility comes into play against the blitz packages, he doesn't make nearly enough mistakes (at least not this year), and he's been patient enough to avoid the short field mistake that the Eagle defense has needed all year to get stops. Because that's the dirty (and not so little, and not so secret) secret about the Eagle defense this year; thanks to the avalanche of injuries and parade of linebackers, they don't get stops unless they get turnovers. The only reason they've gotten this far is that the CBs have caught a lot of balls.

There's also this about the Eagles: while McNabb has had one of his better years, and most likely deserves the job again next year (but, given the organization's needs elsewhere and generally cutthroat nature, might not get it)... he's still erratic his own damn self. Which is the maddening thing about the team, really: we can excuse flaky behavior from the young, but not so much from the old. Don still (mostly) avoids the big mistake, makes a few plays with his feet and throws a fine deep ball, but he's not getting any better, and the team might want to start the Kolb Era. One more bad loss, and they just might. The nicest thing you can say about the 2009 Eagles is that they are a year away; the meanest thing is that they are always a year away.

Will the road team put on a better showing than last week? Of course; they could hardly put on a worse one. But the simple fact of the matter is that the Eagles season ended last week, because even if they do somehow win this game, they are a stone cold loser next week in New Orleans, against a rested Saints team with a bye.

As for the Cowboys, if you are picking against them, you are counting on their century-long history of playoff disasters, more than any other concrete factor. Sadly, such happy streaks have to end sometime. Like, well, this week.

Cowboys 31, Eagles 26

RAVENS at Patriots (-3.5)

The only non-repeat of the weekend is two teams that have more brand name than horses under the hood. I don't like the chances of either of these teams to survive past this weekend no matter what happens; there is a reason, after all, why they have a combined record of 19-13.

At least the road team comes into the game with a win, and without a gruesome injury to occupy their minds. #2 WR Wes Welker's potentially career-ending knee injuries is all kinds of bad news, not the least of which is because backup WR Julius Edelman really isn't the player that Welker is, and it also creates a cascade failure where QB Tom Brady holds the ball too long on long third downs looking at third and fourth (i.e., fourth and fifth) wideouts, creating all kinds of possibilities for the Ravens defense... and that defense is also getting back S Ed Reed, which doesn't hurt.

Before you feel too good about the Ravens, there are bummer factors. The Patriots are prefect this year at home, where their power running game is more effective; the home team will also have a full complement of healthy running backs to take advantage of that. Head coach Bill Belichick is prone to fits of super-smartyness, but he's also not above running it 30+ times if it winds up in a victory. This Ravens team doesn't really have much margin for error; witness the fact that the Raiders hung around for a ridiculously long time in their win-and-in game last week in Oakland, despite a career day from RB Willis McGahee.

But I can't shake the feeling that this Patriots team is feeling The Doom, and that time is running out on the Brady-Belichick-Randy Moss era... not that any of these men are the real problem with this team. That would be the defense, who will chase Ray Rice all day. And not catch him nearly enough.

Ravens 27, Patriots 24

PACKERS at Cardinals (-2.5)

Everyone's favorite dark horse run-off game, with the defending NFC champions facing an emerging Packers team that's just doing a lot right these days. Last week's 33-7 Packers win doesn't mean all that much, since the Cardinals didn't try and didn't use starting QB Kurt Warner, and the Cardinals back-up QBs are well and truly horrible... but Arizona also lost #2 WR Anquan Boldin in that game, and the home team is also not much when it comes to running the ball. It also doesn't help the home team that, for whatever reason, they weren't very good at home this year.

For the Packers, QB Aaron Rodgers has closed the year strong in just about every game, coinciding quite easily with the team giving him time to throw and the occasional running lane for RB Ryan Grant. I don't think their defense or defensive player of the year candidate CB Charles Woodson is really as good as advertised... or even all that great of a matchup for WR Larry Fitzgerald, especially since the corner banged up his shoulder in Sunday's game as well. (Yes, if both teams had to play the game over again, I think the Mutual Forfeit option would be considered.)

This is the kind of game where the home team comes out with a lot of energy and you hate yourself for going against them... until a play changes the game, and you see if the favorites can take a punch. It also doesn't help matters that when Warner turns the ball over, it happens in bunches, and unlike Rodgers, he's not going to be making any plays with his feet. Count on a shootout, and for TE Jermichael Finley to come up big for the Pack, in what will be the best (and most meaningful) game of the weekend.

Packers 34, Cardinals 27

Last week: 7-9

Year to date: 120-129-6

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