Friday, January 6, 2012

NFL Wild Card Weekend Picks: Chalk Or Talk

Every year when we get to this stage of the NFL playoffs, you have to gauge teams that closed with a rush (i.e., weren't good enough to rest players late) against teams that ended badly (have lost their edge and will fall in the first round). You also get to pick teams that have been there before (too old), or those that haven't (too inexperienced). But the big thing is to not fall in love with anyone that plays this weekend, since they usually don't rattle off the extra wins to go to the Super Bowl... unless it's a year like last year, when the Packers were the stealth team of doom, or a few years before that, when the Steelers won as a 6th seed.

So it's a league that seems more and more random with each passing year, since it's all about passing yards and turnovers and pass interference flags. But let's pretend that there really is a method to this madness, seeing how I've been on the plus side of .500 all year, and having one of the better years against the spread. And with that... on to the picks!

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CINCINNATI at Houston (-3)

The Bengals haven't won a playoff game in forever and are on the road. The Texans are working on QB3 (TJ Yates), lost to the Colts in a game that mattered to them, have the remnants of an excellent defense and are going to the first playoff game in the franchise's history. And while I feel for them, and fear what a delirious crowd could do to a Bengals team that just doesn't have drop-dead talent (in that if they did, they wouldn't be the AFC North's 3rd-place team)... I still just like the too young to be a favorite pairing or QB Andy Dalton and WR AJ Green. Probably too much, really. And while 3rd in the North isn't overly impressive, neither is first in the AFC South. I also don't think WR Andre Johnson is right, or that Arian Foster and Ben Tate alone will get this done. When the money's on the table, I don't think the Texans can move the ball consistently or easily, or that Yates can avoid the big mistake.

Bengals 24, Texans 20

Detroit at NEW ORLEANS (-11)

Every year in this round, there's a game that people really anticipate... that turns out to be a dog. That's this game. Detroit's pass defense is in a shambles right now -- Matt Flynn's a good back-up and all, but when he throws for 500 yards and 6 TDs in a game you need and the oppo does not, that's absurd -- and the Saints are just hitting on all cylinders. Add in the usual delirious dome crowd that's worth a touchdown or more in the playoffs, a Detroit team that's only behind Oakland in terms of being ready to shoot themselves in the face with penalties and turnovers, no real running game, a tendency to fall behind early, a young QB making his first playoff start... well, it's going to get pinballish, and Detroit will not be able to answer.

Have faith, Lions Fan; your team will be better for this happening to them, and they aren't the same old sad situation; I actually think you are the only real chance in the long run to stop a Green Bay Dynasty. But it's going to hurt right now. A lot.

Saints 41, Lions 24

ATLANTA at New York (-3)

This is the game that made me go back and forth a half dozen times this week. For Atlanta, they've just got better talent on defense, solid work on the lines, played in a much better division, and come in with relatively low expectations, since the national fan base for the club ended when Michael Vick went to prison. (And yes, it's just cruel to point out that Matt Ryan's better at actually winning football games. Haven't I, as an Eagles fan, suffered enough this year?)

New York looks like they are gelling right now and has dark horse appeal for a deep run, but the secondary is still a mess, the running game is erratic, the WRs drop too many balls and two weeks ago, they were staring down the barrel of elimination and their coach getting forcibly retired. But then the Jets gave up a long TD on blown tackling, and it's all been gravy since for Blue. I just can't get behind an 8-8 division champion with a turnstile secondary and inexperienced linebacking corps, especially when the clutch QB has had too many horror games in the cold and wind of his home park late in the year.

Besides, Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Michael Turner are pretty good, and it's not like they come into this game cold, either. And if they have a lead late (and I think they will)... they can close with the running game. Even on the road. I think.

Falcons 24, Giants 20

Pittsburgh at DENVER (+9)

Let's get this out of the way first: Pittsburgh is going to win this game. They are going to make QB Tim Tebow look as bad as he actually is, they are going to score enough in the red zone to prevent fourth quarter shenanigans, and they are not going to take their foot off the gas and play meek in the last five minutes, the way those ever-accommodating Dolphins, Chiefs and Jets did when they let Tebow do his babyface wrestler with momentum routine on them.

But, and this is a pretty big but, they also aren't going to dominate. Altitude, the home field, no expectations, poor health, special teams and the perverse magic that is the high covering rate of 8-8 division champions as home dogs will all conspire to make Steeler Fan sweat this a wee bit longer then they like. The garbage time back door cover seems quite likely to me, along with a 2-3 point spread overbet for the Steelers having a nationwide fan base. And on some level, that's going to be the biggest problem for Bronco Fan, who has to be suspecting by now that the Tebow Era is a midseason mirage that they'll pay for next year, too. (I know something about that. It usually involves a running QB.)

Steelers 20, Broncos 13

Last week: 10-5-1

Year to date: 132-114-8

Career: 537-519-25

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