Friday, January 7, 2011
Wild card weekend
The NFL playoffs begin tomorrow afternoon. Four teams will play Saturday, followed by another four doing battle on Sunday. We call this Wild Card Weekend. But, for the first time I can remember, the Wild Card teams are all better than (or just as good as) all the division winners. Think about it. No home team is favored by even a field goal in any of the four games. Two road teams are outright favorites and one of those is favored by double digits. There is not a single home team playing this weekend that had a better record than their opponent. Not one.
Because of these things, many people are going "out on limbs" by picking all four road teams to win! Wow! Go crazy why dontcha? So we think the Saints will destroy Seattle, the Jets can win in Indy, the Ravens can beat up the Chiefs, and the Packers can pull out a victory against Vick and the Eagles?
Are any of those things outlandish? No, not really. Also, they're all wrong.
Here's why all four home teams will win (or at least cover) this Wild Card Weekend:
The Saints (-10.5) are playing the Seahawks tomorrow afternoon. The Seahawks finished 7-9 this season. The Saints were actually good. But the fact remains, it is hard to win in Seattle. They have one of, if not the only, homefield advantage left in professional football, unless you count Auburn University home games. Get it? Because they (may or may not) pay their players! Okay, let's move on.
The only stadium that seems to statistically effect opponent's false start numbers is Qwest Field. There is no other NFL stadium that has any great effect on whether the opponent commits more errors than the home team.
What is a great equalizer and helper for a quarterback having trouble hearing and calling plays? Short passing and a running game. Last time the Saints played in Seattle, Drew Brees was awful on short passes. And he will have pretty much zero running game to fall back on. If Brees doesn't hit on a couple deep passes, the Saints might have trouble scoring.
The fact that Matt Hasselbeck is playing for Seattle is another good sign. He may not be what he used to be, but he has experience, will not get rattled by blitzes, and will have confidence in himself, which is more than we can say for sure about Seattle's other QB option.
Will the Seahawks win? Nah, probably not. But they will most certainly cover 10.5 at home in a playoff game. Leon Washington might cover this spread by himself.
Saints 26 - Seahawks 20
Saturday night pits the Jets (+2.5) at the Colts. This is a match-up of talent, inconsistency and immaturity vs. experience. The Jets are the more talented team. The Colts are barely able to field a complete lineup at this point. However, the Colts' strengths play into this game well. In recent weeks, they have been able to completely shut down opponents' running games, just ask Chris Johnson. On offense, besides fluky, late-game heroics, the Jets only offense is the running game. If that is halted, the game rests on the shaky shoulders of Mark Sanchez. Throw in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis coming off the edges on passing downs, and I'm sure Jets fans are not totally comfortable with their offense's outlook.
So it comes down to whether Peyton Manning can put enough points on the board against a Jets team who hasn't totally been able to rush the passer this year. Darrelle Revis is not as healthy as New Yorkers would wish and Antonio Cromartie is not as good as New Yorkers would wish. Giving Manning time in the pocket, mixed with weakness on the outside means good things for Indy whether their receivers are pro-bowlers or not.
Colts 31 - Jets 20
Starting Sunday afternoon, the Ravens (-3) will be playing at Arrowhead Stadium, against the Chiefs. It's funny, there is so little evidence of home field advantage existing anymore in NFL football, yet two of the few Stadiums where you can even create an argument for it are hosting playoff games Wild Card Weekend. Arrowhead gets loud. But, more importantly, the Chiefs play very well there. They went 7-1 at home this season, losing only in week 17 to the Raiders in a game they didn't necessarily need.
Besides a nice home field, the Chiefs also have the best rushing offense in the league. Those are two solid factors in determining playoff success. Meanwhile, Baltimore has struggled for offensive consistency all year. Sure they have more weapons in the passing game than the Chiefs, but it hasn't shown week to week. Matt Cassel had a much better season than Joe Flacco, and there can be no arguing that.
If Dwayne Bowe isn't able to suit up, that is a huge loss for Kansas City, yet I still see them keeping this one close with him or not.
Chiefs 17 - Ravens 16
In our last Wild Card game, the Packers (+2.5) will travel to Philadelphia to face the Eagles. Even though the previous two games are each within 3 point spreads, this Packers - Eagles game is definitely the biggest tossup. Either team can win this, by a large margin or right at the end.
What concerns me is the way the Packers' offense has looked recently with the exception of the Giants game a couple weeks ago. Other than that, and a valiant loss to the Pats, the Packers have put up 13 combined points in two of their final four games. The inconsistency should be a red flag.
The other red flag wears number 7 for Philadelphia. Michael Vick, along with LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, and others, are just too hard to stop. You may limit them to three or four big plays if you're lucky, but that could still result in giving up 28 points. Throw in the comfort of playing at home and the excitement of a playoff game in Philly without the dread of knowing Donavan McNabb isn't leading them to another failed Super Bowl attempt, and this Eagles team will be playing with a hop in their step.
Eagles 34 - Packers 28
So there you have it. On a weekend where all the road teams are getting all the buzz, Wild Card Weekend will be dominated by the home teams. You can bet on it. (Well, not legally, but figuratively.)
(Image taken from nfl.com/photos)