“[T]he beauty of the NFL is that its long history is replete with games where the overwhelming underdog, through either an incredible display of moxie on its part or a stupefying display of overconfidence and looking ahead on its opponent’s, jumps up and slaps the favorite so hard that it puts the entire league on its ear. They call them “trap games”, where the whole football world is made a fool of.”
That was me, setting up my prediction for the Saints-Seahawks game last week in this space. Had I stopped there and made my pick accordingly, I would’ve looked like a prophetic genius. Instead, like everybody else, I went with the conventional notion that the defending champ Saints were going to mop up Qwest Field with a mediocre Seahawks’ club that didn’t even deserve to be in the playoffs. And, as a result, I was made a fool of. (Eh, I’m used to it. Just ask anyone who knows me.)
Upsets. It’s what makes the NFL so fun. It’s what makes predicting football games so much like predicting the weather. And it’s the theme of this week’s divisional playoff action.
But first, a whiny note of defensiveness: I did go 3-0 in my other picks last week (outguessing Ross and Hilary in their column). Honestly, though, I vastly overestimated the amount of scoring in those games (my 24-10 Ravens vs. Chiefs score came the closest). Clearly I didn’t give enough weight to the caliber of defense that teams play in the postseason and, while I did hit a couple of nails on the head in my analysis of the games, I’ll need to step up my own game to make it to the next round.
And now back to the weather—uh, I mean…back to our theme of the week, upsets.
Three of this week’s games have such upset potential that it feels like a good week for most mortals of ordinary courage to skip a call to the bookie. Only the most daring (or compulsive) gambler should feel it necessary to lay down a wager, and my bet is that anyone who does is going to be in for a 48-hour case of tight sphincter.
The favorites for this week’s games are the Steelers (by 3), Falcons (2), Bears (10), and Patriots (9), but will anybody really be surprised if the Ravens, Packers, or Jets win their games other than the coaches , players, and wives/girlfriends/mistresses of the teams that lose? Such is the evenness of the matchups this week that only Seattle over Chicago might be seen as a true upset, and after the Seahawks’ convincing win over New Orleans last week, would it really be such a stretch to see them win again?
With that in mind, I’m going to once again wade intrepidly into the waters of prognostication, but I’ll hedge my bets just a little to add an “upset potential” factor for your consideration.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh: Why, oh why, is the best game of the weekend scheduled first? This is a great matchup between division rivals that hate each other, and it deserves either the primetime Saturday or the doubleheader Sunday slot for maximum exposure.
Never mind, we all know the answer: money. In order to keep advertising revenues as high as possible for its partner networks, the NFL has to give each network one of the two plum ratings slots. So, since CBS gets the Sunday doubleheader slot for the Patriots, it has to give primetime Saturday to FOX. It’s not that Packers-Falcons is a bad game for Saturday night, it’s just that Ravens-Steelers is better.
How good is the Ravens-Steelers rivalry? It’s so good that it actually has its own Wikipedia article. Seriously. It’s also so good that, since 2008, six of the seven games have been decided by 4 points or less, with five of those games being decided by a field goal and two of them going to overtime. The Steelers’ 23-14 win in the ’08 AFC Championship stands as the lone “blowout” during that run of highly competitive games.
Pittsburgh owns a 5-2 advantage in those games, a factor I would view as more significant had it not been for the fact that the Ravens blew a 10-6 lead with less than 4 minutes to play in their December 5th loss to the Steelers.
That game was huge (or, as Al Michaels says, “YUGE”) because, had the Ravens won a game that seemed to have gone entirely their way, they would have won the AFC North and would be hosting this week’s playoff game.
It feels to me like the Ravens slightly outplayed the Steelers in their two meetings this season. Yes, many Steelers fans may want to throw out the Ravens’ win because the Steelers were without the suspended Ben Roethlisberger, but those Steelers were 3-0 going into the game so let’s give the Ravens credit where credit is due. And, of course, the Steelers won the second game, though it took a great play by Troy Polamalu (or an untimely poor one by Joe Flacco) to do it. But that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it, and it could well mean the difference in this game—the Ravens certainly have every reason to be confident that they can beat the Steelers at Heinz Field.
This game comes down to which QB is going to outlast and outplay the opposing defense. Ben Roethlisberger has made a habit—and a reputation—of rallying his team late in games to pull defeat from the jaws of victory while it seems that Joe Flacco regressed somewhat this season in his overall play. There seems to be something missing in his game—confidence in the system, attention to detail, or something else; though his 4-2 road playoff record (tying him with NFL Hall of Famers Roger Staubach and Len Dawson for most career road playoff wins) is a considerable achievement and an important factor in any consideration of this matchup.
These QBs are going to have to be at their best against aggressive, hard-hitting defenses. Both defensive units will be out to disrupt and, if possible, disable their opponents by any means necessary (the NFL handed out $55,000 in fines to two Ravens defenders for hits in the December game). The “hate” factor got ramped up a notch earlier this week when Ravens LB Terrell Suggs wore a T-shirt that featured a Raven giving the bird (so to speak) to, apparently, the entire city of Pittsburgh (an unnecessary and tasteless display that was all the more unfortunate for coming during a difficult week in which our country began asking itself questions about the impact of ugly rhetoric on our national discourse), but these teams don’t need to manufacture reasons to despise one another—their intimate familiarity with each other breeds a lot of contempt. This game may not end up with winners so much as survivors.
The Ravens’ ability to shut down opposing offenses makes them a threat to run the table, and they held the Steelers in check twice this season, frustrating them in the process. On this alone I am tempted to pick Baltimore to win the game. But the Steelers’ D always comes through with a game-turning play at crunch time, and the Steelers under Roethlisberger have proven to be a most resilient squad when trailing late. With Big Ben at the controls I like Pittsburgh’s offense a little bit more than the Ravens’. I also like Roethlisberger’s 8-2 regular season record against the Ravens, and his 1-0 playoff record.
This is a game that looks like it’s going to be a classic between two evenly-matched teams. It looks like not only the best game of the weekend, but it might become one of the best playoff games in NFL history. It will probably take every last one of 60 minutes to decide, and may even go longer than that.
And I won’t be surprised at whoever wins. Steelers 20, Ravens 16. Upset Potential: Very high.
Green Bay at Atlanta: Talk about home cooking: the Falcons under QB Matt Ryan are 20-2 at home since 2008.
Let that sink in for a minute. Matt Ryan has outperformed every other QB at home in his first three seasons, including future Hall of Famers Tom Brady, Payton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger, and is tied with Dan Marino. That’s impressive.
The Georgia Dome seems to be where NFL teams go to lose. During their renaissance under Ryan and head coach Mike Smith following the dismal 2007 campaign that saw starting QB Michael Vick suspended before the season and their head coach, Bobby Petrino, resign after 13 games to take a college head coaching position, the Falcons have proven to be the toughest opponent for a team to face on the road. Indeed, both the Packers and the Ravens came to grief in the Dome this year, both teams losing late-game leads to Matt Ryan comebacks.
The Falcons stormed their way to a 13-3 record, and after about Week 11 or 12 they didn’t seem to have any serious competition for the #1 seed in the NFC. They went about their business and made sure that the road to Dallas and Super Bowl XLV went through the deadly Georgia Dome.
So why don’t I like them in this game?
Several reasons, actually. First of all, the Falcons have the look of a soft team to me. They finished a pedestrian 16th in the NFL on defense in yards allowed, though they did finish a more-than-respectable 5th in total points allowed. The Packers 9th-ranked offense should find yards against the Falcons’ defense and, with the 3rd-ranked QB in Aaron Rodgers, yards will eventually yield points. Last week the Packers stunned the Philadelphia Eagles by getting their mediocre running game going at last, and if they do that again the Packers will keep the Falcons’ defense on the field long enough to wear out.
It’s true that the Falcons have the No. 1 WR and No. 6 RB on their side in Roddy White and Michael Turner, and that makes them dangerously explosive (how’s this for symmetry: mirroring their defense, the Falcons’ offense finished 16th in yards and 5th in total points scored). But the Packers’ 5th-ranked defense has proved very tough all year and they kept the even more explosive Eagles at bay in last week’s Wild Card game. Green Bay tied two other teams for second-most sacks, 47, and I like their ability to harass Matt Ryan much the way they chased Michael Vick from the pocket last week.
Mike Smith has done a tremendous job in turning the Falcons into serious contenders, but Mike McCarthy has the edge in playoff experience, and I think that will serve him well this week in preparing his team to play. As with last week’s win in Philly, I also give the Packers the edge because they’ve played must-win football for three weeks now. Maintaining that edge may eventually wear them out, but I think the mojo is good for another week, especially against a team that, historically, doesn’t have nearly as much playoff success (the oft-cited “pedigree”) that the Packers do.
This won’t be a walk in the park by any means, but the Packers held a lead late in their November 28th loss in Atlanta and they know they can go toe-to-toe with the number one seed in hostile territory. They didn’t quite pull off the win seven weeks ago, but I like them to do it on Saturday night. Can the Falcons win? Absolutely. But in the NFL hard beats soft every time and the Packers look like the harder team. Packers 21, Falcons 19. Upset Potential: Well, I picked the upset, didn’t I?
Seattle at Chicago: Matt Hasselbeck played the game of his life last week in the Seahawks’ stunning and well-deserved upset of the New Orleans Saints.
On the other hand, I think Jay Cutler is the worst QB in this year’s playoffs. Yes, even worse than Hasselbeck, who had a miserable season by anyone’s standards.
If this game came down to the QBs, I’d be going with Seattle. But I don’t think it will come down to Cutler or Hasselbeck, except as to which one is going to a.) throw the game-killing interception; or b.) get pummeled into the ground enough times to thwart any kind of offensive rhythm and momentum. No, this game is going to be about defense, and the Bears’ 9th-ranked defense (4th in scoring) is going to outclass the Seahawks’ 27th-ranked defense (25th in scoring).
Interestingly, the Seahawks registered 3 more sacks over the season than the Bears did. However, the Bears were much better against the run than the Seahawks, which puts the game on Hasselbeck from the Seattle perspective. Since I don’t see Marshawn Lynch rambling through the Bears’ defense like he did in last week’s win, I don’t see Hasselbeck duplicating last week’s 4-TD effort either.
All season long I have looked upon the Bears with disdain as a team that has been winning with smoke and mirrors, and with reasonable justification. After all, they went just 3-4 against 2010 playoff teams (OK, 3-3 if you don’t count their season finale against Green Bay, when they rested many of their starters and still held off the win-or-else Pack for 3½ quarters). But they were 3-1 at home in those games, and since they’re at home this week with a week of rest they should be ready to play.
The Seahawks are coming in with a load of enthusiasm and moxie, and give head coach Pete Carroll all the credit in the world not only for having them ready to play against the Saints, but for keeping them together when they got down 10-0 and 17-7 early. That was a heck of a coaching job and I wouldn’t put it past him to outduel Lovie Smith (who’s nowhere near the coach that New Orleans’ Sean Payton is, in my book) as well. So, if the Seahawks can pressure Cutler into one of his all-too-frequent multiple interception games, they can steal another victory over a heavy favorite and finally even their season record at 9-9. (Trivia note: the Seahawks actually have to win the Super Bowl to finish above .500 for the year. Doesn’t that make your head explode?)
The oddsmakers have installed the Bears as a 10-point favorite. My own unscientific analysis based on average points scored per game minus average points given up per game (which has proven to be reasonably accurate over 35 years) shows the Bears as a 9-point favorite. But I’m going to give the Seahawks some points for intangibles based on their upset of the Saints. That won’t help them win the game, but if they perform as I think they can they should win a lot of fans’ hearts. Bears 23, Seahawks 17. Upset Potential: Moderate to medium.
New York Jets at New England: The AFC’s other bad-blood game also took a nasty and unnecessary turn when Jets’ cornerback Antonio Cromartie called Patriots’ QB Tom Brady an…well, Google the story if you don’t know what he said.
Like Terrell Suggs’ childish display of poor sportsmanship and tone-deafness to recent tragic events (see above), Cromartie’s no-class brand of “candor” marked a new low in pregame trash-talking that really needs to stop before some lunatic fan with no sense of proportion decides to take all this blathering seriously and causes a very ugly and regrettable incident in a team hotel or a stadium.
Cromartie is just toeing the Jets’ party line, and what can you say about a franchise that has been denigrating its opponents verbally and physically (anybody remember Jets’ strength coach Sal Alosi and his sideline anti-punt coverage wall?) with no sense of shame. It’s an attitude that comes from the head coach, the buffoonish Rex Ryan, vilified in this space last week who, once the winning stops, will become a quickly-fired embarrassment to the Jets’ ownership.
For now, though, Ryan has an emerging and quite capable team that will perform much better than it did in its humiliating 45-3 loss to the Patriots in early December. It had better, because if Brady and head coach Bill Belichick get a chance, they will quite willingly hang 90 on the Jets this time.
The Jets showed me something last week by responding to the Colts’ go-ahead FG late in their Wild Card playoff game in Indianapolis. I had tagged the Jets as a “paper tiger”, wondering if their bravado would desert them if the Colts put enough pressure to bear. Well there can’t be much more pressure than having to mount a game-winning scoring drive with less than a minute to go in the 4th quarter, and the Jets performed magnificently in the stretch to win the game as time expired, 17-16.
Speaking of performing magnificently in the stretch, no team played better football in the second half of the season than New England. After an embarrassing 34-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns in Week 8, the Pats won 8 games in a row by an average score of 37-16. They scored 299 points in their last 8 games, more points than seven teams did in 16 games. Read that last sentence again. I’m not joking.
Along the way they beat five 2010 playoff teams by an average score of 36-18 (those Pats are a consistent bunch, aren’t they?), only one of which (Indianapolis) has been eliminated so far. Yep, the Patriots beat the Steelers, Jets, Bears, and Packers. Oh—and for good measure, they beat the Ravens in Week 6.
The Patriots are playing better than they did late in their 16-0 season of 2007. That should worry every team left in the playoffs. The fact that the Pats get to play at home until they would qualify to go to Dallas should cause the remaining AFC teams to lose hope.
It will start with the Jets this weekend. Rex Ryan will be way out of his depth against a riled Belichick. No, Bill didn’t say anything in response to the Jets’ “wit”, and Brady just shrugged off Cromartie’s comments. But the Patriots practice the principle of “When you win say little, and when you lose say even less”. They have been quietly preparing for this game for two weeks (or longer, given the raw feelings between the franchises), and the silence has eerie overtones for this game.
Do the Jets have a chance? Yes, absolutely. They are very familiar with the Patriots, and rivalry games are always unpredictable as a result. If their trash-talking gets the Patriots out of their game, and if their play matches their talk, the New Yorkers could duplicate their early-season win at the Meadowlands. They have a good young QB and a tough, tough pass defense that can be a difference maker. The Jets’ defensive line will have to get to Brady, who does become very ordinary when he can’t trust his protection, and given that Rex Ryan is unquestionably a terrific and creative defensive strategist the Patriots’ offensive coaches had better make some plans to keep Brady safe.
The Patriots are never better than when they have some payback to mete out, and this week they have some scores to settle and some scoring to do. The Jets will be gamers early, and they will get in a few licks. But the Patriots will be, in the words of John Madden, “an all-day sucker”, and in the end walking the walk will have more value than talking the talk. Patriots 41, Jets 24. Upset Potential: Medium to medium-high.
Thanks for reading. Have fun this weekend.