Friday, January 6, 2012

Zach's Amazing NFL Playoff Picks: Wild Card Round

It’s the playoffs! What more can I say? When people write stupid, glib introductions to their playoff predictions, I usually skip them, so I imagine you’re skipping this too. I don’t blame you.

Cincinnati at Houston

At the end of the day, Andy Dalton or TJ Yates will emerge as a playoff-winning quarterback. And they doubted that 2012 would result in utter world catastrophe…

In all seriousness, this is the annual Wild Card game featuring two teams that (A) no one really watched all season, (B) arguably don’t really belong there in the first place, and (C) will probably result in a boring-ass game. At least that’s what conventional wisdom tells us – the same conventional wisdom that wrote off the ’06 Colts, ’07 Giants, and ’08 Cardinals. The reasons seem to be stacked for each side why they will blow this game:

Some reasons that the Bengals will lose: They went 0-7 against playoff teams this year; they haven’t won a playoff game since 1991 and have never won a postseason game on the road; since November 6, they’ve won one road game, and it was against the Rams; they lost to the Texans at home on December 11, and gave up 300 yards passing to T.J. Yates. Oh, and they’re the Cincinnati Bengals.

Some reasons that the Texans will lose: They lost their last three games to the Panthers, Colts, and Titans; when your quarterbacks are T.J. Yates and Jake Delhomme, the word “playoffs” shouldn’t be mentioned in a five-mile radius; they’re the Houston Texans.

It’s a little difficult to assess the Texans based purely on statistics. Before Matt Schaub’s injury, they may have been the league’s most complete team – a two-headed monster running game, a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback and wide receiver, and maybe the stingiest defense in the league (they still ranked 2nd in yards allowed and 4th in points at the end of the season). They beat Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and blew a 9-point lead in New Orleans. Now we know all about Super Bowl teams that phoned it in the last few weeks of the year:

2005 Steelers: 4-3 in their final seven games

2006 Colts: 3-4 in their final seven games

2007 Giants: 4-4 in their final eight games

2008 Cardinals: 2-4 in their final six games

2009 Saints: 0-3 in their final three games

2010 Packers: 3-3 in their final six games

I originally picked the Bengals based on how poorly I thought the Texans had played over the last few weeks. But if you look closely, the only game in their 0-3 finish where they played badly was the Panthers game; the Colts loss was on the final drive, and they could have beat the Titans in overtime if they had opted to play for it. If there is any team on that list above the Texans remind me of, it’s the 2008 Cardinals because both Houston and Arizona (playoff newbies and 3 seeds) had already clinched their divisions, and there was little else to play for except for resting injured starters. The defense and running games for the Texans are still intact, the offense put up 412 yards at Cincinnati a few weeks ago. The Bengals have surprised a lot of people this season, but there really is not a single good argument why they win this game.

Prediction: Houston 20, Cincinnati 10

Playoff doppelganger: 2008 NFC Wild Card Round, Arizona 30, Atlanta 24. I should really stop comparing this team to the Cardinals (later I compare another 2011 playoff team to the ’08 Cards) but this was the only game I could really think of. Tons of people liked the Falcons in that game, who had shed their identity of Michael Vick, similar to the way the Bengals have distanced themselves from Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco. But homefield came up big, and the better team ultimately emerged victorious. No way Houston gets to 30 points though.

Pittsburgh at Denver

Excuse me while I delve into my usual end-of-the-year Pittsburgh rant.

As usual, I’m busy trying to find reasons why the Stealers are overrated, and how they could blow this matchup. First, let me thank the Football Gods for giving Pittsburgh their first away playoff game since January 2006 when, coincidentally, they played none other than the prolific Jake Plummer and the mighty Denver Broncos (later that the same month, referees outplayed Ben Roethlisberger in the Super Bowl). I’ll also try to forget the fact that, in their 8 playoff appearances since January 2006, they haven’t squared off against a single team seeded higher than four. Or the fact that since 2008 and including this weekend, the combined winning percentage of their last seven playoff opponents is 0.616 (by comparison, the combined winning percentage of the Ravens’ last seven playoff opponents since 2008 – all road games – is 0.732). Lucky bastards.

Now let’s look at this year’s team. This year, 11 of Pittsburgh’s 12 wins came against the following quarterbacks: Tavaris Jackson, Curtis Painter, Matt Hasselbeck, Blaine Gabbert, Kevin Kolb, Andy Dalton (twice), Tyler Palko, Colt McCoy (twice), and Kellen Clemens (OK, OK, I’m conveniently excluding Tom Brady in the Stealers’ home win against the Pats). Overall, they finished minus-13 in turnover differential – fifth worst in the league – and forced only 15 turnovers, worst in the NFL. In seven of their games, they scored 17 points or under. On the road, they lost to the playoff-bound Ravens, Texans, and 49ers by a combined score of 72-20. You could argue their most impressive road wins came over the Cardinals and Browns, the only road games where Roethlisberger did not turn the ball over.

OK, so you believe me that Pittsburgh is overrated. So why should we believe the Denver Tebows – the same team in the last three weeks that gave up 40 points to the Bills and could only muster 3 points against the Chiefs at home – has a fighting chance against the mighty Stealers? Well to be honest, I really don’t have any good reasons or statistics to back them up. The Broncos played better on the road (5-3) than they did at home (3-5). They only beat one team with a winning record: The 9-7 Bengals, and that was with Kyle Orton as their starter. In his last four games (three of which were at home), Tebow has a horrible quarterback rating of 52.5 and has completed 45% of his passes. In those four games, the Denver defense has forced only two turnovers, while the offense has fumbled the ball on nine occasions (losing five times).

But as Coach Edwards would say, it’s not all about the stats – you play to win the game, and football fans have selective, short-sighted memories if they forget the magic that Tim Tebow possessed only one month ago. Sure, it was against teams the likes of the Dolphins, Chargers, and Vikings. Sure, he needed help from Marion Barber’s fumbles and Nick Novak’s bladder. But Tebow proved that he has some serious clutch late in the game, and in spite of what the offense’s dour numbers would indicate, he actually does a pretty decent job of not turning the ball over (only six interceptions all year). Fans love him and Jesus has got his back. The only other quarterback who could claim such a following was Kurt Warner, who looked lousy heading into the 2008 playoffs, but was aided by homefield advantage in the Cardinals Super Bowl run.

So it is with great regret that, once again, I say that the Stealers emerge once more as lucky bastards. I think the Tebows give them all they can handle. I certainly think they can cover the ridiculous ten point spread for Pittsburgh; you’d have to be a fool to take ten points on a team that only beat the Colts, Chiefs, and Browns on the road by a combined 12 points. A team which won’t be able to run or have solid pass protection. But as I’ve said many times, the only two ways to beat the Steelers are to force multiple turnovers or successfully throw the ball downfield. The Broncos cannot do either. Case closed. The bad guys win again.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 17, Denver 15

Playoff doppelganger: 2006 NFC Divisional Round, Seattle 21, Dallas 20. Certainly some resemblances to 2007, when the Steelers came limping into the playoffs sans their starting runningback and ran into an upstart Jaguars team. But the most glaring and obvious parallel comes from 2006, when the Seahawks beat the Cowboys – or, as it is now known, the Tony Romo Game. Like Tebow, Romo took over a struggling team mid-season and electrified fans with his subpar passing and occasional 7 yard runs outside the pocket. But Romo cemented his legacy with a boneheaded botched snap that broke the heart of millions. I see Tebow pulling something similarly tragic – like Tebowing on the field instead of picking up a crucial third-and-short late in the game. Or maybe it will be the first playoff game to head to overtime and Tebow will pull a McNabb and misunderstand the rules. As Paul Verhoeven once quipped about Showgirls, “It’s like the resurrection [coming] after the crucifixion.”

Detroit at New Orleans

The first battle of 5,000 yard quarterbacks in NFL history. For Drew Brees, perhaps this title is not surprising; but Matthew Stafford? A quarterback who, in his first two seasons combined, threw for 2,802 yards? From 2009 to 2010, Stafford threw 19 touchdowns; in 2011, 41. Go figure. Along with Cam Newton, Stafford wins the 2011 award for Fantasy Player Who Made Millions Of Diligent Free Agent Watchers Win.

If Stafford has been sensational down the stretch (14 touchdowns, 113 QB rating in his last four games), Brees has been downright unbelievable. The Saints haven’t lost since October 30, when they inexplicably blew a road game to the Rams (similarly head-scratching was their loss two weeks earlier at the hands of the Buccaneers). In those eight games, Brees has thrown for 2,700 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. What is even more remarkable about those statistics is that, in Brees’ other eight games, his numbers really aren’t too radically different (2,700 yards, 19 touchdowns, 10 interceptions). The 2011 Saints set an NFL record for most yards of total offense (7,474 yards, or 467 yards per game.) The second highest is the 2000 Rams – the Greatest Show on Turf – who “only” had 7,075.

The Saints are unbeatable at home. They are 8-0 in the Superdome, and scored 40 points or higher in five of those games (they never scored under 27). When the Lions played them in the Superdome one month ago, they trailed 17-0 by the second quarter, and committed 11 penalties. They only lost by 14, but gave up 438 yards of offense and forced no turnovers.

Look, there is no way the Saints lose this game. However successful the Lions have been this year (and it is great to see them back in the postseason), they have no running game, they commit too many dumb penalties, and calling their secondary “soft” would be a compliment. This is the same defense that gave up 480 yards through the air to Matt Flynn last week in a game that was entirely meaningless for the Packers. I don’t expect the Saints passing defense (third worst in the league) to suddenly become the 2000 Ravens, but it is worth noting that at home, New Orleans has allowed 18+ points to only two opponents. Let’s also not forget that two years ago, this team won a Super Bowl, and last year, they were upset by the lowly Seahawks. They are out for revenge, and Detroit is their first (and likely not their last) victim.

Prediction: New Orleans 48, Detroit 23

Playoff doppelganger: 2004 AFC Wild Card Round, Indianapolis 49, Denver 24. Like Brees, Peyton Manning was coming off a record setting passing season (49 touchdowns, 121 QB rating). They averaged 36.1 points per game at home in the dome, and Manning was riding an 8-game losing streak. They had blown out the Broncos in the playoffs one year earlier, and it was no different this time; Manning went 27 of 33 for 458 yards and four touchdowns, and the game was over by the second quarter.

Atlanta at New York

Maybe the toughest game of the weekend to predict. On the one hand, you really gotta like the Giants. Eli quietly had one of the great quarterback seasons of recent years (4,933 yards, 29 TDs). What gets overlooked, however, are the six fourth quarter comebacks or game-winning drives he led; I might be late in saying this, but Eli may be the most dangerous quarterback in the two-minute drill. Six of the Giants’ nine victories came against teams .500 or above, and of all the playoff teams, New York had the toughest schedule.

There are weaknesses. The rush attack – the best in the league only three years ago – ranked dead last in 2011, due in large part to injuries to Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. But when both runningbacks played healthy, the Giants went 7-3, with two of the losses coming inexplicably against the Redskins, New Yorks’ kryptonite of 2011. One could argue they were inconsistent, with the losses to the Redskins twice and the Seahawks at home (all three of which were by double-digits). But they were also the first team in five to beat the Tom Brady in Foxboro during the regular season. Additionally, they beat Tony Romo twice, and played the Packers harder than any team this season outside of Kansas City.

I consider Atlanta a bland, vanilla team that plays well enough to win more often than not, but does nothing exceptionally well. As opposed to the Giants, they won every game they were supposed to win, and lost every game they were supposed to lose. They beat one playoff team (the Lions) and lost to the Packers, Texans, and Saints (twice). They were 10-1 in games where they scored 23 points or higher; in games of 16 points or lower, they were 0-5. They are also 0-5 when Matt Ryan attempts 43 or more passes.

One argument for Atlanta is that, after two failed attempts, they are bound to win a playoff game at some point. Last year’s home blowout loss against the Packers may have left a sour taste in players’ mouths; remember that the 2005 Steelers, 2006 Colts, and 2007 Chargers found playoff success one year removed from being the top-seeded team in the conference and losing early in the postseason. Another argument may be that inconsistent teams like the Giants tend to be nullified by consistent teams (for better or worse) like the Falcons.

But I’m picking Atlanta mostly because the Giants only play well when no one expects them to. They haven’t won a home playoff game in 11 years; similarly, they haven’t lost an away playoff game in five years. No one really expected them to beat the Patriots or Cowboys on the road; everyone thought victories over the Redskins and Seahawks would be easy. The team finally looks healthy and with momentum. The pass rush with Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and a finally-healthy Osi Umenyiora resembles the fearsome attack that singlehandedly defeated the Patriots in 2007. Bradshaw and Jacobs are finally healthy, and the Manning-to-Cruz connection has been unstoppable. They’re coming off big wins against the Jets and Cowboys. So naturally, this is the perfect recipe for a flustered Tom Coughlin and the return of the Manning Face in January.

Prediction: Atlanta 31, New York 13

Playoff doppelganger: 2004 NFC Wild Card Round, Vikings 31, Packers 17: Like the Giants, the Packers finished the ’04 season in a strong fashion, looking good on both sides of the ball, and hosting an 8-8 team which had struggled in the playoffs over the last few seasons. There was no reason to think they would lose. But Green Bay trailed 17-0 in the first quarter, and turned the ball over four times. Lesson to New York fans (and all fans in general): Don’t ever believe in your team.

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