Prior to the Snap, the Divisional Playoffs: Let the Wild Rumpus Begin!

There was a time when a second-round upset was a huge deal. They didn’t happen too often, so when Lin Elliott cost the 13-3 Chiefs a game against Jim Harbaugh and the Comeback Colts in 1995, it resonated throughout the league. Even though the AFC’s top seed would lose each of the next two seasons (Denver, and then Kansas City again to Denver in 1997), I remember these upsets being shocking on the same level of a 1-8 upset in the NCAA Tournament. The team that dominated the regular season was gone, just like that.

We’ve kind of changed that perspective the last few years, haven’t we? A second-round upset is now kind of like a 5-12 game; it isn’t a matter of if it’s going to happen, but rather to whom. Home teams are just 5-7 the last three years in the second round, with three of the four falling a season ago. Prior to 2007, the NFC’s top seed had won 17 straight in the divisional round. It’s now on a two-game slide.

It’s in this second round that the NFL has more closely resembled Major League Baseball’s playoffs, with freakish upsets happening seemingly out of the blue. On paper, the Panthers were better than the Cardinals last year, the Cowboys better than the Giants before that, the Chargers better than the Patriots before that, the Colts better than the Steelers before that. But it’s been working out less and less frequently on the field, which is what has definitively made this the most intriguing weekend of the NFL season year in and year out these days. You have all the best teams playing in four games spread across two days.

The only hard thing about it is trying to predict what’s going to happen.

#4 Arizona Cardinals vs. #1 New Orleans Saints

Snooze: I know you’re not serious this time.

Yeah, that was a fun game last week: I told you, didn’t I? Only thing I got right, but I nailed it.

Can they do it again this week? Why not? They’re the Buzzsaw! Green Bay’s pass defense is better than New Orleans’ (despite all the Darren Sharper love we’ve been hearing this year), and there’s still the chance that Anquan Boldin will play this week.

They scored 51 points in a playoff game without Anquan Boldin: That offense is pretty good.

But can the defense stop Drew Brees? Of course not. Not too many defenses can. It’s all a matter of turning him over once or twice and then mastering the clock. In games like this, a lot of times it comes down to who manages time at the end of each half the best, limiting the other team’s possessions. I know it didn’t work out against them last week, but the Packers made a huge mistake in scoring with 1:52 left. With the way the Cardinals’ offense had played, you have to milk that clock (or pray for a missed field goal). You have to handle the game as if it’s a video game and manipulate the clock to make sure you have more possessions. For instance, if you defer, make sure you don’t leave enough time at the end of the first half. Get the ball to start the second, and make sure you have it at the end of the game. That’s how you steal a possession.

But that assumes no stops in this game: Safer than assuming stops, don’t you think? And anyway, it assumes an equal number of stops.

Are the Saints any good anymore? Man, it is awfully tough to take four weeks of football off and come out red-hot against a team that put up 51 last week. I imagine it will be a bigger problem for the New Orleans D (it’s tough to physically prep for Arizona’s offense as is); if the Saints’ offense doesn’t come out sharp, they could find themselves in a hole early.

After your whole “Every team is one-dimensional!!!” crap, you wanna point out how balanced these teams are? I was stunned to find out the Saints had the sixth-best rushing offense in football with Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell, and Reggie Bush. And Arizona ran the ball very well last week, although I have to think part of that was the Packers playing one d-lineman at times. Still, the Cards have a better running game than they did last year, when they almost won the Super Bowl anyway.

Will these two set another new record for most points in a playoff game? I don’t see them topping 96, but they might combine for more than 86 to set a new Divisional Playoff mark. Kurt Warner was part of that one, too, when his Rams beat the Vikings, 49-37, in the ’99 second round. NY Daily News Giants’ beat writer Ralph Vacchiano just called Warner’s performance in that game the best of the last 25 years in the playoffs. His performance last week was third. Kurt Warner is very good in the playoffs.

But is he a Hall of Famer? I think it is beyond reasonable doubt by now.

Will he go in as a Giant? We can only hope…

What’s the playoff history like between these two traditional powers? Before 2006, the Saints and Cardinals each had a single playoff win. New Orleans got their second that season against Philadelphia in the second round while Arizona has now won four playoff games in the last two years. They have never met in the playoffs.

Any history between Warner and Brees? They’ve only met once, on December 16, 2007—a 31-24 win for Brees’ Saints. Drew (26-30-315-2) outdueled Kurt (19-30-233-3-1) in an ultimately meaningless regular-season game between 6-7 teams.

Divisional Playoff history: Saints are 1-1, with that win over the Eagles in 2006 and a loss in Minnesota in 2000. The Cardinals are 1-3, with losses in Minnesota in ’74 and ’98 and in LA to the Rams in ’75. They of course won last year in Carolina, 33-13.

The Verdict: I don’t know what’s going to happen. Really, I don’t. I just know I’m gonna be watching.

You can’t cop-out like that. Nobody knows what’s going to happen: Fine. The Saints’ offense comes out the way it did against the Patriots on that Monday Night, the Superdome crowd gets louder and louder, and the lead continually fluctuates between 7 and 14 for New Orleans. Arizona gets one key stop late, giving Warner a chance to drive the length of the field in something like 40 seconds. He doesn’t. Saints 41, Cardinals 34.

#6 Baltimore Ravens at #1 Indianapolis Colts

Baltimore against the Colts? Oh no! Yeah, someone who entered a coma sometime between 1960 and 1982 and just woke up this week would be so freaked out by this. I imagine it would be the hardest thing for this hypothetical coma-awakener to get over.

Who will the band be rooting for? I didn’t watch the documentary. I don’t care.

Who is the best quarterback in Colts’ history? Unitas…for now. But it’s hard to come up with another franchise that has a top two better than Johnny and Peyton; perhaps only the 49ers with Montana and Young (back-to-back no less) come close.

Who is the best quarterback in Ravens’ history? That’s actually a tougher call between Testaverde, Harbaugh, Banks, Dilfer, Grbac, Blake, Boller, Wright, McNair, and now Flacco. It might actually be Flacco.

What’s a non-geographical reason to watch this game? The Ravens, of course, have a defense that can contain the Colts—especially since Indy hasn’t played a real game since before Christmas when we all still thought Mark McGwire bulked up naturally. The Baltimore secondary played a lot better against New England than I expected it to, and its front was able to pressure Tom Brady without a lot of blitzing. Pressure is the great equalizer when you’re playing a great quarterback; if the Ravens can get to Manning with four (or even five) guys, they’ve got a shot.

On the other side of the ball, expect heavy doses of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee against the league’s 24th-ranked defense against the run—one that nonetheless limited the Ravens to just over three yards per carry in their previous meeting (17-15 Colts win). Baltimore will, however, need to get something out of the best quarterback in its franchise’s history to win this. The game plan has been watered down for Flacco for a few weeks because of his hip injury, but he’s going to have to make a big play to win this game. The Ravens cannot beat the Colts kicking field goals, least of all because Billy Cundiff will probably miss one.

Oh man, it’s Stover Revenge Time! The 18-year Brown/Raven was let go for Steven Hauschka in the off-season. You will notice that when I mentioned Baltimore’s current kicker, I did not mention Steven Hauschka. The Ravens were dumb to dump Stover, who has landed on his feet replacing the injured Adam Vinatieri in Indianapolis. For all the pub on AV, Stover may be the generation’s best kicker, which is another way of saying he’s the best kicker of all time.

How does this not come down to a big field goal at the end? That would be poetic, wouldn’t it? So not happening, though.

Playoff History Time! The Colts won in Baltimore in the Divisional Round in 2006 en route to the Super Bowl. Nobody forgets that 15-6 thriller that featured a combined 505 yards, six turnovers, and no touchdowns.

Divisional Playoff History Time! The Colts, dating back to their time in Baltimore, are 17-18 all-time in the playoffs and 6-9 in the divisional round. Since moving to Indianapolis, those records are 9-11 and 3-5, respectively. It’s worth noting that Peyton Manning’s record in divisional playoff games is 2-4, but three of those losses came at home and both of those wins came on the road. That’s right: Peyton Manning has never won a playoff game after a bye week against a team that didn’t have a bye.

The Ravens are 2-2 all-time in the second round, with both of their wins on the road in Tennessee (2000 and 2008). Baltimore won its sixth playoff road game of the decade last week in New England, which I think is second-best all-time. Joe Flacco, meanwhile, has never lost a divisional playoff game.

The Verdict: What’s it going to take for Bill Polian to rethink his resting strategy? Will he if the Colts lose their first playoff game this year again? I think there’s a lot of uneasiness in Lucas Oil Stadium throughout the game; the Ravens will play close to the vest, try to run the ball and control the clock, and keep the game tight. That said, the Colts haven’t really lost a game all season, and I can’t see the beat-up Baltimore secondary playing as well against Wayne, Clark, Collie, and Garcon as it did against Moss and Edelman. Indianapolis gets enough big plays and finishes drives in a way the Ravens don’t. Colts 24, Ravens 16.

#3 Dallas Cowboys at #2 Minnesota Vikings

Staubach! Tarkenton! It’s the NFL Playoffs on FOX! Wrong time period.

Aikman! George! It’s the NFL Playoffs on FOX! Closer…

Romo! Favre! It’s the NFL Playoffs on FOX! There you go.

Remember when that Saints-Vikings NFC Championship was a fait accompli? Yeah, and Dallas couldn’t win in December. Better times, am I right? It surprises me that Minnesota is even favored in this game the way it’s played over the last month.

That throttling of the Giants didn’t convince you? Garrett Gilbert could have throttled that Giants’ defense.

What’s the matter with the Vikings? A couple things: 1. The offensive line, particularly at the tackles, has not been as good as it was earlier in the year. 2. Adrian Peterson has done squat. 3. The defense has stopped getting pressure on the quarterback.

But those things aren’t really important, right? Oh no, you don’t really need effective tackles against Dallas’ 3-4 with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer coming off the edge. Especially if you have a running back incapable of picking up free rushers in the backfield.

And what’s so great about the Cowboys? We can all agree that Romo has played well these last several weeks, although the idea that he couldn’t win in the playoffs was based on a hilariously small sample (it was basically derived from one non-quarterbacking play; not even two games where he played decently). But the biggest factor in the Dallas turnaround has been that defense. It shut down the fastest offense in the league on back-to-back weeks; that makes me fairly confident they can shut down another offense that relies predominantly on speed this week.

Will Miles Austin, Jersey Guy, win another battle with a Pro Bowl receiver? I’m as surprised as anyone at Sidney Rice’s numbers this year, and he was on my fantasy team. But Austin will get a big play and/or touchdown in this game.

These teams haven’t met before in the playoffs, have they? Just a few times. The Cowboys have beaten the Vikings four out of six in the playoffs, although Minnesota took the last one in a 1999 Wild Card game at the Metrodome. Dallas is 2-1 in playoff games at Minnesota.

Divisional Playoff History: The Cowboys are 15-8 in the divisional round, although they’ve lost their last two (v. NYG in 2007 and at CAR in 1996). The Vikings are 8-12, with their last second-round win in 2000 over the Saints. I would imagine these two teams have played the most second-round games in the NFC, dating back to their very successful runs in the 1970s.

Overall, Dallas is 33-24 in the playoffs while Minnesota is 18-25. The Vikings have lost four of their last seven home playoff games dating back to 1992, including last year’s Wild Card loss to the Eagles.

Nothing says playoffs like Phillips v. Childress! They’ve combined for one playoff win: Wade’s last week!

The Verdict: Usually the game between the surging underdog and the floundering favorite is the most interesting in a way “Can the favorite rebound in time or will it be upset?” kind of way. But I think this is actually the least interesting game of the weekend. In fact, I don’t know if I would have picked the Vikings to beat any other NFC playoff team this weekend, and they just happen to be playing the one that will probably go to the Super Bowl. The Cowboys’ defense will set the tone early, they’ll get up something like 10-0, Favre will have to press a bit, and that won’t end well. I think the score will be respectable but in a game that wasn’t as close as it appears. Cowboys 27, Vikings 17.

#5 New York Jets at #2 San Diego Chargers

Well, well, well…: Yes, the Jets are in the second round of the playoffs.

You said they’d start 0-5: I did say they’d finish strong, though. That counts, doesn’t it?

You said they’re a bad football team: I said they weren’t a very good one. Those things are different.

Are you on the bandwagon yet after they ran the ball through a stacked Cincinnati line and Mark Sanchez was 12-for-15 with two dropped passes in those three incompletions and their defense made Carson Palmer look like Garrett Gilbert, first half? Can we lay off Garrett Gilbert?

You started it: Touché. But to answer your bandwagon question, no.

Why the hell not? Basically just because I’m pot-committed at this point. That’s pretty much it. I’ve been wrong on virtually everything I’ve said about the Jets, from the bad start to Sanchez getting better during the season (he actually got worse) to there not being a 1,500-yard back in the backfield (Jones was close enough) to Ryan not being able to turn them into a premier D in one season. Why should I change course now?

Have you gotten anything right this year? Yes! And one of those things is the team across the ledger from Gang Green. I said the Chargers would go 13-3, and they did, even if I did predict bounceback years for LaDainian Tomlinson and Shawne Merriman and a solid season from current Kansas City Chief Chris Chambers.

Remember that Merriman/Tila Tequila thing? Yeah, how quickly did she move on from that to Woody Johnson’s daughter?

Another Jets/Chargers connection! Yeah, umm, sure.

So tell me why the Jets can’t win this game: I’m not gonna sit here and say the Jets can’t win this game. I will say that they won’t. I am very interested to see how they handle Antonio Gates; he’s made a ridiculous amount of big plays for a tight end. Darrelle Revis might have a bit of trouble with Vincent Jackson (probably to the tune of one big pass interference penalty), and Malcom Floyd has the potential to give Lito Sheppard fits with his size. San Diego has the biggest receiving corps in the league.

On the other side of the ball, the Jets should be able to run it and effectively use play action for Sanchez like they did last week. I thought that was an excellently called game by Brian Schottenheimer, showing that choking in the playoffs doesn’t run in the family. But I still expect Sanchez to make a mistake.

Who wins the coaching matchup? My hometown newspaper, The Star-Ledger, has taken numerous shots at Norv Turner’s coaching record, calling his 4-3 playoff mark “laughable” and “embarrassing.” Since when was a winning record in the playoffs for a coach who has never lost a home playoff game “embarrassing”? (And it’s certainly not as embarrassing as claiming the Tampa Bay Rays won the World Series this decade or neglecting to mention the death of a young female fan because she was hit in the head by a puck at a game as one of the worst things to happen in the NHL in your decade reviews for each sport.) If anything, Turner’s issues as a head coach have been about regular-season underperformance, and if you’re going to criticize him for his playoff mark, you should focus on the fact that his teams are too talented to get the low seeds they’ve had. But this is a guy who is undefeated in December with San Diego, who has pulled off a playoff upset in each of his first two years with the Chargers, and who has never lost an opening playoff game.

It’s time to admit Norv Turner is not a terrible NFL head coach. Sorry Redskins’ fans.

Remember that Jets-Chargers classic playoff game? You mean in 2004? It went overtime, it wasn’t really classic. The Jets came into San Diego and beat the Chargers on Wild Card Weekend, 20-17, with the help of a missed Nate Kaeding field goal.

Divisional Playoff History! The Chargers are 4-5, losing last season in Pittsburgh in this round. They are 2-2 in divisional playoff games at home, including their heartbreaking loss to New England in 2006.

The Jets, meanwhile, are 2-4 in the divisional round, with one of those wins coming on the road in the AFC West (against the LA Raiders in 1982). New York should have won its last trip to the second round against the 15-1 Steelers in 2004, but they blew a late 7-point lead and Doug Brien missed two potentially game-winning field goals in the final minutes. Pittsburgh won it in overtime.

The Verdict: I expect the Jets to make me look foolish by running away with this and winning by several touchdowns!

Seriously now: For once, this is not a pick against the Jets so much as it is one for the Chargers. With all the talk about how hot Dallas is, the Chargers have played the best football of anyone since October. I expect there to be a disproportionate amount of yardage to points: Each team will move the ball but struggle a little to punch it in and finish drives. For the Jets to win, they can’t fall behind by more than one score. They have to be able to stick to the ground game and use Sanchez only as a secondary option (like last week). That doesn’t work if they’re down 14 in the second half. Unfortunately for them, they’ll need Mark to lead a big drive late , and he won’t be able to do it. Chargers 27, Jets 16.

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2 responses to this post.

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