Friday, January 2, 2009

Into The Fire

It is officially January here at The Ballclub, and with little to report in Metsdom (the signing of Derek Lowe still pending but meeting with my approval), I turn my attention to the NFL, and the Playoffs, which begin tomorrow.

The NFL Playoffs always seem to have a bit of a frenetic atmosphere to it. It's created purely by the media, no doubt, and more often than not, the games don't live up to the hype. But last season, we had quite a few classic games play out, and the season was capped off with the kind of Upset Victory you get perhaps once every 25 years or so. The Giants were the underdogs last year, but this year, they have to be considered among the favorites to repeat. Their opponents, the Patriots, suffered through a long season full of injuries and new faces, and played admirably well, yet find themselves on the outside looking in despite an 11-5 record that has set off all sorts of controversy about the NFL's playoff structure. I'm not here to talk about that, however. I'm just here to pick the games.

Last season, I got lazy and missed the first weekend, and I've been similarly lazy this weekend, but at least I've managed to get this in just under the wire. Last season, I went 9-2 picking games for the playoffs (No gambling involved, and I'm just picking the winner, not picking against the spread), missing only Indianapolis over San Diego and New England over the Giants. This year, we've got a lot of new teams, a lot of new faces, and a lot of bizarre matchups, and that's just this Wild Card Weekend, where all 4 road teams have better records than their Division Champion opponents. This should be an interesting weekend, so let's take a closer look.

Saturday, 4:30pm

Atlanta Falcons (11-5) at Arizona Cardinals
This is one hell of a matchup to kick things off. One team went 11-5 this season after re-inventing themselves after a 4-12 finish last year, thanks to a new coach and rookie Quarterback that nobody really knows anything about. On the other side, a 9-7 team that went 8-8 last year, didn't really remake themselves at all and has a veteran team that slogged their way to barely winning the worst division in Football. The prevailing wisdom has Atlanta winning this game, and they very well might. But Bill Simmons brought up several very valid points in his column today, regarding home records vs. road records, the success of Atlanta's running game on grass vs. the hard turf in Atlanta, and the fact that Atlanta's Matt Ryan is making his first playoff appearance, while Arizona is starting Kurt Warner, who I hate, who's still sticking it to San Francisco, and who has started 2 Super Bowls. Arizona really didn't impress me much during the regular season and they really didn't impress anyone down the stretch, after they had basically locked up the NFC West in October. Atlanta has been solid throughout, particularly when they've played their NFC South opponents at home. I think the prevailing thought is that Atlanta is going to win the game, and that may well be the case. But I think that, in the end, it will be Warner and Arizona's passing game that will prevail.
My pick: Cardinals 34, Falcons 28

Saturday, 8:00pm
Indianapolis Colts (12-4) at San Diego Chargers (8-8)
Thing is, I've seen this before. I saw it before last season, when these two met in the Divisional Playoffs in Indianapolis. That time, I picked the Colts to blow out the Chargers at home, and that didn't come close to happening. The Chargers defense held the line, knocked around the Colts receivers and Peyton Manning, made some big plays, kept the game close, and kept themselves together even after losing Tomlinson and Rivers and finishing the game off with Billy Volek at QB. It's been the prevailing theme over the past few seasons when these two teams meet up, and generally, the Chargers have been able to prevail. This particular game seems to have all the makings of going the same way. Both of these teams have been ridiculously hot, with the Chargers winning their last 4 games in order to make it to 8-8 and the Playoffs as the AFC West Champion. On the other side, the Colts started slow, and now have won 9 in a row, cruising into the Playoffs without much drama at all. Were it not for the fact that their own Division opponent, the Tennessee Titans, went 13-3, perhaps they would be at home this week. But, this isn't the case, and here the Colts find themselves: On the road, playing a team that won 4 fewer games than they did. Such are the vicissitudes of the NFL Playoffs. I certainly expect this to be a good game, and much like every game this weekend, it could very well go either way. But it comes down to this for me: The Chargers are an 8-8 team. 8-8 teams have made the playoffs before, and they generally haven't done very well, even if they've gotten a lot of hype. But there's a very good reason that they were an 8-8 team, and those reasons will show themselves eventually in the postseason. The Colts, on the other hand, are the Colts. We know what we're getting out of them.
My pick: Colts 31, Chargers 27

Sunday, 1:00pm
Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Miami Dolphins (11-5)
I don't like the Ravens at all. In fact, I was over the Ravens about 3 years ago. And yet, here they are again. The Ravens, to me, are the classic "every-other-year" team. They have a good season, make the playoffs, and then go 5-11 when they have the 1st or 2nd place team schedule, and then the next year, playing a 3rd or 4th place schedule, they go 11-5 and make the playoffs. It's really tempting for me to pick the Dolphins in this game purely because I hate the Ravens, I'm sick of Ray Lewis and his horrible dancing, and I just want someone to kick them in the nuts and end this once and for all. Problem is, I don't think the Dolphins are going to be the team to do this. While the Dolphins, all of 1-15 last season, are undoubtedly the most inspirational story of the season, they did this not because of a breadth of talent, they did this with good coaching and solid game plans. The Ravens got here with talent, a great Defense and Running game, and a Rookie QB who hasn't killed them. Miami has gotten this far because of a precision short passing game with Pennington and some gadget running plays with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. Two particular areas that play right into the Ravens' strengths. The Ravens can grind this game out and force turnovers. I don't think the Dolphins will be able to keep up.
My pick: Ravens 21, Dolphins 10

Sunday, 4:30pm
Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1) at Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
The Bizarro Game of the weekend, for sure. This game has been giving everyone fits because nobody has any idea who the hell to take. I have a problem picking Philadelphia because I just don't think they're very good. They muddled their way through the season, looked literally clueless a good chunk of the time, ended up with a Tie in awful Cincinnati, and yet somehow, they managed to get their act together and make the playoffs, although I have the feeling it was more by virtue of this perfect storm of happenings, where Tampa Bay self-destructed in the last 4 weeks, and they were fortunate enough to catch a Dallas team that was spiraling completely out of control last Sunday. And, sure enough, here they are, in the Playoffs. But for as bad as I think the Eagles are, I think Minnesota is even worse. The NFC North appeared to be a division where nobody could get out of their own way, and the Vikings won simply because the Bears couldn't. They have a QB who is quite literally a National Laughingstock, and an owner with a reputation of letting his patients run the asylum. But, they do have one thing that Philadelphia doesn't: Adrian Peterson. Much like Johan Santana was the Ultimate Equalizer for the Mets, so is Adrian Peterson for Minnesota. He is the kind of Running Back who can take over a game when he has to, and I think this is just the kind of situation where he'll be able to do that. He just has to hope that Tarvaris Jackson doesn't make too many mistakes and the Minnesota Defense, great against the Run, can smack Philly in the mouth a bit. This game will be a grind, for sure, but I think, ultimately, Peterson will make the difference in a Minnesota victory.
My pick: Vikings 17, Eagles 10

Thusly, we have my picks. Enjoy the games, folks!

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