Friday, January 10, 2014

Nice To See You Again

The NFL Purist will always tell you that Divisional Playoff weekend is usually the best weekend of the season. The weak links have usually been disposed of in the Wildcard round, and now the league's real elite teams start to show what they're made of. Adding a little fuel to the fire is the fact that three of the four games this weekend are rematches of regular season games that drew a decent amount of hype. The fourth one isn't a rematch, but it does feature two teams that have a much-ballyhooed history of meeting up in the Playoffs (and should that not be enough to satisfy you, another one of these games is a Divisional matchup featuring two teams meeting for the third time this season). One need only look at the Quarterbacks to gauge how good the competition is at this level of the playoffs. When the "weakest" of the bunch is a former #1 overall pick who threw for over 4,000 yards as a Rookie, you know the competition is pretty stiff.

Last weekend, I went 3-1 with my predictions. Indianapolis advanced thanks to a miracle comeback after making me look rather foolish for the first half plus of their game. San Diego blew up Cincinnati's shit and made them look like chumps. I have, of course, already been through San Francisco's win in Green Bay. The only misstep I made was picking Philadelphia over New Orleans, as I underestimated the Saints relying on their running game, taking advantage of some holes in Philly's defense and keeping their quick-strike offense off the field. Well played by Sean Payton and Company, but they face a much taller order this weekend.

Saturday, 4:30pm
New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
This is the rematch of a Monday Night game that got a lot of hype as The Game that would determine who would be the #1 seed in the NFC and the Saints basically got their clock cleaned by the Seahawks and their juiced-up defense. Since then, the Seahawks have pretty much hummed along, only hiccuping against San Francisco and Arizona, while the Saints frittered away their division. The Saints, not given much of a chance last weekend in Philadelphia, shocked everyone by winning on a last-second Field Goal to win their first road game in Franchise History. Winning their second will be a tall order against a Seahawks team that has been more or less unstoppable in their little Tin Shack where everything seems to just bounce their way. Or it did until Arizona decided they'd had enough of this fuckery and hit the Seahawks back. The Seahawks can be hit back, but unfortunately, the Saints defense lacks the personnel of the Arizona Cardinals, and fortunately for the Seahawks, they don't have to worry about the Cardinals showing up because they didn't make the playoffs. Drew Brees and the Saints won against the high-powered Philly offense by basically keeping them off the field and relying on their running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson, and Brees made the necessary plays. This is all fine and good when you're playing the Eagles. The Seahawks are another story and playing keep-away becomes infinitely more difficult when you roll into Seattle with 60,000 screaming lunatics (plus another 130,000 piped in through the PA system) and Pete Carroll lays out the Adderall spread for his defensive backs. It won't be the massacre the last matchup was, but Seattle's defense will probably make a few plays and Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch will grind out the rest from there.
Pick: Seahawks 31, Saints 17

Saturday 8:00pm
Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)
The lone game that isn't a rematch of a regular season game, but this Patriots/Colts Prime Time matchup makes up for it by being a revival of one of the more hotly contested rivalries of the past decade. Though the lack of Peyton Manning in this game kind of takes a little of the juice out of the matchup, it's still a solid matchup of old rivals. Now, the AFC games seem to be more difficult to pick, and their two games are more or less crapshoots. This game, for all intents and purposes, seems to favor the Patriots. They're in their element, at home, with Tom Brady running the show and an offense that can move the ball and score points even if Brady were throwing the ball to Lucas Duda. On the other side, the Colts defense got torched by Alex Smith and the Chiefs last weekend and were only fortunate enough that Andrew Luck kept his cool and led them all the way back from 28 points down to win. Luck's performance will certainly go down in NFL Lore, and it certainly would give you the impression that no situation is too daunting for him. That being said, I tend to lean towards experience and the Hot Hand. While the Colts certainly indicated that they're no pushover, and while the Patriots have laid their fair share of home playoff stinkers over the past few years, Luck doesn't have Tom Brady's resume.
Pick: Patriots 37, Colts 30

Sunday 1:00pm
San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)
A rematch of what's probably the hardest-hitting game of the regular season, a 10-9 slog that probably served as the 49ers most galling loss of the season. The game seemed to be a bit of a microcosm of the offensive woes that the 49ers had over a majority of the season, while also illustrating how potent Carolina's defense can be. In the game, the 49ers had three early-game drives that they couldn't finish, and settled for 3 Field Goals. In the end, these squandered opportunities allowed the 10 points Carolina was able to muster to be good enough to win the game. Since then, the Panthers rode the momentum of that victory to a First-Round bye, while the 49ers got themselves healthy, won a Wildcard and a Road Playoff game to get to this point. Healthy is the key thing here, because it really bit the 49ers in the ass in the first matchup with Carolina. Michael Crabtree wasn't active and Vernon Davis left with a concussion. Anquan Boldin was bottled up, leaving Colin Kaepernick with the option of throwing to Vance McDonald and Kyle Williams, and the result was that he spent too much time looking around a collapsing pocket before sailing doomed passes or, worse, getting sacked. The Panthers won, but that's not to say that they had much success on offense, either. Cam Newton generated only 169 yards through the air while completing only 50% of his passes, while the game's lone touchdown came on a busted run by DeAngelo Williams and the winning score came on a prayer 53-yard Field Goal by Graham Gano in the 4th Quarter.

The point is, the fact that the Panthers won the game doesn't necessarily mean that they dominated, and asking them to repeat the success they had against a 49ers team that is now healthy and really starting to click is a tall order, especially considering that a) Steve Smith, their elder statesman and top playmaker on offense is hurting and b) For a majority of this group, this is their first Playoff game. The 49ers are a playoff-toughened bunch that seems to raise their level of play the further into January they get. Colin Kaepernick came off an inconsistent regular season and really took over their Wildcard matchup in Green Bay, showing up without sleeves in 3˚ weather and making plays with his arm and his legs and looking very much like the force he posed as last January. You know, when this group was 5 yards away from winning a Championship.

Sure, the 49ers are kind of becoming the darlings of the league right now and getting quite a bit of hype, and when you take into account the 3-year run of success they're on, they've earned it. But a really good, young Panthers team is kind of getting written off a little bit, through no fault of their own. But if they want to have success in this game, they're going to have to set an early tone. The 49ers, early in the season, had a habit of starting slow. Over the final half of the regular season and last week in Green Bay, they've started off on fire offensively, moving the ball at will. The key would be if they can finish drives with Touchdowns rather than Field Goals, and extend their success through the remainder of the game. After one quarter last weekend, the 49ers looked like they were going to blow the Packers out, but only led 6-0. This happened against Carolina, too. But if the 49ers finish drives early and get Newton in a situation where he's going to have to lead the Panthers back from behind in his first career playoff game and all the emotions that entails, this game could get away from Carolina quickly. Even if the 49ers don't go ahead early, the Panthers still have to deal with an offense that's much more complete than the one they faced in November, and in the end, the health and experience of the 49ers is what's going to carry the day.
Pick: 49ers 20, Panthers 10

Sunday 4:30pm
San Diego Chargers (10-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3)
Another one I can't seem to figure out. Of course, as is usually the case when division rivals meet in the playoffs, the old "Familiarity breeds contempt" adage is in full effect. These two teams met twice in the regular season, with the road team winning both times. The SuperDuperChargers come into this game on an emotional roll, sneaking themselves into the playoffs and then beating the Bengals, while the Broncos have rode the Peyton Manning express to another 13 wins and a #1 seed. 13 wins and a #1 seed seems to be the M.O. for Manning's career, and usually it's followed up by an abject stinker in the Divisional round. Any and all logic would dictate that Manning and the Broncos would roll over the low, leaky Chargers and Philip Rivers, but Rivers has had a bit of a career rebirth under coach Mike McCoy's system and have gotten to this point in spite of no support and seemingly impossible odds. The Chargers won last weekend by running the ball down the Bengals' throats and making a number of key defensive plays, among them 4 turnovers. Logic would dictate that the Broncos won't make the same kind of mistakes that the Bengals did, but then again, stranger things have happened in the NFL. Particularly when it's the weird, Sunday 4pm Divisional Round game. The Red Flags seem to be in full view. Peyton Manning and his spotty playoff record. The Broncos shitting the bed in this same situation last year against an opportunistic Ravens team that was working under some higher mojo. A Chargers defense that's had the hot hand. Philip Rivers and his bizarre bolo tie. Peyton Manning and his Pizza. I know my head is saying to make the safe pick and take Denver, but, hey, I've got too many premonitions going on and I'm not putting any actual money on this, so what the hell. I'm going to be a hero.
Pick: Chargers 30, Broncos 27

Strange as it may seem, but after this weekend, there's only 3 meaningful games remaining in the NFL season (unless for whatever reason you are really into the Pro Bowl). If these games go as expected, you can expect some real slugfests to play out in all three of them. Don't forget to use your Clay Matthews, III deodorant after the game! Fuck the Panthers!

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