Thursday, January 6, 2011

2011 NFL Playoffs - Wild Card Weekend Preview

Wild Card Weekend always offers some of the most exciting football of the whole playoffs, and I'm not just saying that because that seems to be the only time the Redskins have shown up recently. The elite teams aren't involved, and everybody has a shot in every game.

You're 7-9 Seattle, going up against the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints? Well, Drew Brees had a career high 22 interceptions this year, and New Orleans is now missing their top two threats on the ground, with Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas going on injured reserve. Everybody's got a chance to come out of this weekend a winner. And while for some that just means the opportunity to get steamrolled in the second round, it's a playoff win nonetheless, a currency that's often used to justify keeping a head coach (or the lack of which is used to justify firing a head coach).

So let's look at the games!

NFC Playoffs

#5 New Orleans Saints (11-5) at #4 Seattle Seahawks (7-9)

As I said, Brees' season was much less close to perfect than he has been in previous seasons. And the losses of Thomas and Ivory aren't inconsequential; Reggie Bush is dynamic, but he's less effective when he has to be the focal point of the running game. And Seattle is a tough place to play.

The problem, of course, is that the team that plays home games in Seattle is the Seahawks. They beat the Rams in a playoff-type game last week, and I think that's all they've got in them. I do think they'll keep it close, and the Saints won't be able to put the hammer down without a strong running game, but New Orleans should pull it out.

Prediction: Saints 24, Seahawks 14

#6 Green Bay Packers at #3 Philadelphia Eagles

Coming into the season, the Packers seemed like the logical choice for the NFC champions. Their offense was clicking on all cylinders, and while Kurt Warner and the Cardinals gashed them in last year's playoffs, we saw the makings of a potent defense. The defense was right on, with Clay Matthews leading them to top five finishes in both points and yards allowed. And the offense is still good, putting up 24 points a game. Their only real weakness is a lack of a consistent running game, precipitated by the loss of Ryan Grant early in the season.

The Eagles, meanwhile, have been the toast of the league, and Michael Vick will deservedly garner MVP consideration. Their defense isn't as stout as the Packers', but their offense is well-balanced...or so it seems. Remember that a good portion of the Eagles' run production is from Vick himself on scrambles. That's good, but it doesn't work as a late game clock-eating face-pounding running game. I think, like pretty much everyone else, it'll come down to Green Bay's defense, and how they're able to counter Vick's dynamic abilities. I expect them to be up to the task.

Prediction: Packers 38, Eagles 24

AFC Playoffs

#6 New York Jets at #3 Indianapolis Colts

Maybe the coolest thing about this matchup is that the Jets, on top of trying to get to the Super Bowl, really do have something to prove against the Colts. Last year, the Jets ended the Colts' perfect season...after the Colts pulled half their starters. Then, in the AFC title game, the Colts proved to be the better team. This is the Jets' chance to show that they've grown, specifically Mark Sanchez, who's shown he at least has the capacity for great games. Will they show it?

I think so, yes. This Colts team is much more susceptible to bad games than last year's was, and they went down to the wire just to get into the playoffs. As the saying goes, these aren't your father's Colts. This is a chance for Rex Ryan and the Jets to put their money where their loud mouths are, and Ryan seems like the kind of guy who can legitimately make a difference on the field. There aren't a lot of coaches like that; my money's on the one who is.

Prediction: Jets 26, Colts 21

#5 Baltimore Ravens at #4 Kansas City Chiefs

Initially, I thought this would be the toughest game to predict. Both the Ravens and the Chiefs have dynamic offensive players, as well as noteworthy holes. But when you look at actual game day performance, it's not close.

The Ravens have four losses this year by an average of four points. Three of their four losses were to eventual #1 or #2 seeds in these playoffs (New England, Pittsburgh, Atlanta). The Chiefs, meanwhile, went 2-2 against playoff teams from 2009, and lost to pretty much every team that showed some semblance of an offense against them. I expect the Ravens, who didn't play a bad game all year, to show up to play, and to put an end to Kansas City's dream season.

Prediction: Ravens 40, Chiefs 17

See you in a few days, when I have to explain how the Ravens let Jamaal Charles beat them, and what I was thinking when I said the Packers could stop Vick.

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