Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Playoff Picks: Part Two ... and some NFL Draft thoughts

After a 4-0 first round, I'm now looking ahead to the goal of a Perfect Postseason: 11-0. Probably not going to happen, but I'm feeling confident after the Wildcard round. To recap:

Jets 17, Colts 16.
I picked: Jets by 1.

Packers 21, Eagles 16.
I picked: Packers by 4.

Ravens 30, Chiefs 7.
I picked: Ravens by 24.

So for those three games, I was off by a TOTAL of two points.

And for the unspeakably weird Seattle game, I picked the Seahawks to cover and cover they did. In a big way. Seahawks 41, Saints 36. By the way... was this game the fulfillment of the Madden Curse?

Both Super Bowl teams from a year ago are now eliminated (although, this was the first year in a decade that both previous Super teams actually made the playoffs) and everyone's favorite dog-killer is also gone. Brady and Rodgers are now the only truly elite quarterbacks remaining, with Ryan and Flacco knocking on the door. As for Roethlisberger, I don't mean any disrespect, but his defense is carrying the team and everyone knows it. The other three remaining quarterbacks are considerably below average.

It is a quarterback league, but we just saw Hasselbeck outduel Brees and Sanchez beat Manning. Anything can happen. Never underestimate the power of "nobody believed in us!" syndrome. With that, let's get to the Divisional round picks.

Ravens (13-4) @ Steelers (12-4)
Predicted Line: PIT by 3
Actual Line: PIT by 3

Somehow, I've known this would be a playoff game all season, and I've been trying to figure out the pick. I feel like I have a pretty good read on both teams, and yet picking this game is darn near impossible. Here's the situation:

Both teams have ridiculously good run defenses - among the best ever. Both teams have elite safeties who patrol the secondary. Both teams blitz the passer remarkably well. Both defenses are led by Hall of Famers.

Both offenses like to run the ball to set up the deep pass. Both teams have a dynamic downfield receiver and a steady possession guy. Both teams have mediocre tight ends. Both teams have solid but not spectacular running backs. Both teams are extremely well-coached, and make very few mistakes.

This game is in Pittsburgh, but the road team won the matchup both times during the regular season, so I'm writing that off as a non-factor. These teams know each other and hate each other, and this game promises to be full of violence.

My initial analysis is this: Baltimore has fewer weaknesses. In reality, they have none. Flacco isn't great, but he's not a weakness. The cornerbacks aren't great, but they do okay. The receiving crew could be better, but it's good.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has a few glaring weaknesses which they've effectively covered up all year. The offensive line is bad. Really bad. And the pass defense sans Polamalu is also bad. Because of those things, the running backs struggle to convert short-down situations, and the cornerbacks get beat in single coverage. They routinely put Roethlisberger in unfavorable situations, and he tends to be at his best with his back against the wall. Especially when his back is against the wall of a dirty bathroom stall in Georgia. Ew, gross.

I'm fairly sure that Baltimore is the better overall team, on paper. They may not have as many studs, but they have less question marks.

But because of the style of game this will be, I'm also leaning towards picking Pittsburgh. It's going to be low-scoring; that's a given. But it's also going to be smart, methodical, slow-paced, and precise. Both teams play extremely carefully on offense. This game is going to come down to one thing: big plays.

It might be a punt return, or a blocked punt, or a kickoff return. It might be a defensive touchdown, or a botched snap, or an 85 yard pass where the defender trips over his own feet. I don't know. But I know this game will be dictated by what happens on two or three key plays which cover a lot of yards.

And that's where I lean towards Pittsburgh. I just think they have more players with a knack for the dramatic. Polamalu, obviously, but also Mike Wallace and James Harrison and James Farrior, and of course Roethlisberger. Big Ben seems to thrive in the clutch, while Joe Flacco seems a little afraid of it. Will this be the game he evolves into a truly elite quarterback?

This seems like an ideal time to mention that Flacco is 0-5 lifetime against Ben.

Baltimore's stud players, like Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata and Anquan Boldin and Terrell Suggs, are great players, but not really 'big-play' guys. Ed Reed is their exception. I don't see Derrick Mason catching a 15 yard hook, breaking a tackle, and running 60 yards to the endzone. No way. But Hines Ward? That wouldn't surprise me one bit.

Games between Pittsburgh and Baltimore are always close. 6 of their last 7 meetings have been decided by 4 points or less, including 4 straight which have been won by exactly 3 points. So picking Baltimore and takings the points seems like the easy choice. Especially because the Pittsburgh crowd will probably cause more harm than help, because they're all so stupid they won't know when to cheer and when to be quiet. If all the Ravens wore big black wigs the fans wouldn't even know who to cheer for. "Is 'at Troy? Which 'un's Troy? Don 'er? Ower 'er? ... YINS 'ER ALL TROY!! "

(Translation: Is that Troy? Which one's Troy? Down there? Over here? You are all Troy!")

The moral dilemma: if pick the team I hate, at least I'll get one win. Either I get the pick right, or the satisfaction of Pittsburgh losing. But with 11-0 in sight, I can't employ any tricks. I've just got to pick the game the best I can. And here's my final answer:

Baltimore 23, Pittsburgh 17.

Packers (11-6) @ Falcons (13-3)
Predicted Line: ATL by 6.5
Actual Line: ATL by 2

The NFL playoffs have two major flaws. One of them was on full display last weekend, as Seattle rode their crowd to a shocking win that never would have happened in New Orleans. The Saints went up 17-7, and in the Superdome that would have been game-over. But in Qwest it didn't mean anything, and Seattle came back and won. Blame that game on the faulty system.

I know, I know, the Saints should have won. The road teams won the other 3 Wildcard games, and they have nobody to blame but themselves. I get all that. But the system is still messed up, and the Saints deserved to have a home game. They won 4 more games than Seattle. If they were at home, they undoubtedly would have won.

The second flaw is seen in full display in this game. Here you have the best team in the NFC (record-wise) playing the 11-6 Packers, while the Bears get to play the 8-9 Seahawks. How is that fair? Why should matchups be based on seeding and not record, when the seeding is obviously a flawed system to begin with? Chicago basically gets a free pass to the NFC Championship because of a completely retarded system! While Atlanta technically DESERVES to host Seattle. What is the point of going 13-3 if it earns you a game against Green Bay instead of Seattle? Atlanta would have been better off losing 2 games on purpose!
Stupid, stupid, stupid system. Goddell needs to make a fix. It wouldn't be hard to do, and it wouldn't hurt anybody's feelings. So just do it Roger.

Maybe I'm just bitter because Chicago doesn't even belong in the playoffs, much less in the NFC Championship. Anyway, we'll get to them later.

For this game, I was way too low on the line because I figured Atlanta's 13-3 season and Matt Ryan's 18-2 record at home earns them some respect. Apparently not. Green Bay beat the beloved dog murderer and now they have America's backing. Further proof that people inexplicably love Michael Vick.

One of the biggest matchups in this game is the Packers' improving-but-not-yet-great run defense against Michael Turner, who should get 30 carries at least. That will be paramount for both teams. Atlanta will obviously want to keep their defense on the sideline and win time of possession. That's the key to beating a great offense. And Green Bay will want to keep Turner from shredding their defense and exposing the CBs to one-on-one coverage. Don't make Matt Ryan's job any easier than you have to.

I expect Green Bay to abandon the running game and throw early and often. They know Aaron Rodgers is their only chance of winning a difficult road postseason game. Give your best player the ball, and hope for big plays. Atlanta's secondary is just okay (22nd in yards, 14th in QB rating), and their pass rush is average (20th in sacks). Their run defense is a strength, but Green Bay probably only needs to run the ball 10-15 times with Starks and Jackson to keep the secondary just a little bit honest. Key matchups will be Dunta Robinson against Greg Jennings, John Abraham against Chad Clifton, and Donald Driver/James Jones against Brent Grimes/William Moore. I tend to think Green Bay has the advantage in all those matchups, but it's close.

When Atlanta has the ball, it'll obviously be Charles Woodson trying to contain Roddy White, with plenty of help from the safeties. Sam Baker has the unenviable task of blocking Clay Matthews, and Tony Gonzalez will probably match up with A.J. Hawk and/or Desmond Bishop. Green Bay has the defense to limit Atlanta's high-flying offense, just like they did last week in Philly. Matthews is the key; he's basically unblockable. He dominated Jason Peters, and should do the same thing to Baker.

That's why the key to this game is the interior running game for Atlanta. How will Turner do on 1st and 10 runs up the middle? His YPC will dictate everything.
My gut feeling is that a rested Michael Turner has a huge game, something like 32 carries for 160 yards, and he limits Green Bay's offense by keeping them off the field. Rodgers keeps the game very close, but Atlanta's homefield makes the difference.

Final score: Falcons 28, Packers 24.

So I'll take the Falcons (-2), thanks to the surprisingly low spread.

Seahawks (8-9) @ Bears (11-5)
Predicted Line: CHI by 9.5
Actual Line: CHI by 10

What a joke.

Final score: Bears 23, Seahawks 16.

I'm taking the Seahawks to cover again.

Jets (12-5) @ Patriots (14-2)
Predicted Line: NE by 6.5
Actual Line: NE by 8.5

Once again, Rex Ryan is making this game all about him. Last week he said it was "personal" against Peyton Manning. This week, he used the same word in reference to his matchup with Bellichick. The funny thing is, he's absolutely correct in both games. But why does he need to broadcast it? Why steal the headlines from your deserving players? They are the ones who beat the Colts. I'm so sick of Rex. How awful is it that my 3 least favorite teams (Pittsburgh, Chicago, NY Jets) are all in the final 8. At least two of them will likely be in the final 4. Ugggghh.

I've decided not to talk about Rex anymore, and instead focus on the real reason why the Jets went 11-5 and beat the Colts in Indy. Their freaking players.

For starters, they have the league's best center in Nick Mangold. He might be a top 20 overall player. He is dominant. They also have bonafide studs at LT and RG. That's why they can run the ball effectively no matter who the backs are. Just ask Thomas Jones about that.

They also have arguably the league's best receiving crew. I racked my brain to think of which teams were better in the WR/TE department, and I came up with maybe Indy, Dallas or Green Bay. But all of those teams were hit with injuries. The Jets haven't sustained a single meaningful injury to their offense all season. That's why a very mediocre Mark Sanchez has led his team to 3 playoff wins in two seasons. (By contrast Matt Stafford has led his team to 3 TOTAL wins in two seasons.)

Defensively, the Jets have a top 10 overall player at cornerback in Darelle Revis. He's their lynchpin. I don't think he's quite as good as Asomugha, but he's the #2 corner in the league, and he wins his individual matchup against the receiver 49 times out of 50. Across from Revis is Cromartie, who is a top 10 cornerback in his own right. Then you add 3 stud linebackers and a solid safety, and you have an all-around very good defense.

That's why the Jets went 11-5. Mangold and Revis, Holmes and Scott, Keller and Harris. Not Rex Ryan. It's about the players, and they have darn good players.

I'm not saying Rex isn't a great coach. He is. He motivates and inspires, maybe even to a fault. And he knows defense. He really knows defense.

I'm just saying he's making this all about him, and it's just so dang annoying. He dominates headlines so much that I just wrote 435 words without even mentioning the 14-2 Patriots, who quietly had one of the most efficient offensive seasons in NFL history, and who beat the Jets 45-3 a couple months ago.

New England finished the season on a eight game winning streak (talk about momentum) in which they won by an average of 22 points and scored at least 31 in each contest. Tom Brady hasn't thrown an interception since October 17. He's thrown 26 touchdowns since his last INT, and 326 attempts. I'm not even going to bother looking it up; I'm just going to assume those are both NFL records.

You always see quarterbacks throwing interceptions that "aren't their fault." Dropped balls, the receiver fell down, etc. Especially if you're a Lions fan, you can easily justify a 3 INT game. So how is it that Brady throws 326 passes without a single pick? Is he just really lucky? Somehow, I don't think that's it.

Could it be that his knowledge of the game and the opposing defense is so encyclopedic that he doesn't throw a pass unless he knows the outcome of his pass before he even throws it? He knows his receiver will fall down before he actually falls down? I don't know. I'm just speculating. It's a magnificent accomplishment, and a standard to which other quarterbacks should be held when they throw "not-their-fault" interceptions. And yes, this was a thinly veiled attack on Matthew Stafford.

I could analyze the heck out of this game, talk about matchups and all that jazz. But bottom line: it's Brady against Sanchez. In Foxboro, where Brady has won 28 straight games (another NFL record). I think this will be a Brady/Belichick classic beatdown, and we won't have to see Rex's face until next September, when he guarantees another Super Bowl for the Jets.

Final score: Patriots 37, Jets 6.


Now for a section called: Detroit Lions: 2011 Draft

First off, I'd like to apologize for misleading you for the past month into thinking the Lions will draft Wisconsin's LT Gabe Carimi in the first round. I've had a change of heart, and I no longer think that will be the pick. Allow me to explain.

For one thing, Jeff Backus wasn't as bad this season as we all think. When Stafford got hurt week 1 and it was clearly Backus's fault, we were all ready for a change. I wrote back then: "Stafford didn't even survive one half of 2010 football without a serious injury...Blame Jeff Backus."

But in a recent survey among NFC North experts, Jeff Backus was voted the best left tackle in the division, and surprisingly, I'd have to agree. The Lions actually had 8 winners of the 22 starting positions, whereas in the past two years they had 6 combined. This team really is improving.

I don't suddenly love Backus and want him to start at LT for another 5 years, don't get me wrong - I'm merely saying that offensive line isn't the team's biggest area of need. And thus, I no longer think Carimi is the right pick at #13. Here are a few reasons why:

1) Scouts aren't even sure if Carimi is the best LT in this draft class. Others think Derek Sherrod from Mississippi State is better, or Nate Solder from Colorado. Boston College's Anthony Castonzo has even got first-round mention.

2) Carimi is a reach at #13. In looking at five or six mock drafts, the earliest I've seen Carimi (or any LT) go is 17th. It appears highly likely that one of the top 4 LTs will be around for Detroit's second-round pick.

3) There's a ton of talent at the Lions' other positions of need - namely CB and OLB - which should be available at pick 13. If either of the elite CBs drop to 13 (highly unlikely) or if DE Robert Quinn somehow slips (also unlikely), it would be too good to pass up. What works in the Lions favor is having so many teams ahead of us who need QBs, and so many QBs with supposed first-round talent. Between Newton, Mallet, Gabbert, and Locker all possibly going before Detroit, and receiver AJ Green definitely going in the top 5, that leaves only 8 or 9 defensive players before Detroit. We can hope receiver Julio Jones goes in the top 12 also, and maybe Mark Ingram. Detroit might actually get the 6th defensive player in this draft, which would be awesome.

We know Nick Fairley is going top 5, and likely Da'Quan Bowers as well. Patrick Peterson is highly unlikely to escape the top 9 (with Dallas needing a CB), but they might prefer Prince Amukamara who has better coverage skills. The ideal situation for the Lions is if one of those players, preferably Amukamara, falls to #13. That would happen if the QBs go early, and teams take DE/OLBs instead of CBs.

According to the many mock drafts I've seen, the Lions have a legitimately decent chance of landing a bonafide top 5 talent with pick 13. But if Quinn, Fairley, Bowers, Peterson and Amukamara are all gone - which they probably will be - it becomes a much more difficult decision.

Then, we'll have to decide between a left tackle (probably Carimi, maybe one of the other guys) or an OLB or CB. The best corners would be either Jenkins from Florida or Harris from Miami. The best OLBs include Von Miller from Texas A&M, Ackeem Ayers from UCLA, or Justin Houston from Georgia.

It's well-documented how OLB-heavy this draft class is, so Detroit's smartest strategy might be to wait on that position until the second or third round, and take Carimi at 13. One thing's for sure - Detroit NEEDS two starting outside linebackers next season. Julian Peterson is gone, and Zach Follet is a reserve at best, plus he's hurt. We can make do with Backus, and Chris Houston can retain at least one CB job. But we don't have any OLBs.

It's impossible to predict who will be available at pick #13, but if I had to guess right now, I'd say the Lions take Von Miller from Texas A&M - winner of the Butkus Award for the nation's best linebacker. He often gets compared to Clay Matthews. It's been said that "66% of the world is covered by water, the rest is covered by Von Miller." Check out these highlights of Von for excitement-building purposes.

With pick #44, we'll take either a CB (Aaron Williams from Texas?) or an LT (Tyron Smith, USC?). We might even take another OLB if we like the available talent. A lot will depend on what happens in free agency over the next 3 months. Some folks speculate that Detroit will pick up Albert Haynesworth and his horrible contract, which would obviously change our entire defense.

Also, don't discount the possibility that the Lions might trade up in the first round to land a stud like Bowers or Quinn. They could swap with #5 Arizona (who might want to trade backwards and wait for a QB) or with #7 San Francisco (for the same reason), or even #10 Washington (same thing again). This would be wise, because the two teams directly ahead of Detroit (Houston and Minnesota) have similar needs. Both teams need CBs and OLBs. It would be great if we could jump ahead and take Amukamara.

Okay, that's enough Draft talk for now. Still got 3 months to wait.
My Mock Draft is coming soon-ish. Probably not until late February.

Go Lions.

And Ravens, Patriots and Seahawks....


  1. Well done wildcard picking. 4-0 is a good start. Much better than 0-4 (1-3 against the spread) anyway.

    I'm not going to lie, I have no idea what to think about the Chicago/Seattle game. I'm going to list a bunch of factors in my NFL column (later today) - just thinking about that game makes me want to hang myself.

    The way I see this weekend? It's the same as last weekend - two coinflip games and two predicted blowouts. One of those blowouts won't come to be; someone's going to keep it close. Very interesting football.

    And I'm trying for the second year in a row of picking the playoffs like the San Diego Chargers play the regular season - start crappy and then get hot at the end.

    One thing that would be worth you doing is a preview of the Lions 2011 schedule.

  2. i don't believe the 2011 schedule is released until summer. i know the Lions are playing against the NFC South and AFC West, and our two bonus games will be the 3rd place teams from the NFC West and NFC East, so San Fran and Dallas.

    off the top of my head, I'd say we should beat San Fran, Carolina, and Denver, and should have a good shot against Oakland, Dallas and Tampa, and hopefully we'll go 2-4 against our division and pull off at least 1 upset between the KC, SD, ATL and NO games. So ... 8-8 looks possible.