Friday, January 8, 2010

NFL 2009: Wild Card Weekend Preview

It is finally that time of the NFL season, where more than half the teams are done, having to watch, sitting at home, the 12 best teams of the league fight it out for post-season glory. Of these 12 teams, the best 4 have earned a first round bye and will not be playing this weekend. That leaves us with 8 teams battling it out for their survival in the hunt for a chance to be in the Super Bowl. All the success through the regular season which got them here is thrown out the window here on. All their records, achievements etc thus far will be meaningless in up coming games. But most of the teams, if not all of them, will try to sustain the strategy, energy and momentum that got them here, even though it may be a fresh slate on paper.

Final seeding for the playoffs:

1. Indianapolis Colts (14-2)
2. San Diego Chargers (13-3)
3. New England Patriots (10-6)
4. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
5. New York Jets (9-7)
6. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

1. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
2. Minnesota Vikings (12-4)
3. Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
4. Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
5. Green Bay Packers (11-5)
6. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Amazingly, this weekend has 3 re-matches from Week 17, of which 2 are in the same venue as last week too. The four match ups this weekend are:

New York Jets (+2) at Cincinnati Bengals

This is one of the re-matches from Week 17, only this time, the game is at Cincinnati. Also, this time the Bengals will play to win. In Week 17, at New York, the Bengals did play some of their starters in the first half, but did not show any kind of urgency or resolve to play hard, letting the Jets win 37-0, helping them clinch a playoff spot.

With the Bengals planning to play all their starters, this week is bound to be different. Not only, will they have Benson in to help their running game, that sets up their passing, the Bengals will also have some defensive pieces they missed last week to contain the Jets run game. With their No.1 defense from the regular season, the Jets will be no push-overs. Revis island will make Chad OchoCinco (or Johnson.... after last week, even he does not know what his last name is now) all but invisible. But the Jets are on the road with a rookie Quarterback, Mark Sanchez, on his first playoff game. If history is any indication, that is a recipe for playoff failure. So, if the Jets run game cannot move the chains, they are going to have a hard time putting points on the board against Mike Zimmer's Bengals defense.

Another interesting story-line to this game is that the two opposing Quarterbacks, Palmer and Sanchez are both USC alums. Both of them where starting QBs at USC and were both No.1 picks in the NFL draft when they came out of school. They also are from the same high school and have known each other for years.

My Pick:
Against the spread: Bengals (-2)
Outright Win: Bengals

Philadelphia Eagles (+4) at Dallas Cowboys

This NFC East rivalry is a must-watch any weekend. Especially this weekend, being a post-season game and given that the Dallas dismantled the Eagles a week ago, posting a shutout of the much hyped about explosive Eagles offense. Dallas is coming into this game full of confidence having swept the Eagles in the regular season this year, while the Eagles have been struggling on offense since they lost their starting Center, Jamaal Jackson in the middle of the Broncos game in Week 16.

Both these teams have contrasting histories in past playoff appearances. The Cowboys have not won a playoff game since 1996. The Eagles on the other hand have never lost their first game in the playoffs any season they made it there under Andy Reid. Also, contrary to logic, it is always hard in the NFL to beat a team three times in the same season, a feat the 'boys will have to accomplish to win this game. Although all these statistics stack against the 'boys, they after all are playing at home and their defense is capable of pressuring the Eagles O line all game long. The Eagles D is good when they play with a lead, but if they are made to play from behind, they tend to struggle. Plus Romo seems to have matured into a more solid and clutch Quarterback since last year, heck, since September of 2009.

My Pick:
Against the spread: Eagles (+4)
Outright Win: Cowboys

Baltimore Ravens (+3) at New England Patriots

Who would have thought the Bill Bellichik coached Patriots will have so many lingering questions about them entering the playoffs. Their defense has been shaky all year long, while the offense has not been so far behind on inconsistency. No doubt, Tom Brady truly is the 'Comeback player of year' following his ACL reconstruction surgery that ended his season early in 2008. Still other injuries, both on offense and defense have not helped. The back-breaker of them all was Wes Welker going down in a meaningless game (for the Patriots in terms of playoff implications) in Week 17. Now, the best receiver behind Randy Moss for Brady to throw to is.....yup... Julian Edelmen, a rookie the Pats picked up in the 6th round of the 2009 NFL Draft. But the Patriots have a few other things going on for them. They have not lost a home game this regular season and their playoff home record is impeccable this decade. Well and they still have the genius game planner in Bellichik on their side. Also, they have never lost to the Ravens in their history ....ever.

The Ravens managed to control their path to the playoffs, finishing the season strong. But their once vaunted defense led by Ray Lewis has been showing indications of aging all season long. Ed Reed will be back to start here on and Ray Lewis will, no doubt, inspire them to play hard like there is no tomorrow. On offense, it seems like Joe Flacco has taken a few steps back since last year. The second year QB has been far from sharp for the second half of the season. He has not been helped by some drops by his receivers too, that cost the Ravens a game or two. In a way, this could work in favor of the Ravens as they will have to base their offense on their run game and that is the when they are the most dangerous, with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee running through tackles.

Somehow I think this game will come down to the final drive of the game.

My Pick:
Against the spread: Ravens (+3)
Outright Win: Patriots

Green Bay Packers (+1) at Arizona Cardinals

In this rematch from Week 17, the outcome of the last game should be thrown out the window. By the time the game kicked off, both teams knew they did not have much to play for and that they would be facing each other in the wild card round. Yet, both teams took contracting decisions in terms of their attitude towards the game. The Packers decided that it is still a game and that they play to win every game. They left their healthy starters in till the middle of the fourth quarter. Although they did not show much in terms of strategy, they still played hard the whole game. On the other hand, the Cardinals chose to mail it in even before the game began. The few starters they played were not in for a long time, except for the ones who had streaks and season records at stake, like Larry Fitzgerald. This very disparity in attitude helped the Packers pound out a 33-7 win over the Cards.

This week will be different. Not only will both teams play hard, but they will also have a game plan in place to execute. Both have potent passing games with Warner and Rodgers. But the Packers probably have the more balanced attack with Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson getting the chains moving on the ground. The Cardinals too do their due diligence in attempting to run Beenie Wells and Tim Hightower, but their bread and butter for success is their steady passing game when Kurt Warner is in rhythm.

The biggest match up the Cardinals will like to take advantage of is the Packers secondary. When the Cards line up in their 3 or 4 receiver sets (which they do more than 50% of their offensive snaps), the Packers will have Jarett Bush and Josh Bell on their 3rd and 4th receivers. That is where Warner will want to try and attack. Also, Warner is very effective against the blitz and if Dom Capers dials it up as he does regularly, Warner might just burn them.

The Packers will have to be wary of that on defense. They should have no problem shutting down the Cards run game with their big defensive fronts. The onus will be on the Linebackers to pressure Warner on pass rush and in coverage. They will have to disrupt his timing to throw him off. On offense, it behooves the Packers to stay as balanced as possible. But if the Packer defense allows the Cards to score fast, the Packer offense is potent enough to go on a shoot out. But that is a situation the Packs will try to avoid. The Packers O line will be key here, if they can protect Rodgers and also help in decent Blocking for the running backs, the offense should be fine for this game. Another area that can hurt the Packers is the special teams. Mason Crosby seems to have come around over the final 3 weeks of the regular season. Will he be able to sustain that through this game and maybe deeper in the playoffs? Also the Packers should be wary not to let a long punt/kick return that could kill them.

Finally, it's all about the turnovers come playoff time. The Packers lead the league in turnover differential (plus-24) for the regular season. While the Cardinals were a pedestrian (minus-7) in turnover differential, as usual, we do not know which Cardinals team will show up on that day. But for sure, the team that wins the turn over battle on Sunday will have a big edge on the game.

My Pick:
Against the spread: Packers (+1)
Outright Win: Packers

Record (without spread)
Last Week: 12-4
Final Regular season Record: 178-76

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