Thursday, January 6, 2011

NFL 2010: Wild Card Playoff Round Preview

A crazy NFL regular season came to an end last week; crazy in many ways.

For the first time ever, we have a team with a losing record, the Seattle Seahawks (7-9) winning their division (NFC West), and, in the process, making the playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs managed to hold off the San Diego Chargers, who usually surge towards the end of every year to claim their division crown (AFC West); not so this season. The Oakland Raiders managed to win every game within their division (6-0), but had an overall record of only 8-8, missing the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with the St Louis Rams, to a certain extent, proved that it is possible in this league to win consistently even in a rebuilding year. A redemption story on the side-track that inspired most people in the country (and of course angered a fringe few): Mike Vick.

Of course there were the expected "another day in the office" trends this season. The Patriots are back to being one of the better teams; more so due to their schemes and coaching than any particular addition(s) to their roster. Peyton Manning carried the Colts to the playoffs, as usual, in spite of his depleted offensive weapons this year. The Texans, in spite of their hot start, ended the season in the pile of mediocrity (yet Kubiak's job is still safe). The NFC West sucks. The Cowboys are over rated. And then of course: Brett Favre. Brett Favre. Brett Favre.

Now, on to the Wild Card round of the playoffs (seeding in parenthesis)....

AFC Game 1: (6) New York Jets [+4.5] at (3)Indianapolis Colts

So many angles to this game. Rex Ryan defense vs the Peyton Manning offense. Colts off-late improved run defense against the Jets' mainstay running game. Outspoken Rex Ryan and his Jets against the held back Jim Caldwell and his Colts.

Jets Game Plan:
On offense, the Jets will have to maintain a good run-pass balance; starting the game with more passes and eventually control the game with the run. The Colts defense is very one-dimensional and a balanced attack is the first step in exploiting their weakness. The Jets' running game will be there, but the onus will be on Mark Sanchez to complete some critical passes to keep drives alive and keep Manning on the sidelines. The Jets D should be happy that Manning is without some of his trusted weapons. Still, they will need Revis island to be on his A game shadowing Reggie Wayne. That will allow others in the Jets D to curtail Peyton Manning. The most important thing though, which we almost always take for granted is the absence of the Colts running game. It will be imperative for the Jets D to keep it that way, to even give them a chance.

Colts Game Plan:
Peyton Manning may have lost some of his most trusted receivers for the year, but he will still have to make the necessary plays on offense to give his team a chance. He is so good with pre-snap reads, along with his
elaborate preparation through tape study, that his style matches up well with Rex Ryan's defense, unless Ryan brings something drastically new to the table for this game. It will help their cause, if the Colts RBs can make just enough plays to keep the Jets D honest. Colts defense is what it is. They will have to flip a coin on every play and decide if they are going to play the run or the pass. They are just not adept enough to be a complete defense.

My Pick:
Outright Win: Jets
v/s the Spread: Jets [+4.5]

AFC Game 2: (5) Baltimore Ravens [-3] at (4) Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs have had an impressive season. But they seemed to cool down towards the end of the season. Partly because of Matt Cassel having a procedure on his appendix; culminating in the beat down in the hands of the Oakland Raiders. But, can I get their winning mojo back in the playoffs? The Ravens, on the other hand, have had a strong season, losing some close games that they should have won.

Chiefs Game Plan:
The Chiefs will want to establish their run game early. It is going to be daunting against this Ravens defensive front, but it is an important key to the Chiefs' chances this game. The Baltimore secondary, in spite of general notion, is not all that good. So Cassel might also have a few plays down field with play action. The key for the Chiefs defense will be to contain Ray Rice and the Baltimore Ravens. Their aim should be to make Flacco throw the ball to win the game.

Ravens Game Plan:
The Ravens, obviously, will have their hands full in curtailing the Chiefs running game lead by Jamaal Charles. If they can stop the run, they in effect will stymie the Chiefs' offense. On offense, they will have to try build some momentum in the passing game, especially with so many weapons at the WR position.

My Pick:
Outright Win: Ravens 
v/s the Spread: Ravens [-3]

NFC Game 1: (5) New Orleans Saints [-10.5] at (4) Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks made it to the playoffs with a 7-9 record; the first team with a losing record to win it's division! Moreover, to add insult to injury, they are hosting a playoff game! And with their home field advantage; which is probably the biggest advantage compared to any other stadium, they do stand a legitimate chance of giving the Saints a run for their money. I am saying this taking into account that the Saints are without their top 2 running backs and Drew Brees has not been hot in a while.

Saints Game Plan:
Drew Brees will like to keep it safe and simple. Complete enough passes to keep moving the chains and put some points on the board. Most importantly, avoid penalties and turnovers, which visiting teams are very susceptible to while playing at Qwest Field. Another aspect the Saints will have to be wary about is special teams. They will have to make sure Leon Washington does minimal damage in the return game. With Hasselbeck starting for the Seahawks, Gregg Williams should have enough scouting on him to set a good enough game plan, with minimal blitzing.

Seahawks Game Plan:
Not much to say here. Script a good first game opening drive and hope they get seven points off it. Play attacking defense, taking risks to get turnovers, which just got easier with the Saints so deep in their RB depth chart. Seahawks have next to no chance if they are passive on defense this game. Most importantly, make use of their 12th man, the crowd!

My Pick:
Outright Win: Saints
v/s the Spread: Seahawks [+10.5]

NFC Game 2: (6) Green Bay Packers [+3] at (3) Philadelphia Eagles

Now onto the big daddy of this weekend's games. The unlikeliest of comeback kids, Mike Vick takes on the Green Bay Packers, who in spite of their epic injury bug that tormented them all season,  managed to sneak into the playoffs with a strong finish to the regular season. This game has the potential to be one for the ages, as both offenses are capable of lighting up the scoreboard, much like last years wild card game between the Packers and the Cardinals. But I don't think that will happen.

Packers Game Plan:
The Packers game plan is pretty simple on offense. Light up the weak Eagles secondary. Easier said than done though. For this, they have to make sure Aaron Rodgers has enough time in the pocket. And more importantly, the Wide Receivers should hold on to the balls thrown at them, which has been a major problem stalling the Packers' offense of late. Also, a semblance of a running game, just to keep the Eagles Defense honest will be great. The Packers Defense has a tougher assignment. They have to contain Mike Vick.

Vick may not be a 100%, still, it is extremely important to keep him in the pocket as much as possible. If they can get to him like the Vikings did a couple of weeks ago, that would be great too. Dom Capers could try use some of the tactics the Vikings used. But, knowing Vick will be healthier this week and also must have seen enough tape to learn how to counter those blitzes, the Capers should very well have his own game plan to stop Vick. Yes, Vick torched the Packers Week 1 of this season. But to be fair, as Capers admitted after the game, they had not prepared to face Vick for more than 6-7 snaps that week. This will be a whole different ball game.

While concentrating on Vick, the Packers Defense cannot forget that the Eagles have so many other weapons on offense. They have to make sure first that McCoy is contained. They will probably put Tramon Williams to shadow Desean Jackson all game long. Sam Shields will be predominantly on Jeremy Maclin. Charles Woodson and the "new found weapon" Eric Walden should take blitzing responsibilities, along with the OLBs on passing downs. One or maybe even two of them may be assigned "spy" duty on Mike Vick too.

Another aspect the Packers would hate to get beat by, is in special teams. They will try to avoid mistakes and try keep the Eagles return game in check. Also, the Eagles are prone to committing a lot of penalties, if the regular season is any indicator. So they must try keep the penalty differential in their favor. That can serve them to be their own '12th man'.

Eagles Game Plan:
The Eagles will hope that Vick is healthy enough to make plays with his feet, apart from his arm. If not, they will be in for a long day. On defense, they will want to stop the Packers run game initially, to try force them becoming one-dimensional, which is not hard. That is the only way, the Eagles have a chance of stopping the Packers' passing offense. Unless they cheat, leaving less people in the box to stop the run, the Packers will be in great position to spread them out and keep marching down the field. The Eagles will also consciously try to avoid too many penalties. They have enough on their hands already, and don't want to put themselves further in a hole.  

X-Factor: Both coaches here, McCarthy for the Packers and Andy Reid for the Eagles, while are excellent coaches, are more than capable of some shabby clock/game management. Watch out for that to be a factor towards the end of the game, if it is a close one.

My Pick:
Outright Win: Packers 
v/s the Spread: Packers [+3]

Last Week:
Outright Win Record: 12-4
v/s the Spread Record: 10-6

Regular Season Record:
Outright Win Record: 161-95
v/s the Spread Record: 123-118-8
Regular Season Upset Record:
Outright Win Record: 9-8
v/s the Spread Record: 13-4

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