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NFL Playoffs Musings: Wild Card Weekend Edition

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It's my favorite weekend of football each year - Wild Card Weekend. It's hard to put into words why I enjoy the opening round of the NFL playoffs so must. I mean, after all, there are only four games played this week compared to at least a dozen during the regular season. But I don't think I really need to explain myself too much. It's Playoffs time! Enough said.

Before the action gets underway on Saturday afternoon, time to share my thoughts on this weekend's slate of games as well as what I think might unfold the next three weeks before two two teams are crowned conference champions.


* Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been money the past two weeks in victory. He's thrown for exactly 600 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He's completed over 68 percent of his passes, and posted consecutive triple-digit QB rating games (111.5; 141.3). The Steelers absolute best shot at winning Lombardi No. 7 will be if No. 7 plays as well as he has recently. The defense and special teams will need to be solid, but that might not be enough considering the bevy of other good quarterbacks in this year's postseason, one or more of which are bound to play extremely well. This year's playoffs is stacked with the creme de la creme at the most important position in sports: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees. Then there's the next tier of guys - very good quarterbacks mind you - that are trying to obtain that same level of elite, championship-caliber status: Matt Ryan, Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco. Matt Cassel is well on his way to joining that second tier, and even Matt Hasselbeck, who probably shouldn't even be playing, has considerable playoff experience and a 4-1 record as a starter  at home in the postseason.

Here's an interesting stat for you. All 12 quarterbacks (yes, even Hasselbeck) threw for over 3,000 yards this season. I can't verify this, but I'm guessing that this is the first time in NFL history that every QB has thrown for at least that many yards. If it is in fact the first, it certainly won't be the last time because of the evolution of the game, not to mention the likelihood an 18-game regular season will be introduced in '12. For the year, a record 22 QBs eclipsed the 3,000 yard plateau, besting the previous high of 19 set in both '01 and '09.

* Don't sleep on Baltimore. The Ravens, like Pittsburgh, finished the regular season 12-4. Winners of four straight, the Ravens head into the playoffs confident they can breakthrough and return to the Super Bowl after falling just short the past two years. Baltimore's experience in the playoffs the past two years will help them as they take to the road to first play the Chiefs, then either the Steelers or Patriots the following weekend. Baltimore has won three road playoff games the past two years, including wins over Miami and top-seeded Tennessee in '08 and over New England a year ago. Translation: they're not going to be overwhelmed by the moment, and they know they can hang with and beat the best regardless of where the game's being played.

I read earlier this week that some of you think Kansas City has a fighting chance at home this Sunday. I don't see that happening. The Ravens are peaking at the right time thanks to finally getting Ray Rice going the past month or so. When Rice is running well and featured in the passing game, the Ravens offense can be scary, as Joe Flacco doesn't have to do too much but make the right reads and throws to his bevy of experienced and capable wide receivers. Maybe if the Chiefs get Jamal Charles the ball 25 times somehow, but I certainly don't see Matt Cassel carrying the Chiefs to victory, not against a Ravens secondary that's looked much better this past month thanks to Ed Reed rounding into form. By the way, how ridiculous is it that Reed led the league in interceptions (8) despite missing the first six games of the season! In fact, no one in NFL history has led the league in interceptions having missed that many games. Anyway, if you're the betting type, I'd recommend considering a big position on the Ravens this weekend. They're only favored by 3 points against a Chiefs team largely comprised of players without playoff experience, that has totally disappeared on offense at times this year. The Ravens at least make it back to the Divisional Round for the third straight year.

 

* Let's jump over to the NFC real quick. Any surprise that the Seattle Seahawks are the biggest home underdog in NFL playoff history? Didn't think so. The defending champion New Orleans Saints are 11 point favorites over the 7-9 NFC West champion Seahawks. I honestly wouldn't be surprised by any outcome in this one - be it Saints blowout, or even a Seahawks win. Unfortunately for the 'Hawks, it doesn't look like there will be rainy, cold conditions this Saturday. They definitely would have benefited from a nasty day up here in the Emerald City. We'll see what happens in the opening game of the weekend, but I do think Seattle is making a mistake by starting Matt Hasselbeck over Charlie Whitehurst. I understand the decision to a degree, but I have a hard time envisioning Matt Hasselbeck handling the dizzying barrage of blitzes that Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams likes to dial up. A more mobile option at quarterback would at least allow the Seahawks to call some plays that got Whitehurts out of the pocket.

As for the Saints, well, they face a tough road if they're to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Credit New Orleans though for avoiding any semblance of the SB Hangover. That's a testament to the leadership in New Orleans at two critical spots - the head coach and quarterback. Here's why though I believe New Orleans has a legit shot to get back to the SB despite being decimated at the running back position (P. Thomas and C. Ivory both were placed on IR this week): they don't need their running game to be as competent as most would like you to believe provided Reggie Bush is being targeted frequently in the passing game.

Since returning from injury, Bush has had scant success rushing the ball. His best performance was in Week 17 when he amassed 70 yards on 9 carries. Bush has had a big impact on the SaInts offense though by re-emerging as one of Drew Brees' favorite targets to throw to. After a three-reception outing in his first game back in late November, Bush has had 5, 7, 4, and 5 receptions in his last four games. I believe at one point during stretch recently, Brees targeted Bush 19 times. Bush caught all 19 throws. These throws were basically an extension of the running game - short check downs, designed screen passes, quick flare outs in the flat - either in an attempt to get Bush the ball in space or just a decision by Brees to get rid of the ball and get something positive out of the play rather than taking an incompletion or forcing something down the field. Bush's receiving yards the past four weeks were as follows: 22, 36, 20, and 55. That equates to just over 6.0 yards per catch this past month, which is nothing spectacular by any means, but it's a might good rushing average. And when you're completing just about every last pass to Bush, you might as well consider those types of plays part of the 'running game'. Low risk, high success rate, and the plays tend to keep the clock moving because incompletions are so infrequent. Plus, who's to say that Desean Wynn, a one-time 7th rounder, can't replicate the same type of unexpected productivity as Pierre Thomas (undrafted) or Chris Ivory (also undrafted). I imagine that Wynn will get his fair share of carries along side Bush until he proves he can't be trusted to protect the football. After that, the Saints still have Julius Jones to turn to. Jones is undeniably on the severe downslope of his career, but even a guy like him with almost no ability to break off a big play can still put his head down and pick up 3-4 yards here and there for a few weeks.

So, don't sleep on New Orleans, especially if their defense can force a few turnovers. The Saints have gotten more than their fair share of luck recovering forced fumbles (they have 16 fumble recoveries, the third most in the league). But they've intercepted just 9 passes, the fewest total in the NFL in '10.  Don't let that number fool you into thinking the secondary can't play. The Saints allowed just 193 yards per game through the air, the third lowest total. It's a good, not great defense, but it needs to catch a break or two turnover-wise starting this weekend. If they can do that, don't be too surprised to see them representing the NFC in Dallas.

* If you've read BTSC awhile, you know I'm not at all a fan of Peyton Manning. I've written countless times that I believe he's the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and though this is perhaps naive and not at all in line with how the history of sports has played out, I don't think there will ever be as good a technician as Manning. Say what you want about his struggles int he postseason. He's actually not been nearly as bad in the postseason as some fans and media members make him out to be. Yes he's choked in some big spots, ('03 AFCCG, '02 opening round game, et al) and nobody was more pleased at the time. But his final numbers aren't disgraceful whatsoever (63%, 28 TDs, 19 INTs, 87.6 QB Rating), nor is his win-loss record (9-8). It's worth noting that he started out 0-3 in his first three playoff games, but those Colts teams ('99, '00, '02) weren't that great. The Colts were dogmeat before his arrival, and despite going 13-3 in '00, the Colts really didn't hit their stride as an organization until the '03 season.

Anyway, this year is a unique opportunity for Manning to cement his status as the best ever. If he can't lead the Colts to an improbable deep run, he'll avoid much scrutiny because of all the injuries and general lack of talent around him this season. But were he to lead Indy to a conference championship this season, he'd put any argument to rest about his postseason prowess and his legacy as one of the all-time greats in any sport. Man, I sure hope instead that he struggles and continues just being considered the best regular season QB ever, with only a lone SB ring to show for his otherwise remarkable career.

* Here are the odds to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the new Cowboys Stadium in early February.Super Bowl and

Odds to win the 2011 Super Bowl XLV

New England Patriots: 9/5

Atlanta Falcons: 6/1

Pittsburgh Steelers: 11/2

New Orleans Saints: 10/1

Philadelphia Eagles: 11/1

Baltimore Ravens: 12/1

Chicago Bears: 12/1

Green Bay Packers: 12/1

Indianapolis Colts 16/1

New York Jets 20/1

Kansas City Chiefs 40/1

Seattle Seahawks 100/1

* I very much enjoyed Neal Coolong's post about how Mike Tomlin deserves serious consideration as Coach of the Year for the incredible job he's done in his fourth season. Here are the odds to win Coach of the Year:

Coach of the Year - Odds to Win

Todd Haley: 2/1

Bill Belichick: 5/2

Mike Tomlin: 3/1

Lovie Smith: 5/1

Andy Reid: 15/2

Mike Smith: 10/1

Raheem Morris: 12/1

Jim Caldwell: 15/1

John Harbaugh 16/1

Steve Spagnuolo 18/1

* Before wrapping up, I suppose I'm obliged to write something about the Packers and Eagles matchup on Sunday afternoon. Great game if you care at all about either team or the NFC. If this were a regular season tilt, I'd probably tune in elsewhere. But with no other games at the time, I'll get my first complete game look at either squad. Because I haven't really studied or followed either team closely this year, I'll refrain from writing much here. But I do feel comfortable saying this: if either one of these teams makes it to the Super Bowl, it will be Green Bay, not Philadelphia. Very impressive season for Michael Vick and the young Eagles, but I think his remarkable redemption story ends soon. I could dig up some statistical or other logical reasons why Philly's not likely to survive these next three weeks. Instead though I'll just that it wouldn't quite seem right for Vick to get it all back, so soon. He's well on his way back to superstar status, and it wouldn't surprise me if Philly made a run to the title game in '11 or '12. But not this year. Too young, not physical enough, and Vick's pretty beat up heading into postseason play.

The Packers kind of remind me of the '05 Steelers. Not in their style of play, but how they both had sky-high expectations at the outset of the year, struggled in the middle parts of the year, only to rebound and sneak into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed nobody wanted to play. If you're the Packers, do you really mind that much playing away from frigid Green Bay in January? The Packers were just 3-5 on the road this year, but one of those wins away from Lambeau came in Week 1 against guess who, the Eagles.

Playing on the road just isn't the same challenge it used to be for a number of reasons we can have a conversation about some other time. But winners on Wild Card Weekend have gone on to win it all six times. If recent trends continue, expect a team that's playing this weekend to at least advance to the SB. At least one team has done so in five of the past six playoffs. In the NFC, my money is one that trend continuing with either the Saints or Packers heading to Dallas.

* A few days ago in his 'Five Burning Questions' post, maryrose asked what we thought the ideal scenario would be for the Steelers in terms of potential matchups next weekend. My ideal scenario? The Jets beat the Colts, the Ravens beat the Chiefs this weekend, which would send New York to New England and Baltimore to Pittsburgh next weekend. From there, the Jets take out the Pats, the Steelers hold serve against the rival Ravens, and New York returns to Heinz Field for a rematch from earlier this season. Why would that be 'ideal' for me? Well, for one, I don't subscribe to the belief that a championship would be in any way be tainted if the Steelers didn't take down New England en route to Lombardi No. 7. I suppose playing Kansas City would be nice, but I kind of want to face Baltimore en route to the crown. There's no better rivalry in pro football today. I'm perfectly fine admitting that I want no part of Manning or Brady. To make up for it, I say bring on the Rat Birds, a team I consider every bit the threat that New England and Pittsburgh is to win it all this year.