Tuesday, January 12, 2010

NFL Wild Card Roundup

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Great HOF Finalists this year. It hurts to choose just six, but my favorites are: Don Coryell, Russ Grimm, Dick LeBeau, Jerry Rice, Shannon Sharpe, and Emmitt Smith.

* Chad Ochocinco is not a man of his word?! That's shocking!!!

* I don't like Jim Mora Jr., but I also don't like firing coaches after one season.

* Pete Carroll's previous NFL experience does not inspire confidence. He was fired as coach of the Jets after one season. During his three years in New England, the team finished with a worse record in each successive season. It made the Super Bowl two years before he took over and again two years after he left.

* The biggest coaching move this week may not have been Mike Shanahan replacing Jim Zorn in Washington or Carroll taking over in Seattle. Texans OC Kyle Shanahan, who coordinated the fourth-ranked offense in the NFL last season, left to join his father in DC. That's a real loss for Houston. Cincinnati's Mike Zimmer may join the staff, as well.

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Wild Card Roundups

Jets @ Bengals

This game featured two teams with similar styles, and one of them was clearly better than the other at this point in the season. Both teams ran effectively, but the Jets could throw when they had to. Cincinnati kept trying, with very few positive results. Carson Palmer averaged 2.8 net yards per pass attempt. That's the third-lowest mark of his career. The lowest came last week, a perfect 0.0, also against the Jets.

The Bengals were dealing with significant injuries, and you just don't see a lot of wins from banged-up teams at this time of year. But let's give New York the credit it deserves. The Jets came in with a great game plan, and executed it very well. They dealt with setbacks, and they seemed like the hungrier, more confident team. Rex Ryan and his staff deserve a lot of credit for the way they prepared their team. This defense makes New York a potential threat to everyone else in the playoffs. This team is not as good as the 2000 Ravens, but there's certainly a comparison to be made.

Placekicker Jay Feely did a surprisingly good job filling in for punter Steve Weatherford. His average looks awful, but he kept punting from beyond midfield and landing his kicks inside the 20-yard line. Field position is a big deal in games like this. I don't believe this affected the outcome, but Shayne Graham missed a pair of very makeable field goals. The Bengals might want to invite another kicker to camp next year, just in case.

Eagles @ Cowboys

An ugly game that set a postseason record for combined penalty yards (228) and featured 5 turnovers, not to mention the Eagles' offense and defense. There was no defense in the second quarter (34 combined points) and no offense in the other three (14 combined points). The Cowboys were controlling the game even before they began dominating the scoreboard, and the outcome was never really in question.

The Eagles were thoroughly and embarrassingly out-coached in this game. The offense struggled against Dallas in all three games this season (10 ppg) and never effectively adjusted. The defense came in blitzing, which the Cowboys clearly expected. Heck, Tony Romo said all week that he expected it. Dallas was ready, attacking the blitz with draws and counters to Felix Jones. The coaches protected Tony Romo alternately with extra blockers and three-step drops. Great gameplan from the Cowboys, and no effective adjustments from Philadelphia.

In fairness to the Eagles, Dallas looks awesome right now. People are finally starting to appreciate the Dallas defense, which ranked second in the league in points allowed and has been playing at an even higher level recently. In contrast, Philly's defense was slumping at the wrong time. Maybe it was that December/January curse everyone has been talking about. It's migrated from Dallas to Philadelphia! Sorry, couldn't resist one last shot at the mythical late-season curse. This is the first time an Andy Reid/Donovan McNabb team has ever lost its first playoff game.

Ravens @ Patriots

I don't like Bill Belichick as a person, but I respect him as a coach. I believe he is easily the best coach of the last decade — no one else is close — and one of the top 10 coaches in NFL history. But I also wonder if he's losing his touch. From 2001-04, with Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel as his coordinators, Belichick was 9-0 in the postseason. Since then, without them, he is 5-4. Now, going 5-4 in the playoffs is nothing to be ashamed of. Anything over .500 is good. But Sunday's game marked the first time a Belichick/Brady team has ever lost its first playoff game. It was Brady's first home loss since November 2006, and the team's first postseason loss at home in more than 30 years. Those are striking statistics, but I really think this is less about Belichick than the players. This team is old, doesn't have depth behind the starters, and doesn't have much balance. It's time to rebuild.

I don't mean to deflect credit from Baltimore, but it's hard to send too much praise toward a team that — speaking of unbalance — completed only four passes in its last game. Joe Flacco was 4-of-10 for 34 yards and an interception against the Patriots. He was bailed out by his running game and defense. It's very hard, though, not to think that John Harbaugh and his staff out-coached the Patriots here. If you know your opponent desperately wants to run the ball and avoid passing, how do you not devote extra resources to stopping the run? When New England was on offense, Randy Moss was quiet and Julian Edelman was no substitute for the injured Wes Welker. The Pats went 0-4 without Welker this year.

Packers @ Cardinals

This was a strange game. It began as a blowout, turned into a wild comeback, and ended on an improbable defensive touchdown. The contest broke postseason records for total points (96) and combined first downs (62) and is one of only a handful of postseason games with over 1,000 yards of offense (1,024). The second half of the game was exciting, but the first half looked like just another rout, and at no point did we see anything resembling professional-level pass defense.

The one defensive player who deserves recognition is Karlos Dansby. He tipped a pass that led to an interception, caused a fumble, and scored the game-winning touchdown. If anything could overshadow Dansby's brilliance at the beginning and end of the game, it was the performance of the quarterbacks. Kurt Warner threw more touchdown passes than incompletions, a remarkable accomplishment. Aaron Rodgers passed for 422 yards and scored 5 TDs (4 pass, 1 run), with a 121.3 passer rating.

Rodgers seemed a little uptight when the game began, but settled in and looked really impressive leading his team back from a 21-point deficit. When Green Bay fell way behind, Rodgers actually seemed to settle down. Maybe it didn't feel like a playoff game — which he'd never been in — any more, instead just feeling like a comeback effort, which he knew he could do. Greg Jennings also sparked the comeback, with several really exceptional plays. Mike McCarthy and his special teams coaches did a great job spotting Arizona's vulnerability to an onside kick and executing it at the right time.

Ultimately, though, the Cardinals won this game because Green Bay couldn't stop their offense, and their defense made more plays. Arizona's unlikely playoff run last season was fueled by turnovers, and the team is off to a similar start this time around.

Divisional Forecast

Cardinals @ Saints

The Saints fell apart at the end of the regular season. Maybe they used the bye week to get healthy, refocus, and come up with a masterful game plan against the Cardinals. On the other hand, maybe they used it to sit around and eat pretzels. That's what I would do with a bye week.

I think turnovers will decide this game. These are both high-powered offenses, and potentially vulnerable defenses that live off the big play. The Saints need to slow the game down. They don't want to get into a shootout with the Cardinals. That means re-establishing the running game. New Orleans won with a balanced attack early in the season, and lost late in the year when the offense was all about passing. The x-factor might be Arizona DB Michael Adams, who repeatedly got picked on against Green Bay. New Orleans should plan to do the same thing. On defense, pressuring Warner will be key. He never looked uncomfortable against Green Bay, and if the Saints let him stand back there and throw, they're going to lose.

The Cardinals need to force turnovers. That's the top priority. On offense, they want to do what they did last week. Run to set up play-action and keep Warner comfortable in the pocket. They want to make the Saints one-dimensional, force them to throw early and often. That may sound strange against the top-rated passer in the league, but it's a different ballgame when you know what's coming. The stars need to come up big on defense. Last week it was Dansby. This week, look for Darnell Dockett or Adrian Wilson to step up and make a big play that gives Arizona the edge. A good start would help take the crowd out of the game.

New Orleans looked decidedly mediocre the last month of the season, and I have more faith in the Cardinals. They've been here before, they're confident and playing well. Arizona by 10.

Ravens @ Colts

Hardest game of the week to call. The Ravens are a bad matchup for Indianapolis. They play a 3-4 defense, which the Colts traditionally struggle against. They have a great ground game, and teams that can run the ball and control the clock have given Indy problems this season. On the other hand, maybe it's a bad matchup for Baltimore. They've lost seven in a row to Indianapolis, including a 17-15 home loss in Week 11.

The question is whether the January 16th Colts are the same team as the November 22nd Colts. I don't think they are. Indianapolis hasn't tried to win a game in a month, since their 35-31 Week 15 win against Jacksonville. We've seen this movie before. In 2005, 2007, and 2008, the Colts rested their starters at the end of the regular season, and all three years, they lost their first playoff game. I've gotten burned picking Indy to match expectations in the playoffs too many times. I picked them to beat the Patriots in '04. I took them to top Pittsburgh in '05. I had them beating the Chargers in '07 and '08. No more. I'm taking the Ravens.

How is Baltimore going to win? The same way it did against New England. The offense will revolve around Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. I might even try to get Le'Ron McClain involved as a ball-carrier. Both Rice and McGahee are capable of big plays, but Rice is the key. His speed should be deadly on the FieldTurf in Indianapolis, and the threat he presents as a receiver could cause real problems for the blue and white. The Ravens will pass just enough to keep the Colts honest, and take advantage if they try to stack nine men in the box. Look for a couple of surprise deep-shots in the later quarters when the Colts expect a run.

On defense, Baltimore has to pressure Peyton Manning. That's easier said than done, but it's absolutely critical that they keep him out of a rhythm, and the best way to do that is by hitting him. For the Ravens to back up the upset pick, they need multiple sacks and probably a couple of turnovers. I don't know how healthy Ed Reed is, but he has to make a play.

If the Colts win, it will be with good defense on first and second down. They need to put Baltimore in passing situations. That's where Indy's defense is strongest and the Ravens' offense is weakest. The offense has to show balance early. Without a running game, or at least believable play-action, I don't think the Colts can hold off a strong Baltimore defensive unit. Manning has to stay calm and in control, and he'll need to spread the ball around. That's not a problem. The issue is pressure. If it's there, the Ravens win. If not, Indianapolis advances. I'll say Baltimore wins on a late field goal. Ravens by 3.

Cowboys @ Vikings

The Vikings lost three of their last five games, including a pair of blowouts and an upset loss to Chicago in which Baby Jay Cutler looked like Tony Romo. Now they have to face the real Tony Romo, who has been positively on fire recently, with a passer rating over 100 in six of his last seven games. Scarier than Romo, though, is the Dallas defense. No unit has played better over the last month. Not the Colts' offense, not the Chargers' offense, not even the Jets' defense.

For Minnesota to win, Adrian Peterson needs to come up big. He needs to break a couple of long runs and pick up the tough first downs on short yardage. I'd also try to get him in space with some short passes. The Cowboys' front seven are so good that holes could be hard to come by, but you can't let All Day be a non-factor. The Vikings also need big plays out of their passing game. When the team started 10-1, it was beating opponents with Peterson's running, but also with deep passes to Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin. They'll also need accurate medium-range throws to bail them out when Peterson is unproductive on early downs. You can't beat the Cowboys if you can't convert a couple of 3rd-and-8s. Limiting turnovers will be paramount. An interception and a lost Peterson fumble, and this game is over.

The Cowboys just need to do what they did against Philadelphia. The Vikings have an imposing run defense, so the Dallas offense may center around Romo. The short passes they used last week should be effective again, and I'd test the middle of the field, where LB E.J. Henderson is out. I'd also test Antoine Winfield early. He's coming back from injury, so maybe he's fully healthy now and playing up to his usual standards, but Winfield was a real liability in coverage at the end of the season, and could be a weak spot the Cowboys can exploit. This game will be won or lost, though, by the Dallas defense. If it plays the way it has been, the Cowboys are going to win, and it probably won't be close. I think the game is decided by the end of the third quarter, and Dallas wins by two touchdowns.

Jets @ Chargers

Let's get this out of the way early: I believe San Diego is the best team in the playoffs and the Jets are the worst. So yes, I'm taking the Chargers. However, I do think the game will be close, and if San Diego underestimates the opponent, Rex Ryan could start to look like a prophet instead of a cocky lunatic.

A New York win begins with the defense. Ideally, the team would clone Darrelle Revis. One of him would cover Vincent Jackson, and the other would take Antonio Gates. Failing that, I'd put Revis on Jackson and double-cover Gates. It is absolutely critical to prevent San Diego's ground game from picking up any momentum. These guys start running the ball effectively, and it's over. The Chargers have a ton of weapons, so New York needs something close to a perfect game defensively. That's actually not out of the question.

The bigger worry is offense. There's no secret what the Jets will do. They're going to run when they can and pass when they have to, hoping they get a short field from the defense and a big play out of Brad Smith or Shonn Greene. San Diego does not have a good run defense, so this could be effective. Mark Sanchez has to avoid turnovers, especially in the red zone, and ideally he wouldn't throw more than 15 times. It's up to the Chargers to stop the run. They know it's coming.

What San Diego has to do is outscore the Jets. Duh, right? What I mean is that the Bolts' defense is not good enough to win this game, so the burden is on the offense to make things happen. Ball control is essential. The Jets will have trouble driving, so you can't give them a short field that leads to easy points. The Chargers don't have a lot of defensive depth, so they can't get killed on time of possession. Establishing the run would be great, but that might be a pipe dream in this game. More realistically, the Chargers should run when they can and keep the Jets honest with screens and draws. This offense has a lot of weapons, and Norv Turner has to devise a gameplan that makes them too much for the Jets to deal with. Defensively, just stop the run. Do that, and you'll win. Sanchez cannot carry the Jets, so you have to put them in a position where Sanchez has to make plays.

This is a tough matchup for San Diego, but the team has been here before and knows what it needs to do. Chargers by 4.

I picked three road winners in this round. The last time home teams went more than .500 in the divisional round was the 2004 season.

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Finally, a Sports Central tradition, our annual All-Loser Team: an all-star team made up entirely of players whose teams missed the postseason.

2009 NFL All-Loser Team

QB Matt Schaub, HOU
RB Chris Johnson, TEN
FB Lousaka Polite, MIA
WR Andre Johnson, HOU
WR Steve Smith, NYG
TE Vernon Davis, SF
C Brad Meester, JAC
G Justin Blalock, ATL
G Chris Snee, NYG
OT Michael Roos, TEN
OT Max Starks, PIT

DT Brett Keisel, PIT
DT Tony Brown, TEN
DE Julius Peppers, CAR
DE Andre Carter, WAS
OLB Brian Cushing, HOU
OLB Elvis Dumervil, DEN
ILB Patrick Willis, SF
ILB Jon Beason, CAR
CB Cortland Finnegan, TEN
CB Brandon Flowers, KC
FS Jairus Byrd, BUF
SS Yeremiah Bell, MIA

K Sebastian Janikowski, OAK
P Dustin Colquitt, KC
KR Joshua Cribbs, CLE

Honorable Mentions: Maurice Jones-Drew (RB, JAC); Steven Jackson (RB, STL); Aaron Schobel (DE, BUF); Randy Starks (DE, MIA); LaMarr Woodley (OLB, PIT); Champ Bailey (CB, DEN); Andre' Goodman (CB, DEN); Dashon Goldson (FS, SF)

Offensive Loser of the Year: Chris Johnson, RB, TEN
Defensive Loser of the Year: Patrick Willis, ILB, SF
Most Valuable Loser: Chris Johnson

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