NFL 2010 Wild Card Weekend

Playoff Edition Six Quick Hits

* Let me get this straight. The only home team not to lose this weekend was the 7-9 Seahawks?

* Surprising list of HOF Finalists this year, including two — Jerome Bettis and Charles Haley — who have no business in the state of Ohio, much less the Hall of Fame. My favorites: Dermontti Dawson, Chris Doleman, Marshall Faulk, Chris Hanburger, Les Richter, Ed Sabol, and Deion Sanders.

* Showing kickoffs for the Ravens/Chiefs game, CBS exclusively used the worst-seat-in-the-house cam, where you lose all meaningful depth perception and can't tell where the returner is. I don't know anyone who likes that camera angle, and it's a disservice to viewers.

* How about that playoff officiating? A couple small questions aside (mostly in Walt Coleman's game), I thought the officials did a great job this weekend.

* The 49ers won the Jim Harbaugh sweepstakes, the Raiders fired their best head coach in a decade, the Dolphins apologized to Tony Sparano, and the Cowboys fired the assistant they used to satisfy the Rooney Rule. Four teams still need head coaches.

* The NFL is determined to go to an 18-game schedule, despite almost universal opposition from players. Last season, the Colts and Saints played 19 games each. Both teams were devastated by injuries this season and lost their wild card games. If the schedule expands, it's not going to be about who's the best, just who has the fewest injuries.


For years, I've resisted the notion that Adam Vinatieri deserves to make the Hall of Fame. On Saturday, Vinatieri kicked his longest field goal in two years, giving his team a last-minute lead in a playoff game. If I had to choose one player to kick a crucial field goal, there's no doubt it would be Vinatieri. He is an unparalleled clutch kicker, and no one else in history has made half as many important kicks. Statheads, of whom I am one, sometimes frown at Vinatieri's regular-season numbers, which don't jump off the page. He's the Lynn Swann of kickers. Vinatieri holds just about every postseason record a kicker could want. Maybe I'll feel differently five or six years from now, but at this moment, I'd support his candidacy for Canton.

Wild card analysis below, divisional round predictions below that, All-Loser Team at the bottom.

Wild Card Roundups

Seahawks 41, Saints 36

How unlikely was Seattle's victory on Saturday?

* The Seahawks' 24 first-half points were a season-high.
* Their 41 total points were a season-high.
* The Saints hadn't allowed more than 30 points all season.

* Matt Hasselbeck posted a season-high 113.0 passer rating against the Saints.
* Hasselbeck threw 4 TD passes, doubling his regular-season high.
* The Saints were fourth in the NFL in pass defense and allowed the fewest passing TDs (13) in the league this season.

* Marshawn Lynch's 67-yard touchdown run was the longest of his career.
* Saturday was Lynch's first 100-yard game as a Seahawk, and his 131 rushing yards were the most he's had since November 2008.
* And of course, the Seahawks have the worst record of any playoff team in history (.438) and were double-digit underdogs.

You know what's really crazy? The Seahawks are still under .500. They're 8-9! They played by far their best game of the season, and still won by less than a touchdown. Having noted all of that, was this really as shocking as NBC played it up to be? I wrote last week in my Week 17 Power Rankings that all of the weakest teams to qualify for the postseason in a non-strike year have won their first playoff game. The Saints had a short week to travel to the farthest stadium in the league. That stadium, which already has a reputation as the league's loudest, was packed for Seattle's first home playoff game since the 2007 season. The game was outdoors, with a 35° wind chill, only the third cold-weather game all season for the Saints (who play in a dome). Yes, the result was an upset, and I predicted the Saints would win by a touchdown. The biggest upset in playoff history? I really don't think so.

The New Orleans offense kept up its end of the bargain. When you score 36 points, you expect to win. The Saints were minus their top two running backs, and missed the consistency and versatility Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory could have provided. Drew Brees threw 60 passes, which is far too many. But when you score 36 points, you expect to win. The Saints lost with defense and special teams.

NBC's analysts were very hard on the New Orleans defense, and deservingly so. Hasselbeck and Lynch had by far their best games of the season. Lynch's gem of a run was inspiring to watch, one of the greatest plays in postseason history, but it was also an example of incredibly poor tackling. Lynch broke or evaded 8 tackles on that one play. If you put it in a movie, audiences would dismiss the run as unrealistic and phony. But it really happened, to a professional defense.

All game, the Saints' defenders looked slow to react and unexcited about tackling — lots of olés and not much wrapping up. Converted cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, who moved to free safety this year and played very well, missed Saturday's game with an injury, and the impact of his absence was obvious. The Saints' pass-rush and secondary, in particular, looked remarkably poor.

The Saints also lost big on special teams. They spent the first half trying to keep the ball away from Leon Washington, with the result that Seattle started every drive at or beyond its own 30-yard line. Kicking away from punt returners is a basically good idea. Kickoff returners? Not so much. Washington is one of the best kickoff returners in the NFL, maybe the best. His return average this year was 25.6 yards, with only 5% of the returns going for TDs. In the second half, when the Saints finally did kick to Washington, Seattle took over inside the 30 all three times: 21, 24, and 29. But the damage was already done, and New Orleans' own return game was anemic throughout. Meanwhile, Jon Ryan, Seattle's fine punter, pinned the Saints inside their own 20 on three of his four punts. The Saints were playing from behind all game with regard to field position.

I don't intend solely to disparage the Saints, poorly as they played. Hasselbeck made some legitimately great throws, and his receivers made some legitimately great catches. Lynch's run was sensational. Seattle's good play on special teams created opportunities, and the team took advantage of them. The Seahawks played well, and they deserved to win, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be disappointed by the Saints' poor showing.

Final note on this game: the announcing crew of Tom Hammond and Mike Mayock was terrible, probably the worst I've heard since Brad Nessler and Trent Dilfer in Week 1. Repeatedly, players and teams were misidentified, the ball and the first down marker were spotted incorrectly, it was just bush league. My (least) favorite quote was Mayock in the fourth quarter: "That's a lot of big, sloppy bodies banging into each other." Ew.

Also, and I admit this may not be entirely fair, but Mayock always sounds like he's spitting while he talks. "The Theattle Thee-hawks..." Actually, he would never say that. It was always just "the Hawks." I don't mind shortened nicknames, and I've referred to the team as the 'Hawks, but to do it exclusively gets annoying very quickly. If he had called John Carlson "the Golden Domer" just one more time, I would have had to fly to Seattle and slap him. Very unpleasant broadcast to accompany an exciting game.

Jets 17, Colts 16

Am I the only one tired of watching the Colts lose close, winnable big games? This team has so much promise, so much capacity to generate excitement, and it seldom seems to deliver. One of the culprits, for all the good things he has accomplished in the past two seasons, is head coach Jim Caldwell. His gameplan is so conservative that I think it hurts the team. The Jets have a good defense and the Colts have some injuries, but how does an offense this good score just one touchdown and 16 points, at home, in its most important game of the season?

It's the fourth quarter, 4:41 left, and you're down 14-10. You have the ball at the opponents' 14-yard line, 4th and 6. Peyton Manning is your quarterback. What do you do? Coach Caldwell kicked a field goal, 14-13. The Colts later did score again, and when you can't hold a lead for :47 — well, that's a whole different issue — but the point is this: Caldwell is always happy to take the field goal. There's no killer instinct, no attempt at the knockout punch. This team is not good enough to play it safe like that.

Also missing on Saturday: Pro Bowl defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who combined for no sacks and one hit on the quarterback. The Jets have a good offensive line, and Brian Schottenheimer called a lot of plays on which Mark Sanchez could get rid of the ball quickly, but when those guys have no impact in a game, the Colts are in trouble. This was an equal-opportunity loss for Indianapolis. The offense didn't play up to its potential, a big return allowed by the special teams set up New York's game-winning field goal, and the defense couldn't stop the Jets in the second half.

The Jets nullified the Indianapolis ground game, churned out first downs with their rushing attack, and repeatedly got receivers open (even when Sanchez couldn't hit them). The Jets' MVP: CB Darrelle Revis. This season, Reggie Wayne caught 111 passes for 1,355 yards and 72 first downs. On Saturday, he had 1 catch and gained 1 yard. Sanchez, despite very occasional moments of brilliance, does not inspire confidence. But this team's offensive line, special teams, and defense are good enough to win a lot of games.

Ravens 30, Chiefs 7

Kansas City lost its seventh straight playoff game, an NFL record. The Chiefs are a good, young team, and mostly stayed healthy this season, but they were outmatched in this contest. During the regular season, Kansas City beat only one playoff team: the Seahawks. In fact, Seattle and Indianapolis were the only playoff teams the Chiefs even faced this season. They weren't truly battle-tested, and it showed on Sunday.

The Chiefs struggled on defense this weekend — they never found a way to cover Todd Heap — but the pass rush was effective, and it was a showcase game for rising star Tamba Hali, who had two sacks. The real ugliness was on offense. Matt Cassel threw 3 interceptions and finished with a 20.4 passer rating. Dwayne Bowe didn't catch a pass. Bowe had some big games this season, but it's too easy to take him out of the game. The one player who was effective for Kansas City's offense, RB Jamaal Charles, got just two carries in the second half, for a combined total of -5 yards.

During the regular season, facing a schedule full of creampuffs, Kansas City committed just 14 turnovers, less than one per game. On Sunday, the Ravens forced 5 turnovers. A dominant performance and an easy win for the better team.

Packers 21, Eagles 16

In last year's playoff loss, Aaron Rodgers passed for 422 yards and scored 5 TDs (4 pass, 1 run), with a 121.3 passer rating. Against the Eagles, he passed for just 180 yards, but with 3 TDs and a 122.5 rating. And his best pass, a rainbow that fell right into James Jones' hands and should have been a 63-yard touchdown, was dropped. Announcers frequently go over the top calling passes "perfect," but this one was.

No one should be surprised that Rodgers played well, but the success of Green Bay's running game, featuring rookie James Starks, caught everyone — including Philadelphia — off-guard. Starks, who had 101 yards during the regular season, rushed for 123 against the Eagles. The Packers got so enamored with their success on the ground, though, that they almost gave the game away. In the fourth quarter, Green Bay's strategy clearly was to run out the clock. The best way to do that is by sustaining drives, not running into eight-man fronts. In the game's most critical moments, you want the ball in the hands of your best player, and that's Rodgers.

Really, scoring 21 against the Eagles is nothing special. They allowed an average of 23.6 during the regular season. Where Green Bay really excelled was on defense. In recent weeks, defenses were successful against Michael Vick by blitzing him almost constantly, and that's clearly what the Eagles expected on Sunday. Instead, the Packers blitzed very seldom, especially in the first half, and it seemed to confuse Vick early on. Green Bay also was effective at keeping Vick in the pocket, and it didn't hurt that he never seemed 100%.

David Akers made the Pro Bowl this year. Akers is a good kicker, and he's had a terrific career. But he didn't have a good season, and he didn't deserve to make the Pro Bowl. He led the NFL in scoring, and that combined with name recognition is why he got in. But Akers scored a lot of points because he attempted a lot of field goals, not because he was better at them than anyone else. Akers ranked 15th this year in FG%. He missed twice from inside 40 yards and didn't hit anything over 50.

On Sunday, he missed two critical kicks. One, in the first half, was understandable, 41 yards into the wind. The other, in the fourth quarter, was 34 yards with the wind at his back. On 4th-and-1, Andy Reid, you've got to go for that.

Divisional Forecast

All four divisional games are regular-season rematches. The Ravens and Steelers split a pair of 3-point decisions, each winning on the road. The Patriots and Jets also split the season series, with the Jets taking Week 2, and the Patriots winning 45-3 in Week 13. The Packers lost by a field goal in Atlanta. The Seahawks beat the Bears in Chicago in Week 6, sacking Jay Cutler 6 times.

It's worth noting that the Ravens and Packers both get just six days to rest before their next games, the Seahawks and Jets eight days.

Ravens at Steelers

You'd be hard-pressed to find two teams more evenly matched. The edge, I think, has to go to Pittsburgh, because the Ravens have to go on the road with a short week to prepare. Of course, they've seen the Steelers twice already, so maybe they don't need as much prep work as they normally would, but you never want to be underprepared for a playoff game.

Both teams have great defenses and good ground games. The wild cards in this contest are (1) quarterback play, (2) special teams, and (3) Ray Rice. Honestly, whichever team wins the turnover battle — I'm looking at you, Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed — will probably win the game. Mike Wallace and Rice are the most dynamic offensive players on the field. If the Ravens can get Rice 15-20 carries and 5-10 catches, he's going to make a couple of big plays, maybe the type that can swing a game. In close games, a long field goal, a short miss, a big return, or a punt downed near the goal line can often determine the outcome.

Points 2 and 3 probably favor the Ravens. But in a playoff matchup of Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco, you're betting on Big Ben. I think Flacco makes a couple mistakes against Pittsburgh's league-best defense, and Roethlisberger does enough to get the win. Pittsburgh wins (by 3, of course).

Packers at Falcons

The Packers are a great team. They have a good offense and a sensational defense. I don't see them winning this game. There are too many injuries. It's their second road game in seven days, and the Falcons are awfully tough at home.

In their first meeting, Green Bay out-gained Atlanta by over 100 yards and Rodgers had a great game (344 yards, 114.5 rating, 51 rush yards, rushing and passing TDs). But Green Bay couldn't run the ball and settled for a couple of short field goals, while the Falcons turned their red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Maybe things will be different this team. Starks ran effectively against Philadelphia, John Kuhn has been effective in short yardage, and Green Bay's defense usually is good enough to limit opponents to field goals.

The problem is that this isn't just about Green Bay. Matt Ryan and Michael Turner both had big games against the Packers in Week 12. Atlanta's defense is almost as good as Green Bay's. The Falcons didn't win by coincidence, because the Packers had an off week. Green Bay played well, and it wasn't enough. As always, turnovers are the wild card. If Clay Matthews or Charles Woodson or someone comes up big, the Packers could steal this and it wouldn't surprise anyone. But I'll say Atlanta wins by 6.

Seahawks at Bears

The Seahawks somehow won their first meeting, which was also in Chicago. I have all sorts of concerns about the Bears, and if Seattle plays the way it did against New Orleans, Chicago will lose. But I'm not picking Seattle to beat anyone this postseason. Bears by a touchdown.

Jets at Patriots

The Jets have reached the second round of the playoffs in both of the last two seasons. They're obviously doing something right. The Jets beat New England 28-14 in Week 2 before getting stomped down, 45-3, in December. The "real" Jets are more like the team that won in Week 2, but the real Pats are the team that destroyed them in Week 13.

New England won five of its last six games by more than 20 points and went 8-0 at home. New York has a very good defense; the Patriots have a historic offense. The Jets have an okay offense; the Pats have a very good defense. Both teams have pretty good special teams. Tom Brady only threw 4 interceptions during the regular season. Unless he matches that total next Sunday, the Patriots will win, though not by 6 TDs this time. Let's say New England by 10.


Finally, a Sports Central tradition, our annual All-Loser Team: an all-star team made up entirely of players whose teams missed the postseason. If this team could actually be assembled, it would destroy any and every team in the playoffs.

2010 NFL All-Loser Team

QB Philip Rivers, SD
RB Arian Foster, HOU
WR Brandon Lloyd, DEN
WR Andre Johnson, HOU
WR Calvin Johnson, DET
TE Jason Witten, DAL
C Kyle Cook, CIN
G Chris Snee, NYG
G Kyle Kosier, DAL
OT Michael Roos, TEN
OT Jeff Backus, DET

DT Ndamukong Suh, DET
DT Tommy Kelly, OAK
DE Jared Allen, MIN
DE Jason Babin, TEN
OLB Chad Greenway, MIN
OLB Shaun Phillips, SD
ILB Stephen Tulloch, TEN
ILB Barrett Ruud, TB
CB Nnamdi Asomugha, OAK
CB Antoine Cason, SD
FS Michael Griffin, TEN
SS Donte Whitner, BUF

K Rob Bironas, TEN
P Kevin Huber, CIN
KR Marc Mariani, TEN

Honorable Mentions: Marcel Reece (FB, OAK); Antonio Gates (TE, SD); Justin Tuck (DE, NYG); Osi Umenyiora (DE, NYG); Justin Smith (DE, SF); Cameron Wake (OLB, MIA); DeMarcus Ware (OLB, DAL); Karlos Dansby (ILB, MIA)

Offensive Loser of the Year: Arian Foster, RB, HOU
Defensive Loser of the Year: Ndamukong Suh, DT, DET
Most Valuable Loser: Philip Rivers, QB, SD

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