After an NFL Wild Card Weekend that lived up to its “wild” billing, neither of the teams that squared off in Super Bowl XLIV last February are still alive. And that is only one of many storylines to come out of the first weekend of the 2010-11 NFL postseason so far.
Before we get into any of those storylines, here’s The Sports Geeks Playoff Picks leaderboard as of the conclusion of last weekend’s games:
As we consider those standings, a brief recap of the game action; nobody on The Sports Geeks staff foresaw the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks winning against the 11-5 New Orleans Saints, but they did so to the tune of a 41-36 final score. Only Matt picked the New York Jets to win against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium, but he was correct as Nick Folk and Mark Sanchez out-dueled Adam Vinatieri and Peyton Manning at the end of the game in a 17-16 result. All four of our staff writers were correct in picking the Baltimore Ravens to easily pick up a road playoff win 30-7 over the Kansas City Chiefs, and everyone but Matt correctly picked the Green Bay Packers who took a 21-16 decision on the road against Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Remember for the leaderboard that a lower Differential Points number is better; the higher the number is, the further off a score pick was versus the actual game result. After four games, only one Differential Point separates Matt and me at the top of the standings.
With the first round of playoff action completed, here’s an updated look at the playoff tree:
Thanks to the Wild Card Weekend results, all four match-ups in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs are rematches of regular season games. In the American Football Conference, the games will each be a “rubber game”—the third of the season after regular-season meetings were split—between AFC East rivals New York Jets and New England Patriots and AFC North rivals Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. While the National Football Conference will not see division rivalries, the Green Bay Packers will look to avenge a loss to the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears will host the Seattle Seahawks hoping to reverse a loss from the regular season.
For the average NFL fan, it would be hard to want more from the games on the docket for the coming weekend; here’s my analysis of each game—in broadcast order—along with The Sports Geeks picks:
Ever since the Ravens were brought into the league and became NFC North rivals with the Steelers, games between the two teams have consistently featured smash-mouth rushing attacks with brutal displays of defense. There is no reason to expect anything different about the coming match-up at Heinz Field. Each team finished with a 12-4 regular season record, but Pittsburgh took the division and a first-round “bye” based on tie-breakers; based on the overall statistics from the season the Steelers also have an advantage in just about every category as well.
However, this is a Baltimore team which has been quarterbacked to at least one road playoff win in every season of Joe Flacco’s young career; it is a team which seems to be built to thrive away from home when the games are most important. The Steelers, meanwhile, sat out of the playoffs last year after winning Super Bowl XLIII the year prior; it has been nearly two years since anybody in Black-and-Gold has taken the field with the season on the line like this.
During the regular season each team won on the road against each other by a field goal’s point differential; the difference between the wins is that Baltimore won the first match-up while Ben Roethlisberger was still suspended by the league, while Pittsburgh won just over a month ago in a game where the lineups were essentially the same as they are now. The Ravens may have the momentum of getting another Wild Card win under their belts, but the Steelers have had ample time to rest their roster—including key defensive player Troy Polamalu—in advance of a bruising game.
At the end of the day, a coin flip could perhaps be the best way to pick an outcome; in a divisional battle statistics fall by the wayside and it often comes down to which team ends up executing better on that given day. For the sake of my game pick here at The Sports Geeks, I’m going to lean ever so slightly in favor of the home team—by a field goal differential once more—because the defenses are equal but Big Ben is still a more proven commodity than Flacco.
The Sports Geeks Picks:
- Brian — Steelers win 20-17
- Alex — Ravens win 21-17
- Pat — Steelers win 20-17
- Matt — Steelers win 17-13
The late game on Divisional Saturday sees the Packers coming off their road win over Philadelphia visiting the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons finished 7-1 during the regular season. Atlanta has been nearly unbeatable at home since drafting quarterback Matt Ryan, and securing home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs was an early goal for the team this season. In a late November meeting between the two teams in Atlanta, the Falcons prevailed on a late field goal; with such a small margin of victory, however, it’s hard to use the past result as any true predictor of this weekend’s game.
When viewed from a strictly statistical perspective, both Green Bay and Atlanta are fairly even across the board. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is coming off his first postseason victory and Green Bay would appear to have more momentum going into the weekend solely because of their hard-fought victory over an Eagles team which many thought would have a chance at making Super Bowl XLV. As the record shows, however, the Falcons are always a tough team to play on their home field; if halfback Michael Turner can achieve success against a tough Packers defense like he did in Week 12, then the tide of the game could swing significantly in favor of the #1 seed.
The problem is that the Falcons did not finish as strong as they would’ve hoped; sure, they clinched the top seed in the conference with an easy victory over Carolina in Week 17, but in Week 16 they failed to defeat the Saints at home. If the “bye” week allowed Atlanta to get back on the same page and ready to make a playoff push, then they have to be considered favorites. For the sake of our picks, I’m going with the hot team for an upset and a 3-point Packers win to put them in the NFC Championship Game.
The Sports Geeks Picks
- Brian — Packers win 27-24
- Alex — Falcons win 31-21
- Pat — Falcons win 24-20
- Matt — Falcons win 24-20
Whether fair or unfair, the Seahawks were written off as dead before any hype began for the playoffs after making the postseason as a 7-9 division champion. One week later, Seattle finds themselves still alive after knocking off the defending Super Bowl champions. Even more incredible, the Seahawks are set to travel to Soldier Field to play the Bears; a team that they beat 23-20 in Chicago for a Week 6 match-up in the regular season. A win—combined with a Packers victory over the Falcons—would actually see the NFC Championship Game hosted at Qwest Field.
Once again, from a statistical perspective, the Seahawks are almost completely overmatched. They have a 20 yard per game advantage in passing offense, but that is the only category that they are better at than the Bears. Chicago’s defense is ranked significantly higher than Seattle’s and—unlike New Orleans—the Bears are not facing any major injuries on that side of the ball. While an inspired performance from Matt Hasselbeck and a “Beast Mode” touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch have dominated highlight shows across the NFL this week, on paper the Bears have to be heavy favorites.
If Wild Card Weekend taught us anything, it’s that no team in the postseason should ever be 100% written off in terms of their chances to take home a victory. Forced away from the comfort of Qwest Field, however, chances of another improbably Seahawks win are even less likely. Jay Cutler may not be the most sure-handed quarterback in the league, but he has shown the ability to minimize mistakes this season while playing a complementary role to Matt Forte and the running game; should the Bears offense avoid turnovers, their defense likely won’t have to try very hard to earn the victory. The Bears haven’t gotten much respect this season either, so it’s not as though they won’t be able to find the motivation necessary to play their way to the conference title game.
The Sports Geeks Picks
- Brian — Bears win 24-17
- Alex — Bears win 30-13
- Pat — Bears win 23-10
- Matt — Bears win 21-20
The final game of Divisional Weekend is the one that—aside from Ravens versus Steelers—has been getting the most press and media coverage by far this week; a third match-up between the Jets and the Patriots. By now everyone knows the story of how the Jets turned a 14-10 halftime deficit into a 28-14 victory at home in Week 2 of the season—when Randy Moss was still a Patriot and Danny Woodhead was still languishing on the Jets sideline—and everybody is extra aware of how New England turned Monday Night Football into a farce on Week 13 on the way to a 42-point victory. Even if you didn’t watch either game, chances are you’ve heard Rex Ryan talking about it this week anyway. This match-up was a media darling as a result of the potential storylines and sound bites volunteered by the players involved.
At the end of the day, however, this third game between AFC East rivals won’t be decided by the trash talk or by whichever team makes better headlines. And chances are it won’t look like the 28-14 result—because the Jets are not two touchdowns better than today’s Patriots—in the same way that this playoff game won’t much resemble 45-3; New England, while the AFC’s #1 seed, is not six touchdowns better than the Jets. In the same way that Baltimore and Pittsburgh are expected to compete in a close division rivalry game, a single score could make the difference between who wins and who falls out of the postseason bracket.
Despite owning the best record in the NFL’s regular season, the Patriots actually trail the Jets in terms of yards per game in nearly every category except passing. That said, New England has the clear advantage in points scored and turnover ratio, which helps explain how the team has been able to win despite not overwhelming their opponents in numbers unrelated to points. Turnovers could be especially key to who wins this playoff rematch; in the Jets Week 2 win, Tom Brady has 2 scoring throws but also 2 interceptions and lost a fumble while Mark Sanchez threw 3 touchdown passes. In the Week 13 game, Sanchez threw 0 touchdowns and 3 interceptions while Brady put together a 4 touchdown games and New England escaped without a turnover.
With all of the coverage, it’s hard to find anything new to say about Jets-Patriots III. And so, on that note, my prediction: in a hard-fought, angry game between teams who just do not like each other, I see New England doing enough at home to take the victory and give their fans another game at Gillette Stadium this season: the AFC Championship game. Expect Sanchez and the Jets to play better than the Week 13 game—hard to do worse, honestly—until some mental mistake derails a late New York comeback.
The Sports Geeks Picks
- Brian — Patriots win 28-20
- Alex — Patriots win 24-16
- Pat — Patriots win 31-17
- Matt — Patriots win 24-13
If we put together all of the picks we’ve made here at The Sports Geeks and average out the predicted scores for all eight teams playing in the NFL Divisional Round of the playoffs this weekend, these are the aggregate results:
Steelers with 75% of picks by an average score of 18.5 to 17.
Falcons with 75% of picks by an average score of 25.75 to 22.
Bears with 100% of picks by an average score of 24.5 to 15.
Patriots with 100% of picks by an average score of 26.75 to 16.5.
Another week of picks and analysis are now in the books; be sure to watch the NFL Divisional Round playoff actions this coming weekend, and feel free to leave your own game picks in the comments below!