And Then There Were Eight

Aside from the fact that my Chiefs lost, Wild Card Weekend featured a phenomenal slew of games, and I expect more of the same starting this Saturday in Pittsburgh. I went 3-1 last weekend, and probably would have gone 4-0 if the refs had whistled that blatant defensive pass interference against the Jets at the four yard line late in the 4th quarter. My dreams of going 11-0 in the playoffs have ended yet again, but I’ll take a ten win post-season. Here’s who I’m taking this weekend and why:

Baltimore @ Pittsburgh (-3)

Why 2010 says Pittsburgh will win this game:

These teams are virtually mirror images of each other, so I don’t have much aside from a theory that something is wrong with Flacco. I can’t remember him throwing a deep ball in the past month. Just fewer than 50% of his passing yards in the past five games have gone to tight ends, running backs, and fullbacks; and more often than not, you can’t dink and dunk your way to a win over the Steelers. Flacco has taken 34 sacks in the past ten weeks and Pittsburgh is the last team you want to face when you’re already battered and bruised.

Meanwhile, Roethlisberger seems to get stronger with each injury he takes. He’s averaging 285+ yards per game with an 11/2 TD/INT ratio in the past eight weeks, and has even rushed for two TDs during that span of time. Combine Ben’s resurgence with Flacco’s drop off and the fact that the Steelers both rush the ball and stop the rush much better than the Ravens, and it just feels like the Steelers are bound to win this grudge match.

Why history says Baltimore will lose this game:

– Since expanding to eight divisions in 2002, there have been ten occurrences of division rivals facing off in the playoffs. The home/road split is 50/50, but the Steelers are 3-0 in those games.

– 27 of the past 32 teams to compete for a conference championship finished the regular season 16th or better in the “sacks recorded” category. Baltimore finished the season tied for 27th in sacks.

– 31 of the past 32 teams to make it past the divisional round forced at least 24 turnovers during the regular season. Baltimore only forced 22 this season.

Everything about this game screams Steelers by one possession, so unless you can get great odds on the Steelers winning by exactly three points, your gambling dollars would probably be better off elsewhere. Final prediction: Steelers 20-14.

Seattle @ Chicago (-10)

Why 2010 says Chicago will win this game:

Before you overlook the season the Seahawks had and just assume they’re riding a “nobody believed in us!” wave in light of last week’s game against the Saints, there are a lot of things you need to consider.

First of all, the Bears are a much better team than they were in October when they lost three out of four games, including a game against Seattle. Since their Week 8 bye when Lovie Smith mixed up the offensive line to finally provide a small amount of pass protection for Cutler, the Bears have gone 7-2, with those two losses coming against likely Super Bowl candidates (Green Bay and New England). In October, Cutler was taking 6.3 sacks per game. Since then, he’s taking 2.7 sacks per game, and it’s not as if the Seahawks’ front four has been shutting down opposing quarterbacks.

The Seahawks were 2-6 on the road this season. Yes, one of those two wins came at Chicago three months ago, but that was when Chicago was at the lowest point of their season, and it was the game following the Seahawks’ bye week.

Fast stats: In games in which Matt Forte has 75 or more yards from scrimmage, the Bears are 8-1. In the Bears’ final three games, Forte averaged 139.3 yards from scrimmage per game. The Seahawks allowed just under 120 rushing yards per game during the regular season. On the road, the Seahawks allowed 29.3 points and 395.8 yards per game to their opponents, each of which would be good for worst in the league if they had had the same porous defense at home.

Why history says Seattle will lose this game:

– Going back as far as 1997 before growing weary of digging up old stats, only six teams in the past 14 years have made the playoffs while allowing more points than they’ve scored, and all six of those teams failed to make it to the conference championship game. Not only did the Seahawks get outscored by their opponents this season, but they were outscored by 97 points.

– 31 of the past 32 teams to make it past the divisional round forced at least 24 turnovers during the regular season. Seattle only forced 21 this season.

– The Seahawks have lost seven consecutive road playoff games.

If this game were being played in Seattle or if it were being played three months ago, maybe this is a different story, but the Bears have grown into a legitimate Super Bowl contender over the course of their past nine games, and should have no problem in this one. Final prediction: Bears 34-13.

New York @ New England (-9)

Why 2010 says New England will win this game:

Have you seen them play?! Since losing to Cleveland in Week 9, they’ve won eight straight and have scored at least 31 points in each of those games. They’re winning those games by an average of three touchdowns. In those eight games, they forced 24 turnovers and had more defensive touchdowns (four) than their offense had turnovers (one). Meanwhile, the Jets have barely looked like a playoff team since the 2010 calendar flipped to December. I don’t even need to be reminded that the Patriots beat the Jets by 42 in Foxboro to know that they are the vastly superior team.

Why History says New York will lose this game:

– The NFL MVP has played on Conference Championship Weekend in 19 of the past 23 years. Is anyone still arguing for Vick, Manning, or Rivers over Brady for MVP? Didn’t think so.

– Five of the past eight teams to lead the NFL in scoring during the regular season made it at least as far as the “final four,” and New England outscored every other team by at least 11 touchdowns.

– Teams that spend more time talking shit in the media and on twitter than they spend preparing for the task at hand end up losing the game at least 125% of the time. It’s a scientific fact.

The only real question is whether or not you should lay the points with the Pats. I would. Final prediction: New England 31-20.

Green Bay (+2.5) @ Atlanta

Why 2010 says Green Bay will win this game:

The whole “Matt Ryan is a Greek God at home” angle is being blown completely out of proportion. Four of the Falcons home games this season were against San Francisco, Cincinnati, Arizona, and Carolina, so let’s go ahead and throw those games out to leave Atlanta at 3-1 at home against legitimate competition.

Their one loss came to New Orleans. If LeGarrette Blount doesn’t get stuffed four straight times, Atlanta loses the game against Tampa Bay. If the Falcons don’t get the benefit of three calls on a last minute game-winning drive necessary to come back against a team that had all of about 17 yards in the first half, Atlanta loses the game against Baltimore. That leaves the three point win over Green Bay, and if you think Rodgers and company haven’t been improving since that game, you’re out of your mind.

Keep in mind that going into the season, Green Bay was one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl (please ignore the fact that Dallas was also one of these so-called favorites.) They are peaking right now and are about as healthy as they have been since the pre-season. This game should be a shootout, and in my opinion, Aaron Rodgers is more well-groomed for that type of game than Matt Ryan.

Why History says Atlanta will lose this game:

– In four of the past five years, at least two home teams have lost in the divisional round, and six seeds have won four of the past five games against one seeds. It’s like the 12 seed corollary in March Madness. More often than not, at least one 12 seed ends up winning, and more often than not, at least one team that played on Wild Card weekend ends up playing for a conference championship. If you’re with me on the first three picks, this is the de facto upset game.

– 27 of the past 32 teams to compete for a conference championship finished the regular season 16th or better in the “sacks recorded” category. Atlanta finished the season tied for 20th in sacks.

– Face it, Green Bay @ Chicago is the game Roger Goodell wants to see. Chicago @ Atlanta has about as much allure as San Francisco Giants vs. Texas Rangers did.

Not only does my gut say Green Bay will win this game, but I think it will be a route. My gambling spidey sense says this game is staying at Atl -2.5 just to convince people to put the Falcons in a three team tease at +7.5 with Chicago (pick) and New England (+1.5)…and the obvious three team teasers always fail. Final prediction: Green Bay 41-24.

If you’re playing in a fantasy playoff scramble, here are the players I see as the 4 best options at each position this week (from best to worst, left to right):

QB: Rodgers, Brady, Roethlisberger, Cutler

RB: Turner, Forte, Mendenhall, Green-Ellis

WR: W. Welker, M. Wallace, G. Jennings, M. Williams

TE: T. Heap, H. Miller, R. Gronkowski, T. Gonzalez

Def: Pittsburgh, Chicago, Baltimore, New England

 

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