NFL Championship Sunday Playoff Picks

Championship Sunday is here and 3 of the 4 teams playing today were playing on Championship Sunday last year.  The Patriots, Ravens, and 49ers are all making their second trip in a row to their Conference’s respective championship game.  The Falcons are the new team in the equation, replacing last year’s eventual Super Bowl champion Giants.  The Harbaugh brothers were swept out of a chance to make the Super Bowl last year.  Will it happen again this season?

49ers QB Colin Kaepernick

49ers QB Colin Kaepernick

NFC Championship Game – San Fransisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons, 3:00 PM on FOX – The Falcons are 4-point underdogs at home to the Niners and most people don’t have much faith in the home-team.  While the Falcons got their first playoff win in the Matt Ryan-Mike Smith era last week they were practically begging the Seahawks to steal the game from them before putting it away on a last second field goal.  There was some question as to how 2nd year Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick would acclimate himself in the playoffs and he answered those questions resoundingly last week when he passed for 263 yards, ran for 181 and scored two touchdowns each through the air and on the ground.  I’m not sure if Kaepernick will match the success of his first career playoff start but the Falcons defense will need all hands on deck to stop him.  Veteran defensive end John Abraham missed the second half of last week’s game but should be good to go for this week.  Falcons cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson will try to slow down the Niners weapons on offense.  The bottom line is that while the 49ers offense can beat you the strength of their team really lies on the defensive side of the ball.  Good defense is sometimes forgotten during the post-season when guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are flinging around the rock.  The Niners have the best defense left in the tournament and it’s not really that close.  I’m going to predict that Matt Ryan and company will have a long day dealing with that San Fransisco front 7.  Michael Turner will have trouble as well.  The game will rest on the shoulders of Matt Ryan and I just don’t see him making enough big plays to win this game.  The Falcons defense won’t do enough to overcome this and the 49ers will head to their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season.

Final Score Prediction – San Fransisco 49ers 30, Atlanta Falcons 17

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick

AFC Championship Game – Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots, 6:30 PM on CBS – They’ll be a lot of cliches used to describe this game – a battle, a bar fight, a bloodbath.  I expect a great game and a close one as well.  No matter what people say about either side anytime these two teams come together they usually play it close.  The Pats are always up for big games like this and you don’t have to ask if the Ravens are going to be ready as it could be Ray Lewis’ last game.  Anyone looking for a blowout in Foxboro should go looking somewhere else.  This is going to be a close game.  I envision more points being scored in this one than last year’s 23-20 AFC final.  The Ravens are a year older on defense and aren’t the juggernaut that they have been in the past.  Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis are both hobbled but I’m guessing Lewis just gets through this one on adrenaline alone.  Ed Reed is the key.  He was quiet last week but he didn’t let Peyton Manning get anything behind him.  He’ll try to do the same with Tom Brady this week.  Defensively the Pats are better than they were last year but I still don’t see a championship caliber defense (not to say that they can’t win a championship, just not on defense alone).  There are some match-up problems for them.  Torrey Smith may be a handful like he was earlier in the season.  If the Pats play the long ball it should open up opportunities for Dennis Pitta and Ray Rice in the middle of the field.  I’ve criticized Joe Flacco a lot but he has come to play during this post-season.  I think he has another strong game today but Tom Brady will be a little bit stronger.  I think the Pats use the home-field to pull this one out but it will be by the most razor-thin of margins (no pun intended).

Final Score Prediction – New England Patriots 31, Baltimore Ravens 30

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The “Rooney Rule” Is Starting To Look Like A Sham

The “Rooney Rule” was implemented by the NFL in 2003.  Named after it’s benefactor, Steelers owner and chairman if the NFL diversity committee, it requires NFL teams to interview at least 1 minority candidate whenever they fill a head coach or general manager position.  Some saw it as a token act of affirmative action.  Others saw it as a trailblazing move by the NFL to promote diversity in business.

Marvin Lewis was the first minority head coach hired under the "Rooney Rule"

Marvin Lewis was the first minority head coach hired under the “Rooney Rule”

The Rooney Rule seemed like a success in the early going.  In the first 7 years – between 2003 and 2009 – 9 African-American head coaches were hired.  Prior to the Rooney Rule there had only been 7 head coaches in NFL history dating back to 1921.  Additionally there were 3 new African-American candidates to be hired as General Managers, joining the Ravens’ Ozzie Newsome and the Cardinals’ Rod Graves who were the only African-American GMs in NFL history at the time that the Rooney Rule was implemented.  For some reason things curtailed badly after the 2009 season.  Since then only 4 minority head coaches were hired and of the three two of them, Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel and former Raiders coach Hue Jackson, have already been fired and another, Panthers coach Ron Rivera, was on the fence until the decision was made to retain him a week after New Year’s Day this year.  Only one minority, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, has been hired to a General Manager position since 2009.

So what is the problem?  Is it a lack of success?  There have been 13 minority coaches hired since the Rooney Rule have been implemented.  6 of them – Marvin Lewis, Lovie Smith, Herman Edwards, Mike Tomlin, Jim Caldwell, and Leslie Frazier – have made it to the playoffs.  That is exactly 50% when you consider that Crennel is counted twice (12 minority coaches for 13 opportunities).  Additionally one of the minority coaches hired during the Rooney Rule era, Dennis Green in Arizona, had previous head coaching playoff experience with the Vikings.  Tomlin won a Super Bowl in 2008 with the Steelers and made another one in 2010.  Caldwell made the Super Bowl in 2009 with the Colts.  Lewis, Smith, Tomlin and Caldwell all qualified for the playoffs multiple times in their coaching careers.  After the firing of Crennel and Smith on “Black Monday” on New Year’s Eve last month only 4 minority head coaches remain – Lewis, Tomlin, Frazier and Rivera.  Two of those (Lewis and Frazier) were in the playoffs this season.  Tomlin’s Steelers failed to qualify for the playoffs for only the 2nd time in his 6 year tenure in Pittsburgh.  Despite being on the chopping block Rivera’s Panthers wound up finishing 7-9 and in 2nd place in the NFC South.

Cards DC Ray Horton had 3 interviews but no offers this off-season

Cards DC Ray Horton had 3 interviews but no offers this off-season

Despite there being 8 head coaching vacancies, precisely a quarter of the league, during this off-season none of the vacancies have gone to a minority candidate.  With Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians being named the new Cardinals coach this evening minority candidates have officially been shut out.  Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton landed 3 interviews – with the Cardinals, Bills and Browns – but was shut out by even his own team.  Lovie Smith, who was 16 games over .500 during his tenure in Chicago, interviewed in Buffalo, Philadelphia and San Diego but was shut out as well.  Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker interviewed for the head coaching job of his own team for the 2nd year in a row but was passed over again.  Falcons special teams coach Keith Armstrong interviewed the Bears and Chiefs but was passed over as well.  All of these interviews satisfied the Rooney Rule but none of them produced a minority head coach.

Of the 8 head coaches hired this off-season 2 were NCAA head coaches, 1 an NFL head coach fired earlier in the off-season, 1 a CFL head coach, 3 were NFL offensive coordinators and 1 an NFL defensive coordinator.  There are 6 African-American assistant coaches who have previously been interim NFL head coaches – Falcons WR coach Terry Robiskie who had interim stints with both the Browns and Redskins, Falcons secondary coach Emmitt Thomas who was interim coach of the Falcons in 2007, Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell who served as Bills interim head coach in 2009, Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville who served as interim Broncos head coach in 2010, Eagles defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who led the Dolphins on an interim basis in 2011 and the Jaguars Tucker.  Of the 6 only Tucker got any interviews for a head coaching vacancy this season.  3 of the other 5 interim coaches – Robiskie, Thomas, and Studesville – were coaching in the playoffs this post-season.  Another – Fewell – won the Super Bowl as defensive coordinator of the Giants last season.  Somehow none of these men warranted interviews.

Newsome was seen as a trailblazer but only 5 minority GMs have followed him in a decade

Newsome was seen as a trailblazer but only 5 minority GMs have followed him in a decade

The general manager picture is a whole different story.  Newsome was named the 1st African-American GM in NFL history in 2002.  The Ravens have qualified for the playoffs in 7 of the 10 years that Newsome has been at the helm.  The Cardinals Rod Graves was the 2nd African-American GM, elevated a year after Newsome.  His Cardinals made the playoffs twice, in 2008 and 2009, and were the first ever Cardinals team to make a Super Bowl in ’08.  The first three minority GMs hired since the advent of the Rooney Rule – The Texans’ Rick Smith, the Giants’ Jerry Reese and the Lions’ Martin Mayhew, have all run teams that have qualified for the playoffs.  Reese’s Giants won the Super Bowl last season.  The only minority general manager to never have a team qualify for the playoffs is current Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie who was just hired by the club last off-season.  Despite all of the success there hasn’t been a minority hired in any of the 5 GM vacancies and with Seahawks assistant GM John Idzik poised to be the Jets new GM only the Cleveland post will remain.

What has changed in the NFL that is preventing minorities from getting high profile jobs?  Is it a lack of candidates?  Lovie Smith brings a veteran edge and has a winning track record and he will no doubt be back on the sidelines next season but why didn’t any of the other 7 clubs not see him as a fit this year?  Horton and Armstrong were hot names with multiple interviews but both went unhired.  Many of the other high profile minority coordinators including Caldwell, Fewell, Bowles, and Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams weren’t even on anyone’s radar.  There doesn’t seem to be a specific reason for the slow down in minority hires but the trend is certainly disturbing.  Of 15 new head coaches hired since last off-season only one, Romeo Crennel, has been a minority and he has already been fired.

Luckily for the NFL the 1st executive hire of the new league year will likely be a minority when Bills general manager Buddy Nix steps down some time between the NFL draft and the start of training camp.  His replacement will be assistant GM Doug Whaley, an African-American.  Judging by the frequency of minority hirings in the NFL these days it might be a long wait for the next one.

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Sunday NFL Playoff Picks

So I didn’t do so well yesterday going 0-2.  I guess it serves me right for going against both Harbaugh brothers.  I’m still 4-2 on the post-season so hopefully I can get back on the winning track today.  Here are the picks:

Falcons QB Matt Ryan

Falcons QB Matt Ryan

Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons (1:00 PM, FOX) – I love Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson.  Pete Carroll not so much though.  The Seahawks have been an incredible story, coming out of nowhere to win 11 games and then winning on the road against RG III and the Redskins last week.  The Seahawks have a great defense but they will be tested today in the dome against Atlanta’s high-powered offense.  The match-up between Seattle CB’s Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman facing off against Atlanta WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White will be a fun one to watch.  I’m not too sure who will get the upper hand in that one.  The Falcons are OK on defense.  Hopefully they were watching how Green Bay handled the read option last night against San Fransisco and do the opposite of what they did.  Seattle uses the read option to feast on opposing defenses and if they get that going it could be a long day for the Atlanta defense.  A lot of people have pointed out this week that rookie Russell Wilson already has more playoff wins than Matt Ryan.  Despite being the NFC’s #1 seed people aren’t expecting much from the Falcons.  I think Matty Ice finally gets it done today as the travel will become too much for the Seahawks.  If the Seahawks had home-field advantage I would ride them all the way to the Super Bowl but they don’t.  I think Ryan does just enough to get his first playoff win and put Atlanta into the NFC Championship game.

Final Score Prediction: Atlanta Falcons 27, Seattle Seahawks 24

Patriots RB Stevan Ridley

Patriots RB Stevan Ridley

Houston Texans at New England Patriots (4:30, CBS) – I’m thinking that this game will be much closer than the one in Foxboro last month.  Matt Schaub has struggled in the last few weeks but he can wake up today against a below average Pats secondary.  On defense J.J. Watt has to show up more than he did in New England.  The key for Houston is to slow down the Pats offense just enough to keep it close.  Another factor for the Texans will be to limit the mistakes on offense.  On the Pats side obviously they have a lot of playoff experience and the best playoff coach in the game in Bill Belichick.  The Pats will try and do their thing on offense and they should move the ball with everyone healthy.  Stevan Ridley will be key as they will need him to move the ball without fumbling it.  The team who plays mistake-free ball will be the one who advances.  I expect to see a more efficient Matt Schaub this time around against the New England defense but his one mistake will be the difference in the game.  The Pats will take advantage and go into a re-match of last year’s AFC Championship game against the Ravens.

Final Score Prediction – New England Patriots 34, Houston Texans 24

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Saturday NFL Playoff Picks

I had a good start with my playoff predictions last week going 4-0.  I’ll try to replicate my success this weekend with some good games on the slate.  Here are my picks for Saturday’s match-up

Broncos QB Peyton Manning

Broncos QB Peyton Manning

Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos (4:30 PM, CBS) – A lot of people are liking the Ravens for this game.  It is a continuation of Ray Lewis’ retirement tour and Peyton Manning is 0-3 in playoff games under 30 degrees.  It is supposed to be only about 18 degrees at kick-off.  The Ravens could be primed to go into Denver and upset the Broncos.  I’m not sure I agree with that sentiment though.  For starters those 3 games that Manning lost in the cold were all road games, this one is at home.  The Broncos have a much better defense than the Colts teams as well.  Basically it comes down to this – who do you trust more – Peyton Manning against the Ravens defense or Joe Flacco against the Broncos defense?  I take Manning every time.  Ray Rice will try to keep the Ravens in it but I think at the end of the day Manning gets it done.  Flacco will be a liability for the Ravens and will throw 2 INTs that Manning will take advantage of for TDs.  I say the Broncos take this one by 10.

Final Score Prediction:  Denver Broncos 31, Baltimore Ravens 21

Packers CB Charles Woodson

Packers CB Charles Woodson

Green Bay Packers at San Fransisco 49ers (8:30 PM, FOX) – The Niners have a very underrated defense.  They will test Aaron Rodgers and try to take away the running game and put it on Rodgers to beat them.  The problem is that Rodgers will feel comfortable in his home state of California where the conditions should be conducive to an attacking passing game.  Colin Kaepernick is a wild card in this situation.  This is his first playoff game and the pressure will be on him to keep up with the Packers’ high-powered offense.  The Niners did win a game with Alex Smith at QB last season against the Saints in the playoffs but Smith was a 7-year vet.  Kaepernick is only in his 2nd NFL season.  Most of the guys on the Green Bay roster won a Super Bowl 2 years ago and I think that experience carries them over to another NFL Championship game appearance.  It’ll be close but Green Bay’s offense will be a bit too much for the Niners to keep up with.

Final Score Prediction:  Green Bay Packers 24, San Fransisco 49ers 17

I’ll be back Sunday AM with my Sunday picks.

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What Mike Pettine Will Bring To The Bills Defense

The Bills officially named former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to the same title on their own staff today.  New head coach Doug Marrone was aggressive in recruiting Pettine to leave the Jets for the Bills and Pettine will bring an aggressive defense along with him to Western New York.  Pettine spent 4 years under Rex Ryan in New York and before that worked on the staff in Baltimore.  He told the Bills media today that his defense won’t necessarily be married to one base scheme and they will move it around and disguise it as he sees fit.  As usually happens when there is a coaching staff change there will be roster changes.  Here’s a look at what you may be able to expect from Pettine’s defense in Buffalo next year:

  • Expect to see Williams with his hand down most of the time

    Expect to see Williams with his hand down most of the time

    There’s been a lot of talk about where Mario Williams will fit in to this new defense.  My guess is exactly where he did in the old one.  Expect to see Mario playing with his hand on the ground for most of his snaps.  Sure he will get up and move around once in a while but he did that last year as well (at least after his wrist was healthy).  Mario Williams will not be a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker.  He’s just not that type of player.  He’ll do fine where he is.

  • That being said I’ve heard the rumors about Mike DeVito jumping from the Jets to the Bills but I just don’t see where he fits.  Between Mario, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Alex Carrington I’m not sure where DeVito gets his snaps along that defensive front.  He’s a solid player and would probably be better served somewhere where he’d get more playing time.
  • Calvin Pace, on the other hand, would be a great addition to the defense.  He is getting a bit long in the tooth but the Bills defense is filled with young, inexperienced linebackers and a guy like Pace could be valuable with his experience in Pettine’s defense.
  • Please, Mike, no Bart Scott.  Thank you.
  • Gilmore will be expected to be lockdown in Pettine's defense

    Gilmore will be expected to be lockdown in Pettine’s defense

    Stephon Gilmore better start watching some tape of Darelle Revis and the Jets defense because I think he will be thrust in that role right away in Pettine’s Buffalo D.  Despite being a rookie the #10 pick in last year’s draft was far and away the Bills’ most consistent CB last year and gained some valuable experience shadowing guys like Larry Fitzgerald and Reggie Wayne during the season.  He’ll be leaned on heavily by Pettine to lock down one side of the field for the Bills defense.

  • It may be wise for the Bills to try and re-sign Leodis McKelvin and see if Pettine can resurrect his career much the way he and Rex Ryan did for Antonio Cromartie in New York.
  • The Bills should make re-signing Jairus Byrd their #1 priority in the off-season.  Byrd has turned himself into an aggressive safety over the past 2 seasons and one would think he’d thrive in an attacking type of defense.  I’d always liked to see what kind of player Byrd would be if he blitzed more and he could get that opportunity in the new Bills D.

It should be an interesting change next season from the passive Wannstedt defense to an attacking style that Pettine prefers.  The Bills certainly have had their defensive challenges over the past 3 seasons and Pettine will have a tall task on his hands to right the ship.  He’s got the credentials to do so and Marrone is banking on him doing exactly just that.  This was Marrone’s most important hire in his first year and the spotlight will be on Pettine.  I’m guessing by the speed in which he ran out of Rex Ryan’s shadow that may be exactly what he’s looking for.

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Bills Continue Youth Movement, Hire 33-Year Old Nathaniel Hackett As Offensive Coordinator

The Bills have a 48-year old coach, a 45-year old team president, a 40-year old soon-to-be general manager and now they have a 33-year old offensive coordinator in Nathaniel Hackett.  Hackett served under new coach Doug Marrone in the same capacity in Syracuse for the past 4 seasons.  Prior to that he was an offensive quality control coach for the Bills under former head coach Dick Jauron.  He is also the son of longtime NFL coach Paul Hackett who coached with Marrone when they were both with the Jets under Herman Edwards.

Hackett and Cuse QB Ryan Nassib

Hackett and Cuse QB Ryan Nassib

Hackett had success at Syracuse with a pro style offense in his first 3 years but the team opened it up more last season, implementing more of a spread offense.  It’s said that he used some of the old K-Gun offense that he learned during his time in Buffalo from former Bills QBs Jim Kelly and Alex Van Pelt.  He also used some of the current Sean Payton system which he learned from Marrone.  Expect to see a similar offense in Buffalo presumably with a heavy emphasis on the running game with CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson.  I’d also expect to see both running backs down the field more whereas Chan Gailey generally used them primarily for screens this past season in the passing game.

One concern at this point is that the Bills may be telegraphing the fact that they feel that Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib could slot right into their starting QB position with his familiarity with this coaching staff.  Obviously you don’t want the whole league knowing who you are going to take with your pick but nevertheless Nassib still has work to do before securing himself as the #8 pick in the draft.

As far as the hiring of Hackett goes…what the hell right?  It’s been a boring, redundant 13 years in Buffalo.  A little outside-the-box thinking can’t be any worse.

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Bills Moving Quickly To Fill Defensive Coordinator Position

Russ Brandon and company continue to be aggressive as they have already requested permission to speak with 2 current NFL defensive coordinators only hours after new head coach Doug Marrone was introduced at One Bills Drive.  Marrone said that he was looking for coordinators on both sides of the ball with a lot of pro experience.  Not only are they courting guys with experience but they are courting actual current defensive coordinators who might be looking for a change of scenery.

Jets DC Mike Pettine

Jets DC Mike Pettine

Mike Pettine, current defensive coordinator of the New York Jets, has worked on Rex Ryan’s staff since he was DC in Baltimore and has been coordinator for Ryan’s Jets since he took over in 2009.  Pettine’s defensive units finished in the top 5 in the NFL in total defense in each of his first 3 seasons in New York before falling to #8 in 2012.  Pettine uses the Marvin Lewis system that Rex Ryan brought to New York from Baltimore.  It is an attacking defense which is the type of defense that Doug Marrone prefers.  The only question is whether the Bills would permanently move back to a 3-4 base after shifting over to the 4-3 just before last season.  And if so how would Mario Williams feel about that.  Pettine turned down a contract extension with the Jets earlier this year so it’s not surprising that he might be ready to fly the coup.  Rex Ryan’s shadow is a large one to work under (no pun intended) and Pettine could get more exposure running Marrone’s defense.  Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reports that the Jets granted the Bills permission to speak to Pettine.

Mel Tucker, current Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator, has been in Jacksonville since 2009.  He spent the past season working under former Bills head coach Mike Mularkey.  Prior to that he worked under Jack Del Rio and was elevated to interim head coach when Del Rio was fired last November.  The Jaguars had the #4 defense in the league in 2011 but fell all the way down to #30 last season.  I’m not sure why the large drop off from ’11 to ’12 but the biggest difference was the new coach and perhaps Mularkey wanted Tucker to run a different style of defense.  What I do know is that Jack Del Rio likes to run an attacking style of defense and if Tucker brought that kind of mentality to the Bills he could be a fit.  Again Mularkey’s job is in limbo since the new Jaguars GM will ultimately decide his fate so Tucker might jump at the chance for some stability in a new Marrone regime.

The Bills said they were going to be aggressive in finding a new head coach and they were, filling the position in just a week.  They said that they were going to be aggressive in finding a defensive coordinator and there is no reason at this point to not take them at their word.  It seems like the criteria for the DC position is similar to that of the HC position.  They are looking for a young guy who has a lot of experience and a reputation for being an aggressive play-caller.

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Good Primer For Who Marrone Might Look To Add To Staff In Buffalo

Matt Warren of buffalorumblings.com has a good primer of Doug Marrone’s coaching tree which includes a lot of names from Marrone’s past, including fellow HC candidate Lovie Smith.  It’s a very in-depth look at Marrone’s past coaching history as well.  Link is below:

Doug Marrone Coaching Tree: Bills Coach Has Ties To Many

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Bills Hire Syracuse Head Coach Doug Marrone

The Bills have made a splash in the head coaching carousel by hiring much sought after Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone (per Adam Schefter of ESPN).  Marrone had interviews with the Bills, Browns, Eagles, and Chargers and was on the top of the list of both the Browns and Eagles who were also meeting with Oregon coach Chip Kelly.  Marrone is a 48-year old native of Bronx, NY and has coached the Syracuse football team for the past 4 seasons.  He had a 25-25 record but had turned around a program that was 10-37 in the 3 years prior.  Before coaching Syracuse he spent 3 seasons as Sean Payton’s offensive coordinator in New Orleans.

New Bills HC Doug Marrone

New Bills HC Doug Marrone

Bills team president Russ Brandon talked about being an innovative, progressive, forward-thinking organization.  The Marrone hire is proof that Brandon is backing up what he said at his press conference.  They could have played it safe with an experienced guy like Ken Whisenhunt or Lovie Smith but they went with Marrone who runs an innovative offense.  The coordinator hires will be important for the Bills.  There are already rumors that Marrone may try to pry current Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael away from New Orleans.  With Sean Payton coming back he will resume play-calling duties which means Carmichael would have a better opportunity in Buffalo.

Of interest is the fact that senior quarterback Ryan Nassib is one of the top rated QBs in the draft this year.  It will interesting to see if the Bills draft Nassib and have him implement his college offense, much like the Dolphins did last year when they hired former Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman and drafted his QB Ryan Tannehill.

I like the aggressive and forward thinking move by the Bills but will reserve judgement until I see the staff on whether or not I think Marrone is a good hire.

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NFL Wild Card Weekend Playoff Predictions

It’s that time of year again…NFL Wild Card weekend.  Always an exciting weekend and I like the way the NFL has spread out the schedule in the past couple seasons with a different schedule on Saturday and Sunday.  There should be some good games this weekend, there always are.  20 years ago we had the greatest comeback in NFL history ever.  I doubt any of this weekend’s games will live up to that game since it was basically the greatest game ever but maybe we’ll get a little excitement.  Here are my picks:

Texans DE J.J. Watt

Texans DE J.J. Watt

Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans (Saturday 1/5 4:30 PM, NBC) – This is a re-match of last year’s AFC Saturday wild-card match-up.  It was the Texans first playoff game ever and they started back-up QB T.J. Yates with starter Matt Schaub injured.  The Texans got by the Bengals this year and I expect that they will again this season.  Sure, the Texans have been scuffling but they’ll be at home for this game and that should help them and their defense.  Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have matured in their 2nd seasons in the NFL and former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis has given them an added dimension in the running game.  The Texans play tough defense at home, led by Defensive Player of the year candidate J.J. Watt and they should keep the Bengals offense at bay.  Defensively the Bengals are very underrated with a star of their own at defensive end in Geno Atkins.  Schaub is a good QB and Arian Foster is one of the toughest runners in the league.  I don’t think the Texans will put up too many points but they’ll do just enough to advance to New England.  I expect to see a low-scoring game with the Texans utilizing their home-field advantage to pull this one out.

Final Score: Houston Texans 20, Cincinnati Bengals 13

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers

Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (Saturday 1/5 8:00 PM, NBC) – Adrian Peterson had a huge season against the Packers, netting nearly 400 yards in the team’s two match-ups.  This one is going to be at Lambeau Field at 8:00 in January.  That may present a problem for the Vikings offense.  Christian Ponder is an average QB and may struggle in the cold.  The Vikes will have to depend heavily on Peterson and hope to limit what they ask Ponder to do.  Defensively the Packers will be getting future Hall of Fame CB Charles Woodson back and he should boost the Packers pass defense.  The Pack’s front 7 will have to keep Peterson at bay.  If they do it could potentially be a long day for the Vikings.  On the other side Aaron Rodgers is used to playing in the Lambeau elements.  The Vikings have a veteran defense but are used to playing in the friendly indoor confines in Minnesota.  Green Bay’s offense is relatively healthy so they should be clicking on all cylinders for this one.  I like Green Bay to advance to San Fransisco with a win over the Vikings.

Final Score: Green Bay Packers 31, Minnesota Vikings 17

Ravens legendary LB Ray Lewis

Ravens legendary LB Ray Lewis

Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens (Sunday 1/6 1:00 PM, CBS) – Chuck Pagano was a great story this year and it will continue beyond it as him and Andrew Luck build a winner.  Unfortunately for him they are facing a buzzsaw called Ray Lewis in his last home game after 17 years as a Baltimore Raven.  The Ravens, particularly their defense, should be fired up for this one.  Andrew Luck had a good year but was inconsistent at times.  Fellow rookie Vick Ballard ran the ball well however he’ll be facing a stout Ravens defense.  Offense might be tough for the Colts to come by in Baltimore.  On the other side Joe Flacco is a better home player than on the road and the Colts defense may struggle to contain Ravens RB Ray Rice.  Indy is a young team and have played fearless all season long however Hurricane Lewis (pun intended) and company will be too fired up for the Colts to overcome.  They’ll be back but not this time.

Final Score: Baltimore Ravens 27, Indianapolis Colts 10

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson

Seattle Seahawks vrs. Washington Redskins (Sunday 1/6 4:30 PM, FOX) – It’s a battle of rookie QB’s on Sunday in Washington.  It’s an interesting match-up of QB/RB combinations.  RG III and Alfred Morris have been terrorizing opponent’s defenses all season long.  The Seahawks will likely not back down too easily however as they had the #3 ranked defense in the NFL this season.  On the other side Seahawks’ overachiever Russell Wilson pairs with Marshawn Lynch to make a formidable 1-2 punch in the Seahawks offense.  The Redskins are no slouch on defense either and have stars at all levels.  The Seahawks play a lot better at home then they do on the road so they may be at a disadvantage in that regard.  It should be an exciting game and although both teams boast good defenses I expect both rookie QBs to flex their play-making muscles.  I’ve picked all home winners so far and the Seahawks only won 3 road games all year but I’m a believer in Russel Wilson and I think he does just a little bit more than RG III to make it to the 2nd round.

Final Score: Seattle Seahawks 30, Washington Redskins 27

We’ll see how good I do this weekend and I’ll be back next weekend to defend my picks.  Enjoy the games.

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