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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Breaking down the mess that Peyton Manning has left in his wake

So Peyton Manning called John Elway this morning and informed him that he has decided to join the Denver Broncos.  Now the Broncos and Manning’s representation with put the finishing touches on the contract which the parameters seemed to have been established during the recruiting process.  Here’s a breakdown on how it will affect the other teams and players left in the wake:

  • Tim Tebow, current Broncos starting QB – Tebow will now be placed on the trading block.  Tebow was an exciting player last year but he still needs time to develop into the NFL game.  Elway and Fox clearly preferred a more traditional pocket passer and they jumped at the chance to acquire Manning and mitigate whatever backlash from the fan base that would be caused by jettisoning Tebow.  Now Tebow will be shopped around to other teams, some who need a QB and even some who don’t.  The best play for Tebow would be to go somewhere where he could develop but I could imagine one of the teams desperate to sell tickets, and there is two of them down in Florida where Tebow is heralded as football royalty, might make a big push to get him in and sell tickets.
  • San Fransisco 49ers – The 49ers and Alex Smith where playing a cat and mouse game that culminated in the Niners dabbling in the Peyton sweepstakes and Smith flirting with the Dolphins and the Seahawks.  You would assume that the Niners would move quickly to bring Smith back in the fold.
  • Alex Smith, current 49ers starting QB – Smith and the Niners are clearly the best fits for each other but negotiations turned south for whatever reason and led to the situation that I outlined above.  Smith looks to have two choices now – re-sign with the 49ers or essentially punish them by signing with the Dolphins.  Of course you could make the argument that he would be punishing himself if he signed with Miami.  I think cooler heads will prevail and these two sides will get back together and work things out.  You don’t fix what’s not broken and the Niners and Smith were a score away from the Super Bowl last season.
  • Tennessee Titans – They were the other runner-up in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes.  Honestly the collateral damage seems to be limited here.  The Titans made it no secret that it was an ownership call to pursue Manning and it didn’t come from the football people.  Matt Hasselbeck has always been a pro and he knows that he doesn’t have much time left in the game so he should come in and work hard like he always has.  Jake Locker shouldn’t be effected either because he was either going to develop under Hasselbeck or develop under Manning, now it should take less time for him to get in the lineup with Hasselbeck in front of him.
  • Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are in a slightly worse position than they were yesterday.  Sure they could try and acquire Tebow but there will be 30 other teams that could be in on him.  The Manning signing puts pressure on the Niners to re-sign Smith and let’s face it – if your choices are San Fransisco and Miami who would you choose?  The only hope is that the Smith/Niners relationship is damaged beyond repair but it doesn’t seem that bad at this point.
  • Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jaguars are a new entry into the QB carousel.  Like the Titans in the Manning sweepstakes the football guys would just as well go with what they have, 2nd year QB Blaine Gabbert battling it out with newly signed Chad Henne, but their is a new ownership in Jacksonville and the Jags haven’t been able to sell tickets in years.  If it comes down to an ownership call (and as we’ve seen in the past few weeks it could happen) expect Jacksonville to jump into the Tebow derby and try to bring him home.
  • Cleveland Browns – The Browns only shot at acquiring a veteran quarterback was if Peyton chose Tennessee.  Mike Holmgren would have no doubt tried to re-unite with Matt Hasselbeck but since that won’t happen they will probably sit tight.  Unfortunately for them sitting tight probably means reaching for Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill with the #4 pick.  They could jump into the Tebow derby but I doubt they will.
  • Matt Flynn/Seattle Seahawks – Matt Flynn, the other QB on the free agent market, played his situation as best he could.  He identified the two teams, Seattle and Miami, desperate for a QB that Peyton Manning wouldn’t consider.  He visited with both of them and made a call on where he felt most comfortable.  Now both Flynn and the Seahawks can sit back and watch everything else unfold.

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NFL Championship Weekend Predictions

The time has come for me to make my picks.  It should make for an exciting championship weekend, as the two games are far better match-ups than people may give them credit for.  My favorite storyline of the weekend is the young upstart Harbaugh brothers, 49 year old John in his 4th season with the Ravens and 48 year old Jim in his 1st season with the 49ers, going against 59 year old Bill Belichick, with 17 seasons and 175 wins (most among active coaches) under his belt and Tom Coughlin, with 16 seasons and 129 wins (4th most among active coaches) under his.  A lot of people expect to see a 2007 rematch between longtime rivals and coaching mates Belichick and Coughlin but I wouldn’t be too quick to count the Harbaugh bros. out just yet.  They are tough games to pick but here are my predictions for Championship Sunday:

AFC Championship Game – Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-3), 3:00 PM (CBS)

Tom Brady will play in his 6th AFC Championship game

The top two seeds meet in Foxboro on Sunday to determine the AFC representative in the Super Bowl.   The Patriots have averaged 40 points in the last 4 games but two of those games were against the same opponent, the Denver Broncos.  I am, a bit surprisingly to be honest, in the minority that think that the Patriots have not been tested enough this year.  The Baltimore Ravens were the 3rd best defense in both points and yards allowed this season.  The only defense the Patriots played all year that had a statistically better defense was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were 1st in both yards and points per game.  The Pats only managed 17 points against them.  There’s been a myth perpetuated in the last few weeks that the Broncos had a good defense because they had two guys that racked up a lot of sacks..  They were 20th in yards per game and 24th in points per game.  In other words they weren’t very good.  The other team they faced in the last 4 games was the Buffalo Bills who were 26th in yards per game and 30th in points per game.  Meanwhile the team that they didn’t score 40 points against, the Miami Dolphins, were 15th in total yards and 6th in total points.  The point is despite the offensive proficiency throughout the season the Pats’ production seemed to drop off against better defenses.  A lot of people are expecting big numbers for the Pats offense this Sunday.  I am not.  Does that mean that I am picking the Ravens to win?  Not necessarily.  How for real is the Patriots defense that we saw last week against the Broncos?  Let’s go back to the numbers.  The Broncos’ offense was 23rd in yards per game and 25th in points per game for the regular season.  Contrast that with the Ravens who were 15th in yards per game and 12th in points per game.  The Ravens are a far more versatile team on both sides of the ball.

Terrell Suggs has been a thorn in Brady's side

Obviously the key for the game is Ravens running back Ray Rice.  The Ravens were 10th in rushing yards per game during the regular season.  The Patriots were 17th in rushing yards given up per game.  It will be a tough match-up and Rice has had success against the Pats in the past.  Receiver Anquan Boldin will be a tough match-up for the Pats as he is a superior route runner and the Pats DB’s have struggled in one-on-one match-ups with receivers like Boldinall season.  Joe Flacco can’t make mistakes, if he turns the ball over he might lose the game for the Ravens.  Obviously the way to neutralize Tom Brady is to put on a pass rush and make him uncomfortable in the pocket.  Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs has had a great deal of success against Brady and the Pats.  The Ravens are strong up front so one of the more intersting match-ups will be the middle linebackers and safeties of the Ravens vrs. the tight ends of the Pats.  Brady had better watch out if Ed Reed is shadowing Rob Gronkowski all game because, as T.J. Yates found out last week, if you keep throwing it Ed Reed’s way he’ll eventually get his hands on one.  Like Flacco Brady will have to play flawless football because a turnover may gave the Ravens offense the extra opportunity that they need to make a play to win the game.  The receivers will be important this game for Brady as they may have to use the outside of the field more.  That means they need big games from Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco.  The x-factor for the Ravens defense may be safety Bernard Pollard (yes, that Bernard Pollard).  He is the weak link up the middle for the Ravens but he is still pretty good.  Ultimately this game will come down to turnovers and pressure on the quarterback.  Flacco was harassed all day by the Texans front 7, but they are a much superior to the front 7 than that of the Pats.  Brady had all day to throw last week but the Ravens are much more stout than the Broncos on defense.  This game is going to be close.  I don’t see the Patriots scoring more than 24 points in the game.  The question is can the Ravens score 24 points or more in the game?  I am going to go very conservative with this pick and say that both teams play a clean game and Brady makes at least one more play than Flacco for a Pats win.  I can see it going the other way too though.  Maybe whoever has the ball last.  Either way I am expecting a good game, not a blowout this Sunday at Gillette.

Prediction: New England Patriots 24, Baltimore Ravens 21

NFC Championship Game: New York Giants (11-7) at San Fransisco 49ers (14-3), 6:30 PM (FOX)

Patrick Willis will have to keep the Giants ground game in check

21 years ago these two teams faced off in a great showdown between Bill Parcells’ Giants and George Seifert’s 49ers.  The Giants won that game without even scoring a touchdown on Matt Bahr’s game winning last second field goal.  The Giants won that day by a score of 15-13.  While I expect a few more points to be scored this weekend look for defense to reign again in San Fransisco.  The Niners were consistently good all season on defense.  They finished 4th in the NFL in yards given up per game and 2nd in points given up per game.  The Giants were a mess on defense most of the year due to injuries and underachievement.  They were 27th in yards given up per game and 25th in points per game.  The Giants defense has heat up in the last month however.  They got one of their injuries linebackers, Michael Boley, back for the playoffs and might get another, Mark Herzlich, back for this game.  Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Uymeniora, and Mathias Kiwanuka have all stepped up their games considerably these past few weeks.  They always had the talent to do it and now it’s showing.  They match up well against the 49ers.  The Niners receivers are nothing special, there are no Jerry Rice’s on this team.  That’s good for the Giants because their weakness on defense is on the edges.  Frank Gore is key for the Niners, much like Ray Rice is for the Ravens.  If Gore gets going that will open up play action and Alex Smith will be able to use the middle of the field with Vernon Davis.  The Giants need to get pressure on Smith and force a mistake.  Smith is a game manager, much like Joe Flacco, and if he turns the ball over then he is not doing his job.  Look for the Giants to bring heavy pressure early.

Victor Cruz went from Zoomass to the NFC Championship Game

On the other side of the field it is all about Eli Manning.  Much like his brother and Tom Brady he will pick you apart if you don’t get pressure on him.  Manning has three dependable targets in Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham, and Hakeem Nicks.  He likes to use Bear Pascoe and Jake Ballard in the middle of the field.  The Niners have to get the Smith brothers from another mother going quickly.  Justin Smith can get pressure from any spot on the line and Aldon Smith is one of the best hybrid end/linebackers to come into the league in the last few years.  The 49ers secondary is pretty good but you can beat Donte Whitner with your tight ends and their top cornerback Carlos Rogers is a gambler.  If a Nicks or a Cruz can get behind him then it’s off to the races.  The 49ers will key in on stopping running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.  They will try to make Eli Manning beat them on his own.  Not that he can’t do it, but it will make it easier for the Niners to game plan for just Eli and not Eli and the running game.  Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman were key in stopping the run and keeping everything in front of them last week against the Saints.  They will need to do the same thing this week against the Giants offense.  Still, this Giants run looks eerily similar to the one of 2007.  If you don’t remember they beat Green Bay in Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game and went on to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.  But this is a new year and the Niners are a different opponent.  I need to apologize to Alex Smith for expressing doubt in his ability to lead the Niners deep into the playoffs.  He played a hell of a game last weekend against the Saints, particularly in the 4th quarter, but I have to admit that he has not totally swayed me.  The Giants represent a different kind of challenge than the Saints.  They will bring more pressure.  Last week Gregg Williams had to dial up blitz after blitz to generate pressure on Smith which led to more favorable one-on-one match-ups down the field for the 49ers.  The Giants will put pressure on you with a 4 man front which means they can double team and put a shadow on tight end Vernon Davis.  Eli Manning will face a far tougher test this week when he faces the 49ers but Eli has proven himself to be a big game quarterback.  I know people in New England are dying for a 2007 re-match and I hate to appease the masses but I think that Eli and the Giants will be too much for the Niners who will turn the ball over at least twice.  Like I said earlier, I can see the Ravens winning and likewise I can see the 49ers winning this one, especially in their home stadium but I have to go with the Giants on this one with a gun to my head.

Prediction: New York Giants 27, San Fransisco 49ers 20

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