NFL Playoff Picks: Divisional Round

Jacob NitzbergAnalyst IJanuary 15, 2010

After an interesting Wild Card week, the folks over at Cubicle GM are back at it for the Divisional Round.  We did some analysis of each matchup this weekend to figure out the winner, incorporating the point spread of course.  In chronological order...


Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints

I’ll tell you one thing about this game, you could put the over/under at 57 and I wouldn’t have a problem taking the over.  Believe it or not, that’s actually the line.  That should tell you something about what the experts think this game will be, a repeat of Arizona’s win over Green Bay last week.  The other three over-under lines this week currently range between 42 and 45.5, so this game is predicted to have two more touchdowns than the others.  Basically, what I’m getting at is, ignore the defenses and go with which team you think will score more points (or have the ball last).

Even with their no-show in Week 17, the Saints led the NFL in total offense this year, as they were the only team to average over 400 yards per game (403.8).  If you didn’t follow the Saints this year, you might think they were pass heavy with Drew Brees, but in reality were very balanced, fourth in pass yards per game and sixth in rush yards per game.  The Cardinals had a very difficult time stopping anyone last week, but particularly Aaron Rodgers (422 pass yards), so if they focus on Brees they could be hurt by the Saints’ running game.

One part of that running game could be a big difference maker this week, and that is Reggie Bush.  Bush appears to be recovered from a knee injury that sidelined him earlier this season, and is back to making explosive plays out of the backfield.  If the Cardinals send blitzers to try and disrupt Brees’ big play ability, look for screens and dump-offs to Bush so he can try to work in space.  The Cardinals will have their hands full this weekend.

There is one major intangible factor which could help decide the game: momentum.  The Cardinals are coming off a huge emotional win over an opponent that thrashed them in Week 17, while the Saints didn’t even play their starters in Week 17 and have lost 3 straight since starting the season 13-0.  Whether the Saints are rested or rusty will have a big impact on this game, something to be weary of if you want to pick them.  Rusty or rested though, do not underestimate the homefield advantage provided by the Superdome and their fans that have never been to a Super Bowl.

Another key, similar to Arizona’s last game, will be the turnover battle.  Green Bay led the NFL in turnover differential, yet Arizona won the battle last week three to one.  The Saints’ defense has thrived on turnovers this year, forcing the second most in the league with 39, and returning eight of them for touchdowns.  If the Saints can get to Kurt Warner early, much like the Cardinals did to Aaron Rodgers last week; it will put them in a great position to win.

Bottom Line: If you are going to pick an underdog in the playoffs, you have to think they can win the game.  I’m not 100% sure that Arizona can pull it off, but like I said at the top, I think the team who scores last wins, and with a seven-point spread, that’s enough for me to take the Cardinals and the points.

The Pick: Arizona (+7)

Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts

That's just an awesome picture...

So much for a Pats-Colts AFC Championship Game.  The Ravens manhandled New England in Foxboro last week, relying on their running game and their defense to help them build an insurmountable 24-0 first quarter lead.  Now the Ravens travel to Indianapolis, where the starters have not played a full game since Week 15, which was just about a month ago.

The Colts’ decision to abandon 19-0 and focus on the Super Bowl has already been made, so there is no use in questioning it, but the issue is how much pressure it puts on the Colts to win it all this year.  The Colts took a risk with their fan base by resting starters at home and denying them a chance at perfection, so there is a massive amount of pressure on Indy to bring home a Super Bowl title.  This could all be meaningless, as Peyton Manning seems invincible to pressure, but it could definitely be hanging in the back of rookie coach Jim Caldwell’s mind.

When it comes to the matchup, there is one obvious goal for Indy, which is to make Joe Flacco beat them.  The Ravens rushed 52 times for 234 yards against the Patriots, meaning Flacco only dropped back 10 times, completing just 4 passes for 34 yards. His QB rating was an even 10.0 and they still won the game handedly.  This isn’t to say Flacco didn’t have a respectable year, throwing for over 3,600 yards and 21 TDs, but Indy knows they cannot get burned by the Baltimore rushing game, which was fifth in the NFL during the regular season with 137.5 yards per game.

A key to the Colts’ success with this will be the performance of their defensive linemen.  The Ravens will need to focus on defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, which could mean frequent double teams, so the Colts interior linemen will need to take advantage of those situations and plug up the holes or get to Joe Flacco.

On the flip side, the Ravens know Peyton Manning will be the centerpiece of the Colts offense, they just need to decide how they want to try and get to him.  Manning was sacked only 10 times this season, least of any QB starting more than 10 games. If the Ravens try and get to Manning (and likely fail), it will put him in man coverage which he can work with all day long, especially with FS Ed Reed suffering from nagging injuries earlier this year.  The Ravens decide to sit back and force the Colts to dink and dunk their way down the field, but Manning has had success doing that and eating up clock (See Super Bowl XLI).  It’s a pick your poison decision for the Ravens, but one which could make a big difference.

Last but not least, a major factor in the outcome of this game will be the performance of both teams near and in the red zone, particularly the Ravens.  In the Week 11 matchup between these two teams, Baltimore got inside the Colts’ 30 yard line seven times and came away with just 15 points (5 FGs, 1 FG miss and 1 INT), and ended up losing 17-15.

The Colts meanwhile, converted three of four red zone opportunities that game, including two for touchdowns.  If the Ravens can convert their opportunities like they did in New England, they will have a chance at another road victory.

Bottom Line: Incredibly, the Colts are 0-3 in the playoffs with Peyton Manning when earning a first-round bye, and have lost five straight divisional playoff games at home.  Plus, their starters haven’t played a full game in a month.  With the Ravens ability to control the clock with their run game and a hungry defense, they have a solid chance to win the game, and if not, keep it close.  Like the first game, I’ll take the points here.

The Pick: Baltimore (+6.5)


Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings

You might see this a bit on Sunday...

Despite a three game win streak which included two straight shutouts, one of which came against their wild card opponent, I wasn’t on the Cowboys’ bandwagon last week.  Consider me on board now.  Dallas is clicking on all cylinders, scoring 99 points on their current four-game win streak while allowing just 31.  In fact there’s only one team in the NFL hotter than the Boys right now (more on them later).

However, the Cowboys will be leaving the friendly warmth of Texas for the frosty territory of Minnesota’s Metrodome.  The Vikings took a bit of a stumble after opening the year 10-1, losing three of four before getting back on track by blowing out the Giants in Week 17.

Both of these teams have weapons on each side of the ball, and can score / take the ball away with the best of them right now.  Each team will have to focus on exploiting what few weaknesses each of their opponents have in order to win.

The most glaring weakness on the Vikings at the moment is their pass defense, especially the secondary.  With the Williams wall plugging up the defensive line and Jared Allen rushing off the edge, if Dallas is going to win they need to use the passing game early much like they did against New Orleans in Week 15.  The Vikings will get a boost with Antoine Winfield’s return to his regular position as starting corner, but without starting MLB E.J. Henderson, they will have a tough time covering TE Jason Witten over the middle and RBs Felix Jones and Tashard Choice on short routes.

To take advantage of this, the Cowboys will need to go away from what worked in their win over Philly.  Despite Marion Barber’s injury, the Cowboys ran 35 times for 198 yards last week, something they won’t likely be able to repeat against Minnesota’s No. 2 ranked run defense.  However, if they do try to run, look for it to be to the left side to test pass-rush specialist Jared Allen.

On the offensive side of the ball for Minnesota, with so many weapons to go around, it will be key for the Vikings to establish the rush early to open up the passing game.  The Minnesota offensive line will have its hands full with DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and company, and although Adrian Peterson is in the backfield, he needs make sure to hold onto the ball, something the Vikings should have been working on for the last two weeks after the costly fumble in the Chicago game.

If the Vikings have success with AP early, it will be up to Favre to exploit that using a bit of play action to spread the ball around.  Dallas’ secondary has stepped it up lately, but will have a tough time keeping track of Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian, Visanthe Shiancoe and the running backs.  If Favre doesn’t go all gunslinger on us, he should be able to utilize all his weapons to find holes in the Dallas defense.

Finally, while I think Dallas will be able to move the ball decently well in Minnesota, it is critical that they find the end zone when they get into Vikings territory.  The Cowboys have had their woes in the kicking game and issues with holding, as Tony Romo has assumed that duty (no need to even discuss that infamous Seattle game any further).  The Cowboys do not want this game in the hands (or should I say on the feet) of their kicking game.

Bottom Line: A theme has emerged this week, and it is momentum.  Like the two Saturday games, we have a team coming in on a roll, Dallas who has won four straight including three against divisional opponents, and one team on a bye who lost three of five, including one to the Bears (I love mentioning that).  In what should be another close matchup, I will again take the team that’s on a hot streak and getting the points.

The Pick: Dallas (+2.5)

New York Jets at San Diego Chargers

LT might not be a factor this weekend...

The Jets waltzed into Cincinnati and executed a near perfect gameplan to advance to the divisional round.  Tough defense, with a stellar performance from Darrelle Revis, a great rushing game, including a big day from rookie Shonn Greene, and a mistake free day from rookie QB Mark Sanchez, completing 80% of his passes and leading the Jets back to his stomping grounds in Southern California.

However, the Jets’ reward is the hottest team in all of football, the 13-3 San Diego Chargers, who won their final 11 regular season games to gain the No. 2 seed and a first round bye.

On paper, this proves to be a pretty interesting matchup.  The Chargers were 10th in total offense this season, but just 31st in rushing.  The Jets meanwhile, were first in total defense as well as first in rush defense.  On those numbers alone it appears we will be seeing a bunch of Philip Rivers and not much LaDainian Tomlinson, as Darren Sproles is a better option out of the backfield for the passing game.

However, with Darrelle Revis patrolling the sidelines, it will be tough for the Chargers to get the ball to No. 1 WR Vincent Jackson, so look for Sproles, Antonio Gates, and WRs like Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee to be involved a great deal for the Chargers.

How the Jets choose to play defense this week will have a major influence on the success of those secondary receivers.  We all know the Jets love to blitz, but last week they came with pressure against Carson Palmer who didn’t handle it well.  This week they face Rivers, who likely will take advantage of the man coverage created (except with Revis).  Look for the Jets to fake some blitzes with the LBs and take away the middle of the field for Gates and the flats for Sproles.  The Chargers won’t need to run a great deal, but they will need to do it effectively to keep the Jets from dropping seven to eight guys in coverage all the time.

When the Jets have the ball, I think the plan will be similar to last week.  Run the ball, let Mark Sanchez make safe throws, and run the ball some more.  The Chargers were decent against the run this season, allowing 117.6 yards per game on the ground, and they will need to keep the Jets near or below that figure to win this game.

One likely difference in the Jets’ offensive plan this week will be less rollouts from QB Mark Sanchez.  While those plays worked extremely well against Cincinnati, the Chargers will be prepared for them, and have guys like Shawne Merriman rushing off the edge to stop them.  Sanchez needs to be able to make plays from the pocket this week, and as he did last week, avoid mistakes and costly turnovers.  The Chargers forced 24 turnovers this season, and getting one or two early could put this game out of reach.

Bottom Line: Sanchez and the Jets proved me wrong last week, but Cincinnati is no San Diego.  This line has moved between nine and seven points since opening, which only makes taking the team that has won 11 straight more enticing.  I can’t believe I’m going to take Norv Turner in a playoff game, but the Chargers are just playing too well right now.

The Pick: San Diego (-7.5)

All lines taken from and accurate as of time of publishing on Friday, January 15.


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