We have eagerly waited since training camp broke in late July, but finally the postseason has arrived. Wild Card weekend is upon us, and at least three of this weekend’s games should bring edge of your seat, nail-biting excitement.
With three games featuring spreads of three points or fewer, this can be an anxious time for even the calmest of bettors, so I hope to help with your delicate conundrum.
Without further ado, here are my picks for all four of this week's playoff games.
Why Baltimore Could Win:
The Ravens enter this week’s Wild Card matchup against the Chiefs with a superior 12-4 record, but will have to travel to Kansas City where the Chiefs are 7-1. Still, there is a lot to like about the Ravens in this game.
An elite linebacker core led by Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are the heart of this Baltimore defense that ranks fifth in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing just 93.9 yards per game. That same stout defense ranks third in the league in scoring, allowing a meager 16.9 points per game.
Other than San Diego (who they lost to 31-0 in Week 4) the Chiefs have yet to face a top-tier defense and could struggle against Baltimore’s massive defensive line (320 pound Kevin Gregg, 350 pound Haloti Ngata and 300 pound Cory Redding).
Offensively, the Ravens have been underperforming this season, but they certainly have a wealth of talent. The addition of Anquan Boldin (64 receptions for 837 yards) has led to a career year for Joe Flacco. The third year field general posted career highs in QB rating (93.6), yards (3622) and touchdowns (25) while recording a career low 10 interceptions.
The key, however, could be running back Ray Rice. Brandon Flowers anchors a strong KC secondary but their front seven are somewhat suspect. After tallying a 5.3 yard per carry average in 2009, that number nosedived to just 4.0 this season.
Rice had an enormous game in an road victory against the Patriots in last season’s playoffs (22 carries for 159 yards and two touchdowns) and will have to be in vintage form if the Ravens hope to win this game.
Why Kansas City Could Win:
Jamaal Charles was this season’s breakthrough player of the year, rushing for 1,467 yards on an astounding 6.4 yards per carry. Kansas City did a fantastic job pounding the ball with Thomas Jones (896 yards rushing this season) before wearing down defenses for the explosive Charles.
The Chiefs will try to get off to an early lead at home so they can pound the run and milk the clock, but the onus will be on Matt Cassel to make the defense respect the pass. After surrendering a second round pick for Cassel, the Chiefs doled out a lucrative (and perhaps ill-advised) six year contract worth $63 million. After floundering in his first season, the former USC backup was terrific, throwing 27 touchdowns to just seven interceptions while building a strong bond with Dwyane Bowe.
If Baltimore leaves safety help on Bowe, it will be interesting to see whether the secondary receivers on Kansas City can step up. Rookie tight end Tony Moeaki was a pleasant surprise catching 47 balls, but aside from him, no other Chiefs receiver had more than 25 receptions.
Either Chris Chambers or Terrance Copper will have to step up, or offensive coordinator Charlie Weis will have to dial up some innovative ways to get the rock to their dynamic playmakers (Bowe, Charles and possibly injured rookie Dexter McCluster).
The Ravens are three point favorites on the road, and even with a hostile Kansas City crowd, look for the road team to cover the spread. The Chiefs had one of the easier schedules in football playing in a weak AFC West while playing four games against an even weaker NFC West.
KC played only one playoff team (two if you want to count the Seahawks), losing to the Colts 19-9. The Ravens are simply too talented for the upstart Chiefs and should be able to take advantage in a low scoring game.
Final Score: 20-13 Ravens
Why Green Bay Could Win:
The first time these two teams met, Michael Vick relieved Kevin Kolb for the second half, but the Packers held on to win 27-20 in Philadelphia. This time Vick will be playing from the opening kickoff, but there is still a lot to like about the Packers this weekend.
In their Week 1 matchup, Green Bay recorded five sacks and forced two fumbles. That pressure could be the key to victory in this Wild Card matchup.
Between Vick and Kolb, the Eagles offensive line allowed 50 sacks, ranking among the league worst in the category. Meanwhile, Defensive Player of the Year front runner Clay Matthews (14 sacks) leads a Packers defense that ranked second in the league with 47 sacks.
Green Bay brings pressure from all over and love to utilize Charles Woodson on the cornerback blitz. In the Minnesota game we saw what can happen when Vick is pressured (six sacks and two fumbles lost in a 24-14 loss), meaning if the Pack can continue to do what they do best, a nicked up Vick could be held in check.
Why Philadelphia Could Win:
When you talk about the Eagles, the first thing that comes up is Michael Vick and their dynamic offense. Philadelphia ranked third in the NFL in scoring with 27.4 points per game and second in yardage at 389.4 yards per game.
In these two teams' first match, Vick threw for 175 yards and ran for 103 more as the Eagles outscored the Packers 17-14 in the second half.
The Eagles have an uncanny ability to pull big plays out of nowhere behind the strength of Vick’s rocket arm and the lightning fast speed of DeSean Jackson (league best 22.5 yards per reception). The yards will be tough against a Packers defense that ranks fifth against the pass; the key to this game could be the very underrated LeSean McCoy.
The second year back out of Pittsburgh ran for over 1000 yards on 5.2 YPC while hauling in 78 passes. When Green Bay brings pressure, his ability to either pick up a blitzing linebacker or gain additional yards on quick screens could decide the winner.
This will hands down be the most entertaining game of the first round. Aaron Rodgers has been surgical of late and the Eagles secondary has been playing without cornerback Ellis Hobbs due to a season ending injury.
Nonetheless, Philly is a good bet to cover the spread. If Vick can elude the pass rush, he should be able to pick up huge chunks of yards on the rush.
The Eagles have plenty of big time playmakers that can capitalize on over aggressive defenses. And even though Philly was just 4-4 at home, the raucous crowd should give the Eagles the edge.
Final Score: 27-21 Eagles
Why New Orleans Could Win:
I’ll be honest; there is a good chance this game ends up more lopsided than Tara Reid’s boob job. The Saints potent offense will take on a Seattle team that can’t move the ball.
The ‘Hawks didn’t have a single rusher with over 600 yards nor did they produce an 800 yard receiver. Charlie Whitehurst looked lost against the Rams on Sunday night and Matt Hasselbeck was no better this season, with a 12:17 touchdown to interception ratio.
Seattle’s secondary gave up 239.6 yards passing per game (sixth worst in the NFL) while Drew Brees ranked third in the league with over 4,600 passing yards.
Marques Colston has emerged as one of the premier receivers in football, and perhaps the best red zone target in the NFL.
Add to that the speedy trio of Meachem, Moore and Henderson plus the promising rookie Jimmy Graham and the Saints should be able to trample the 7-9 ‘Hawks.
Why Seattle Could Win:
What better way to shut up all the critics and naysayers than knocking off the 11-5 Saints? Seattle was only 2-6 on the road but managed to perform at home, recording a 6-2 record at Qwest Field.
Seattle’s offense has looked anemic all season but their special teams performance has been outstanding. Leon Washington returned three kickoffs for touchdowns and nearly recorded a punt for a score, instead settling for an 84 yard jaunt.
I’d call the Saints a mortal lock to win, but Washington’s big play ability could keep the Seahawks within the 10.5 point spread.
Seattle’s utter lack of offensive playmakers should prevent them from putting up points against a middle of the road New Orleans defense.
On the other side, the Saints potent aerial attack will face off against a defense that has struggled all season against the pass.
Unless the Seahawks can score points with their defense or special teams, the defending Super Bowl champs should show all of America why a 7-9 team does not deserve a playoff spot.
Final Score: 30-13 New Orleans
Why New York Could Win:
This is another game that’s easy to get excited about. I mean seriously, there are more angles than a decagon. The loud and brash Rex Ryan against the quietly humble Peyton Manning. The league’s top quarterback against the league’s premier corner. But perhaps most significant, the Jets dominant ground game against the Colts porous rush defense.
The Colts rank amongst the bottom third of the league surrendering 127 yards rushing per game. On the other side of the coin you have the duo of LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene who helped lead the fourth ranked Jets rushing attack to 148.4 rushing yards per game. Heck, you can even add Joe McKnight into the equation after the rookie rushed for 158 yards in a Week 17 win over the Bills.
When the Colts start stacking the box against the run, that’s when Mark Sanchez will be able to shine. Sanchez is phenomenal when he is able to run play action and/or a bootleg, so the Jets' ability to run the ball will be instrumental in a New York victory.
Defensively, Antonio Cromartie will have to resist his urge to make the big play, as the Colts are always just one bite on the pump fake away from six points.
Why Indianapolis Could Win:
As always, it begins and ends with Peyton Manning. The future Hall of Fame quarterback was just ten yards away from leading the league in passing again, throwing for 4,700 yards and 33 touchdowns. In fact, with a Week 17 victory he led the Colts to their ninth consecutive year of 10+ wins and a playoff appearance.
Despite the worst three game stretch of his career in which he threw 11 interceptions, Manning was only picked off 17 times on the season. Little Archie led a Colts offense that ranked fourth in points and yardage, but the problems lie with the defense. Indy ranked 23rd in points allowed and 20th in yardage allowed, struggling in particular against the run.
With Bob Sanders out for the season and ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis often setting up great running lanes with their outside rushes, it will be up to the linebackers to hold the Jets in check.
After signing a lucrative extension, Gary Brackett was somewhat disappointing this season, recording just 74 tackles with one sack and no interceptions. If Brackett and the Colts defense can earn their paycheck, Indy’s offense should score enough points to win.
The Colts went 6-2 at home this season while the Jets were an impressive 6-2 on the road, meaning perhaps home-field advantage won’t be particularly advantageous. Factor in Manning’s career 8-9 playoff record and the Jets' superior 11-5 record and that three point line is somewhat perplexing.
As long as Sanchez can limit his mistakes and play a fairly conservative game, the Jets should be able to knock off the Colts on their home field.
New York has three running backs that all bring different skill sets to the table, and the Jets should be able to effectively rotate the trio while wearing down the Colts front seven.
Final Score: 24-20 Jets