NFL Playoff Picks: Wild Card Round

Jacob NitzbergAnalyst IJanuary 7, 2010

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JANUARY 03:  Quarterback Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets applauds a carry by Thomas Jones #20 in the first quarter of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Giants Stadium on January 3, 2010 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The playoffs are finally upon us, so the folks over at Cubicle GM did some analysis of each matchup to figure out the winner, incorporating the point spread of course.  In chronological order...

New York Jets at Cincinnati Bengals

In the first of three Week 17 rematches, this is the only one to change location from this past Sunday.  In Week 17, the Jets had everything to play for, needing a win to secure a playoff berth in the final game of the regular season.  The Bengals were the opposite, already having wrapped up the AFC North division title with no chance of a first round bye.  So I’m not going to read much into the Jets’ 37-0 blowout win on Sunday.

There are a few major factors which could decide this game.  The Jets need to stick with what they do best, which is their running game and their defense.  The Jets were No. 1 in the NFL with 2,756 rushing yards this season (164 more than the Tennessee Titans), and No. 1 in the league in total defense, as their 4,037 yards allowed were over 500 yards fewer than the No. 2 Green Bay Packers.  If the Jets can control the ball with their running game and limit the work of rookie QB Mark Sanchez, they will have a chance.

While the Jets have been great on defense, Cincinnati is no slouch in that respect either.  The Bengals were No. 4 in total defense, and had the third most INTs in the AFC with 19 on the season.  The Bengals should look to force Sanchez (12 TDs and 20 INTs this season) into mistakes on the road.  The Bengals D is one of the best at holding opponents to short-yardage plays, so if they can sit back and wait for the Jets’ rookie to slip up, they will be able to create opportunities.

Bottom Line: I cannot talk myself into taking a rookie QB on the road in his playoff debut, especially one from Southern California playing in 21 degree snowy weather.

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The Pick: Cincinnati (-3)

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys

Going into their Saturday Night Football date against the Saints, the Cowboys sat at 8-5 after two straight December losses, and the pundits were all over QB Tony Romo, despite the fact that the losses weren’t his fault.  Since then, Romo and Co. have won three straight, starting with a victory over the previously unbeaten Saints followed by two straight shutouts over divisional opponents, including their upcoming foe the Eagles.

The Eagles had won six straight going into their Week 17 matchup with the Cowboys, before they were shut down and cost themselves a chance at a home game and a first round bye.  Now these two teams will matchup on the same field twice in less than a week, but does Dallas really have the advantage?

The numbers would say so.  Dallas was better than Philly in passing yards, rushing yards, and rush defense, and allowed just 9 more yards per game in pass defense.  Dallas also goes in relatively healthy, while the Eagles will be without starting C Jamaal Jackson and could have limited production from WR/KR and big play threat DeSean Jackson, who is nursing a groin injury.

The injury may have played a factor in last week’s game, but the Cowboys’ were able to defeat Philly twice due to their ability to shut down Jackson and as a result McNabb.  In those two games in Weeks 9 and 17, Jackson combined for just 5 catches for 76 yards and 0 TDs, while McNabb had a total of 450 yards and 1 TD and was sacked 7 times in those games.

McNabb came out and said: "What happened last week will have no bearing on what happens this week."  As long as they limit the turnovers and drops, he could be right.  Dallas’ defense was extremely aggressive last week, blitzing a great deal, and McNabb and Co. will work to adjust and take advantage of that.  However, I think the key to this game lies in Philadelphia’s defense.

The Cowboys throw so many weapons at you on offense, whether it’s the three headed monster in the backfield of Barber, Jones and Choice or Witten, Austin, and even Roy Williams in the receiving game, its tough to focus on just one to shut down.  If the Eagles’ D can summon the Tony Romo with an 0-2 playoff record rather than the one on the three game winning streak, they can force turnovers and have a chance.

Bottom Line: Andy Reid is 7-0 with the Eagles in playoff openers and the Cowboys haven’t won a playoff game since 1996.  In a divisional rematch, with the teams playing for the third time, this game is sure to be close, and when in doubt, I’ll go with history and the points.

The Pick: Philadelphia (+4)

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

There is one story that dominates all the others in this matchup, which is the Wes Welker injury.  You may have already seen the stats on the Pats with/without Welker on SportsCenter or ESPNBoston (where I got them), but I’m gonna lay them out here again.

Without Welker in 2009, Tom Brady’s completion percentage drops from 68.0% to 56.3%, his rating drops from 102.9 to 68.9 and his TD-INT ratio goes from 27-11 to just 1-2.  As dramatic as those differences are, they don’t compare to the production dropoff seen by Randy Moss.  Moss caught 65 of the 109 passes thrown to him with Welker, and just 12 of 30 without him, his catch percentage dipping from 59.6% to 40.0%.  Most importantly, however, is that he caught all 13 of his touchdowns this season with Welker healthy, and has yet to find the end zone without him.

While it’s impossible to replace Welker, who led the Pats in receptions and receiving yards while playing just over 13 games this season, some in New England are optimistic, saying the Pats will “evolve” without Welker .  Whether or not 7th round pick Julian Edelman can step into his shoes will remain to be seen.  However, the Pats will still need to pass the ball, and with the Ravens’ Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs not at 100 percent, it can be done.

One important point for the Pats on offense is to keep Tom Brady upright.  There have been reports of broken ribs, which have since been refuted, but either way Brady isn’t 100 percent back there and needs to be protected, either with an extra TE or the RBs staying back a little longer.  If the Ravens can get Brady to the ground, and hard, they will have a chance.

Again, while the Pats will miss Welker, one player’s absence will not decide the game.  With or without him, the Pats will still need to stop Baltimore’s potent rushing offense.  The Ravens were 5th in the NFL this year on the ground, thanks to over 1,300 yards from second-year back Ray Rice and contributions from Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain.  Rice was a force out of the backfield in the receiving game as well, catching 78 balls for over 700 yards this season.

The Patriots were average against the run, allowing over 110 yards per game on the ground this season.  As a result, look for the Ravens to use a similar formula to the one that helped them advance to last season’s AFC Championship game and run the ball to limit what QB Joe Flacco needs to do while at the same time keeping Tom Brady off the field.

Bottom Line: The absence of Welker, the injury to Brady (whatever it may officially be) and the Ravens’ solid running game all are causing me to lean towards Baltimore.  But I still can’t go with the Ravens on the road in Foxboro while No. 12 is under center for the Pats, and I look for a game similar to their Week 4 matchup .

The Pick: New England (-3.5)

Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals

The third of the Week 17 rematches, this one will kick off almost exactly 1 week after the first meeting.  Neither team had much to play for in last week’s game, but Green Bay went full throttle for three quarters while Arizona played their starters for barely ¼ of the game, getting pummeled 33-7.

Much like the Jets-Bengals matchup, it’s hard to take much from last Sunday’s game, but the keys to the playoff game are pretty clear.  While each team has a decent running game, the success of both offenses lies with their respective quarterbacks.

For Green Bay, the key is keeping Aaron Rodgers upright.  Rodgers was sacked a league high 50 times this season, and was thrown to the ground at least six times in each of their losses except one, the Week 15 defeat to Pittsburgh.  The Packers have done a much better job recently in protecting Rodgers, but could see a number of blitzes from the Cardinals defense which they weren’t given a glimpse of in Week 17.  Whether or not the Packers can beat the blitz will be a key to this game.

On the offensive side of the ball for Arizona, Kurt Warner holds the key to their success.  Even though he played just a little over 14 games this year, the Cardinals QB threw for over 3,750 yards and had 26 TDs. The Cards were 28th in rushing this season (Chris Johnson outrushed them by over 500 yards) and the Packers were first against the run on defense, so expect a lot of three and four wide sets from the Cardinals.  The Packers secondary drops off significantly after Charles Woodson, and they are prone to the big penalty, as was displayed nationally on Monday Night Football against Baltimore.  If Warner can take advantage of man-to-man coverage created by blitzing, he could have a big day.

Even though the Cardinals were the ones resting players early last week, they suffered injuries to two key players, whose health could play a huge role in the outcome on Sunday.  According to ESPN: “Three-time Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin did not practice because of a sprained left ankle and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a Pro Bowler in his second season, was out with a bruised left kneecap.”  As mentioned above, the Cardinals’ passing attack is a major key to victory, and Boldin is an instrumental part of that.  In addition, if Rodgers-Cromartie is out the Cards will have a much tougher time stopping Rodgers and Co.

Finally, a stat that cannot be overlooked is Green Bay’s +24 turnover differential, seven better than any other team in the National Football League (I spelled it out for emphasis).  Their 30 INTs on defense also leads the league, and Arizona has fumbled the ball away a league-high 18 times this season.  If Arizona gets sloppy with the ball, this one could be over early.

Bottom Line: It is pretty hard to go against a team that is 7-1 in their last 8, their only loss coming on the final play of the game and who is getting points, and go with a team that has only beat three opponents this year with winning records and has two key players injured and questionable.  But nobody believed in the Cardinals last year either and look how that turned out.

The Pick: Arizona (-1).

All lines taken from bodog.com and accurate as of the time of publishing on Thursday January 7th .

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