The NFL Playoffs are here and like the first two days of the NCAA Tournament, the argument can be made that the best part of the NFL's postseason is Wild Card Weekend.
Eight teams, four games, two days. Through it all we're sure to see at least one game decided in the last two minutes and one decided in the first 15. One road team will win as, since 2004, wild card teams are 13-11 against division-winning teams with homefield advantage.
I know everyone loves the saying "defense wins championships," but that is wrong. Great quarterbacks and great coaches win championships, and they are usually anchored by a good defense. Take a look at the quarterback and coach tandems to win the Super Bowl in the past decade, with apologies to the 2001 Baltimore Ravens:
2000: Kurt Warner/Dick Vermeil
2001: Trent Dilfer/Brian Billick
2002: Tom Brady/Bill Belichick
2003: Brad Johnson/Jon Gruden
2004: Tom Brady/Bill Belichick
2005: Tom Brady/Bill Belichick
2006: Ben Roethlisberger/Bill Cowher
2007: Peyton Manning/Tony Dungy
2008: Eli Manning/Tom Coughlin
2009: Ben Roethlisberger/Mike Tomlin
2010: Drew Brees/Sean Peyton
Do you see my point?
You probably laughed when you saw Brad Johnson up there, and yes the Buccaneers defense was the reason Tampa Bay was crowned champions in 2003, but Johnson was a two-time Pro Bowler, including that season.
As you watch the games this weekend, identify the team with the better coach and signal caller and I'll bet those teams wins at least three of the four games. Without further adieu, here are my picks for the opening round:
New Orleans Saints (NFC Wild Card) vs. Seattle Seahawks (NFC West chumpion)
No that isn't a typo. I refuse to acknowledge a 7-9 team as a division champion or playoff participant and I'm really not sorry about it.
Seattle is absolutely awful. Each of its nine losses were by 15-plus points, meaning they didn't even flirt with victory in any game that they lost. The offense stinks (ranked 28th), the defense stinks (ranked 27th), Matt Hasselbeck is washed up, and they have no resemblance of an effective running game (ranked 31st, averaging 89 yards per game).
You know what? I'm wasting your time and mine by getting into a detailed breakdown of this game. Read the above paragraph again, laugh at how pathetic the Seahawks are, then go and read my column from last Friday about how the NFL needs to redo its playoff format.
Seattle's opponent, the defending champion Saints, have a Super Bowl MVP quarterback in Drew Brees and one of the league's best coaches in Sean Peyton. Seattle comes back with a coach better suited for college in Pete Carroll, and a quarterback better suited for a headset and a clipboard or a vodka-tonic and a recliner in Matt Hasselbeck.
Remember when I said one game from the weekend will be decided in the first quarter? I was referring to this one.
Prediction: New Orleans: 31, Seattle: 10
New York Jets (AFC Wild Card) vs. Indianapolis Colts (AFC South champion)
This might be the best game of the four as the Jets look to avenge their loss to Indianapolis in last year's AFC title game. Unfortunately for the Jets, not much has changed since last January.
The game is in Indianapolis and the Colts still have Manning. Rex Ryan still believes the Jets are the team to beat in the AFC even though they were the last team to qualify for a playoff spot, and Mark Sanchez is still more of a question mark than an answer.
Both teams are overrated in their own right. The Colts are considered by many to be the one team that can beat New England to reach the Super Bowl, this despite having no running game (ranked 29th) to complement Manning, and a defense that surrenders 24 points per game. The only reason anyone believes they can do it is because of No. 18.
The Jets are overhyped because Ryan has the biggest mouth in sports and somehow gets people to believe what he says. The fact is their defense is at times as good as advertised, but still not as good as last year's bunch that came to Lucas Oil Stadium and gave up 30 points in a loss.
So how can New York win? By effectively running the ball 40 times with Shonn Greene and LaDanian Tomlinson. That will take the game out of Sanchez's hands and keep Manning on the sideline.
I think they can do it. The Colts ranked 25th in rush defense, allowing 2,032 yards and a 4.6 yard average. If Greene and Tomlinson are as fresh as Ryan says they are, the Jets could go over 200 yards rushing and that's hard for any team to overcome.
The Colts needed to win their last four games just to qualify for the playoffs and won't have tight end Dallas Clark. Without the threat of a legitimate rushing attack, Ryan will be able to play the aggressive, blitz-happy style he wants.
It's hard to beat a defense as good as the Jets with a one-dimensional offense. So hard that I don't see even Peyton pulling it off. I'm going against my theory here.
Prediction: New York: 20, Indianapolis: 17
Baltimore Ravens (AFC Wild Card) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West champions)
Two of the league's brightest young coaches and two of its best young gunslingers will be one display in this one. John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco, and Todd Haley and Matt Cassel are going to keep their respective teams in contention for years to come.
If you are a regular reader of this website, you know how I feel about Cassel. I recently became the leader of his MVP campaign and despite a poor performance in a meaningless loss to the Raiders last week, I stand by my opinion.
That being said, Flacco has had a great season as well, completing 63 percent of his passes while throwing for 3,622 yards and 25 touchdowns. A big factor in this matchup is that he and Harbaugh have been here before. The Ravens have entered the AFC Playoffs as a wild card each of the last two seasons and have posted an impressive 3-2 road record, including a 33-14 dismantling of the Patriots at Foxboro last January.
This year they started their road to the Super Bowl at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the most difficult places to steal a road win. However, history suggests Cassel is going to have a hard time cracking the Ravens' defense, especially since Dwayne Bowe isn't 100 percent.
He'll need to avoid turnovers as he has done all season and get help from his terrific backfield mates, Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles.
As much as I love Cassel and the Chiefs' future, I'm going with Flacco and that defense because this is hardly their first rodeo.
Prediction: Baltimore: 27, Kansas City: 19
Green Bay Packers (NFC Wild Card) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (NFC East champions)
Wild Card Weekend finishes with a bang as we return to the site of Green Bay's 27-20 Week 1 victory.
Much has changed since their Sept. 12 date. Kevin Kolb started at quarterback for Philadelphia, but was knocked out of the game and replaced by Michael Vick. Thanks to 175 yards passing and 103 yards rushing, Vick almost rallied the Eagles from a 17-point fourth quarter deficit, coming up just yards short of sending the game to overtime.
Vick took hold of the starting quarterback job and turned himself into a serious MVP candidate, leading the Eagles to an unexpected division title.
I love Vick and his redemption story and I definitely like Andy Reid over Mike McCarthy, but I get the feeling Aaron Rodgers is not going to be denied. The Packers were my Super Bowl pick in the NFC when the season started and I'm sticking with it.
Rodgers quietly had one of the best seasons of any quarterback in 2010, throwing for 3,922 and 28 touchdowns. Green Bay beat Chicago 10-3 last weekend to squeak into the playoffs, and the odd part was how the Bears played their starters for the game's entirety despite having nothing to play for.
I say they wanted to do everything in their power to keep the Packers out of the playoffs, and unfortunately for the rest of the NFC, they came up just short.
Both quarterbacks will put on a show, but I like Rodgers just a bit more here. Look for a big defensive play from Clay Matthews or Charles Woodson to be the difference down the stretch.
Prediction: Green Bay: 30, Philadelphia: 28
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