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NFL’s Final Four Set to Swing it Out

Well, here we are. It’s been a long NFL season and we’re officially only a day away from planning Super Bowl parties, calling Vegas and stacking up on tortilla chips. It’s kind of sad to see the season dwindle down but I’ll save that story for another day. 5-3 on my postseason picks so far and although most of the games have been routes, this weekend has to be, better be and needs to be competitive. I’ll make my selections with caution because both games are far from locks.

The Jets will be everyone’s Cinderella for Sunday but they’re well-equipped to topple the Colts. The Vikings have proven over their last two games how strong they are, but they’re weak on the road and New Orleans plays above and beyond at home. Should be (better be) an incredible weekend and if the regular season is proof of a preview, the Vikings/Saints game will be insane. In a good way of course.

New York Jets (11-7) vs. Indianapolis Colts (15-2) 3 p.m.

It may not be the matchup that most viewers wanted but it’s certainly what they’ll get. The New York Jets will travel to Indianapolis to take on the top-seeded Colts in the always marketable battle of David vs. Goliath. The Jets, fresh off their upset victory over the second-seeded San Diego Chargers, defeated the Colts 29-15 in a week 16 meeting during the regular season but Indianapolis rested several of their starters after halftime of that game while New York was fighting for a playoff berth.

New York first year quarterback Mark Sanchez will make the third time in the last five seasons that a rookie quarterback has started in the AFC’s Conference Championship game.

The Baltimore Ravens Joe Flacco made his appearance last year while the Pittsburgh Steelers Ben Roethlisberger started as a rookie in the 2004 title game. Sanchez will be hoping for a better outcome as both Flacco and Roethlisberger lost their championship starts.

Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning will be making his fourth AFC title game appearance but 2009’s MVP will face a difficult task against defensive guru Rex Ryan. The Jets head coach has transformed New York’s defense into an aggressive blitz-heavy group, the kind of defense that Manning has struggled with in past playoff appearances.

The Jets defense is led by third-year cornerback Darrelle Revis, widely regarded as the best cornerback in the league. You absolutely don’t talk Jets without talking Revis and the corner’s play this season has been one of the headliners in the Jets’ success. His ability to handle marquee receivers one-on-one has been widely acknowledged across the league and it’s grown into a foregone conclusion he’ll shut down whoever he’s assigned to.

Revis will likely matchup with Manning’s top target Reggie Wayne and that battle will be critical towards the game’s outcome. Manning and Wayne have made a living of exposing secondaries this season but Revis’ presence could influence Manning to look elsewhere with the football.

While the Colts will be heavily favored, the Jets actually matchup extremely well with Indianapolis. The play of Revis and the Jets secondary could neutralize Manning and the Colts’ explosive passing attack while New York’s league-leading ground game could be problematic for an Indy team that notoriously struggles to stop the run.

On paper, the Colts should probably lose this game but the same could’ve been said last week when New York squared off against San Diego. The games aren’t played on paper and Manning will probably kick himself for the rest of his career if a quarterback of his stature loses to a rookie signal caller, regardless of how strong the opposing defense may be. Colts 20-10

Minnesota Vikings (13-4) vs. New Orleans Saints (14-3) 6:40 p.m.

The Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints have been the two best teams in the NFC all season so it’s only fitting that they meet in conference’s title game to settle things out. The Vikings have been dominant at home but vulnerable on the road, where their only losses of the season have come in embarrassing fashion at times.

The Saints started the year as a dominant home team before a couple of late season losses lightened up their mystique. Their 45-14 win over the Arizona Cardinals last week restored that mystique somewhat but Arizona was missing a slew of key players.

The Vikings will be mostly healthy and will make a strong push on the road to get All-Pro quarterback Brett Favre, 40, one last shot at a Super Bowl. The challenge will be daunting for the Vikings who will be up against a raucous Saints crowd hungry for the club’s first Super Bowl appearance.

Including their 34-3 over the Dallas Cowboys last week, the Vikings have outscored their last two opponents 78-10 and appear to be on the right track after a late season slide. Minnesota has all the ingredients needed to advance including a strong running game, smothering defense and experienced quarterback. The same ingredients the Cowboys used to cook up an upset victory of the Saints at the Superdome earlier in the season.

But when focused, New Orleans has been dominant at times this season and will undoubtedly be tuned in for their biggest game of the season so far. Their three-headed ground attack featuring Reggie Bush, Mike Bell and Pierre Thomas helped churn out a 171-yard performance against a pretty strong Arizona run defense. Controlling the line of scrimmage will be critical against the Vikings dominant pass rush.

Minnesota thrives on getting to the passer with just four rushers and the protection of Brees will be critical in the outcome. The Vikings secondary has been chop suey at times this year and if Brees has time, well, let’s just say that wouldn’t be good for Minnesota. But New Orleans defense isn’t the best and Minnesota can put up some points as well so a shootout could be in the making.

It will be the third meeting between Favre and Saints quarterback Drew Brees with their personal series tied at 1-1. It will also be Favre’s second NFC title game appearance in the last three seasons. The experience and the pressure for one last Super Bowl run before he calls it quits will weigh heavily in Favre’s corner. This is what he came back for and he’s only a game away from the ultimate goal. Regardless of how good the Saints have been this year, Minnesota is stocked full of talent and riding off in the sunset is a motion picture just waiting on Favre to sign off on and he won’t let New Orleans turn off his Swan song. Vikings 30-28

January 21, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NFL Postseason Preview

After a winding season, the NFL playoffs are set to begin this Saturday. While the top two seeds in both the AFC and NFC will be home resting this week, teams ready to begin Wild Card play enter the postseason hotter than some of the league’s higher seeds.

The Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints earned first round byes after both teams combined to go 25-9 on the season but both squads ended the regular season on sour notes. The Vikings lost three out of their last five games and the Saints lost three straight to close their campaign. While the Vikings showed signs of life with a 44-7 demolition of the reeling New York Giants in their season finale, a power struggle between head coach Brad Childress and quarterback Brett Favre casted a dark cloud over the last quarter of the season for Minnesota. With Favre, 40, tiptoeing the line of retirement, it’s officially Super Bowl or bust for the Vikings this year.

Expect happier times for Rivers and Co. this postseason (Photo courtesy of NFL.com)

The Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals will hit the ground running. For the Cowboys and Packers, they wouldn’t have it any other way. Winners of three straight, the Cowboys will be gunning for their first playoff win since 1996. A road win against the once undefeated Saints and back to back shutouts have the Cowboys flying high while they attempt to reverse their recent trend of late season woes.

The Packers have won seven of their last eight games and will open their playoff run against a Cardinal team they just annihilated 33-7 in Arizona’s home finale. Green Bay ranks second in overall defense and their do-it-all cover corner Charles Woodson is a defensive MVP finalist. Second year signal caller Aaron Rodgers is at the top of the quarterback list in most sporting circles.

The Cardinals and Eagles couldn’t have ended their seasons on poorer notes. With the NFC East crown on the line, the Eagles’ 24-0 loss to the Cowboys was definitely a setback but their prior six-game winning streak is evidence they can turn things around.

Turning things around isn’t something the AFC’s second seed needs to worry about. Winners of eleven straight, the San Diego Chargers have become most sporting pundits “sexy” pick to reach the Super Bowl. Quarterback Philip Rivers earned his third trip to the Pro Bowl and he leads a remarkable cast of athletes on a talented Chargers team.

San Diego will be one of the favorites to advance out of the AFC especially since they’ve had the top ranked Indianapolis Colts number for quite some time. The Colts blazed to a 14-0 start this year but losers of consecutive games could be cause for some concern. Their bigger concern could be a Charger team they’re 1-3 against in the last two seasons including two postseason exits courtesy of Rivers and company.

While the Chargers have had the Colts number, the New England Patriots have had theirs, going 3-1 against San Diego since the 2006 season and knocking the Chargers out of postseason play twice over that span. The Patriots will be down a man however after leading receiver Wes Welker tore both his MCL and ACL in the season finale against Houston.

Welker isn’t the only leading receiver to suffer an injury in the season finale as the Cincinnati Bengals Chad Ochocinco bruised his knee in warm-ups prior to the Bengals finale against the New York Jets. Ironically, both teams will open the playoffs against each other as the first game on Saturday. The Bengals will be seeking revenge after getting blanked by the Jets 37-0.

The fifth seed Baltimore Ravens round out the AFC’s playoff pool. The Ravens won three of their remaining four games to earn consecutive trips to the playoffs and will try to make amends after falling one game short last season of making the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance.

This year’s playoff pool of participants is deep and talented and all offer something different to the table. Teams like New Orleans, San Diego and Green Bay offer explosive offenses while squads like Baltimore and New York bring stingy defenses with them. The Packers and Dallas Cowboys may be the most well-rounded teams in this year’s tournament while the Minnesota Vikings and Chargers are probably the most talented.

I expect the Chargers and Packers to end up facing off in the Super Bowl with the Bolts edging the Pack narrowly in a close thriller. It’s the Chargers’ year after back-to-back playoff exits to the eventual AFC Super Bowl representative. The Bolts are the hottest team in football and you’re not going to find a pair of 6-5 and over cover corners to match up with their shooting guard-sized receivers. Rivers has quietly put together an MVP season and he’ll join classmates Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning to form the most prestigious quarterback draft class ever after he captures his first Super Bowl and solidifies the QB class of ’04.

January 5, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Wacky Wild Card Weekend set to Begin

I know I’ve been absent for the last couple of weeks but you know how it is around the holidays. Family and friends absolutely don’t believe you work and if they do believe you work, well… they don’t think your job is all that important anyway but regardless, 30-18 on the regular season and I guess you could say I get a clean slate for the postseason.

Well at least I think I should. I returned just in time for the best weekend (in my opinion) of the playoffs. Wild Card weekend always packs a bunch of surprises and spectacular plays. Ironically, this weekend will feature four rematches from the regular season and three rematches from last week alone.

If your favorite team was on the winning side of last weekend’s matches then football follower beware. It’s typically difficult to beat a team in back-to-back weeks and teams can turn faces quick in the playoffs. Regular season powerhouses turn into first round exiters and mediocre teams turn into giants. Should be fun either way. Read along and enjoy the best weekend (in my opinion) of the playoffs.

New York Jets (9-7) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) 4:30 p.m. Sat

Say what you want, but 37-0 isn’t something that just happens. You don’t just get walloped 37-0 and expect to bounce back and beat the same team that smacked you 37-0 the very next week. As tough as it sounds, the Bengals will attempt to recover from a season finale shutout to the hands of quietly solid Jets.

New York has won five out of their last six games and will enter the playoffs on a defensive tear. Aside from finishing the season as the top overall unit, the Jets have allowed just 47 points in their last six games, good for a paltry 7.8 points per contest in the last month and a half of the year. Nobody, I repeat: NOBODY gets open when third-year coverman Darrelle Revis locks horns with them and head coach Rex Ryan has transformed his defensive troops into a lockdown unit.

The Jets have the league’s top running game and everything sets up perfectly to wheel rookie QB Mark Sanchez along slowly. New York will implement the same principles when they square off against the Bengals in the opening postseason game and that could spell trouble for the once-hyped Bengals. While the Jets don’t allow teams to score, the Bengals don’t score much at all anyway. Cincinnati has averaged just 15.7 points per game in their last nine contests and could be without the services of leading receiver Chad Ochocinco, who bruised his knee in warm-ups last week against the Jets.

Regardless if Ochocinco plays or not, it’s a lose-lose scenario for the Bengals. If he does play, he’ll have Revis draped all over him. If he doesn’t play, Revis will just be draped all over the Bengals’ next best wideout, reducing Cincy quarterback Carson Palmer’s list of targets even more. The Bengals have lost three of their last four games and are backing their way into the playoffs without anything clicking. The once-stingy defense has allowed 26 points per game over the last four contests and Palmer has only passed for more than 200 yards in three of the last seven full games that he’s played. Things don’t look good for Cincy. Jets 23-16

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) vs. Dallas Cowboys (11-5) 8 p.m. Sat

Say what you want, but 24-0 isn’t something that just happens. You don’t just get walloped 24-0 and expect to bounce back and beat the same team that smacked you 24-0 the very next week. Although you’ve read it before, last Sunday’s loss against the Cowboys pointed out the obvious for the Eagles: they don’t match up well with the ‘Boys.

Philly built an 11-5 record this season on big plays and an opportunistic defense. The last two meetings that they’ve encountered the ‘Boys, Dallas has used a ball control offense and paid close attention to the Eagles’ aerial attack to take their big-play offense out of the game. The Cowboys have tried to bait Philly into transforming into a running team by focusing heavily on defending their passing attack.

Because of the Eagles’ plethora of playmakers at the receiver position, it’s worked perfectly for Dallas in both games as the Eagles became too bored to stick with a grind-it-out gameplan. Expect Dallas to stick to the same strategy this weekend as they go for the always tough three-game sweep of the Eagles. Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid is never going to be a pound and ground coach as long as he has Donovan McNabb at the quarterback controls and DeSean Jackson at the wing but he’ll need to counter this week.

The Eagles will need to force turnovers from Dallas if they want to pull the upset on the road in Big D but as long as the Cowboys stick to a run-heavy formula, turnovers will be hard to come across for the Eagles. Dallas has been known to force the passing game on certain occasions and could feel compelled to get into a shouting match with Philadelphia if the Eagles score early. It’s hard picking a team to lose its third game in a season to one opponent but if Dallas sticks to the formula, they should handle Philadelphia with ease. Cowboys 27-17

Baltimore Ravens (9-7) vs. New England Patriots (10-6) 1 p.m. Sun

Playoff rematches of regular season matches are always so intriguing, especially when you get two dominant teams like the Patriots and Ravens. New England will have to adjust after they lost the NFL’s leading receiver Wes Welker to a blown knee in their season finale against the Houston Texans.

While the loss of Welker is a definite blow, his replacement, rookie receiver Julian Edelman, has posted 21 catches and 221 yards in the three games that Welker has missed this season, proving that he is more than capable of picking up the slack. The Patriots Tom Brady and Randy Moss will also attempt to pick up the slack in Welker’s absence and that’s never a bad pair of helping hands but Brady may need a helping hand himself after showing up on the injury report in the past few weeks with broken ribs and a finger injury on his throwing hand.

Playing against the Ravens is never an ideal scenario for a banged up QB but Baltimore hasn’t been the same ferocious unit of years’ past. The Ravens ranked 18th in sacks this season and New England’s recent reemphasis on the running game could help nullify Brady’s lingering injuries. Baltimore’s sophomore backfield of Ray Rice and Joe Flacco has been pretty special all season and they’ll be expected to once again lead the Ravens in a tough game.

Road playoffs games aren’t anything new to Flacco, who went 2-1 on the road in last year’s postseason but Patriots coach Bill Belichick loves to turn up the heat on young signal callers in the postseason and he’ll make no exception for Flacco and Co. Both the Patriots and Ravens are evenly matched throughout their teams but the postseason is all about quarterback play. In a game between Flacco and Brady… well …. you can never go wrong with taking a three-time Super Bowl winning quarterback over a three-game postseason signal caller. Patriots 24-21

Green Bay Packers (11-5) vs. Arizona Cardinals (10-6) 4:40 p.m. Sun

Wow! Well… when we last left the Cardinals they were getting blasted to the tune of 33-7 in their season finale to hot Packers BUT that was on a 4-for-6 performance from starting QB Kurt Warner who was pulled from the game early. Nevertheless, the Packers never let up as they went ahead by as much as 33-0 at one point in the game.

The Cardinals may face a consecutive postseason with a hobbled Anquan Boldin, who left the game with an ankle injury. While Boldin’s loss would be huge, the Cardinals were dealt a triple blow when starting corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and starting defensive lineman Calais Campbell were forced out of the game with serious-looking injuries. If all three are forced to miss any time, Arizona’s chances at a repeat Super Bowl appearance would take a significant dent.

The Packers aren’t without their own significant injury concerns as do-it-all- defensive back Charles Woodson suffered a shoulder injury that left him wrapped up on the sidelines during the game’s closing moments. Woodson is expected to play and against Arizona’s remaining healthy receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston, Green Bay can ill-afford for Woodson to miss any time. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is well-equipped to handle the duties of carrying Green Bay regardless of who misses time for the Packers but keep in mind, it’s a team sport.

And nobody knows the team sport better than the Packers’ Rodgers. Rodgers has found nine different receivers in his 30 touchdown mark and his reluctance to key on one receiver forces defenses to account for every member of the Packers offense. The Cardinals have a formidable secondary when Rodgers-Cromartie plays but with DRC’s status in question, Rodgers could be open for a field day.

If it’s two teams in the NFC that I love, it’s Arizona and Green Bay. While neither team is the ideal picture of healthy right now, it’s hard to go against the grain of a hot Green Bay team. I think if Rodgers has time, he could put up 30 against any defense remaining in the playoffs and with the Cardinals’ best corner ailing, Rodgers will be ready for an encore. Packers 28-23

January 5, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment