Saturday, January 9, 2010

Wild-Card Weekend Is Upon Us

As I have mentioned here before, I admire the writing of Sports Illustrated's Peter King. He writes very insightful articles about pro football, and he asked an intriguing question in his preview of this weekend's wild–card games:

"When's the last time you recall all four wild–card games being so competitive you wouldn't be surprised to see the road team win any one?" He then proceeds to pick the road teams in two of this weekend's games. I'm with King on that one. In fact, as you will soon see, I have picked three of the four road teams to win this weekend.

Personally, I have often felt that home field was overrated, and King kind of affirms that in his piece. "Two roadies won last year," he writes, "and three won in 2005. This year, I don't care what Vegas says. It's even–steven across the board entering the weekend."

The New York Giants won the Super Bowl two years ago after beating Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay on the road in the NFC playoffs. In 2005, the Pittsburgh Steelers became the first team in two decades to win three road games en route to the Super Bowl (which they also won).

In fact, I have wondered if the practice of giving a first–round bye to the big winners during the regular season hasn't been a detriment, not a benefit. Consider the recent teams that have advanced to the Super Bowl (whether they won or lost) in spite of having to play in the first round: Arizona had to play on wild–card weekend last year. As mentioned previously, the Giants were a wild card two years ago and won it all. So did the Indianapolis Colts, who were not a wild card but had to play one in January 2007. I mentioned the 2005 Steelers. Carolina played in the wild–card weekend following the 2003 season. The 2001 Ravens had to play in the first round. So did the 1999 Tennessee Titans.

Seven of the last 10 Super Bowls have featured a team that did not get a first–round bye. Four of those seven were won by the team that didn't get the bye week. When you consider that four teams get a first–round bye every season, and they get that bye because they are one of the top two winningest teams in the conference, it logically follows that they probably went into the playoffs among the favorites to at least play in the Super Bowl, if not win it all.

That means that, in the last 10 years alone, at least 16 teams that probably were considered one of the favorites to win a Super Bowl did not, and at least 28 teams that were favored to at least play in a Super Bowl did not.

Why do I believe having to play in a wild–card game is not the kiss of death that many seem to think it is? Because I believe a bye week at this stage of the season is useful only if a team is banged up and needs a little extra time to get over its bumps and bruises.

If the team is in fairly good health, my thinking has been that a bye takes a team out of its rhythm. It retards a team's momentum. And I believe New Orleans and Indianapolis, who rested their starters when there was nothing left to play for, may pay a price for doing the smart thing and protecting their top producers.

But that's a subject to be addressed as we go deeper into the playoffs.

  • New York Jets (9–7) at Cincinnati (10–6) — Of the three playoff games that are rematches of games played last week, this one seems to be the most likely to produce a duplicate result. By the time last Sunday's game between the Jets and the Bengals began, the results of all the other games were known, and the Bengals had nothing to play for. The Jets did, and it showed in the final score — a 37–0 triumph. The game provides an intriguing contrast. When the season began, the Bengals had the hot hand, winning seven of their first 10 games. But, at season's end, the Jets were the hot team, winning five of their last six. Since Thanksgiving, Cincinnati lost to three playoff teams and only managed wins over Detroit and Kansas City. The last time the teams played in Cincinnati was on Oct. 21, 2007. The Bengals prevailed, 38–31, but the Jets have won two in a row at home against the Bengals since then. Can they win at Cincinnati for the first time since September 1997? I think they will.

  • Philadelphia (11–5) at Dallas (11–5) — As members of the same division, these two teams are familiar foes. They play each other twice a year, and they just played at Cowboys Stadium last Sunday. In that game, Dallas won, 24–0, giving the Cowboys two victories over the Eagles during the regular season. Now they must try to make it three victories, which is a difficult task. And the Cowboys need look no further than their own postseason experience for examples of just how hard it can be. Two years ago — the last time Dallas was in the playoffs — the Cowboys faced the New York Giants in the playoffs after beating them twice during the regular season. The Giants won, 21–17, and went on to the Super Bowl, where they upset the previously unbeaten New England Patriots. And, in 1998, the Cowboys beat the Arizona Cardinals (who were in their division at the time) twice during the regular season, then lost to the Cardinals in the playoffs, 20–7. Until this season, there was considerable talk about the Cowboys' "December jinx," although that talk seems to have been dispelled by Dallas' 3–2 record last month (including a victory over previously unbeaten New Orleans). Nevertheless, some folks in Dallas will remind you that the Cowboys haven't won a playoff game in more than 10 years. I predict the Eagles, who had won six in a row before tumbling against Dallas last Sunday, will bounce back and win the game.
  • Baltimore (9–7) at New England (10–6) — The way I see it, there are three things to keep in mind in this game. First: Location, location, location. The Patriots have been absolutely awful on the road, which is where they will have to play next week if they beat Baltimore. But, against the Ravens, New England is playing at home, where the Pats are 8–0. Baltimore, meanwhile, is 3–5 on the road, and the Ravens lost at New England earlier in the season, 27–21. So, on the basis of location, the Pats should be favored. Second: Statistics. The Patriots are third in the NFL in total offense (the Ravens are 13th) and pass offense (the Ravens are 18th). Baltimore does have the advantage in rushing offense, ranking fifth in the NFL while the Patriots are 12th. Baltimore has the edge in team defense (third in the NFL, compared to 11th for New England), passing defense (eighth in the NFL while New England is 12th) and rushing defense (fifth in the NFL; Patriots are 13th). New England's margin on offense is more pronounced than Baltimore's is on defense — although, if Baltimore has the lead late in the game and needs to run the ball to control the clock, the Ravens seem to be in a better position to do so than the Patriots. That doesn't seem likely to me, though, so I'll give the edge to New England. Third: Postseason experience. It can be argued that today's Ravens have more recent postseason experience than the Patriots. New England, after all, did not qualify for the playoffs last year while Baltimore, in spite of being the sixth seed, defeated Miami and Tennessee on the road and stayed within striking distance of Pittsburgh in the first half of the AFC title game. Will the weather be a factor? Well, it's expected to be cold (predicted high of 24°) and windy (the wind chill could be as low as -1°) but sunny. That's a little colder than it is expected to be in Baltimore tomorrow (28°, sunny, not as windy). The Ravens may notice the weather, but I doubt they will be affected by it. I think they are more likely to be affected by the atmosphere. History has shown that it is very tough for the visiting team to win at New England, especially in the playoffs, and I'll give the home team the edge in this one.

  • Green Bay (11–5) at Arizona (10–6) — Pat Kirwan of says the key to this game is the ability to get to the quarterback, and he may have a point. Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers did get sacked 50 times this season, and he was sacked more than twice as often in games the Packers lost. But bear in mind that Green Bay's defense appears to be better than Arizona's. The Packers have the best team defense in the NFC and the best run defense in the NFL. And, while the Green Bay pass defense is ranked second in the NFC, Arizona's is ranked 11th. Add to that the fact that Green Bay has beaten Arizona severely twice this year — once was in the third week of the preseason, so it didn't count in the standings, and the other was last weekend. This is the playoffs, and the Cardinals may have Anquan Boldin back from injury — although suggests that it is unlikely he will play. Apparently, he's still hobbling around, but he's a factor whenever he is in the lineup. I think the game will be closer this time, but I'll stick with the Packers, who are probably the hottest team on the NFC side of the playoffs.
So, if my predictions are correct, next week's playoffs will be:
  • In the NFC, Green Bay will play Minnesota for the third time this season, and Philadelphia will travel to New Orleans in a rematch of their Week 2 meeting.

  • In the AFC, the top–seeded Indianapolis Colts will play host to the New York Jets, who handed them their first loss of the season a couple of weeks ago, and San Diego will play host to New England in what would be the first postseason game that is not a rematch of a regular–season contest.
Last week: 9–7.

Season: 180–78.

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