Friday, December 01, 2006

Yes, We Are Talking About Playoffs

Note: This article was started like a week and a half ago, but just haven't had the time to finish...sorry.

"Stuntin' like my daddy..."

Ok, so the NFL season is winding down. Time for predictions. Actually before I get into this, I will devulge the latest, and not so greatest, news from the BoSox. Manny wants out. Ok, so that's not really breaking news, but apparently there's not the smoke and mirror effect that hovered over this issue like in years past. Manny's value is at an all-time high as far as trading interest is concerned. There seems to be two main suitors out there right now, the Padres and the Dodgers. The Padres are said to be the front-runner, but there has been some news that was broken today that may throw a wrench into that. First, the Sox apparently have renegged on giving Trot Nixon arbitration, meaning that the planned Nixon-Crisp-Drew outfield will not take shape. Also, they would be down an outfielder, meaning that the Sox would be much less likely to trade off Manny than they would if Nixon was kept on the team. Another aspect that may keep Manny here is San Diego's unwillingness to give up Jake Peavy as part of the deal. I am not too thrilled about this. It seemed up until a couple of days ago that he was most likely going to be the Padres' main bargaining chip. Now, Kevin Towers, Padres GM, has unfortunately come to his senses in what would have been the best trade the Sox made since the Varitek/Lowe trade for Heathcliff Slocumb (side note: I mean that's like top-10 ever as far as most lobsided trades in any sport). The Sox signed Hideki Okajima, a left-handed reliever from Japan. Hey aren't we trying to sign a guy from Japan? Maybe add some leverage? Actually, there won't really be much said about this during the negotiations, other than the fact that now Dice-K will have someone else to talk to and wonder why they are in Boston when Japan felt so good. I mean I'm sure these are two great pitchers, but do I have my inner-doubts about them getting adjusted to Boston? Well, f*** yeah doesn't even put it into perspective. I am frightened for these guys. Hey, at least this isn't five years ago when real fans were at Fenway instead of the "pink hats," you know, the young aristocrats who go to the game just to say "hey, I only started liking them when they started winning," and "I'm going just because it's the place to be." The rowdiness has been taken out of Fenway for the most part (bleachers and grandstands still hopping...and they do make up for the box seat yuppies). Well, I hope they are able to adjust, because 2006 may become the most interesting and talked about season in the history of the Sox. Well, you know, besides 2004, but that goes without saying.

Ok, onto the predictions. These are going to be extremely biased, so fair warning. Yes, I have the Pats winning it all. What, you want me to have them lose against the Colts? Please. Ok, starting with the AFC:

AFC East: Duh.

AFC North: Baltimore...assuming that McNair stays healthy...big "if."

AFC South: Well I mean I have to say the Colts. It's like picking Tiger in the majors. If he doesn't win, I'll give the other guy a ton of credit. And if the Jags catch the Colts...I don't even know.

AFC West: San Diego, Super Chargers...they should be mandated to play every game, home or away, in powder may be overkill, but you honestly can't believe I care about that.

Wild Card #1: Chiefs...look out

Wild Card #2: Can Cutler make it happen? All sides point to yes. Broncos.

Honorable Mention: The Bengals are on a hell of a run right now. Last night, they dominated the Ravens. Dominated. Well, this is judging from the stats from the game, and from the five minutes of the game I saw at the gym (love you NFL Network...what's that, like a five year deal...sweet). Anyway, they looked really good, but I just don't see them making a playoff run this year. This is defense. Frankly, they don't have it. At least not for a team who has to go on the road to play Indy and Denver, then end the season with the Steelers at home. They have Oakland next they may pull that out. It's gonna take a great effort for the Bungles to keep it going. Have you noticed that anytime any offensive player complains about not getting the ball, they inevitably have a monster game the next week? 85 went off for like 250 after he blew up in a postgame interview. Since then, he's been red hot, but they will go 2-2 over their next four, putting them about a game short at 9-7. You best believe you're gonna need 10 wins to get in the AFC this year (see KC last year)

Wild Card Weekend, and again, these are just projections as of right now:

Chiefs @ Ravens: This is going to be an amazing game. Physical, physical, physical. This is going to be an incredibly tough task for the Chiefs. Here's the thing. The Ravens are 2nd in the leagues in rushing defense, 10th against the pass, and have the 2nd overall defense. In this game, they will be up against, most likely, the rushing title winner in LJ. Also, with Trent Green at full health, the Chiefs have a formidable passing attack. The Ravens, in their, now, three losses, gave up 116 yards rushing to the Broncos, 356 yards passing to the Panthers, and were unable to force any turnovers in their loss last night to the Bengals. Oh by the way, they lead the NFL in turnover margin at an astounding +14. It all comes down to two things. First, can Steve McNair possibly be at full strength for this game? The Ravens losing last night was devastating to their hopes of getting a first-round bye, which they desperately need to recoup and get back to full strength. If one thing is certain in the NFL right now, it's teams that come off of extremely large wins, as far as scoring margin goes, generally lay down the next week. Such was the case last night, with the Ravens, who hung a 27 spot on the Steelers last week. Then, last night, looked very heistant playing against a high-powered offense and an opportunistic defense (by the way, they're a +9 now in turnover margin, 5th in the league). So if McNair is able to stay healthy for this one, they definitely have a shot. Secondly, can the Ravens force the Chiefs into a lot of third and longs? It all starts with the containment of LJ and the coverage of Gonzo running over the middle. Personally, I think the Ravens D will come out firing, but do they have enough to sustain an entire game. Well...yup. As much as I hate to see my dark horse get knocked off in the first game, the Ravens will have just enough offense, and plenty of defense, to be able to knock off KC and advance into the divisional playoffs

Final: Ravens 24, Chiefs 14

Broncos @ Patriots: ...dum dum dum, it's vengeance time! The Pats will be looking to avenge their loss to Denver earlier this year when they get a rematch at Foxboro. Here's why I know, for a fact, that if this scenario plays out, the Broncos have absolutely no chance of pulling this off. Jay Cutler will be the quarterback for the Broncos. That's right, a rookie quarterback in the playoffs. A rookie, in the playoffs, against Belichick? Not gonna happen. I don't even have to worry about breaking this one down. All I have to say is Cutler is going to have anywhere between 10-15 pass attempts. In other words, Shanahan will do anything he can to take the game out of Cutler's hands and let the running game take over, which brings up another point. What will the health of Tatum Bell be like at game-time? He is going to start this week against the Seahwaks and claims to be "ready," but who really knows about the severity of his toe injury that has forced him to miss three of the last four games. The Broncos have a great running attack, and the injury to Junior Seau will prove to be a large obstacle for the Pats to overcome, but I cannot bet against Bill in the playoffs. Plus, this is like a double-vengeance game for the Pats, who played arguably their worst game in the Tom Brady-era against the Broncos in last year's divisional playoff game. There is no way they lose three in a row is there?...Nope.

Final: Patriots 24, Broncos 6

AFC Divisonal Playoffs:
Patriots @ Chargers: This is going to be a barn-burner for the Pats. Honestly, I hope we play the Colts right here instead of the Chargers, because frankly, LT frightens me. Of any player in the last five years who can literally take over a game, he is by far the most dangerous. Just an absolute legend in the making. So, how do you stop him? Luck and circumstance. That's it. You just have to hope he doesn't break too many, because he's gonna get his 100 most likely, along with a TD or two. The key for the Pats will be to jump out to an early advantage. If they have San Diego down by two TDs going into the 2nd half, that would be an absolute ideal situation, with the Chargers being forced to depend on LT and Philip Rivers. I feel much more confident if they are able to force the Chargers into a "Marty-ball" type of game (real close one where Marty figures out some new way to screw things up). Of all the games that I will be previewing with the Pats winning, this one is by far the scariest one to me. If it were a perfect world, it would be Pats/Colts here. If it comes down to this, Junior Seau, from the sidelines, will be a big factor, because of that "inside information" addage. Also, you wouldn't know it, but these teams are both in the top 10 in total defense, and can you believe the Pats are third in rush defense? Third??? Wow. That's just amazing to me. Unfortunately, the loss of #55, both the old and the present one, have affected the way the Pats play their hybrid 3-4 defense. Key player of the game will be Tully Banta-Cain. That's right, Tully F'n Banta-Cain. #95, one of my all-time favorite Pats players. The former special teams specialist now gets a chance to play linebacker. This guy is a total wild card and has shown flashes of brilliance. The stars will have to align just right for Tully and the rush D to pull it out. However, Rivers makes some rookie mistakes, and Marty will find some kind of clock management thing to deep-six his team's chances (come on, you know it happens every time he's in the playoffs right?). Squeaker right here...squeaker.

Final: Pats 27, Chargers 21

Ravens @ Colts: Intriguing huh? Great offense, great defense. In the end, it's still Peyton Manning in the playoffs. If there is a good defense on the other side of the ball, it will not bode well for Manning and the Colts. That being said, the Colts are going to win. So while you double-take that last sentence, let me explain myself. Ok, Peyton is bad in the playoffs (3-6), and when he faces a 3-4, he tends to fold up pretty good. But here's the thing, over the last 5 years, the Colts are 3-0 against Baltimore. Two wins at home (by the way, both were fairly close (2 & 10 points each)) and one on the road (won by 20). Here's what happens to Peyton when he plays at home during the playoffs. He gets so bogged down by the pressure of winning a "big game" that he has a knack for choking his brains out. However, he seems to fair well against this Ravens D, which is pretty much the same as it was for the last three meetings (Samari Rolle and Terrell Suggs being the only two of great significance I can think of that were not in all of them). Also, look for the Colts' D to have somewhat of a rejuvenation in the next few weeks, starting against Cincinnati next week. They could surprise some people. The Ravens had a tremendous turnaround, and it is all due to Steve McNair, who you could possibly consider for MVP right now. I mean it ain't gonna happen, but still, the guy is a proven winner and a leader of the offense, which is what the Ravens had been missing all this time. Once they acquired Elvis Grbac and drafted Kyle Boller in place of Trent Dilfer, the Ravens took a tailspin into mediocrity. However, their season ends in Indy, with a Pats/Colts matchup at RCA for the AFC title.

Final: Colts 35, Ravens 17

AFC Championship Game:
Pats @ Colts: This one I honestly think could go in favor of the Colts. The Pats, to this point, have played a grueling playoff schedule, with two tremendous defenses from the AFC West, coupled with their running games which are equally as good. The Colts, on the other hand, have just played one game against the Ravens, in what I think was a giant let-down game for Baltimore. So the Colts have had it easy to this point. Also, they have beaten the Pats twice in the last two years in the regular season, in prime time, at Gilette...but, that was the regular season. This is the playoffs. A whole different animal. Another somewhat underappreciated aspect of this game is Adam Vinatieri in the dome. For his career, he's hasn't missed too often indoors...or, you know, never. So this is an intriguing factor. If this is a close game, I don't like our chances. I also don't like our chances because, for some reason, I think this might be the year that Peyton plows ahead into the Super Bowl. I mean seriously, how many times can you have that offense in the playoffs and not get to the promised land? So that's definitely a scary thing to consider. However, here's how we pull this one out. Run, run, run. They're bad against the run, and tick-tick-tick goes the clock, keeping Peyton on the sidelines, where he can't beat you with that "rocket for an arm." Laurence has already made it known that he will be a force to be reckoned with in the future, and also, in the right now, which is something Joseph Addai, even though he had a big game last Sunday night, has not yet proven. Addai is a good little back, but he can be contained. I don't think you can possibly use his performance against a desolate Philly defense to say that he's a "premiere" back. Maroney had already shown "superstar" material with his bruising runs. With this two-headed monster in the backfield, and the emergence of Ben Watson (you know, when he catches the ball and doesn't tip it to Charles Tillman...twice!) and Reche Caldwell, Brady will have just enough offensively. On defense, it will all be about Asante Samuel. He will be most likely be matched up on Reggie Wayne. Manning has targeted Wayne even more than normal this year (fantasy points kid), and it seems as though Marvin has been almost estranged from the offense. The health of Dallas Clark will become a big-time issue for the Colts, as they lose their "under" man they go to in case their deep routes are covered. Asante will have to have a game of all games to try and stop Wayne from going off. Plus, the Pats cannot become complacent when they are trying to stop Manning. They need to apply pressure from all over the place constantly. Perhaps the toughest thing to do in the NFL is try and confuse Peyton. However, the Pats have been in his head before. However, in those situations, they had Ty Law making ungodly plays, so now, without his presence, the defensive backfield looks that much more pourous. Also, Rodney Harrison has not played in a real long time, and his return this season is questionable at best. Without Harrison, you can almost be assured the Pats will go down in this one. But for the sake of this column, he's there, and we win. Welcome to Miami.

Final: Pats 24, Colts 14

Now, onto the senior circuit. The NFC has been absolutely dreadful this year. The Bears, at one point, were being casted as the best team in the NFL and drew comparisons to the '85 Super Bowl team. Now, after two losses to two AFC East teams, a lot of people aren't too confident about them any more. The G-Men, the second favorite, have self-destructed and now are attempting to pick up the pieces and get enough momentum to make it into the playoffs. The hottest team out there right now is Dallas. The pre-season pick for the Super Bowl, Carolina, is trying to hang on to a wild card spot as the Saints, by far the biggest story of the year, have found a leader in Drew Brees and have made an improbable run to a 7-4 mark, tops in the NFC South. There is also a sleeping giant out west who just got their MVP back, and he ran for 200 his first game back. Alright, predicition time:

NFC East: Dallas. It was probably the best thing the Cowboys ever could have done. Instead of sitting Drew Bledsoe at the beginning of the year and starting Romo, they waited until half way through the year, when everyone had written them off for the season. Then, they caught fire and just exploded on everyone. Romo and the Cowboys are winning the same way Brady did when he took over for the Pats after the Mo Lewis incident (by the way, have you thanked Mo Lewis lately? have to make sure at least one time a year to sit down and say the words, "Thank you Mo Lewis for resurrecting our franchise."). Anyway, the key is that Bledsoe is always locking onto one receiver and not looking for the best option. This leads to the inevitable sack or turnover. It's almost like clockwork. You can tell when Drew's going to have a bad game right after his first series. If he tries forcing balls, it's all over. If he sits back and looks around for the little 5-yard dump passes, he's golden. Unfortunately, he's in the twilight of his career, and the rust is showing. Romo injected something into the offense much like what Tom did in '01. Dallas may lose this game coming up at the Meadowlands, but after that, they get New Orleans, Atlanta, Philly, and Detroit. I don't see them not coming away with at least a 2-1 mark, putting them at around 9-7 (loss against Giants), or 10-6 (beating the Giants in a vengeance game from their first encounter at Dallas, a very real possibility). Anyway, with the Giants having their problems, and their tough schedule, which includes the Saints, Panthers, and the upstart Redskins, I can't see them being able to make a run at the Cowboys. Furthermore, I don't even know if they can make the playoffs, but more on that later.

NFC North: Da Bears. No need to ramble. It's a done deal.

NFC South: You gotta love the Saints. I have absolutely no reason not to think they will not get at least one home game at the Superdome. The Panthers are up and down, and the Falcons lately have been, well, down.

NFC West: Think their reign as NFC Champs is going to end? You can't be too sure anymore after the return of both Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander to the lineup. The Rams will put up a good fight, but in the end, the Seahawks will be riding the momentum train right into another division title.

Wild Card #1: Here's where it's going to get interesting. So many teams can take these two spots. So many amazingly mediocre teams who actually have chances to ruin the home team's seasons. Here's the thing. Because all these teams are so closely bunched together, an upset in the playoffs, and a wild card making a deep run, is not completely out of the question. As of right now, there are seven teams all within a game of each other for the last two spots. So, without further ado, team #1 will be...Carolina. As much as I hate to say this, the Panthers definitely have a chance to play spoiler in the playoffs. This is a team that can go on a run from the wild card spot, as they have proven the past few years. Carolina has won the NFC Championship from the wild card back in 2003, and were one game away last year as they lost to Seattle at Qwest Field in the championship game. Two words. Steve Smith. That's it. This teakm literally falls apart if #89 doesn't have his game going, which is a rare thing. He gave the Bears headaches two years ago at Soldier Field, as the Panthers marched on into the Super Bowl. So, you know that they can get it done in crunch time on the road.

Wild Card #2: Could the Falcons possibly pull of this comeback? Answer...No. Here comes a shocker...G-MEN!. Even though I have previously written of the boys from the Meadowlands (by the way, somewhat surprised they lost the vengeance game last week...but they are the Giants, and I said they were finished, so you never know), the Giants will miraculously slip into the final wild card spot. And why? Because the NFC is that bad. They will be able to get a team who is on their last leg into the postseason. Can you say re-alignment? Yikes. Anyway, they still have a running game, and, they will be getting back Strahan in the next few weeks, and if you don't think that will make a difference, you're nuts.

Ok, here comes playoff game predictions, to determine who will lose to the Pats...

Wild Card Weekend:

G-Men vs. New Orleans: Way too much is clicking right now for the Saints. People are talking records concerning Drew Brees this year. Imagine if the Chargers kept him. Not saying Rivers won't be great some day, but you have to wonder about the present. Anyway, they are just good enough defensively to make this a laugher. Well, maybe not a laugher, but it remains to be seen how well Strahan will be when he comes back. As of right now, too much offense and just enought D for the Saints.

Saints 28, Giants 14
Carolina vs. Dallas: All aboard the momentum train, the 'Boys are back in town. Even though the Panthers have proven in the past that they can win virutally anywhere in a playoff game, they seemingly keep taking one step backwards this year. First it was the injury to DeShaun Foster, now it's the un-doing of Jake Delhomme. He as looked as shaky as ever, which is not a good sign considering how well Dallas has played at home (4-1) and their overall defensive rank (7th). One thing to note is how well the Dallas run game will perform against the front seven of Carolina. If they can run the ball, Romo will be able to take advantage of this, at times, overly-aggressive defense. And the Carolina elimination party commences.

Cowboys 21, Panthers 14

NFC Divisional Playoffs:
Dallas vs. Seattle: And now the trains will collide on the same track. Dallas has been red-hot since the emergence of Romo, and Seattle has looked unstoppable since the re-aquantince of Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander to the offense. With Seattle, you have to be aware of just how much an advantage it is for them to play at Qwest Field. It is going to be tough for Dallas to hang, in fact, way too tough. The bottom line is that Seattle has too much firepower for Dallas, and the Cowboys' hot streak will eventually cool off, and Seattle is the right team to end it...but it will be close.

Seahawks 17, Cowboys 14

New Orleans vs. Chicago: Now this will be interesting. You don't really know what you're gonna get in this one. Chicago has been struggling to get wins the last few weeks, basically depending on the defense and special teams, which is why they will win this game. Look, Reggie is a difference maker, an "X-factor," but the Saints have no way to match up against this front seven. Also, how effective will Marques Colston be when he returns to the lineup? The Saints will be looking to exploit the Bears' secondary, but they will have to survive the fact that their running game will be ineffective. Although Brees has had a tremendous year, he will be put into too many third-and-longs, which opens himself up to the blitz, leading to a high probability of poorly-thrown balls. Bears will have way too much of everything, and they will not be relying on Rex Grossman either. Grossman has been exposed as the same old Gator QB trash that has been coming out of the Swamp since Shane Matthews. Look for a heavy dosage of Thomas Jones, the reigning "most underrated player" in the league. Seriously, can you think of a more underappreciated player in the league? I got news for you, if TJ wasn't getting 1,000 a year, the Bears would be a 8-9 win team at best. Devin Hester has been a major impact player for them in his rookie year, already having 4 TDs. Look for him to shorten the field for the woeful offense, as they will actually appear to have an adequate passing game. A surprising stat is the Saints' pass defense. They rank 4th in the league, and this is totally coincidental to the fact they have Mike McKenzie. However, they will not have any impact on this game, as the Bears are finally realizing that Rex cannot carry the offense by himself. Bears in a runaway

Bears 35, Saints 7

NFC Championship...again, eventual Pats victims:
Seattle vs. Chicago: Can you say repeat?...Answer: Yup. Seattle will do the improbable, once again going to the Super Bowl after beating the Bears on their own turf. Here's the reason: the Bears lose big games at home. In what should be a top-5 home field advantage in the league, the Bears have shown over and over again that they are vulnerable at Soldier Field. Whether it's complaceny or something else is unknown. What is known is that the Bears haven't been to a Super Bowl in 20 years, and the trend will not end this year. Simply put, Rex Grossman will eventually kill this team. Even if he only throws the ball ten times, which could very well be a reality, he will find a way to deep-six this team. The "impregnable" (shout to Iron Mike) defense will not be able to keep the 'Hawks from scoring just enough. Believe me, no matter who plays in this game, points will be at a premium. GAMBLERS ALERT! GAMBLERS ALERT! Literally any combination of playoff teams in the NFC will score no more than 30 combined points. Anyone. Seattle will come out on fire in this game. Watch for the play action with Seattle. They have all the weapons Hasselbeck could possibly want. The best combination of receivers in the league (Jackson, Branch, Burleson, Engram, Hackett...yeah that's right, D.J. Hackett on the spot). They have a top-3, reigning MVP running back in Alexander, and the best fullback name in recent memory, Mack Strong. Awesome. Anyway, this team is peaking at the right moment, and is about to overshadow the Cowboys as the "it" team of the moment. Seahawks in an upset, and a surprisngly easy win.

Seahawks 17, Bears 7

Super Bowl, this is the part when we win again. You remember:

Seattle vs. New England: The Pats will be wearing blue in Miami, and in the end, will win their fourth title in six years. Here's how they're going to do it. Run, run, run, run, screen pass, run, run...ok maybe some play action. Anyway, time of possession people. That's what the league runs on...literally and figuratively. Once the Pats got a running game, they started winning. And the quarterback's pretty good too. Losing Junior hurt real bas, as the Pats were in need of someone to take over Big Willie's spot, and who better than a guy who went to USC and wore 55? Are you kidding me. But Junior's gone, and the Pats have been able to keep up their momentum despite both him and Rodney being out (by the way, this is a good "where did he go to school" question, and while you look that up, I'll continue). Also, Eugene Wilson was just placed on IR, so now we are down to reserve safeties for the moment...but it just doesn't matter. It's Bill! He'll figure something out right? Right. I mean Troy Brown is actually a pretty good slot corner, so Bill has me believing that anything is possible, even the potent combo of Artrell Hawkins and James Sanders (asking where they went to school, I would have to think, is some kind of cruel and unusual punishment...they have laws against that you know). Here's the big picture, the Pats can claim this as a "vengeance" game. How? Mike Holmgren, that's how. Watching that fat bastard get carried off at the Superdome in '97 would make anyone, at first, cringe, and then want to hit/throw something. Ok, so there are only two guys from that team left (Bruschi and Brown), but anything can be used as bulletin board material. By the way, if your team isn't the Pats, does your team have anyone from ten years ago? Joe Gibbs doesn't count. The Pats' experience in big games is a huge factor,. Not to say that Seattle could potentially have picked up a bit of poise from last year's big game, but the Pats have done it all. With Harrison coming back, they don't stand a chance. At least that's how the game plays in this brain. Pats by a field goal. Why stop the trend here?

Pats 27, Seahawks 24

That's all for now. Peace.


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