Monday, December 29, 2008

A Change Of Pace...Football Wild-Card Weekend

I figured it was time to introduce a new series called Change of Pace where I'll be writing on a few other topics in addition to Human Resources.  
The first is for me to put on my prediction cap and to break down the wild-card matchups for the National Football League playoffs:

Wild-card Weekend
Saturday, Jan. 3
5. Indianapolis Colts (12-4) at 4. San Diego Chargers (8-8)
Qualcomm Stadium, 8 p.m. (NBC)
Sunday, Jan. 4
6. Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at 3. Miami Dolphins (11-5)
Dolphin Stadium, 1 p.m. (CBS)
We'll start with the two AFC matchups. The Colts amazingly won 4 more games in the regular season, but are going to be on the road to start the playoffs. But if anyone knows the road to the playoffs can go through playing on the road, it's a Manning. Last year Eli Manning took a #5 seed through the playoffs and on to the Super Bowl and this year his older brother Peyton hopes to do the same. They have a pretty good chance to do so against a Chargers team that started the season 4-8. The only reason the Chargers are in the playoffs is because of the division they play in. Because of the flawed playoff system in place, the Chargers were able to win 4 straight games (the last being last night against the Broncos) and propel themselves into the playoffs. Picked as favorites for the AFC West before the season started, the Chargers have mostly disappointed due to a large amount of last-minute defeats and the loss of Shawne Merriman. The biggest concern for the Colts is that their run defense looked weak early in the season and now the Chargers running game with LDT is starting to gain a little bit of momentum. A lot of people are expecting a blowout by the Colts and although I think they will win, one has to remember this is an experienced Chargers team (they were in the AFC Championship game last year), and I think the score will be a lot closer to the 23-20 Colts win from Week 11. But I think that, in the end, the Bolts are no match for the Colts, winners of 9 straight. The Colts are battle-tested with wins over the Vikings (NFC North champs), Texans twice, Ravens (wild-card), Patriots (11-5), Steelers (AFC North Champs), Titans (AFC South Champs) as well as the Chargers. I think the key will be for the Colts to get some semblance of a running game going. Even the threat that they'll be able to run will buy time for Peyton Manning, the leading MVP candidate, to hit his receivers and propel Indy to the divisional round. Final score: Colts 25 - Chargers 20
The other game is a great matchup of 11-5 teams who play similar styles. QBs who aren't great but limit their mistakes. A power running game. Strong, athletic defenses that rank in the top 10 and rookie coaches who led teams with losing records last year back to the playoffs. The most amazing of these two has to come from the Miami side where they went 1-15 last season. Before the season, the Dolphins were the greatest Vegas long shot in football at 250-1 odds to win the Super Bowl (followed by Atlanta at 200-1 which also made the playoffs). Chad Pennington (who went from scrap heap to MVP candidate) and Anthony Fasano (who says football trades are dead?) have proved to be key players in the Miami offense which has brought back the Wildcat and used it to perfection. The key in today's NFL is to use two running backs effectively (one for power and one for speed) and both of these teams do it well. The Ravens may have been a botched touchdown call away from being NFC North Champs (and having a first-round bye) and took down Miami 27-13 in Week 7. But Miami got hot after that and has won 9 out of their last 10 including a current 5 game winning streak. The problem for Miami is that the Ravens game in Week 7 is the last game they played against a playoff team. In fact, out of the 3 playoff teams that they've played (Arizona, San Diego and Baltimore), their only win was a week 5 win against the Chargers team that couldn't buy a win in the first 13 weeks of their season. This game will be hard fought. The key for both teams is to limit mistakes on both offense and defense. Head Coach Tony Sparano will have his Fins give the Ravens a lot of different looks on offense, but I think that the Ravens defense may prove too much for this Dolphins team. I've gone back and forth on this game, but I think that in the end, Baltimore will find a way to plow ahead into the divisional round. Miami gives up about 20 points a game and the Ravens give up around 15. So... Final Score: Ravens 20 - Dolphins 16
This would mean Titans - Ravens and Steelers - Colts for the Divisional Round...but I'll wait until next week to give those previews...

Wild-card Weekend
Saturday, Jan. 3
5. Atlanta Falcons (11-5) at 4. Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
University of Phoenix Stadium, 4:30 p.m. (NBC)
Sunday, Jan. 4
6. Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1) at 3. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, 4:30 p.m. (Fox)
On to the NFC. The Atlanta Falcons were 200-1 odds coming into this season. It seemed no one wanted to coach them or be a part of the team (Bill Parcells turned them down for the Dolphins). Michael Vick was all people could talk about. And then Matt Ryan came along. The Boston College rookie Quarterback has led a very surprising Falcons team to the playoffs as the #5 seed against a deadly passing attack for the Arizona Cardinals. This is a tale of two teams on different roads since Week 12. Since Week 12, the Falcons have won 5 out of 6 including impressive wins over the Panthers (NFC South Champs) and Vikings (NFC North Champs). Since Week 12, the Cardinals are 2-6, with their only wins coming against the lowly Rams and Seahawks. In fact, the only playoff-bound team that the Cardinals beat were the Dolphins all the way back in Week 2. Since then, they've lost 4 straight against playoff-bound teams. The only saving grace for Arizona is that this game is being played in doors at University of Phoenix Stadium where the team was 4-2 this year. The Cardinals clinched the division quite a while ago and have been coasting since. Their biggest "coast" came in a snow-filled game in New England two weekends ago where they didn't even show up to play and got demolished 47-7 in an important game for the AFC. The Football Gods don't always look so highly on teams that coast through "meaningless" games. The Cardinals are also yet to develop a running game having only one rusher go for more than 100 yards in a game this season...and that as 109 yards against the Rams (in contrast to the Falcons who topped 100 yards rushing in 8 different games). Arizona is dead last in the NFL with 71.1 yards per game on the ground. Kurt Warner had a phenomenal first half but seemed to show his age in the second half of the season, while Matt Ryan seemed to get better as the year progressed. The key will be Ryan in this matchup. Most people like to bet on veteran QBs in the playoffs, but I'll bet on a rookie here. Final Score: Falcons 31 - Cardinals 21
The last matchup of the wild card weekend is an extremely interesting one. The Eagles had a tie against the Cincinnati Bengals on Week 16 and many experts said that tie would keep them from the playoffs. They then got destroyed the next game and both the Eagles and their Quarterback, Donovan McNabb were declared done for by the media. Both proved to be wrong. The tie is what got the Eagles into the playoffs over the Bucs and the Cowboys and the Baltimore loss and the benching of McNabb, seemed to light a spark in the Eagles and turn around their season. They've won 3-4 in decisive fashion including big wins over the Cardinals, Giants and Cowboys to close out the season. McNabb and Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid kept their jobs for at least a little while longer and are going to Minnesota for at first round matchup. Although none of the first round games are in cold weather places, the Vikings home being in a dome, may prove to be the biggest home-field advantage. Minnesota has put the season back in the hands of Tarvaris Jackson...and that may not be such a good thing. The third year pro has looked lost out there. He was very lucky to escape the game against the Giants, even though the Giants were playing backups. The biggest X factors in this game have to be the running games. Adrian Peterson is another MVP candidate and has been a beast for the Vikings this year (when he's held on to the ball). Brian Westbrook is still the best player on the Eagles, but at times, Andy Reid's questionable play calling has led to him all but vanishing. Correll Buckhalter and Chester Taylor will also play big roles for their teams if they expect to win. This all means the run defenses will be extremely important. And here's where the Vikings are in trouble. Without big Pat Williams up the middle, they have a huge hole which won't easily be filled. If this was the matchup a few weeks ago, I would have easily bet against the Eagles. Now I'm not so sure anymore. This one comes down to a last second field goal. Final Score: Eagles 20 - Vikings 19
This would mean Giants - Eagles and Panthers - Falcons, two great divisional matchups for the divisional round...but we'll get to those next week...

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