This weekend should answer some questions, like: were the Patriots shit, or did the Ravens just make them look that way? Were the Bengals shit, or did the Jets just make them look that way? Were the Eagles shit, or did the Cowboys just make them look that way? And, will the Saints-Cardinals point total crack 100?
Arizona Cardinals (+7) at New Orleans Saints. My playoff criteria are 1) strong defense, 2) elite QB, 3) playoff experience, 4) coaching acumen, and 5) momentum. Neither of these offenses is as dominant as the Steelers D was last year, but early this season the Saints looked to have an opportunistic and overall solid D. Injuries to the DL (Ellis, Grant) have hurt. The Cards' D has shown ability to apply the pass rush, and although they showed last week that they can give up a lot of points, remember that they have been able to turn it on in playoffs, as shown last year. Both QBs are capable of having a monstrous game, which explains the line of 57, but I don't think this will be a pinball match like last week. The Saints struggled down the stretch, and if Dockett and the Cards pass rush can get to Brees, this game will go under.
The 2010 playoff teams are not deep with experience, so the Cards' 2009 Super Bowl run is one of the better NFC resumes. Sean Payton has done a nice job with these Saints, but Coach Whisenhunt has really shown he knows how to get his teams up for the postseason, and I'm not convinced Payton has that same ability. The Saints once looked invincible, but now look like one of those perfectly nice regular season teams that can't get anything going against a superior playoff force. The losses down the stretch (especially to Tampa Bay) combined with a bye week spell trouble for Big Easy's black and gold, IMO, whereas the Cards took on a likewise hot Packer team and kept the pressure on right into overtime.
Take the Cards for the win outright and the under.
Cardinals 31, Saints 14.
Baltimore Ravens (+6) at Indianapolis Colts. Everyone thinks that a Ravens D that put away the Patriots in one quarter of play has all the steam, and that a Colts team that is coming off a bye and rested its starters down the stretch is doomed to replay recent history (think 2005's Steelers run). I don't see it.
The Ravens, like the Steelers, saw the play of their defense fall off from the 2008 season. And that was without losing their two best players on that side of the ball for most of the year. In short, the pass defense was suspect from day one, and losses to Samari Rolle, Fabian Washington, and Laradarius Webb have thinned the Ravens DBs drastically. If the Patriots couldn't take advantage of that it was because they were without their most consistent playmaker (Welker), their franchise QB was playing badly off various injuries (rib, finger), and their big playmaker has been dogging it like he had a diaper full of meat loaf (Moss). Manning is healthy, and has Clark, Wayne, Garcon, Collie, Addai, and Brown to spread the ball around to.
True, Manning doesn't fare well off the bye and typically is befuddled by the 3-4, but let's roll the criteria. Defense may be less a Ravens advantage than it seems. Flacco is this week's version of Brady and Palmer, hobbling around practice in pain. Mathis and Freeney will be smelling blood, and did I mention that LT Jared Gaither is also gimpy? If the Ravens can't jump out to a huge lead like they did with the Patriots, or get some early turnovers as they did in the 15-17 loss to the Colts earlier this year, the Colts will methodically push them down the field again and again until the score. I suspect the Ravens D begins to come unglued after some premature celebration.
As mentioned, Flacco is hurt, and in no way yet elite, whereas Manning is the definition of. He may not put up 40 points or anything, but if he starts finding the weak spots in the secondary he could take over the game in the second half. Both teams have playoff experience aplenty, so that's a virtual draw, but Harbaugh has less than Caldwell. True, Caldwell's experience is more as co-pilot, but the Colts seem to be more a continuation of the Colts of 06 than the Ravens do of earlier teams, even with stalwarts like Ray Lewis aboard. I'll say coaching is too close to call, since the book on Caldwell is incomplete.
Momentum seems to favor the Ravens, but momentum is a funny thing. They may get some early stops and even a turnover, but HFA and noise, and a swing in momentum, can be a dangerous thing to a team with a gimpy QB and a thin secondary. This one is ugly and close early.
Take the Colts and give the six, and bet the under (44).
Colts 24, Ravens 14.
Dallas Cowboys (+3) at Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings and Saints seemed destined to meet in the NFC championship, or at least until both teams stumbled down the stretch. The Cowboys were poised for their usual December fall, Wade Phillips would be fired, Romo was a pretender, Jerry Jones would scowl, and all would be well in the world. Not so fast, shitheads!
The Cowboys and Steelers had parallel seasons in many ways. Some early stumbles, a correction, then more stumbles... but the Cowboys pulled out of the nose dive and now have as much momentum as any team in the postseason. They're not the fragile collection of egos of years past, and they seem to be playing with real purpose. Their defense has been coming on down the stretch, pitching the Saints their first loss and making McNabb and the Eagles look plain silly. It starts up front with Ware and Spencer, but the secondary has improved some, too. Meanwhile, the Vikings' vaunted defense lost LB EJ Henderson, and Pat Williams, who looks like he could beat Casey Hampton in a wings eating contest, has been hurting. I suspect the Cowboys will continue to have success running the ball, and against a Vikings secondary that had some questions all year, Romo should be able to keep the chains moving. Unfortunately, Adrian Peterson hasn't been cranking out any 100-yard games for the past 7 games, and this puts the burden on Favre to be the hero. That's a familiar and ominous tale.
Favre is an elite QB, but he can go all biz-nutty if he tries to do too much, and as much as coach Chilly tries to bring a balanced attack, I have the feeling that the Vikings offense will, to paraphrase the Voidoids, come in spurts. Romo is an improving QB but nowhere near elite, but he has proven to have an even hand this year and I think it comes down to surrounding casts.
Both teams are have fizzled recently in the playoffs, and the coaching battle is a draw. So you have a hot Dallas team without any serious injuries meeting a Vikings team that went a little cold down the stretch. I see Dallas being the consistent team offensively, but they won't put it away early. If Peterson can't carry the offense and the Vikings are playing down late, I can see Favre trying to channel that old magic... and throwing another killer pick, maybe with the Vikes trailing 21-17 or something. Romo pushes it down the field to salt the win.
Take another road dog and the under once more.
Cowboys 28, Vikings 17.
New York Jets (+7) at San Diego Chargers. Rex Ryan is playing with house money. After being gifted week 16 and 17 wins, the Jets teed off on a Patriots team that bore little resemblance to Pats teams past. The Jets' luck continues as they face off against a team that has struggled to stop the run. You'll be seeing Shonn Green's number called a lot; expect him to wind up over 150 yards, maybe 175. More bad news for the Chargers: Darelle Revis. Revis actually had some missed assignments last week, but Carson Palmer's arm had been eaten off by rats sometime in the weeks before, meaning the Bengals could not take advantage. Revis will have a height mismatch against Vince Jackson, but I am already writing off Jackson as a non-factor.
Here again, though, I see a team that had a heady opener and will run out of steam. Rivers, unlike Palmer, is not hurt, and has more than just an inconsistent Ocho and a vastly reduced bunch of scrub receivers left. For one thing, Antonio Gates will be a tough draw, and Sproles out of the backfield can break some runs. The Jets defense is getting way too much love in the press, so I see their advantage over the Chargers as slight.
Rivers, douche lord though he may be, is one of the best QBs going, and he will find a way to put up points late in this game. Ryan will try to protect Sanchez, but I think Dirty will make some rookie gaffe that results in turnover points. The Chargers have some recent playoff experience, and Norv may get to the AFCC, whereas Rex was a co-pilot on those Ravens teams and now has a group without much playoff experience.
The Jets will try to take the air out of the tires on this one, and they will largely succeed, but it won't matter because Rivers will just keep scoring against them. Eventually, the Jets will fail. It's just that simple. And Rex Ryan looks like he just ate Pat Williams.
Bet the home fave and the over (42), as this one should be close at the half, say 17-13, but it gets silly late.
Chargers 34, Jets 19.