The NFL playoffs truly lived up to its moniker in the opening, Wild Card round, with some wild endings and historic upsets being staged. The results also defied logic. The defending Super Bowl-champion Saints entered Seattle as double-digit favorites against a team with the lowest win total for any playoff team in NFL history. The Seahawks shocked the world, rendering their 7-9 record with an undefeated, 1-0 mark in the playoffs. After the game, Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck coolly remarked, “What do you call the person that graduated medical school with the lowest GPA? A doctor.” I wouldn’t want the Seahawks performing surgery on me with their ugly credentials heading into their game, but, to the surprise of many, they outgunned the defending champs by picking on defenseless DB Roman Harper over and over again. RB Marshawn Lynch provided one of the most memorable runs in playoff history by shedding multiple would-be tacklers and stiff-arming his way through the porous secondary to put the nail in the coffin of a wild game.
Rex Ryan avoided putting his foot in his mouth after making things personal, through the media, with Peyton Manning prior to the game. The Jets survived a Manning drive that ended with a 50-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal to give the Colts a 16-14 lead with less than a minute to go. Antonio Cromartie’s 47-yard kickoff return enabled the Jets offense to move the ball into field-goal range after Mark Sanchez was a perfect 3-for-3 on the final drive with a huge 18-yard completion to Braylon Edwards. Nick Folk then kicked the Colts out of the playoff after drilling a 32-yard field goal as time expired.
Wild Card weekend sets up a truly interesting divisional round, with the two AFC tilts featuring bitter rivals. The Steelers and Ravens face off as AFC North foes in a game that Baltimore LB Terrell Suggs is calling “Armageddon”. The Jets and Patriots, after splitting the regular-season series at one a piece, once again meet, as Rex Ryan again stirs the pot by making it “personal” with Bill Belichick. In what should be a memorable weekend of football, here are my picks for the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs. (To play and win great prizes, visit LIPressPicks.com for details on how to enter and win for free)
Percentages taken from fan voting on LI Press Picks Football Pool. Picks indicated in bold.
Baltimore (13-4) 35% picked @ Pittsburgh (12-4) 65% picked
In what should be the most violent, hard-hitting, nastiest old-school game of the weekend, the Ravens and Steelers face off in a rubber-match after the teams split three-point wins over each other this season. In fact, in the past eight meetings dating back to 2007, all but one game was decided by nine points or more. Five of the contests were decided by only a field goal. You can expect a low-scoring, defense-dominated clash between two of the leagues more physical teams. The Ravens lack a good deal of speed at wide receiver but play against a Steelers defense that likes to sit in zone from its 3-4 package. Look for Ravens TE Todd Heap to slide under the zone coverage and be featured in the offense prominently again this weekend. QB Joe Flacco hooked up with Heap ten times for 108 yards against the Chiefs. The Ravens squeak out a close one, 20-17, earning back-to-back road playoff wins and advancing to the AFC Championship Game.
Green Bay (11-6) 46% picked @ Atlanta (13-3) 54% picked
Consider in the last four games, Atlanta has won two games against Carolina (2-14), once against Seattle (7-9), and lost to the now-defunct defending Super Bowl-champion Saints. Green Bay has defeated the Eagles on the road in the playoffs, two wins at home against Chicago and the NY Giants, and a 31-27 loss in Gillette Stadium despite not having the services of QB Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay is an incredibly talented football team and has been playing playoff football for more than a month now. The Packers found a legitimate running attack in the fresh legs of rookie James Starks after the back ripped off 123 yards rushing on 23 touches. Rodgers set the record for most pass TDs in his first two playoff starts in NFL history with seven touchdowns. Rodgers is creating his own legend — post-Favre. And where better to expand on his legacy by defeating the team that drafted Favre?
Seattle (8-9) 17% picked @ Chicago (11-5) 83% picked
Seattle’s logic-defying upset of the Saints left me sleepless after losing out on a perfect 4-0 Wild Card weekend by staring at the one loss. This week, they lose their 12th-man advantage when they travel to the Windy City to take on the NFC North-champion Bears. The Seahawks were 2-6 on the road this season, with one of the wins coming at Soldier Field. The game was held in October, in warmer conditions, whereas this game is expected to be played somewhere in the teens. The Bears are a physical defense and will pose much more of a challenge than the flimsy Saints did last week against the Seahawks. Bears take this one, 30-13.
NY Jets (12-5) 14% picked @ New England (14-2) 86% picked
I’m avoiding the strong temptation to pick with my heart and ride the hometown Jets, but the evidence supporting the Patriots case here gives New England the edge. Rex Ryan is 2-2 against Tom Brady with both losses coming on the road at Gillette. The Patriots blew the Jets out, 45-3, on Monday Night Football and thrashed them at home last season, 31-14. One of the Jets’ biggest defensive advantages, Darrelle Revis — he of Revis Island — is minimized due in large part to the Patriots’ ability to spread the ball around. Remember how Pierre Garcon kept burning Antonio Cromartie on inside routes last week in Indy? Expect the Patriots’ small receivers and backs (Welker, Branch, and Woodhead) to take advantage of Cromartie and an oft-injured secondary. The Patriots advance to the AFC Championship Game with a 24-18 win at home.