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Cheat sheet: Wild-card round
After a regular season that was loaded with weekly upsets, saw two teams — the Bucs and Chiefs — go from Top 5 picks in April to 10-win seasons by December, and the blessed union of a somehow merry marriage between Mike Martz and Jay Cutler in Chiacgo, the playoffs begin without too many surprises in the field of 12. In fact, the top six teams with the most playoff berths since 2000 all happen to be in this year’s playoffs — Indianapolis (10), Philadelphia (nine), New England (eight), Baltimore (seven), Green Bay (seven) and Pittsburgh (seven).
But just because we have a conventional playoff field, does not mean we'll have conventional playoff results.
New Orleans at Seattle (4:30 p.m. ET, NBC): To what might be your great surprise, the 7-9 Seahawks actually have a few things going for them. Qwest Field is still one of the hardest places for visitors to win in, and traveling 2,100 miles from New Orleans to Seattle on just six days’ rest is no easy task. The Saints also have won just one postseason game away from home in their 44-year history: last year’s Super Bowl in Miami.
Finally, New Orleans is all sorts of banged up. Both Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas are ailing, Marques Colston’s status is unknown, and safety/corner Malcolm Jenkins was injured in Sunday’s loss to the Buccaneers. If the Saints entered last year’s playoff run fully loaded, they’re a car working on just three wheels for this one.
But even with all those elements working in the Seahawks’ favor, I don’t think they stand a chance. Whether it’s Charlie Whitehurst or Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback for Seattle, Drew Brees is about to go into the same “Black Swan” mode he was in for last year’s Super Bowl run and start tearing defenses apart. Consider yourselves warned, Seahawks defensive backs.
The Vegas sports books list the Seahawks as 10.5-point underdogs. I would like the Saints to bury them early and win by an even greater margin. Which will lead to an interesting thought to ponder: Had the Seahawks lost Week 17 vs. the Rams, they would have had the eighth overall pick in the draft and been in prime position to pick one of the top three quarterback prospects. With the win, they moved down to the 21st spot and likely won’t have a shot at Jake Locker, Cam Newton or Ryan Mallett. If they lose by 20 on Saturday, was that Week 17 win really worth it?
Any football fan worth his or her salt would slap me in the face and say “Yes, yes, yes, you idiot.” But ... it’s at least worth debating during the second half of this blowout.
The Pick: Saints 36, Seahawks 17
New York Jets at Indianapolis (8 p.m. ET, NBC): Rex Ryan — he of the supposed Oscar-worthy homemade video cinematography and camera work — just can’t seem to beat Peyton Manning. Minus last year’s Week 16 giveaway game at Lucas Oil, Ryan was 0-4 as a defensive coordinator vs. Manning in Baltimore and is 0-1 as a head coach. The losses have been both dramatic and cumbersome.
Last year’s playoff game featured Manning going on an absolute second-half tear and throwing for 377 yards and three touchdowns in a come-from-behind victory in the AFC Championship Game. In a September ’05 win over the Ravens, Manning threw for 254 yards and two touchdowns. In a 2006 playoff win over a 13-3 Ravens team in Baltimore, Manning didn’t toss any touchdown passes, but led his team to five field goals in an ugly 15-6 win. And in 2007 and 2008 regular-season wins over Ryan defenses, Manning combined for a stat line of 32 of 54 for seven TDs, no interceptions for a combined score of 75-23.
Ryan had a great line (that’s a shocker) on Manning, telling reporters, "I love the guy as a quarterback. But I hate him."
The Jets had a nice season. They lost Kris Jenkins in the first quarter of the first game and still finished with one of the league’s top defenses. They dominated the headlines from start to finish, too, giving us some funny moments in “Hard Knocks,” and made terms like “foot fetish,” “Sal Alosi” and “Wall-Gate” part of our Monday morning water cooler conversations. But the Rex Ryan/Mark Sanchez sophomore season ends just where it did in Year One: under the roof in Indy.
If there’s any unresolved question from a season-ending Jets playoff loss, it’s this one: Which late-night TV talk show host would have had the cojones to send a guy dressed as a human-sized foot to Super Bowl media day?
Oh well, there’s always next year.
The Pick: Colts 34, Jets 23
Baltimore at Kansas City (1 p.m. ET, CBS): Aside from being my preseason Super Bowl pick out of the AFC, I’m finding it awfully hard to pick against the Ravens. Though they went 10-6 overall and 7-1 at home, the Chiefs beat only one team with a record of .500 or better: the 9-7 San Diego Chargers in Week 1.
They also were absolutely trounced by the Raiders and Broncos, and needed a few last-second miracles to get by a winless Bills team in Week 8. Their offensive coordinator already has one foot out the door, their quarterback never has started a playoff game, and they haven’t won a postseason game since 1994. Their quarterback in that one? Joe Montana.
As for the Ravens, they’re winners of six of their past seven games, they’ve won road playoff games in consecutive years, and nobody seems to be talking about them as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Ray Rice is starting to rev up, the defense has put the clamps on the Browns’ and Bengals’ running games the past two weeks, and they got a little good fortune on Sunday. They hadn’t beaten the Colts since 2001, and when the Raiders beat Kansas City, the AFC seedings changed, giving the Ravens a trip to Kansas City instead of Indy. Baltimore is 1-0 all-time at Arrowhead.
Chiefs fans have been on me all year for doubting their squad. With the top-ranked rushing offense, the NFL’s leader in touchdown catches (Dwayne Bowe) and the AFC’s sack leader (Tamba Hali), there’s certainly a lot to like.
I just don’t see them getting the best of what’s now a very seasoned, very road-tested Ravens squad on Sunday. No quarterback in NFL history has won road playoff games in his first three seasons as a starter. Joe Flacco will become the first on Sunday.
The Pick: Ravens 23, Chiefs 16
Green Bay at Philadelphia (4:30 p.m. ET, FOX): Any time the Packers play in Philly, I think of fourth-and-26 and “Fast” Freddie Mitchell. I know a lot of Packers fans gag at the mere mention of that, but Sunday night should have the same energy and media buildup as that 2005 classic.
Aaron Rodgers vs. Michael Vick is the premier quarterback matchup of the opening weekend. Though the Packers have a league-high 15 players on injured reserve (including six starters), they won their final two games to qualify as the second wild-card team out of the NFC. The Eagles, meanwhile, have lost two straight — one in which they gave it their best effort and looked bad, another in which they didn’t give their best effort and looked bad.
Vick terrorized the Packers off the bench in a Week 1 loss in Philly, passing for 175 yards, running for 103 and nearly willing the Eagles to a comeback victory in the second half. But I like the Packers on Sunday, and not because of their all-world quarterback (who actually didn’t even make the NFC Pro Bowl roster).
The Green Bay defense is sizzling, forcing the Giants into six turnovers in a Week 16 must-win and holding the Bears’ starting unit to three points Sunday. The Packers held teams to the second-fewest points this year and were second in sacks (47) and interceptions (24). The Eagles’ offensive line has been porous all season, and Vick, who gets out of a ton of trouble with his legs, was sacked 20 times out of the shotgun. Look for Clay Matthews Jr. to be in his face all evening.
After the Eagles’ dramatic 21-point fourth-quarter comeback against the Giants, I said they’d miss rookie safety Nate Allen the rest of the way out. I think Rodgers takes advantage of what might be the worst of the defensive backfields in the playoff field.
Give me the Packers in a classic shootout.
The Pick: Packers 34, Eagles 30
Cheat Sheet Trivia Question of the Week
Schrager 5th Annual All-Rookie Team
The Bucs and Giants were the seventh and eighth teams since 1990 to win 10-plus games and miss the playoffs. Can you name the team and the starting quarterback for the only one of those eight teams to finish a season 11-5?
Reader Email of the Week
Just wanted to provide a proper heads-up that I saw a guy — late 20s, early 30s — on a date with what appeared to be his girlfriend (no ring) at a popular Chicago steakhouse in an oversized Bears No. 6 Cutler jersey, a pair of khaki shorts, and open-toed sandals on Saturday evening. I spent the whole meal — one in which I dropped a bit of money — distracted by his toe hair.
Major violation of man code, right? No sports jerseys in the steakhouse. What are your thoughts on sandals, though? I know it’s our job as readers to alert you to such atrocities.
Fitch, Chicago, Ill.
Thank you for your always-alert antennae and this important note. You’re absolutely right. Gentlemen, you’re giving the rest of us sports fans a bad name when you opt to wear sports jerseys out to nice restaurants. You’re giving the rest of us a HORRIBLE name when you opt to wear open-toed sandals ... ever.
There’s really no circumstance, outside of hotel poolside restaurants or your own backyard, where you should be dining in sandals. If you’re a crunchy hippy from Vermont (or Portland, Ore.) or a fan of the band Widespread Panic, well, then maybe these rules don’t apply to you. But as far as fine restaurants go, please leave the sports jerseys and the sandals at home. I know, I know — we’re in a new age and most fine restaurants don’t require sport coats anymore. That’s fine. But a football jersey and sandals? C’mon. You might as well spit in the maître d’s face. As for the shorts, it’s the middle of winter in Chicago. I don’t even know how to respond to that.
The one positive? He could have been wearing a Grossman jersey.
Cheat Sheet Trivia Answer of the Week: The 2008 Patriots went 11-5 and missed the playoffs. Matt Cassel was the starting quarterback.
And finally ...
It would only be fitting to put a nice bow on the 2010 regular season before the playoffs begin. My 15 "Go ahead and share with Bob from accounting at the water cooler"-worthy factoids, stats and highlights from the 2010 regular season? In no particular order:
- The Raiders became the first team since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger to sweep its division and not qualify for the playoffs.
- The Seahawks became the first team to win its division with a sub-.500 record.
- Arian Foster led the NFL in rushing. LeGarrette Blount and Chris Ivory were ranked first and second in rookie rushing yards. None of the three was drafted.
- Chris Johnson led the league in 100-yard rushing games with eight and did not make the Pro Bowl.
- Peyton Hillis and Darren McFadden — college teammates and two-thirds of the Arkansas Razorbacks backfield from 2006 to 2008 — combined for 2,334 rushing yards and 18 touchdown runs.
- Matt Ryan’s 13 wins pushed him to 33 for his career, tying Dan Marino for the most by a quarterback in his first three years.
- The Chiefs played three games against teams with winning records all season: The 9-7 Chargers twice (split ‘em) and the 10-6 Colts (lost).
- Rex Ryan might have filmed videos of his wife removing her socks and playing with her feet and they were posted online. (No real stat, I just love reminding people of this.)
- The Buccaneers, the youngest team in the league after Week 8, were the first team in NFL history to start 10 rookies in a season and finish with a winning record.
- JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn, the first two quarterbacks selected in the 2007 draft, combined for zero starts and zero passing yards.
- The Chargers finished with the top-ranked defense and the NFL’s leading passer and did not make the playoffs.
- The Eagles became the first team to win a game in regulation in which they were down by 21 points with less than eight minutes remaining.
- Albert Haynesworth received a $21 million bonus check in April, sat out the bulk of training camp, failed a bunch of physical fitness tests and finished the year with stat line of: 8 games, 16 tackles, 0 sacks. By the way, the Redskins’ 2011 wall calendar came out this week. Guess who's featured as the poster boy for the month of January? You guessed it! Big Al!
- John Skelton, Derek Anderson and Max Hall all won their first starts for the Cardinals. The team went 2-11 in all other games. Matt Leinart, meanwhile, didn’t throw a single pass.
- The Dolphins became the first team to win four more games on the road than they did at home.
Everyone applauds, we wipe our eyes and we compose ourselves for the playoffs.