|It's that time of year again.|
Wildcard Weekend: Rookie Stars, Ginger Kids, and Medical Miracles
New Years is over, and the NFL playoffs are here just in time for the nation to continue its ongoing attempt at realizing the new-age American Dream: a collective, simultaneous hangover. It might just happen: there are reasons galore to stay planted on the couch for the entire weekend, sloppily day-drinking and fattening yourself on bean dip. The NFL’s opening playoff weekend is often the most exciting three days of football all year. The league’s playoff formula almost ensures intriguing matchups, and this year is no different. ESPN won’t have to add any contrived drama to make the weekend’s slate of games appeal to more than just the entrenched NFL fans and degenerate gamblers across the country.
Cincinnati Bengals (#6 Seed, 10-6) vs. Houston Texans (#3 Seed, 12-4)
- 1:30 PT Saturday on NBC
Andy Dalton, who is easily the NFL’s most talented daywalker and his Cincinnati Bengals are matched up against the Houston Texans in the opening round of the playoffs for the second time in as many years. Dalton will try to make Bengals fans forget his three-turnover gamefrom last year’s 31-10 playoff loss as Cincinnati hopes to earn its first playoff victory since beating Houston’s previous NFL franchise, the Oilers, on wildcard weekend in 1990. Ickey Woods scored that game’s first touchdown, and Boomer Esiason scored 3 TDs. It’s been that long. Twenty-two years between playoff wins is a lot to ask of any fan base outside of Cleveland city limits, so the Bengals are undoubtedly hungry and ready to go.
The Texans finished the season with a whimper, losing their last two games to slide out of a bye and into wildcard weekend. The loss to Minnesota in week sixteen wasn’t as troubling as this week’s loss to the Colts. At least against Minnesota, Matt Schaub and company ran into a red-hot team that was fighting for its playoff life. The Vikings beat Green Bay this week in a must win game for both teams (the Packers needed to win to secure a bye) behind another monster performance (199 yds, 2 TDs) by their future hall of fame running back, Adrian Peterson. Indianapolis, however, had nothing to gain or lose in week seventeen. They were locked into the fifth seed in the AFC, and still handily beat the Texans and denied them a bye. Some might say that the Colts were motivated by the return of their head coach Chuck Pagano (more on this later), the loss should still provide ample reason for concern in the Houston camp leading up to this Saturday’s matchup.
The difference maker for the Texans this season is the NFL’s only openly-vegan running back, Arian Foster. If Foster and the Houston offensive line can control the game on the ground, the Texan defense and their star QB killer J.J. Watt should be able to get plenty of rest and keep the pressure on the Andy Dalton.
If that happens, and the Texans can execute their game-plan of running the ball and controlling time of possession and field position, Houston should easily win this game. The Bengals have some nice pieces (A.J. Green would be the top receiver on every team in the league except Detroit), but they are a few years away from threatening to win the AFC. The formula for a Cincinnati victory has to be to pounce on Houston early and force them to throw from behind. While Texan wideout Andre Johnson had his best season since 2009 and is capable of stretching the field, the Texans play much better with a lead.
The Texans boast a much more complete team with a markedly better defense than Cincinnati and should win despite their late-season hiccups. It should be close though. Houston is favored by 4.5 points and I see this game as a toss-up on a neutral field. Giving the Texans 3 for home field seems pretty reasonable, but 4.5 seems high. Bengals seem like the play against the spread.
Minnesota Vikings (#6 Seed, 10-6) vs. Green Bay Packers (#3 Seed, 11-5)
- 5pm Saturday on NBC
You don’t have to delve to deeply into your foggy memories to recall the Vikings and Packers’ most recent matchup. The two teams played a hard-fought game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis this past Sunday. It was a huge game for both teams. For the Vikings, a playoff berth hung in the balance, while Green Bay stood to lose its #2 seed and accompanying bye if they dropped the game. Minnesota did what it has all year – hand the ball off to the inhuman Adrian “All Day” Peterson. Peterson led the Vikings to a narrow victory and continued to bewilder the medical community and NFL fans alike by running for huge yards and threatening to break Eric Dickerson’s all time rushing record set in 1984, all less than a year removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL. The second half of that sentence is as impressive as any stat Peterson can claim when he enters the Hall of Fame.
Athletes recovering from ACL surgery often never regain the lateral quickness and strength they had before surgery, and if they recover some of that burst, it usually takes years to happen. Nobody expected Adrian Peterson to play at all in the early half of the season except Adrian himself, and you would have had to have been a fool to expect anything other than a pedestrian year when he did eventually return from someone who had surgery after Christmas last year and spent New Years Eve 2012 in a hospital bed.
In his ongoing campaign to prove that he is not a creature native to the Earth, Peterson, after not playing a down in the preseason, put on his pads for week one and began what would become the greatest season an NFL running back has ever had. While AD ended up nine yards short of Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 rushing yards when the season concluded in Minnesota last week, Peterson has the honor of being not only a freak athlete, but a medical marvel as well.
It’s hard to imagine either coach wasn’t going all out last week when so much was resting on the game, so it will be interesting to see if either kept some tricks up their sleeve for the rematch. If not, both defenses should have an advantage, though both face difficult tasks. Minnesota has AD, and Green Bay has arguably the best quarterback in the league, Super Bowl XLV MVP Aaron Rodgers. By default, I’m leaning towards the Packers to win because of their home field advantage, but the Vikings are not to be trifled with. In addition to the Pack, Minnesota already beat San Francisco, Chicago and Houston this year and is going into the playoffs on a four game winning streak. The frozen tundra of Lambeau Field has been the site of some of the most exciting playoff games in my lifetime, and this may be yet another. While the Packers are favored more heavily (8 points) than their AFC third-seed counterpart Houston Texans are against the Bengals, I think Green Bay is more vulnerable to be upset, although I don’t know you can call it an upset with the Vikings winning last week – Vegas is funny like that sometimes. Picking the game straight, I’ll take The Pack, but I’ll take the Vikings to cover the 8, even if Christian Ponder is throwing passes outdoors in Lambeau Field in January. I think I just talked myself out of that. On second thought why would I ever bet on Christian Ponder. Final verdict: PACK PACK PACK PACK.
Indianapolis Colts (#5 Seed, 11-5) vs. Baltimore Ravens (#4 Seed, 10-6)
-1pm Sunday on CBS
Despite their fearsome reputation, the Ravens’ defense has been truly mediocre this year. How else would one describe a unit that ranked 17th in yards allowed per game, 12th in scoring defense, and 28th in plays from scrimmage? The last stat is the most concerning for the Harbaughlers. If you can’t get off the field, it’s hard to control a game and maintain your energy when it matters most at the end of games, and the Ravens offense hasn’t been explosive enough to make up for that. Ray Rice is an all pro, but his lack of usage in the offensive scheme led to a late season Offensive Coordinator change. Quarterback Joe Flacco has spent his career thus far playing for a team with a dominating defense led by the soon-to-retire Ray Lewis. Now that the veil has been pulled back a bit and Baltimore’s defense looks a bit exposed, the question of whether or not Flacco can lead the offense effectively and score enough to counteract the defense’s steady deterioration remains unanswered.
Fortunately for Flacco and the Ravens’, the Colts defense isn’t mediocre, it’s just awful. The Colts cannot stop the run, allowing more yards on the ground this season (2200!) than every team save the Jags, Bills and Saints. The Colts could be the worst 11-5 team I’ve ever seen. They’ve ridden a wave of good will known as “Chuck Strong,” as head coach Chuck Pagano battled leukemia this year, returning to the team for Colts’ game last week again the Texans. Inspirational stories are not to be discounted when it comes to motivating young players, and intangible forces have propelled squads to Super Bowl runs. That said, the Colts played in an abysmal division this season and had a soft schedule. This game doesn’t really interest me enough to write much more about it, so I’ll just stop. Colts are seven point dogs, and I think that sounds about right. I wouldn’t bet this game at all, but if you felt the need I suppose I’d go with Baltimore.
Seattle Seahawks (#5 Seed, 11-5) vs. Washington Redskins
This game is undisputedly the glamour matchup of the weekend. The Seahawks have been nothing short of a revalation this year. Before the season, the Seahawks and their free-agent acquisition, QB Matt Flynn, were not expected to make much of an impact on the league. Instead, rookie QB Russell Wilson ended the Matt Flynn era before it began and won the starting job in training camp, then proceeded to astound the league by leading the ‘hawks to an 11-5 record (10-6 to those living in Green Bay) and a wildcard berth. The Seahawks have won on the strength of a balanced offensive attack and a frighteningly efficient defense. Wilson and receivers Sidney Rice and Golden Tate meshed well early, and Oakland native and former Cal star Marshawn Lynch has turned into the best running back in the NFL not named Adrian Peterson. There’s plenty of reason for optimism in Seattle. They are what the 49ers were last year – an extremely talented young team that just shifted from a mediocre team to an elite-level contender. The Seahawks are the team that nobody wants to play right now. They got stronger as the season went on, including a three week stretch (weeks 14-16) where they averaged 50 points a game. Let’s review: rookie quarterback. Unproven teammates. Fifty Points a game. There’s something magical happening in Seattle. The Seahawks also have the most imposing home field in the NFL, going a perfect 8-0 at the Stadium formerly known as Qwest. Unfortunately for Pete Carroll’s boys, the five seed will only give them a home playoff game if they make it to the NFC Championship game and face Minnesota. In other words, not happening.
The Seahawks will be facing an offense that resembles theirs in many ways. Also led by a rookie QB, Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, The Redskins and like to play a read-option offense that allows their mobile young quarterback to attack defenses with both his impressive arm and freakish running ability. At the beginning of the season, nobody would have put Russell Wilson in the same category as RG3, but now they are both solid contenders for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Seeing them battle on Sunday will be a real treat. Also worth watching out for: Washington rookie RB Alfred Morris. Morris doesn’t get enough recognition because he plays with fellow stud rookie Griffin, but Morris has been a huge part of Washington’s offensive success. Without the threat of Morris in the backfield, Griffin couldn’t have been nearly as effective this year. The balanced attack, much like Seattle’s, has been the biggest reason for Washington’s surprising NFC East title run. Unfortunately for Washington, RG3 has been a little banged up near the end of the year, and if he isn’t full-strength, Washington is in trouble (despite the best efforts of Kirk Cousins).
The ‘Hawks are three point favorites on the road (the only favored road squad this weekend), and that’s justified. Their defense has been much better than Washington’s this year, and will be the difference in the game if Seattle hopes to win, which I think they will. Take the Seattle cover.
Enjoy the weekend, don’t drink and drive, and keep the delivery pizzas to a three-pie limit over the course of the four games. Moderation in everything, right?