A few things that we will see, no matter the game:
--Better officiating than the regular season thanks to an extra official and simply a culling of the bad officials. This not only means less interference calls, but also they let the guys in the trenches play a bit more loosely. Watch the OL dominate a bit more than in typical games, especially in Pittsburgh and Chicago.
--Some really stupid coaching moves, particularly if we get to see the new OT rules come into play. I was amazed at how poor the coaches were last weekend, particularly Payton, but now we get to see fairly new coaches under immense pressure in really tough situations. Can you say poor clock management?
--A surprise team begin to gel before our eyes and potentially use it for a run to the Super Bowl. Think about the Giants in '07 (sorry, I know, it's a horrible memory for Pats fans like myself) who came into the playoffs with some confidence in a close loss to the Patriots and really gelled during this round, especially their defense. Could we see the same thing with the Packers or the Jets?
--Two "underdogs" covering the spread.
--A lot of money heading to the public teams (Packers, Bears, Patriots)…I mean a LOT of money. This weekend is a huge gambling weekend, to the point where I promise myself one year I'll watch it in Vegas, who's with me?
Let's take a look at the games.
Ravens at Steelers (-3)
This is basically a pick-em when you are a three-point favorite at home, and it's no wonder, these teams have played so many times that there really will be no surprises. The question will be whether Mendenhall can run through a hole properly and if Ed Reed can shut down Wallace. Let's examine both of these a bit.
Watch Mendenhall play in any game and he will sometimes simply stop running in the hole, before he's been hit. He is anticipating a hit at this point, but by stopping he ends up losing yardage or simply gaining one yard. If he kept his legs he'd probably end up with 3-4 yards and keep the Steelers out of long third down scenarios. This is something to watch throughout the game and it can certainly be something the Ravens defense can use to their advantage.
Speaking of the Ravens defense we can all agree that Ed Reed is SICK. He's basically the definition of a shut-down safety. You know he is there the entire time and you must consider him no matter what. The question I have is whether Big Ben can get to Wallace, especially in the slot. Now last week the Colts threw to Wayne once, but even worse, they didn't move him around to take him off Revis, or slip him into the slot. Pittsburgh has a much better coach and I think they do some really unique things to open up those receivers. Ed Reed or not, Ben has been there before, Tomlin has been there before, they are at home.
Pittsburgh 16 - Baltimore 15
Packers at Falcons (-1.5)
Wow, as a gambler this line is crazy. It opened at -3 and has moved down throughout the week and as of this morning the money line was taken off the board. Means a lot of money is going to the Pack (going back to the "public team" definition above). But I also think that people are overlooking Atlanta and Green Bay has become THE sexy pic for these playoffs. I'm not disagreeing, Rodgers is fantastic and at the end of the day it's the quarterbacks we need to look at in this game…or that is what the folks at ESPN would say. I'd rather look at the lines when Green Bay has the ball.
The Falcons' run defense is HORRIBLE. Watch their last five games and I'd argue I could get a first down on that defense. It's a bit strange that they actually got worse later on in the season since their schedule actually got easier. I'm not really sure why this has become the case, but it seems to me that it is scheming rather than personnel. The DL is not getting the help they need from the LBs, they don't bring the corners up to help plug the run, and overall they seem either hurt or just tired. Unless they come up with an amazing new scheme I'm seeing a BIG day for James Starks running the ball.
But it's not just the Atlanta defense for the reason Starks will rumble, it's the Green Bay offensive line. Take a moment during today's game and after a run replay it, watch how they seal off the middle or the edges, depending on the play. Especially Daryn Colledge, the guard. And if the OL plays well on running plays it makes sense that they will run the ball well, but here is where I REALLY like the Green Bay offensive line…pass protection when the receivers are covered. They hold onto their blocks so well, which helps Rodgers, but also opens up the field for him to scramble. Rodgers averages 8.1 yards per attempted scramble. That's a big reason the Pack will win this game, but it's a coin toss and I say we see our first OT game.
Packers 31 - Atlanta 28 in overtime
Seahawks at Bears (-10)
Why did the Seahawks have a shot last week? Three things:
- Home Crowd
- Saints were on their 8th string running back
- Hasselbeck is awesome when blitzed
The Bears defense is really, really good. Why? Julius Peppers, obviously. Brian Urlacher, obviously. And the mind of Lovie Smith, obviously. This team doesn't need to blitz. Meaning that Hasselbeck is going to have to squeeze too many throws into coverage. Perhaps Seattle goes no-huddle like they did in their first game at Chicago, but even then I see the Bears dominating up front and their healthy secondary blanketing coverage.
The more and more I think about this game the more I like the -10 line.
Bears 34 - Seahawks 17
Jets at Patriots (-9)
You know what Rex, it's not personal. Nobody in Foxboro or Foxborough thinks it's personal. In fact, they aren't even thinking about you. They are thinking about your offense and your defense. They are scheming on how to take advantage of a QB that looks hurt, is throwing the ball really high, and has trouble playing in the wind. They are figuring out how to get Branch open down the field, Welker across the middle, and Woodhead down low. It is never personal with the Patriots. It's 60 minutes of football.
All the talk aside, this game comes down to some very simple things, the most important being that the Patriots are simply a better team than the Jets. But a few things really scare me about what the Jets could do. The first being running Shonn Greene...a lot. Greene has younger and fresher legs and the Patriots defensive line is very banged up. Obviously having Brandon Spikes back helps in these situations, but overal the Pats D is pretty lousy against the run. They are really lousy when there are running plays in passing situations. I can see the Jets controlling this game for a bit if they go to Greene and if Brad Smith is healthy. The Patriots will have a tough time with a Jets team that comes into the razor ready to grind it out on the ground. If Rex decides to take the game out of Sanchez's hands that is the best way to beat the Pats this time around. But I just don't think the Jets have the talent, on the field or on the sidelines. Not this year.
I could write an entire column about what I like about this Pats team in terms of the way they have played, the personnel, the coaching, etc. I'll leave that for my season wrap up post, which hopefully you will not see until early February. But what I really love about this team is how they surprised me and how much I love watching them as a team. My favorite moment from the entire season remains when he brought the entire team around him during that first Jets game and although they had the game in hand with a quarter to go had one simple message:
"We play for 60 minutes. We play for 60 minutes."
Patriots 30 - Jets 20