NFL Divisional Preview
It’s Divisional Weekend of the NFL Playoffs. Need we say more?
Seattle at Green Bay “We want the ball, and we’re gonna score,” claimed Matt Hasselbeck four years ago. In that wild card game the Seahawks won the coin flip in overtime, got the ball, and scored. Problem was, Hasselbeck threw a pick-6 to Al Harris and the Packers advanced without Brett Favre even taking the field in the sudden death period. Since that day Seattle has won three playoff games and appeared in a Super Bowl. The Packers, meanwhile, have lost two straight in January. That streak will come to an end on Saturday. Proponents of a Seattle upset argue that the youth of Green Bay will have trouble dealing with the “Lambeau mystique”. I disagree. As much as he would like to reflect on the moment in jest, there must be a part of Hasselbeck that is haunted by that January day in 2004. He challenged the aura of Green Bay and paid the price of elimination. Now, once again, the Seahawks hopes will ride on the shoulders of Hasselbeck. The Green Bay defense is young and physical, led by a star in the making, AJ Hawk. They will stuff Shaun Alexander and put the onus on Hasselbeck to beat them through the air against one of the best matchup-corner tandems in the league (Harris and Charles Woodson). If Green Bay can establish any running game with Ryan Grant and force the Seahawks to bring extra defenders into the box, this game could get ugly because Favre’s primary receivers (Donald Driver and Greg Jennings) will have one on one coverage on the outside. Seattle should be able to bring pressure with their front seven and keep the game close. If any of Green Bay’s young guys are going to experience some playoff jitters, I would suspect Grant. But that’s okay when Favre is your quarterback.
Packers 27 Seahawks 17
Jacksonville at New England Take a look around and what you will find in some form is how or why the Patriots are going to lose to the Jaguars Saturday night. Look in the Chicago Sun Times. Check out NFL.com. The Los Angeles Times. And of course, the torchbearer, Jeremy Green of ESPN.com. Picking the Jags took form as a trend. Like the inevitability associated with all trends, it’s now so overblown that it’s bordering on ludicrous. Thirty-eight percent of nearly 40,000 voters on ESPN.com are picking the Jaguars. Anyone remember roller blades or starter jackets? In fifteen years you’ll remember the 2007 Jaguars the same way. Faintly. Jacksonville is a tough, run-oriented team with a hard hitting defense, but their secondary cannot contend with the passing attack led by Tom Brady (it couldn’t even protect an 18-point lead against the Steelers). The Patriots have an aging linebacker core that has proven susceptible to the run, which is justifiably a reason for concern. The Jaguars two-headed rushing monster of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew will have some success. Anyone expecting more than that is severely underestimating Bill Belichick. Rodney Harrison will be continually stalking the line of scrimmage, ready to blow up runs. The Patriots defensive line is fixing to explode, with Richard Seymour at last healthy and poised to regain his dominant form. Jacksonville will need to score a minimum of four touchdowns to compete with the Patriots, and Belichick’s schemes will force three of those to come from a source other than a score on the ground from a Jags running back. Jacksonville will play with the Patriots for two quarters before getting run out of Foxborough in the second half.
Patriots 34 Jaguars 17
San Diego at Indianapolis By early Sunday afternoon the Colts will be preparing to face the Chargers. A win will put them back in the AFC title game; their nemesis will already be waiting for them, a little less than a thousand miles to the northeast. Don’t expect lack of focus to be a problem for the Colts though. Twice the Chargers and Colts have met in the last three years. Twice the Colts have lost. The first was the fourteenth game of the 2005 season. San Diego waltzed into the RCA Dome and polished the 13-0 Colts, 26-17. The second was two months ago on a Sunday night, when Peyton Manning threw a career-high six interceptions (and Adam Vinatieri missed a potential game-winning chip shot field goal). In that game he had only one regular target in his arsenal, Reggie Wayne. On Sunday he should have everyone, most notably Marvin Harrison. The speed of the Chargers linebacker core has been the impetus of the havoc wreaked on Manning the last two meetings. An early heavy dose of Joseph Addai should keep Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips honest. After that Manning will go to work against a spotty San Diego secondary. On the Chargers side, LaDainian Tomlinson stepped up at the biggest point in the game last week against Tennessee, converting a key third down and a scoring an important insurance touchdown late. On Sunday he’ll need something in the neighborhood of 150 total yards and three touchdowns to give his team a chance. One thing to note is that amid all the hoopla surrounding the Patriots this season, the Colts are still the defending champs. Not only will this be a payback game against a team that has gotten the better of them over the last few years, but it will also mark the beginning of Indy’s title defense.
Colts 31 Chargers 20
New York at Dallas This will be the game of the NFC playoffs. Two old school rivals who have battled for a half century but have never met in January. Two rich football traditions that hit hard times over the last decade only to rise again. The two brightest young quarterbacks in the league; one an undersized no-name from Eastern Illinois; the other a kid-brother following a lineage of pioneers at the position. They played their two annual divisional games this year and Dallas won a couple of Texas shootouts. So who will take round three? The team that turns the ball over the fewest times. If Tony Romo and Eli Manning share a common weakness, an Achilles heel if you will, it is their tendency to turn the ball over in bunches. Like most young and talented quarterbacks, Romo and Manning are streaky. Over his last three games Romo has thrown five interceptions to just one touchdown. Eli has tossed six touchdowns and only one pick the last two games, against the Patriots and Bucs. He has also finally started to show an ability to handle a pass rush. So too has Romo, who at times has excelled when flushed from the pocket and been forced to make plays on the move. I expect both quarterbacks to play well, which means this game will end up swinging on the play of the defensive lines. Which pass rush will have the drive and stamina to go all-out for sixty minutes? Which unit will force a season-altering turnover in the fourth quarter to shift the momentum with a berth in a championship on the line? The logical choice is picking the team that’s 2-0 and not 0-2 head to head this season. The safe choice is going with the number one seed at home. Sometimes, however, the smart choice is sticking with the team that’s hot, the quarterback that’s hot. Michael Strahan will come up huge in the fourth quarter and Eli Manning will silence Texas Stadium.
Giants 34 Cowboys 31