Monday, January 08, 2007

NFL Playoffs: For the Want of a Holder.

Last weekend featured some very interesting NFL action. All of the favoured home teams hung on to win, but the best game was far and away the Seahawks - Cowboys match. There were many potential turning points and unusual plays: the overturned spot via video replay (without a challenge by the Seahawks, to boot), the fumble that was first ruled a touchdown and later changed to a safety, the 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and many more. However, it all came down to Tony Romo, so recently hailed as the saviour of the Cowboys franchise, and his inability to set the ball up for a likely game-winning field goal from Martin Gramatica. Romo has my sympathies: it must be incredibly difficult to come so far, carrying a team that often looked hopeless into the playoffs, only to come up short at the last second. He'll likely be able to recover and be a good quarterback down the road, though. By contrast, the Eagles won on a last-minute field goal, at least partially due to the efforts of veteran holder Koy Detmer, signed only earlier in the week. This demonstrates the importance of getting the right personnel for even the smallest roles. Overall, I can't say I'm terribly disappointed to see the end of the Cowboys for this season, and their superstar WR Terrell Owens, quite possibly the most obnoxious man alive.

On to this week's games. I haven't had the stamina to make a full season's worth of predictions, so I figured I'd start now and see how I do.

New England (13-4) at San Diego (14-2)

The Patriots had a solid overall performance against the Jets, but didn't really crank up the effort until the second half. Tom Brady's experience in big games will help them, but I don't think it will be enough to help them best San Diego, whose offense features current NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson.

Pick: Chargers

Indianapolis (13-4) at Baltimore (13-3)

The Colts had a decent game last week, knocking off the Chiefs 23-8. Their defence looked as good or better as it has all season (which isn't saying much), but the offence struggled. Star quarterback Peyton Manning was an excellent 30 for 38, but threw three interceptions and only recorded 268 yards. In my mind at least, it is unlikely he'll do better against Baltimore's terrific defence. Manning's 4-6 career playoff record, including a 1-3 record on the road, also spells danger for the Colts. Furthermore, the Ravens should be able to find and exploit the holes in Indy's run defence, ranked worst in the league in the regular season. I like Baltimore here.

Pick: Ravens

Philadelphia (11-6) at New Orleans (10-6)

This one is a little tougher to call. Philadelphia has been hot recently, but the Saints have been great all year. The Eagles did not look particularly strong last week, against a very poor Giants team. I don't think they'll be able to take that performance up enough to beat the Saints. New Orleans has a very balanced offence, with Drew Brees, Deuce McAllister, and, of course, Reggie Bush. Home field will also be huge for them: ask opponents of the B.C. Lions what it's like playing in an incredibly loud domed stadium packed full of hostile fans.

Pick: Saints

Seattle (9-7) at Chicago (13-3)

Seattle barely knocked off the struggling Cowboys last week, due to Romo's missed hold, and did not look particularly strong for most of the season. I can't see their struggling offence doing too much against the terrific defence of "Da Bears", especially with leading receiver Darrell Jackson questionable to play due to a "turf-toe" injury, and D.J. Hackett, another starting receiver, listed as doubtful due to a sprained ankle. For the Bears, Rex Grossman has had problems at quarterback, but he should be able to take advantage of the Seahawks' injury-weakened secondary. The Bears have also been strong on the ground all year, with the running-back tandem of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson. The only way I see the Seahawks winning is if Grossman screws up monumentally: even so, Brian Urlacher and the Bears' defense might be able to do enough to win the game on their own.

Pick: Bears.

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