So, I went 1-3 last weekend, which certainly isn't promising. However, it was a rather bizarre weekend of games, and I did beat ESPN's Bill Simmons, who makes about a kajillion dollars more for his writing than I do, so I'm okay with that. The thing is, the NFL is a league of parity; as we often recite, anything can happen on any given Sunday. This becomes even more evident in the playoffs because only decent teams make it this far; the gap between a 14-2 team like the Colts and a 9-7 team like the Ravens is far closer than the gap between the Ravens and the 1-15 St. Louis Rams, so it's much harder to figure out who's going to win.With that in mind, I do have a few thoughts about this weekend's slate of games. As always, these predictions are nowhere near guaranteed and are intended for recreational purposes only.
Cardinals at Saints: (4:30 p.m. Eastern Saturday, FOX)
This should be one of the most entertaining games of the weekend, featuring two high-powered offences. The Saints have dominated for most of the year, but they slumped a bit down the stretch; it will be interesting to see if they can get back into form. Meanwhile, the Cardinals were creamed 33-7 by Green Bay in the last week of the regular season (while playing backups), but '99 Warner showed up last week and destroyed the Packers in the wild-card playoffs, finishing with 379 yards and more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four) in a 51-45 overtime win. The Cardinals' defence was absent for much of the game, but they actually got a pretty decent rushing performance out of Beanie Wells (14 carries for 91 yards) and they
got a key defensive play when it mattered in overtime. I agree with Samer that this team seems a lot like last year's surprise Super Bowl-contending edition; in my mind, it's even better because they've added a solid run game and a playmaking defence. I'm expecting Warner to lead them to victory again this week, despite the quality of the opposition. When '99 Warner shows up, you'd better run to the hills.
Ravens at Colts: (8:15 p.m. Eastern Saturday, CBS)
This should be a classic "Battle of Baltimore", featuring the team that packed up and left in the middle of the night against their replacements. Karma would favour the Ravens in this one, but the Colts did finish the year 14-2 (with their only losses coming in games they weren't trying in), while the Ravens barely made the playoffs on the final day. Moreover, quarterback Joe Flacco only completed four passes for 34 yards and was picked off once in the Ravens' first-round victory over the Patriots, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence, especially considering that he's going up against Peyton Manning. However, there are some reasons to favour the Ravens. For one, they're a punishing, physical team on both offence and defence, which doesn't bode well for the Colts, who favour smaller, quicker players. The Colts also struggle running the ball (Joseph Addai doesn't inspire a lot of confidence), and Baltimore's defence might just be good enough to frustrate Manning. For me, the biggest thing going into this game is the lacklustre way the Colts finished the season; they laid down rather than going for 16-0, and I think that will come back to haunt them. That's not thanks to karma, but thanks to timing; football's a game of precise timing, where a millisecond can make the difference between a touchdown pass and an interception. That timing can only really be tested in games, as practices move at a slower speed and with less pressure. I'm guessing the Colts' offence will be a bit out of sync after taking several weeks off, and that could be all the opportunity Baltimore needs. The Colts surrendered too early, and that may hurt them tonight.
Cowboys at Vikings: (Sunday, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, FOX)
It's tough to figure out who to root for in this game between the team everyone hates (the Cowboys) and the quarterback everyone hates (Brett Favre). It should be an interesting contest, though; both teams have plenty of talent with balanced run/pass offences and strong defences. However, I'm taking the Cowboys based on their recent play. The Vikings struggled down the stretch while Dallas roared into the playoffs and thumped an excellent Eagles team twice in a row. Brett Favre's due to explode any time soon, and Tony Romo and company look surprisingly competent without locker-room distraction Terrell Owens. Plus, Wade Phillips is a slightly more competent coach than Brad Childress. Who doesn't want to be a Cowboy, baby?
Jets at Chargers:
The Jets turned in an impressive performance last weekend, running over the Bengals 24-14 in the wild-card round. However, San Diego is a tougher opponent for them. The Bengals boasted one top receiver in Chad Ochocinco, an easy mark for Darrelle Revis, their star shutdown corner. The Chargers have four great receivers in Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates, Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee: Revis can only cover one of them at a time, and the rest of the Jets' secondary is merely okay. Moreover, those guys are all 6'4 or taller; Revis is 5'11. That should lead to some jump-ball opportunities, which Philip Rivers excels at throwing and the Chargers' receivers excel at bringing in. They also have a great rushing and receiving threat in RB Darren Sproles. When you factor in the Chargers' momentum over the second half of the season and that the Jets limped into the playoffs mostly thanks to their opponents laying down, this seems like a good weekend to ride the lightning.
Pick: San Diego
Enjoy the games!