I regrettably missed the last two weeks of NFL picks due to the holidays and my vacation, but this weekend it's all about the playoffs. This weekend's Wild Card matchups aren't for the faint of heart. In fact, I can't remember the last time the opening round was full of so many legitimate Super Bowl contenders. So, without further adieu, on to the games...
New Orleans at Seattle, 42-20
There's been some debate as to whether or not Seattle should have been allowed to even be in the playoffs, let alone host a game against the Saints. Personally, it doesn't bother me. Seattle won its division (barely) with a 7-9 record and, according to the rules, that means they get to play host for at least the first round. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, it doesn't really matter where Saturday's game is played -- they ain't winning.
The Saints weren't able to catch Atlanta for the NFC South crown, but they have been one of the most successful defending champions in a number of years. Quarterback Drew Brees is still among the top three arms in the game, but will be expected to do a lot without running backs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas (both on IR). No matter for the reigning Super Bowl MVP, however. Brees will still have Reggie Bush and former Seahawk Julius Jones to help him and despite a lengthy trip to the Pacific Northwest (did you know that's where Newman learned to climb trees?), the Saints are clearly the better team in this one.
New York Jets at Indianapolis, 23-17
Everybody is pointing to Sunday's Green Bay/Philadelphia matchup as the best game of the weekend, but I'm sticking right here, where the Colts and Jets meet in a rematch of last year's AFC Championship. The quarterbacks will steal the headlines, and with good reason. Let's start with the Colts, where Peyton Manning guided his team to its ninth straight postseason appearance, despite crippling injuries to seemingly every big-name player. Manning set a career high for passing yards this year, throwing for 4,700 yards, mostly to emerging tight end Jacob Tamme. The defense, on the other hand, has been relatively quiet with the absence of safety Bob Sanders, but the Colts are still in the hunt, so something must be going right.
Speaking of going right, not much has been for Mark Sanchez over the past month. The Jets have dropped three of their past five games, including back-to-back divisional games in which Sanchez and the offense scraped together only nine points. Even in last week's blowout win against Buffalo, Sanchez failed to throw a pass, handing it off several times before being replaced by backup Mark Brunell.
Alright, decision time. I firmly believe the winner of this game is one-and-done, so in the long run it doesn't really matter who comes out on top. But the Colts have the best player on the field of either team and with the home-field advantage, that adds up to a close win for Indianapolis and a date with Pittsburgh.
Baltimore at Kansas City 26-20
To me, this game has the feel of one where everybody is siding with the lower seed (Baltimore), meaning I'm inclined to go against the grain and pick the higher seed (Kansas City), when really I should've just listened to the majority. I tend to do that a lot with games, so let's see if I can learn from my mistakes.
For the Ravens, that defense is certainly starting to show its age, while the offense appears to be finding a little bit of momentum, but still not what they'd hoped for at the start of training camp. Those two factors together mean the window for another Super Bowl run for the Ravens is closing, so these guys had better take advantage now. Ray Rice has picked it up in recent weeks, and Joe Flacco is no stranger to road playoff games, having made the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, yet has never played a home playoff game.
Looking at the Chiefs on paper doesn't reveal much pop, and the team's lackluster performance in the regular-season finale against Oakland isn't promising for a Super Bowl for the Chiefs. But, Matt Cassel quietly put together a terrific season, passing for 3,116 yards and 27 touchdowns and the defense is still young, but sack-master Tamba Hali is becoming a tremendous force.
In the end, if Cassel can manufacture some early scoring drives to put Baltimore in a hole, the Chiefs have a good shot at winning. I don't see that happening, however, so let's put the Ravens through to the next round.
Green Bay at Philadelphia 28-24
What's going on with the Eagles? A .500 mark in their last four games and concerns on the offensive line have the City of Brotherly Love acting sour and bitter at Andy Reid and company. Oh wait, I guess that's not new for Eagles fans, but there is cause for concern. Michael Vick should finish second in the MVP race, but he can't do it alone. To beat the Packers, running back LeSean McCoy will have to control the ground game, while DeSean Jackson and Vick can't be afraid to try a big play early to keep the crowd energized.
Defensively, the Eagles will have to worry about stopping Aaron Rodgers, who, while still without a playoff win, is certainly capable of pulling that monkey off of his back Sunday. Rodgers will look for receivers Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, both of whom can give Philadelphia's secondary fits. Meanwhile, the Packers defense, though presented with a tough task of slowing down Vick, has returned to its early form, led by linebacker Clay Matthews, who should take home top defensive player honors down the road.
This game will be close, no doubt. But the winner will be the one who can make the most big plays, and that's gotta be the tandem of Vick and Jackson.