By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Wild Card weekend starts tomorrow so here’s a few predictions for you. These picks are for recreational purposes only. I pity anyone who actually takes my word for it.
New Orleans over Seattle – The Seahawks have a big home-field advantage at Qwest Field and the Saints are banged up. But Seattle is also exceedingly lucky to be in the playoffs and has dropped each of its last six losses by at least 15 points. Oh, and the Saints are the defending champs. Mark it, dude.
Indianapolis over New York Jets – If there’s ever been a year the Colts are vulnerable, this is it. There’s a slew of injuries on both sides of the ball and they seriously underachieved earlier in the season, particularly Peyton Manning. But they’ve won four in a row, are running the ball extremely well and are playing at home. That, and the Jets are are weaker than they should be on defense and have a major disadvantage at QB. It’s actually going to be somewhat of a shame to see the Jets lose; a win brings them back to Foxboro which would give the Pats another chance to humiliate them on national TV. Maybe Rex Ryan, who wrote a couple more priceless chapters of his upcoming book, “Coaching for Dummies,” this past week, including taking an unsolicited swipe at Tom Brady regarding his work habits, didn’t learn his lesson the last time.
Baltimore over Kansas City – Arrowhead Stadium is a hellish place for visitors to play, but this game will mark a case of experience over inexperience. The Chiefs seem to suddenly be in some disarray (see below) perhaps due in some part to offensive coordinator Charlie Weis’s impending departure. And the Ravens know how to win on the road in the playoffs. Kansas City can probably score against the Baltimore D; the question is whether their own defense can slow down Ray Rice and all those Ravens receivers. Probably not quite enough.
Philadelphia over Green Bay – This is the Coach Who Can’t Get Out Of His Own Way Bowl. Philly’s Andy Reid wrote the book on puking all over himself in big games but the Packers’ Mike McCarthy seems to be star pupil in that school. This game could really go either way; both teams are hugely talented and hugely flawed. The Packers enter on a high, while the Eagles have been experiencing a little turmoil the past couple weeks. This one feels kind of like a pick the home team and cross your fingers sort of situation.
After this weekend, just for shits and giggles, let’s go with the Saints over Atlanta, the Bears over the Eagles, then the Saints making a return trip to the Super Bowl. In the AFC, it’ll be the Pats over the Ravens, the Steelers beating the Colts and then, in a bloodbath, the Pats making it 2-for-2 over Pittsburgh on the year. And on Feb. 6, in Dallas? Take a wild guess.
This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. New England: It’s not like anyone doesn’t already know this is where the Pats belong (well, maybe except for Rex Ryan) but 38 points and 502 total yards in Week 17 while playing the whole game without three of their top five pass catchers and just two-plus quarters with their MVP quarterback should be enough evidence for any doubters left out there.
2. Pittsburgh: Good for the Steelers. They desperately needed to beat Cleveland on the road last week to ensure a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game and they did it and then some, rolling the woeful Brownies, 41-9. This week of rest should make these guys a pretty difficult matchup for any of their possible opponents (Indy, Kansas City, Baltimore) in the divisional round next weekend.
3. Atlanta: The Falcons took care of business against the Panthers, earning themselves the No. 1 seed in the NFC and putting the previous week’s loss to the Saints behind them. Still, it will take a lot more than a good effort against a team as terrible as Carolina and a scared one against a team like New Orleans to ensure more than a one-and-done for this team, especially if it gets the Saints or Packers next week.
4. Baltimore: The Ravens just keep winning ugly, barely hanging on against the Bengals last week. But wins are wins and with the Steelers beating the Browns, Baltimore will now go back on the road for the postseason, where its achieved a lot of success lately, winning three playoff games away from home the past two years.
5. (tie) New Orleans/Green Bay: The road to Dallas got a lot harder for my NFC Super Bowl pick last week, with running backs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas now out for the year, and star defensive back Malcolm Jenkins seriously banged up. Luckily, the Saints get the happy to be here Seahawks this week, so any issues they may have won’t necessarily hurt them for another round. As for the Packers, they nearly puked away the playoffs at home against a Bears team playing for nothing. They have so much talent, it’s hard to believe their only a 6-seed for the second straight year. Maybe it’s time we start looking in the direction of their coach, Mike McCarthy, as the reason.
This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. Carolina: And so it ends for John Fox in Charlotte, done after nine seasons, the most recent being a 2-14 catastrophe. He leaves behind the worst ranked offense in the league in both yards and points allowed along with the sixth worst defense. Yet he seems to be a lock to take over one of the several coaching vacancies in the league next season. Why? Does no one pay attention to this sort of thing? Or the five other years he didn’t lead his team to the postseason?
2. Arizona: After the Cardinals were demolished by the rudderless 49ers last week, third-stringer John Skelton actually said he believes he’d done enough over the final month of the season to warrant a shot at the starting QB job next year. Forgive Skelton if the last time he was in the film room, someone accidentally loaded some Cards footage from the last month of last season and he temporarily thought he was Kurt Warner. Hey, everyone else on the team (except Larry Fitzgerald) sucks, why shouldn’t the film room guy too?
3. Cleveland: Was highly entertaining to read all the quotes from Browns players last week discussing how much they love Eric Mangini and didn’t want to see him lose his job, then go out and fall behind by four TDs to the Steelers at home in what seemed like the first 26 seconds of Mangini’s final game in Cleveland before getting the axe on Monday. Way to back it up, fellas.
4. Buffalo: The Bills showed a lot of promise this season, absorbing one massively tough loss after another yet still playing hard and with heart and character before winning a few. There certainly seems to be something there on which to build. Hopefully, coach Chan Gailey will erase the tape of their last two games, though. Buffalo lost those to the Pats and the Jets by a combined 72-10.
5. Cincinnati: And after all that, Marvin Lewis is coming back? Why would he even want to? It seems he’ll get to do so without either Terrell Owens or Chad Ochocinco, and that may well have been all he needed to hear to agree to it.
- The Bucs: Kind of a shame these guys were edged out of the playoffs despite a shocking 10 wins, including a must-have last week in New Orleans. Their Week 15 home loss to Detroit in overtime doomed them, but there was so much to enjoy about this team in 2010, from the seven-win improvement to QB Josh Freeman’s rise to coach Raheem Morris’s ascension from in over his head to Coach of the Year candidate to the emergence of LeGarrette Blount as a top level back, and more. It will be interesting to see how this young team responds some actual expectations next season. Will they take a step back or forward? They seem to have a lot of the right looking tools for it to be the latter.
- Jim Tomsula, 49ers: San Francisco’s interim head coach presided over a rousing, 38-7 blowout of Arizona in what will almost certainly be his only game at the top of the totem pole. When the Niners hire a full-time guy and Tomsula goes back to coaching the offensive line or elsewhere, he will be tied with a handful of other dudes for the highest winning percentage in league history at 1.000. Way to go, Jim!
- The Seahawks: With their so-bad-it-ached-to-watch, 16-6 win over the Rams on Sunday night, Seattle became the first team in NFL history to win its division and make the playoffs with a losing record (7-9). Actually, that isn’t trendy at all, but I had to put something in the this space.
- The Dolphins: As if their 1-7 home mark this year or their no-show in Foxboro last week in their final game of the season weren’t bad enough, now owner Steve Ross is flying all over the country trying to make Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh Miami’s head coach at what would be the highest salary in the league. Oh, did I forget to mention, he’s doing this even though he hasn’t let go of his current coach, Tony Sparano. What a disgrace. How can Sparano just sit there and watch all of this happen and not quit? There was a time when the Dolphins were considered one of the model franchises in the NFL. I can barely remember it.
- The Jaguars and the Texans: After a three-game losing streak to close out a season in which they controlled their playoff destiny, the Jags will now not be in the tournament for the third straight year. Did they fire coach Jack Del Rio? Nope. And the Texans, who won on Sunday over (ding ding ding!!!) the Jaguars, finished 6-10, making it now nine years without a single playoff appearance, including the last five under Gary Kubiak. Did they fire him? Nope. It’s painful to witness the amount of sheer incompetence that runs amok in the NFL at the highest levels. I can’t imagine being a fan of either of these teams, and so many others, who run around in circles year after year after year without the first clue about how to be successful. Then I remember that the team I am a fan of does everything the right way and knows exactly what its doing, and then I feel better.
- The Chiefs: Wow, was this the same team that did such a stellar job in surprising everyone all year en route to a division title? Not only were they blown out at home by hated rival Oakland in a game they really could have used to improve their playoff draw, but QB Matt Cassel was just 11-of-33 for 115 yards and two picks, and their much improved defense allowed over 200 yards rushing. Yuck. It may be a quick end to the renaissance season in KC, especially with the tested, proven Ravens in town on Sunday.
With that 31-10 win over the Chiefs, the Raiders finished 8-8 (6-0 in the AFC West), barely missing the playoffs and registering their first season with fewer than 11 losses since 2002. So naturally, they fired their coach Tom Cable. Oakland must have felt uncomfortable not being an utter and complete embarrassment this season; it’s hard to fathom any other reason why decrepit owner Al Davis would make such a decision. Punter Shane Lechler, who’s been on the team since 2000 and has thus seen now six coaching changes over that stretch, said (courtesy of Pro Football Talk) that he knows of multiple free agents who now won’t return to the team next year, called it a, “huge setback,” referred to Cable as “awesome” and “exactly what we need,” and added, “I’m not so sure this isn’t a terrible decision,” and that after trying and failing to get in touch with Davis or any other team executives he, “just wants to know what the hell is going on. How do you justify firing someone after going 6-0 in the division and 8-8 overall? How do you just go ahead and whack this guy with no reason?”
The Raiders signed another punter the next day. This despite Lechler leading the league in punting every year of his career and being first team All-Pro six times. Ladies and gentlemen, the Oakland Raiders. Same as it ever was.