Saturday, January 10, 2009

NFL playoffs picks: The revenge of Darren Sproles?

I don't write many NFL picks columns/articles; I'm not very good at it. Last week I thought the Falcons, Colts, Ravens, and Eagles would win, which was good (or bad) enough for a 2-2 record.

But then again, there are some great matchups this week, so I figured I'd give my two cents.

Ravens at Titans

To me, this is the most intriguing game of the four. In his own picks column, Bill Simmons described this game better than I ever could:

One of those mirror-image games, like when Hasselhoff used to fight his evil twin on "Knight Rider." The Titans and Ravens do the same things: muscle you; intimidate you; control the clock with their running games and hopefully break a few semi-big runs; make you pay for loading up on the line by hitting a couple of deep balls (even though neither has a prototypical deep threat); hit a tight end over the middle every so often; and more than anything, make two or three huge plays with their defense. There will be no coaching screw-ups in this game. There will be no dumb chances taken. You will not shake your head at any point for four quarters and say, "Why the hell did they just do that?"

Simmons then goes on to discuss the teams' Week 5 matchup, which the Titans won 13-10. That game was at Baltimore, and the Ravens actually outgained the Titans 285-210. Joe Flacco was 18/27 for 153 yards but threw two interceptions; Kerry Collins completed 17 of 32 passes for 162 yards and one touchdown -- but also had two interceptions.

To be honest, there's no reason to think this game will be any different -- a well-played, physical game that comes down to the wire. The Titans (14.6) and Ravens (15.3) rank second and third, respectively, in points allowed per game; they're also second and third in turnover margin (+14 to +13).

These teams are very similar, but I give the edge to Baltimore because of the way Ed Reed and their entire defense is playing. I know the Titans have been resting for a few weeks now, but if the past few years have taught us anything, it's that the well-rested and 'completely healthy' team doesn't always come out with the same fire or intensity that it had earlier in the season. But the team that has been playing for its playoff lives and been fighting and clawing each week usually does. Just look at what happened to the Colts.

Jeff Fisher is an outstanding head coach, but I just don't see Collins picking the Ravens' defense apart and leading his team to victory.

Pick: Ravens 20, Titans 16

Cardinals at Panthers

On the other hand, this game is probably the easiest for me to decide on.

Here are the results of the Cardinals' five games on the East Coast:

Week 3 at Washington -- 17-24 Loss
Week 4 at NY Jets -- 35-56 Loss
Week 8 at Carolina -- 23-27 Loss
Week 13 at Philadelphia -- 20-48 Loss
Week 16 at New England -- 7-47 Loss

To summarize, the Cardinals were 0-5 on the East Coast in the regular season and were outscored 202-102. In fact, out of their eight games on the road, the Cardinals were 3-5, with those three wins coming against NFC West opponents: the Rams, 49ers, and Seahawks.

Interestingly enough, the Cardinals actually looked their best in Carolina. Warner threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns, but their defense couldn't stop Jake Delhomee (248 yards, 2 TD), DeAngelo Williams (108 yards, 1 TD), or Steve Smith (117 yards, 2 TD). If they're going to win this time around, they'll need to slow down the Panthers' rushing attack.

They won't.

Pick: Panthers 34, Cardinals 20

Eagles at Giants

The Eagles, for the most part, can't run the football, but the Giants can.

Brian Westbrook obviously isn't 100 percent, but then again, is he ever? Also, Correll Buckhalter has actually looked pretty good this season. But the Eagles never seem very interested in running the ball, and usually, they're not very good at it either. It's not surprising that in the Eagles' win over the Giants in Week 14, Westbrook ran for 131 yards. It's also not terribly shocking that their leading rusher in their Week 10 loss to the Giants was Donovan McNabb with just 35 yards.

In nine wins this season, the Eagles' leading rusher averaged about 90 yards per game. And in six losses, the Eagles' leading rusher averaged only 46 yards. (Also, in one tie, Westbrook rushed for 60 yards -- seems about right.)

Besides the play of McNabb (300 yards, 1 TD) and Westbrook's 71-yard touchdown off of a screen pass last week, the Eagles gave the Vikings plenty of opportunities to win the game. It's just a shame that Tarvaris Jackson wasn't up to the task -- imagine that.

On the Giants side, their three-headed rushing attack -- Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Ahmad Bradshaw -- appears to be healthy. And unlike the Eagles, they are devoted to running the ball at all costs.

Not having Plaxico Burress certainly hurts, as it did the last time the two teams played, but the Giants have had plenty of time to come up with a solid game plan.

The Giants will make the Eagles one-dimensional, and they will win the game.

Pick: Giants 24, Eagles 17

Chargers at Steelers

Darren Sproles, who has been one of my favorite players ever since I played with Kansas State in NCAA Football 2004 and ran the option with Ell Roberson and Sproles, was simply sensational last week in helping will the Chargers to victory. This week, though, the Chargers face a completely different defense -- the number one ranked defense of the Steelers that allows only 13.9 points per game.

If the Chargers are going to win this game, Sproles will need to be all over the field again, rushing for first downs, catching screen passes, and making big plays on special teams. I think he has the ability to do so, but the Steelers, with their raucous home crowd behind them, will be extremely difficult to beat.

The Chargers have a puncher's chance in this one, but I just don't see any way they leave Pittsburgh with a victory.

Pick: Steelers 23, Chargers 13


  1. Whoops. I guess I didn't account for the "Jake Delhomme sucks" factor when thinking about this game. Seriously, 5 INTs, at home, against the Cardinals?


  2. I think your inability to predict the Cardinals over the Panthers nullifies the expertise behind your other picks.

    Just kidding - that was just embarrassing. At least you didn't say they were going to the Super Bowl.