Saturday, January 8, 2011

NFL playoff picks: Wild-card round (Saturday)

Just a terrible job during the regular season picking games. So much for the moral victory of getting back to .500. But it's playoff time now, which means it's time to focus -- or something like that.

Saints (-11) over SEAHAWKS

The Saints (11-5) recently placed Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory on injured reserve, leaving them one injury away (to the already injury-prone Reggie Bush) from giving the bulk of their carries to Julius Jones. Safety Malcom Jenkins and tight end Jimmy Graham, who were both injured last week against the Buccaneers, are also expected to miss the game. And yet, despite the Saints' injuries, I have absolutely no confidence in the Seahawks.

You probably already know that the Seahawks recently became the first under-.500 team (at 7-9) to make the playoffs. They were also outscored by 97 points this season and were blown out in each of their nine losses. In fact, their smallest margin of defeat in those nine losses was 15 points, which, interestingly enough, came against the Saints (at New Orleans) in Week 11.

The main two reasons to possibly side with the Seahawks are 1) the Saints' injuries, mentioned above, and 2) that Seattle can be a difficult place to play. The Seahawks finished with a 2-6 record on the road but had a 5-3 home record. So who did they beat at home? The 49ers (6-10), Chargers (9-7), Cardinals (5-11), Panthers (2-14), and Rams (7-9). And who beat them? The Giants (10-6), Chiefs (10-6), and Falcons (13-3). So besides that Chargers win, the Seahawks beat a bunch of bad-to-mediocre teams at home and lost to the good teams. So much for that enormous home-field advantage.

Really, the only thing holding the Saints back in this game will be themselves. And despite the injuries, they should still roll.

Jets (+3) over COLTS

The Colts (10-6) closed out the regular season by winning four straight games, and yet none of those games came over a team above .500. The Jets (11-5), meanwhile, ended the season on a bit of a roller coaster, winning four straight from Week 9 to Week 12, losing two ugly games to the Patriots and Dolphins, somehow beating the Steelers on the road, losing a shootout in Chicago to the Bears, and then blowing out the Bills at home.

So how do these two teams stack up?

Offense: The Colts have the fourth-ranked scoring offense (27.2 points per game) despite rushing for the fourth-worst yards per game (92.7). With an average, or slightly above-average, offensive line, that's a lot of pressure on Peyton Manning to put points on the board. (Unsurprisingly, the Colts throw for the most yards per game (288.1).) The Jets score the 13th-most points per game (22.9) and have the fourth-ranked rushing attack -- 148.4 yards per game. Mark Sanchez can make some solid plays at times, but with a 75.3 quarterback rating, he may be handing the ball off a lot unless the Jets get down by a few scores.

Defense: The Jets only give up 19 points per game (sixth best), while the Colts allow 24.3 points per game (23rd best). The Jets also forced four more turnovers than the Colts (24-20). In terms of sacks, the Jets had 10 more than the Colts (40-30), but because Manning is so quick with the ball, the Colts only took 16 sacks. The Jets allowed 28.

Special teams: The Jets averaged the third-best kickoff return yardage per attempt (25.2) and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns (both by Brad Smith). The Colts returned one kick for a touchdown (by Tyjuan Hagler on an onside kick), but they only averaged 19.6 yards per return (29th). On punt returns, neither team had a return touchdown; the Jets averaged 9.6 yards per return, and the Colts averaged 6.9 yards per return.

If Manning has a huge game, the Colts will probably win. And if he's under pressure all game and throws a few interceptions, the Jets will likely win. It will be hard for the Colts to run the ball against the Jets, but they should be able to block long enough to give Manning time for much of the game. Still, I don't think either team is that much better than the other, and this is the type of game that could come down to a late field goal. I don't want to side with Sanchez on the road, but he also is working with the better rushing attack and the better offensive line. Manning doesn't have that advantage. I'm going with the Jets.

Last week: 5-11
Regular season: 114-136-6

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