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The Pundit’s Playoff Preview, Round 1

So we’ve come upon that time of the season where us Redskins fans have absolutely nothing to talk about … at least until free agency time, when we get to renew our title as “Offseason Champs.”

In the meantime, lets take a look at the teams who are actually still playing football. Here’s my breakdown of the Opening (Wild Card) Round of the 2010 NFL Playoffs:

#5 New Orleans vs. #4 Seattle

Breakdown: On paper, this looks like a laugher. Here’s what we know about Seattle:

– They’re the worst team (record-wise) to win their division since the NFL-AFL merger.
– They are ranked in the bottom half of the league in every major statistical category (passing yards, rushing yards, passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed),
– They’ve lost five of their last six, falling by an average of 18.2 points in those defeats.
– In their last eight games, Seattle has played against two rookie QB’s. In the other six games (against teams without a rookie QB) they’re giving up 34 points per game and are 1-5 in that span.

And yet, somehow, this team won its division, a testament to how putrid the NFC West was this season.

Quietly, Drew Brees put up another season with Nintendo-like numbers. He threw for over 4600 yards (3rd in the NFL), and 33 touchdown passes (2nd in the NFL). His receiving corps rolls four-deep: Marques Colston (big target coming off his second straight thousand yard season), Robert Meachem (6’2 receiver that can run with anyone and provides the home run threat), Lance Moore (crafty 3rd receiver who lead the team in touchdown receptions), and Devery Henderson (big play threat that can run past anyone). Seattle just doesn’t have the depth in the secondary to cover that many guys effectively, and they already have a penchant for giving up the big play (they’re in the bottom third of the NFL in average yards per attempt by opposing teams).

So if I’m Seattle, my objectives are to not beat myself and frustrate the Saints offense into doing something it doesn’t want to do: namely, running the football. The Saints were already in the bottom five in the NFL in rushing yards per game, and they just placed their two most productive running backs – Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas – on injured reserve. Their stable of running backs now consist of Reggie Bush and Julius Jones; that’s not an NFL backfield, that’s a contestant panel for a debate over “Who is a bigger waste of God given talent?”

If I’m Seattle, I drop eight defenders into coverage every single play and literally dare the Saints to run the football. Literally. Pete Carroll should email Sean Payton, before the game, and say: “Run the ball; I dare you to.” That’s the only hope Seattle has. Slow down the Saints offense (by eliminating the vertical passing game), get the fans involved (Seattle’s “12th man” home field advantage is one of the most difficult for visitors to deal with), and pray that they can somehow steal a win in the 4th quarter.

Deciding Factor: New Orleans is a good team. Seattle is good, too … good and terrible. They’ll have to play a perfect game if they want to beat New Orleans, something I’m not exactly holding my breath for, from a 7-9 team that basically backed into the playoffs.

Pick: New Orleans, 27-16.

#6 New York vs. #3 Indianapolis

Breakdown: Last year, the Jets got by on the whole “us against the world”/”nobody believes in us” sentiment all the way to the AFC Title game. This year, they’re much closer to riding the “You’re really annoying and everybody wants you to go away” sentiment all the way to a first round playoff exit.

The Jets’ staples for their 2009 playoff success – running the football and playing great defense – haven’t exactly been working during the second half of this season. They still run the ball and play excellent defense, but certainly not the way they did last year, and certainly not during portions of this past December.

– They’re 21st in the league in passing touchdowns allowed overall (as compared to #1 in 2009).
– In their last three games on the road, they’ve given up an average of over 33 points a game.
– LaDainian Tomlinson hasn’t cracked 50 yards rushing in a game since mid November, and Shonn Greene’s highest total in that same span is 72 yards.

Oh, and to top it all off, there’s questions about the health of Mark Sanchez’ throwing shoulder. Call me crazy, but I don’t exactly think it’s a good thing when your starting quarterback’s throwing shoulder isn’t 100% healthy.

You know what is crazy? Nobody’s talking about the Colts. Between injuries, Peyton Manning’s higher-than-normal interception count (his highest total in eight seasons), and difficulty in winning their division (they didn’t clinch the AFC South title until Week 17), they’re almost universally being discounted from the discussion of legitimate contenders in the AFC.

Here’s what everyone is forgetting: They have Peyton-freaking-Manning. He orchestrated the #1 passing offense in the entire NFL in 2010. Out of every single quarterback in the playoffs, he has the most passing yards and second most touchdown passes. The Colts offense is averaging over 30 points per game in the month of December.

The key to beating Manning is disrupting his rhythm within the offense. Manning relies on his chemistry, precision, and timing arguably more than any other quarterback in the NFL. If the Jets play Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon physically and force Manning to throw the ball earlier than he’d like to, Manning gets flustered and the entire offense stalls.

Deciding factor: The Colts have actually developed a little bit of balance on their offense down the stretch of the season. As a team, they’ve rushed for over 100 yards in each of their last three games. On the flipside, the Jets have given up over 100 yards rushing in their last three road games. If the Colts can establish the run early on, and force the Jets safeties to keep an eye on the running game, Manning will torch the Jets secondary.

Pick: Indianapolis, 30-23.

#5 Baltimore vs. #4 Kansas City

Breakdown: For Baltimore, this is getting to be old hat. Sunday’s playoff game will be the 6th straight playoff game for coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco since 2008, the year they both joined the team. In fact, all 22 starters for the Ravens were either on the Ravens during previous postseasons, or have postseason experience of their own (like Anquan Boldin).

The Chiefs? They can’t exactly say the same thing. Of the 53 players on their active roster, 32 have no playoff experience of any kind. Matt Cassell has been in the playoffs and even the Super Bowl as a member of the Patriots, but has never taken a postseason snap of his own.

Regardless, to quote the great Jim Ross, “this one is going to be a slobberknocker.” Both teams attempt to run the ball down their opponents throat – Baltimore was 6th in the NFL in rushing attempts, Kansas City was #1 – and use that to set up the passing game. Both teams had top 10 running backs this year (Jamaal Charles for Kansas City, Ray Rice for Baltimore). Baltimore is a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of yards per game, whereas Kansas City is a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of yards allowed per game. On the flip side, Kansas City is the best team in the league in yards per game, and Baltimore is a top five team in stopping the run.

Baltimore is also coming into this game as one of the “hottest” teams, finishing 6-1 over their last seven games, with their only loss coming against Pittsburgh in a game with sloppy play and questionable play-calling (and they still only lost by 3). Kansas City has won five of their last seven – with one of the losses occurring when Cassell was out due to a concussion – but the 31-10 defeat against Oakland, at Arrowhead, has to leave a sour taste in their mouths.

Deciding Factor: Baltimore has given up a grand total of five rushing touchdowns in a game. Total. Over an entire season. Of all the teams in the playofffs, only Pittsburgh and Baltimore have a defense that can win almost in spite of their offense. Their experience will allow them to outlast Kansas City when it matters most.

Pick: 23-13, Baltimore.

#6 Green Bay vs. #3 Philadelphia

Breakdown: Without question, this is the game I’m most looking forward to watching this weekend. You could legitimately make the argument that these are the two best teams in the NFC, and that whoever wins this game could very well end up as the NFC representative in the Super Bowl.

The Eagles are no slouch when it comes to the playoffs. Andy Reid has taken this team to the playoffs nine out of the last 12 years he’s been the coach, including four of the last five years. He’s 3-0 in home wild card games. Vick himself is 2-0 in opening playoff games in his career.

But here’s something to ponder: Did the Eagles peak too early? This happens to teams all the time (see: the NY Giants, from 2008-2010). The anointed “best team in the NFL” around Thanksgiving often doesn’t translate to the team hoisting the Lombardi trophy in early February. Between early November (when they massacred the Redskins on national television) and book-ended by the “Miracle at the Meadowlands, Part 2,” the Eagles went 5-1 and dropped an average of 35.6 points per game on their opponents. The only team that could stop the Eagles offense was the Eagles themselves. But once Christmas rolled around (and Michael Vick started feeling the effects of an injured quadricep), the Eagles offense couldn’t muster more than 14 points per game. With a much needed first round bye potentially at stake, they lost two games – both at home – against teams who finished with a combined record of 11-21.

Vick recently told the media that his injured quadricep – the reason he sat out of the season-finale vs. Dallas – is 100%. Let’s put it this way: if Vick has to waste time to convince the media and fans that his injured quadricep is 100%, that means that it’s not. And even if it is 100% (and it’s not, otherwise this wouldn’t be an issue), the first time he takes a hit on that quad, it won’t be 100% anymore. As counterintuitive as it may be, a quarterback’s throwing mechanics – regardless of whether they’re a mobile player or not – are largely dependent on his legs. Adding another layer of delicious irony to this situation: ESPN’s Sal Paolantoino recently mentioned, on a radio interview, that Reid could actually bench Vick in the playoffs if his play did not improve. That’s right, he’d actually consider benching Vick, a legitimate MVP candidate, for Kevin Kolb, whom Reid originally benched for Vick in the first place.

Contrast that with the Packers, 7-3 since the middle of October, including 7-1 in the games where Aaron Rodgers starts and finishes the game. The last time Aaron Rodgers lost a game that he started and finished was against Atlanta (in Atlanta, one of the toughest places to play this season), in a game that was decided with a game-winning FG with nine seconds left. They slaughtered the Giants (a team playing for it’s playoff life) and beat the Bears (a team trying to secure a playoff bye) to close out the regular season.

Deciding Factor: The Packers have exactly the type of defense needed to stop the Eagles offense. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers can draw up blitz schemes with the best of them. He’ll use exotic defensive fronts to confuse Vick in his pre-snap reads (like the 2-4-5 defense used in the season opener, also against Philadelphia), and then bring pressure from different directions, using every level of his defense.

The key is: if you blitz Vick and you don’t get to him, you better have corners that can match up with Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, or else the Eagles will make you pay. Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams of the Packers are among the better pairs of cornerbacks in the NFL. They’ll play bump-and-run coverage on the Eagles smaller but speedier receivers, buying just enough time before the heat gets to Vick and before the receivers get open.

If we know anything about Andy Reid, it’s that he steadfastly refuses to run the football, no matter what the circumstances. He’d rather bench Vick than admit he needs to run the football.So while Eagles fans claim their days of coming up short are gone because Donovan “McChoke” is gone, they’ll be getting a cold dose of reality: that Andy Reid is as much a part of the Eagles problems as he is the solution(s).

Pick: 31-27, Green Bay

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