Welcome to ‘Any Given Friday’, where we find it hard to believe Eric Mangini went from “Mangenius” to fired in the span of two years (especially since the last was a winning one), where we can’t remember any playoff week before where all the road teams were favored, and where the NFL postseason gives us tingly feelings in places we don't feel comfortable talking about in public.
If there was ever a week to show us the seedings in the NFL playoffs mean nothing, this is it. With smaller divisions, the odds go up that mediocre teams can win bad divisions (see: Arizona and San Diego), while better teams are wild cards because they happen to reside in the same division as a conference power (see: Indy, Baltimore, and Atlanta). That's how you get a week when three of the four road teams have better records than the teams hosting them (Baltimore and Miami have the same record). The lower eight seeds are as jumbled as ever.
In recent years, we’ve seen lesser seeds which played on wild card weekend go on runs to win the Super Bowl -- Pittsburgh, Indy, and the Giants. The question is, if one of the lower eight seeds goes on such a run, which is the most likely? To find out, I've re-seeded the teams -- not according to who has had the best year, or even who is the best team overall, but who has the best chance to advance in the specific conditions set forth in this year's playoffs. Here’s my list, please feel free to leave your own in the comments section:
1. Indy -- The funny thing is, I’m not even sure they’ll get through Saturday’s matchup -- the Chargers have played the Colts exceptionally tough over the past three seasons (more on this below). In fact, the Colts go against everything you usually look for this time of year -- the ability to run and stop the run. But nine wins in a row is still nine in a row. And they couldn't stop the run before the playoffs in 2006, but got healthy and rounded into shape at the right time of year. They may be doing it again, and just about every key player on the team already has a ring, so they know the way. If RB Joseph Addai and the O-line are back near 100%, and they manage to get through this week, they could be trouble.
2. Philly -- The Eagles are a team nobody wants to play. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson’s blitz pac kages give play callers nightmares, and when QB Donovan McNabb and RB Brian Westbrook are on their game, they can lay 35+ on somebody. Of course, they’re also capable of struggling to get double-digits. The Eagles are a gambler’s nightmare, mainly because you just don’t know which offense will show up. But their D has allowed a n average of just 10 points over the last quarter of the season. If they keep up their improved play, they’re a good bet to keep advancing.
3. Atlanta -- My pet second team has a lot of the elements which can carry teams in the playoffs -- a dominant running game, a good QB who doesn’t turn the ball over, and a great pass rusher. However, they're also a dome team, with a defense in the bottom third against both the run and pass -- that could bite them down the road. Also, there’s not much of track record of success among rookie QB’s (or rookie head coaches) in the NFL playoffs. Still, they're terrific front-runners with their ability to control the clock with RB Michael Turner, and rush the passer with DE John Abraham.
4. Baltimore -- Anytime you can play defense like the Ravens can, you have a chance. Because of a reliance on the running game with RB's Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain, Flacco hasn’t really been exposed yet, but falling behind on the road in the playoffs has a funny way of doing that. I think before it's all said and done, he'll need to show a little more than he already has. Two reasons they're not higher: 1) They are 0-3 vs. Pittsburgh and Tennessee, two teams between them and the Super Bowl, and 2) See: above note about rookie coaches and QB’s in the playoffs.
5. San Diego -- QB Philip Rivers led the NFL in passer rating (by a lot -- 105.5 to Chad Pennington’s 97.4), threw for over 4,000 yards and 34 TD’s, and carried the team for much of the season. If they continue to allow teams to throw on them at will, he'll need to stay every bit as hot in the playoffs (possibly without TE Antonio Gates). But if RB LaDainian Tomlinson can overcome his injuries and can run again like he ran last week vs. Denver, this team can go deep. Unfortunately, that’s no sure bet.
6. Miami -- Not turning the ball over and playing good defense can go a long way in the playoffs. So can running the ball and stopping the run. Miami does both, so their game should be able to travel pretty well to the northeast. They are every bit the typical, old-school built-for-the-playoffs team the Colts aren't. So why are they #6 while the Colts are #1: They lack the offensive fire power to shoot it out with the big boys. However, as long as they can keep the scores down, they have a shot.
7. Minnesota -- With RB Adrian Peterson and an All-Star defensive line capable of both rushing the passer and stuffing the run, you’d think the Vikings might be a little higher on this list. With Tarvaris Jackson at QB and Brad Childress at head coach, you wouldn’t. It's a tough trade-off, because Peterson is always capable of carrying them on his back if the D does its job, but I just don't see it.
8. Arizona -- As long as Arizona is at home (6-2 record), or another dome (1-0), or on the west coast (2-0), their fine. But put them on the east coast, or in some weather, and they fall part quicker than Dick Vermeil watching 'Brian's Song'.
Atlanta (11-5) at Arizona (9-7)
THE ROOKIE: Since QB Matt Ryan's first pass went for a 62-yard TD to Michael Jenkins, he's taken to the NFL like a 10-year vet. To no one’s surprise, Ryan was named NFL Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press this week. He also set the record for the least INT’s for a rookie QB starting 16 games. The previous record was Rick Mirer with 17. This year, Ryan finished with 11, and fellow rookie Joe Flacco had 12.
THE OLD MAN: As poorly as QB Kurt Warner played at the end of the season -- especially on the road -- his numbers are still very good: 67.1% completions, 4583 yards, 30 TD's/14 INT's, 96.9 rating. Not surprisingly, his home numbers are significantly better: 70.5%, 17 TD's/5 INT's, 105.5 rating. I believe a big reason for this is Warner's seeming allergy to anything less than perfect field conditions. So if Arizona is lucky enough to beat the Falcons and have to head up to New York next weekend, Kurt better pray for good weather. (Don't count him out -- I hear he's tight with the lord.)
RUNNING ON EMPTY: I mentioned earlier that the Falcons are among the worst teams in the league at stopping the run this year. That could and probably will lead to their eventual downfall, but this week that might not be a bad flaw to have -- the Cardinals are the worst running team in all of football. Still, you have to worry about a defense that allowed 408 yards to the Rams in Week 17 (more than St. Louis had gained in their previous 19 games), including 202 on the ground -- the Rams most since Week 16 of the 2004 season, 64 games ago.
Meanwhile, you might say, "Yeah, but the Falcons are the team that can really run, and the Cards D isn't so hot, either." To that, I say, "Shut up! I'm the one writing this column!" Also: Arizona's D actually held nine different teams to less than 90 yards rushing, and bottled up the vaunted Giants running game for just 87 yards on 27 carries. Only Pittsburgh and Dallas held the Giants to fewer yards on the ground during the regular season. Also: Michael Turner's road stats aren't so hot.
ANCIENT HISTORY: This is the first playoff game since 1998, when Jake Plummer was their QB. It’s their first home playoff game since 1947, when their home was Chicago, and their QB was Paul Christman (but you already knew that).
BY THE NUMBERS: Usually the teams you see playing this time of year are ahead in turnover differential, so but not so in this game. Arizona broke even this season, and more shockingly, the Falcons were -3.
BY THE NUMBERS II: The Arizona defense struggles to keep teams out of the red zone, allowing 55 trips this year, behind only KC, Detroit, New Orleans, Denver, Dallas and the Jets -- none of whom made the playoffs. To make matters worse, once teams reached the red zone, the Cards had a hard time keeping them out of the end zone -- they allowed TD's on 63.4% of red zone trips, fifth-worst in the NFL.
THE VERDICT: I’ve made it clear how much I like Atlanta, but I have kind of a bad feeling about this game. It’s all set up -- everybody knows the Falcons are for real, and (cliche alert) nobody respects the Cardinals. But the Cards were the second most prolific passing offense this year, they play well at home, and the Falcons aren't great on the road (4-4). Plus, I just can’t take all four road teams. (Whoops, did I just give away my other picks?)
The pick: CARDINALS 31, FALCONS 27
Indianapolis (12-4) at San Diego (8-8)
INJURY/UNIFORM UPDATE: Both Gates and Tomlinson are sitting out practice for the Chargers while they nurse injuries. LT says he has decided not to push his injury in practice because he did last year and regretted it. Also in that link: The Chargers will wear their alternate powder blue jerseys on Saturday night, after stealing them back from a charity auction they had been donated to. My question: The Chargers only have one set of these jerseys? I would think they’d have the funds to have another set made.
(NOT SO) ANCIENT HISTORY: The Colts and Chargers will face off for the fourth time in the last two seasons -- once in each regular season, and once in each postseason. Both regular season matchups have occurred in San Diego and come down to an Adam Vinateri game-winning FG attempt.
This year, Vinatieri made his kick to win in it 23-20, after Norv Turner mismanaged the clock to give Peyton Manning time to march down the field after the Chargers appeared to force OT with a late FG. Last season, Vinatieri missed a chip shot to give the Bolts the win in the regular season tilt, 23-21, after they picked off six Manning passes and got two kick return TD’s from Darren Sproles. But the most impressive aspect of that game might’ve been the way Manning bounced back from the picks, and brought the Colts back from a 23-0 deficit without his top WR’s or TE Dallas Clark to have an opportunity to win.
And of course, we all remember last year’s playoff matchup, when the Chargers upset the Colts in Indy, 28-24, despite injuries to their best three offensive weapons (Rivers, Tomlinson, and Gates). Rivers still had a big game, but had to leave after re-aggravating his knee injury, and the Bolts got some help from backup QB Billy Volek, and another long TD from Sproles (this time on a 56-yard catch and run) on their way to the win.
BY THE NUMBERS: Using the Pythagorean method of determining team’s projected records, the Chargers were one of the most unlucky teams in the league. They scored 439 points and only allowed 347, but only went 8-8 because of several close losses (two losses by 1 point, one by 2 points, one by 3, and one by 5).
BY THE NUMBERS II: San Diego may have suffered several close losses, and bounced by from an ugly start to become the first 4-8 team ever to make the playoffs, but not all the numbers paint such an optimistic picture. For instance, including their loss to the Colts, the Chargers were 0-5 against playoff teams during the regular season.
THE VERDICT: It’s close call -- games between these teams always seem to be -- and if Tomlinson hadn’t been hurt on Sunday, I might consider the Chargers here. But the Colts are playing well to end the season and I think it’s a good sign Manning feels comfortable enough about his knee to give up scary details about his surgeries in a sit-down with Tom Jackson.
The pick: COLTS 27, CHARGERS 24
Baltimore (11-5) at Miami (11-5)
THE TURNOVER MACHINE ON DEFENSE MEETS THE TURNOVER-PROOF OFFENSE: With all the early talk about DT's Albert Haynesworth and Kris Jenkins making their cases as darkhorse MVP candidates, and the hype surrounding sackmasters Joey Porter and DeMarcus Ware, in my opinion it was a DB who ended the year playing the best defense in the league. Noted ballhawk S Ed Reed notched two INT's Sunday to lead the NFL with nine. He also recovered two fumbles, giving him four for the season. Reed doesn't have eye-popping sack or tackle numbers, so he may not win any awards this season (though he did win the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2004), but the Ravens rely heavily on their D, and that D depends heavily on Reed's big play abilities.
This week, he’ll go up against the team that turned the ball over less than any team ever, and had a +17 turnover margin (The Ravens had a +13). QB Chad Pennington had only seven INT’s all year, but one was a pick-6 to Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs in the team’s first matchup. For his efforts, Pennington was named Comeback Player of the Year for the second time in three years (Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?)
PREVIOUS MEETING: In Week 7, Baltimore beat the Dolphins in Miami, 27-13 on the strength of a stout run defense (71 yards allowed) and RB Willis McGahee’s 105 yards on the ground. On the bright side for Miami, Pennington threw for 295 yards.
ANCIENT HISTORY: The last playoff game Miami played was, coincidentally enough, also at home vs. Baltimore in 2001. The Ravens, who were defending champs at the time, won behind Elvis Grbac, 24-17 over the Jay Fiedler-led Dolphins.
BY THE NUMBERS: Using the Pythagorean, the 1-15 Dolphins were actually lucky last year. They scored 267 and allowed 437, which, while ugly, should've netted them more than one win. St. Louis, for instance, scored fewer points and allowed more, but had three wins. Atlanta also had similar numbers and still managed to win four games. Miami lost by exactly three points six times in '07, including three games against playoff foes -- Pittsburgh, Washington, and eventual world champ, New York. This year, Miami's luck has changed 180 degrees: They were the luckiest team in the league this year by Pythagorean, scoring 345, allowing 317, yet still going 11-5.
THE VERDICT: I can’t believe I’m taking a rookie QB on the road in the playoffs over a team which turns the ball over less than any team ever, but I am. I must be crazy. But I think Ed Reed takes part in a turnover, the Ravens D stops the Miami run game, and Baltimore wins a close one.
The pick: RAVENS 20, DOLPHINS 17
Philadelphia (9-6-1) at Minnesota (10-6)
GOOD PHILLY, BAD PHILLY: The Eagles are 6-2 at home and 3-4-1 on the road, including stinkers at Washington (3 points), Cincy (13 points in five quarters), and Baltimore (7 points). Considering they’ll be on the road throughout the playoffs, that could be a problem.
UNHAPPY CAMPERS: Vikes fans aren’t particularly found of head coach Brad Childress. There, they believe in "Minnesota Nice", and Childress is so prickly, and tight-lipped and sour with the media, he make Bill Belichick look like Steve Mariucci. Or maybe it’s just because of his poor clock management. Last week at home against the Giants, he almost cost them that division-winning FG when he mismanaged the final minute, turning a 1st down at the Giant 30 with :38 left into a 50-yard FG with no time remaining.
INJURY UPDATE: Vikings RB Adrian Peterson says his ankle feels “pretty good” and that he’s been nursing the injury for three weeks now. Peterson , who led the NFL with 1,760 rushing yards, and was second to only Chicago’s Matt Forte with 49% of his team’s total offense.
ANCIENT HISTORY: This is Minnesota’s first playoff game since they lost at the Super Bowl-bound Eagles in the divisional round in 2004.
BY THE NUMBERS: With two stout run defenses on display, and two QB’s who aren’t known for handling the rush particularly well, this game could come down to who can best rush the passer. Both teams showed they’re capable during the regular season -- Philly was third in the NFL in sacks with 48, Minnesota was fourth in the league.
BY THE NUMBERS II: If Minnesota is going to win, they’ll likely need to get a big play in the passing game. WR Bernard Berrian is their best candidate for such a play -- Berrian was the league leader in YPR among players with 800+ receiving yards (20.1).
THE VERDICT: I think Jim Johnson blitzes Tarvaris Jackson into oblivion, and while the Eagles can’t stop Adrian Peterson, they are able to contain him. Westbrook doesn’t get much going on the ground, but McNabb does enough to win.
The pick: EAGLES 24, VIKINGS 17
LAST WEEK: 12-4