Last week: 3-1
Regular season: 132-109-7
Ravens at Titans
This might be my favorite football weekend of the entire year. Think about it. True football fans hate the Super Bowl. It's for parties, dip and beer. Not for watching the game. Championship weekend is good, but you have to wait until 3 p.m. Sunday to get a good game. Wild-card weekend has four games, but you don't get to see the four best teams. So for me, it's the divisional round. You have the chance of a wild-card team getting to the conference championship game. You get to see how the top seeds perform in their first playoff action. You get four games and virtually non-stop football from Saturday at 4:30 until Sunday at 8.
And this weekend, it all starts with Ravens-Titans. Two teams built around their defenses and running games. Two teams that are well-coached. Two teams that no one thought would be here when the season began. Really tough game to pick. You can make the case for the Ravens because of their 'D' and Ray Lewis. At 33 years old, the guy who has been the face of the franchise for 13 years, is in the last year of his contract, and along with Rex Ryan, Ed Reed and others, has the Ravens' defense looking as dangerous as ever. You can make the case for the Titans because they're playing at home, have been the best team in the AFC all year and have the experienced quarterback. So what will it come down to? Turnovers and field position. Normally I hate using "turnovers" as a reason because it's so obvious. Of course the team that turns it over less has a better chance to win. But here it's really important because of two good defenses and a rookie quarterback being involved.
Turnovers in the playoffs are very difficult to predict. Just look at last week. Chad Pennington was picked off seven times during the regular season. But he threw four interceptions last week against the Ravens. Meanwhile, anyone who watched the Chargers-Colts game or the Eagles-Vikings game last week knows how important field position can be. This is an interesting point because Tennessee's kick coverage unit was 29th in the league, but Baltimore's kick return unit was 31st. More than any other game, this matchup will come down to a handful of plays. In a low-scoring, hard-fought contest, I think the Titans get a big break to give them the edge.
The pick: TITANS (-3)
Cardinals at Panthers
When I was in college I wrote a column for the school paper about watching a game in Carolina after my road-trip to see Eagles-Panthers down there, comparing it to watching a game in Philadelphia. I used the following line:
The experiences of the two weekends were probably as different as hanging out with Snoop Dogg at the Holiday Inn one night and singing Christmas carols with Clay Aiken the next.
Let's just say I've made quite a few strides since then. Anyway, the point was that the Panthers historically did not have a great home-field advantage. Not the case this year though. Carolina was 8-0 at home. Which is just one of many reasons why the Panthers should roll. Let's list the others. Carolina has a pass-rush that can get to Kurt Warner. Anquan Boldin is banged up. Arizona is one-dimensional. The Panthers are rested. The Panthers are more balanced. The Panthers have a punishing ground game. The Cardinals did the premature Gatorade dump last week and obviously did not expect to be here. The Cardinals are terrible traveling to the east coast. Do I need to go on? Last week I saw everyone was picking the Falcons and I tried to come up with a reason to pick Arizona. I found one and went with the Cardinals. But I just can't see it this week. Panthers win big. Which is good. You can be well-rested and focused on Eagles-Giants a little earlier.
The pick: Panthers (-9.5)
Eagles at Giants
I'm listening to the WIP/WFAN simulcast right now, and I don't think I can wait until Sunday for this game. Really great radio. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, the sportstalk radio stations from both cities are doing a simulcast at Chickie's and Pete's in Bordentown, N.J. So far they've played clips from the Brian Westbrook punt return and the Vai Sikahema return. Really fun stuff. I've been torn on this game all week. For those of you who read the 10 observations piece I do post-game, you're familiar with the optimist/pessimist feature. Basically I point out how an optimistic and pessimistic fan would view the team after each game. So I'm going to go with that here. It's the easiest way to break down the matchup in my opinion.
The optimist says...
And the run continues. It's actually surprisingly easy to explain why the Eagles will win this game. Offensively, Donovan McNabb is back. Playing OK for the majority of the game and then making a play at the end to win it. That's what we came to expect when McNabb was in his prime. And that's what he did with the 71-yard screen pass to Brian Westbrook last week. The Giants failed to sack McNabb in either matchup during the regular season. Jason Avant is Mr. Third Down. DeSean Jackson is capable of making a big play at any moment -- on offense and on special teams. And then there's Westbrook. The Giants killer. Do you really think he's going to be contained for a whole 60 minutes? Haven't even touched on the real strength of the Eagles yet -- the defense. Forcing turnovers, stopping the run. It was the formula last week. And it's the formula again. No Plaxico Burress. Who is there to fear in the Giants' passing game? Start booking your tickets to Charlotte. Eagles 24, Giants 17.
The pessimist says...
It's been a nice run but it comes to an end Sunday. Two turnovers by McNabb last week against the Vikings. If, or maybe I should say when, that happens again, it will mean an Eagles loss. The Birds' offensive line didn't play particularly well last week, and Westbrook can make a play here and a play there, but he's too banged up to be a consistent threat on the ground. Some numbers to consider: 10 carries for 52 yards. That's what Brandon Jacobs had before getting injured the last time the two teams met. He'll be ready Sunday. And then there's special teams, a huge factor. Sure, David Akers is in a nice rhythm, but as pointed out by Paul Domowitch, the Eagles kicker was 3-for-11 from 35 yards or more at the Meadowlands before Week 14. By all accounts, this will be a relatively low-scoring game. A missed field goal could very well be the difference. So enjoy the game Eagles fans, we'll do it again next year.
Most likely, you fall somewhere in between the two viewpoints, as do I. And let me make it clear. The Eagles can definitely win this game. But since this is a predictions post, here's how I see it. A game where points are at a premium. The Giants and Eagles play close for about 57 minutes. With three minutes to go, the Eagles have the ball at their own 23 with a chance to win but don't get it done. Dropped passes, pressure on McNabb, poor throws, bad time management on the final drive. And the Eagles lose a game they could have easily won. Giants 20, Eagles 13.
The pick: Giants (-4)
Chargers at Steelers
As I said earlier this week, the Chargers really could have won that Colts game going away last week. A couple turnovers near the goal line and Peyton Manning catching San Diego off-guard kept Indy in the game. But this week is different. Unlike the Colts, the Steelers are not one-dimensional on offense. An opportunistic defense. An experienced offense. Strong special teams. Don't be surprised if Pittsburgh scores a non-offensive touchdown. It may be close for much of the game, but the Steelers end up winning by double digits.
Didn't want to go with all the favorites, but I call it like I see it.
The pick: Steelers (-6)