In 2007, I correctly picked six of the eight NFL division champions but whiffed on all four Wild Cards; in my 2008 NFL Preview, I also correctly picked six of the 12 playoff teams but in a much different fashion: I only correctly picked two of the eight NFL division champions (Pittsburgh and San Diego) but two teams that I picked as Wild Cards made the playoffs as division champions (Tennessee and the New York Giants), while my other two Wild Card choices (Indianapolis and Philadelphia) were correct. I certainly would like to have been right about at least 75% of my choices but--as I have repeatedly said in this space--more teams go from worst to first (and vice versa) in the NFL than in just about any other league for three reasons: (1) one key injury can wreck a team's season, (2) one loss in a 16 game NFL seasons carries the proportional weight of five NBA losses or 10 MLB losses and (3) many NFL games are not decided until the last couple minutes, so a small number of plays can make the difference between being 10-6 and 6-10.
Some of my picks were just flat out wrong but teams like New England--at 11-5, the Patriots posted a better record than three division champions--and Dallas could very easily have made the playoffs, as I'm sure that most people expected that they would. As for the rise of the Miami Dolphins, I did not see that coming, though I did say that I would not be surprised if Chad Pennington outperformed Brett Favre, which clearly happened throughout the season and in the last game, which was in effect a playoff game for both the Dolphins and Favre's New York Jets. I correctly did not buy the playoff hype about my beloved Cleveland Browns, but I did not foresee that they would finish in last place.
I was right that the Super Bowl champion Giants would return to the postseason--which is not a given considering that 12 Super Bowl winners missed the playoffs the next year, including the Giants after their 1986 and 1990 championships--but I did not expect them to be so dominant with both Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan missing from the pass rush that was so vital to their title run. My projected AFC Championship (New England-San Diego), NFC Championship (Dallas-Tampa Bay) and Super Bowl (New England-Dallas) matchups are all out the window.
For comparison purposes, here are how the preseason picks from five major publications panned out:
Sports Illustrated: 3/8 division champions, 7/12 playoff qualifiers.
Lindy's: 3/8 division champions, 4/12 playoff qualifiers.
Sporting News: 2/8 division champions, 4/12 playoff qualifiers.
Athlon Sports: 2/8 division champions, 3/12 playoff qualifiers.
Pro Football Weekly: 1/8 division champions, 4/12 playoff qualifiers.
My record does not look so bad compared to the records compiled by full-time NFL writers who have credentialed access to the league; I correctly picked more playoff qualifiers than everyone on this list except for Sports Illustrated. Everyone other than PFW correctly picked Pittsburgh and San Diego as division champions; SI and Lindy's were also right about the Minnesota Vikings winning the NFC North.
Here are my picks for this weekend's playoff games and my (updated) selections for the AFC Championship, NFC Championship and the Super Bowl. Last year, I went 3-1 on Wild Card Weekend, 2-2 in the Divisional Round, 1-1 in the Championship Games and 0-1 in the Super Bowl (6-5 overall*).
The 12-4 Wild Card Indianapolis Colts visit the 8-8 AFC West Champion San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers were expected by some people to be Super Bowl contenders but only made it to the playoffs because of Denver's unprecedented collapse: the Broncos were in first place every week of the season except for the week that counts the most, when they got drilled 52-21 by San Diego. The Colts got off to a slow start as Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison recovered from knee surgeries, but they are the hottest team in the league now, owners of a nine game winning streak. The Colts beat the Chargers 23-20 in San Diego on November 23; this time around, Indianapolis will win 31-21.
The 11-5 Wild Card Atlanta Falcons visit the 9-7 NFC West Champion Arizona Cardinals.
The Cardinals clinched a weak division and then clocked out for the last month or so, going 2-3 in their last five games. The Falcons, the surprise team of the year other than the Dolphins, won their final three games and four of their last five. Arizona is a good home team with a powerful offense led by Kurt Warner--the 1999 and 2001 NFL MVP who also won the Super Bowl XXXIV MVP--so the Cardinals have a puncher's chance if Warner puts a lot of points on the board and avoids committing costly turnovers but the Falcons just look like the better team overall. Atlanta will win, 27-24.
The 11-5 Wild Card Baltimore Ravens visit the 11-5 AFC East Champion Miami Dolphins.
Both teams enter the playoffs playing well, with the Dolphins riding a five game winning streak and the Ravens winning four of their last five, including their final two games. Although they have identical records, the Ravens were a much more dominant team in terms of point differential (9.1 ppg compared to 1.6 ppg). That fact, coupled with Baltimore's 27-13 victory at Miami on October 19, suggests that Baltimore will win, 21-14.
The 9-6-1 Wild Card Philadelphia Eagles visit the 10-6 NFC North Champion Minnesota Vikings.
The Vikings won four of their last five games to edge out the Chicago Bears, while the Eagles also won four of their last five, including their stunning 44-6 rout of division rival Dallas in the last game of the season with the final playoff spot on the line for both teams. Although Minnesota has the slightly better record, the Eagles have a significantly better point differential (8 ppg compared to 2.7 ppg). Donovan McNabb can be an up and down player at times but I trust him in a playoff game more than anyone the Vikings can put on the field at the quarterback position. These teams did not play this season, but the Eagles have won the four previous meetings, three of them by at least 11 points. Philadelphia will win, 34-17.
I expect the Tennessee Titans to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game and the New York Giants to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. My Super Bowl pick is Tennessee over New York.
*1/8/09 correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that I was 0-2 in the Divisional round and 4-5 overall.