Friday, January 11, 2008

NFL Divisional Playoffs Preview

Many NFL observers will tell you that this is their favorite weekend of the season: the Divisional Playoff round. As ESPN's Tom Jackson and others have mentioned, we will get to see the league's eight best teams in action, including the playoff debut of the first 16-0 team in NFL history, the New England Patriots.

I correctly picked the outcome of three of the four Wild Card Weekend games; the only game that I missed was New York-Tampa Bay, which I considered to be a "pick 'em" contest. Tampa Bay started off well, but the Giants got their running game going, forced some turnovers and received a solid effort from quarterback Eli Manning.

This weekend's action kicks off on Saturday afternoon when the 11-5 Seattle Seahawks visit Lambeau Field to challenge perhaps the most surprising team of the season, the 13-3 Green Bay Packers. Most of the numbers in this matchup favor the Packers, who had a better point differential than the Seahawks during the season (144 to 102) and went 7-1 at home; the Seahawks only posted a 3-5 road record. Seattle did win the most recent regular season game between these teams (34-24 in 2006) and in the Seahawks' previous postseason experience at Lambeau Field they forced overtime before losing 33-27.

Expect another close contest this time, with Green Bay prevailing, 28-24.

Even casual NFL fans will probably tune in on Saturday night to see if the 11-5 Jacksonville Jaguars can eliminate the Patriots. A recitation of New England's statistics and records set is hardly necessary; everyone realizes the kind of dominance that the Patriots have displayed this season. Can the Jaguars slow down the aerial attack of Tom Brady, Randy Moss and company just enough to have a chance to win? Jacksonville's game plan is obvious: run the ball for 150-plus yards, dominate time of possession, don't give up any explosive plays and force some turnovers. Obviously, all of those things are a lot easier said than done. Jacksonville may find enough running lanes in the first half to keep things close for a while but New England will eventually build a 10 or 14 point lead, putting a lot of pressure on the Jaguars to be productive in the passing game.

Jacksonville is a big, physical team that may have some limited success early in the game, but New England will win, 34-14.

The opening act on Sunday is an NFC East battle between the 10-6 New York Giants and the 13-3 division champion Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys won both meetings this season and lead the regular season series 54-35-2; remarkably, this is the first time these rivals have met in the playoffs. After losing 45-35 at Dallas in week one, the Giants have won eight straight road games, including last week's playoff victory in Tampa Bay. They are definitely the hot team in this matchup, while the Cowboys faded down the stretch; in fact, Dallas' offense has not produced a touchdown in the six quarters since Terrell Owens suffered a high ankle sprain. Officially, Owens is a game-time decision but since he played in Super Bowl XXXIX despite a broken leg most people expect that he will play. Owens had nine receptions for 212 yards and four touchdowns in Dallas' two wins over New York, so it is no exaggeration to say that the outcome of this game largely hinges on his status. Clearly, Owens will not be 100% but if he is healthy enough to demand double team coverage this will open up opportunities for Dallas to run the ball and to throw the ball to the other receivers. His impact may not necessarily come in the form of his own statistics but rather how his presence affects the defense. If Owens is hobbling and the Giants can get by with single coverage on him then the Cowboys are in big trouble. Owens had six 100 yard games this season and the Cowboys won each of them; on the other hand, his teams have gone just 2-8 during his career when he does not play. I hate to hedge but I have two predictions for this game:

If Owens plays and is not noticeably limping, the Cowboys will win, 31-20.

If Owens does not play or if he plays but is noticeably limping, the Giants will win, 24-14.

OK, that was a bit of a copout, so here is the prediction that I will live with, come what may: Owens will play, he will limp slightly and Dallas will win, 24-21; this is the pick that will "count" when I make a recap post next week, but I just wanted to emphasize how important Owens really is to Dallas' offense.

The defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts (13-3) host the 11-5 San Diego Chargers in Sunday night's finale. The Chargers won this season's head to head matchup 23-21 in week 10. Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning had one of the worst performances of his career in that game, throwing a career-high six interceptions. It is extremely unlikely that Manning will play that poorly again, so the Chargers will have to play even better this time around in order to win a road playoff game. Marvin Harrison, Manning's favorite target, is expected to return to action after missing several weeks due to injury. The Colts basically took off the last week of the season to be extra rested for this game, as I discussed here and here. Last week, the "rested" Buccaneers lost to the Giants, who played all of their starters in the final week in a very entertaining game against New England. It would certainly be fitting if the football gods "reward" the Colts with some extra rest after this game but I suspect that we are going to see the AFC Championship Game that everyone has been anticipating all along.

The Chargers certainly have enough talent to pull off the upset but a late Manning-led drive will give the Colts a 31-28 victory.

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