2011 NFL Playoff Predictions, Week 1, Part 1

I’m back for my 2nd annual NFL Playoff Predictions, hoping that I can improve on last year’s mediocre record and build on some late playoff success.   While it’s true that I finished under .500 overall on my playoff selections, I did manage to finish a strong 3-0, sweeping both championship games and calling the Saints “upset” win in the Super Bowl.  Can I do better in 2011?  There’s only one way to find out — on to the picks!

New Orleans (-10.5) over Seattle

The home field crowd may be Seattle's best chance to win on Saturday

There’s already been a lot said about the Seahawks and the legitimacy of their appearance in this year’s playoffs, but the fact is that Seattle did win the travesty that was the NFC West division race and by virtue of that, the Seahawks have crashed the playoff party.  The question is though: will they be anything other than a one-and-done?

A look back at Seattle’s season tells us that the answer should be a resounding “no”.   After a 4-2 start, head coach Pete Carroll’s team lost seven out of their last ten games to close out the season, hardly the resume of a team that should be taken seriously in January.  And we’re not talking about close losses to Super Bowl-caliber teams, either — Seattle was obliterated by Oakland by 30 points and lost to a 49ers team in disarray by 19 in that stretch.  While Seattle was 5-3 at home — and the home field advantage of Qwest Field is about all Seattle has going for them — only one of those wins came against a team with a winning record, and the two playoff teams they did play there (Atlanta and Kansas City), they lost to handily (not to mention the 34 point loss the Giants delivered them in Week 9).

New Orleans has their issues as well — most notably the lack of a running game that will keep defenses honest now that both Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas have been placed on injured reserve (and no, Reggie Bush and Julius Jones are clearly not the answer).  And after a superhuman performance last season, quarterback and team leader Drew Brees has his share of sub-par moments in 2010, his interception total doubling (from 11 to 22), the second-highest number in the NFL (trailing only Eli Manning).  Perhaps owing to some Super Bowl hangover, the Saints also played flat and uninspired football way too often this past season, and it was inexcusable losses to Arizona and Cleveland (at home!) that cost them their chance at the number one seed throughout the playoffs.

He may have struggled some in 2010, but Drew Brees is still a better quarterback than Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst -- combined.

But while there have been enough issues with head coach Sean Payton’s squad — most notably injury-related — that’s going to be enough to likely keep New Orleans from repeating as Super Bowl champions, the Saints are simply too talented and too good a team not to send Seattle back where they belong — which is sitting at home with the rest of the NFL’s non-playoff teams.  The Seahawks may be looking at another blowout loss tomorrow, and not even the deafening crowd at Qwest Field is going to change that .

Indianapolis (-2.5) over N.Y. Jets

Manning and the Colts are back in the playoffs again

It’s a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship game, but the situations for both franchises have changed dramatically since the Colts beat the Jets at Lucas Oil Stadium — or have they changed?  In some ways, that answer is yes — but in other ways, there’s not a whole lot different about this year’s versions of the two teams that last year’s versions.

One year ago around this time, Indy was playing with the huge amount of pressure that goes with being the Super Bowl favorite, not to mention the pressure and second-guessing surrounding the decision by Bill Polian and Jim Caldwell to mail in the end of the regular season and abandon the chance to go unbeaten.  Meanwhile, the Jets were the team that no one expected to be there, backing into the playoffs when the Colts and the Bengals laid down in front of them before they gained confidence with a huge victory over the Chargers in the road before losing to the Colts after leading at the half.

This year, the roles are reversed.  The Jets have been the team dealing with the pressure for most of the season as the self-anointed favorites in the AFC.   Along the way, the Jets dealt with the locker room controversy surrounding their treatment of reporter Ines Sainz, the residual fallout from the Brett Favre/Jenn Sterger debacle, the tripping incident with coach Sal Alosi, and the foot fetish “story” involving head coach Rex Ryan and his wife.   What’s been lost in all of that, however, has been that for most of the season, the Jets simply haven’t been as good as they brashly advertised themselves to be.  While they did win 11 games, three of those wins — by a combined 12 points against non-contenders Detroit, Cleveland, and Houston (and two of those wins in overtime) — could (and should) have very easily been losses, which would have left the Jets a .500 team, much like last season.  Mark Sanchez has still been erratic under center, and the team’s vaunted defense has stumbled too often (most notably in the team’s blowout loss on Monday night in Week 13 against the Pats).

"We're the best team in the NFL because we say so -- that means we don't actually have to produce on the field, right?"

While the Colts stumbled out of the gate, they’ve been playing their best football of the season over the last four weeks.  Quarterback Peyton Manning overcame an un-Manning-like stretch in the middle of the team’s struggles  to lead the Colts to yet another AFC South division title, and more importantly for the team’s playoff success, running back Joseph Addai may finally be healthy again, giving Indy a presence on the ground they sorely missed for much of the season.  Unlike last year when the team voluntary went into shutdown mode going into the playoffs (which resulted in a string of playoff performances in which the Colts never regained their form of the regular season), this year’s team has been playing to survive for the last month and is peaking at the right time.

I don’t think that the Colts make the Super Bowl again — they’re too flawed a team — but unlike the brash Jets, they’ve actually accomplished something worth talking about.  And that’s what the Jets are so far — a whole lot of talk without the results to back it up.  I suspect that by the end of the day tomorrow, they’ll be talking again — this time about the reasons they couldn’t get out of the first week of the playoffs.

Predictions on Sunday’s playoff games are now up here.

My Week 2 predictions for the semi-final round are now up here.

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