2011 NFL Playoff Predictions, Round 2, Part 2
If you’re looking for my picks for the games on Saturday, click here. And now, on to Sunday’s action!
New England (-8.5) over N. Y. Jets
Like their AFC counterparts in Saturday’s game, the Patriots and the Jets will be meeting for the 3rd time on the season this week. And much like the Steelers and the Ravens, familiarity has bred nothing but contempt for the two AFC East rivals.
New England split their meetings with New York this season, and the two games were polar opposites; in their initial meeting, the Jets put on an impressive offensive show, rushing for over 130 yards while quarterback Mark Sanchez threw three touchdowns as New York erased a 14-10 halftime deficit to win 28-14. Their second meeting, however, was a debacle for the New Yorkers, as the Patriots scored early and often in a 45-3 trouncing of the Jets on Monday Night Football. The results seemed to be a microcosm of the direction both teams were taking as the season wore on. While the Jets started out great at 9-2, they struggled down the stretch, while the Patriots took off following the trade of malcontent Randy Moss from the roster, going 11-1.
The Patriots were truly remarkable in 2010, defying the experts who predicted offensive collapse following the departure of Moss by finishing with the top-ranked offense in the NFL. While there’s no one left who can argue with a straight face against the greatness of Tom Brady and his head coach Bill Belichick, what may surprise people is that New England finished with the 9th-ranked rushing attack in terms of yards gained (while averaging 4.3 yards per carry on the ground), a better performance than their record-setting offense managed in 2007 when they went 16-0. A huge part of that was the emergence of “The Law Firm”, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who rushed for 100o+ yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010, becoming the first New England rusher to attain that yardage mark since Corey Dillon did the trick in 2004.
But make no mistake, the Pats are still Tom Brady’s team, and the future Hall-of-Famer put up one of the best seasons, not only of his career, but of any quarterback in recent memory. Brady posted a ridiculous 36 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions, breaking his own NFL record for TD-to-INT ratio (his last interception was way back in October when he threw two picks against the Ravens, while his other two picks came in the first loss against the Jets) — and he did it all while throwing to a cast of seemingly thousands (eight different receivers caught touchdown passes for the Pats in 2010, and four receivers had more than 40 receptions and 500 yards).
The Patriots fatal flaw could be their young defense — but they did rank 8th in the NFL for fewest points allowed. New England doesn’t need to completely shut their opponents down to win — not with their potent offense racking up points — they only need to contain their opponent. What could help then to do that against the Jets is the potentially mistake-prone nature of their starting quarterback. The second-year starter Sanchez threw only one touchdown and seven interceptions over the team’s five losses this season, and if the Jets’ quarterback can’t avoid mistakes on Sunday, then the Jets could get blown off of the field the way they did at the start of December.
For a team that barely escaped from Indianapolis last week, the Jets have continued to talk, talk — and talk, some more. They’ve talked about the Patriots, Antonio Cromartie has whined about Tom Brady (when Reggie Jackson of all people tells you to “shut up and play ball”, you know you’ve acted the fool), and even normally mild-mannered Wes Welker got into the act, using foot references numerous times in his media session on Thursday in a subtle jab at the foot-fetish controversy surrounding Jet coach Rex Ryan and his wife (I could have spiced this piece up with my own foot references, but I never could have topped Welker’s act, so I didn’t even bother to try).
But like I pointed out last week, the Jets might talk the talk, but they’ve yet to show they can walk the walk when it counts. And all of the colorful personalities and entertaining quotes don’t count for anything on the scoreboard — and it’s there where I believe the Patriots will be on the winning end come Sunday and possibly headed for another trip to the Super Bowl and their 4th NFL Championship in the Brady-Belichick era.
Seattle (+10) over Chicago
And finally, we get to the game I’m absolutely dreading. It’s my Chicago Bears, a team I ripped into during the off-season for hiring Mike Martz, with a quarterback I’ve ripped into on numerous occasions for being a crybaby and a guy who I thought just wasn’t a winner, facing off against the now 8-9 Seattle Seahawks, a team that has absolutely no business being in the playoffs and who wouldn’t have advanced this far if they hadn’t faced a New Orleans team (particularly a defense) that looked like it had early off-season plans lined up already when they took the field in Seattle. The Bears are a prohibitive favorite, and well they should be — so why am I so worried?
Where can I start? First off, the Bears already played these Seahawks once at Soldier Field (way back in Week 6) — and they lost by a field goal, in a miserable performance in which quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked six times (though he didn’t turn the ball over). It was a game where, much like New Orleans last week, the Bears managed to make a quarterback who’s seen his better days look serviceable again, as the current toast of the Emerald City, Matt Hasselbeck, threw capably and the ground attack of Justin Forsett and Marshawn Lynch proved effective.
And then there’s Jay Cutler, making his first playoff start of his career this Sunday. I have been unmerciful at times in my criticism of the Bears QB — and there have been many moments when he’s deserved every bit of it — but the Cutler who’s taken the field from Week 9 to now has seemed to be a changed man under center (at least, most of the time). Over that period, Cutler threw for 16 touchdowns against only 9 interceptions — a huge change for the man who had been a turnover machine for most of his first year-and-a-half in the Windy City. The hidden downside there is, though, against arguably the two best teams he faced in that span — the Patriots and the Pack — Cutler threw four of those picks with zero touchdowns, while completing less than 50% of his passes. If it’s that Cutler that shows up on Sunday, then the Bears chances of winning are toast.
And what to make of the Seahawks? Head coach Pete Carroll obviously deserves a ton of credit for getting his troops up for their epic win against the defending Super Bowl champions last week, but they’re an entirely different team away from the comfy surroundings of Qwest Field (going 2-6 on the road). And it’s not likely that they’ll be facing a team giving them the benefit of a mail-it-in performance two weeks in a row. Still, Hasselbeck and company can’t be counted out — not after last week’s shocker — even if everything suggests that Seattle should get blown out in this game. But, while fueling yourself with emotion and desire when your squad is outmatched can win a game against the right opponent, it’s not a consistent formula for winning in the NFL Playoffs.
The difference for the Bears this time around may be the re-emphasis that Lovie Smith and Mike Martz have given to the running game, a key I’ve always believed had to take place if this Bears team was going to avoid catastrophe. Prior to the team’s bye week, the Bears had rushed for over 100 yards as a team only twice in seven games (one of those totals barely made the mark at 101 yards), and the run-to-pass ratio was tilted way too heavily in favor of an air attack. Since then, Chicago has rushed for over 100 yards in all but one of their games (the blowout loss to the Pats), and their number of runs-to-passes has been almost identical (an amazing reversal of form for Martz, and something he should be given due credit for).
Assuming that the Bears don’t change up what’s been working for them for some bizarre reason, then this result should be a different one than the one we saw back in October. I expect the Bears to win (which, if my other picks hold to form, would see them hosting the Packers for the NFC Title in a game for the ages next week), but ten points are a lot to cover in a game of this magnitude. I expect Seattle to play them close for a while — that pesky “emotion” thing and all — but I can’t picture the Seahawks playing for a trip to the Super Bowl, no matter how badly they all want it. The Bears fan in me certainly hopes that, if I’m right about nothing else this weekend, I’ll be right about this.