Time to decide NFL winners, losers

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March has its Madness.

January has its Jamboree.

The four month and 256 game journey that is the NFL regular season has ended and 20 of the 32 teams have begun preparing for next season. The remaining dozen teams have more immediate preparations to undertake for those are the teams that will participate in the NFL’s annual Tournament known as the Playoffs.

The top two teams in each conference – Indianapolis and San Diego from the AFC and Minnesota and New Orleans from the NFC – have earned the right to sit on the sidelines this weekend and await the outcome of the Wild Card games that will determine their foes in the Divisional round.

For the remaining 8 teams a quartet of them will have their seasons end this weekend but will still be able to consider their seasons a success by virtue of having made the post season.

The Wild Card games involve three rematches of game played this past Sunday. Twice before, following the 1993 and 2001 seasons, there were two rematches of regular season finales. But there’ve never been three.

What makes this week’s rematches all the more intriguing is that all three games this past weekend were blowouts, with Dallas defeating Philadelphia 24-0, Green Bay besting Arizona 33-7 and the New York Jets closing out the Meadowlands in grand style with a 37-0 shellacking of Cincinnati.

Dating back nearly 20 years to when the present 12 team Playoff system was adopted, there have been 9 Wild Card games involving teams that had just met a week earlier to end the regular season. The home team in these rematches has won 8 of the 9 Wild Card games. Of those 8 home winners, 4 of them had also won the previous week while the other four had lost to that same team a week earlier. And the lone road winner of a Wild Card quickie rematch had lost on the road a week earlier.

So if you wish to base your selections this week on that very small sample of 9 games you’d be inclined to play Arizona, Cincinnati and Dallas. All three of these teams opened small favorites as did the fourth host, New England, in their Wild Card game against Baltimore. Earlier this season the Patriots defeated the Ravens in a game Baltimore easily could have – or should have – won but for some dropped passes late in the contest.

As to the chase to the Super Bowl there really are no clear cut favorites as the top seeds in each conference – Indianapolis and New Orleans – have both struggled down the stretch. Sure, they both lost games after they’d pretty much clinched their top seeds but even prior to those losses – when each was still unbeaten – each had survived some close calls after midseason.

The AFC # 2 seed, San Diego, has won 11 in a row and has given the Colts fits in recent Playoff seasons. New England has that Super Bowl pedigree and even with injuries their chances cannot be discounted. The Jets have an outstanding running game and the league’s top ranked defense. Cincinnati also has played solid defense. Baltimore’s underrated offense and solid defense also makes the Ravens a legitimate contender.

For much of the season the NFC’s #2 seed looked like the team to beat even with New Orleans still unbeaten. But the Vikes were shaky down the stretch and unless the Saints are upset in the Divisional round, the Vikes will be on the road where they lost their final three outings while going a perfect 8-0 at home. Both Dallas and Green Bay are playing their football at the right time and even with last week’s loss, Philadelphia has been hot down the stretch. And defending NFC Champion Arizona got hot at this time last season and most of that team is intact.

Back in September the Super Bowl selection in this column was for San Diego to defeat Minnesota. Both teams are seeded second and could well win their Conference Championships.

The enthusiasm for San Diego remains. They’ve knocked the Colts out of the Playoffs each of the past two seasons, once at home and once in Indy. The one team in the AFC that could cause problems might be the Jets on the strength of an outstanding defense and an offense based on running the football. But the Jets are led by a rookie QB which makes their path difficult. The Colts and Patriots have to be given strong consideration on the strength of their QBs – Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

The NFC is wide open. Minnesota and QB Brett Favre have solid credentials but the current form and balance of both Dallas and Green Bay make them a pair of legitimate challengers. New Orleans still must be given strong consideration and the Saints will be at home for the NFC Championship should they win their Divisional round contest.

Here’s a look at each of the four Wild Card games to be played this weekend.

SATURDAY

New York Jets (+3) at Cincinnati (Over/Under 34½): In last week’s game the Jets came out with clear intensity while the Bengals just went through the motions despite pregame proclamations that they were intent on winning and knocking the Jets out of the Playoffs. Barely minutes into the game the Jets took charge and never let up. It’s easy to write that game off as a fluke and to believe the Bengals will reverse the result in the Wild Card game. But the Jets bring some very solid credentials into the game on both sides of the football. They led the league in rushing offense (172 ypg), total defense (252 ypg) and scoring defense (14.8 ppg). The Bengals rank close behind in the same defensive stats but are less productive on offense running the ball but do have the better pass attack with veteran QB Carson Palmer rating a solid edge over Jets’ rookie QB Mark Sanchez. Cincinnati does not blow out foes as a rule. Three of their wins were by exactly a FG and 3 more were by a TD or less. N. Y. JETS.

Philadelphia (+4) at Dallas (45): Prior to last week’s showdown in Dallas, the Eagles were one of the hottest teams in the league, having won 6 in a row. Yet only one of those wins – at Atlanta – came against a team that finished the season with a winning record. Fact is that against teams that finished 10-6 or better Philly was 0-4 both straight up and ATS. Besides the two losses to the Cowboys, Philly also lost to New Orleans and San Diego. Part of the Eagles’ problems has been their inability or reluctance to run the football. QB Donovan McNabb leads a potent passing attack with DeSean Jackson the next great wideout in the league. Dallas has defensed the Eagles’ biggest big play threat well, limiting him to just 5 catches in their two meetings. QB Tony Romo had an excellent season, limiting turnovers and not always trying to make the big play. Philly’s defense was just average, down a notch from the past few seasons. The Cowboys are playing with quiet confidence and although it’s often thought that beating a team three times in a season is difficult we need look back no further than last season when Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore three times en route to their Super Bowl win. Yet a season earlier the Cowboys lost at home to the Giants after having won both regular season meetings. In fact, over the past decade there have been 7 teams seeking to complete a three game sweep of a Divisional foe in the Playoffs and the sweep has been accomplished five times. DALLAS.

SUNDAY

Baltimore (+3½) at New England (43): The big news surrounding this contest is that New England’s leading receiver, Wes Welker, has been lost for the Playoffs after sustaining an MCL injury in last week’s game at Houston. QB Tom Brady is also banged up and reportedly has been playing with broken ribs the past few weeks. New England won the regular season meeting 27-21 despite being outgained and arguably outplayed by the Ravens. The Patriots have been in decline since their quest of 19-0 ended in the final minute of Super Bowl XLII two years ago. The 11-5 team of last season that missed the Playoffs was a stronger team defensively than this season’s 10-6 squad. Much in the way of veteran leadership is gone from the defense. The loss of Welker should result in even more coverage by the Ravens on Randy Moss and compel the Patriots to rely even more on their running game. New England was relatively untested this season, facing just two teams that were 10-6 or better. They lost both games, to Indianapolis and New Orleans. Baltimore faced 7 such teams but won just once, at San Diego back in week two. Baltimore has been significantly more reliant on running the ball than passing the ball over the second half of the season. UNDER the Total.

Green Bay (+2½) at Arizona (48): Green Bay totally outplayed disinterested Arizona last week to cap off a strong season that was statistically better than many experts realize. Although they’ve had to settle for a Wild Card, Green Bay was second to New Orleans in points differential (+164), falling short of the Saints by a mere 5 points. They were sixth in total offense, third in points scored, second in total defense and seventh in points allowed. Green Bay was the only team in the league to rank so highly in all four categories. QB Aaron Rodgers emerged as a more than capable successor to QB Brett Favre and without the fuss and fanfare that marked the 2008 season, Rodgers had an All Pro season. Arizona peaked at this time last season following a rather average regular season. They won three straight Playoff games and came within a minute or so of winning the Super Bowl. The Packers’ defense is well balanced, first against the run and fifth against the pass. Arizona’s offense is poorly balanced, rushing for just 93 ypg (# 29) while passing for 251 ypg. For the season the Cardinals were actually outgained in total yardage. Green Bay has the better record and played in the better Division. Even if you ignore the impressive effort last week the fundamentals and edges are with the Packers even if the line is a point or two lower as a result. GREEN BAY.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Andy Iskoe

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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