Super pick

Jan 4, 2011 7:07 AM

In a technical sense the NFL playoffs get underway this weekend, but in reality they began with the final game of the 2010 regular season.

Seattle’s win Sunday night versus St. Louis gave the Seahawks the NFC West title and the right to host New Orleans in Saturday’s wild card game. Seattle’s win made them the first team in a non-strike affected season to make the playoffs with a losing record.

At 7-9, the 1985 Cleveland Browns and the 2008 San Diego Chargers are wiped from the record books as having been the previous owners of the worst record to make the playoffs at 8-8.

Joining Seattle are 11 other teams who have each won at least 10 games. In fact, a pair of 10-6 teams, the New York Giants and Tampa Bay, lost out on tiebreakers. The Giants and Bucs join just six other teams to miss the playoffs with at least 10 wins since the playoffs expanded from 10 to a 12 in 1990.

The top seeds in each conference are Atlanta and New England who, along with second seeds Chicago and Pittsburgh, will enjoy byes. New England enters on the biggest roll, having won eight in a row. The next hottest teams are Baltimore and Indianapolis, each winning its last four. Philadelphia enters off two straight losses.

My forecast back in September had Green Bay defeating Baltimore in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas. Both made the playoffs as wild cards. The Ravens were 12-4, the Packers 10-6.

The defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans finished 11-5 and earned the No. 5 seed in the NFC. The Saints will travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks as a double digit road favorite. Earlier this season the Saints beat Seattle at home 34-19, outgaining the Seahawks 494-424.

The final point spread tally for the regular season has underdogs outperforming favorites with a 129-114-7 (53.1 percent) record while OVERs outnumbered UNDERS 139-111 with six pushes (55.6 percent).

Here’s a look at the four wild card round games to be played this weekend.

Saints -10½ at Seahawks (44½): Most observers expect Seattle to be one and done. However, they mean one half as the Saints are capable of getting out to an early lead against an undermanned Seahawks team whose nine losses were by from 15 to 34 points. New Orleans did suffer some injuries in their loss to Tampa Bay but the Saints have plenty of depth and played outstanding football over the second half of the season.

The Saints were not the overpowering force of a year ago. Ten teams scored more points than did the Saints this season. At the same time only six allowed fewer points. Seattle was outscored by 97 points for the season, the worst points differential for a playoff team in NFL history – and by a fairly significant margin.

Clearly Seattle will have the backing of a passionate home crowd. They will also have the "us against the world" mentality while the pressure to win is all on the Saints. The frenzied crowd can only do so much, and the Saints have excelled at making in game adjustments. Despite the high price, the Saints are worth backing even though Seattle might make a game of it for the first half. SAINTS.

Jets +3 at Colts (44½): This is a rematch of the AFC championship game from last season in which the inexperienced Jets led 17-13 at halftime before the Colts’ experience propelled them to a 30-17 win. The Jets’ defense showed steady improvement throughout the season and finished ranked third, allowing 292 ypg. Their underrated offense finished No. 11 with a strong running attack.

Indy’s offense was down this year largely due to injuries to receivers that required QB Peyton Manning to develop timing with a host of new pass catchers. The defense was below average but far from being considered weak. The Jets play with a swagger that they occasionally can’t back up. The Colts play with a certain calmness that suggests they can overcome early game adversity.

Indianapolis is clearly vulnerable. Meanwhile Jets QB Mark Sanchez still has issues but also led a pair of road playoff wins last season as a rookie. New York has upgraded an already strong defense and the addition of WR Santonio Holmes has bolstered the offense. They have depth at RB and should not be in awe of the Colts’ mystique. The Jets become an even more attractive play if the line settles at a FG. JETS.

Ravens -2½ at Chiefs (41): The Ravens played the much more challenging schedule, going 4-3 against teams that finished 10-6 or better. The Chiefs faced just one such team, losing by 10 at Indianapolis. The Chiefs do have a strong New England influence on the field, the sidelines and in the front office. But the departure following the playoffs of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to the U of Florida could be a distraction.

In the past two seasons the Ravens have played five playoff games, all on the road. They’ve won three including an impressive blowout of New England in the wild card round last season. The Chiefs have the better rushing offense while Baltimore’s strength is on defense. The Chiefs are a team with a very bright future, but the Ravens are the more complete team of the present, especially on defense.

Despite nursing some injuries on that side of the football, Baltimore has enough depth to limit the Chiefs’ ability to run and force the Chiefs and QB Matt Cassel to challenge a Ravens secondary that, while not as dominant as in past seasons, was still much better than the league average. At the same time, the K.C. secondary was vulnerable against some pretty ordinary passing attacks. The Ravens’ recent history and the play of unflappable QB Joe Flacco more than justifies being just under a FG favorite. RAVENS.

Packers +2½ at Eagles (46½): The rebirth of Philly QB Michael Vick began when these teams opened the season. Vick led a rally that fell short after starter Kevin Kolb was pulled after failing to generate much offense. Vick went on to have an MVP type season although he was less effective over the final month of the season. Teams started to defense him better and he took a physical pounding that sidelined him for last week’s game against Dallas.

Vick is expected to start this game but likely at less than 100 percent. Green Bay’s defense was a strength all season. Only Pittsburgh allowed fewer points this season (margin was just eight points). Last season the Packers lost a shootout at Arizona, 51-45 in overtime, as QB Aaron Rodgers put up huge stats in his playoff debut, passing for over 400 yards in defeat.

In their first meeting this season the Packers were bet up to a 3-point road favorite and now they are underdogs by almost the same amount. Is the difference between Kolb and Vick worth six points? The Eagles are banged up at RB and WR as well while Green Bay has had to overcome similar injuries, especially at RB. The Packers are fully capable of repeating their opening week win and if this game gets back to a FG, they become even more attractive. PACKERS.

Road teams have never won all four wild card round games although twice in the past six seasons did manage to win three. There was no single outstanding team (with perhaps the exception of New England over the second half) and great parity overall. Four road wins could be possible.

Playoff forecast:

Green Bay versus Baltimore still has a realistic chance of occurring. However, the nod in the AFC must go to New England. The Pats seem very intent on lessening the bitter taste that remains from their nearly perfect 2007 season that came up one game short of perfection with their loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl.

In a scenario eerily similar to that of three seasons ago, the forecast is for New England and Green Bay to meet again in Super Bowl XLV. Only this time the Pats get the satisfying result that eluded them against the Giants by winning the Super Bowl next month.

last week             since Oct 25                 PCT

9-7                         81-66-2                          55.1