We’re going to go more in depth with our pick ‘em in the playoff rounds, breaking down each game and giving a score for each pick in addition to the pick against the spread.
Arizona at New Orleans – The Saints are favored by a touchdown, but all the momentum in the world is with the Cards in this one. Arizona has shown an ability to step up to the challenge in the playoffs the last two years, and that makes them a very scary opponent for a New Orleans team that hasn’t really pushed itself since its loss to Dallas in Week 15. The Saints have the firepower to run with the Cardinals, and neither defense is going to be able to put operation shutdown into effect. So the key will end up being which team can make one or two big plays on defense. In a touchdown game, a turnover that sets up a score is huge, and that will be the determinant here. And while Karlos Dansby was able to create three turnovers last week for Arizona (by batting a ball into the air, forcing a fumble, and then returning a fumble for the game-winning touchdown), our guess is that the Saints get that done this week. Whether it’s Darren Sharper or someone else, the Saints D (which had seven returns for touchdowns this year), will end up making the key play in a shootout that will otherwise be dictated by offense. That leads us to predict New Orleans 35, Arizona 31.
Baltimore at Indianapolis – This is another seven-point spread for the home team. In the first game between the two teams (which we followed closely here), Baltimore had the edge in possession and yardage, but the Ravens had to settle for six field goal tries (making five), while the Colts made the plays to score two touchdowns in a 17-15 road win. And the key to those plays is Peyton Manning. No player is worth more to his team, and while Manning has had his playoff hiccups, we still like him to make the key play more than we would trust Joe Flacco to do so. The Ravens are tough, and they’ll beat up the Colts on both sides of the ball. But while the run game may move the ball down the field for Baltimore, can Flacco make the 3rd-and-4 play to get the ball in the end zone? He didn’t last week. Manning will make that play – especially against a Ravens secondary that played OK last week but is generally a sore spot. Baltimore is a good team, better than its record, but the Ravens don’t have the passing-game firepower to put up the points they’ll need against Manning and the Colts. The pick is Indianapolis 28, Baltimore 20.
Dallas at Minnesota – The Vikings are the home team favored by 3, which is the normal home-field edge, but Dallas is the far scarier team at this point. The Cowboys have an offense that can make big passing-game plays with Miles Austin and Jason Witten and that can run the ball effectively. Plus, now Felix Jones is healthy, giving the Cowboys another explosive element to join Austin. On defense, the Cowboys have two premium edge rushers in DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, who should be able to run past Vikings OTs Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt all day Sunday. Plus, with All-Pro Jay Ratliff in the middle, the Cowboys can stuff Adrian Peterson’s run game there too. Brett Favre will be pressured in this game, and our hunch is that that pressure will lead Spanx to turn the ball over in a key spot. Meanwhile, the Vikings’ defense is without its best run stuffer in MLB E.J. Henderson, and the cornerback crew is suspect now that Antoine Winfield is hobbled. Jared Allen could create pressure and a big play, but if Tony Romo gets time to throw he’ll gash this defense. Not only are we seeing a Dallas road win in this one – we’re seeing it by double digits to the tune of Dallas 34, Minnesota 21.
N.Y. Jets at San Diego – The Jets, who are eight-point underdogs here, do a few things really well. They cover an opponent’s best wide receiver with Darrelle Revis. They run the ball with Thomas Jones or rookie Shonn Greene, who may have had his breakout game last week against Cincinnati. And the play-calling was incredible last week, as offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer put rookie QB Mark Sanchez in some great spots to make big plays. But the Jets must control the ball to win, because they can’t score in the upper 20s with a rookie QB on the road in the playoffs. So while the Bengals were the perfect matchup for them, the Chargers aren’t. QB Philip Rivers has a plethora of terrific targets in Vincent Jackson (who should get the Revis treatment), Antonio Gates, Darren Sproles, LaDanian Tomlinson, Malcom Floyd, and Legedu Naanee. That’s going to be too much for the Jets to handle. While the Jets may blitz Rivers, he’ll find Gates or Sproles and make New York pay. On defense, the Chargers will get at least one crucial mistake out of Sanchez – likely when he’s under pressure from Shaun Phillips or Shawne Merriman. San Diego is simply too loaded for the Jets to force their script on this game. It’ll be San Diego 31, N.Y. Jets 17.
Last week – 0-1 college, 1-3 pro
Season: 62-83-3 college, 55-62-2 pro, 117-145-5 overall