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FR: Super Bowl 45 Playmakers

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers. Image via Wikipedia

Each year, as we begin to preview the Super Bowl, we try to anticipate which players will become the big-play makers of the big game. (You can see last year’s post here, and the Super Bowl 43 edition here.) As always, we’re on a 10-point scale where 10 points is epic and 1 point is someone who is a possible playmaker in a remote situation. We’ve left out offensive linemen, because it’s so hard to distinguish them individually because they are meant to function as a unit.

If you think we missed someone, add a comment and where you think that Packer or Steeler fits in.

10 – QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers – This is Rodgers’ chance at the spotlight, and we believe he’s up to the challenge. Given the state of the Packers’ running game, the Packers’ chances rest on their quarterback, which means that he’s the man on the spot. He can make big plays with both his arm and his legs, and he has done just that in his playoff drive this season. Does he have one more game left?

9 – QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Mike Wallace, Steelers – Big Ben has two Super Bowl rings, but no MVP trophies, which is a little odd for a quarterback. You can’t say he’s played poorly, because he led a game-winning drive two years ago and hit Santonio Holmes for the winning TD. But Roethlisberger has set up Holmes and Hines Ward for Super Bowl MVP honors. So while Big Ben will play a huge role, the pattern indicates that if the Steelers win, it will be a receiver who gets the award. Our money is on Wallace, who has perhaps the best deep speed in the game. Wallace has been the focus of defenses in the playoffs thus far, but the Packers let Johnny Knox and Devin Hester break free deep in the NFC championship game, and if they can do it, Wallace can too. If the Steelers win, it’ll be correlated to a big game from Wallace.

8 – OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, Steelers – Harrison made a huge play in the last Super Bowl with an epic 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. And Harrison remains a huge force getting to the quarterback. But Woodley, who has compiled a sack in each and every postseason game in his career, will get to Rodgers at least once, and so he’s just as high on the list as Harrison. These two outside ‘backers will need to force at least one turnover for the Steelers to win.

7 – CB Charles Woodson, Packers – Really, we could have said pick a Packer corner, because both Tramon Williams and Sam Shields have been game MVPs for the Pack in the playoffs this year. But Woodson is a big-time player who can emerge on the biggest stage, and as one of the few Packers with Super Bowl experience, he won’t be afraid of the stage.

6 – RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall may have had the best game of his career against the Jets in the AFC championship game, and if he plays that way again, he can carry the Steelers to a win. Running against the Packers will be tough, but Mendenhall showed against the Jets that he might just be up to the challenge.

5 – OLB Clay Matthews, Packers – Matthews is the Packers’ star on defense, but after a ridiculous start to the season his playmaking has been a bit more sporadic this season. The matchup seems to favor Matthews against subpar Steelers tackles, but if the Steelers gear up their protection to stop Matthews, someone else will need to step up and pressure Big Ben. And even if Matthews can get to Roethlisberger, can he bring him down? Roethlisberger is basically as big as Matthews, and he’s perhaps the league’s toughest QB to bring down.

4 – WR Greg Jennings, Packers – Jennings may be the most overlooked No. 1 receiver in the league, but he certainly deserves the accolade. He’s good enough to carry the team, but he has so much help at receiver that defenses can’t focus on him. Jennings could have a breakout game a la Larry Fitzgerald two years ago that turns him from very good player to national star.

4 (con’t) – S Troy Polamalu, Steelers – Polamalu is one of the most popular and well-known Steelers, and he claimed defensive player of the year honors (over Matthews) this week. But his play of late hasn’t been dominant, and the fact that the Packers can spread the field with four receivers could force Polamalu into coverage instead of letting him freelance as he usually does. That will limit Polamalu’s impact in this game.

3 – TE Heath Miller, Steelers – Miller is a supersolid tight end who can help out blocking Matthews and company but also serve as a possession receiver or even a threat to get down the seam for a big play. The Packers have struggled against tight ends this year, and that could set Miller up for success on Sunday.

2 – WR Jordy Nelson, Packers – Nelson is the Packers’ fourth receiver, but he has been a popular target for Rodgers in the postseason, and we think he’s behind only Jennings in terms of the Packer wideouts we see making big plays this weekend. Of course, Rodgers will look for vet Donald Driver and the inconsistent but talented James Jones as well, but we can see Nelson piling up 70-80 yards or more on multiple receptions.

2 (con’t) – DLs B.J. Raji and Cullen Jenkins, Packers – The Packers’ defensive line doesn’t get a ton of publicity – or at least it didn’t until Raji broke free with an interception return for a touchdown against the Bears. But while Raji has been a dominator inside, Jenkins stepped up in the playoffs, and he’s just as likely to make the big play as Raji against the Steelers.

1 – ILBs Desmond Bishop, Packers, and Lawrence Timmons, Steelers – Bishop and Timmons have both had terrific seasons for their respective teams, but they don’t make the flashy plays that their defensive teammates do. But both guys are tackling machines, and if they can strip the ball on a tackle or pick up a fumble and return it for a score, they could find themselves joining unlikely Super Bowl MVPs like Larry Brown and Dexter Jackson.

1 (con’t) – DE Ziggy Hood, Steelers – We’ve been pounding the drum on how well Hood has been playing throughout the postseason, and if he does that again he’ll have a shot at raising his profile and making a splash on the biggest stage. In fact, we believe it’s more likely that Hood will make a big play than his D-linemates Casey Hampton or Brett Keisel doing so.

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FR: Super Bowl 45 Storylines

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisbe...

Ben Roethlisberger (left) will be on the spot at Media Day. Image via Wikipedia

Each year, the buildup to the Super Bowl is full of storylines. Some are hype, some are funny, some are ridiculous, and some actually mean something. So on the eve of the spectacle known as Media Day, we’re going to do what we do each year and break down the storylines using our Football Relativity comparison. The 10 level marks the storylines that you’ll hear the most; the 1 level is the storyline that will barely make a ripple.

If you have ideas we overlooked, suggest them via comments and we’ll add them to the comparison.

10 – Big Ben’s redemption – This story is old, because it’s been a full season since Ben Roethlisberger’s legal questions in Georgia, and several months since his league-mandated suspension. But Roethlisberger will be peppered with questions about his past and his future throughout the week. Armchair psychologists will try to determine if he has changed, if he has learned his lesson, whether women have forgiven him, and a multitude of other questions. With Big Ben giving pat answers to such questions all seasons, we can’t expect any revelations or public soul-searching, but the questions will undoubtedly be there.

9 – Aaron Rodgers’ place among the elite QBs today – Rodgers can break the glass ceiling of NFL quarterbacks if he wins this Super Bowl, much like Drew Brees did last year. Before New Orleans’ Super Bowl win, Brees was fighting for inclusion with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning among the league’s best QBs. Now Brees has turned the duo into a threesome. If Rodgers leads the Pack to a win Sunday, he’ll make it a quartet. He already has the regular-season numbers, but a Super Bowl win would vault him over Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, and the other good quarterbacks into the land of the great – at least in terms of national perception. This storyline will be a talking-head go-to this week.

8 – Big Ben’s place among the elite QBs all-time – While Rodgers is out to solidify his ranking among the quarterbacks of today, Big Ben has history at stake. If he gets another Super Bowl win, he’ll join the Troy Aikman/Brady class with three rings, trailing just Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw on the all-time list. The list of QBs with two rings includes many greats – John Elway, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese – but also Jim Plunkett, a good but not great. Roethlisberger can cement his lasting legacy (and strengthen his Hall of Fame case) by moving from the two-ring to the three-ring club.

7 – Packers IR controversy – Maybe it was the lull of the bye week, but the story about how the Packers were treating their 16 players on injured reserve blew up last week and will linger into media day. A quick review: First, the Packers announced that their IR players wouldn’t arrive in Texas until Thursday, which would leave them out of the team photo that happens Tuesday. Nick Barnett and JerMichael Finley took to Twitter to protest being left out, and the Packers rescheduled the photo until Friday. Then Rodgers publicly criticized players who were doing their rehab away from Green Bay, even though that’s a fairly typical decision for players. Again, Barnett and Finley (among others) took offense. The Packers will claim the waters have been smoothed over, but questions will persist all week and especially when injured players are available to the media later in the week.

6 – Looming lockout – Because both commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association leader DeMaurice Smith will hold press conferences this week, the looming lockout will be front-page news. There will be plenty of posturing, and both sides will try to win the battle of public perception. Who knows who will win; but we do know for sure that headlines will be forthcoming.

5 – Hines Ward retirement – Some stories have percolated suggesting that Ward, the long-time Steelers receiver and Super Bowl 40 MVP, might retire were the Steelers to win the Super Bowl. But Ward has said his third ring won’t be enough to transition him out of the game. Still, reports are out there enough that Ward will have to declare he’s coming back more than once to the media onslaught this week.

4 – Steelers injuries – Both teams have injuries, but the Steelers’ are higher profile. Reports say that Pro Bowl rookie center Maurkice Pouncey is out, although the team hasn’t officially ruled him out. Star defensive end Aaron Smith faced an early-week MRI that will determine whether he’s able to play. Former first-round pick Ziggy Hood has played quite well in Smith’s stead, which could allow the Steelers to bring Smith back in a limited role. But Pouncey’s replacement, Doug Legursky, will be a pretty significant drop-off from Pouncey’s level of play. That makes this an on-field issue worth talking about this week.

3 – Clay Matthews’ stardom – Aside from Rodgers, the Packer with the most to gain from a marketing standpoint this week is Matthews, the star outside linebacker and third-generation NFL player. Matthews has a distinctive look and two fine pro seasons, and that will make him a popular target of questions, especially by the non-traditional media. It’ll be interesting to see if Matthews can become a breakout star this week.

2 – none

1 – Packers injuries – While the Packers would like to have either OLB Frank Zombo or Erik Walden available Sunday to start across from Clay Matthews, this isn’t a make-or-break proposition for the Packers. However, it is an excuse for us to declare once again that Zombo is the best surname in the NFL. It’s a name fit for an X-Man or a wrestler, and it’s his real last name. We want him to be a star just so we can hear ZOMBO more often.

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Pick ’em – Conference finals

Lambeau Field, Chicago Bears @ Green Bay Packe...

It's the biggest Bears/Packers game ever. Image via Wikipedia

As we get to the playoffs, we won’t just make our picks – we’ll engage in a little preja vu by talking about how we expect games to go and by predicting final scores for each playoff game. Here we go…

Green Bay over Chicago – We were very, very tempted to pick the Bears here because we believe that the Bears can slow Aaron Rodgers. They’ve already done so twice this year, holding the Pack to 17 points in their first meeting and 10 in their second. Likewise, we believe Clay Matthews and company can slow the Bears’ offense. So in a low-scoring game, it’s going to come down to a joker play. And well it’s entirely possible that joker play could come from Devin Hester – Hester returned a kick for a touchdown against the Packers in the first meeting, and Green Bay gave up a kickoff return touchdown last week – our sense is that it’s more likely to come from the Packers D. The best play in this game is the under, but we’re also going to give points and take the Packers on the road. Pick: Green Bay 17, Chicago 12

Pittsburgh over N.Y. Jets – We discussed Mark Sanchez in some depth yesterday, and given that view we believe that Sanchez won’t make enough big plays to lead the Jets over the Steelers. Much has been made of the Steelers’ injuries on the offensive line, which could prove problematic if the Jets pin back their ears to rush Ben Roethlisberger, but Sanchez is vulnerable too, because the Jets are playing with a backup right tackle. And when the Jets won in Pittsburgh earlier this year, they beat a Steelers team that was without Heath Miller or Troy Polamalu. Both are back for this game. Pittsburgh is simply better, and on top of that they have a more experienced quarterback in Roethlisberger. That’s going to be a recipe for yet another time that Pittsburgh’s going to the Super Bowl. Pick: Pittsburgh 24, N.Y. Jets 13

Last week: 2-2 (straight up and against the spread)
Playoffs: 3-5 (straight up and against the spread)
Season: 55-62-3 college, 58-67-5 pro, 113-129-8 overall

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Who is Mark Sanchez?

Mark Sanchez

Mark Sanchez. Image via Wikipedia

Earlier this week, in our Football Relativity post, we analyzed who Aaron Rodgers is compared to other quarterbacks. (See the Packers entry for those thoughts.) We thought that was an interesting exercise, and so it’s no surprise that since then we’ve set our minds to try to figure out another of the NFL’s final four quarterbacks, Mark Sanchez.

And we’ve decided: Mark Sanchez is at least Trent Dilfer. And Mark Sanchez might be Ben Roethlisberger.

Let us explain.

Sanchez is not yet a consistent quarterback. He has sterling playoff success in his first two pro seasons, notching four road playoff wins thus far. And in these playoff games, Sanchez has rarely carried the Jets. But he has made big plays. Last year against the Bengals, for example, Sanchez hit a big throw to Dustin Keller that ended up being a key play in the game. This year, even in his inconsistent game against the Colts, Sanchez found Braylon Edwards on a key play to turn Nick Folk’s game-winning field goal attempt from a long kick to a far easier attempt.

In these ways, Sanchez is like Dilfer, who quarterbacked the Ravens to their Super Bowl run a decade ago. Dilfer was not a dominant force for those Ravens teams, but he avoided crucial mistakes, and he seemed to hit one big throw a game to set up a touchdown. Throws to Shannon Sharpe against the Raiders and to Brandon Stokley against the Giants still come to mind. Sanchez can do this for the Jets right now.

But there is a key difference between Sanchez and Dilfer in this – that was the peak of Dilfer’s career, while Sanchez is still growing. He can get better. And in that way Sanchez is like his AFC championship game counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls thus far, but it’s hard to remember at this point in his career that in the first win, five years ago, Roethlisberger was the Steelers’ weak link. His Super Bowl 40 performance against the Seahawks was far from spectacular, but it was good enough to let the Steelers’ talent win out. And from that point, Big Ben kept developing, and three years later his performance against the Cardinals was so terrific that he outdueled Kurt Warner in a shootout, complete with a game-winning TD throw to Santonio Holmes at the end of the game. Big Ben was a different quarterback in his second title than he was in his first.

And that’s the hope for Sanchez and the Jets Since Dilfer and Brad Johnson (Buccaneers) won Super Bowls in back-to-back years, the list of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks looks like a who’s who. Tom Brady has won three, Roethlisberger two, Peyton Manning one, Drew Brees one, and Eli Manning one.

We’ve always like Sanchez – we favored him over Matthew Stafford in the draft two years ago – but the truth is that if Sanchez is to join that list of Super Bowl winners, it will have to be a la Dilfer. But if Sanchez is really growing like Roethlisberger did, as we suspect he might be, then Jets fans have a lot to be excited about – both this weekend and in the future.

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Football Relativity Week 19

Each week during the regular season, we compare all 32 teams using our Football Relativity tool. But now that the season has ended, we’re winnowing down our list of teams, this week going from the eight quarterfinalists to the four conference championship teams. You can see where teams fell on last week’s comparison here. Note that, with the Seahawks’ loss, the 1 level this week is equal to the 7 level last week.

James Harrison led the Steelers' D against Baltimore

10 – Pittsburgh Steelers – Somehow, likely because they played the first game of divisional weekend, the Steelers have flown under the radar a little bit this week. But we still believe that they’re the best team of the final four. Baltimore is a good team, and the Steelers made the plays defensively and offensively to come back from a 14-point halftime deficit to beat them. That’s an impressive performance. Ben Roethlisberger continues to show his ability to make big plays at big times, no matter who his receivers are. And the defense forced a key fumble on Ray Rice to turn momentum and set up the comeback. Pittsburgh isn’t flashy, but they’re super solid, and they have an excellent chance to beat the Jets and make the Super Bowl for a record eighth time.

9 – none

8 – Green Bay Packers (UP A LEVEL) – Aaron Rodgers is putting on a show this postseason, and that’s making the Packers even more dangerous. Rodgers actually has more upside than elite quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees because he adds running to the mix and is just as accurate and potent passing the ball. That means Rodgers has a chance to be a Steve Young or John Elway – combining unique talent with elite performance to be a quarterback a level above anyone else in the league. The great news for Rodgers is that he has a better defense than Young or Elway did, with last year’s defensive player of the year Charles Woodson and likely 2010 winner Clay Matthews leading a talented group that’s playing well. The Packers are incredibly dangerous right now because they’re playing well on both sides of the ball.

7 – none

6 – none

5 – none

4 – none

3 – Chicago Bears (THIS LEVEL IS THE EQUIVALENT OF MOVING UP ONE LEVEL FROM LAST WEEK) – Jay Cutler was the Bears’ biggest question mark entering the playoffs, and he acquitted himself well in his first playoff game. Cutler nearly made a killer error on the goal line in the first quarter, but he took advantage of the mulligan of a dropped interception to lead the Bears to a big lead and ultimately a win. Cutler isn’t going to keep up with Aaron Rodgers in a scorefest, but if the Bears can limit the Packers to 10-17 points (as they have in both meetings this season), Cutler is capable of generating two or three big throws to give the Bears a chance to win. The defense is on the spot this week for the Bears, then, to limit Rodgers more than the Eagles or Falcons have been able to. That’s no easy task, but the Bears D has been a classic Tampa-2 unit this year with terrific (if not elite) performance. We give them a chance to stop the Aaron Rodgers train and earn Chicago the win.

3 – none

2 – none

1 – New York Jets (THIS LEVEL IS THE EQUIVALENT OF MOVING UP ONE LEVEL FROM LAST WEEK) – Just like Jay Cutler, Mark Sanchez is his team’s biggest question mark. And Sanchez answered the questions against the Patriots with a sterling performance that out-did Tom Brady and put the Jets in position to win. But Sanchez didn’t have that kind of performance against the Colts in Round One, and so there’s no guarantee the Jets will get good Sanchez this week in Pittsburgh. But if Sanchez can play well, he has the kind of targets (led by ex-Steeler Santonio Holmes) to make the Steelers pay for poor coverage. The Jets’ defense, meanwhile, needs to pressure Ben Roethlisberger like the Ravens did in the first half last week. That’s the recipe for a Jets win, and it’s possible, though not likely.

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Divisional Round Saturday Thoughts

Let’s reflect on two memorable Saturday divisional-round games.

Hines Ward celebrates his TD catch vs. the Ravens

Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 24
*The score didn’t reflect it, but this was just as much of a defensive struggle as any other game in the series. The difference was that turnovers both defenses forced set up touchdowns on short fields, instead of field goals. With 11 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and tons of hard hits, this was an epic reminder of the kind of football the Steelers and Ravens always play against each other.
* The two defensive stars were Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Pittsburgh’s James Harrison. Suggs was an unstoppable force with three sacks and two other tackles for loss, including the sack that caused Ben Roethlisberger’s fumble which Cory Redding picked up when no one else considered doing so and returned for a touchdown. Harrison had three sacks of his own, two more tackles for loss, and two passes defensed, showing again why he’s the most complete 3-4 outside linebacker in the league.
*Redding’s touchdown was one of the most unusual plays you’ll ever see in a playoff game. While most players on both teams assumed the ball was the result of an incomplete pass, Redding realized he hadn’t heard a whistle and picked it up. He was in the end zone before everyone else, aside from two Ravens defensive backs, realized what was going on. Redding’s eureka moment gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead and a healthy dose of momentum they kept until the third quarter.
*Both running backs had crucial fumbles in this game. Rashard Mendenhall’s fumble in the first quarter set up Baltimore’s first touchdown, while Ray Rice’s fumble in the third quarter turned momentum and helped Pittsburgh get back in the game. We still like Rice better than Mendenhall, because Rice has far more elusiveness and ability to turn nothing into something. Mendenhall needs a hole blocked for him before he can get going and gain yards.
*The Ravens were supposed to have the receiver depth in this game, after adding Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the offseason, but it was the Steelers who got good performances from the two rookies they added. Emmanuel Sanders had four key catches, while Antonio Brown’s 58-yard bomb late in the game set up the game-winning touchdown. With Sanders, Brown, and Mike Wallace (who was the focus of Baltimore’s defense in this game), the Steelers are set up nicely for the post-Hines Ward era, whenever it begins. Boldin and Houshmandzadeh, meanwhile, both had key drops as Baltimore tried to rally for a game-tying touchdown in the final two minutes. Somehow, despite those additions, Derrick Mason remained the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver this season.
*Joe Flacco is becoming a good quarterback, and he’s had good success on the road in the playoffs in his three-year career. But in this game Flacco made costly errors – an overthrown ball that turned into a Ryan Clark interception, setting up Pittsburgh’s third touchdown. Then Flacco fumbled a snap to set up a field goal. Flacco is 4-3 in the playoffs, which is still quite good for a young QB, but he’s not good enough to beat an elite team in the postseason yet.
*Two other names deserving mention in this game were Baltmore CB Chris Carr and Pittsburgh DE Ziggy Hood. Carr, whom the Ravens signed when he was primarily a kick returner in Tennessee, has become a sure-tackling corner for the Ravens. Hood, a former first-round pick, filled in beautifully for the injured Aaron Smith, notching a sack and another fumble for loss. Hood and Brett Keisel are top-quality 3-4 defensive ends, which should let Smith play more limited snaps when he returns.

Aaron Rodgers celebrates another score

Green Bay 48, Atlanta 21
*Aaron Rodgers is officially making the leap in these playoffs. His masterful 31-for-36 game for 366 yards and three touchdowns is an all-time classic, giving him two terrific playoff games in a row. The Falcons had no answer for Rodgers and his deep group of receivers. All four of his top receivers had at least four catches, led by eight from Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson.
*Tramon Williams starred again as well. After his game-clinching interception against the Eagles, Williams added two more picks against the Falcons, including one he returned for a 70-yard touchdown late in the first half that really started the Packers’ onslaught. Charles Woodson is terrific, but Williams gives Green Bay a second terrific cover man.
*Clay Matthews continued his strong play with two more sacks. He has become an elite outside rusher, a la DeMarcus Ware.
*The one bright spot for the Falcons was kick returner Eric Weems, who backed up his Pro Bowl selection with a 102-yard kickoff return for a score. That’s something to watch for the Packers next week, because the Bears with Devin Hester and the Seahawks with Leon Washington both have elite return men.

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Pick ’em – Divisional round

As we get to the playoffs, we won’t just make our picks – we’ll engage in a little preja vu by talking about how we expect games to go and by predicting final scores for each playoff game. We’ll try to rebound from a below-par first weekend with this week’s picks.

Hines Ward and the Steelers take on the Ravens once again

Pittsburgh -3 vs. Baltimore – The Steelers and Ravens resume their physical and aggressive series with a game at Heinz Field. And while the overall series has been even recently, the truth is that the Ravens’ last two wins came only when Ben Roethlisberger was out. With Roethlisberger, the Steelers are on a winning streak against Baltimore, even though most of the games have been close. That’s what we expect in this one. The Steelers’ defense, while not at full strength, will have Troy Polamalu back, and he’s the biggest difference maker on either team, even over Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. And the most dynamic offensive player on either team, even above the great Ray Rice, is Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace, who averaged more than 20 yards per catch this season. So despite the Ravens’ fine performance last week, and despite Joe Flacco’s strong postseason record away from Baltimore, the Steelers are the pick. Pick: Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 13

Atlanta -3 vs. Green Bay – The Packers are the trendy pick to win the NFC at this point after their win in Philadelphia last week. And while that win was terrific, it’s not like it was a blowout. Green Bay missed a key opportunity for a touchdown when James Jones dropped a beautiful Aaron Rodgers pass just before the half, and it took two missed field goals and a late interception to seal the game. Maybe Green Bay would be a realistic favorite if they still had guys like JerMichael Finley and Nick Barnett on the field, but the truth is that Green Bay isn’t good enough to dominate anyone. And it may have been forgotten during the bye week, but the Falcons are a fine team. They have a strong running game, a ridiculously good receiver in Roddy White, and a defense that can both stop the run and create pressure with John Abraham. The Falcons don’t have many weaknesses, and their strong play is even better in the Georgia Dome. We’ll buck the trend and stick with the home team in this one. Pick: Atlanta 24, Green Bay 20

Chester Taylor and the Bears host the Seahawks

Chicago -10 vs. Seattle – The Seahawks took off last week in an upset win thanks to a career performance from Matt Hasselbeck and a top-flight game plan from Pete Carroll and his staff. The question is whether they can replicate that kind of performance two weeks in a row. Yes, the Seahawks won in Chicago earlier this year, but in that game the Bears went 0-12 on third-down conversions and played without Lance Briggs. The Bears have picked up their play offensively in the second half of the season, protecting Cutler better and becoming more efficient. This isn’t the same team the Seahawks beat. Most of all, the Bears’ defense has played well all season, and we think they can stop Hasselbeck, Marshawn Lynch and company. We have no question the Bears can win the game, and we’ll put them past the double-digit spread as well. Pick: Chicago 31, Seattle 17

New England -9 vs. N.Y. Jets – Rex Ryan and the Jets have been talking big all week, but the last time they faced the Patriots they got blitzed 45-3. The Jets are better than that, but we still expect the Patriots to knock them off again. Tom Brady has been spectacular all season, and even more so since the Randy Moss trade. That trade completely changed how the Jets defend the Pats, because Darrelle Revis can’t sit on Moss all game. Now the Patriots’ passing game is versatile enough to avoid Revis without losing much of and edge. Plus, the Patriots run the ball better than they have in five years thanks to Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Jets’ running game looked good this past week at Indianapolis, but QB Mark Sanchez was far too inconsistent. He’s going to have to raise his game for the Jets to have a chance, and we don’t think he can be explosive enough to keep the Jets close to the Pats on teh scoreboard. Pick: New England 35, N.Y. Jets 20

Last week: 1-0-1 college, 1-3 pro, 2-3-1 overall
Season: 55-62-3 college, 56-65-5 pro, 111-127-8 overall

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Wild-card Sunday Thoughts

Let’s look back at Sunday’s wild-card games. (For a look at Saturday’s games, click here.)

Todd Heap of the Ravens vs. Eric Berry of the Chiefs

 

Ravens 30, Chiefs 7
*Ray Rice didn’t find a ton of room running the ball for the Ravens (17 carries, 56 yards), but he did a great job in the passing game, as usual, with five catches for 42 yards and a score. It seems like Rice needs two or three steps to get going, but once he does, he’s elusive and hard to corral. He’s the best offensive player the Ravens have. But Baltimore got great performances out of TE Todd Heap (a franchise postseason record 10 catches for 108 yards) and WR Anquan Boldin (five catches, 65 yards, and a touchdown), among others.
*Because the running game wasn’t thriving, the Ravens had to rely on Joe Flacco, and he did a good job getting the ball to receivers on crossing routes. The Ravens didn’t make a ton of throws outside, but Flacco killed the Chiefs on inside plays as he threw for 265 yards and two scores. Flacco has now made the playoffs in all three of his seasons and is 4-2 in the postseason despite not having a home playoff game yet.
*Matt Cassel only threw seven interceptions all season, but he threw three in this game, including two early ones that doomed the Chiefs. Cassel still has a bright future, but right now the Chiefs don’t have enough offensive firepower to overcome these kinds of mistakes.
*Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles made a huge play for the Chiefs with a 41-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and his hustle play after a Cassel interception in the third quarter forced a fumble that Charles recovered. But Charles’ second-quarter fumble really stifled the Chiefs’ momentum when they had a 7-3 lead.
*Despite the loss, this might have been the day that Chiefs OLB Tamba Hali became a national star. After finishing second in the league this season with 14.5 sacks, Hali had two sacks and a forced fumble against the Ravens, and a third-quarter pressure forced a field-goal attempt.
*Ray Lewis is already a star for the Ravens, and he showed why in the third quarter with a hit on Dexter McCluster that forced a fumble and led to a field goal. He also had a late sack. Lewis isn’t quite as active as he once was, but he’s still an asset and a physical force. So is Terrell Suggs, who had two sacks in the game and provides a consistent pass rush.
*Despite the loss, the Chiefs have a bright future, and it’s thanks in large part to their first-round picks. On defense, Hali, rookie S Eric Berry (four passes defensed), LB Derrick Johnson (huge stop in a first-quarter goal-line stand), and DE Glenn Dorsey all played well – all are former first-rounders. And on offense, OLT Branden Albert held up pretty well. The one first-rounder who went missing was WR Dwayne Bowe, who had a terrific year but didn’t make an impact at all in this game, going without a catch.

Packers 21, Eagles 18
*Aaron Rodgers had a terrific game – throwing for three touchdowns that should have been four had James Jones not dropped a beautiful deep throw just before the half – but the revelation for the Pack was rookie RB James Starks, who ran for 123 yards after recording just 101 in the regular season. Starks is a big, physical runner who got more from his chunks than Brandon Jackson ever could. (Give Jackson credit, though, for great patience that turned a screen pass into a 16-yard touchdown in the third quarter.)
*Michael Vick had a good but not great game for the Eagles. He threw for 292 yards, but aside from one chunk late in the game, he couldn’t get DeSean Jackson free for a big play. (Jackson was battling an injury.) Vick also threw a critical interception late in the game as he tried to bring the Eagles back. Vick ran for 33 yards, but Green Bay’s decision to spy on him with Charles Woodson kept the quarterback from breaking free very often. The Packers also sacked Vick three times, which was an accomplishment.
*One of the things that makes Green Bay so dangerous is its depth of receivers. Greg Jennings, the Pack’s best outside man, had just one catch, but Rodgers still threw for 180 yards and moved the team effectively. Rodgers’ willingness to spread the ball around definitely paid off in this game.

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Pick ‘Em – Wild-card round

As we get to the playoffs, we won’t just make our picks – we’ll engage in a little preja vu by talking about how we expect games to go and by predicting final scores for each playoff game. We also have a few bonus college picks below.

Pierre Garcon vs. the Jets in last year's AFC title game

New Orleans at Seattle – As the first losing team to enter the playoffs, the 7-9 Seahawks are massive underdogs against the Saints, and with good reason. Seattle’s offense is pretty punchless – only 14 passing touchdowns all year, and not much of a running game despite the addition of Marshawn Lynch at midseason. Seattle’s big win against San Diego was a direct result of two Leon Washington return touchdowns, and it was only at Chicago that Seattle’s offense showed enough punch to beat a good team. The fact that Matt Hasselbeck may miss the game only makes that worse, because it’s hard to imagine Charlie Whitehurst playing acceptably as he did last week. Defensively, the Seahawks have shown a propensity to fall apart, which is why each and every one of their losses was by two touchdowns or more. So Seattle comes by its losing record honestly, and it’s far easier to foresee them with another double-digit loss to New Orleans, despite having home field advantage and a vocal 12th man. The Saints aren’t the powerhouse they were last year, because Drew Brees has been a bit more turnover prone and the defense has been less prone to cause those key turnovers. But Brees and the Saints D are still very good. The big question mark for the Saints is the running game, especially now that both Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory are out for the playoffs. That lack of a running game may cost the Saints, but not in round one. Seattle’s 10th loss will fit its season-long pattern of big-time deficits. Pick: New Orleans 28, Seattle 10

N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis – The Colts looked incredibly fallible just a month ago, but as their running game got healthy with the return of Joseph Addai and Donald Brown and the renaissance of Dominic Rhodes, and as the defense got key LBs Gary Brackett and Clint Session back, the reports of the Colts’ demise now seem at least a bit premature. This is still not a classic Colts team – they’re missing too many players like Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Jerraud Powers, Melvin Bullitt, and of course Bob Sanders. But Peyton Manning still has dangerous weapons in Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon, while Jacob Tamme and Blair White have become reliable performers. That should allow Manning to pick apart the Jets’ defense, which has not been nearly as dominant in 2010 as it was in 2009. The Jets must blitz to create pressure, and few quarterbacks are better than Manning at picking apart the blitz. In that matchup, we favor the Colts. On the other side of the ball, the Jets’ offense has sputtered lately. While the Jets have a higher-flying passing game than last year thanks largely to Santonio Holmes, who has a terrific playoff pedigree, the running game behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene has been too ordinary. The Colts aren’t the biggest defense, but they are good enough to quell the 2010 version of the Jets’ running game. So the game will hinge on whether Mark Sanchez can make enough big passing plays to keep up with Manning. And while Sanchez has been OK in big spots in his young career, he can’t keep up with Manning in this matchup. The Colts won this matchup in last year’s playoffs, and this year the result will be similar. Pick: Indianapolis 30, N.Y. Jets 20

 

Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick

 

Baltimore at Kansas City – The Ravens are a dangerous team, because they have so many good pieces. Ray Rice is one of the league’s best running backs, both carrying and catching the ball, and he’s capable of carrying an offense by himself. But often, he doesn’t have to, because Joe Flacco finds veteran targets Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Todd Heap. And on defense, the Ravens can pressure the quarterback with Terrell Suggs, stop the run with Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis, and force turnovers with Ed Reed. But the Ravens have been vulnerable to the pass all season, and that’s where Sunday’s matchup gets interesting. The Chiefs have a surprisingly good passing game, thanks to stud wideout Dwayne Bowe and QB Matt Cassel, who made fewer critical errors than any quarterback not named Tom Brady this year. Our sense is that Bowe will burn the Ravens’ secondary for one or two big plays this week. If that happens early, the Chiefs can ride their running game with reliable Thomas Jones and the explosive Jamaal Charles to build on a lead. Defensively, the Chiefs have an elite rusher in Tamba Hali, and Brandon Flowers has emerged as a top-tier quarterback. The rest of the secondary, however, has shown holes at times, as has the run defense. The Chiefs also have a strong home-field advantage at Arrowhead Stadium, although Flacco has a surprising number of road playoff wins on his resume at this point in his fledgling career. Baltimore will score in this game, but we believe the Chiefs will get enough big plays from Bowe and Charles to outscore Baltimore and get their first playoff win in 17 years in an upset. Pick: Kansas City 28, Baltimore 24

Green Bay at Philadelphia – This strikes us as the most back-and-forth game of the weekend. The Eagles are incredibly explosive, thanks to QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy, and WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. They’re more likely than any of the other 12 playoff teams to produce an 80-yard offensive touchdown, and we could see one this week. But Philly’s defense has not been good of late. Picture the 31 points the Giants put up on Philly, and then imagine Aaron Rodgers picking apart a pass defense that has really struggled this year. The Eagles have traditionally been a high-pressure team, but their pass rush is not what it has been in the past. Trent Cole has 10 sacks, but only one other Eagle (Juqua Parker) has more than four. That should mean that Rodgers picks apart the Eagles’ D. While that’s the biggest problem for the Eagles, Green Bay’s biggest issue is its running game, which has been punchless since Ryan Grant’s Week One injury against these same Eagles. But even if the Eagles tee off on Rodgers, we don’t see them holding up against Greg Jennings, James Jones, Donald Driver and company. On the other side, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and the Green Bay defense should have more success against Vick and company. It might be a shootout, but Rodgers and the Pack will come out on top. Pick: Green Bay 27, Philadelphia 26

NCAA picks
Cotton Bowl: LSU -1.5 vs. Texas A&M
BCS Championship: Auburn -3 vs. Oregon

Last week: 8-4 college, 2-2 pro, 10-6 overall
Season: 54-62-2 college, 55-62-5 pro, 109-124-7

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FR: Biggest What Ifs of 2010

Mike Vick with Philadelphia

Image via Wikipedia

Each year, we look back at the NFL season and wonder what if? Let’s compare the biggest what ifs of the 2010 NFL season.

Feel free to add your own ideas via comment, and then we’ll include them in the comparison.

10 – What if the Eagles had stuck with Kevin Kolb as their starting QB? – After trading Donovan McNabb in the offseason, the Eagles anointed Kevin Kolb as their new starter. But Kolb was injured in the season opener, and Michael Vick played well in relief (albeit in a 27-20 loss to the Packers). Vick started in Week 2 against Detroit and played well, but Andy Reid said that Kolb would return as the starter when healthy. But after watching film, Reid reversed course, naming Vick the permanent starter. Vick has gone on to have an MVP-caliber season in leading the Eagles to the NFC East title, while Kolb went 2-1 starting for an injured Vick in the middle of the season. Given the Eagles’ young and sometimes porous D, it’s hard to imagine Philly as much better than 8-8 had Kolb gotten his job back in Week 3. Instead, they’re Super Bowl contenders.

 
 

Calvin Johnson's would-be TD catch

 

9 – What if Calvin Johnson’s touchdown had counted in Week 1? – The Lions trailed the Bears 19-14, but Matthew Stafford led the team on a comeback that appeared to result in a 25-yard touchdown to Calvin Johnson in the game’s final minute. But thanks to a rule that receivers must complete the catch, when Johnson put the ball on the ground while standing up, the catch was overturned. The Lions lost the game, and Detroit ended up losing their first four games, three by one score or less. Had the Lions gotten a road win to start the season, our hunch is that they would have been able to build on that momentum to a better start. We see with Detroit’s current three-game winning streak that the talent is there. Chicago, meanwhile, started 3-0, winning all three games by one score or less. A Week 1 loss could have kept them from the NFC North championship season they’ve enjoyed. In fact, the hypothetical part of us wonders if these two teams would have switched places had the call gone the other way.

8 – What if the Patriots had kept Randy Moss? – Moss has been the biggest newsmaker in the NFL this season, starting with a postgame news conference after a season-opening win and then a series of transactions – a trade to Minnesota, a release by the Vikings, and a waiver claim in Tennessee. Through it all, Moss has done next to nothing on the field, with 27 catches for 315 yards and five touchdowns through Week 16. But what if the Patriots hadn’t dealt Moss after Week 4? The Patriots’ offense likely wouldn’t be humming along as well as it is with Deion Branch (Moss’ replacement), Wes Welker, rookie tight ends, and undrafted running backs. Our guess is that New England wouldn’t be the strong Super Bowl favorites that they currently are. And if Moss hadn’t been traded, the Vikings’ season might not have spiralled out of control the way it did. Perhaps Minnesota could be fighting for a winning record and Brad Childress could have at least lasted through the season. If Philly’s decision to go with Vick is prescient move No. 1 of the year, Bill Belichick’s choice to deal Moss was the second-best bit of preja vu all season.

DeAngelo Hall returns Tashard Choice's fumble

7 – What if A.J. Smith hadn’t let his ego get in the way in contract negotiations with Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson? – Andy added this suggestion about Smith, known around San Diego as the Lord of No Rings. Smith’s top two restricted free agents weren’t happy about not hitting the open market, and the Chargers took a super-hard line with them, reducing their tender offers in the offseason so that they would make far less than market value in 2010. McNeill missed five games before agreeing to a new contract, while Jackson stayed out (between his holdout and suspension) until Week 12. The Chargers started 2-3 without both players and never recovered from the slow start, falling behind the Chiefs and eventually losing the AFC West to K.C. While having McNeill and Jackson would have helped, the Chargers’ biggest issues were on special teams. But there’s no doubt that Smith’s hard-line, organization-uber-all approach cost the Chargers dearly this season.

6 – What if Dallas hadn’t gone for a score at the end of the first half in Week 1? – Dallas opened the season in Washington, and they trailed 3-0 late in the first half. When Dallas got the ball on its own 30 with 27 seconds left, Wade Phillips decided to go for a score. The Cowboys continued on the attack with four seconds left, but Tashard Choice was stripped of the ball by Lorenzo Alexander, and DeAngelo Hall returned the fumble for a 32-yard touchdown. Washington ended up winning the game 13-7, sending the Cowboys reeling. Dallas started the season 1-7 and Phillips was fired, and it’s hard to imagine things getting that bad had Dallas sat on the ball at the end of the first half and gone on to win the season opener.

5 – none

4 – What if Ryan Grant had not gotten hurt? – Grant, the Packers’  leading rusher for the last three seasons, suffered a season-ending ankle/leg injury in the season opener against Philadelphia. Since then, the Packers’ running game has suffered. The only two Packers who have averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry are Grant (8 carries, 45 yards) and QB Aaron Rodgers. While the Packers have fought through injuries to Grant and other key players, you have to wonder if their playoff future would still be in doubt in Week 17 had they had a consistent running game all season.

3 – none

2 – none

1 – What if the Cardinals had kept Matt Leinart? – The Cardinals jettisoned Leinart, a former first-round pick, before the season after he lost the starting QB job to Derek Anderson. Leinart has settled in with a clipboard in Houston and has not played all season. But the Cardinals have had some of the worst QB play in the league from Anderson and rookies Max Hall and John Skelton. Arizona has somehow squeezed out five wins, in part because of its horrific division, but we have to wonder if Leinart had stuck around if he could have provided an upgrade, at least over Hall and Skelton, and kept Arizona in the NFC West race until Week 17.

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