Some New York judge said that, apparently. You’d be surprised how few good quotes there are that contain the word “division.” This one seemed the most apt.
Last week, one third of the NFL playoff teams were cut out and cast aside. Twelve became eight. Now, eight prepare to be culled to four, with the conference title on the line next week. The best of the bottom-four seeds competed for the chance to challenge a top-two seed on its home turf. A tall task, indeed. But in a playoff that has already seen three road upsets, plus a sub-.500 regular-season team beating a defending Super Bowl champion, we can no longer assume the extra week of rest favors the home team. Perhaps the uninterrupted weeks of play has given the wild-card teams extra momentum. Perhaps not. We’ll know Sunday night. Until then, all we can do is predict:
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (Saturday, 4:30): The Ravens should not fear the Steelers, having already come into Heinz Field once this season and left victorious. But the Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger for that game, and the Ravens won by just three points. But the two things that were important across the board last week were a strong running game and a playoff-experienced quarterback. And both of these factors favor the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger has already won two Super Bowls and played in 10 playoff games. Joe Flacco’s win last week was just his sixth playoff game, having never gone to the Super Bowl. Roethlisberger knows what to expect, and he’ll have the crowd on his side. Neither team has a great running game (Pittsburgh had the 11th best rushing game in the NFL, Baltimore 14th), but the edge goes to Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall, who outranks Baltimore’s Ray Rice in total yards and yards per game. Mendenhall is especially lethal near the end zone, tied for second in the NFL with 13 rushing touchdowns. Rice is not a particularly strong scoring running back. If Baltimore has to throw to score, they increase the chance for a turnover (Pittsburgh ranks second in the AFC with a plus-14 turnover differential). The Steelers stop the run better than any other team, and that should combine with Flacco’s inexperience to give the edge to the Steelers. The Ravens’ speedy defense may sack Roethlisberger a couple of times, but their offensive line has actually been even more porous than the Steelers’, with Flacco sacked more times than any other AFC quarterback. The Steelers might be weak at the line, but both sides should be disrupted equally by the opposing defense. If that’s a wash, go with the more experienced quarterback and better rusher. Pick: Steelers.
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons (Saturday, 8:00): This is another game that already happened once. The Packers went to Atlanta and lost in a game that the Falcons controlled essentially from start to finish. So what will change this time around? The Packers certainly were buoyed by their upset of the Eagles, but they’re a terrible road team playing a terrific home team. Matt Ryan has only one playoff game under his belt, but Rodgers has only played two, so experience is a non-issue in this game. Atlanta has a rushing advantage (12th best rushing offense and 10th best defense vs. 24th best rushing offense and 18th best defense for Green Bay), but there’s the question of how much the Falcons will try and run on the Packers. Atlanta’s Michael Turner is probably the fifth-best running back in the NFL, and he rushed for 117 yards on the Packers at the end of November. For the Packers, James Starks needs to have another good day, or the Falcons will tee off on Aaron Rodgers. The Falcons give up a lot of passing yards, but they also lead the NFC in turnover differential. Problem is, Green Bay sits at third with plus-ten turnovers, just three less than Atlanta. So then it all comes down to which quarterback has the better day. The Packers passing offense is better, and the Falcons passing defense is worse. Atlanta scores about eight more points than they allow, while Green Bay scores about nine more. But Atlanta also allows more points per game than Green Bay does. This is going to be a very close game, but in the end tie goes to the home team. The Falcons should make just a couple of more plays and hang on for the win. Whoever wins this game will be my pick to go to the Super Bowl. Pick: Falcons.
Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears (Sunday, 1:00): “You kind of suck, but my dad thinks you might be good some day.” That was Stan from “South Park” talking to Jay Cutler when he was quarterback for the Broncos back in 2007. Well, some day has come and gone, and Cutler… still kind of sucks. Seriously, his career passer rating is just 84.1. He threw 16 interceptions this season, which isn’t even the worst season of his career. With the Bears, Cutler has quarterbacked a team ranked 28th in passing yardage in the NFL. And his offensive line is awful, leading to 52 sacks, most in the NFL by a long shot. And the Bears don’t really have a good running game, either (22nd in the league). Their defense? OK, solid against the run, but not terrific overall. They took the ball away just four times more than they gave it away during the regular season. This is surprising, because the Bears defense is smart and can trick opposing quarterbacks. So how did they win so often? Good starting field position, thanks to Devin Hester, one of the best return specialists of the modern era. Cutler has had to do less to win more, and that’s disguised his inadequacies. And the Seahawks have already beaten the Bears once this season (their one win against a good opponent). Even with all of those factors in mind, it would still be hard to pick Seattle to win, except for this: Cutler has never been in a playoff game before. Never. And he’s going against Matt Hasselbeck, who’s now played in 10. That matters. If Marshawn Lynch can have another solid game, and if the Seahawks can keep Hester from starting the Bears at the 45-yard line every time, Seattle can absolutely carry their momentum from last week into Chicago and win again. Pick: Seahawks.
New York Jets at New England Patriots (Sunday, 4:30): Rex Ryan continues to try and raise the stakes and importance of this game. The Patriots continue to downplay it. Ryan hopes that by doing so, his team will rise to the occasion. The greater likelihood is they will crumble under the publicity… you know, like a month ago. The Jets are a team we should all be far more familiar with, so statistical comparisons are unnecessary. The Jets like to run the ball, and the Patriots will have to stop it. If they put the ball in Mark Sanchez’s hands, he’ll throw it away. Defensively, the Jets beat the Colts by shutting down their deep threat receivers. That’s what Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie do best. But what happens when you have Deion Branch and Wes Welker at wide receiver, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski at tight end, and Danny Woodhead in the backfield? Can the Jets defense shut down five potential throwing targets, all of whom can run anywhere on the field on any given play? It doesn’t seem likely. This won’t be another 45-3 massacre, but the Patriots should control this one start to finish. Tack on Damien Woody’s injury, which will give Vince Wilfork a much easier time trying to break through the line, and you should see at least a two-possession Patriots victory. Pick: Patriots (but you already knew that).
Last weekend, I split 50-50 between home and road team, and went 1-3. This time, I’m favoring extra rest and home-field, picking three home teams to win. The playoffs are usually better when the higher seeds remain, so hopefully this sets up at least one #1 vs. #2 conference championship. At the very least, I just want to do better than last week.