Friday, January 20, 2006

Championship Picks

Here’s the deal: I have to get both of the AFC Championship games and the Super Bowl right in order to finish the playoffs with a winning record. That’s what I get for sucking in the first two rounds. I’m taking a different approach this week, though. Instead of slapping something together on Thursday night and editing it on Friday, I’m starting this one on Wednesday and sticking to it. The only way I’ll change is if there’s a late injury report.

So here we go, just two games this week, which means two chances for me to blow it.

Pittsburgh (+3.5) over DENVER
The Broncos knocked off New England last week, which really foiled my plans. But it’s not like the Broncos played an impeccable game against a flawless Patriots team. Five turnovers and conservative play aided the Broncos. That isn’t to say they played badly; not by any stretch of the imagination. I just want to make it clear that I don’t think Jake Plummer has all the sudden turned into a money quarterback.

Everyone saw how Peyton Manning reacted to the Pittsburgh defensive schemes in the first half; I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many balls hit the turf after leaving his hand. If the blitz schemes rattled Manning for half a game, imagine what they’re going to do to Jake Plummer. He plays well within the Shanahan system, but force him to make decisions on his own and he’s going to be tossing picks all day. Right now, I’m predicting at least two. We’ve all seen Plummer work under pressure, and we’ve all seen the outcome. How is this time going to be different?

The only snag in Pittsburgh’s plan is the offensive side of the ball. They’re not exactly stellar in that department, and the Broncos D is quite formidable. Willie Parker may have had hints of success against the Colts, but it will be a different story when he’s being chased by Al Wilson, D.J. Williams, and Ian Gold.

Then there’s the issue of Gerard Warren, who believes that football and bloodsport go hand in hand. From

When defensive tackle Gerard Warren was a member of the Cleveland Browns in 2004, he got himself in a little hot water before a contest with the Steelers due to his comments regarding then-rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Warren said he would "go across the head" of Big Ben, explaining that if you "[k]ill the head [then] the body's dead."

Well, he’s back up to the same hijinks this year, basically repeating the statement. Thanks, Gerard, for giving the Steelers O-line some bulletin board material.

I would expect this to be a low-scoring affair, given the nature of the defenses. I also expect the Steelers to force more turnovers, which will be the difference in the game.

Carolina (+4) over SEATTLE
After picking against Carolina the past two weeks (both times they were the logical pick), I vowed to go with them should they appear in the NFC Championship. Here they are, and they’re my pick.

Seattle passed quite a test last weekend by knocking off Washington sans Shaun Alexander. They’ll have him back this week, but that may not be enough to stop a hot Carolina team. In Round One they held Tiki Barber to a mere 41 yards (none by any other Giants rusher), and last week held Thomas Jones to a humble 80 yards (the Bears had 97 total rushing yards, but that includes a 5-yard Red Grossman scramble).

That could mean a bit more action from the arm of Matt Hasselbeck, which isn’t a bad thing (Three years ago, I’d be insane to be making such a statement. In fact, I was laughed at for taking him in Round 4 of a 2003 fantasy football draft. And then I did the laughing when he was one of the top QBs in the league that year). But in the last two weeks, Carolina has held opposing QBs in relative check: Eli Manning completed just 55 percent of his passes (72 percent if you count the three interceptions), and Rex Grossman to a pathetic 41 percent. Yes, both of those guys might have had the first-time playoff jitters. But it’s not like Hasselbeck has a glut of postseason experience.

The most looming problem facing Carolina is the run game. Nick “When the Goings Get Tough, The Tough Get” Goings is being forced into the feature back slot, and it’s not a given that he’ll be able to establish the kind of ground attack the Panthers will need to win this one.

But then there’s Steve Smith, the bona fide X factor of the 2005 playoffs. He had 22 catches for 302 yards and three TDs thus far, and it doesn’t look like anyone’s going to be shutting him down, especially in Seattle’s secondary. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s that stopping Smith has turned into the Conundrum of 2005.

I’m not worried about the Julius Peppers thing, either. They’re a better team with him, but they can win without him.