Saturday, January 07, 2006

Playoffs?!? Playoffs?!? We Can't Be Thinking of the Playoffs!

As maybe three of you know, I started picking a few NFL games per week back in September. That fizzled out, mainly because I pick games like a drunk girl at a party picks her hookup (seems like everyone has an analogy for how bad their NFL picks are).

But the playoffs are different. There only a handful of games, so more information is available on them. It’s easier to break everything down to the simplest parts, take in circumstance and intangibles, and basically formulate a reason why you’re making these picks. Having a full week to mull this information is also helpful (to some – I know that people have a tendency to over-think these kinds of things and make picks based on inane figures).

So after a week of flip-flopping on all but one game, I’ve come to grips with who I’m finally putting the cash down on (and yes, I’m doing the whole home team in caps thing, and no, I’m not predicting the score).

Washington (+2.5) over TAMPA BAY
Over at ESPN.com, Bill Simmons has labored through writer’s block and a tumultuous playoff scene to provide some of the best playoff analysis I’ve seen. He doesn’t lean on numbers, just on observations and precedent. Anyway, in the prelude to his playoff picks, he provides readers with his Playoff Manifesto, in which he goes over mandatory rules for picking playoff games.

Unfortunately, many of his rules find harsh conflicts in this game. For further misfortune, his first rule is to never back a crappy QB on the road, and Mark Brunell fits nicely into that crappy QB mold. So picking Washington isn’t a wise idea right off the bat. But when you look at the QB matchup, Brunell starts to look a bit less crappy, since he’s being compared to Chris Simms, who is making his first playoff appearance. So there’s hope for the ‘Skins after all.

The real clincher here is Washington’s late season surge. They showed flashes early in the year, but couldn’t string a ton of wins together. But by the end, they put it all together, and are riding quite a streak now, which makes me scared to bet against them. And once I look at the coaching match-ups, the decision becomes obvious. I do realize that Chucky has a ring, but it wasn’t with a team he built. Gibbs is the more solid choice in my opinion, and he had to have some part in the ‘Skins’ current five-game winning streak.

And, sticking with Simmons’s rules (RULE NO. 10: Only pick an underdog or a road team if you're convinced it has a chance to win the game outright), I’m going with Washington, absent the spread.

NEW ENGLAND (-7.5) over Jacksonville
This one was my lock pick. I realize that the spread is a bit tough to swallow, but I also think that the Patriots are clearly the better team, at least to the point where I’d take them with a 7.5 point handicap. In reality, I’m making this pick because the Pats have reached Atlanta Braves status, in that I’m betting on them until they lose.

To help cement my reasoning, I looked at the teams records in the past six weeks. Jacksonville was 5-1, which would make picking against them tough if their wins weren’t against Arizona, Cleveland, San Fran, Houston, and Tennessee (with the sole loss coming at the hands of the then undefeated Indy). And while I realize that New England’s last six wasn’t overly impressive – wins against Buffalo, Tampa Bay, and two against the Jets with losses at Kansas City and a mailed-in game against Miami – it still looks better than the bottom feeding Jaguars.

The clincher: Belichick vs. DelRio. Sorry, folks, I just can’t justify Jacksonville in any way.

NEW YORK (-2.5) over Carolina
This one gave me a bit of difficulty. As recently as yesterday, I was siding with the Panthers, but a few things have changed my view. Most notably, I only want to pick one road underdog, and I feel more comfortable with Washington over Tampa than Carolina over New York.

The Panthers playoff experience can’t be overlooked, either, especially when compared with New York’s complete lack thereof. They have a young QB making his first appearance, and a defense that’s shaky at best when you get past the D line.

But the Giants have one thing that the gives them an instant advantage: Tiki Barber. He’s gone from near-pariah after his 2003 fumble riddled season to arguably the best back in the NFL. The Panthers may have a top-flight defense, but Barber turned in some solid games against some of the top-ranked rushing defenses – 220 yards vs. Kansas City, ranked seventh against the run (98.1 ypg); 151 against Seattle, ranked fifth (94.4 ypg).

The clincher: the evenly matched nature of the game. The fourth-ranked Giants offense against the third-ranked Carolina D, and the 22nd ranked Carolina offense against the 24th ranked Giants D. With that in mind, I’m definitely going with the home team.

CINCINNATI (+3) over Pittsburgh
Yet another shaky decision, but I feel more comfortable with it after talking at length with a Steelers fan on Thursday. Basically, his whole reason for a Pittsburgh victory revolved around the Bengals playing poorly. And, to his credit, the Bengals haven’t exactly inspired faith over the last two weeks.

The loss to Buffalo I can’t justify. I mean, even the freakin’ Jets beat those guys. But every team has an aberration loss, and that one was Cincy’s. As for last week’s trouncing at the hands of Kansas City, well, that’s what you get when your starters play for a quarter. That’s like judging a team based on their third preseason game. Add in the Vermeil factor (you can’t tell me the Chiefs weren’t playing their hearts out for their retiring coach), and it was obvious that Kansas City was winning that one.

In yet another general statistical match-up, it’s the Bengals sixth ranked offense (358.1 ypg) against Pittsburgh’s fourth ranked defense (283.5 ypg) and the Steelers 15th ranked offense against Cincinnati’s 28th ranked D. That looks to favor Pitt, but remember that the stats are skewed by Cincy’s last two games.

When the best reason a Steelers fan can come up with is, “we beat them on the road, they beat us on the road, and we’re on the road for this game,” I feel safe taking the underdog home team.