My picks for the first round of NFL playoffs:
Jets/BENGALS – I really don’t understand the New York Jets bandwagon that has skyrocketed in popularity over the past week. So they routed Cincinnati when they had nothing to play for and less than half of their starters on the field. Big deal. I’m sure Marvin Lewis would have felt much less comfortable beating the Jets and having to play the Texans in the first round instead, given the outcome of their matchup earlier in the season. Carson Palmer will throw far more often and much more effectively, his receivers will be running crisper, more complex routs, and, most importantly, Cedric Benson will be fresh and back in the lineup. Oh yeah, and Mark Sanchez threw twenty interceptions and just twelve touchdowns on the season. The Bengals will focus on limiting Thomas Jones, so Sanchez will have to throw downfield at some point. The Bengals will take this one, and they’ll do so convincingly, 31-14.
Ravens/PATRIOTS – These are two very evenly matched teams, but the Patriots simply have too much going for them, despite the loss of Wes Welker. First, New England is undefeated at home this season, while the Ravens are 3-5 on the road. Baltimore free safety Ed Reed, who will be asked to shadow Randy Moss all day, has been hindered by a lingering hip injury that will surely limit his effectiveness. The Patriots also have never lost to the Ravens in the history of these teams’ matches. The Ravens will make it a close contest, however. Ray Rice and Willis McGahee will be a powerful one-two punch at running back, and “Cool Joe” Flacco will maintain his composure in an otherwise hostile playoff environment. If Ravens receivers Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason can limit the untimely drops, Baltimore has a chance. But I think the Patriots will simply have too many intangibles in their favor. New England wins a close one, 21-19.
EAGLES/Cowboys – The Dallas bandwagon, unlike that of the Jets, merits much consideration. Tony Romo, to his credit, played very well through December, a time when he typically doesn’t. As a team, the Cowboys made the Eagles look horrendous in the last week of the season, dominating the trenches and running the ball effectively with Felix Jones and Marion Barber. But the Cowboys are simply not as good as that game would indicate, nor are the Eagles that bad. Quarterback Donovan McNabb had a bad game, overthrowing his receivers on a couple potentially big plays and underthrowing his receivers elsewhere. The receivers themselves were equally lackluster, dropping passes that should have been caught. The offensive line was in shambles in the wake of losing starting center Jamaal Jackson. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called conservatively, dropping linebackers into coverage rather than sending them on trademark blitzes, which allotted Romo the time to dissect the coverages and make plays. Look for the Eagles to come into this game reorganized, revamped, and hungry for revenge. Philly wins, 20-14.
PACKERS/Cardinals – Green Bay has been one of the hottest teams in the league, and many people are picking them to go deep into the season. Aaron Rodgers has emerged as the big-time quarterback he was supposed to be after Favre’s departure. Cornerback Charles Woodson is a candidate for NFL Top Defensive Player of the Year and will be responsible for limiting Larry Fitzgerald. Arizona will be without receiver Anquan Boldin at full strength, and despite Kurt Warner’s unparalleled playoff experience, the Packers secondary should be effective at stopping the passing game. Neither team’s quarterback is shaken by the blitz, so look for both defenses to use a variety of coverage schemes to force mistakes. This makes the Woodson-Fitzgerald matchup all the more interesting. Meanwhile, the Cardinals secondary is plagued with injuries and will have problems containing Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. In the end, the Packers defense will carry the team to victory, 27-17.