Friday, January 4, 2008

Playoff Preview 2008 (1/4/2008)

So now the real season begins. Oh joy! Oh rapture! And as always, questions abound: Should the Giants have rested their starters? Should the Patriots have rested theirs? Is Jeff Garcia going to be rested or rusty? How effective can Marvin Harrison be? Are the Steelers contenders or pretenders? Is Jacksonville really that dangerous? Should Seattle even show up? Which is worse, Romo's thumb or T.O.'s ankle? Does Green Bay have enough of a running game? Is Norv really better than Marty was? Vince Young or Kerry Collins in Tennessee? Jason Campbell or Todd Collins in Washington? Jack Daniels or a Tom Collins if your team wins?!?!

31 days of wondering, worrying, wishing, wailing, and watching. 31 days until the book closes on what will be either an historic regular season or one that Comic Book Guy would call "Best Football Season -- Ever!" 31 days before I stop pestering you with updates and cajoling you to watch even though I already know you will. 31 more days... and then we can finally get some rest. Here are the teams we'll be talking about for the next 31 days, listed in order of their chances to hoist the Lombardi Trophy on February 3:

The Faves

1. The Patriots are the clear favorite and should be. They are 6-0 versus the other playoff teams, and had one of the most dominant regular seasons in the history of team sports. They pass better than any other team and run better (and are healthier) than any of their previous Super Bowl-winning teams. They were fourth in points allowed (even with teams desperately trying to catch up late in games) and are riding the longest winning steak in NFL history (19 regular season games and counting). If they get decent play from dinged-up tight ends and decent coverage from the defensive secondary, if they avoid injuries at quarterback and linebacker, and of course, if they avoid windy weather, they are the odds-on favorites to go all the way.

2. The Colts are a clear second, as these two teams have separated themselves from the rest of the league. The regular season meeting between New England and Indy went down to the wire, and if I'm not mistaken, the Colts are still the defending champions. I place them slightly below the Patriots for three reasons: first, they lost to the Patriots in the regular season; second, their receivers and running back are banged up and they lost their best defensive lineman (Dwight Freeney) to injury; and third, any game between these two would be in New England -- where the Patriots are 6-0 in the playoffs under Bill Belichick. If the Patriots stumble on January 12, the Colts would become the prohibitive favorite to win it all, and rightfully so.

A Notch Below

3. The Pack is back, and playing better than ever! Well, maybe not better than ever, but... well, I guess I got overexcited there for a second, but there's a lot to like about the Packers. Green Bay is third in yards per pass attempt and QB Brett Favre's 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio would be stellar in most seasons (you know, like seasons when Tom Brady didn't post a ridiculous 5.5-to-1 ratio). And though there's been much hand-wringing over the lack of a dominating Packer running game, they averaged a decent 4.1 yards per rush. Add to that a very good defense (6th in the league in points allowed, and 32 turnovers on the year) with sound play at cornerback and young, athletic linebackers, and it could be a very long and successful playoff run for the Titletown 11. In fact, the only reasons they rank below the Big Two are their poor performance in first downs allowed, their tendency to have a lot of penalties, and Favre's occasional reversion to bad form.

4. Jon Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers probably aren't on your radar screen, but they have many of the components needed to win a Super Bowl. In 2002, they rode a suffocating defense (with a great turnover ratio), an efficient passing game, and a very good running game to a championship under Gruden. This year, they are third in points allowed (and fourth in turnover ratio), eighth in yards per pass attempt and passer rating, and seventh in yards per rush (just ahead of Green Bay). It all sounds so familiar. And in fact, I would rate them even higher, if they hadn't posted a 2-3 record against teams with winning records this year.

5. The Jacksonville Jaguars are the latest team to be predicted to take out the Patriots, and that's ironic given that three years ago, the Patriots lost the season's final game on purpose so they could play the Jags in the first round of the playoffs (note: Pats won 28-3). The Jaguars running game is dominant, near the top in total yards, rushing attempts, yards per rush, and first downs via the run. However, what gives them a chance at a ring is quarterback David Garrard's lack of interceptions and 7.5 yards per attempt (6th in the NFL). The Jags can't expect to win a Super Bowl by running the ball all the time and playing solid defense, so eventually they will need Garrard to make plays. And at the moment, his lack of playoff experience is the team's achilles heal. But if Garrard can come through in his first playoff action (sort of like the way some guy named Brady did a few years back), Jacksonville becomes a very dangerous team.

A Puncher's Chance

6. The Dallas Cowboys are the #1 seed in the NFC, but just like San Diego last year, they aren't as good as their record indicates. After bolting out to a 11-1 record, here's how their last month played out: should have lost to the Lions, lost at home to Philly, barely won at Carolina, lost to Washington (meaningless end-of-year game). More importantly, after quarterback Tony Romo injured his thumb, his QB rating went from a Peyton Manning-like 107.7 in the first 13 games to a Vince Young-like 50.7 the last 3. Add to that inconsistent team play and a one-and-done playoff system, and the Cowboys look like a #1 seed that could pull up lame at just the wrong time.

7. I like what the Chargers have done lately, but there are two reasons they are ranked this low. First, their current six-game winning streak was built on the backs of five bad teams and one decent team (Tennessee). Second, eventually their playoff hopes will rest on the right arm of Phillip Rivers or the headset of Norv Turner. To win the Super Bowl, they have to win four straight games without that coming back to bite them, and I don't think it will happen.

8. The Pittsburgh Steelers just don't have it this year. Their premier running back is out for the year, their defense is all banged up, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger isn't playing all that well, and they'd have to get past either Indy or New England to get to the promised land. Looks like first-year head coach, Mike Tomlin, might have to plan for next year. The only reason they didn't drop a level is that if they take care of business this weekend, they can stay with Indy (should they play them) and hope someone else upsets the Patriots.

Soon to Receive Lovely Parting Gifts

9. The Seattle Seahawks gave up 44 points to an Atlanta Falcons team that averaged 13.5 points per game in their other 15 contests. Even if Seattle rested their starters, they gave up over three-times as many points as the Falcons averaged prior to that game. You can bet on the Seahawks, if you like, but I'd stay away from them.

10. The New York Giants should have rested their starters last week. They had several injuries and will likely have to play three road games just to get to the Super Bowl. I don't see them winning those games, not three in a row. They might not even get past this weekend when Eli Manning and a depleted corps of receivers face the No. 3 scoring defense in Tampa Bay. And if New York loses in the first round, it could put Tom Coughlin's job in jeopardy (I can hear my friend Mike hoping against hope!).

11. Earlier in the year, Washington lost to the Patriots by 45 points (52-7), and no Super Bowl winner has ever lost a game that season by more than 32 points (the 1994 49ers lost 40-8 to the Eagles, the 2003 Patriots lost 31-0 to the Bills). So the Team that Daniel Snyder Bought has very little chance to win it all. The reasons they are eleventh instead of twelfth is that they have Joe Gibbs (who has won three Super Bowls) and they have changed quarterbacks since the Patriots game.

12. The Tennessee Titans are hoping Vince Young can catch lightning in a bottle. And I think they have a better chance of him literally doing that then of winning the Super Bowl. In fact, for this playoff run, they might be better off with Kerry Collins at quarterback. Maybe next year.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I know Dallas and Green Bay finished three games ahead of the rest of the NFC. But watch out for Tampa Bay, Washington, and Seattle. I think the NFC is more wide open than the experts do."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



No comments:

Post a Comment