Here are the pluses and minuses from last week:
1. I liked the Bengals to win and cover. They lost outright. Minus!
2. I liked the Cowboys to win and cover 4 points. They did, handily. Plus!
3. I said the Ravens had a legit shot to win outright so I took them with 3.5 points. They won outright. Plus!
4. I took the Packers with 1.5 points. They lost by 6 in OT. Minus!
That performance should tempt no one with an IQ greater than a bowl of lentil soup to take anything here has authoritative information regarding which side one should take regarding an NFL wager this weekend. Got it?
The New England Patriots had won 11 consecutive playoff games in Gillette Stadium and had been undefeated at home this season; then the Ravens came to town. They did not merely lose last weekend; the Ravens hammered them on offense and on defense. Tom Brady is an elite QB; there is no denying that. Even with a broken finger, Tom Brady is a formidable opponent. Last week, the Ravens’ defense got him to turn the ball over 4 times (3 INTs and a lost fumble). As a point of comparison, Kurt Warner – another elite QB – playing against the Packers threw only 4 incomplete passes.
By the way, the reports that Brady played with a broken finger on his throwing hand would seem to have a basis in fact given the way Brady threw the ball. Almost all of his throws over 15-20 yards wobbled badly. That is not commonplace.
At halftime of the Ravens/Pats game, the score was 24-7 despite the fact that the Ravens’ passing attack had generated a total of 9 yards. It was the domination on the line of scrimmage that made the difference in the game.
The Jets also used a running game to win last week. Mark Sanchez outplayed Carson Palmer significantly for the simple reason that Palmer misfired on his throws on those occasions when his receivers were actually open; Sanchez hit his open receivers reliably completing 12 of 15 attempts.
The NY tabloids have fallen back in love with Mark Sanchez this week; the adjectives and adverbs associated with his name and his performance have swung wildly positive. Indeed, he played extremely well last week – - better than Pro Bowl QBs, Brady, McNabb and Palmer – - but can we please hold off on his canonization for a few moments? During the regular season, Mark Sanchez was a very ordinary QB. He threw 12 TDs and 20 INTs. In his 15 starts, he failed to go over 200 yards passing in 11 of those games. Those are not John-Unitas-style numbers. If he is really going to turn out to be a great QB, just sit back and wait for 12-24 months and you will not need to scream it out so people might possibly believe you. It will become obvious all by itself…
Given the nature of the NFL as a “copycat league” and given the success of the Ravens and Jets this year by pounding the ball in a power running game, is it possible that other teams will try to emulate that kind of play and begin a “back to basics” kind of old school offensive football next year? It will be interesting to look for that…
The Cowboys dominated the Eagles for the second week in a row. While they were more inclined to throw the ball than either the Jets or the Ravens, the Cowboys also used their running game to control the game. After the game, Jerry Jones declared that the team had exorcised all of the demons that had infested the team during its 13-year playoff win drought. This week will be a measure of the effectiveness of said exorcism…
I wonder what it is like for St. Louis Rams’ fans to watch these playoffs. Do they look fondly in a nostalgic sort of way at Kurt Warner in a Cardinals’ uniform as a former Ram or do they grit their teeth at the fact that he is no longer a Ram? Recall that there was point in Rams’ history where Mike Martz replaced Warner with Marc Bulger setting in motion the events that led Warner to go to the Giants and then to the Cardinals. Indeed, Bulger is younger than Warner but in terms of achievement, Warner is likely going to the Hall of Fame and Bulger will never be the subject in that kind of discussion.
Speaking of Warner, last week he had more TD passes than incompletions in a playoff game. I wonder if anyone had ever been done before?
(Sat 4:30 PM EST) Cardinals at Saints – 7 (56): The Saints are not exactly on a roll. They lost their last three regular season games and had to go to OT to beat the less-than-fully-effective Washington Redskins late in the year. The Cardinals, meanwhile, just scored 51 points in a playoff game against a team with a highly rated defense. These are two very similar teams. They both have offenses that can score from anywhere on the field; they both have defenses that can make big plays – - and give up big plays. The Saints scored 510 points this year – - about 32 points per game; the Cardinals scored a measly 375 points this year – - only 24 points per game. I just do not see how this game turns into a defensive struggle. The Over/Under line can be found as high as 58 in some sportsbooks so if you are betting the total, you need to shop that line. I like the Cardinals here with the points and I like the game to go Over. I am also sorely tempted by the Cards on the money line at +270…
(Sat 8:00 PM EST) Ravens at Colts – 6.5 (44.5): Low probability events happen all the time. Nevertheless, it is not likely that the Ravens will jump to a 24-0 lead again this week and have the luxury of running the ball 75% of the time and playing defense with a big lead. Last week, Joe Flacco only accounted for 34 yards passing in that easy win over New England; I suspect that if he throws for only 34 yards again this week, the Ravens will be a bunch of unhappy campers. Here is a stat that surprises me; Peyton Manning is 0-3 when he has a first-round playoff bye. Here is a stat that is mind-boggling: the Colts converted 49% of their third down situations this season. The Colts finished dead last in the NFL this year in running the football; and against the Ravens, it would seem as if that would not be a preferred mode of attack. All that means is that Peyton Manning will need to throw more often – - and Colts’ fans should not object to that. I like this game to go Under.
(Sun 1:00 PM EST) Cowboys at Vikings – 3 (45): If you like the Over/Under here, you must shop the line. It is as low as 44.5 at one sports book and as high as 46.5 at others. The line started the week at 47.5 and has dropped in most places all week long. Brett Favre has not fared well in the past against the Cowboys; in his career he is 2-9 against the Cowboys and has lost all three times he faced them in the playoffs. By the same token, the Vikings have never lost at home with Brett Favre starting at QB. Let me channel an old-time TV show here and ask: “Will the real Minnesota Vikings please stand up?” Are the real Vikes the team that clobbered the bejeepers out of the Giants in the final game or the team that lost to the Bears and Panthers just prior to that final game? I think the team whose defensive backfield plays better will win this game. Both teams need to stop the other team from running effectively because both can do that well. That means that defensive backs will probably have a lot of man-coverage moments out there and those can turn into TDs quickly. By the same token, both starting QBs in this game have been known to put the ball in the hands of the “guys in the wrong colored shirts” once in a while. I like the game to go Over. Purely on a hunch, I like the Cowboys here with the points just because I like their defensive secondary better.
(Sun 4:40 PM EST) Jets at Chargers – 7 (42): The spread on this game opened the week at 9 points; for the line to drop two full points can only mean there was a tsunami of money coming to the Jets’ side of the ledger. I do not know if that is “smart money” or just money from a boatload of exuberant Jets fans in NYC. Here is stat that Jets’ fans probably know but I did not: the last time the Jets won two playoff games in a season was in 1982. People worried about how SoCal-boy, Mark Sanchez, might handle the single-digit wind chills in Cincy last week. There should be no such worries this week in San Diego; the last time they had single-digit wind chills there, wooly mammoths were roaming the plains. The Jets’ defense should keep them in this game despite the fact that the Chargers have won 11 games in a row and are healthy. A real key for the Jets is to emulate last week’s performance and yield zero turnovers. I like the Jets with the points here. Once again, I am tempted by the Jets on the money line at +270…
Finally, here is an item from Dwight Perry in the Seattle Times:
“Tom Schonberg of Westchester, N.Y., is such a big Jets fan, the New York Daily News reported, that he named his son Jake Edward Thomas Schonberg — as in J.E.T.S.
“Next up, no doubt: Philadelphia hails the arrival of one Ben Otto Olson.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…