NFL Wild Card Preview and Free Picks

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I was under the impression that the playoffs started on January 9, but a quick look at the schedule shows that it really started January 3.That’s when three of this week’s matchups took place for the FIRST time, and while all three  games were fairly lopsided and some of the teams didn’t really play to win the game, it should be noted that the confidence level of the Cowboys, Jets, and Packers will play at least a minor role in the contests with the Eagles, Bengals, and Cardinals respectively.

New York Jets @ Cincinnati Bengals
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. (NBC)
While a number of people continue to say that the Jets 37-0 drubbing of the Bengals last Sunday night means nothing, I would counter that the worst possible scenario played out for Cincinnati last week. The Patriots lost, meaning the Bengals actually had something to play for (the #3 seed), Marvin Lewis elected to play his starters and, despite what many people think, actually tried to win the game for at least the first two drives, and watched as New York simply punched the Cincinnati defense in the mouth drive after drive after drive.

While the venue and intensity will likely change into the Bengals favor, there’s no question that if the Jets take the opening kickoff, march right down the field as they did last Sunday, and take an early 7-0 lead, every player on the Bengals sideline will be thinking, “Here we go again.” Cincy needs a great start to erase last week and gain their confidence back after two straight ugly performances. Meanwhile the Jets need to continue letting their defense and rushing attack, both tops in the league, carry the load and not as Mark Sanchez to do too much. If Sanchez can play an average game, this team could wind up winning the entire AFC. If he has a repeat of his first game against Buffalo earlier this year, the Bengals will win this one going away.
Prediction: New York 20, Cincinnati 13

Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys
Saturday, 8:00 p.m. (NBC)
The NFC East this year was all about matchups. The Eagles beat the Giants twice, the Giants beat the Cowboys twice, and the Cowboys beat the Eagles twice, including a season-ending 24-0 shutout that gave the Cowboys the league’s best scoring defense. In the past three weeks, Dallas ended the Saints perfect season, Jim Zorn’s coaching career at FedEx Field, and the Eagles shot at an NFC East title and first-round bye. Philly, meanwhile, went from being in position to get that bye and play every team outside of New Orleans at home, to being the #6 seed for the second straight year and ending any shot at playing ANY home game.

The key to this matchup is DeSean Jackson. The Cowboys held him in check twice this season, something the Giants couldn’t do, which is why Dallas is playing postseason football. If they do it a third time, it will force Donovan McNabb to put the game on his shoulders, and he has never been able to win a postseason game when the pressure is on him to perform (and I don’t want to hear about 4th and 26, I could have made that throw the Packers D was so soft). If Jackson gets free, however, it opens up all of the other options for the Eagles and spells a long day for the Cowboys D. The flipside is Tony Romo, who is back in the postseason for the first time since the botched snap in Seattle. That game was also a Saturday night contest on NBC, and you can bet that if the game comes down to a last-second field goal for Dallas, Romo’s hands will be sweating big-time. Which, by the way, is the least of the Cowboy concerns on field goals and extra points, since the kicking game is a major advantage to David Akers and the Eagles in this one.
Prediction: Dallas 23, Philadelphia 17

Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Every coach for the rest of eternity will look back at January 3, 2009 in Houston, Texas as the single biggest reason why starters should not play in meaningless, late-season games. The moment Wes Welker dropped to the ground with an ACL/MCL tear in his knee was the same moment the Patriots chances to reclaim their throne as kings of football went from so-so to nil. Without Welker, any team that faces New England will simply double Randy Moss – or at least provide safety help – and force Brady to use someone else to win the game. It will significantly decrease the Pats third-down efficiency, and puts even more pressure on a suspect Patriots defense. And the beneficiaries of the injury are none other than Baltimore Ravens, the team with almost unquestionably the weakest secondary out of the six AFC teams.

For the Ravens, the key will be getting an early lead, or at the very least not letting the Patriots do just that. If Brady gains confidence in his other receivers or is able to establish a running game with a lead, the Ravens – who have their own offensive struggles in the passing game – will find it hard to make a comeback. If Baltimore is up, however, it will allow their ball-hawking defense to focus on stopping Moss and blitzing Brady, who hasn’t performed as well when pressured as he had in prior seasons. The return of Ed Reed should help dramatically, and if the Ravens can succeed in running the ball, they will likely earn themselves a trip to Indianapolis the following weekend.
Prediction: Baltimore 17, New England 14

Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals
Sunday, 4:30 p.m. (FOX)
For the second straight season, the Cardinals are the #4 seed, and for the second straight year they will face a quarterback making his first-ever postseason start. Last year, the Arizona D was the story against Matt Ryan and the Falcons, but this is a better Packers team, as the Cardinals found out in their 33-0 romp last week. With Kurt Warner sitting out, the Arizona offense sputtered, but the insertion of Warner into the lineup this week coincides with the likely exclusion of Anquan Boldin from the rematch after an injury on Sunday. If Arizona can’t score with the Packers, another run to the Super Bowl might not be possible.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals did at least break a trend of Super Bowl losers missing the playoffs the following season. Only the Seattle Seahawks managed to make the postseason the year after losing the championship game, dating back to 1997. The Packers struggle to run the ball, so if Arizona can force Green Bay into third-and-long situations, they might be able to also stop the passing attack and begin another run to the Super Bowl. That said, Green Bay also has a very good defense, and without Boldin, expect Charles Woodson to see a lot of Larry Fitzgerald in what might be the best 1-on-1 matchup of the entire first round.
Prediction: Green Bay 31, Arizona 28

And just to see how well the rest of my predictions do…

Divisional Round
Indianapolis over Baltimore
San Diego over New York
Minnesota over Dallas
New Orleans over Green Bay

Championship Round
San Diego over Indianapolis
New Orleans over Minnesota

Super Bowl XLIV
San Diego over New Orleans

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