Now this is about what we expected from the playoffs.
The obvious absence of both of last year’s Super Bowl teams aside, the 2010-11 playoffs are finally looking like a who’s-who of the NFL. We have three of the league’s longest-tenured clubs — the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears — and the league’s biggest collective mouth in Rex Ryan’s New York Jets. That’s not to say we aren’t surprised, of course. Not many of us foresaw the demise of the New England Patriots, except maybe myself, since I picked it last week. And the NFC has managed to lose what was supposed to be its two best teams, the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons, in consecutive weeks.
No sense killing time with idle chatter, so let’s get right to it.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
The Line: Steelers by 3
Result: Steelers win, 31-24
Mike’s Pick: Steelers, 24-10
This one was hot from the get-go, despite the forecast of snow showers. Pittsburgh drove down the field for seven on their first possession, but Baltimore answered right back with their own touchdown one drive later, Then, inexplicably, the Steelers found themselves in a 14-point hole after two second-quarter turnovers deep in their own territory gave the Ravens short fields. A 21-7 lead would seem largely insurmountable against a defense as stingy as Baltimore’s, but Mike Tomlin kept his Steelers calm and challenged his players to force two turnover in the second half. They did one better, and all in the third quarter. Then, tied at 24 late in the game, the Steelers showed why they are perennial winners by going aggressive when the season is on the line, on 3rd and 19 with a deep sideline throw that no one does better than Ben Roethlisberger, hitting rookie Antonio Brown for 58 yards to set up the winning score. Poetically, it was T.J. Houshmanzadeh, the Ravens’ week four hero in the first of these two teams’ matchups since the regular season started, who would drop a perfectly thrown fourth-down ball to end his team’s hopes of upsetting the AFC North champs in their own stadium.
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
The Line: Falcons by 2.5
Result: Packers win, 48-21
Mike’s Pick: Packers, 20-17
Chances are pretty good that this is going to wind up being the biggest butt-kicking of the 2010-11 post-season. The Falcons’ Matt Ryan was a relatively efficient 20 of 29, but only turned that into 186 yards, one score and, most importantly, two interceptions — one by the Packers’ Wild Card-round hero, Tramon Williams, which he proceeded to return a full 70 yards for a long-distance pick six.
If Matt Ryan was relatively efficient at slightly better than 67 percent, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers was downright sick, completing 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns — and he ran for a score, too. We may have just witnessed the true breakout game of one of the NFL’s fastest rising stars. Unfortunately, it came at the hands of the NFC’s top seed and knocked a very good team from the playoffs in a very, very harsh way.
Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears
The Line: Chicago by 10
Result: Bears win, 35-24
Mike’s Pick: Bears win, 23-9
The Seahawks defeated the defending NFL champion New Orleans Saints last week despite being a more than 10-point underdog. They would fare far worse in the divisional round, losing by more than the spread despite scoring 14 garbage-time points. Before those drive, Matt Hasselbeck had thrown for just 136 yards and a single touchdown. That’s no surprise, considering his Seahawks had managed a meager 34 yards rushing over the course of the entire game. With no running game to rely on, the element of surprise was lost and the rout was on. Credit the Bears’ running game, though, for grinding out 176 yards.
New York Jets at New England Patriots
The Line: Patriots by 8.5
Result: Jets win, 28-21
Mike’s Pick: 30-28
I learned something years ago from watching Jets’ coach Rex Ryan’s father, Buddy, coach the Philadelphia Eagles: the Ryans don’t know how to hold back. And that paid off, big time, for Gang Green, as they knocked off the AFC’s top-seeded Patriots. Rex Ryan has found the door to Bill Bellichick’s brain, and apparently after losing 45-3 several weeks ago, Ryan decided to kick that door in and storm the room with guns a-blazing. The Jets were more physical and more cerebral, getting pressure on Tom Brady all day and using cleverly disguised defenses that brought heat from every direction. The Patriots were forced into the kinds of mistakes they just don’t make, including Brad’s first interception since, I believe. sometime before the Civil War. The footnote here is that, since Spygate, the Patriots are 0-3 in the playoffs including a last-minute loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. If karma exists, Bill B. may have a terminal case of it.
New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers
Prediction: Steelers win, 23-13
The Ryan Rexpress has blasted through stations in Indianapolis and Boston without so much as blowing its horn in warning. But the abuse of two tough games is likely to take its toll, especially against the stingiest defense in the NFL. When these teams met in December, the Steelers were missing their starting tight end in Heath Miller, and some guy named Troy Polamalu. A mental lapse on the opening kickoff by what has otherwise been a dramatically improved special teams unit spotted the Jets seven points, and a safety put the Steelers in a situation where a field goal would no longer tie it on their final drive, forcing them to throw for the endzone until time ran out. Those mistakes are uncharacteristic of Mike Tomlin’s teams, and probably will not be repeated. The Jets hang tough, but Pittsburgh just has more weapons on both sides of the ball. And most of their guys, including 10 of 11 defensive starters, have already had their hands on a Lombardi trophy. A slight advantage in talent and more post-season experience wins this battle.
Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
Prediction: Packers win, 27-20
Clay Matthews is a beast, and Jay Cutler gets sacked. A lot. Every week. That doesn’t bode well for the home team. These two split the regular season series, with the Bears winning at home, 20-17, then losing on the road by a score of 10-3. But Green Bay has the more aggressive defense, and defense wins championships. The X-factor in this game may be Tramon Williams, who is playing right now like he fully believes he was shafted in Pro Bowl voting — which may be one of the biggest understatements of the year, considering DeAngelo Hall made the cut in his stead. His first two playoff games have been the stuff legends are made of, with a game-clinching pick against the Eagles, then the pick-six that propelled his Packers to victory over the Falcons.