Beat The Man - Wild Card Edition

That's right, kids...the regular season bids a sweet-and-sour adieu, and twenty teams get their golf clubs regripped. For the twelve remaining, the championship chase will come down to a few key factors. Fearless prognosticator Scott Jones rides the Wild Card round side-saddle...and warns against backing the wrong horse.

It’s time to get real, boys and girls.

Saturday afternoon at 1:30 PST, we kick off the difference between worthy competitors – and sat-down spectators. If you make it to the Playoffs in the NFL? You Beat the Man. Congrats are due to all teams involved (even the G-Men).

Here at BTM, a record of 35-47-1 shouldn’t earn you a crack at the post-season – but I scammed my way onto the roster as a walk on, and no one wants to kick Rudy off the team. So here’s my scrappy perspective on what’s to come…

I’ll reiterate - every team in the playoffs this year deserves to be there. Looking at my expectations for the season, NFC surprises include: The Bucs winning the SOUTH, while Atlanta found elimination. The Giants taking the EAST with the Skins in tow, while the Texan Stetson’s got slipped at 9-7. The Bears grabbing 2nd seed with an 11-5 record that saw their Defense drawing comparisons to ‘01 Baltimore (or even Chicago in ‘86). And of course, Seattle absolutely slaughtering the WEST by 7 games to finish 13-3 and perhaps our finest season ever (more on that in future weeks, eh).

Of that group I am surprised slightly by some, greatly by the omission of Atlanta, and satisfyingly by the inclusion of Chicago (though I can’t in any way claim that I accurately predicted them to land where they did. Anything above 8-8 is a shock). I’ll save my comments on Seattle for next week when the big guns enter the picture.

In the AFC, the story of the season was obviously the Indianapolis Colts compiling a 14-2 record that looked to threaten perfection heading into wk14. I had no clue what to expect from the Colts this season and will have to admit I am thoroughly dismayed by the impressive results their Defense managed, with a group not much different from the season prior (that squad grew up in a hurry). Next to the Colts, the Jagz took a leap forward that’s not so surprising if you consider last season a minor disappointment (as I did). New England gets another chance at the record books with a lukewarm 10-6 result (while Miami managed to qualify my pre-season billing – after putting my wallet away - closing out the season on a 6 game winning streak to finish 9-7). And in the North, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh bashed it out to an identical record and a split on the season – landing them in this weekend’s premier match-up in Tigerland.

But the most eyebrow-lifting result, in my mind, would have to be the play of the Denver Broncos. In posting a 13-3 record, the White Horse blasted through a mind-numbing schedule that included division opponents San Diego and KC, as well as @Jacksonville, Washington, New England, Philly (before they fell apart), and @Dallas. Of further importance, they claimed victory in all but one of those games. You compare that to the Colts list of Division opponent Jax (and cast-off’s Texans and Titans), @New England, @Cincy, Pitt, San Diego, and @Seattle (the latter 2 resulting in Losses) and you’ll see why I’m not quite ready to hand the AFC over to the Colts just yet. Throwing out the week1 game @ Miami, Denver lost @NYG by 1 (last second TD) and @KC by 4 (where KC went 7-1 on the season). Don’t you forget about Denver, folks. We may yet meet our pals from the AFC West when it really counts…

But on to this Weekend’s match-ups:

TBAY –2.5 vs DC
The Skins closed out the regular season in fine fashion, riding a 5 game success streak into the Playoffs – posting 30+pts on Division rivals NYG, DAL, and PHI. Following a mid-season slump where they dropped 3 straight Losses to TB, OAK and SD, Joe Gibbs put the Tomahawk to his age-old blocking scheme and set Portis back behind the zone he ran so effective in Denver. Portis has been on fire ever since - posting 100+ each week during the streak. He will continue to get the ball as he’s been one of the more consistent 20+ carry backs this season. The question is… will he find success vs a Tampa team that hasn’t allowed more than 59yds (Warrick Dunn) in those same 5 weeks? While Portis has been burning, Brunell and Moss have cooled considerably. Will they be able to exploit the cover 2 if Portis struggles?

Similar to the Skins, the Bucs rely heavily on freshman sensation Cadillac Williams. Coach Gruden worked the wheels pretty hard early in the season and the Caddy had to go in for repairs, but since week 10 he’s been a steady 20 carry chassis, posting 84yds on Chicago, 112 on Carolina, and 31-150 week 16 on Atlanta. Defensively, the Politicians have been fillibustering for 4.1/carry, while the Pirates rape and pillage for a paltry 3.5. Advantage – Tampa. And furthermore, while Simms has cooled a bit himself, his skillz are on the rise while Brunell is on the decline. And the Bucs beat the Skins Pass Defense ranking 6 to 10 (not to mention DC’s Secondary is currently on the mend). Lastly, Galloway is a bit more dynamic than counterpart Moss any way you slice it.

Tampa Bay has been a tough pick to take on the season as they keep that vest tied up real tight Offensively. However, the same can be said for their Defense. Playing at home ya gotta give a reasonable edge to the Chucky-churned Bucs and find yourself happy giving less than 3. Should be a game worth watching… start to finish.

JAX +7.5 @ NE
Ah yes, the Patriots remain alive for some post-season… respect. Oddly enough, Tom Brady seems to think his team hasn’t been properly rewarded as such this season. He’s been heard complaining about a lack of respect due the Pats. I find that hard to comprehend as no one went to sleep on the Pats until they confirmed we might want to look elsewhere - trading back even wins and losses all the way into December. They then met easy street facing a couple Division opponents who had perhaps just as many players on the cot as they did (BUF and NYJ x2), alongside an impressive 28-0 blanking of Tampa up in the New England chill. Is there anything there that says I should not wait for you to earn my respect back, rather than share it blindly?

Tom Brady has been getting on my nerves this year appearing far more spoiled than was previously humble. And I’ve got the perfect antidote… the most humbled team in the NFL, the Jacksonville Jagz, baby!

This is a tough game to handicap on a Thursday, as Byron Leftwich will have much to do with where I’d flip my coin. But the Jagz, with a quietly whispered 12-4 record - are sincere to fear. Since Leftwhich went down 6 weeks ago, the “Jagzaw” have quietly kept their heads above water – winning 4 of their last 5 against clearly inferior competition. You can call that expected, but wins don’t ever come cheap in the NFL and final scores of 38-20 and 40-13 ain’t nothing to sneeze at heading into the playoff’s. QB David Garrard has put up respectable numbers during that period, yet I would most definitely prefer Byron ‘the giant crane’ Leftwich back there handling the rush and humming the ball at that bandaged Patriot Secondary.

Mostly, getting as many points as the Man is offering – I respect coach Del Rio and Jack-sonville’s chances to overcome the cold and collectively do what they’ve been doing all season… play competitive, inspiring football.

CAR +2.5 @ NYG
Well, here it is – the pick I’ve been dreading for weeks. No one has punished me this season the way Carolina has. For or against, they have summarily kicked me in the keester enough times to cause a rash. And here they play the team second in the category of weighing down Schlep’s rock, the Giants. I’m just glad this one’ll be coming at me early and followed by the rightfully hyped Bengals/Steelers game.

Let me say this about Carolina: Since we don’t have to play the Bears in Chicago – Carolina is the only team I fear in fighting off Seattle’s chances at our first Super Bowl appearance ever. There is no other team on the list that should rightfully decline us. As no team on the list can offer the dynamic choices to winning that ourselves – and Carolina have. The Panthers, however, are stacked in enough areas to offer serious concern to not only the Seahawks, but the dominant teams in the AFC as well. Perhaps more so than the Hawks do (on paper). On the other hand – no team has been as frighteningly inconsistent in recent memory as these very same Panthers. Will they or won’t they? Week to week, I defy you to convince me you’re sure either way.

Opposing them this week is the team I’ve most stubbornly attempted to disqualify. The New York Giants have been winning ugly all season and are helmed by a QB who drives it into the dirt as much as he finds a guy’s fingers. Imagine how far beyond the total of 3762 Eli Manning would have with a passing percentage respectably higher than 52.8. You’re heading into the playoffs with a guy that misses half the time he drops back to pass (and this ain’t the 70’s, folks). If not for Tiki Barber chasing Shaun Alexander all season, Manning would be tossing picks at a similar ratio. But Tiki Barber IS there. And so are rangy receivers Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, and the perpetually clutch Jeremy Shockey. The Giants will score in the 4th. Until someone recognizes their bread-and-butter play in long yardage is the deep-in? They will continue to score in the 4th.

What Carolina needs to do… is score enough prior to that.

CIN +3 vs PITT
I’ve been waffling on this game since it was announced. Early in the year I gave the Bengals the nod at home, only to kick myself for ignoring their inability to stop the run facing a team that’s committed to such. Result? The Steelers mowed them down 43x for 221 rushing yds, in a 27-13 victory. The following match-up in Pittsburgh I got smart and took the Steelers, only to watch them draw-droppingly ignore what worked before and play it like the Colts did – asking their damaged QB to hurl it around like he’s never done prior. Roethelmeister-meisterburger tossed it 41x vs 27 rushes (along with 3 Ints and 4 fumbles) in a 31-38 loss.

Surely, the Steelers will not play the flawed game plan again and will maintain possession this time, hammering away a win from the Orangemen, right? I should stick with the Steelers and We Won’t Get Fooled Again, yes?

Ah, but ever since Sunday Night it’s been ringing in my head, “But the Bengals turned the corner this year. They DID go into Pittsburgh and beat them. They’ve been lighting up the sky with footballs all season long and the energy level in Cincy couldn’t possibly be more kinetic. This Offense can get Pittsburgh out of their element and tear open the distance in a hurry. There’s too much going right to think the Steelers drum in there again and squash them. Not this season. Not THIS season…” And then I saw an eye-opening stat. Since that week 7 game vs Pittsburgh (and discounting this past Sunday’s game that didn’t matter), the Bengals have allowed just 3.5/carry on the ground. Aha! Now THERE’S something I can sink my teeth into. Teams faced in that period include the Colts, Cleveland (who rode Droughns all year), McGahee in Buffalo, Baltimore x2, and Pittsburgh in that 2nd meeting. That’s a long enough period of time, and a capable enough list of rushing opponents to think… perhaps they CAN stop the run.

And then came the clincher. I don’t check the spread until I’m ready for the write-up on Thursday. I want to know well and good what I think before a number can confuse who I realistically think should earn the game (though based on my results, I might want to go back to the days where I greedily hit the internet for the number - the moment Sunday Night Football was over). Landing on this number moments ago made my decision rather easy. Do you really think the Bengals should be the dog in this game? And by a healthy 3 points no less? Maybe the Man has me right where he wants me… but I find that number grossly inaccurate.

Can the Bengals contain a determined Pittsburgh rush? And if they can’t? Can they blow things open through the air? Pittsburgh can NOT maintain a game above the ground. Not on a par with a Bengal team using nuclear footballs. No sir. I’ll take your free 3, thanks.

Wild Card wishes:

TBAY –2.5
JAX +7.5
CAR +2.5
CIN +3

“Beat the Man… Cuz you want to be involved, don’t you?”

G. Scott Jones is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to Seahawks.NET. Reaction of any sort is always encouraged at schleprockhawk@sbcglobal.net.


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