Saturday, January 15, 2011

NFL Playoff Picks-Divisional Playoffs, Saturday Edition

We were 2-2 picking winners last week cashing in on the Seahawks and the Pack and getting nicked by Baltimore and the Jets. 11-0 is out of reach, but some solid work this weekend can still make it a profitable playoff season.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh -3.5:
If you have been paying attention there is no doubt you have heard about how evenly-matched these teams are and how, recently, all the games have been decided by three points. Only the second part of this is true. The reality is that although the games have been close, the Steelers own this matchup, going 5-2 in the last seven, only losing without Roethlisberger. This isn't to say the Ravens aren't a good team, only that they are the second best team taking the field at Heinz toady.

Quarterback Play
Ben Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his career. His decision making has been impeccable, evidenced by his 158 consecutive passes without an interception. He has developed a good understanding with his two rookie receivers as the season progressed which has made the passing game much more dangerous. Also, Ben has been looking to run more when flushed from the pocket, posting the second highest rushing mark of his career this season. He hasn't lost to the Ravens since 2006, he is 5-0 in his career against Joe Flacco and 8-2 lifetime in the playoffs. Look for Ben to have a big game.

Joe Flacco has never played a playoff game at home, but has posted a very respectable 4-2 record, tying Len Dawson, Roger Staubach and Jake Delhomme for most career playoff road wins. Flacco was excellent last week against a Kansas City team that was able to bring some pressure. He did a good job of eluding the rush and ran better than advertised when he had to. The Steelers will look to keep him in the pocket and let James Harrison and Lamar Woodley tee off on the edges. It will be interesting to see how often the Ravens look to go deep, because that would be one way to "contain" Troy Polamalu.

Players to Watch:
Emmanuel Sanders. I expect Manny to be the x factor in the game. While the Ravens will often look to bracket or double Mike Wallace and will be aware of Hines Ward and Heath Miller in the middle of the field, they won't be able to matchup with Sanders.

Lamar Woodley: Woodley has two sacks in every playoff game in his career. If the Ravens give Michael Oher help on the left side with Harrison, Woodley should have a one-on-one matchup on his side.

Rashard Mendenhall: In the last matchup Mendenhall was slow to hit the hole and tried to bounce runs outside with little success. Look for him to have learned from Jamaal Charles and the Chiefs who gouged the Ravens between the tackles early in their game last week.

Anquan Boldin: The Steelers have had trouble with big receivers in the slot and in the middle of the field this season. T.O. and the Rob Gronkowski among others were difficult matchups. With Todd Heap back healthy after missing the last game, Boldin will be a tough assignment for William Gay and the other Steelers defensive backs.

Ray Lewis: Ray Ray might be the sixth best linebacker on the field in this game. The Ravens got pushed around early by the Chiefs and it will be important for Lewis to control the middle to stop the Steelers run game. Ray's Pro Bowl status was more on name than merit this year. We'll see if he can elevate his play for this one.

Matt Birk: Birk has a bad knee that has kept him out of practice this week and has him listed as a game time decision. The Harvard grad is getting on in years, but is still a very capable center and the anchor to the Ravens line. If he can't go or is limited, that could be a real problem for Baltimore.

--Ray Rice was sick yesterday, and although he will play, I doubt he will be at full strength.

--Bryant McFadden is recovering from an abdominal strain. Look for the Ravens to test him early. If he can't go, the Steelers will be exposed at the nickel if they move Gay into McFadden's corner spot.

--The Ravens do have two of the best specialists in the game. Heinz field should neutralize Billy Cundiff's long kickoffs a bit, but Baltimore has a clear edge here.

The Answer:
The Steelers offense is gelling at the right time and they have the better defense. If turnovers are close I expect the Steelers to win this game in surprisingly easy fashion. Give me the home team at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh 24-10.

Green Bay +1.5 at Atlanta:
My pregame responsibilities are going to prohibit a full write-up on this one. Aaron Rodgers is playing as well as any quarterback in the league right now and Green Bay's defense will play fast indoors in Atlanta. I picked Pittsburgh and Green Bay to meet in the Super Bowl at the beginning of the season. I don't see either one getting derailed today. 

I like the Pack 27-17.

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