2009 NFL Regular Season Standings
* - Wildcard berth Vikings No. 6 seed over Redskins based on conference record
Patriots No. 1 seed; Colts No. 2 seed based on head-to-head
Chargers No. 3 seed; Steelers No. 4 seed based on head-to-head
Texans No. 5 seed; Ravens No. 6 seed based on common opponents
Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (10-6)
If you've been reading my site for a while, you know where I'm going with this.
If not, I spent the entire 2008 offseason hoping that the Vikings would reach the playoffs just so I could bet against the mentally inept duo of Brad Clueless and Tarvaris Jackson. My strategy worked, as I collected three units when the Eagles won and covered the spread in Minnesota.
Well, I'm hoping for the same thing again, and I don't care whether the signal-caller is Jackson, Sage Rosenfails or Brett Favre; all three are pretty lackluster, while Clueless is good for a strategic blunder or two.
I love the Saints this year because their defensive ends are healthy and their secondary has improved. Oh, and they also have a guy named Drew Brees...
Saints 24, Vikings 10
Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) at Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
I like the Seahawks this year, as I think they're completely underrated. They finished 4-12 last season, but half of their team was on the IR. Now that Matt Hasselbeck is healthy and will have a legitimate No. 1 target to throw to, Seattle is my favorite to win the NFC West.
However, that's not saying much. The NFC West is terrible, and doesn't even come close to matching the talent in the NFC East.
The Eagles are one of the best teams in the league. Andy Reid has had too much success in these early-round playoff games not to come away with a victory. Also, Reid's record on the West Coast is remarkable (8-4); unlike some inept coaches (Eric Mangini), Reid does an excellent job of preparing his team to play across the country.
Eagles 27, Seahawks 20
Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at San Diego Chargers (12-4)
The best game of this fabricated weekend features Baltimore's stout defense going against San Diego's high-octane offense.
While the old adage is that "defense wins championships," one thing can't be overlooked here - and it's that the Chargers have a pretty good stop unit themselves. They can contain the run well and make Baltimore's offense one-dimensional. They'll also be able to apply pressure on Joe Flacco, who won't have much help from his receiving corps, aside from Derrick Mason (if he's even around).
The Ravens' right tackle is a rookie and could be a liability if Shawne Merriman can bounce back healthy. I like Michael Oher, but if Merriman is anywhere near 100 percent, I'll take him, Shaun Phillips and Larry English over Baltimore's two young exterior protectors. Not having Jason Brown at center will hurt too.
That said, this one's decided in overtime...
Chargers 23, Ravens 20
Houston Texans (11-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
The Texans are my sleeper team this year and I'd like to have them advancing deep into the postseason. The problem is, this is such a bad matchup for them.
These two teams collided in the opening weekend of the 2008 campaign. I was dead wrong in thinking Houston could keep the game close; instead, the Steelers debacled the Texans, 38-17, gaining a season-high 183 rushing yards.
Pittsburgh's stop unit was also powerful enough to shut down anything the Texans wanted to do on offense. I know Houston's better now with the emergence of Steve Slaton - and that's why I have this contest being close - but I just can't see a seasoned group like the Steelers going down to a squad with no playoff experience.
Steelers 31, Texans 24
2009 NFL Playoff Predictions - Divisional Round
Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) at New York Giants (13-3)
Something about this matchup seems familiar. I can't quite put my finger on it, but why do I get the feeling that these teams have met in the playoffs before? Hmmm...
The Eagles thrive as underdogs. When their back is against the wall, they always find a way to shock the world and pull through. That's what happened right after Donovan McNabb was benched last year; they went on a tear and kept winning until they were favored once again. That's when they lost to the Cardinals.
The Giants are my No. 1 seed. Their defense and offensive line rank as the NFC's best. They'll be favored by about a touchdown here, but like last January, the Eagles will pull through while Eli Manning once again gets debacled by the Meadowland winds.
Eagles 24, Giants 16
New Orleans Saints (10-6) at Chicago Bears (11-5)
This is yet another recent playoff rematch. In January 2007, the Bears clobbered the Saints in the NFC Championship at Soldier Field. Will the same thing happen again?
I don't think so - for two reasons:
First, unlike the 2006 version of the Saints, this squad actually has a decent defense. In fact, New Orleans' pass rush figures to be better than Chicago's. If Drew Brees doesn't have any pressure in his face, he'll torch the Bears.
Second, teams coming off playoff byes have struggled immensely the past few years. Squads in that situation are just 7-17 against the spread since 2003 and 4-12 versus the number since 2005. Last year, only Pittsburgh survived.
Saints 34, Bears 31
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) at New England Patriots (13-3)
Yet another recent playoff rematch.
Though the Steelers clobbered the Patriots in a regular-season meeting last year, it's hard to count that because Tom Brady wasn't playing. So, with that in mind, ever since Pittsburgh put an end to New England's record-breaking 21-game winning streak back in 2004, the Patriots have dominated this series, taking the previous three meetings by scores of 41-27, 23-20 and 34-13.
You could argue that this Steelers defense is more dominant now than it has been in any of those three meetings, and Ben Roethlisberger is better and more seasoned than ever, and I couldn't dispute that. However, what I could counter with is that teams that have reached the Super Bowl have almost always failed to meet expectations the following year, whether it's not making the playoffs or losing early in the postseason.
This Steelers squad could absolutely win this matchup and go on to win the Super Bowl, but I'll side with history here.
Patriots 27, Steelers 23
San Diego Chargers (12-4) at Indianapolis Colts (13-3)
What are the odds that all four of the divisional-round battles are all playoff rematches? I swear, I didn't orchestrate this.
But we all know what happens here - the Colts come in as favorites and lose to the Chargers. One is in accident and two is a trend. As Chris Berman used to say on TV's former greatest show, NFL Primetime, three will be a bonafide problem.
I've acknowledged repeatedly that Peyton Manning struggles against 3-4 defenses in the playoffs. How bad is his record, you ask? Try 1-5. Ouch.
Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) at New Orleans Saints (10-6)
I've mentioned before that the Eagles play their best with their back against the wall. Does that apply here?
I don't think so. Philadelphia has a better record than New Orleans, while the Saints have never been to the Super Bowl. And besides, how can Vegas favor New Orleans when the Eagles play in a larger market and have tons of NFC Championship experience?
The Eagles have been to the title game five times in the Donovan McNabb-Andy Reid era, but they're just 1-4 in the penultimate game of the NFL postseason. This is not some coincidence; Reid is known for making stupid decisions in the clutch, while McNabb has a tendency to choke (literally) when big games are on the line.
There's also one other factor here, and it's that whenever Sean Payton has a good team, he tends to have Reid's number. This dates back to the early portion of this decade, when Payton was the offensive coordinator of the Giants. It then resurfaced when Payton moved to Dallas, and then finally three years ago, when the Saints knocked the Eagles out of the playoffs.
The numbers don't lie: Payton is just 10-7 against Reid, but when Payton has been part of a winning team (9-7 or better), he's an incredible 8-2 versus Big Red.
Saints 27, Eagles 24
San Diego Chargers (12-4) at New England Patriots (13-3)
The Patriots dominate the Chargers. Tom Brady has knocked San Diego out of the playoffs in their last two meetings. This one should be a piece of cake to predict, right? Well, not so fast...
The last time these two squads met, the undefeated Patriots struggled to dispatch a Charger squad that featured a hobbled Philip Rivers, who was hopping around on a torn ACL, and LaDainian Tomlinson's stunt double, who was huddled up in a parka on the sidelines, hiding from everyone.
With the injuries it endured, San Diego had no business being in that game, yet the team lost by just nine points. It took a heroic effort from Rivers, who used that performance to catapult himself into what would become an amazing 2009 campaign.
Rivers now has to be regarded as one of the top five or six quarterbacks in the NFL. Tomlinson, meanwhile, has enjoyed his first healthy offseason in a long time. And as long as Shawne Merriman is good to go - he'll be ready to practice in training camp - San Diego's defense will be the better stop unit on the field.
The Patriots totaled 47 sacks in 2007, but saw that number drop to 31. They'll likely lack a consistent pass-rushing threat, giving Rivers all of the time he needs to torch New England's secondary. Meanwhile, I'm not completely sold that the Patriots will be able to keep the Chargers' rush linebackers out of the backfield.
Chargers 31, Patriots 30
2009 NFL Playoff Predictions - Super Bowl XLIV at Miami
New Orleans Saints (10-6) vs. San Diego Chargers (12-4)
It should be noted that if the Chargers reach the Super Bowl, having them face the Bears, Eagles and Saints would be fun.
A Chicago-San Diego matchup would be great for the media, given that Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler hate each other. Rivers could call Cutler a "doo-doo head," and Culter would respond with "pee-pee brain." It would be two weeks of complete mayhem.
A Philadelphia-San Diego battle (or any matchup featuring the Eagles) would allow me to make fun of Donovan McNabb's record in Florida. It's really amazing - McNabb, for whatever reason, simply can't get it done in the Sunshine State. Including a loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl at Jacksonville, McNabb is 1-4 in Florida. He's also thrown up in two of those games.
This New Orleans-San Diego would give us the "mentor versus apprentice" feel. Drew Brees was San Diego's starting quarterback until he suffered a knee shoulder injury in the final week of the 2005 season. Brees was allowed to leave for the Bayou, which meant that Rivers would be taking over his old position.
The storyline is great, but this game should be even better, as it features two explosive offenses and just enough defense to keep it unpredictable. In fact, these squads met last year in London, and the Saints walked away with a 37-32 victory.
However, that contest is not indicative of how this one will be played. The 2008 Chargers featured an injured LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates, as well as a defense that was missing Shawne Merriman.
As long as the Chargers are healthy - and right now, they are - I'll maintain that they're among the three or four best teams in the NFL. I love the Saints this year, but I can't say the same thing about them.