NFL Divisional Playoff Sunday Picks
Dallas vs Minnesota
NFC Divisional • Sunday 1:00 ET • FOX
What makes this year’s Dallas team better than before is addition by subtraction as the team got rid of distractions. Romo had a banner season breaking his own franchise records for yards, completions and 300 yard games (8) despite some questionable playcalling by OC Garrett. He also had a career low 9 interceptions with 2 of those being on fluky plays that weren’t his fault and he tied Rodgers and Brees for 2nd with 39 passes of 25 or more yards. Fifteen went to Austin who wasn’t even a starting WR prior to the Kansas City game. Austin finished 2009 3rd in receptions yards and 7th in ypc. Witten remains Romo’s favorite target and finished 2nd behind Clark for receptions and yards by a TE. Crayton is a very fast but inconsistent #3 WR and he made up for his demotion avg 12.1 on PR this year. Roy Williams has become a very expensive afterthought and decoy in the Dallas system mainly due to his 44% catch rate this year. Dallas has one of the deepest RB units in the NFL with Barber being the power back, Jones the speed option and Choice being a balance between the 2. Together they have combined for the #7 rush attack and their 4.8 ypc is tied with Carolina for 2nd this year. The OL has only had 2 lineups this year with 4 of the 5 OL starting all 16. The #9 defense is built around OLB Ware who tied for 7th with 11 sacks this year. Dallas was built big at LB which has helped it finish 4th in rush defense and only allowed 55 ypg rush (3.0) in its last four games. Dallas #20 pass defense is a bit misleading as while they don’t have a true passing Safety they have good CB’s and teams have had to air it out more due to the offense. Dallas has our #4 special teams this year due to good coverage units, McBriar having a 39.9 net and Crayton on PR’s.
In ’08 Minnesota finished 17th in total offense, 25th in passing, 12th in points and was -6 TO’s. this year behind a 40 year old QB they finished 5th in total offense, 8th in passing, 2nd in points and were +6 in TO’s. Minnesota knew they were a veteran QB away from being a serious contender for the Super Bowl. When Favre decided to come out of retirement again they made the highly publicized, but right, move to get him. Favre set a team record with 10 games of 100+ quarterback rating while personally passing for his most TD’s in a season since ’97, had the fewest interceptions (7) and his best comp % (68.4) in his career. Peterson took some heat for a decline in rushing production (-377 yards from last year) as Minnesota went from 5th to 12th in rushing. This was partially due to the OL but a Minnesota also had 110 more pass attempts this year and he more than doubled his receptions vs last year (21 to 43) which made his overall production +311 yards. Rice benefited the most out of the addition of Favre with 68 more receptions and 1,171 more yards than ’08 as he stayed healthy all year. Harvin finished 2nd to New York Giants Nicks in receiving yards by a rookie and was named Offensive ROY with a 27.5 KR avg and 2 special teams TD’s. Their OL isn’t as good as its reputation due to a 1st year Center and rookie RT but their 34 sacks (15th) is more a factor of Favre taking a sack rather than risk a turnover. Minnesota’s #6 defense starts and ends with the DL. Allen finished 2nd in sacks as the “Williams Wall” absorbed most of the double teams and allowed him to beat OT’s 1 on 1 for most of the year. Minnesota’s biggest injury of the year was the loss of MLB Henderson (broken leg) and while rookie Brinkley is good vs the run he is a weak link in coverage. CB Winfield has played most of the 2H of the year with a foot injury and while they have a 26-11 ratio overall they only given up 209 ypg (65%) with a 9-6 ratio at home. Minnesota has our #10 special teams thanks to solid return units (#11 PR/KR) but their KR defense can be exploited (22.6).
I understand fully why the Cowboys are viewed as the “public favorite” here. Romo is having a stellar year statistically, Miles Austin has developed into a bona fide #1, the defense is playing well & they’ve always had good public relations image with the NFL. Minnesota has been inconsistent at the end of the year losing to Carolina & Chicago, people are tired of the “Favre retirement” saga, the loss of EJ Henderson & benching of LT Bryant McKinnie vs Carolina have all muddied some very good things here. Unlike last year with the Jets, Favre has fully bought into the role of being a mentor & he’s elevated the play of the entire offense. While Adrian Peterson hasn’t dominated the run like last year he hasn’t had to carry the team. Minnesota’s defense is a bit nicked up but they will have a great home crowd here to work with. Dallas’s wins have been vs a tired New Orleans team that was due for a loss, a Redskins team that quit on its coach, & a Philadelphia team with a depleted OL, no balance on offense & smaller WR’s that were knocked off their routes. Whatever the Cowboys bring defensively the fact is Favre has seen it before. He’s had extra time to see how the Cowboys dealt with the Eagles who run a similar system but Minnesota is much more balanced with Peterson & TE Shiancoe. I’ll side with the rested home team with Favre at the helm to end the Cowboys run here
PHIL’S FORECAST: MINNESOTA 24 DALLAS 17
NY Jets vs San Diego
AFC Divisional • Sunday 4:40 ET • CBS
Norv Turner is a run 1st coach that has adapted to San Diego’s strength & that is Philip Rivers. In his last 20 regular season games Rivers avg 256 ypg (65%) with a 39-10 ratio & a solid 8.7 ypa going 17-3. With the NFL fully embracing the reality that it’s a pass 1st league now it’s not that much of a surprise that the #10 offense is 31st in rushing. Neither Tomlinson or Sproles rushed for 100 yards in a game this year & the team only did it once in its last 6 (TEN) avg 91 ypg (3.1). Sproles tied for 81st with 45 receptions (11.0) as Turner used the short pass like an extended pitch in the run game. One of Rivers advantages is that he has very tall targets in WR Jackson (6’5″), TE Gates (6’4″) & Floyd (6’5″) who pushed Chris Chambers off the roster midseason. Both Jackson & Gates set career highs in receptions yards & Jackson’s 17.2 ypc is 3rd in NFL while Floyd placed 2nd. Perhaps the luckiest OL in the NFL this year was San Diego’s who lost center Hardwick in week 1 (foot) but Scott Mruckowski started the next 13 until he landed on IR (ankle) with Hardwick returning. The OL allowed 20 sacks in its 1st 9 but just 6 in the last 7 or 1 every 36.7 pass attempts. San Diego’s #16 defense weathered a huge blow this year when NT Jamal Williams landed on IR in week 1 & San Diego has started 3 different players at NT to shore up the #20 rush D which has allowed 100 yards rush in 13 games this year. The Chargers #15 pass rush isn’t as high profile as in previous years with Phillips leading the team with 7 sacks but the pressure comes from different players under DC Rivera as 16 players pulled in a sack this year (1 every 15.2 attempt). San Diego’s #11 pass defense had a slow start with an 8-4 ratio over the 1st 5 but trimmed it down to 15-10 the rest of the year after Rivera shook up the secondary after the 1st Denver game. The Chargers have our #11 special teams this year with Scifres having an impressive 39.2 net & Kaeding only missed 3 FG’s this year all from 40+.
The Jets took advantage of a Bengals team with only 1 real weapon in the passing game & an overall lack of speed as well. Sanchez played a great game & was a dropped Braylon Edwards pass away from 223 yards (87%) with 2 TD’s last week. He did benefit from seeing the same basic system for the 2nd week in a row but the Jets advanced due to a bad game by Carson Palmer. While Darrelle Revis is the best CB in the NFL for 2009 the problem is the Chargers are vastly more dangerous in the passing game than Cincinnati. The matchups favor the Chargers there & while Tomlinson isn’t the rusher he used to be he’s very good in blitz pickup. He & Sproles are also effective out of the backfield on swing passes as well. The Chargers will also have a rested Shawne Merriman here & while the Jets have one of the dominant OL’s for 2009 he should be able to rattle the rookie QB some. The Jets will make plays with their #1 rush attack vs a San Diego defense giving up 4.5 ypc (#19 rush def). I like the home team with more weapons in the passing game vs a road team with a young QB traveling for the 2nd straight week vs a fast & aggressive defense.