Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Playoff Ready

No one is more ready than the Bears to just start the damn playoffs already after a month of wringing hands over meaningless games.

Oh, I'm not dismissing that the New Year's Eve beating by the Packers was unpleasant to watch, but as a wise man once said: "Lighten up, Francis."

As a not-so-wise and unemployed man once said "The Bears are who we thought they were." The meaningless loss on New Year's Eve simply displayed the same pitfalls and icebergs that were already known for the Bears. If Grossman goes into a tailspin, as he has several times this season, he doesn't have the ability to pull himself out of it and the playoffs will be over.

But we already knew that, so I don't share in the gloom and doom in the papers. I suspect that, if Bears fans thought about it for a minute instead of nodding at what the columnists are writing, they're not filled with gloom so much as anger.

Anger that the same mistakes are repeated, some throughout this season, some starting to look troublingly similar to last season. Why does Grossman still have no answer when things start breaking bad? Aren't coaches supposed to be doing something about it?

Is the smallish defense wearing down again, just like last year? If so, why is that happening again?

The Bears brass patted themselves on the back all offseason that all of the starters were returning. In fact, they were so confident (or complacent) that they used top draft picks on primarily special-teamers and nickel players.

I was dubious, but it turned out to be a coup, with Devin Hester contributing to what Football Outsiders believes to be the finest special teams in the NFL in 10 years.

Bottom line, things are supposed to be better than last year. It's what this season was supposed to be all about, and people are getting angry for fear it's coming to the same crash landing.

Moving on, I'm ready with playoff predictions for Round 1. There's always at least one, if not three, mistake-filled yawners and blowouts on wildcard weekend.

Indianapolis - 7 over Kansas City Pick: Indy

Obviously, everyone will focus on Larry Johnson, the man with more carries than anyone should get in a season, hammering into the lousy Colts run defense.

That will certainly keep the Chiefs in the game, but I can't see Trent Green and the Chiefs' passing game posing an honest enough aerial threat. One challenge to depending solely on the run, even against a shoddy outfit, is that one bad play or more often a penalty will eventually force you to throw to keep drives going.

More concrete reasons that I'll choose the Colts to cover: for all of their foibles, the Colts are still 8-0 at home, and I see no reason they'd lose this one to a Chiefs team that is 3-5 on the road.

Herm Edwards, probably the coach who least deserved a return trip to the playoffs via all of last Sunday's miracles, should very strongly consider having season's savior Damon Huard at the ready. Huard played better, and has more to do with KC's playoff berth, than Trent Green, by far.

Seattle -3 over Dallas Pick: Dallas

OK, so the oddsmakers have pretty much thrown their hands in the air on this one. You get your 3-point home team bump and you're sent on your way to the betting window.

Dallas's D may be tanking, Tony Romo may be the least deserving Pro Bowler ever, but Dallas still has enough skills to win this thing. Seattle's never really gotten it going this year, haven't played well, haven't really been healthy.

I don't see them having enough weapons to pick apart Dallas. Dallas's D has sprung holes -- my correspondent says march right up the middle with passes that the mediocre LBs and safeties can't cover -- but though the names have changed in Seattle, the pass-dropping hasn't. Used to be Koren Robinson dropping passes, now it's Deion Branch. Or Jerramy Stevens.

Perhaps most importantly, Seattle is down to their 4th and 5th CBs after losing another last week. Even if T.O. decides to be a turd and do nothing, Terry Glenn's still a fine player. Romo has brainfarts and butterfingers but overall he's accurate.

Bottom line, Seattle has beaten these teams: Tampa, Den, GB, Oak, STL, NYG Ari, Det. None of those is as good as Dallas. The 3 points is gravy.

New England - 9.5 over NY Jets Pick: Jets

See, I wish I could have bet the Over/Under on the line being 7.5 or more, which doesn't make a lot of sense on paper.

The first of Sunday's matchups where divisional foes have already met twice and split.

On Sept. 17, the Patriots predictably roared to a 24-0 lead over the lowly Jets, only to have the Jets storm back to 24-17. The final, potential game-tying drive ended around midfield with a Penningon interception.

On Nov. 12, the Jets went to Foxboro and defeated the Pats 17-14, in a huge game where the Patriots could have all but locked up the AFC East.

I find it hard to disagree that the Patriots have a stronger team "across the board," as Mangini says every other sentence, and their playoff seasoning should be an advantage over the young Jets. I'll also admit that I was rather impressed by the Patriots beating Tennessee pretty easily the final week.

But no way am I giving away 9.5 points.

I'll also be pulling for the Jets, big time. I've never had anything against Belichick, but he's come off like a prick with his slighting of Mangini all season. He won't even say the guy's name, let alone shake hands with the man. Real classy, coach.

I see the Jets having a real hard time stopping the Patriots' running game. At this point, I think there's a chance Belichick will outsmart himself and pass too often when the rushing should come easily.

With every Patriot game, the officiating will be key. It's nothing new this year, but their pass defense is little more than defensive backs interfering with receivers on every play. At times they are skillful with their penalties, making them look good, but the overall premise is that the referees cannot and will not call every penalty. The league knows it, the Patriots know it and they take advantage of it.

I used to appreciate the Patriots' headiness in taking advantage of rules oddities, such as when they rush to the line to try and get in a snap before a positive but sketchy play of theirs can be reviewed, but now they look a bit desperate doing it. Neither team's going anywhere, but gimme the Jets and 9.5.

Eagles -7 over Giants Pick: Eagles (lock of the week)

This one's a no-brainer. The Giants are only here because the Redskins are even more poorly run. Not for nothing, the Eagles backups sure looked pretty strong against Jim Mora's bunch of mailer-inners.

First meeting in September, McNabb was still around, the Eagles built a huge lead and then a bizarre string of deflections and fumbles and competent leadership by Eli Manning caused a 30-24 Giants win in OT.

There were fumbles bouncing into arms of Giants, bad calls saving Eli from turnovers, bad calls not reviewing the bad calls. Bizarre stuff.

More recently, 3 weeks ago, the Jeff Garcia Eagles beat the Giants 36-22, in a game that was closer than the score indicated. The Giants had a shot at a final drive, but Eli ended that early with a Pick Six from his own 20.

Garcia got real emotional in that game, partially due to a few terrible decisions that keot the Giants in it. Later, he'd draw a 15-yarder for spiking the ball onto a Giant defender after a scramble. Later, he was shown kissing a lot of his guys on the sidelines.

Bottom line, the Eagles are no fools like the Redskins. Tiki's not going to be allowed to put the team on his back and rush for 250. If that even starts, the Eagles will stack it up and blitz Eli Manning into another string of mistakes. The Eagles and Jim Johnson are also astute enough to know that Manning lacks the ability to throw short passes.

This will be the snoozer of the weekend. Garcia and his little headband should be able to spend most of the 4th quarter on the sidelines kissing. Eagles in a romp.

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