Time once again to get you ready for some playoff football, as we are headed for a solid round of eight this weekend in the divisional playoffs. Thursday I posted my picks for Saturday, taking the home team Ravens in game one, and the visitors in game two as I think the Eagles will have enough on the road to beat the Saints. Now its time for the two games on Sunday, so without any more delay, let’s get to the two final divisional matchups.
Seattle at Chicago – The 9-7 Seahawks, with luck on their side, limp into Chicago for a showdown with the number one seed in the NFC – the Bears. Last Saturday night playing with a patched up secondary and some other players less than 100 percent on offense, the Seahawks survived a late botched snap from Tony Romo and held on to beat Dallas 21-20 in the Wild Card game in Seattle. The Seahawks, who lost to the Bears 37-6 earlier this year in Chicago, are going to have to play their best game of the season by far in order to get it done in the Windy City. The one thing that the Hawks have going for them is that two key players on offense, Shaun Alexander and Jeremy Stevens, are going to be ready to go Sunday after missing the first meeting in October. Alexander will have to run well against the Bears, who allow just 99 yards per game on the ground. The weather in Chicago for Sunday is calling for a wintery mix with highs in the 30’s, so running the ball for both teams will be a key. Matt Hassleback has experience in playing in rain and bad weather, and I think that he has the advantage of the two QB’s if the weather is a factor. Speaking of QB’s, the biggest question of this game is what will the Bears do if Rex Grossman gets off to a bad start? Two weeks ago vs the Packers, Grossman played just a quarter, and was awful – 2 for 12 for 33 yards with three picks. He came out and said he was not prepared to play that night, and his play has to be a HUGE concern for the Bears. Grossman could find the bench if his head is not in the game, and Brian Griese has to be ready to go if that happens. The Bears on offense will play it safe, using the legs of Thomas Jones (75.6 yards per game) and the short passing game to soften up the Hawks defense. Look for a big game for Bears tight end Desmond Clark, who can stretch a defense like in week 15 vs Tampa Bay when he had 7 catches for 125 yards and two TD’s. I would not be surprised if the Bears don’t go downfield much with the passing game given the weather forecast and the struggles that Grossman has had. The Bears defense is the key here, as they have played well at home, but have had lapses, such as the Miami and Tampa Bay games. I think that with a week off to work on some things, they have shored things up enough to be able to handle Seattle. Don’t forget that despite all the question marks about the Bears, they were 13-3, a full four games better than the Hawks. And don’t forget that the Bears have addressed the history of last years playoff failures as a number two seed, losing to the Panthers in the divisional round. I think this will be a sloppy, ugly game, one that plays into the hands of Chicago. It won’t be easy, but the Bears will send the defending NFC Champs home and advance to a home NFC Championship game next Sunday vs the Eagles. Chicago 21 Seattle 10
New England vs San Diego – The storyline in this one will be the gameplan of New England as they try and slow down the running and catching of NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson, who rushed for over 1,800 yards and scored a league record 31 TD’s. So far this week Pats coach Bill Belichick has given major props to Tomlinson, but you know that he is going to try some radical things to get him out of the game plan and have QB Phillip Rivers beat him. For the 12-4 Pats, look for them to try and get the running game of Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney going, thus trying to keep the Chargers offense off the field. If they can do that, and win the battle of time of possession, they will give themselves a much better chance to win. The Chargers defense is solid, and in allowing 18.9 points per game, they have been even better at home. Tom Brady has to be patient, and avoid mistakes that can lead to easy Charger points. The San Diego offense can score within a wink of an eye, and they seem to draw energy from the crowd. Their lowest point total this year at home was 20 points, but consider they have scored point totals of 40, 38, 32, and 48 at home, the Pats cannot afford to get into a shootout with the Chargers, or they will head home a loser. Like Rex Grossman, Phillip Rivers has had some poor outings, but again I think Marty will keep the game plan safe, not taking a lot of chances with his first-year QB and trying to take a lot of shots down the field. Look for him to use a lot fo LT out of the backfield, some short 8-10 yard routes, and for TE Antonio Gates to have a big role in the game plan. Rivers has thrown just nine picks, so even if he does make a mistake, it usually does not result in a big play the other way. For the Pats, they may need a score on defense or special teams in order to win this one. There is a lot of talk about the choke factor in this one for the Chargers, and more focused on coach Marty Schottenheimer, who has had great teams in the past and yet has never been able to get to the big game. I think the Chargers having the week off and being able to sit back and watch the Pats last week while not having to exert themselves will play a role here. Brady has been a stud in the playoffs in the past, but don’t overshadow recent history, as it was just one year ago when his Pats fell in Denver when he made some mistakes that hurt the Pats chances of playing in the AFC title game. The Chargers are the better team, they have yet to lose at home, and they will have enough offense to get it done here. San Diego 34 New England 23