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Pickin' and Grinnin' - Wildcard Week
Bob Cunningham
January 6, 2004

Straight-Up: 153-103 (60%)
Against-The-Spread: 125-124-7 (50%)

Straight-Up: 6-10 (What were the Steelers, Packers, and Chargers thinking, not "mailing it in"? How could Buffalo and Carolina fail at home with the last step in great comebacks there for the taking? How could I have ever imagined that the Eagles would put players on the field that would give them a chance to win their finale?)
Against-The-Spread: 4-11-1

Comment: I hate Week 17... thank the heavens that the playoffs have arrived. To that end, here's what I can virtually assure - there will be at least one upset this weekend. One of the wild-card qualifiers will send a division champion packing early. Also, all four games this week are rematches of regular season games including two intra-division contests in which one team will be looking to beat the other a third consecutive time, and another in which the first game was played just last week. One last thing - you might want to congratulate me for winning my fantasy league, the ELF (Elite League of Football), for the second year in a row and third time in four years. "Dynasty" isn't just a lame primetime soap from the 1980s, bay-bee. (It's a good thing I'm better at drafting players than picking NFL games, ey?)

St. Louis (8-8, NFC 5th seed) at Seattle (9-7, NFC 4th seed)

Line: Seahawks favored by 4. ATS Records: Rams 6-10, Seahawks 5-11.

Rams Status Report: St. Louis edged the New York Jets in overtime, 32-29, in its regular season finale to slide in as a wild-card team despite a .500 record. The Rams won their last two games, both at home, on the heels of a three-game losing streak.

Seahawks Status Report: Seattle rallied past Atlanta at home Sunday, 28-26, to capture the NFC West and earn the right to host the Rams rather than having to travel to St. Louis.

The Series: The Rams swept the season series, staging the most amazing comeback of 2004 in the first meeting at Seattle. In that game, St. Louis was down by 17 points with less than five minutes remaining in the game but eventually won in overtime, 33-27. The rematch at St. Louis was won by the Rams, 23-12. (Personal note: It's my opinion that the Rams are the most pathetic team ever to qualify for the playoffs. And their head coach is the worse ever to have coached in a Super Bowl, an experience he will never again have unless he's demoted to offensive coordinator).

Stats Worth Noting: This will be the Rams' first outdoor playoff game since the 1989 NFC Championship Game at San Francisco. The Los Angeles Rams were beaten that day, 30-3. St. Louis lost its only road playoff game since the franchise relocated from Southern California, at New Orleans in 2000. Seattle was 1-7 ATS at home this season, failing to cover in their last seven home games after routing San Francisco, 34-0, in its home opener.

Game Summary: It's pretty remarkable that the Rams won both meetings this season, because from a statistical standpoint the Seahawks are the far better team. Seattle has a pronounced edge in such recognized vital stats as rushing offense, sacks, and turnover ratio. In fact, I wonder how many other teams in history who finished dead last in the NFL in that latter category actually reached the postseason? The Rams have been a horrible road team, their only victory away from their cozy dome other than the miraculous comeback at Seattle coming at 2-14 San Francisco early in the season. There's also the intangible theory that defeating the same team three times in one season is monumentally difficult, given that the combatants are relatively even in ability. That's just too many factors pointing to the hosts. Expect 30-35 carries and plenty of production for RB Shaun Alexander, who's annoyed at finishing one yard behind the Jets' Curtis Martin for the NFL rushing title and might just take out his frustrations with a little extra verve.

Prediction: SEAHAWKS, 31-20

New York Jets (10-6, AFC 5th seed) at San Diego (12-4, AFC 4th seed)

Line: Chargers favored by 6 1/2. ATS Records: Jets 8-7-1, Chargers 13-1-2.

Jets Status Report: The Jets played relatively well, but came up short at St. Louis Sunday, losing in overtime, 32-29.

Chargers Status Report: Despite resting QB Drew Brees and RB LaDainian Tomlinson, among others, San Diego defeated Kansas City, 24-17, in their regular season finale at home.

The Series: The Jets won at San Diego in Week 2, 34-28. The most recent meeting prior to that was a 44-13 Jets rout at San Diego in 2002.

Stats Worth Noting: San Diego is 9-0-1 ATS in its last 10 games. The only game this season in which the Chargers lost ATS was against the Jets, but the Chargers are just 1-4 SU this season against teams that finished with at least 10 victories, 11-0 against everyone else.

Game Summary: This is a great clash, because the Jets match-up well with the Chargers - strong numbers both running the ball and defending the run - and own a victory at San Diego already this season. Brees has been amazingly reliable for the Chargers, but the Jets are in good shape at QB, too, with the presence of talented Chad Pennington. Tomlinson is trumped by NFL rushing champ Curtis Martin, the seemingly ageless veteran, although LT's ability to be a threat in the passing game is a potentially vital difference. Both run defenses are solid, so either team must throw to win. Also, the Jets get pass rush demon John Abraham back from injury. In fact, as good as the San Diego defense has been the Jets' unit has been even better, allowing 72 fewer points. Lastly, the Chargers sport significantly less postseason experience than the Jets, who are making their third postseason appearance in four years under coach Herman Edwards. Obviously, it's risky to pick against San Diego - the Chargers have earned my utmost respect for their play this season - but I said there'd be an upset, and this in my opinion is the most likely candidate of the four games this weekend. If this game is controlled by the defenses, which I suspect it will be, the Jets get the edge.

Prediction: JETS, 23-17

Denver (10-6, AFC 6th seed) at Indianapolis (12-4, AFC 3rd seed)

Line: Colts favored by 10. ATS Records: Broncos 6-7-3, Colts 9-6-1.

Broncos Status Report: In a game it had to win to make the playoffs, Denver whipped Indy at home, 33-14.

Colts Status Report: In game that meant nothing to them, the Colts were whipped at Denver, 33-14.

The Series: Other than last week's game, the Colts routed the Broncos in the opening round of the playoffs in 2003, 41-10, at home after losing a regular season game there two weeks before, 31-17.

Stats Worth Noting: Denver is 0-1-1 ATS as a road underdog this season. The Colts are 5-3 ATS (7-1 SU) when favored by more than a TD this season. The Broncos won their last two games, outscoring opponents by a combined 70-30.

Game Summary: Denver's victory last week is nice and all, but it came mostly against the Colts' junior varsity. QB Jake Plummer looked great, and has played well in consecutive weeks... against a second-string Colts defense, and an injury-ravaged Tennessee Titans secondary. Indianapolis' offense is great, of course, but its defense is improved as well. An interesting side battle will be Denver's pass protection unit which has been excellent this season against prolific sack artist Dwight Freeney of the Colts. In the dome, under virtually identical circumstances to last season's postseason matchup, I like Indy... although I believe this one will be a lot closer than last January's Colts' romp.

Prediction: COLTS, 34-27

Minnesota (8-8, NFC 6th seed ) at Green Bay (10-6, NFC 3rd seed)

Line: Packers favored by 6. ATS Records: Vikings 7-9, Packers 7-8-1.

Vikings Status Report: Needing a victory in its regular season finale to assure a playoff berth, Minnesota instead gagged yet again, losing at Washington, 21-18, but the Vikes got in anyway when New Orleans upset Carolina. (A personal note: On second thought, the Vikings are even worse than the Rams. As for coach Mike Tice, he's a likable guy, but any play call in the red zone other than a fade route/jump ball to Randy Moss is a sign that the man in charge is in over his head.)

Packers Status Report: Green Bay was impressive at Chicago Sunday, romping by a 31-14 score despite not having anything to play for in the game.

The Series: Green Bay swept the season series this year, both by identical 34-31 scores achieved with last-second field goals by Ryan Longwell. The most recent was at Minnesota on Christmas Eve.

Stats Worth Noting: Minnesota was 2-1 ATS on the road as an underdog. The Packers were 2-6 ATS at home this season.

Game Summary: In terms of determining which of the four playoff games this week is most likely to be won by the underdog, you could argue that this one - not the Rams-Seahawks or Jets-Chargers - is it. Minnesota lost to the Packers twice, but came within an eyelash of winning both. These teams are fun to watch, because both know how to score and neither really has a clue about how to stop the opposition from doing likewise, although I'm expecting this playoff clash to be tighter-to-the-vest... i.e., lower scoring. Minnesota has had a fair amount of success at Green Bay in recent years, certainly more than any other club that has ventured there more than once, but none of those previous meetings were in the playoffs... in January. The Packers have been perplexingly subpar at home this season - I mean, losing at home to Jacksonville in December... are you kidding me? But they certainly know how to beat the Vikings and, well, call me set in my ways but you'd have a hard time convincing me that Minnesota, on the road and on grass, would be a logical pick over Brett Favre at Lambeau Field in a playoff game.

Prediction: I dunno who'll win, but the score will be 34-31...................... (just kidding)

Actual Prediction: PACKERS, 27-19