Commentary

Handicapping the NFL's elite eight

They might seem like a lock, but even the Patriots have holes (uh, maybe)

Originally Published: January 12, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Just think, if the NFL were the BCS, we would never have seen Marshawn Lynch single-handedly humiliate the Saints in Seattle's stunner against New Orleans, or the Colts ralph a game away at home against the New York Jets, or someone named James Starks end the Philadelphia Eagles' season.

Worse yet, we wouldn't get three-peats of Jets versus New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens versus Pittsburgh Steelers, or two-peats of Seahawks versus Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers versus Atlanta Falcons. Instead, we would have gone directly to Falcons versus Patriots -- and where's the fun in that?

Handicapping the Elite Eight for a Super Bowl run:

Road to JerryLand: Beat Seahawks at Futuristic Toilet Bowl (aka Soldier Field), then beat Falcons in Atlanta or Green Bay at Soldier Field.

The Vegas wiseguys say: Bears by 10 against the Seahawks.

Head coach: Lovie Smith

"Lovie, Mike Martz just said that he's the brains behind this operation and that you're a pair of empty headphones! Care to comment?!"

(Blank, impassive stare from Smith…)

"Lovie, your offensive line just gave up its 10,000th sack of the season! All that's left of Jay Cutler is his sneer! Care to panic?!"

(Blank, impassive stare…)

"Lovie, you're two wins from the Super Bowl -- a Super Bowl nobody thought you'd reach this season! Care to gloat?!"

(Blank, impassive stare…)

Turns out Smith's dullness and steadiness are perfect for a Bears team that suffers from mood swings. Boring is beautiful to Smith, which is why the Bears have survived O-line woes, Martz's early-season infatuation with the passing game and some grotesque losses.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireJay Cutler hasn't completed at least 60 percent of his passes in a game since Week 13.

Playoff quarterback ranking: Cutler ranks No. 7 of the eight remaining QBs. And, no, I'm not shroomed up.

Cutler has the strongest arm in the league, but he's usually good for a dumb throw or two that can cost you a game. This is the first postseason appearance of his college or pro career. Every other quarterback in these playoffs has at least one NFL postseason start.

I give him props for his toughness -- he was sacked 52 times in the regular season -- but his TD-INT ratio is still too high. He has finally led a team to the playoffs, but now he must take the next step. Until he does, I remain a skeptic.

Sphincter muscle factor: Again, it's Cutler. Will he deliver or freak? Is he a franchise quarterback or simply a quarterback of a franchise?

Stat that will astound and amaze your friends: Since 2003, first-time playoff QBs are 5-19 (courtesy of the Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs).

Why I believe: The Bears have the four things you need to win it all -- a running game, a good defense, great special teams and a quarterback who can make plays. … Offensive line has improved from general suckiness to semi-respectability. … Motivated by 23-20 loss to Seahawks at Soldier Field in October. … LB Lance Briggs missed first Seahawks game because of an ankle injury; fine for rematch. … Lovie's lucrative motivational speaking tour gig depends on wins (no, not really). … If they advance to NFC Championship Game, they'll either get to play on a fast track at the Georgia Dome (Bears' wide receivers and return game built for artificial turf) or get home-field advantage against the Packers (Bears beat Green Bay at home in regular season). … Bears are healthy. … If October loss to Seattle didn't catch their attention, then Seahawks' win against New Orleans in wild-card game did. … Seahawks can't possibly re-create upset mojo two weeks in a row, right? … Bears are 2010-11 recipient of Lucky Breaks Award. (Calvin Johnson no-TD catch, facing third-string quarterbacks, etc.) Then again, you have to take advantage of those breaks and the Bears have.

Why I don't believe: Still don't trust Cutler. … O-line gave up six sacks to Seahawks in October. … Falcons 7-1 at home. … If the Bears play the Packers, Green Bay will have beaten New York Giants, Bears (admittedly, Bears had nothing to play for), Eagles (on road) and Falcons (on road) in past four games. Impressive. … Does two-week layoff help or hurt Bears? Bears not overwhelming at home -- only 5-3 this season at Soldier Field.

Road to JerryLand: Beat Bears in Chicago, then beat Falcons in Atlanta or Green Bay at Qwest Field, then go buy PowerBall tickets because they'll probably win that, too.

The Vegas wiseguys say: Bears by 10 against the Seahawks.

Head coach: Pete Carroll

Carroll coaches as if he has gone on a five-hour energy drink bender. He might become the first person ever admitted to the Betty Ford Center because of positive-thinking addiction. He makes Lovie Smith look as if he's embalmed or, worse yet, like Calvin Coolidge in Disney World's Hall of Presidents.

Say what you want about the guy and his 8-9 Seahawks, but Carroll has guided Seattle through two elimination games in the past two weeks -- the win against St. Louis to get into the playoffs and the shocker against the late, great Saints to stay in the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeMatt Hasselbeck
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesIf Matt Hasselback can bottle the magic he had against the Saints (22-for-35, 272 yards), look out.
Playoff quarterback ranking: Matt Hasselbeck ranks No. 6 on my list, though you wouldn't have known it after watching him against the Saints.

"Ridiculously good," is how Carroll described Hasselbeck's four-touchdown performance against New Orleans. And he's right -- Hasselbeck played hurt (hip, ribs, wrist) and played well.

Experience matters in the playoffs, and Hasselbeck has a Seahawks-record 10 career postseason starts, including one in a little something we call the Super Bowl.

Sphincter muscle factor: Seahawks have to travel two time zones, play a noon CT game, deal with predicted single-digit temps and beat a rested Bears team. How will they respond without their precious 12th Man advantage at Qwest?

Stat that will astound and amaze your friends: Seattle hasn't won a road game in two months. It's 2-6 away from Qwest. OK, so maybe that won't astound your friends. Go find your own stats, then.

Why I believe: Because the Seahawks know they can beat the Bears. They've already done it once this season, at Soldier Field, and with kickoff at noon. … Carroll's team has some momentum and an edge to it because of nationwide mocking (double-digit playoff underdog for second week in a row). … Seahawks can play as if they've got nothing to lose. … QB who has been through the playoff wars. … Physical running back in Marshawn Lynch (broke eight different tackles on TD run against Saints). … Seahawks have big WR Mike Williams (10 receptions, 123 yards in Oct. 17 victory) and Bears have suspect pass defense. … Seahawks' O-line stuffed Bears' pass rush. … Would get Packers at Qwest or face Falcons in Atlanta. Seahawks trailed Falcons by only a touchdown at halftime of Dec. 19 game. … Hasselbeck kicked butt against Saints' blitzing defense.

Why I don't believe: Seahawks need to advance to NFC Championship Game just to reach .500 record. … Saints were down to their fourth-string running back. … There's a reason they finished the regular season 7-9. … Bears motivated for revenge. … Two major upsets in a row? Don't think so.

Road to JerryLand: Beat Falcons in Atlanta, then beat Bears in Chicago or Seahawks in Seattle.

The Vegas wiseguys say: Falcons by 2 against the Packers.

Head coach: Mike McCarthy

I don't know McCarthy personally, other than to ask him to borrow that pen he sticks on the side of his cap. And we used to sing folk songs together, but that was a long time ago.

Anyway, McCarthy has done a masterful job of keeping the Packers relevant, what with their 212 players on injured reserve this season. Even with the injuries, the Packers haven't come close to being blown out in a game this season (all six losses were by six or fewer points). And GM Ted Thompson (and this isn't easy for ol' Geno to admit) has done an equally masterful job caulking the holes in the roster with guys such as previously unknown running back James Starks.

[+] EnlargeRodgers
Eric Hartline/US PresswireAaron Rodgers has not completed less than 63 percent of his passes in a game since Week 8.
Playoff quarterback rating: Aaron Rodgers ranks No. 2 on my list -- and I could make a pretty compelling argument for him to be No. 1. But I won't because that would screw up my Tom Brady ranking.

With virtually no consistent rushing attack this season, Rodgers has carried the Packers on his shoulder pads. He's mobile. He has complete control of McCarthy's offense. He burns you if you blitz. He's great on third-down situations. What's not to like?

Sphincter muscle factor: Rookie Starks rushed for 123 yards in the wild-card win against Philly. It was only the second 100-yard game by a Packers running back this season. Now we find out whether Starks, criticized by McCarthy several times during the season, can put together two impressive performances in a row.

Stat that will amaze and astound your friends: Beginning in 2006, when McCarthy was hired, only one other NFC team has a better record than the Packers in December and January. Green Bay is 16-8.

Why I believe: The Packers have beaten the Bears and lost at Atlanta by only three (in a game that should have gone to overtime, if not for a last-minute Pack meltdown). … Packers' defense has given up more than 17 points only once since Oct. 31 -- and that was against Brady's Patriots on the road. … Running back tag team of Starks, Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn beginning to make a difference behind an offensive line that is feeling better about itself these days. … Linebacker Clay Matthews. Eagles offensive tackle Winston Justice curls up into a ball and starts weeping if you mention Matthews' name. … If Packers can beat Philly and Atlanta on the road, do you really think they'll be scared if they end up facing Seahawks in Seattle or Bears in Chicago? … Rodgers, Rodgers, Rodgers.

Why I don't believe: Starks a one-game wonder? … Falcons lost only one home game this season. … Wide receiver Greg Jennings has a weird case of dropsies the past few weeks. … Michael Turner rushed for 110 yards and a TD against Green Bay. … Short week of prep time for rested Falcons. … No sixth-seeded NFC team has ever reached the Super Bowl.

Road to JerryLand: Beat Packers at Georgia Dome, then beat Bears or Seahawks at home.

The Vegas wiseguys say: Falcons by 2 against the Packers.

Head coach: Mike Smith

Ultra-organized Smith has earned a reputation as one of the best coaches in the league. He doesn't wear a hoodie like Bill Belichick, doesn't pop off like Rex Ryan or even John Harbaugh, and doesn't go all New Age like Carroll. But he knows the importance of home-field advantage. His teams are 20-4 at the Drawl Dome.

And in the immortal words of Forrest Gump, that's all I've got to say about that.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Dale Zanine/US PresswireBad news for the Packers: In three seasons, Matt Ryan has just two losses at home.
Playoff quarterback rating: Matt Ryan ranks No. 4 on my list. Matty Ice doesn't put up huge passing numbers and, yeah, he's helped by having Turner and a reliable rushing attack. But the Falcons' players believe in Ryan in ways they never believed in Michael Vick. That says a lot about a guy in only his third year in the league.

Sphincter muscle factor: Falcons are ranked 22nd against the pass. Is that a good thing when you're facing the Packers?

Stat that will amaze and astound your friends: No. 1 seeds have a tendency to do the Luca Brasi thing and sleep with the fishes. Since 2002, there's been only one season when both the NFC and AFC No. 1 seeds reached the Super Bowl. This is the Falcons' debut as a No. 1.

Why I believe: Falcons are 7-1 at home and haven't had to get on a plane since Dec. 19. If they beat the Packers, they stay at home for NFC Championship Game, too. … Falcons' defense much better than Eagles' defense. … Ryan and Falcons aren't afraid of close games. They beat Baltimore, Green Bay, New Orleans, Tampa Bay (twice), Cincinnati and San Francisco in games decided by seven or fewer points. … A star at QB (Ryan), running back (Turner), wide receiver (Roddy White) and tight end (Tony Gonzalez). … Defensive end John Abraham versus Packers or Bears O-line is a terrifying thought. … Have already defeated Green Bay and Seattle this season.

Why I don't believe: Falcons' pass defense has scuffled at times. … When Turner doesn't put up numbers, Falcons become vulnerable. … And, well, uh …

Road to JerryLand: Beat the Steelers at Heinz Field, then beat the Patriots at Gillette Stadium or the Jets at M&T Bank Stadium.

The Vegas wise guys say: Steelers by 3.5 against the Ravens.

Head coach: John Harbaugh

His little brother, Jim, makes more money with the San Francisco 49ers, but John is the one averaging more than 10 wins in each of his three seasons in Baltimore. And the older Harbaugh (by a year) has also led the Ravens to three consecutive postseasons. But Harbaugh is 2-5 in the NFL's most vicious rivalry: Ravens versus Steelers. He has one victory at Heinz Field (this past Oct. 3), but it was against a Pittsburgh team quarterbacked by Charlie Batch, not then-suspended Ben Roethlisberger.

[+] EnlargeFlacco
John Rieger/US PresswireJoe Flacco beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in October, but Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for that game.
Playoff quarterback rating: Joe Flacco ranks No. 5 on my list. Flacco is Cutler without the knucklehead interceptions. He has a big arm, a higher completion percentage in more attempts, more TDs, fewer interceptions and three consecutive years of playoff experience.

Flacco isn't much of a runner, but he had 26 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. More impressive: his 265 passing yards (a career playoff high for him), two touchdowns and zero interceptions in the wild-card win.

Flacco understands the dynamic of the Ravens. Thanks to Baltimore's defense, he doesn't have to be a hero every week. He needs to manage the game, keep mistakes to a minimum and make a play when it counts. And most of the time, he does just that.

Sphincter muscle factor: OK, I raved about Flacco. But the Ravens' offense can go black ops at times and simply disappear off the grid. When Baltimore lost to Pittsburgh at M&T in December, it scored 10 points.

Stat that will amaze and astound your friends: Thirteen forced turnovers in the past three games. Didn't astound you? How about this: Baltimore's 7-3 road playoff record is the best in NFL history.

Why I believe: Tight end Todd Heap, who was knocked out of the Dec. 5 game against the Steelers, is back in the lineup. He had 10 receptions for 108 yards in the wild-card win against the Chiefs. Heap is an instant matchup problem for the Steelers. … I'll take the Ravens' D-line and blitz packages over the Steelers' suspect (but getting better) O-line. … Because even Roethlisberger admits he hates to face the Ravens. So does his surgically repaired nose. … Running back Ray Rice has become more productive and more of a factor in recent weeks. … Ed Reed.

Why I don't believe: Brutally tough to win at Pittsburgh and then at New England (if Pats beat Jets on Sunday). … In past four seasons, the Ravens have beaten the Steelers three times, but never with Roethlisberger in the lineup.

Road to JerryLand: Beat Ravens at Heinz Field, then beat Patriots at Gillette Stadium or Jets at Heinz.

The Vegas wiseguys say: Steelers by 3.5 against the Ravens.

Head coach: Mike Tomlin

Tomlin coaches as if he wishes he could play in the games. The Steelers feed off his swagger and attitude. After the December win at Baltimore, I saw him stand outside the Steelers' locker room greeting and joking with his players as each came off the field. And when he wasn't doing that, he was pleading the case of a drunken Steelers fan who was pinned against a nearby wall by Baltimore cops. Hilarious scene.

[+] EnlargeBen Roesthlisberger
Jason Bridge/US PresswireBen Roethlisberger, who threw for 3,200 yards this season despite missing four games, already owns two Super Bowl rings.
Playoff quarterback rating: Ben Roethlisberger ranks No. 3 on my list. Too low? Maybe. Probably. After all, he has the Super Bowl rings and Rodgers doesn't.

Sphincter muscle factor: After sitting out the Steelers' Dec. 19 and 23 games, safety Troy Polamalu and his gimpy Achilles played in Pittsburgh's final regular-season game. He didn't practice in the playoff bye week and saw limited time this week. Everything is about Sunday.

But if the injury flares up again and Polamalu is forced out of the lineup or his effectiveness is seriously impaired, the Steelers have instant issues.

Stat that will amaze and astound your friends: Since 1970, the Steelers are 8-0 in the playoffs against division opponents and 2-0 against Baltimore (courtesy of Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

Why I believe: If Polamalu's Achilles can hold up, I think the Steelers have the best defense in the NFL. No team is better against the run. No team has more sacks (48). … Cornerbacks and offensive line are getting better. … Steelers are built for the postseason. They're physical, have lots of playoff experience and get at least one home game.

Why I don't believe: It's Ravens-Steelers; anything can happen. … New sod at Heinz Field; anything can happen. … It's not as if the Steelers have dominated the series. Since 2003, Pittsburgh leads 9-8. … Will Polamalu's health hold up? … Steelers lost at home to the Patriots 39-26 in mid-November.

Road to JerryLand: Beat Patriots at Gillette Stadium, then beat Steelers at Heinz Field or Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. (Man, that rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?)

The Vegas wiseguys say: Patriots by 8.5 against the Jets.

Head coach: Rex Ryan

Ryan is the Ozzie Guillen of the NFL. He will say anything anytime about anybody. He's great for tabloids, bulletin boards, HBO shows and Internet sites.

Ryan has a huge hot-air factor, but the guy knows how to coach defensive football. Just ask Peyton Manning, who could do only so much against a Jets defense designed specifically to neuter the Indianapolis Colts' passing game.

Everything is personal with Ryan. Stopping Manning was personal. Outcoaching Belichick this Sunday is personal. Mocking Brady for attending a Broadway play is personal. And he never keeps anything to himself. If he didn't have to take a breath, he would talk continuously.

His schtick can get old, but my notepad and digital recorder don't seem to mind.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Icon SMIMark Sanchez owns the worst completion percentage (54.8) of any QB still in the playoffs.
Playoff quarterback rating: Mark Sanchez ranks No. 8 on my list. I know, he made some big plays in the wild-card win against the Colts. But Sanchez also continues to make way too many unforced errors on long passes, medium passes, short passes and touch passes. Other than that, he's doing super great.

Actually, his 54.8 percent completion rate this season was gruesome (only a 1 percent improvement from last year's rookie numbers), and his 58.1 completion percentage against the Colts on Saturday wasn't the stuff of Broadway Joe, either. Put it this way: He wouldn't be the first pick in any passing skills challenge.

Sanchez's inaccuracy puts way too much pressure on the Jets' running game and defense. Unless those passing percentages hit the 60-plus mark soon, the J-e-t-s are t-o-a-s-t.

Sphincter muscle factor: If you're Ryan, and your team got humiliated 45-3 by the Patriots a little more than a month ago, do you really want to pop off about Brady and Belichick? Don't you actually have to do better than a No. 6 seed before you start chirping at two stone-cold locks for Canton?

Stat that will amaze and astound your friends: The franchise is used to the road. Since 2002, no team has played more postseason road games (eight) than the Jets.

Why I believe: Sept. 19, 2010. Jets 28, Patriots 14. … Revis Island, the NFL's version of "Lost" for wide receivers. … If a surprisingly patient Ryan can devise a less blitz-crazy defensive scheme that works against Manning, he can do the same against Brady. … The Jets have already beaten the Pats and Steelers this season. And they lost to the Ravens by only a point, 10-9. … Sanchez is going to quit overthrowing receivers one of these days, right? Plus, he already has three playoff wins in his brief career. … With exception of December blowout by New England, the Jets almost always keep games close. … Jets are 3-1 in road playoff games under Ryan.

Why I don't believe: Patriots aren't the beat-up Colts. … Belichick isn't Jim Caldwell. … Can they really beat Indy, New England and Pittsburgh/Baltimore on the road in consecutive weeks? … Didn't have a passing TD versus the Colts last week. That won't work against the Patriots. … According to the ESPN research department, the Jets' defense got burned by the Colts on play-action passing. Think Brady noticed that watching the film?

Road to JerryLand: Beat the Jets at Gillette Stadium, then beat the Steelers or Ravens at Gillette Stadium.

The Vegas wiseguys say: Patriots by 8.5 against the Jets.

Head coach: Bill Belichick

Belichick has the right idea when it comes to the postseason: just shut up and play. Anyway, no need to detail Belichick's résumé. He's the best coach in the league. He might be the best coach in any league.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Jerome Davis/Icon SMINo picks in his past 335 attempts? Is Tom Brady amazing or what?
Playoff quarterback rating: Tom Brady ranks No. 1 on my list. His hair conditioner and shampoo rank No. 2 behind Polamalu's.

About a month ago at Foxborough, after the Patriots had beaten the Packers, I wrote that Brady's 2010 performance is better than his remarkable 2007 numbers. Nothing has happened since then to change my mind.

Sphincter muscle factor: Even Sanchez and the Jets will challenge a Patriots defense with five starters who have two or fewer seasons of experience. New England is ranked 30th in pass defense.

Stat that will amaze and astound your friends: Brady hasn't thrown an interception in his past 335 pass attempts. That's 17 more pass attempts than the Dallas Cowboys' Jon Kitna had this entire season -- and Kitna threw 12 INTs.

Why I believe: The Patriots have already beaten the Jets, Ravens and Steelers this season. … Does anybody run an offense more efficiently than Brady? … Belichick had an extra week to work on a game plan for the Colts-Jets wild-card winner. … Patriots score a jillion points. They averaged nearly 30 points against the Jets this season and scored 39 against the Steelers and 23 against the Ravens. … In final five games of season, the Patriots' defense gave up 3, 7, 27, 3 and 7 points. … Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead.

Why I don't believe: Nov. 7 -- Cleveland Browns 34, Patriots 14. … Jets know they can beat the Patriots. … If you need a great defense to reach the Super Bowl, the Patriots don't have one (yet). … How will those three rookie defensive starters handle the pressure of the postseason?

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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