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Gearing up for wild card weekend

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 7, 2011 08:32 AM

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For the Patriots, the easiest road to Dallas is certainly a matter of opinion. Kansas City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and New York are the potential obstacles. Rating those teams in order of preference is an entirely subjective exercise.

So whom do you want to see eliminated this weekend? Excluding the Chiefs, the Patriots have already defeated all of the entrants in this year’s AFC playoff field. This season, the Colts and Ravens (not necessarily in that order) came closest to defeating the Pats in Foxborough. Consequently, logic suggests that the Chiefs and Jets should get the support of Patriots fans this weekend, leaving a group that would include only the Steelers, Chiefs, and Jets (in New England) when the Patriots take the field next weekend.

Of course, whether it actually goes that way is anybody’s guess.

A look at this weekend’s first-round games in both the AFC and NFC:

New Orleans Saints (-10-1/2) at Seattle Seahawks: Despite being on the road, the Saints are a huge favorite in this game, even amid the news that running backs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas have been placed on injured reserve. During the regular season, the Saints defeated the Seahawks, 34-19, at the Superdome in New Orleans.

Does Seattle even have a chance in this game? Of course. It’s the NFL. The Seahawks were 5-3 at home this year – New Orleans was 6-2 on the road – though their home wins were against San Francisco, San Diego (early), Arizona, Carolina, and St. Louis. Everything here points to a relatively easy Saints win because the Seahawks don’t match up especially well anywhere.

To wit: The best way to beat the Saints is to overpower them at the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, the Seahawks rank 31st in rushing yards per game and 29th in yards per carry. This game screams mismatch – and it is.

The pick: New Orleans 40, Seattle 17.

Green Bay Packers (+2-1/2) at Philadelphia Eagles: We all know the standard rule when it comes to Vegas oddsmakers – home field advantage is generally worth three points. So know Vegas is telling us with this line? That this game is a dead heat, with Aaron Rodgers squaring off against Michael Vick in what could be the most entertaining game of the weekend.

For what it’s worth, the Packers defeated the Eagles in Week 1, 27-20, though Vick did not start. Everything now points to a game dominated by the offenses, both of which rank in the top in the league in scoring. The Packers have the better defense, though conventional wisdom often goes out the window when dealing with Vick.

What will likely decide this game – stop the presses – is turnovers. Both the Packers (plus-10) and Eagles (plus-nine) ranked among the best in the NFL in this category during the regular season. Late in the year, however, the Eagles started getting more careless with the ball. For what it’s worth, the weather in Philadelphia on Sunday actually looks pretty good.

The pick: Green Bay 31, Philadelphia 24.

New York Jets (+2-1/2) at Indianapolis Colts: Again, Vegas is telling us this game is a dead heat. And it is. While the Jets and Colts did not face one another this year, they squared off in the AFC title game a year ago, when Indianapolis claimed a 30-17 victory that sent the Colts to the Super Bowl against the Saints.

We all know the conventional logic. The Jets will try to run against an Indy team that ranked 25th against the rush based on yards per game and yards per carry. And yet, often, the Colts’ run defense mysteriously improves in the playoffs, evidenced by their performance during their two Super Bowl years of 2006 (when they went from 173 yards allowed per game during the regular season to 83 in the playoffs) and last year (when they went from 126.5 to 78.)

Also, consider this: last year, in one-and-a-half games (regular- and post-season) against the Jets, Peyton Manning went 40-of-60 (66.7 percent) for 569 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His QB rating was 113.8. The obvious difference is that Manning won’t have Austin Collie and Dallas Clark this time, which could put a great deal of pressure on replacements Blair White and Jacob Tamme in blitz situations.

In many ways, this is a bad matchup for the Jets. But are the Colts really that good this year with all those injuries?

The pick: New York 26, Indianapolis 24.

Baltimore Ravens (-3) at Kansas City Chiefs: The wise guys are basically telling us that that the Ravens are a touchdown better than the Chiefs on a neutral field, so here’s the fundamental question in this game: can the Chiefs, who had the best rushing attack in the league, effectively run on the Ravens, who had one of the best run defenses?

Competitively speaking, don’t count out Kansas City in this game. The Chiefs went 7-1 at home this season – losing only the finale to Oakland – and allowed fewer than 15 points per game at Arrowhead Stadium under defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. The Ravens offense can get bottled up. Current forecasts call for snow showers on Sunday in Kansas City and everything points to a tight, low-scoring game.

One thing about the Ravens: like the Steelers, they can be vulnerable at the corners. This could open up a big play for Dwayne Bowe, who is likely to get much of Ed Reed’s attention throughout the day. This game is a terrific matchup for the purists who like old-time football. If you’re betting against the spread, take the points.

The pick: Baltimore 19, Kansas City 17.

Get ready for the Jets, Patriots fans.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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