NFL Playoff Dark Horses Ready to Surprise
by David Lane of Predictem.com
With the rugged, arduous and meandering path to the Super Bowl nearing completion, one has to wonder which team(s) besides the number one seeded AFC New England Patriots and NFC Dallas Cowboys stand a chance not only to surprise but to also enjoy success in this seasons NFL playoffs. Of the other five in each conference that were not the top seeds remain some awfully talented teams. Although a team that has gained momentum at seasons end by winning several regular season games in a row can be an easy choice for success in the post season, this isn’t always the case.
As you might have guessed, wild-card teams that have advanced to the big game have not only been memorable but also few and far between. Since 1970 there have been only eight that have made it all the way to the Super Bowl with only four winning the big game- the latest being the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers. Of this years wild-card teams- the Washington Redskins, New York Giants, Tennessee Titans, and Jacksonville Jaguars- there are some very hot teams. In my opinion, the Jaguars really do stick out as having the best opportunity to succeed and go deep in this seasons playoffs despite playing in an extremely competitive AFC.
Jags Coach Jack Del Rios team has taken on a smash mouth style of football that he once portrayed as a player himself in 11 seasons with the Saints, Chiefs, Cowboys, and Vikings. In his fourth season as head coach he has rebuilt the Jaguars very much in his image- a team that displays oodles of mental toughness to go along with being a very physical one as well. Out toughing the other teams and making them pay for every yard they earn was once a Del Rio trait when he was a player. This has now become a Jacksonville Jaguar trait which proves that he has successfully morphed this team into his own gutsy image.
In a conference where finesse teams such as New England and Indianapolis reign, possessing the ability to out physical the other teams can definitely be a distinct advantage. Having a terrific running game that keeps the ball out of Tom Brady or Peyton Mannings hand is equally as important as a dominant defense that can consistently pressure the quarterback. Since both of these- a stingy defense and a prolific running game- are major contributors to the Jaguars success, it is entirely possible if not probable that they’ll be able to keep these crme de la creme quarterbacks somewhat in check. Combine that with some sacks, hurries, and pressures on defense and I see the Jags having much more of an opportunity in this years playoffs than most give them credit for.
With Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones Drew combining for almost 2000 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns, and an average yards per carry of 5.4 and 4.6 respectively, the passing game for David Gerard has been opened up as he has seized the opportunity and been very special in the process (64.5 completion %, 2509 yards, 18 tds, and only 3 int’s). Gerard has been so good that the previous quarterback Brian Leftwich was traded early on in the regular season and the team still hasn’t looked back.
Statistically speaking, the Jaguars rank sixth overall on offense in the whole league (2nd rushing, 20th in passing) and 12th overall on defense (14th against the pass, 11th against the rush). Though they might have trouble coming from way behind in a game, as long as they keep it close, their strengths should translate well since the definition of playoff football is rushing the ball and playing great defense.
Beginning with the wild-card game in Pittsburgh- a team they beat 29-22 in Pittsburgh three short weeks ago- if the Jags win and San Diego beats the Tennessee Titans they would then take on the undefeated Patriots in Foxboro. Even though this seems the ultimate challenge, the match up would be intriguing as the teams seem to be polar opposites of each other.
During the regular season, Jacksonville was also an impressive 11-5 against the spread (6-2 home/5-3 road) averaging 25.7 points for and giving up 19 points a game. Concerning the over/under the Jags were also an impressive 11o/4u/1 tie. Pittsburgh on the other hand was 8-8 ATS (7-1 home/3-5 road) averaging 24.6 points for and giving up 16.8 points against. Their over/under record equal the ATS record of 8/8.
My dark horse selection in the NFC has to be the Seattle Seahawks. Although theyve had some tough times early on, the Seahawks have gotten healthy heading into the playoffs. Although the Washington Redskins have been really hot as of late winning four straight over decent competition (Dallas and Chicago at home, NY Giants and Minnesota on the road), its very difficult to imagine them winning again especially on the road and 3000 miles from home. Combine this with a team that has Matt Hasslebeck at quarterback (62.3% completion %, 3966 total yards, 28 tds, 12int’s), former league MVP Shaun Alexander at running back (207att, 716yds, 4 tds), and wide receivers Deion Branch, Nate Burleson (50 rec, 694yds, 9 tds), and Bobby Engram (94 rec, 1147 yds, 6 tds), all healthy at the same time for the first time in a long time and the Skins are in for a battle.
The Seahawks offense ended up ranked 7th passing/20th rushing for an overall total of eighth in the league while the defense averaged 16th overall (21st pass/12th against the rush). Though the Redskins are ranked fourth against the rush on defense the Seahawks have committed to a strong passing attack and now finally have a full complement of healthy receivers to work with. A strong Seattle pass rush should also get to smoking hot quarterback Todd Collins, hurrying his throws and sacking him enough to throw off his timing.
Last season the Seahawks advanced by knocking out the Dallas Cowboys (a very possible second round opponent) when Tony Romo bobbled the winning field goal attempt and just got tackled in time to prevent the game winning touchdown with no time left. Inevitably, Seattle lost a chance to go to the NFC championship game when the Chicago Bears Robby Gould hit a field goal in overtime to knock them out of the playoffs. This said, the Seahawks have plenty to prove while many have overlooked them as a very solid contender. Look for them to make a statement here and to go deeper than most expect them too.
During the regular season Seattle was 9-7 ATS but was an impressive 7-1 at home. They averaged a total of 24.6 points for versus giving up only 16.2 points to their opponents. Where the over/under line was concerned they were 7-9, with the under wager being slightly more possible. The Redskins over/under line was also 7-9 while they were a mediocre 7-7-2 ATS. The average scoring for was 20.9 and the Skins average against was 18.2 points per game.
There is no doubt in my mind both of these teams- the Jags and the Seahawks have both been slightly overlooked. It won’t take long to realize that these two are poised to go further than expected. Since there always seems to be sleepers that rise up during the playoffs, this season should be no different. My money this weekend will be on the Seahawks -3 over the Redskins and the Jaguars -1 over Pittsburgh.