Pigskin picks: wildcard edition

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 02, 2009



Our humbling 2008 season roared to an end with all the fury of a crippled house mouse.
 
We went 6-9-1 against the spread in Week 17, bringing our mark for the year to a paltry and insignificant 120-128-2. If we had any pride, we'd hang our heads in shame.
 
It's the only time in four years that we finished below .500 ATS. It's hard to consistently go better than .500 against the spread, especially when picking every game instead of just those you feel strongly about (the method employed by most game-picking "experts"). So our string of above-.500 years was bound to come to an end sooner or later.
 
Still, it sucks.
 
Sadly, we even had difficulty this week picking games straight up, with an 8-8 record. We end the year at 160-95-1 straight up. Our downfall this particular week was a series of games with nothing at stake.
 
For example, we expected the Browns to at least put up a fight against the disinterested Steelers. Instead, Pittsburgh won handily, 31-0. We weren't sure how to read Tennessee-Indy, either, two teams that were preparing for the playoffs. We figured a narrow Titans victory, as they were the better team all season. Instead, the Colts smacked them around, 23-0.
 
If those sound like excuses it's because excuses are for losers. And, well, this year we we're losers. The Cold, Hard Football Facts are harsh, even when the ColdHardFootballFacts.com mother ship is the victim of its unyielding judgment.
 
Our performances picking games in the playoffs in past years, however, have typically been more successful, including a pair of 10-1 postseasons for our Quality Standings in 2004 and 2006.
 
So let's hope for better days ahead here in January.
 
***
 
Atlanta (-2) at Arizona
Arizona's pass defense is so pathetic that we swear it still lives in its mother's basement and posts in the CHFF Forum.
 
The Cardinals surrendered a truly awful 36 TD passes this year – far more than the second-worst team in the NFL this year (NE, 27 TD) and 11 more than the worst pass defense in the history of football, the Lions (a record-high 110.8 Defensive Passer Rating). Arizona's Defensive Passer Rating of 96.9, meanwhile, was 30th in the NFL.
 
The Cardinals defense will be easy pickin's for the balanced attack provided by impressive rookie QB Matt Ryan and spectacular free agent pick-up RB Michael Turner (franchise-record 17 rushing TDs); while the imbalanced attack of Arizona (31st in the NFL with an average of 3.5 yards per rush attempt) will find it hard to keep pace.  
 
The pick: Atlanta 31, Arizona 24
 
***
 
Indy (-1) at San Diego
This is a statistically fascinating contest, highlighted by a curious statistical trend: The 2005 Steelers led the NFL in passing yards per attempt and won the Super Bowl. The 2006 Colts led the NFL in passing YPA and won the Super Bowl. The 2007 Patriots led the NFL in passing YPA and went 16-0 before losing in the Super Bowl.
 
This year, the Chargers led the league in passing YPA. San Diego QB Philip Rivers, meanwhile, led the league in both passer rating (105.5) and TD tosses (34).
 
Add in Indy's consistent ability to come up small in the playoffs, and San Diego's ability to frustrate the Colts in recent years, and it's easy to sense a Chargers victory. In fact, we fear the Chargers could represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, despite an 8-8 record – an outcome that would make the sham called the BCS look downright respectable by comparison.
 
But the Colts should be able to pass the ball almost at will against San Diego's defense that ranks 24th in Defensive Passer Rating. Indy's defense, meanwhile, should provide a more formidable challenge for Rivers and the San Diego passing game to overcome: the Colts are 11th in the league in DPR, and have surrendered a 16-game record-low 6 TD passes this year.
 
Plus, the Colts have been more successful against tougher competition this year, with a 5-2 record and a +5.0 PPG scoring differential against Quality Teams. The Chargers were 3-5 with a +4.6 PPG differential.
 
The pick: Indy 26, San Diego 23
 
***
 
Baltimore (-3.5) at Miami
The story of Miami 's turnaround from 1-15 last year to division champs this year is so warm and fuzzy that we wrap ourselves in it on cold winter nights while sipping on a nice cup of cocoa, marshmallows and grain alcohol.
 
But don't forget: the Ravens had a fair turnaround themselves, from 5-11 last year to 11-5 this year. More importantly, the Ravens are just an all-around better team than the Dolphins.
 
Specifically, Baltimore boasts the best pass defense in football, with a league-leading 60.6 Defensive Passer Rating, which creates a formidable challenge for the fact-filled pigskin people's MVP, Chad Pennington.
 
Plus, Baltimore has played better against tougher competition, as evidenced by their respective performances against Quality Opponents, while the Dolphins have benefitted from one of the easiest schedules in football: they didn't beat a single playoff-bound team all year. Plus, the Ravens already smacked around the Dolphins by two touchdowns in Miami earlier this year. 
 
The pick: Baltimore 19, Miami 14
 
***
 
Philadelphia (-3) at Minnesota
This is not a good match-up for the Vikings: they have a solid running game, but the Eagles boast one of the best defensive fronts in football (2nd in CHFF's Defensive Hog Index).
 
The Vikings also make a lot of mistakes when they pass, committing a negative pass play on a whopping 12.1 percent of dropbacks (30th). The Eagles defense is third in the league at forcing negative pass plays, creating a sack or INT on 11 percent of opponent drop backs (3rd). So expect a lot of miscues out of the Minnesota offense.
 
The Vikings defense, meanwhile, is pretty solid against the run, but the Eagles rely on a creative pass offense and should be able to overcome Minnesota's front.
 
But the key difference is that the Eagles have performed much better against tougher competition, slugging it out each week in the brutal NFC East; the Vikings merely survived a division (the NFC North) that is consistently one of the worst in football. 
 
The Eagles were 5-4 vs. Quality Teams this year, with +5.8 PPG scoring differential – best among playoff teams.
 
The pick: Philadelphia 27, Minnesota 17

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