The title-game picks

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 15, 2009



The gridiron gaggle that's been squawking at us for weeks to blindly follow the 18-1-over-the-past-two-postseasons Defensive Hog Index with our picks should be happy: we're rolling the dice with the top teams on the indicator this year.
 
Hopefully it helps. Oh, sure, we're doing fine and dandy with our picks over at WEEI.com, where we lead their collection of pigskin "pundits," and at OpenSports.com: we're 5-3 straight up and against the spread here in the playoffs in both places. But right here, where it counts, we continue to be haunted by picking Indy to beat San Diego in the wildcard round (which we didn't do elsewhere ... we outsmahhtted ourselves).
 
So we're 4-4 both straight up and ATS here after a pair even 2-2 marks both weeks in both categories. We know this: we certainly won't be .500 after the Super Bowl, the 11th and final game of the playoff season.
 
Baltimore at Pittsburgh (-6)
The Steelers are No. 1 in the Defensive Hog Index this year. In fact, it was a landslide peformance, as they topped all three categories that comprise the indicator. Baltimore is No. 3. So the mighty DHI says advantage Pittsburgh. But those numbers are a little misleading. Remember, the Steelers field one of the worst offensive lines in football, No. 28 on our Offensive Hog Index this year. The Ravens are better, though not by much: No. 23 on the OL.  That's a statistical dead heat for all practical intents and purposes.
 
The difference in this game will come down to, as it typically does, the performance of the passing game. The Ravens have played well, holding Chad Pennington and Kerry Collins to a cumulative 66.3 passer rating, but that's actually worse than their league-leading regular-season Defensive Passer Rating of 60.6.
 
On the other side of the ball, rookie Joe Flacco must go up against one of the best defenses the NFL has produced in recent years, not to mention Dick LeBeau's vaunted  zone blitz, which has confused many a veteran.
 
Flacco has done the one thing he's needed to do here in the postseason and that, of course, is not throw picks. But he's completed just 20 of 45 passes (44.4%) in his two playoff games, with 6.6 YPA and a 73.9 passer rating. It's below his regular-season performance in each category, and that's not championship-caliber football. The Trent Dilfer comparisons won't cut it with us, either. Baltimore's widely criticized QB in the 2000 Super Bowl run averaged a nifty 8.1 YPA and posted an 83.7 passer rating.
 
Staring down the mighty Steelers D, this is the week that Joe Cool becomes Joe Critical Pick, much like what happened to the last rookie to help a team reach the AFC title game: Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.
 
The pick: Pittsburgh 21, Baltimore 16
 
***
 
Philadelphia (-3) at Arizona
This is truly a mismatch in the all-powerful CHFF Defensive Hog Index: the Eagles finished No. 2  this year, behind only the Steelers. The Cardinals were a humble 17th. The Cardinals and Kurt Warner will find it much tougher to move the ball against this cracklin' crew of Hogs than they did against the Falcons or Panthers, both of who struggled up front defensively throughout the year. 
 
But don't discount the play of the Cardinals defense, which has risen from the statistical sea floor of the regular season to pop through the ocean surface with its two best games of the year right here in the playoffs, holding Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan and former big-game gunslinger Jake Delhomme to a cumulative 47.4 passer rating.
 
The Eagles have performed even better statistically, holding their opponents to a combined 43.3 passer rating. Of course, that's a bit misleading, considering the two quarterbacks they faced were Tarvaris Jackson and Eli Manning – a pair not as formidable as the two the Cardinals shut down here in the postseason.
 
Ultimately, though, we're banking on two things: the two recent playoff wins notwithstanding, the Cardinals are not a particularly stout team, even with their 7-2 record at home, and they were smoked 48-20 by the Eagles back on Thanksgiving. Sure, it was in Philly. But home turf doesn't provide a 29-point swing.
 
We'll go with the Eagles. Plus, we'd simply find it too hard to stomach if the current playoff system employed by the NFL, which feeds you feces and tells you its filet mignon, sends the worst team ever to the Super Bowl. Of course, if the sad-sack Cardinals do end up in the Super Bowl, it might hasten the inevitable changes coming to the current playoff structure.
 
The pick: Philadelphia 27, Arizona 23

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