Friday, January 7, 2011
WALLA WALLA - Having not followed the National Football League as closely this season as in the past, I hardly consider myself a voice of authority when it comes to handicapping this year's playoff field.
This lack of interest is no doubt because I didn't feel as though I had a horse in the field during the regular season.
The Vikings, my original team, were supposed to be Super Bowl contenders based on their near-miss the previous year coupled with the fact that their roster returned basically intact. This, of course, included the quarterback, Brett Favre, who just needed a little extra coaxing to show up for his 20th NFL campaign.
But things quickly went south for the Vikings.
For starters, Favre was a shadow of his former self.
Looking every bit his 41 years of age, Favre played through one injury after another against a far more difficult schedule and was without Sidney Rice, his leading receiver from a year ago, for the season's first nine games. It was evident early on that he should have stayed at home in Mississippi.
The Vikes lost three of their first four games, five of their first seven and seven of their first 10, which led to the firing of coach Brad Childress and a resounding end to the team's recent dominance in the NFC North.
By season's end, Minnesota had a new coach, a new quarterback and a 6-10 record that left the Vikings in last place in their division for the first time since 1990. Thus I ignored them.
Meanwhile, my adopted team, the Seahawks, were trying to find their way back to respectability under new coach Pete Carroll, who inherited a team that had won nine games in the previous two seasons combined.
But when the Seahawks opened the year by winning four of their first six games, it looked like Carroll's team was on to something. Then the Seahawks proceeded to lose seven of their next nine games, including lopsided home losses to the Giants, Chiefs and Falcons.
By this time I had checked out.
Only to learn last week that a Seattle victory in its final regular-season game would bring the NFL playoffs back to the Great Northwest for the first time since 2007. And the Seahawks came through, defeating the St. Louis Rams 16-6 at Qwest Field.
Seattle finished the regular season with a 7-9 record to become the first team in NFL history to win a division title with a losing record. But the Seahawks are in the playoffs nonetheless.
What's more, as the NFC West champions the Seahawks open the playoffs at home in the wild-card round. They'll entertain the defending Super Bowl champion Saints from way down yonder Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in the game that kicks off this year's run-up to the Super Bowl.
So what are the Seahawks' chances Saturday? Well, probably not good, but not impossible, either.
Here, then, is my uneducated assessment of this year's playoff field. Based in part, I might add, by the belief that it takes a franchise-type quarterback to get to the Super Bowl and then win it.
That said, two of the four first-round games are relatively easy picks.
The Colts have Peyton Manning at the controls, and he clearly belongs to that franchise club. His counterpart, the Jets' Mark Sanchez does not - not yet, anyway.
Manning's 4,592 passing yards rank second among those who will be playing quarterback between now and Super Bowl Sunday. He's also completed 66.6 percent of his passes for 32 touchdowns against only 14 interceptions.
By comparison, Sanchez has completed 54.8 percent of his passes for 3,291 yards and 17 TDs while being picked off 13 times. And his 75.3 QB rating pales in comparison to Manning's 94.3 mark.
So move the Colts into the second round.
And, as much as I hate to say it, the same goes for the Saints.
By leading New Orleans to its first Super Bowl title last year, Drew Brees clearly established himself as one of the best young QBs of his era. He completed 68.1 percent of his passes this season for 4,620 yards and a 90.9 QB rating. And his 33 touchdown passes rank second among playoff QBs, although he has been intercepted 22 times.
Matt Hasselbeck may have qualified as a franchise quarterback earlier in his career, but the Seahawks' QB has seen his better days. And he wasn't even on the field in last week's important win over the Rams because of a bruised hip, yielding to journeyman backup Charlie Whitehurst.
The Seahawks announced Thursday that Hasselbeck will play Saturday against the Saints. Which might chagrin Seahawks fans who have been critical of their QB for his 17 interceptions and a mediocre 73.2 quarterback rating during a lackluster regular season.
However, Whitehurst's numbers (2 TDs, 3 INTs and a 65.5 QB rating) in limited playing time aren't any better.
The other two wild-card round games are more difficult calls. Based on QB passing stats, they're toss-ups.
In the Ravens' game at the Chiefs, it will be Joe Flacko vs. Matt Cassel. The Packers-Eagles game in Philadelphia sends Aaron Rodgers against Michael Vick, assuming Vick is healthy.
None of these four quarterbacks has quite reached franchise status, although Rodgers is close and Vick, if he can continue his amazing comeback, is a lock.
Flacko and Cassel have almost identical passer ratings. Flacko has completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 3,622 yards while Cassel has hit on 58.2 percent of his passes for 3,116 yards. But Cassel has 27 TDs, two more than Flacko, and seven interceptions, three fewer than the Ravens QB.
This game could be decided on the defensive side of the ball, where the Ravens rank No. 10 overall and the Chiefs rank 14th. But I'm guessing the Chiefs' superior running game - they're No. 1 in the NFL, led by Jamaal Charles (1,467 yards) and Thomas Jones (896) - will be the deciding factor along with the home-field advantage.
Vick and Rodgers are likewise nearly dead-even in the passing department, although Rodgers has been a little more prolific with 3,992 yards and 28 TDs compared to Vick's 3,018 yards and 21 scores. Those numbers largely reflect the Eagles ability to run the ball (No. 5 overall) and a Packers' running game that has struggled (24th).
Brandon Jackson led the Packers with 703 rushing yards this season. For the Eagles, LaSean McCoy garnered 1,080 yards on the ground and Vick scrambled for another 676.
If Vick's healthy - he sat out the regular-season finale after being beat up by, of all teams, the Vikings - the Eagles will win.
That leaves the four bye teams - two of whom have franchise QBs and two that do not.
The Falcons' Matt Ryan and the Bears' Jay Cutler have yet to establish themselves, although Ryan made deep inroads this season by throwing for 28 touchdowns and 3,705 yards while being intercepted only nine times for a 91.0 QB rating. Cutler passed for 3,274 yards, 23 TDs and 16 picks for an 86.3 rating.
The Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games but still managed 17 touchdowns against five interceptions for 3,200 yards and a 97.0 rating. And the Patriots' Tom Brady - just call him the king - finished the regular season with the most TD passes (36), the fewest picks (four), the second most yards (3,900) and the highest QB rating (111.0) among the 12 playoff quarterbacks.
(An aside: I wonder if Drew Bledsoe realized when he lost his starting job to Brady in 2001 that it was to a player who would become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history? If not, knowing so now must make it a little more palatable.)
Even though Roethlisberger and Manning are on the AFC side of the bracket, it's hard to imagine Brady unable to get the Patriots back to the Super Bowl.
And unless Brees can resurrects an underachieving Saints team, unless Rodgers or Ryan grows into a franchise caliber QB during the next month, or unless Vick rediscovers his devastating pass-and-run offensive skills, New England will celebrate its fourth Super Bowl victory Feb. 6 in Arlington, Texas.