These days, the Rotoworld news page is comprised mostly of coaching rumors, updates on potential free agents, injuries, and reserve/future signings. But there is still lots of America's Game to be played.
The 2011 playoffs kick off early Saturday evening, when the 7-9 fourth-seeded Seahawks host the 11-5 fifth-seeded Saints. Odd? For sure. But the rest of the weekend's games all involve point spreads of three or less. It's going to be an unforgettable round of wild-card football.
Let's take a look at the matchups, coaching comparisons, and possible x-factors, along with my predictions for each contest.4:30 ET Saturday: Saints @ SeahawksWhen the Saints Have the Ball
The Saints are a historically pass-first team under Sean Payton, and 2010 was no different. No NFC team racked up more regular season pass attempts, and New Orleans' 68.1 completion rate was easily a league high. With lead running backs Chris Ivory
and Pierre Thomas
done for the year, Payton will count even more heavily on Drew Brees
' arm in the playoffs. A Pro Bowler for the third straight season, Brees will look to exploit a Seahawks defense highly susceptible to the deep ball. Seattle has surrendered the second most 20-plus yard completions and the third most passing touchdowns in football. While top receiver Marques Colston
vows to play through a knee injury, Brees has more than capable alternatives in vertical threats Robert Meachem
and Devery Henderson
, slot receiver Lance Moore
, and Week 17 star Adrian Arrington
New Orleans took a big hit when the rookie Ivory went on injured reserve Tuesday. Ivory led the Saints in regular season yards-per-carry average (5.23) and rushing touchdowns, and there's no viable replacement on the roster with Thomas joining Ivory on I.R. It's a good thing, then, that Payton is the best in the business at creating favorable matchups. When the Saints need chain-moving plays, look for perimeter tosses and screens to Reggie Bush
, keeping the Seattle defense honest. Ultimately, though, there won't be balance on offense. Brees is going to have to air it out.When the Seahawks Have the Ball
Update: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll announced Thursday afternoon that Matt Hasselbeck will start at quarterback. Hasselbeck accounted for 13 turnovers compared to five touchdowns in his final five regular season starts, and was knocked out of the fifth after four pass attempts due to a hip injury. He gives Seattle a slight chance to keep the weekend's first game more competitive.
With Matt Hasselbeck battling a strained hip, the Seahawks are leaving their starting quarterback to a game-day decision. Either way, they won't win if this one turns into a shootout. Hasselbeck and "backup" Charlie Whitehurst accounted for 25 turnovers in the regular season, compared to just 14 touchdown passes. The Saints, meanwhile, ranked fourth in the NFL in pass defense and allowed the fewest scoring passes in the league. Seattle's quarterback is going to have to be a game manager, taking few chances and hitting possession receiver Mike Williams for first downs.
While Seattle's defense tries to keep Brees off the field and the passing game avoid takeaways, the running game will have to step up in a major way. Starting tailback Marshawn Lynch was one of football's least productive per-play rushers during the regular season, averaging just 3.51 yards a carry after arriving in Seattle via trade from Buffalo. The Saints are very average in run defense, so this is one of the few areas the Seahawks could give them problems. But considering the way he's played to this point, Lynch will need his best game of the season to capitalize.
The Saints have a clear advantage in the coaching department with returning Super Bowl-winner Sean Payton at the helm. The fifth-year coach enters his third postseason with a 4-1 playoff record and arguably the best game plans west of Belichick. An offensive mastermind, Payton has already beaten Seahawks coach Pete Carroll once this season -- by two touchdowns in Week 11.
Carroll is a defensive mind, although you wouldn't know it by his 27th-ranked defense. The former USC coach's last trip to the NFL playoffs came in 1998, when Carroll's Patriots lost in the first round to Tom Coughlin's Jaguars, 25-10. Carroll won his only postseason affair in 1997.
The Saints whipped Seattle 34-19 in Week 11, and four of New Orleans' touchdowns came off Drew Brees' hand. Saints tight ends combined for 110 yards on eight grabs, with Graham leading the way. A dominant rookie talent, Graham scored four times in the final three regular season games and should give aging strong safety Lawyer Milloy fits up the seam. Assuming he plays through a Week 17 ankle injury, Graham will also cause matchup problems in the red zone.
The Saints and Seahawks are a mismatch on paper, with New Orleans holding the clear upper hand in talent. Oddsmakers realize it, pegging the Saints as double-digit favorites. If the Saints jump out to an early lead and force Seattle to throw to keep up, passing-down back Justin Forsett will replace Marshawn Lynch in the Seahawks' base offense. Forsett isn't going to win the game for Seattle, but has racked up 74 receptions over the past two seasons and is a more explosive option than Lynch. Also averaging 4.92 yards per carry, Forsett can be dangerous on the edges.
Prediction: Saints 30, Seahawks 17
8:00 ET Saturday: Jets @ Colts
When the Jets Have the Ball
New York's bread and butter is the running game. The Jets boast the NFL's No. 4 rushing attack, keyed by a road-grating offensive line that greased the wheels for the second most regular season rushing attempts in football. Integral to the front five is the return of mauling right tackle Damien Woody from a three-week knee injury. The Jets need improved play from tailbacks LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, however, particularly against a Colts run defense that stiffened down the stretch. Usually friendly to opposing rushers, Indianapolis held Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden, and Maurice Jones-Drew to a combined 2.83 yards-per-carry average and zero rushing touchdowns in the last three weeks. None of them topped 46 rushing yards.
The Jets' ground game sets up vertical shots from quarterback Mark Sanchez to deep threats Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards. Edwards is notoriously drop prone, but leads the Jets in yards-per-catch average (17.1), receiving TDs (7), and receptions of 20-plus yards (14). Holmes is a more complete receiver. Since the season's halfway point, the Super Bowl XLIII M.V.P. is averaging five catches for 70 yards per game with just one drop and six touchdowns. They will look to exploit a Colts secondary expected to be without top cornerback Kelvin Hayden (neck).
When the Colts Have the Ball
No team attempted more regular season passes than the Colts, and only the Patriots threw for more touchdowns. Realistically, it wasn't one of Peyton Manning's better years, but there's no question that Indianapolis' offensive mentality is pass happy. Jets coach Rex Ryan plans to shadow Colts top receiver Reggie Wayne with shutdown corner Darrelle Revis, a matchup Revis is used to winning. The two squared off for roughly seven quarters last season, and Wayne came away with 88 scoreless yards on six catches. Manning will have to lean on zone-busting tight end Jacob Tamme, fast-finishing deep threat Pierre Garcon, and rookie slot man Blair White.
The Colts only use the run game as a change of pace, but have received a late-season spark from December street free agent signee Dominic Rhodes. At least Rhodes wasn't sitting on the couch; the 31-year-old led the United Football League in rushing. Now in a rotation with starting tailback Joseph Addai, Rhodes paced Indy with a 4.65 yards-per-carry average in the final three games while also taking over on kick returns. The Jets had the NFL's third toughest run defense in the regular season, however, so yards on the ground will be hard to come by for the Colts.
Garrulous Rex Ryan is in just his second season as Jets head coach, but showed in last year's playoffs an ability to maximize talent during a postseason run. Led by then-rookies Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene, Ryan's club outlasted the Bengals and Chargers before falling 30-17 to these same Colts in the AFC Championship game. The Jets held a 17-13 lead through two quarters of that one, so Ryan has hopefully improved his halftime speech in time for Saturday's showdown.
Like Ryan, Colts coach Jim Caldwell is a playoff veteran in only his second season on the job. Then the AFC's No. 1 seed, Caldwell's team defeated the Ravens and Jets by a combined score of 50-20 in last year's postseason, before a 31-17 Super Bowl loss to New Orleans. As was the case in Caldwell's last meeting with the Jets, Indianapolis has home field working in its favor.
Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes rank 1-2 on the Jets in receiving yards. Third is tight end Dustin Keller, who does the dirty work underneath. Though his production has been lackluster since Holmes returned from a four-game suspension to open the season, Keller paced the team in pass targets, receptions, and receiving yards in Week 16, before the Jets rested starters in the regular season finale. Mark Sanchez is playing through torn cartilage in his throwing shoulder, which may force offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to gear his game plan toward short passes over the middle. The Colts are also getting torched by tight ends, allowing five touchdowns and an average of over seven receptions per game to position since Week 12.
With Darrelle Revis making Reggie Wayne a non-factor in last season's AFC title game, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie stepped up for a whopping 18 catches, 274 yards, and two touchdowns combined in the Colts' victory. The Jets have solidified the cornerback spot opposite Garcon with Antonio Cromartie, but remain vulnerable to slot receivers -- rookie Blair White's position with Collie on injured reserve. White has had an up-and-down year, but gets the opportunity for a big game Saturday night. New York has struggled against inside receivers Wes Welker, Davone Bess, Nate Burleson, Percy Harvin, and even Bills undrafted rookie David Nelson this season.
Prediction: Colts 24, Jets 20