Whether you steamroll your way in like Tom Brady and the Patriots did with eight straight wins, or whether you start blasting that loud beeping noise and back your way in like Tim Tebow and the Broncos did, it won't matter once that ball is kicked and the game begins.
I say that with more than a hint of disingenuity, of course, because I took "backing into the playoffs" to a whole new level this year. I went 4-12 in Week 16 (my worst week ever in three years of the picks column) and followed it up with a 5-10-1 showing in Week 17. Just like that, I went from 12 games over .500 to 123-124-9. The NFL can chew you up and spit you out. Just ask Ryan Leaf. For the past two weeks, when the NFL has run that "Bad Day" commercial with people crying about their fantasy seasons, I wept with them. Me and the makeup-smudged owner of Romolicious and the (presumably drunk) owner of Boston T.D. Party have been trying to heal together. It's not been a good end to the season.
But it doesn't matter now. What matters is it's the playoffs, where I've been perfectly mediocre the past two seasons (11-11). Like Mr. Tebow out in Denver, it's time to turn things around — and fast.
So let's not waste any more time in getting to the picks for wild-card weekend. Oh, and if you want Ridiculous Quotes From Last Week's Picks (RQFLWP), you're out of luck, because it's the playoffs and last week doesn't matter. If you really want to be entertained just go back and read the whole thing, because pretty much everything I said was ridiculous.
(Home team in caps.)
Cincinnati (+3) over HOUSTON
It's funny that playoff betting season opens with a game that nobody in their right mind would ever want to bet on. T.J. Yates vs. Andy Dalton! Team on a three-game losing streak vs. a team that's lost three of five and five of eight! Awesome!
So where do we go? Let's start by comparing recent playoff history. The Bengals are 0-2 in their only playoff games in the past two decades, and the Texans have never been there. Excellent.
Well which team had the upper hand in their meeting earlier this season? The Texans won by a point.
So you don't have too much to go on here, but consider that the only teams Cincinnati lost to this season were playoff teams. Twice to the Ravens, twice to the Steelers and once to the Broncos, Niners and Texans. Everyone else, they beat.
The Texans, on the other hand, head into the playoffs after losses to the 2-14 Colts and the Titans (by the way, if you reference the 2-14 Colts between now and September, you're going to have to refer to them only as "the 2-14 Colts").
You take that sign of weakness, you consider that Yates is coming off an injury and has thrown just four passes since Christmas (and even if he was fully healthy, he'd still just be T.J. Yates), and you put your faith in Dalton and the Bengals. You do that if, you know, you're nuts and have a problem.
NEW ORLEANS (-10.5) over Detroit
The team that just put up 41 points and 520 passing yards against the best team in the league is a double-digit underdog to start the playoffs. Welcome to the NFL.
The line is brilliant though, because there was literally no way in the world I'd be picking against New Orleans against any team with a home outside Wisconsin unless I saw double digits. And here we are.
So let's take the Sherlock Holmes approach and assess what we know.
The Saints handled the Lions easily this year 31-17. Matthew Stafford had 408 yards that day, which would have been a season high had it not been for the carnival at Lambeau last weekend, but just one touchdown. The two teams combined for 187 rushing yards, and you'll likely see the same airshow this weekend.
Common sense might say that in the playoffs, blowouts just shouldn't happen, but reality says that's not entirely true. The Saints themselves beat the Cardinals by 31 points in '09, and they beat the Colts by 14 in a little-publicized game called the Super Bowl that year. In last year's playoffs, the Ravens beat the Chiefs by 23, the Bears beat the Seahawks by 11 and the Packers beat the Falcons by 27. The year before that, the Cowboys beat the Eagles by 20, the Ravens beat the Patriots by 19, the Colts beat the Ravens by 17, the Vikings beat the Cowboys by 31, the Colts beat the Jets by 14 and there was the aforementioned Saints-Cardinals disaster and Saints-Colts Super Bowl.
That's 10 out of 22 playoff games that were decided by more than 10.5 points, and if you had to pick one blowout this weekend, wouldn't it be this one?
NEW YORK GIANTS (-3) Atlanta
To me, this is the only easy pick of the weekend.
The Falcons were a bad road team. Their road record was 4-4, but they've been outscored 182-166. And that's counting a 31-7 win against the Colts, which shouldn't count if we're strictly talking about NFL teams here. So against real NFL teams on the road, the Falcons are 3-4 and have been outscored 175-135. Most recently, you saw the Falcons — on the road in a game they had to win — get embarrassed on national television in New Orleans to the tune of 45-16. Then at least one player had the audacity to anonymously cry about it to the media.
Simply put, the Falcons have been the most inconsistent and least reliable "good" team in football all year long, dating back to early-season losses to the Bears and Buccaneers and popping back up in December with a loss to T.J. and the Yates. The Falcons only made the playoffs by default, and they're worthy of no trust.
That's really saying something, too, because the Giants were their biggest opponent in the battle for the title of most unreliable this season. But when it was gut check time, Tom Coughlin got his guys to play two outstanding football games against the Jets and Cowboys. They won both by an average of 16 points.
When it came down to the time where the Giants had to win, they did. Atlanta did the opposite, then complained to the media. I foresee no scenario in which the Falcons even compete on Sunday — I'm just hoping it's warm enough in New Jersey for us all to avoid shots of the Coughlin Death Face.
DENVER (+8.5) over Pittsburgh
Unlike the early Sunday game, this one is incredibly difficult, so much so that doing anything but taking the points would just seem foolish.
Ben Roethlisberger has one leg, and he said on Wednesday that he feels his ankle is a five out of 10. He looked like an absolute idiot bouncing around the backfield against the Niners in Week 15, and he only looked marginally better in Week 17 against the Browns, when he apparently suffered a setback. Expect the Denver defense (10th in the league in sacks) to have a field day with an immobile Roethlisberger.
Now you add in that Rashard Mendenhall is done for the year, meaning Isaac Redman, he of 479 yards and two fumbles on 110 carries, is the starting running back. Ryan Clark, who leads the team in tackles, is also not playing so as to avoid sudden death and whatnot.
It all adds up to the Steelers having a nearly impossible journey to blowing out the Broncos.
That still doesn't mean Denver really has a chance. If the team is blind to the fact that the offense is downright atrocious in the first three quarters, then I don't know how to help. Tebow has thrown 147 passes in quarters 1-3 combined, which is only 30 more than the 117 he's thrown in the fourth quarter. As we've seen the past few weeks, Tebow Time isn't the sure thing it once seemed to be. The only way the Broncos have a chance is if they come out throwing, but even that would be just a prayer against the league's best pass defense. Simply put, they're a mess.
Still, the Steelers don't blow teams out in January. Their last five playoff wins have been by an average of 7.2 points, and four of those were home games (the other was a Super Bowl).
It'll be ugly. Not quite as ugly as Chiefs 7, Broncos 3, but ugly nevertheless. The Steelers will win by four and limp along to the divisional round. And I'll be limping along with 'em.
Last week: 5-10-1
Regular season: 123-124-9