The convenient hook to this year's divisional round is that the games are all rematches from the regular season. There are fresh footprints and fingerprints and clusters of evidence to examine. A gumshoe's delight. (Origin of gumshoe? Gum rubber, the original soft soles of the 1800s. Thieves used them to avoid detection, i.e., gumshoe men. Eventually referring to the detectives who caught them.)
Rex Ryan, you have the right to remain silent …
Baltimore at Pittsburgh (-3)
In football there are two types of assertion. One is suggestive assertion, and up until 6:36 in the third quarter the Ravens quietly had been suggesting their wild-card battle with the Chiefs in Kansas City. They held a close 13-7 lead, and that is a typical suggestive-assertion score. Kansas City was now beginning its second drive of the second half.
The other type is hellfire assertion. The intent is to eradicate. That's what destroyed the second Kansas City drive of the second half. On first down, thick coverage led to a long intentional grounding penalty on QB Matt Cassel.
Second down, and Ravens LB Terrell Suggs, lining up as the right defensive end, loops wide, I mean way wide, out to the 39th Street District and back, then ambushes Cassel for a sack.
Now it's 3rd-and-26. Anxiety conditions. Cassel sets up in his endzone, and the ball is thrown to 5-8, 170-pound scatback Dexter McCluster. He is met by 6-1, 250-pound Ray Anthony Lewis and destroyed. Fumble. Baltimore recovery. That's hellfire assertion.
It shattered the Chiefs for good. They now understood they weren't ready for that kind of action, and their next three possessions of the football died quietly — interception, punt, interception. Somewhere in between was a choking, 10-minute Baltimore scoring drive. A 30-7 final.
Pittsburgh is a team ready for that kind of action, because they invented it. They taught the Ravens, in the late 1990s, when the Baltimore front office got sick of being bulldozed by the Steelers and all that Blitzburgh stuff and began collecting heavy-duty personnel like the Lewises (Ray and Jamal) and Jamie Sharper and Adalius Thomas and Peter Boulware and Duane Starks. It has been a fine war ever since.
Right now I favor the Ravens' run game over Pittsburgh's. Why? Total productivity. Rashard Mendenhall is murder when his escape route is obvious, not so scary when it comes to getting yardage on footwork and instincts. The Steelers rate higher statistically, but Baltimore chooses to feed its rushers another way — through the air. Long handoffs, I've heard them called, with Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain collecting 98 catches this season, gaining 745 yards; Pittsburgh's backfield had 58 catches for 444 yards.
But those electrified Steelers linebackers, along with a healthy Troy Polamalu, can mangle any ground game approach. So you look around at the other matchups for angles and you realize it's a waste of time. Both meetings this season ended in very late comebacks, the visitors stealing a touchdown with seconds left on the clock. To predict it will be different this time around means you're simply looking for attention.
Danyluk's prediction: Steelers 19, Ravens 17
Green Bay at Atlanta (-2.5)
Last week, somebody reminded me that the Packers were my preseason choice to win the Super Bowl, and there I was picking them to lose — no, not just lose, to get wiped away by the Eagles in the wild-card round — and actions like that were those of a coward and a traitor.
I wheeled around and declared, "If your great umbrage would care to meet my high dudgeon at 12 paces, I would be happy to entertain you at dawn!" Then I reminded him that the team I picked in August had players like Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant and Mark Tauscher and Nick Barnett and Morgan Burnett — and this Packers lineup does not.
Michael Vick and the Philly offense never got it together. I paid too much attention to their crazy rally in the Meadowlands in Week 15. Perhaps I should have focused on their encores. … 14 points vs. Minnesota, 13 against Dallas, both defeats at home. OK, so Andy Reid's parking his club at the rest stop, a time for healing. Not so. Already the Vick-Kolb headlines are resurfacing.
Lying in wait for the Pack is a 13-3 Atlanta team that most of the country has yet to dial into. The Falcons conquered their regular season with a nice little version of the old Dallas triplets — Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White — a big, ol' engine at tight end (Tony Gonzalez), and the league's 16th-ranked defense. Atlanta has been menacing in its own building lately: 7-1 this season, 6-2 in ’09, 7-1 in ’08, with Ryan going 20-2 at home over that span.
Meanwhile, the Green Bay is one of these cold-weather clubs that's able to crank up its offense when the action moves indoors. The speed of the game doesn't bother the Packers. It always has been that way, it seems, even back through the Favre era.
What was surprising about their late November meeting in Atlanta was how tightly the points came. A hard-fought 20-17 final, with Matt Bryant's late field goal tipping the scoreboard toward the Falcons. I figured it to be a game played in the 30s.
The unknown this time around is a masher named James Starks who popped last Sunday and gave Green Bay 123 surprise rushing yards. Starks, listed at 218 pounds, drilled the Philly line and hit piles like a 235-pound man. Can he do it again? Unknowns can sometimes be the difference in these playoff scrums; As you read this, the Falcons' defense is making itself familiar with Starks, who was inactive when the teams last met in Week 12.
Danyluk's prediction: Falcons 31, Packers 27
Seattle at Chicago (-10)
The Saints' defense attacked like Willapa Bay oysters last weekend in Seattle, a performance crowned by RCB Tracy Porter's effort during that late fourth-quarter Marshawn Lynch rampage. Yes, it's a professional embarrassment to be hurled five yards downfield, out of the way, as Porter was (by Lynch) during that bullish 67-yard run. Like a kid shoving a teddy bear off his bed.
But Porter dutifully popped up and rejoined the stampede, as he's paid to do … then proceeded to loaf out the final 25 yards. He had another crack at Lynch at the 15 but pulled up. No thanks, I've had enough for today … we've had enough for the day. That was the Saints' defense in an oystershell.
Matt Hasselbeck emerged as the surprise QB starter for the Seahawks, and you had to admire the old-time arrogance and engineering he brought to the game. Hasselbeck, a physical wreck, left hand wrapped mummy-tight, filling the air with those looping, arching, dew-drop-in balls, daring the Saints' defenders to run under them, and those safeties and corners not being able to cover any of it. It was the most points allowed by New Orleans since opening day 2007.
My favorite quote from the dressing room came from Seahawks TE John Carlson, who caught two of the quarterback's four TD passes. How's it all feel, Johnny? Vindicated? Satisfied?
"We're not satisfied. We're not even .500 yet."
So 8-9 Seattle heads back to Chicago to face a team it barely outscored in October, back when the Bears' pass protection was in a daze and Jay Cutler was getting sacked to pieces. The 'Hawks nailed him six times in an afternoon full of Chicago screwups (clock management, Cutler misfires, penalties on TDs, etc.).
Since then the Bears' offensive line and its trainer, Mike Tice, had everyone convinced things had firmed up; that was, until Green Bay wrecked them for six more sacks in the season finale, and Chicago finished with the most allowed in football (56). What's the right adjective here … sackiest? Oh, sackable. Sackable teams usually aren't long for the postseason.
Meanwhile, Pete Carroll has his team caught in the sis-boom-bah, yes-we-can routine. It's tricky when you get one of these heavy-upset clubs in the playoffs — is it a one-shot deal or a sincere march toward destiny? Carroll's again a 10-point underdog. No matter. He's talking destiny. He always does.
I'd be more concerned for Chicago if the Seahawks had a deadlier pass rush, one certain to mess with Cutler and turn it into another field-position game. Instead, the focus lands back on that clunky Seahawks offense and the need for road playoff points. Lynch won't be shoving around teddy bears this time. If Hasselbeck's arm can't rise up again, Seattle gets smothered out.
Danyluk's prediction: Bears 28, Seahawks 13
N.Y. Jets at New England (-8.5)
John Unitas, another Colts passer, once moaned about his in-game strategy sessions with head coach Weeb Ewbank. Weeb deferring to the orthodox at times, and Unitas sneering at that.
"Early in my career he'd try to limit where I could throw against certain people," said Johnny U. "He had tremendous respect for Night Train Lane. He'd tell me, 'Don't throw the ball in his area.'
"Well, hell, I wasn't going to give Night Train the day off. So I'd throw at him, and maybe he'd pick one off, but we could do things against him, too."
Peyton Manning threw to Reggie Wayne 175 times during the regular season, with Wayne catching 111 of them. Against the Jets — more specifically, against CB Darrelle Revis, he fired Wayne's way once. That's game-plan logic, safety first, and the strategy essentially erased a third of the field from the Colts' playbook. It also produced 16 points and some bitter postgame griping from Wayne.
During the recent Sugar Bowl broadcast, ABC's Todd Blackledge talked about this very thing. The Buckeyes had hurled a missile deep into Arkansas territory, toward a receiver who was very well cloaked in man-coverage. They scored anyway. A fireworks play, but one that made sense to Blackledge, a former QB himself, who then summarized:
"When you have a great receiver, one with excellent ball skills — even if he's not open — sometimes you just throw the ball up and let him make a play for you."
A strange vibe, Jets-Colts. Urgency absent from both sides, it seemed. Both teams looked beatable, more so the Jets conceding, who pulled out a safety-first playbook from 1964 and attacked the center of the Colts' defense with straight-ahead blocking and basic runs … Tomlinson for eight, Greene for six, then Tomlinson again, or maybe Brad Smith, then a short pass, etc.
Those were the most effective Jets drives, the ones that kept Manning on the sideline, handcuffed to his coach. If the Jets had found Matt Snell or Bill Mathis inside that dome they'd have handed them the ball, too.
The last time these Jets faced New England, well, it was Alexander the Great, routing 260,000 feisty Persians at Gaugamela. New York couldn't cover and Tom Brady didn't miss, and the result was 405 yards of Patriots offense. A 45-3 ripper. How can Rex and the Jets recover?
The way to unhinge Brady is through gut pressure, hopefully in some form of a four-man rush; few teams have the personnel to achieve it. Start adding bodies, the blitz, and Brady reaches into his candy box — those timed, underneath passes he's so unearthly accurate at delivering. Zing-bing-zing. It's one reason why the Ravens have had some success against him, the internal wreckage they can create with minimal manpower.
This version of the Jets can't do that. They had better success when their 360-pound NT Kris Jenkins was in there hogging up the center, but Jenkins broke down in September and never returned. Next step is to scramble Brady with deception and trickery. Ho-hum says Tom. Odds are Revis won't be getting another day off.
Danyluk's prediction: Patriots 31, Jets 15
One final note on Manning. The postseason misery continues. Why did he surrender Reggie Wayne, allowing his top man to be held captive by Revis? Manning refused to attack, to blow down the door and send in the hostage rescue team. I think clues can be found in the lines of a poem I once saw.
You cannot ask a fish not to swim
It's the only thing that makes him him
The author was Tony Curtis, an actor, a man who made a living pretending to be somebody else. Somehow it also explains the ways of the quarterback, a man who doesn't pretend at anything.
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.