NFL Championship Round Preview: Two Birds in the Super Bowl?

The Divisional round further proved that this could be the weirdest year in the NFL in a long time.

In May, Sports Illustrated had a “Bizarro Baseball” issue, in which Tom Verducci looked at the “mysteries of the ’08 season.”

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But the 2008 MLB season doesn’t come close to the 2008 NFL season. To wit:

  • The Tennessee Titans won their first 10 games, with Kerry Collins at quarterback—then promptly lost four of their next seven.
  • Two rookie quarterbacks with rookie head coaches each won 11 games and made the playoffs. One has gone farther than any other rookie QB in the playoffs.
  • Seven of’s preseason power rankings missed the playoffs; of the five that did, three lost in their first game.
  • Average rank of the four remaining teams: 14.5.
  • Average rank of the 12 playoff teams: 14.8.
  • Tom Brady threw for 50 touchdowns last year, was injured seven minutes into the first week of the season…and the Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at QB.
  • Home teams had a 2.5-point home-field advantage, after a 2.9-point HFA last year.
  • Home teams went 111-138-6 against the spread this year, compared to 128-120-8 last year.

So to use historic trends like I did last week in order to pick the games? Puh-lease.

Here are my Championship round picks, based on absolutely nothing.

No. 6 Baltimore Ravens at No. 2 Pittsburgh Steelers (-6)

According the STATS, Inc., there have been 18 times since 1970 in which teams played each other three times and one team swept the regular season matchup; those teams won only 11 of those 18 games. The most recent of these matchups came last year: The Giants beat the Cowboys in the playoffs after losing both regular season matchups.

Will the overall trend continue, or will the Ravens beat the Steelers, as the Giants did last year?

The key to this game is the turnover battle. In the playoffs thus far, the team with the better turnover margin has won six of the seven games. (In Philadelphia’s opening round game against Minnesota, both teams gave up two turnovers.)

The Ravens rank third in the league in turnover differential, and in their first two playoff games (against the two teams ranked higher in that stat), the Ravens forced eight turnovers and gave the ball away just once. After a minus four differential in their first seven games, the Ravens’ turnover differential increased to a stunning plus 24 in their last 11 games.

On the other end, the Steelers rank just 11th in the league in TO differential. In their last 11 games, the Steelers have turned the ball over 19 times, which is two less than the Ravens’ total all year.

Pittsburgh has been relying on its running game as of late, rushing 25 more times than they’ve passed in the past two games. But the Steelers won’t be able to get by the Ravens with that offense: In their last nine meetings, the Steelers are averaging under 70 rushing yards per game.

Should the Ravens make the Steelers one-dimensional, Pittsburgh’s chances of winning would go down dramatically. The Steelers have had under 100 rushing yards in eight games this year and are only 4-4 in those games; as well, their average of 16.6 points per game in those eight games in 10 less than their average of 26.8 in games in which they run for more than 100 yards.

I look for the Ravens to win the turnover margin and limit Willie Parker. I’m 4-4 in the playoffs so far, but I did pick the Ravens to reach the Super Bowl.

The pick: Baltimore 20, Pittsburgh 14

No. 6 Philadelphia Eagles (-4) at No. 4 Arizona Cardinals

Other than that 70-yard screen pass against the Vikings, Brian Westbrook’s been terrible lately. He’s going to play this week, but how effective will he be? The Cardinals are giving up 68 rushing yards per game in the playoffs, and Westbrook is averaging 44 rushing yards and 2.8 yards per attempt in his last five games.

Arizona must make the Eagles one-dimensional—which, honestly, isn’t hard to do—and make Donovan McNabb beat them through the air.

When the Cards allow less than 100 rushing yards, they are 8-2; when the Eagles rush for more than 100 yards, they are 7-2. Something’s gotta give.

The turnover battle may be even more important in this game than in the AFC Championship. For example, the Cardinals are 9-0 when they have three or more takeaways and 2-7 in all other games (that stat also applies to games where the Cardinals have a positive turnover differential); the Eagles are 6-1 with three or more takeaways and 5-5-1 in all other games.

Arizona must also give Edgerrin James the rock and pound the ball on the ground. The Cards are 6-1 when Edge has more than 10 carries or 50 yards rushing, and are an even better 9-1 when rushing for 60 yards.

Something to look for: The Eagles’ defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson, loves to blitz. Arizona lost TE Stephen Spach due to injury; he had three catches for 34 yards in the Wild-card round. Without him, the Cards have no reliable receiving option in the middle of the field.

Why is that important? When the blitz is coming, Warner will have to throw up the ball and hope Larry Fitzgerald catches it (though that hasn’t been a problem), instead of throwing a 15-yard curl route to Spach behind the linebackers, as he did at the end of the Atlanta game.

The pick: Arizona 28, Philadelphia 24