In case I haven’t told you, I’m a perfect 5-0 predicting football games for Qcitymetro.com, including a 4-0 mark picking NFL playoff games last weekend.
Heck, if I were smart enough to know how to do Desmond Howard’s famed Heisman pose with words on a computer screen, I would. I feel that good about my perfect record.
And guess what? I can go as far as guaranteeing I’ll get this next prediction correct, and here it is: Uh, I won’t go unbeaten this weekend.
The NFL’s Divisional Playoff round is when picking games gets really hard. There are no gimmes at this point. Teams don’t back their way into this stage of the season the way some squads stumble into the first round. And for those teams that had first-round byes and actually start their postseasons this weekend, like your Carolina Panthers, we know they can handle their business.
So read on to see just how badly my record is going to look after this weekend:
SATURDAY, JAN. 10
Arizona (10-7) at Carolina (12-4), 8:15 p.m. on FOX
I’ve got a bad feeling about this one, Panthers fans, and I’m tempted to pick the Cardinals.
It makes me nervous that I haven’t yet seen a person who believes the Cardinals will beat Carolina. Not one.
Like all those people, I believe the Panthers are the better team. They have the third-best rushing attack (statistically) in the league, they play great defense, and their fans are behind them.
And that’s why I’m so apprehensive – everything appears to be in the Panthers’ favor.
In the past, Carolina has been a team that needed that chip on its shoulder, the squad that almost had to have that “us-against-the-world” mantra in their locker room to be successful. Now that everybody and their mama is picking the Panthers to win, what will they do?
Las Vegas has the Panthers favored by 10, but I don’t see them playing well enough to dominate an explosive team like the Cardinals that thoroughly.
Against my better judgment, I’m picking Carolina to win, but that’s only because I’ve been telling people for a month that the Panthers will go to the Super Bowl. I’ll stick to my guns, but there will be no blowout this weekend. Look for my man John Kasay to kick the Panthers into the NFC Championship Game.
Final score: Carolina 27, Arizona 21.
Baltimore (12-5) at Tennessee (13-3), 4:30 p.m. on CBS
Can you say throwback game? The league should make them wear leather helmets in this one.
Tennessee, obviously, is a smash-mouth squad, preferring to keep the ball in the hands of running backs LenDale White and Chris Johnson rather than airing it out with quarterback Kerry Collins. I just don’t know how effective the Titans can be handing the ball off all evening with Ray Lewis and Co. on the Baltimore defense. At some point, the Titans will have to put the ball in the air, where the great Ed Reed lurks in the secondary.
(I know Reed looks like your 56-year-old Uncle June – the one you can hear coming a mile away because he’s got the loudest truck in the county — but in reality he’s only 30 and is cementing himself as the best ball-hawking safety in the history of the game.)
The Ravens are playing better than any team in the league right now. That’s right – anybody. They’ve always had the defense. But now the offense, led by rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, has looked championship-worthy. It’s not that the Ravens are scoring 35 points a game; they just have that efficient look they had when they won the Super Bowl after the 2000 season. They’ve got a 260-pound running back, Le’Ron McClain, another strong ball carrier in Willis McGahee, and Flacco doesn’t make mistakes.
Final score: Ravens 16-13.
SUNDAY, JAN. 11
Philadelphia (10-6-1) at New York Giants (12-4), 1 p.m. on FOX
It’s become trendy to pick Philadelphia in this one. You know the reasoning: Eagles coach Andy Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb want to prove all the naysayers wrong, the defense is stellar, Philly beat the Giants a few weeks ago, yada, yada, yada.
I agree with all that. But with the myriad injuries to running back Brian Westbrook and the pressure on Reid and McNabb heading into this game, do the Eagles really have enough left to knock off the defending Super Bowl champions on road?
Make no mistake: The Giants are just as talented, even without star wide receiver Plaxico Burress. Plus, they’ve got that three-headed monster at running back – Bradon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw. And let’s not forget about a nasty defense. Just like last year, it will be hard for quarterback Eli Manning to mess things up, at least in this round of the playoffs.
I’m no Panthers fan, but it would be nice to see Carolina and the Eagles both win this weekend. That means Charlotte would get to host its first NFC Championship Game next week, and this place needs something big like that to hit town.
But the Eagles won’t hold up their end of the deal.
Final score: New York Giants 27, Philadelphia 16.
San Diego (9-8) at Pittsburgh (12-4), 4:45 p.m. on CBS
When I picked San Diego to beat Indianapolis last week – by the way, did I tell you I was 5-0? – I did so without knowing star running back LaDainian Tomlinson would basically miss the whole game with a torn tendon in his groin.
(Since this is a family Web site, let me just say “dang!” after writing about an injury like that.)
Anyway, I think Tomlinson’s absence even caught Indianapolis by surprise, because the Colts certainly didn’t seem prepared to face Tomlinson’s replacement, diminutive Darren Sproles.
The Steelers , however, are prepared for Sproles, so no need to expect another spectacular performance from the 5-foot-6, 180-pounder.
The Steelers have their own questions. Specifically, is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger fully recovered from the concussion he suffered two weeks ago?
It doesn’t really matter. Defense will be key for the Steelers Sunday. And between NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and safety extraordinaire Troy Palomalu, I don’t see the Chargers moving on.
Final score: Pittsburgh 14, San Diego 13.
C. Jemal Horton has covered sports for the Washington Post, Indianapolis Star and Charlotte Observer. He currently is group sports editor for Carolina Weekly Newspapers.