Dr. Z's Wild Card Predictions
Posted: Sunday January 03, 1999 02:43 PM
Arizona at Dallas
New England at Jacksonville
Green Bay at San Francisco
Many years ago, when I was writing for the New York Post, I used to do a college handicapping column on Thursdays called "Pigskin Prophet." Most of it was composed of ha ha one-liners, but every week one game was designated as "Best Bet," and this was deadly serious. Well, one time I ran into one of those dry spells, as we all do, in which I dropped three Best Bets in a row, and there was some very serious grumbling out there and my sports editor let me know in no uncertain terms that he wasn't at all happy, no not at all, and neither were a few of his acquaintances.
So next week I really bore down and handicapped the hell out of my Best Bet selection, and ended with the snapper: "I'll stake my life on this one." My team lost by something like 53-14, and on Monday morning there was a gentleman standing by my desk with a very sour look on his face.
"I want your life," he said.
With that grim preamble, I will now describe exactly what's going to happen in this weekend's wild-card activity. Usually I save my handicapping for the magazine each week, but they're on their holiday break right now, and since I detect a more serious readership for my online stuff, I will provide a more detailed scenario. Bear in mind, please, that this is strictly for recreational purposes, and there is a league rule forbidding us from associating with "known gamblers" (yes, Ben, I mean you, if you're reading this).
Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins
Buffalo visits Miami with the intent of running the ball, to establish something or other, and this is very hard to do against a defense as active and stoked as the Dolphins' unit will be. The experiment will last, oh, maybe a series or so, and then the Bills will test the defensive right end tandem of rookie Lorenzo Bromell and pass-rush specialist Danny Stubbs, filling in for injured Jason Taylor. And the way they'll test it will be with Doug Flutie rollouts to his left, which wouldn't have been all that effective against Taylor, a speedy stringbean with great wingspan, but might be good now.
Flutie likes rolling to his left, or rolling out in general, because it gives him a clear field of vision and also sows mayhem and busted coverages, allowing completions on what look like improvisations but are really planned plays. If Flutie gets hassled, as he did against the Jets, then the Bills will struggle offensively. The Dolphins, with a tenacious pair of corners, Sam Madison and Terrell Buckley, like to lock up in tight man-coverage, denying everything and counting on the rush to keep the QB from having enough time to beat them on deep stuff off double moves. But the Jets gave Flutie his roughest time of the year by playing "contain" with three or four men rushing, and dropping as many as eight people into coverage and screwing him up on his reads. It's not the Dolphins' style, but they might try it as a mixer, after studying Jets-Bills film.
The officiating crew will play a big part here. Madison and Buckley like to mess with the receivers a bit, and most of the time they've gotten away with it. But if it's one of those crews that keeps handing out cheap interference penalties, then the Dolphin corners will have to lighten up, and they won't be happy about it. In sum: Flutie buys time with his rollouts, Eric Moulds breaks one or two big plays downfield, Andre Reed is only occasionally effective short to medium range. The running game starts off slowly but resurfaces when the Miami front seven tires a bit.
Turn the ball around. Jimmy Johnson is quoted extensively about how important it is to get a running game going, and all that blah blah, but he knows and we know that this simply won't happen, what with that banged up offensive line. Here's the formula you use. Start with the number 40, for number of running plays. Every time you hear a Johnson quote about establishing the run, deduct one. So if you hear him say it 20 times, pre-game, that means they'll run the ball about 20 times, if he says it 25 times, they'll be good for 15 rushes, etc. It's called the inverse-establish ratio, also known as the reverse con job, which means that Danny Boy will be throwing early and often because Jimmy isn't stupid and he knows that's the only way he's going to win this game, against a Bills' secondary that can be had. Provided, of course, Marino gets time. When he feels the rush, he'll put the ball up for grabs.
And now we look at Wade Phillips' philosophy. He's not, by nature, a big blitz guy. Look at the way he ended the last Patriots' game, setting up the old prevent firm of Layback and Watchit, allowing Drew Bledsoe to drive the field against him. No heat vs. Marino, Bills lose. Blitz pressure, gambling, etc., which is not Phillips style, but I think will be on Saturday, Bills win. Final score: Buffalo 20, Dolphins 17.
Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys
Arizona at Dallas is, I believe, the easiest game on the board to handicap. Cardinals come into Texas Stadium vowing to stop the run and get run out very quickly by Emmitt and the Fat Boyz. Cowboys rush for a minimum of 160, with Emmitt collecting about 140 of those yards. Larry Allen vs. Simeon Rice, who dances away from blocks like a torero, is a match-up that should be outlawed. Ditto Erik Williams vs. Andre Wadsworth on the other side. Cowboys load up with two tight ends, 260-pound Hayward Clay to go with 280-pound Greg LaFleur, but they don't really need it. Michael Irvin is held in check by Aeneas Williams, but Pat Jeffers burns the Cards for some deep ones.
Cowboy defense vs. 'Zona offense is a coordinator overmatch, Dave Campo over Marc Trestman . Jake Plummer thrills the crowd with some improvisational stuff but throws two picks, minimum, and might be good for a fumble or two. Final score: Dallas 31, Arizona 10.
New England Patriots at Jacksonville Jaguars
New England at Jacksonville will answer the age old question: if your QB is going to get hurt, which is worse, a broken finger or a high ankle sprain? Answer: whichever one keeps him off the field. We can rule out Drew Bledsoe. Scott Zolak carries the load, throwing to Shawn Jefferson, who can be effective deep but also goes into invisible stretches, and Tony Simmons, who drops more passes than he catches. Robert Edwards runs and catches effectively, but the Jags, notoriously weak against the run, will be loading up to stop same. The Pats' defense is heroic but tiring.
I didn't see much that I liked about Jacksonville after Mark Brunell went down. Pittsburgh shoved them around, but the Steelers' D decided to mail it in and handed the Jags the win. Jonathan Quinn was given a very simplistic game plan. If Brunell's not back Sunday and Jon's the man, and the Patriots come after him in serious fashion, well, the Jags better figure out another way to win. Will Brunell come limping onto the field to lead his team any way he can? Dunno at this point. I don't like either team, but I guess I dislike the Pats more than I dislike the Jaguars, so let's call it Jacksonville 17, New England 13.
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
Green Bay at San Francisco. The formula's been almost the same for the last five contests, all won by the Packers, three times in the postseason. Green Bay gets an early lead, San Francisco has to come back, eventually the Niners' running game is negated and Steve Young has to do it with his arm, but by the late rounds he's groggy and hanging on, battered unmercifully by Fritz Shurmur 's rush scheme. Last time they met, in November, the Niners actually did come back from a horrendous start to take a lead into the fourth quarter, helped more by Brett Favre's interceptions than any heroics by Young, but then their O-line died and Young got hammered to the tune of nine sacks.
What can change it this time? A running game, provided Garrison Hearst's hamstring is OK. If it's not, forget it. If it's pass-pass-pass, then the rush will again get to Young. The Niners, for the first time since the days of Joe the Jet Perry and Hugh McElhenny and J.D. Smith and Ken Willard , are a running team, not in the Bill Walsh-Bobb McKittrick cut-block and clip style, but with solid drive-blocking by the front five, plus fullback Marc Edwards. Over the last six weeks they've averaged better than 200 yards a game on the ground. I hate to fall back on the old cliche that you've heard ad infinitum, control the ball, etc., but it really applies here. If they can keep Young from getting roughed up, going into the fourth quarter, and if the line isn't worn down from too much pass-blocking, then you've got to like San Francisco's chances.
Here's what I don't like about the Packers. Favre, over the last five weeks, has thrown six picks (two against the Bears twice and two against the Eagles). His receiving corps is down to one healthy body, Antonio Freeman, with Mark Chmura nursing a calf injury and Robert Brooks, no longer a long-ball threat, coming off a hamstring pull. Dorsey Levens goes through the motions of running, but only Mike Holmgren thinks he's back. I just don't think they've got enough weapons to win it on offense, but I can see Reggie White getting his defenders together and giving them some kind of inspirational message about how they've got to play the game of their lives. And I can see them coming out smoking and forcing early turnovers, and Young struggling to get off the field, holding his rib cage, or something else that hurts.
But that's not serious handicapping, is it? Serious handicapping says San Francisco 27, Green Bay 20 , but a word of caution. I believe I've picked the Niners in four of the five contests they've lost to the Packers. Sometimes emotion beats logic.
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