Craig Schaller

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CRAIG SCHALLER


OUT OF THE BOX!  Welcome to Craig Schaller's online column....


SURVIVE AND ADVANCE



It's almost time for the 2nd of the best two weekends of the year. Yes, as any serious NFL fan will tell you, Wild Card weekend and then Conference semi-final weekend take the cake as the best back-to-back sports weekends in any calendar year. Why is this? Well, of course it means two playoff football games each day, back to back. It means seven hours of excitement with everyone's favorite sport--pro football! 


This year, it is extra exciting for me.  That's because I entered the Fox sports Survivor pool way back in August.  


Now the way this works is, each week, you must pick ONE winner.  If they win, you are 1-0 and you move on, or survive.  Sounds easy right?  Well, the caveat is that once you pick a team to win, and they do, you CAN'T pick that team again for the rest of the entire regular season.  If you lose once, you're done.  Believe me, once you get to the end of the season, the choices to find a gimme winning pick are pretty limited.  


I entered two teams in fact.  One--Schaller the Schwam--didn't exactly live up to its name, as I went 11-5 predicting one winner a week with that team.  However, my other team--"Craig's Crapshoot"--well, I pretty much kicked ASSSS!


 I went UNDEGEATED with that team all season!  I had been doing this same Survivor pool for the last four years, and never did better than four losses, so to be undefeated after 17 weeks was pretty exciting to me.  Also, with a grand prize winner amount of $2500 dp;;ars. I have quite the incentive.


Now that we are into the playoffs, I have to keep picking to try to break the tie with the dozens of other lucky bastards who are also unbeaten so far.  Last weekend, I took Carolina, figuring that there was no way in H-E-double hockey sticks that Ryan Lindley could lead his Cardinals to victory, plus I highly doubted I would want to pick the Panthers again, so I wouldn't miss that choice the rest of the way.  Mission accomplished, and I moved on.  15 % of my competitors didn't though, as they picked the Steelers over the Ravens.


This week, it really gets tricky.  Remember, once you pick a team in each playoff week, you can't pick that team again.  So, if I pick Seattle this week--the most obvious matchup--and they make the Super Bowl, I can't pick them.  Therefore, you have to think strategically.


My plan for this week is to pick the Denver Broncos, as I think they have the 2nd easiest matchup of the weekend, BUT will be hard pressed to beat New England in Foxborough the following week.  I also feel like the Seahawks look like the favorite to win the whole thing again as of right now.  So by picking Denver this week, and New England next week, it sets me up to pick Seattle in the Super Bowl.  Then it comes down to predicted Super Bowl score as I would have to predict both teams scores in the big game.  


Makes perfect sense to me, but the whole plan could get really fouled up if the Ravens upset the Pats this weekend.  In that case, by picking Denver this week, I will be forced to pick the Ravens on the road against the Broncos, who I can't pick again.  I can't afford to pick the NFC winner in conference championship week, because then I might get left without a team to pick in the Super Bowl.


How will things end up for me?  Well, it depends on who wins this weekend.  Here is how I think things will go.


Game one--Patriots over the Ravens 20-13


Tom Brady coming off a bye week is usually, well, Tom Brady.  The GOOD Brady that is.  The Brady that never throws interceptions and plays a heady, clean game.


I know that the Ravens seem to have New England's number in the postseason, but this year, I just don't think they have as strong a team, especially on defense.  Ray Lewis is gone.  The other Ray--Rice--is gone as well.  Ed Reed is gone.  Terrell Suggs is still there but doesn't have as much help as he used to.  Justin Forsett is a nice story, but Vince Wolfork and the Pats strong run defense should shut him down, forcing Joe Flacco to win the game on third and longs.  Anyone who ever watches Joe Flacco on a regular basis knows this is not a good thing.


As for the Patriots, Rob Gronkowski is a nearly unstoppable force and must be focused on, which should open things up for Brandon LaFell, Timothy Wright, Shane Vereen and company, as Tom Brady never lacks for talented targets.  The Ravens have the D to keep it close, along with the cold weather, but New England should find a way to get it done.


Game two--Seattle over Carolina 37-17


Carolina is playing very well for the last five weeks, especially on defense, as they have really turned things around on that side of the ball just in time.  I actually would think they might have a shot to beat Seattle if this game was in Carolina's Reliant stadium.  It is not though, and I don't.  


There are two keys to this game to me and they are related.  One is that I don't see Cam Newton and his Panthers offensive teammates handling the crowd noise well.  Two, this will lead to turnovers, and more than likely--more than one.  I can see the Panthers sticking around in the first half, but those inevitable Cam-overs will lead to an onslaught of Seahawk points in the second.  Seattle should win going away.


Game three--Dallas over Green Bay 27-24 in OT


Remember Brett Favre's final year in Green Bay?  They went 13-3 and hosted the Giants in the playoffs.  Should have been a blowout right?  Maybe, but the Giants ended Favre's career at Lambeau and went on to win the Super Bowl.  I see the same thing this weekend.  Dallas is this years Giants--a team based on running the ball successfully, which is exactly what you want to do in Ice Bowl Part Deaux.  I wouldn't be shocked by a Cowboys win in OF


Game four--Denver over Indianapolis 35-24


Much like Tom Brady, a bye week for Peyton Manning couldn't have come at a better time.  Manning had the 30th worst completion percentage in the red zone over the last four weeks of the year, and the 21st ranked rating.  No one will have worked harder to break out of a slump over the last two weeks than Manning.  Plus, the rest of his Broncos are healthier too.  All-pro tight end Julius Thomas should be back to nearly 100%.  Wes Welker has had two weeks to clear his concussed head.  Montee Ball is healthy again.  So is CJ Anderson.  Even linebacker Brandon Marshall could be back.  The Broncos have one of the best pass rushes in the league and Andrew Luck led the league in quarterback fumbles.  I just think Denver will have it working on all cylinders.  At least I HOPE they do--for sake of my survival.