Monday, January 02, 2012
Cincinnati (9-7) at Houston (10-6)
Houston has battled injuries, and they limp into the playoffs riding a three-game losing streak and led by an unheralded rookie QB, T. J. Yates. They’re a physical team, though, with a great runner in Arian Foster and they play very tough defense. The Bengals do a lot of things well, and their rookie QB, Andy Dalton, had a remarkable season. The Bengals can play smash-mouth, too (competing in the AFC North will do that to you). If there’s an upset on the horizon, this could be it. The Texans need to keep their offense grounded, go after Dalton, and hold Cincy RB Cedric Benson in check. Home field should count in this one.
Prediction: Texans 20, Bengals 19
Pittsburgh (12-4) at Denver (8-8)
The Steelers are another team plagued by injury. Leading RB Rashard Mendenhall is out, QB Ben Roethlisberger has a sprained ankle. Nevertheless, this team led the entire NFL in points allowed, only 14.18 per game, and if any defense is geared to give Tim Tebow fits, it’s this one. The Broncos are another division winner stumbling into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak, including the inexplicable season-ender at home against mediocre Kansas City. No more Tebow magic.
Prediction: Steelers 20, Broncos 6
AFC Divisional Round
Houston at Baltimore (12-4)
Two tough defenses clash. Baltimore should be in better shape offensively, however. Tough to imagine Yates winning this one.
Prediction: Ravens 17, Texans 10
Pittsburgh at New England (13-3)
Patriots coach Belichick has to be wondering why the #2-seeded Ravens get to play wounded Houston while his #1-rated club has to square off against the Steelers. There’s definitely something that seems inherently unfair about it, but that’s what happens when wild-card teams are particularly dangerous. The Pats’ offense was third in the NFL in points scored, after Green Bay and New Orleans, and Tom Brady & Co. are in fine form. The New England defense isn’t bad, but it’s not elite by a long shot. The Steelers’ D is, however, and hence this one shapes up as a mini-classic. The Steelers have wideouts who will challenge the Pats’ defensive backfield as long as Roethlisberger can maneuver. Meanwhile, Brady will try to get the ball to his amazing tight ends Gronkowski and Hernandez and also wideout Wes Welker, who caught 122 passes. Belichick’s patented ground game by committee worked yet again, his runners tallying 1,764 yards. Question is, How good are these Steelers exactly? They might fall one Gronk TD shy.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Steelers 21
Baltimore at New England
Can Joe Flacco come up big in the latest “biggest” game of his career? Now in his fourth year, Flacco (and head coach John Harbaugh) has never missed the playoffs, and he’s always won at least one game in the postseason, including an upset on the road against the Patriots following the 2009 season. His numbers are down this year--completion percentage, TDs, passer rating--and his INTs are up slightly. The Ravens’ overall toughness gives ‘em a chance. Very tough call.
Prediction: Patriots 20, Ravens 16
NFC Wild Card Round
Detroit (10-6) at New Orleans (13-3)
If it’s a balls-to-the-walls shootout, maybe Detroit could get lucky and steal one. It's not likely, though, ‘cause the Lions have some weaknesses that will matter, such as an erratic running game and a suspect secondary. The Saints have an equally impressive air attack and they also have Darren Sproles leading a committee of runners who gained 2,127 yards in 2011. The Saints are at home, too, and without doubt the most dangerous #3 seed in this year’s playoff field. This could be fun for a while, though. When’s the last time two QBs--Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees--each with 5,000+ passing yards during the regular season ever squared off in the playoffs? Answer: Never before.
Prediction: Saints 38, Lions 34
Atlanta (10-6) at New York Giants (9-7)
The Giants are a very unpredictable team. They started the year 6-2, then went 3-5, including a loss at home to the lowly Redskins in what seemed to be a must-win situation. The chokester Cowboys helped the New Yorkers salvage their postseason hopes, but now they face an Atlanta team that’s got talent and possibly more motivation. For all their high-profile defensive personnel, the G-Men gave up 25 points a game this year, and that’s not good. The Falcons scan more positively on both sides of the ball statistically. This game is there for the Giants to take, being the home team and all, but they were only 4-4 at the Meadowlands in 2011.
Prediction: Atlanta 23, Giants 20
NFC Divisional Round
New Orleans at San Francisco (13-3)
The 49ers have a winning record for the first time since 2002. Is it the Harbaughian magic? Is Alex Smith finally the real deal at QB? And exactly how good is this defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFC? The Niners are in a weak-sister division--the NFC West--but their record included wins over Cincy, Philly (before they tanked), Detroit, the Giants and Pittsburgh, with two of their three losses to Dallas and Baltimore. In short, all they’ve done is take care of business. Now they take on offensive juggernaut New Orleans in what could be an epic battle. Hard to imagine anyone shutting down Drew Brees long enough to actually contain him. It’s very tempting to take the upstart hosts, but some of us don’t quite believe in Smith yet.
Prediction: Saints 26, 49ers 20
Atlanta at Green Bay (15-1)
If the Falcons had a great defense, they might have a chance here. But theirs is average, and their good offense is simply no match for the Pack’s (which is putting up 35 points per game). True, Green Bay’s running game is merely competent, but no one’s ever been able to stop Aaron Rodgers and his receivers enough to expose the ground attack as a liability. It’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario where the Falcons go to Wisconsin in January and return home a winner.
Prediction: Packers 31, Falcons 20
New Orleans at Green Bay
This is the big matchup many have waited for. Statistically, the Packers have a slightly better offense, the Saints a slightly better defense. Home-field advantage has got to play a role here, and if Rodgers has his usual pinpoint, mistake-free game, the Pack should move on to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: Packers 27, Saints 24
New England vs. Green Bay
What a surprise (Not!): The teams with the best records within their own conferences have advanced to the title game. The two stellar offenses rather cancel each other out, so whoever steps up to play defense can grab the brass ring. On paper, this is pretty much a toss-up, but the Packers’ D was actually pretty good in 2010--allowing only 15 points per game--until injuries hit them later on. Yes, good offenses scored on the Packers this year without much trouble, but Rodgers & Co. always responded. The Pats so far have not shown the kind of defense to do the job here.
Prediction: Packers 30, Patriots 24
Editor's Note: The NFL Draft returns to primetime in 2012, with the first round taking place Thurs., April 26, followed by the second and third rounds on Fri., April 27. Rounds 4-7 will be held Sat., April 28. See you then!