Do or die. From here on out, every game counts. It's win or go home.
All the old football cliches apply this week as the NFL postseason gets under way. There are many cute ways to say it, but all you need to know is that right now 12 teams are alive in the hunt for a Super Bowl. After this weekend there will be just eight.
Opening weekend features the New Orleans Saints vs. Detroit Lions, New York Giants vs. Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos vs. Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans vs. Cincinnati Bengals. Who will win and who will go home?
When Cincinnati Has the Ball:
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green had better be ready for one hell of a fight. As should the Cincinnati offensive line.
The Houston Texans do a great job getting after the quarterback, but they also succeed at stopping the run and defending the pass. As far as defenses go, there's not one in the AFC better all-around than Houston's squad.
The Bengals need a big game from Cedric Benson, but more than that they need a mistake-free game from rookie quarterback Dalton. A.J. Green will get open, even with Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning bracketing him. Dalton needs to pick his spots, working in Green within a rotation featuring the other receivers.
The Texans need defensive points if they hope to win this game.
When Houston Has the Ball:
With rookie quarterback T.J. Yates taking the reigns in the playoffs, the Texans know they need a big outing from their defense and the run game if they hope to win their first-ever playoff game.
Arian Foster and Ben Tate are a dynamic duo, but they will meet a brick wall in the Cincinnati defense. The Bengals' front four is very good, and very deep. They'll be able to line up and match the athletic ability of the Houston offensive line.
Cincinnati would love to rattle Yates, but they'll have little luck getting pressure off the edge. Instead look for pressure to come from defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who is a good matchup against guard Wade Smith.
Yates needs to play within himself—meaning no mistakes, no gambles and a solid, consistent effort.
Prediction: Cincinnati 21, Houston 17
When Detroit Has the Ball:
It is no mystery that the Detroit Lions will have one goal on Saturday—get the ball to Calvin Johnson. Coincidentally, expect the New Orleans Saints to devote at least two defenders to making sure that doesn't happen. At least as much as possible.
The Lions have a built-in decoy in Johnson, but they also play their best when he's an active member of the offense and not a strategic pawn. Matthew Stafford will get the ball to Johnson, especially in the red zone, even with two Saints' defenders draped over him.
The Saints have to find a way to get pressure on Stafford and create issues with timing. If the Saints can limit how long the Lions have to develop their routes, they will win this game. The trouble is that the best pass-rusher in New Orleans plays safety.
When New Orleans Has the Ball:
It's easy to point at Drew Brees and his single-season passing record as the key for the New Orleans victory. And it's true, but I'm pointing to the run game as the big key this weekend.
Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Darren Sproles will all be counted on this week as the Saints look to pound the ball against a Detroit defense that lacks speed at linebacker and has struggled with counters all season. As the Detroit defensive line is over-aggressive in getting to the quarterback, they open themselves up to inside running and screen packages. Enter Darren Sproles.
Sproles could have a monster game when matched up with the Detroit linebackers. With talented wide receivers and All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham spreading the field, Brees and Sproles will have plenty of options underneath.
Prediction: New Orleans 42, Detroit 31
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball:
Running back Rashard Mendenhall is out for the playoffs with a knee injury, putting the offense solely in the hands of Ben Roethlisberger and backup running back Isaac Redman.
Some Pittsburgh fans will tell you Redman has the talent to be better than Mendenhall, and we'll find out soon enough against a Denver defense that can be exploited by the run game. With a lack of talent at defensive tackle, the Broncos are susceptible to a strong running game.
Denver is also weak against the pass when they can't get to the quarterback. If Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil can be contained, the Steelers' wide receivers will find openings against an aging and over-matched secondary.
When Denver Has the Ball:
We will see Sunday whether Tebow Time extends to the playoffs.
Tim Tebow will be the focus of the Denver offense and the Pittsburgh defense. The pressure is on for the young quarterback, with many of his faithful fans waiting for justification and plenty of his doubter waiting for proof of his demise.
Tebow will face a speedy, nasty defense with the talent to pressure him without bring extra rushers. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is the best in the NFL at disguising his coverages and blitzes. Veteran quarterbacks struggle against LeBeau. Expecting much from Tebow as a passer wouldn't be realistic.
The Pittsburgh linebackers will be asked to keep Tebow in the pocket while pressuring from up the middle. The key is to make Tebow beat you as a pocket passer.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 28, Denver 13
When Atlanta Has the Ball:
The key to the game for Atlanta is found here—Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas, Eric Weems and Tony Gonzalez.
Those are the names of the wide receivers and tight ends on the Falcons' depth chart. Facing a New York Giants' secondary that can be exposed, especially by a good quarterback and deep threats at wide receiver, the passing game of Matt Ryan and the Falcons will be integral to a victory.
Stopping the pass rush of Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora is also key, but the Atlanta offensive line (especially the tackles) have played very well down the stretch. The team also has an able blocker in Michael Turner to assist from the backfield.
The Giants have to pressure Ryan, but they need to do more than just pressure him, they need to beat him into the turf. Ryan plays well under heat and won't rattle if merely rushed.
When New York Has the Ball:
Eli Manning has had a great year—the best of his career, in fact. The Giants need at least one more big game from him.
Manning will face a secondary with very talented players. Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson, William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are all playmakers. Add in James Sanders in nickel packages and you have five very good defenders to matchup with the Giants' three good receivers. Advantage Atlanta.
Manning can't rely on the run game this season, as Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs have been disappointing. The pressure is all on Manning to lead this team.
Prediction: Atlanta 31, New York 28