NFL Playoff Picks: Who Has the Most Momentum Going into the Postseason?

James ToljCorrespondent IIJanuary 3, 2012

NFL Playoff Picks: Who Has the Most Momentum Going into the Postseason?

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    The final week in the 2011-2012 NFL regular season decided a few team's playoff fates, and as a number of squads are preparing to play this weekend, they will use their recent victories to propel themselves toward a win.

    Yet some teams have more momentum than others. There are those who are limping their way into the playoffs after a loss, while others have been on a tear and look nearly unstoppable.

    The New Orleans Saints have been scorching hot, while the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos have been in a slow but downward spiral. The Lions lost to the Green Bay Packers' backup quarterback, while the New York Giants are feeling good after Week 17. And how are the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons doing?

    There is only one way to decide the outcome of a game, but by looking at the teams who are playing this weekend, one can see which squads will enter their matchups with a head of steam.

Cincinnati Bengals vs. Houston Texans

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    Both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Houston Texans lost coming into the opening round of the playoffs, yet one team has just a bit more momentum.

    Houston has been hit hard by injuries this season, but Andre Johnson, Mario Williams and Matt Schaub were the most devastating blows to the team.

    Johnson returned in Week 17 against the Tennessee Titans, but was limited in action. He is expected to be on the field even more against the Bengals, though.

    The Texans have made do without Mario Williams—the Houston defense is ranked second in total yards per game allowed—but the offense hasn't fared so well without Schaub.

    While T.J. Yates, who took over after second-string quarterback Matt Leinart injured his shoulder against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 12, has performed admirably in Schaub's absence, the offense just hasn't been the same. But with Arian Foster and Ben Tate in the backfield, the Texans still have a stellar run game

    The Bengals, on the other hand, have been relatively consistent all season long. 

    Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has thrown 20 touchdowns on the season and 16 interceptions (compared to Yates' three touchdowns and three interceptions), and he has found quite a connection with his rookie wideout, A.J. Green.

    Bengals running back Cedric Benson is 12th overall in rushing yards as well (although this hasn't been his best season).

    And Cincinnati's defense has been a strong point all year. The Bengals are ranked seventh best in total yards allowed.

    The Texans were sitting some important players for their Week 17 loss to the Titans (Foster and Johnathan Joseph), and Houston could have won the game with a two-point conversion at the end, but the game was the Texans' third loss in a row.

    The Bengals gave the Baltimore Ravens a run for their money in the 24-16 loss in Week 17, and the team had won two straight before going into the contest.

    However, Cincinnati does have trouble against winning teams. Their only victory versus a team that finished with a winning record was against the Titans.

    Houston and the Bengals played each other in Week 14, and the Texans squeaked out a 20-19 win, so if that was any indication of how this game will go, it will be a close one.

    Slight Momentum: Cincinnati Bengals

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Denver Broncos

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers head to Denver to face the Broncos this weekend.

    Denver's quarterback, Tim Tebow, has struggled quite a bit lately, and the Broncos have lost three games in a row.

    In fact, without some luck and an Oakland Raiders' loss to the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos could have been eliminated from playoff contention after their 7-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 17.

    Ben Roethlisberger hasn't been firing on all cylinders lately, either.

    In Week 15, he fought through an ankle injury to play against the San Francisco 49ers. Roethlisberger had 330 yards in the air, but he was without a touchdown and threw three interceptions in the 20-3 loss.

    He missed the Steelers' 27-0 romp of the St Louis Rams in Week 16, but Roethlisberger was back this week, though he didn't throw a touchdown again in the 13-9 victory over the Cleveland Browns.

    The Steelers defense has been pretty consistent, though.

    The Pittsburgh defense is ranked No. 1 in total yards allowed, and the struggling offense of the Broncos ranks a meager 23rd in the NFL.

    While the Denver defense has improved over the course of the season, it gave up 41 points to the New England Patriots in Week 15 and 40 to the Buffalo Bills in Week 16 (although a few defensive touchdowns by the Bills skewed the score). The Broncos defense is 20th in total yards allowed, and Pittsburgh has the 12th-best total offense.

    The Steelers have a better team all the way around (especially if Roethlisberger can get back on track), and although this game is played in Denver, the Steelers are the easy favorite (even without Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Clark).

    Momentum: Pittsburgh Steelers 

Detroit Lions vs. New Orleans Saints

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    The Detroit Lions have had an amazing season, and Matthew Stafford is quickly becoming one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks with the help of his star wide receiver, Calvin Johnson.

    Unfortunately for Stafford and the Lions, they will be up against one of the hottest teams in all of football, the New Orleans Saints.

    Week 17 doesn't bode well for the Lions, either. 

    Detroit played the Green Bay Packers without Aaron Rodgers, but the secondary gave up six passing touchdowns to Rodgers' backup, Matt Flynn.

    Detroit and Stafford can keep up with the Saints' No. 1 ranked total offense, though. The Lions' total offense is fifth in the NFL.

    This game could come down to which defense can get a stop or which offense has the ball on the last possession of the game.

    Both teams give up quite a bit of yardage, too. The Lions defense ranks 23rd in total yards allowed, and the Saints defense ranks 24th overall.

    There is just one problem for the Lions. If they thought it was difficult to stop Flynn last week, it will be a lot tougher to stop Drew Brees and his prolific offense. Brees broke the single-season record for passing yards in Week 17, and he has thrown 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions in the Saints' last three games.

    The Lions did win their last three games before the loss in Green Bay, but the Saints are on a roll and have won eight straight.

    Momentum: New Orleans Saints

Atlanta Falcons vs. New York Giants

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    The playoff game between the Atlanta Falcons and the New York Giants is going to be quite an interesting matchup.

    The Giants have had their ups and downs this season, but after two straight hard-fought victories—one against the New York Jets and the other a must-win against the Dallas Cowboys—the Giants seem to be ready for the playoffs.

    The Falcons were beaten down by the New Orleans Saints in Week 16 (the Giants were as well in Week 12), but they came back with a decisive 45-24 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17.

    Matt Ryan had two touchdowns on just six completions against Tampa Bay, and Michael Turner had his best game of the season by far.

    Turner rushed for 172 yards and two touchdowns on only 17 carries.

    Quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Eli Manning have both had great years, and the team's offenses seem to be clicking. The Giants are ranked eighth in total offense, and the Falcons are ranked 10th.

    However, the Atlanta Falcons are better on defense. The Falcons rank 12th overall in yards allowed, while the Giants rank among the worst in the NFL at 27th.

    Both teams are very capable of pulling out a win. The Giants are playing at home, but this game should be deadlocked after three quarters.

    The Giants get the slight edge due to their consecutive emotional victories. They will be riding high coming into this weekend, but fans should expect this one to be close.

    Slight Momentum: New York Giants