It's finally playoff time, and one of the most entertaining NFL seasons is quickly coming to a climax. We had a fantastic variety of regular-season storylines, which I will go into in a separate article down the road.
For now, Wild Card Weekend is all that matters. The top teams are resting their starters for a week, and, for the time being, Rex Ryan is resting his mouth.
But what to make of these wild-card teams?
Houston looked like a top AFC team all year, but injuries and inexperience have their playoff hopes in serious question.
Cincinnati far exceeded expectations with a rookie quarterback and wide receiver duo. But quietly, the defense has been the key to their success.
Denver had a very good defense, too. But the Broncos got help—not in the form of God, but rather Santa Claus. Because that division title was gift-wrapped for them.
Atlanta beat the snot out of bad teams, and sometimes struggled against the good ones. But wide receiver Julio Jones is starting to show why they spent so much to trade for him in last season's draft.
Detroit is very entertaining, and the city has bought into their team after years of terrible football. The defense needs to catch up with the offense.
The New York Giants used all 17 weeks to secure a playoff spot. Every time they started rolling, they hit a speed bump that set back the perception of this team. Do they finally have it all together?
On to the games themselves. I picked the Steelers over the Broncos for some very clear reasons. I think Pittsburgh's linebackers will be able to penetrate Denver's offensive line, and will read Tim Tebow's option attack better than most teams.
Pittsburgh sometimes gets burned by accurate quarterbacks and fast running backs.
Denver has neither.
I do think this will be low scoring. Denver's defense will be pumped up, and the crowd will be crazy. Denver's going to have a lot of three-and-outs, which will tire out their defense. Look for Mike Wallace to be quiet, with Champ Bailey shadowing him most of the day.
Pittsburgh will have to run the ball well enough to use a little play-action. The Steelers' young receivers will be the difference.
Houston is going to beat Cincinnati simply because they’ll be able to hide the deficiencies of their quarterback behind a strong winning formula. If Matt Schaub were healthy, this would be my dark horse Super Bowl pick. Now, they’ll have to settle for the franchise’s first playoff victory.
I know the Texans have limped into the playoffs, losing three straight to Carolina, Indianapolis and Tennessee. I know the Bengals are the healthier team. But a few things still overwhelmed me into picking Houston to win.
Houston’s defense ranked third against the pass and fourth against the run. They have forced 27 takeaways this season.
Jonathan Joseph was one of the smartest free-agent signings of 2011. He is fully capable of keeping A.J. Green quiet, can tackle a running back if he needs to, and has four interceptions on the year.
DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing are the prototypical linebackers teams are looking for these days in the NFL. Guys who can stop the run, get after the quarterback and help out in coverage if need be.
Houston runs the ball with great success. Ben Tate and Arian Foster finished the year with over 2,000 rushing yards between the two of them. Andre Johnson and Foster will be the healthiest they’ve been in weeks heading into the playoffs.
This, too, will be a close game. I see Andy Dalton getting rattled from his first ever road playoff game, especially one in a dome. Especially in this dome’s first hosting of a playoff game.
The Bengals have exactly zero wins against playoff teams this season. Marvin Lewis is a good coach, and will have this team even better after another year of reloading. I just don’t see quite enough playmakers for them to pull off the road victory.
I remember a time when we thought Darren Sproles was a poor man's Reggie Bush. Now it looks like just the opposite.
Sproles led the Saints in rushing with 603 yards. He added 710 receiving yards in his first year with the team. He had 10 total touchdowns on the year and provided a spark to his offense. As if Drew Brees needed another weapon.
The Saints managed to make an already potent offense even more imposing with the draft, where they added Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. Surprisingly, Ingram might not even be the third-best back on this team. Pierre Thomas, Sproles and Chris Ivory all will see serious playing time in the playoffs.
(Editor's Note: Ingram is expected to have season-ending toe surgery this week.)
Second year man Jimmy Graham set the standard for elite tight end play in 2011. Ninety-nine receptions, 1,310 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns is as good as it gets in an offense where receiving weapons such as Marques Colston and Devery Henderson already lurk. Good thing Drew Brees has the skills to get everybody the ball in this offense.
Detroit's offense is amazing as well. Calvin Johnson Jr., out of Georgia Tech, is the next great one. He reminds me of Larry Fitzgerald when he battles multiple defenders for the ball. His long strides down the field look like Andre Johnson's. He comes up in the clutch like all the elite guys do.
Matt Stafford is much more than the lucky beneficiary of Johnson's talent. Stafford has a fearlessness in the pocket to stand in and deliver an accurate ball. He forces it sometimes, and can throw multiple interceptions like he did in Chicago earlier this year. The Saints are another opportunistic defense he'll have to respect.
Detroit has had a tough time running the ball since Jahvid Best got hurt. They rank 29th in the NFL. I just don't think Kevin Smith can stay healthy against playoff-caliber defenses.
The Lions' pass defense got shredded by backup Packers QB Matt Flynn. I don't see it getting easier against Drew Brees.
Believe me, I went back and forth on this game about 20 times. Then it hit me—it's because, collectively, we've gone back and forth on these teams about 20 times this season.
Too many people wrote this team off after a 2-3 start to the year. Yes, they've lost to New Orleans twice and Green Bay, which makes me think they're not an elite team. But they look like a team ready to win their first playoff game under Matt Ryan. The run game is healthy as always with Michael Turner.
Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez are three reliable stars for Ryan to get the ball to. Balance will be the key for their offense. Matt Ryan will need to focus on a quick release to counter New York's great pass rush and Atlanta's questionable O-line.
The Giants scare every sports bettor and analyst around the country. Here's a team that was swept by the Washington Redskins, yet owns season-defining wins over the Cowboys, Jets and Patriots. I gave up and bought in to this team too many times—maybe I'm just bitter in picking them to lose.
I can't even decide whether or not I like this defense. Led by unstoppable Jason Pierre-Paul, the Giants get after the quarterback. When they can rattle the passer, guys like Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Corey Webster can force mistakes. If the passing game gets just enough time, these same defenders can blow coverages and miss open-field tackles.
New York looks like they should be able to run the ball, but they rank dead last in yards. This is partly because they've legitimately struggled, but also because Eli has just been throwing the ball with much better success. They're fifth overall in passing.
Victor Cruz seems to be the most exciting guy anytime he catches the football. Hakeem Nicks drops some balls but makes some great catches as well.
This one will come down to the wire. One of these franchise quarterbacks will be called on to win it in the final five minutes. Matt Ryan played his college ball at Boston College. He's used to the cold, tired of the doubters and ready to take the next step in becoming an elite quarterback.
Yes, gambling is illegal, but just in case they change the laws in the next four days, here's who I'd take with the Vegas odds in mind. These lines are as of Tuesday, 11 am.
Cincy at Houston: Texans favored by 3. I'd take Houston.
Pittsburgh at Denver: Steelers favored by 8. This is a stay away. If God's a gamblin' man, he'll help Tebow cover this spread. Atheists take the Steelers here and probably win some money.
Atlanta at New York: Giants favored by 3. This one's coming down to the final possession. Take the Falcons to at least cover.
Detroit at New Orleans: Saints favored by 10.5. Tough call. The Lions can score fast and could score garbage-time points to cover this spread. Stay away from this one. If you have an addiction to fake gambling, take New Orleans here.
Please leave a comment if you liked or disliked the article, question or agree with any of my picks. Sports can make each of us look like idiots when things go exactly opposite of what we expect, but that's what makes them so fun to watch. Well that, amazing plays and cheerleaders.
I'll reply to as many comments as I can. Thanks for the read.