NFL Playoff Predictions: Wild Card Round
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For the few readers who happened to catch my midseason report and predictions for the second half, thank you for your generous salt contributions. It made the crow much more pleasant to eat.
Wild Card Weekend promises to be, well, wild. With a pair of rookie quarterbacks squaring off, a Superdome shootout, a Meadowlands showdown between two very evenly matched teams and, of course, a chance for Tim Tebow to dethrone a perennial playoff contender, there's something here to whet just about everyone's appetite.
I'll be taking a closer look at each game, as well as tossing out some predictions. I'll try to be less crazy this time around.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Houston Texans
Stud receiver Andre Johnson should see significant action against the Bengals.
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When: January 7, 2012, 4:35 PM EST
Where: Reliant Stadium, Houston, Texas
Line: Texans by 3
Bengals Offense vs. Texans Defense
Andy Dalton turned in a decent performance in the first matchup between these two teams last month, completing 16-of-28 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown while losing a fumble. Running back Cedric Benson had a decent game as well, gaining 91 yards on 21 carries. However, the Texans are one of the tougher defenses in the league, and they're on their own field this time around. They aren't likely to be as forgiving.
The key to Cincinnati's offense, as with just about any competent offense, lies in the trenches. They aren't a great run-blocking unit, but they do a fantastic job of keeping Dalton upright. This is absolutely crucial for a rookie quarterback in an offense that poses more of a threat in the air than on the ground. Dalton has had time to find his targets and make his throws, and he has plenty of targets to choose from. A.J. Green might make most of the headlines, but Jerome Simpson and Jermaine Gresham can and will hurt you if you don't keep someone good on them.
Houston's top-flight pass rush was stymied last time around, as they only sacked Dalton once, but it won't surprise me if the Texans get to him more often on Saturday. They did a fine job of containing the Bengals' passing game despite this lack of pressure, and I expect them to give the Bengals even more fits on their own field.
Bengals Defense vs. Texans Offense
The Texans aired it out in the first meeting as a result of playing from behind all day. T.J. Yates completed 26-of-44 passes for 300 yards, with two touchdowns, one interception and one lost fumble. Yates was also sacked five times and hit a total of 10 times, the result of a rookie quarterback working behind an offensive line that is not great in pass protection.
It should be noted that the Texans still came away with the win, despite turning the ball over four times. Their success on the ground was a factor in this, as they averaged 5.1 yards on 28 total carries. Look for a heavier dose of the ground game this week, as I don't think the Texans will spend the entire game trailing like they did last time. The Bengals absolutely must keep Arian Foster and Ben Tate in check, while not forgetting about the weapons Yates has at his disposal. Andre Johnson should see some action, and even if he isn't completely healthy, the Bengals can't afford to stack the box when he's in.
However, the Texans must do a better job of protecting Yates so that he can effectively utilize Johnson. I do think their offensive line is somewhat overmatched, but maybe playing at Reliant Stadium will cut into the difference a bit.
Houston was able to pull out a victory in Cincinnati last time after trailing all day. These aren't the Texans that we're used to. This is a resilient team, and I believe they'll get the job done this time as well. Kudos to Andy Dalton for getting his team here, but this task just seems too tough. Texans win, 24-17.
Detroit Lions vs. New Orleans Saints
Brees and the Saints are an unstoppable force within their own dome.
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When: January 7, 2012, 8:05 PM EST
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
Line: Saints by 10.5
Lions Offense vs. Saints Defense
The Lions' mission in this game is unmistakable. They must score without fail if they want to have any chance of staying in it. The good news is the Saints have a mediocre pass rush, so Matthew Stafford should have quite a bit of time to stand in the pocket and find his receivers.
Calvin Johnson, fresh off a monster game, will give the Saints' secondary fits, and he will inevitably draw double and even triple coverage at times. This will open things up for guys like Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew and Titus Young. The Saints' nickel and dime packages are especially weak, and Young is talented enough to exploit that.
Lions Defense vs. Saints Offense
The Saints are an unstoppable offensive juggernaut, particularly at home. Drew Brees has a legitimate case for Most Valuable Player, and he's working behind an offensive line that I feel is the best in the NFL. It's a fantastic run-blocking unit, and there's a reason Brees is so far down the sack column every year.
New Orleans has three capable running backs, including the ever-dangerous Darren Sproles, to rotate in and out as they wish, keeping a fresh set of legs in at all times. This will be a huge factor in keeping Detroit's defense honest.
The Lions are very good against the pass, but this comes mostly from the strength of their back seven, as their pass rush ranks near the middle of the pack. This is bad news against a team with as many aerial weapons as the Saints. Detroit shuts down standard offenses with regularity, but the Saints simply deploy too many weapons. Robert Meachem could be in line for a big game, as the Lions will likely be focused on shutting down Sproles, Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham.
The Saints are just too potent and are practically unbeatable at home. New Orleans takes it, 34-24. (Note the 10.5-point spread. The books seem to be expecting a final score like this, and I think they're right.)
Atlanta Falcons vs. New York Giants
Matt Ryan and the Falcons come into the playoffs with some momentum after knocking the Lions out of the 5 seed.
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When: January 8, 2012, 1:05 PM EST
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey
Line: Giants by 3
Falcons Offense vs. Giants Defense
The Falcons have lived up to their word, letting quarterback Matt Ryan off his leash. After some early struggles, Ryan has lived up to expectations, improving his yards per attempt by nearly a full yard while maintaining a very good TD-INT ratio and a solid completion percentage.
Ryan has been aided by the addition of Julio Jones to an already deadly arsenal of Roddy White and the ageless Tony Gonzalez. This team has done a complete 180 from its 2008 incarnation, when Michael Turner led the NFL in rushing attempts. Turner still gets a healthy workload, but the passing game is unquestionably the bread and butter of the 2011 Atlanta Falcons.
Ryan's transformation would not have been possible without a good offensive line. Like most quarterbacks, he does not like to get hit. His slow start was, in my opinion, heavily attributable to being sacked 13 times in the Falcons' first three games. Compare this to 23 sacks in the entire 2010 season. Once the pass protection improved, so did Ryan. The Giants' front four is not the stuff of legends that it once was, but Jason Pierre-Paul is a force, and Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck can still wreak havoc if healthy and given the chance.
This is not a great offensive matchup for the Falcons. The Giants struggle to contain running backs who can catch the ball, which, unless Jason Snelling sees significant playing time, the Falcons will not have. New York also has a very tough time against additional wide receivers, but Atlanta is weak in this department. There is a sharp drop-off in talent behind White and Jones on the depth chart. It will be up to those two and Gonzalez to do the damage that the Falcons need in order to win this game.
Falcons Defense vs. Giants Offense
Like the Falcons, the Giants have become a team that relies on its aerial attack to get things done. Eli Manning may still dish out bizarre interceptions from time to time, but you can't really argue with 8.4 yards per attempt, 29 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards. He's behind a solid offensive line that is facing a mediocre pass rush, so he'll have time to locate his weapons.
Victor Cruz, in particular, is primed to have a monster game. The Falcons match up with other targets quite well, but opponents' top receivers typically dismantle them. The combination of Manning having all the time in the world and Cruz consistently getting open is going to spell disaster for the Falcons unless they find a way to solve one of these problems.
These teams may be nearly equal in terms of talent, but several matchups (and home field) are in the Giants' favor. I see them taking a close one, 27-24.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Denver Broncos
As a reward for turning their season around, Tim Tebow and the Broncos get to host a nasty Pittsburgh team.
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When: January 8, 2012, 4:35 PM EST
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colorado
Line: Steelers by 9
Steelers Offense vs. Broncos Defense
The Steelers could very well be making a mistake by sending Ben Roethlisberger out to face the Broncos. Really, I get it. The guy is tougher than a $2 steak and will continue to insist on playing as long as he has a pulse. But a gimpy quarterback against the ferocious Denver pass rush really seems like a recipe for disaster to me, as Roethlisberger absolutely will not release the ball until someone gets open.
If the Steelers insist on keeping Roethlisberger in, his receivers must get open quickly, period. The Broncos do struggle with teams' No. 1 receivers, and Mike Wallace is certainly good enough to exploit that. Emmanuel Sanders, if he's healthy enough to play, and Jerricho Cotchery are also good enough to wreak havoc on the Broncos' nickel and dime packages, and the matchup is certainly not the worst in the world for Heath Miller.
But this all becomes moot if Roethlisberger does not get rid of the ball quickly.
Steelers Defense vs. Broncos Offense
The secret to defending against Tim Tebow is not a complex one. It's as simple as spying and containing. The Steelers are equipped to handle this, in my opinion. Whether they're willing to do it is another story.
Dick LeBeau has earned the right to be a bit stubborn. He's one of the all-time great defensive coordinators, after all. But when an anomaly like Tebow comes along, you have to be willing to adjust your schemes in order to neutralize his strengths or he will eat you alive. Rather than bringing tons of pressure, I feel like the Steelers would be better off consistently rushing four and having someone like Lawrence Timmons spy on Tebow.
Elsewhere, the Steelers will be missing safety Ryan Clark, and as much as I may dislike Clark on a personal level, I can't deny that his presence will be missed.
The Broncos are an overachieving team that has taken advantage of the inability and/or unwillingness of NFL defensive coordinators to adapt. If the Steelers aren't careful, they could very well get Tebow'd. I do think they'll win this one, but Vegas will make quite a bit of money in the process by a score of 17-10.