The NFL playoffs are finally upon us, and the Wild Card Weekend has thrown up some interesting clashes for the viewing public.
We kick off with Houston Texans vs. Cincinnati Bengals and New Orleans Saints vs. Detroit Lions on Saturday, followed by New York Giants vs. Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos vs. Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. Four of these teams are going home, with the other four hitting the road for the divisional round next weekend.
Fans of the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens are already looking ahead to Round 2 of the playoffs as their teams rest and discover who they will be hosting on an essential bye week for weary bodies.
Let's give them some food for thought by predicting how the final eight will match up.
For this matchup to take place, The New Orleans Saints must take care of business in the Superdome against the Detroit Lions, in what promises to be the biggest shoot-out of the Wild Card Weekend.
As impressive as Matthew Stafford has been in his first injury-free season in the NFL, I think this opportunity has come too early for a callow Lions team, who are capable of hurting themselves as much as their opponent.
Drew Brees' record-breaking year has produced some jaw-dropping results at times, and with the Saints scoring over 40 points in four of their last six outings, their offensive machine is in fine order at just the right time of the year.
The Saints can win shoot-outs, no question, but how will they fare against an old-school, run-stuffing defense like the San Francisco 49ers?
Perhaps the best clue came back win Week 3, when the Saints hosted the Houston Texans—who ended the season ranked third in pass defense—and put up 40 points in a big day for Drew Brees (370 yards, three touchdowns). Put simply, the Saints can score big against anyone.
The most intriguing matchup in this contest will be the Saints' running game versus the Niners' top-ranked run defense, which didn't concede a single rushing touchdown for the first 14 games of the season.
If Jim Harbaugh's men can make the Saints' offense one-dimensional by taking away the run, then expect to see plenty of Aldon Smith, who has been a pass-rushing monster in his rookie season.
The New Orleans' offensive line has conceded a miserly 24 sacks this year, aided by Brees' short drop backs and quick releases, but if the Niners can get after the quarterback and force turnovers, they can give Alex Smith some short fields to work with, and keep the score close.
Brees has too many weapons to be denied for 60 minutes, so this one will boil down to whether the Niners can control the clock, and keep pace on the scoreboard through Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.
Tempting as it was to pick an upset victory for the Denver Broncos over the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday at Sports Authority Field, I just couldn't do it.
The Steelers limp into the Wild Card round with a host of injuries. Ben Roethlisberger is expected to shoulder the load of their offensive production without his All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore.
His high ankle sprain will force him to stay in the pocket more than he would like to, but with a possession receiving game in the form of Antonio Brown and Heath Miller, Roethlisberger can lean on his teammates to move the chains with yards after the catch.
Tebow Time will expire this weekend. The Steelers' front seven is meaner and more athletic than anything he has seen to date. They stop the run better than most, and will confuse Tebow on the few passing plays the Broncos call, through exotic fire zone blitzes courtesy of Dick LeBeau's complex scheme.
In my scenario, I have the number five seed travelling to Foxborough for a rematch with the New England Patriots.
In Week 8, Roethlisberger carved open the Patriots' secondary in a 25-17 victory, controlling the clock and spreading the ball around evenly. The blueprint for victory will look similar second time around, especially following the loss of running back Rashard Mendenhall to an ACL tear.
The Patriots will look to avoid the slow starts that have plagued recent performances. In the past two weeks, they found themselves 17-0 and 21-0 down to the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills respectively, before controlling the middle quarters and finishing strong.
Against an elite playoff team, if you dig a hole that big, you won't come back out of it, and the soon-to-depart Patriots' offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien will hope to put Stevan Ridley's recent good form to use in the running game, to set up play-action calls to Rob Gronkowski up the seam.
Since Week 8, Tom Brady has gone from strength to strength, going over 300 yards in all but two games, and throwing 21 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
Expect a much closer contest at Gillette Stadium, a venue which didn't help the Patriots' chances in 2009 or 2010, but just might provide the spark to a team with few survivors from the 2007 edition—the last New England team to notch a postseason victory.
As the Houston Texans prepare to get their first-ever playoff game underway, at home to the Cincinnati Bengals, coach Gary Kubiak must be ruing his team's misfortune.
Losing both your starting and backup quarterbacks usually means the end of your season, but with Peyton Manning clearing the path to AFC South glory, the Texans were able to lean on their tough defense and running game to grind out some narrow victories—the 20-19 win over the Bengals in Week 14 being one such example.
Now that T.J. Yates has a couple of games under his belt, he knows his limitations, and will look to use Arian Foster and Ben Tate as battering rams early and often. It won't be pretty, but with Andy Dalton struggling for consistency in Cincinnati, I like the Texans defense to come to the aid of their offense, and force turnovers to edge another close one.
Travelling to Baltimore a week later will be a completely different story, however. The Ravens are undefeated at M&T Bank Stadium this year, with a 29-14 defeat of the Texans from Week 6 on their resume, and the best running back left in the playoffs in Ray Rice.
They might have the best defense too—Lardarius Webb is finally gaining a national media following for his displays in a contract year at cornerback, and in Haloti Ngata, the Ravens have a pocket-collapsing playmaker, who can handle everything Arian Foster has to throw at him and more.
Joe Flacco has struggled to connect with his inconsistent receiving corps down the stretch this season, with no 250-yard passing games since Week 11, but the return of Anquan Boldin will offer Flacco a security blanket that has been missed among a sea of dropped passes and incompletions.
This one will be decided by the team that can compliment their ground attack with some aerial production.
The New York Giants host the Atlanta Falcons in what might be the most exciting, balanced contest of the Wild Card weekend. I'm taking home advantage, and a big game from Eli Manning and Victor Cruz as my keys for a Giants victory, but it'll be close.
The regular season matchup between the Giants and the Green Bay Packers was an instant classic, with Rodgers driving the ball 70 yards to set up the game-winning field goal in a 38-35 victory. Aside from putting the seal on Rodgers' MVP credentials, Eli Manning showed that he can hang tough in a shoot-out with the best offenses in the league, making the Giants a dangerous playoff opponent.
Green Bay will be hoping for a Falcons victory this weekend, not just for rivalry's sake—there has been some bad blood between the sides in recent years—but because the feeling remains that the Giants will be tough to shake off in a rematch.
The New York secondary, decimated by injury, has been one of the main weaknesses on an inconsistent team this year, but in Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck, they have a pass-rush that can hide a multitude of sins.
Nothing compares to the record-breaking Green Bay secondary however, who conceded more single-season passing yards than any other team in history. This only tells half the story though—the defense's plus-22 turnover differential is the key to a "bend, but don't break" system that stiffens in the red zone.
The bye week has come at a fortunate time for the Packers' offensive line, who expect Brian Bulaga back at full health to compliment the return of Chad Clifton at tackle, but even when healthy, the unit has given up sacks, tied for 11th most in the league with 41.
Keeping Rodgers upright figures to be the key story going into this encounter. The likely return of Greg Jennings ensures that the Packers have too much firepower to contain if their quarterback can stand in the pocket all day under no pressure.
Neither team has an effective running game, so expect another shoot-out of Week 13 proportions, with the team that gets on top early the likely victor. I have a hard time believing that Aaron Rodgers can be held down for long against any defense, so I know where my money is going.
But as in 2007, the Giants are more than capable of spoiling the party on the road.
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