2012 NFL Playoffs: Predictions for Wild Card Weekend

Mick CiallelaContributor IIIJanuary 5, 2012

2012 NFL Playoffs: Predictions for Wild Card Weekend

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    The 2012 NFL Playoffs begin with Wild Card Weekend this Saturday and Sunday. Each day will feature two games.

    Saturday will see the Cincinnati Bengals travel to Houston to face the Houston Texans in the Texans' first ever playoff appearance at 4:30pm EST. The nightcap will feature the Detroit Lions making their first playoff appearance since 1999 as they square off with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints at 8:00 EST. 

    Both Saturday games will be shown on NBC.

    Sunday's games will include the Atlanta Falcons visiting the New York Giants at 1:00pm EST on Fox. The final game of Wild Card Weekend will feature Ben Roethlisberger and the defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers traveling to the Mile High City to take on Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos. The game will begin at 4:30pm EST on CBS.

    Who will advance to the Divisional Round next week? Read on to find out!

Cincinnati Bengals (9-7, #6 in AFC) at Houston Texans (10-6, #3 in AFC)

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    The first Wild Card match-up features the 9-7 Cincinnati Bengals traveling to Houston to take on the AFC South Division Champion Texans. This will be the first playoff match-up in the Super Bowl era between two rookie quarterbacks and it will be a rematch of a Week 14 contest, which saw the Texans defeat the Bengals 20-19 in Cincinnati on a Kevin Walter two yard touchdown reception with just 0:02 remaining. The Houston crowd will be up for this one as it marks the first playoff game in Texans history.

    Andy Dalton started all 16 games for the Bengals, throwing for 3398 yards and 20 TD passes. Perhaps more impressive is his relatively low turnover total (15). The Red Rifle has relied heavily on fellow rookie A.J. Green.

    The wide receiver out of Georgia tallied 1,057 yards this season which led all rookie WRs. Running back Cedric Benson also eclipsed the 1,000 mark, but he struggled more than his numbers might suggest. His three 100-yard efforts came against Cleveland (twice) and Buffalo, both of whom were among the bottom five rush defenses in the NFL. Benson has also fumbled the ball five times over his last three games.

    The Texans have improved mightily on defense this season under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Houston finished second in the NFL in total yards allowed per game, third in passing yards allowed and fourth in rushing yards allowed.

    Free agent acquisition CB Johnathan Joseph left the Bengals to join the Texans this summer, and he could be the difference in this game. He has the ability to neutralize Green, which would force Dalton to seek secondary options like Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and TE Jermaine Gresham.

    While Green averaged a whopping 9.11 yards/target this season, the combination of Simpson, Caldwell and Gresham combined for just 6.23 yards per target, with none of the three surpassing the 7.00 yards/target mark.  

    Houston’s offense will be led by fifth round draft pick T.J. Yates. Yates took over the starting role from Matt Schaub when Schaub was lost for the season with a Lisfranc injury back in November.

    Yates started out of the gate quickly, winning his first three starts, including that game-winning touchdown pass against Cincinnati. But head coach Gary Kubiak would prefer to take the game out of Yates’ hands and ride Houston’s vaunted rushing attack. Arian Foster and Ben Tate combined to rush for 2,166 yards this season, the most of any duo in the NFL.

    Perennial All-Pro WR Andre Johnson has been hobbled by injuries most of the season but seems to be in the best shape he’s been in since September, when he averaged 105 yards per game through the first three weeks of the season.

    Cincinnati's defensive unit is pretty good in its own right, ranking in the Top 10 in both rushing yards and passing yards allowed. However, they have allowed 14 rushing touchdowns, which puts them in the bottom half of the NFL. So they are by no means an impenetrable force.

    They’ve also been quite susceptible to the pass ever since losing top CB Leon Hall to a torn Achilles in Week 10. In fact, over Cincinnati’s last seven games they’ve allowed 12 passing touchdowns, including at least two TD passes on five different occasions.   

    While we’ve seen a number of rookie QBs lead their teams to playoff victories on the road in recent years, this seems like too daunting a task for Andy Dalton and the Bengals though.

    I believe they will struggle mightily to move the ball in this game. Their defense will keep them in this one for a while, but eventually they will wear down and the Texans will grind their way to their first ever NFL playoff victory and a trip to Baltimore to take on the Ravens in Round 2.

    Prediction: Houston 23, Cincinnati 16

Detroit Lions (10-6, #6 in NFC) at New Orleand Saints (13-3, #3 in NFC)

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    The second Wild Card match-up on Saturday night features the 10-6 Detroit Lions heading to The Big Easy to face the NFC South Division Champion New Orleans Saints. This contest will also be a rematch of a meeting from earlier in the season.

    In Week 13, the Saints toppled the Lions 31-17 on Monday Night Football. This contest features two of the most prolific passing offenses the game has ever seen. Saints QB Drew Brees threw for 46 touchdown passes this season and also set the all-time NFL record for passing yards in a season with 5,476. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford was nearly as effective, finishing the season with the fourth-most passing yards in NFL history (5,038) and the seventh-most TD passes (41).

    After being drafted #1 overall in the 2009 NFL draft, Stafford finally broke out this year after two injury-riddled seasons. His main target is WR Calvin Johnson. Megatron had a monster season, ending the year with 16 TD and 1,681 receiving yards. His yardage total is good for seventh-most in a season in NFL history.

    Running back Kevin Smith has been the main rushing threat since Jahvid Best’s season ended due to a severe concussion. Smith averaging 4.9 yards per carry with 4 TD on only 72 carries. However, Smith himself is quite injury prone, so it will be interesting to see if the Lions can feature him early and often in an attempt to keep the potent Saints offense off the field or if they will dance with what brought them and continue to throw the football.

    The Saints defensive statistics are somewhat misleading due to the nature and flow of many of their games. Because they were often ahead by a large margin and seemingly scoring at will, teams were forced to throw against them in order to try and catch up.

    The Saints were third worst in total passing yards allowed, but their 7.1 yards per pass play allowed was right in the middle of the pack among NFL teams. By contrast, they were #12 in total rushing yards allowed, but fourth worst in yards per carry, yielding a whopping 5.0 yards per rush. Their best defense is indeed their offense.

    Brees has been on a roll perhaps never before seen in NFL history. He has amassed seven consecutive 300 yard passing games while throwing an incredible 25 TD passes to just three interceptions over that span.

    The offense is loaded with weapons all over the field. RBs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas combined for over 1100 yards rushing and over 1100 yards receiving. WR Marques Colston has had another solid season with 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns.

     But the breakout star of the Saints attack has been TE Jimmy Graham. Graham had 99 receptions for 1,310 yards and 11 TD. The yardage would have been an NFL record for tight ends if not for New England padding Rob Gronkowski’s stats last week by throwing him a pass with 1:30 remaining despite holding a 49-21 lead at the time.

    Detroit’s pass rush must attempt to contain the high-flying offense of New Orleans. Defensive ends Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch combined for 19 sacks this season. If they can get pressure on Drew Brees, perhaps they can force him into making uncharacteristic mistakes.

    During the regular season, Detroit held its opponents to a better than average 6.8 yards per pass play. Like the Saints, the Lions struggled in run defense, allowing 5.0 yards per carry. It seems as though Detroit’s best bet in this game would be to establish their ground game with Kevin Smith and limit the number of times the mighty Saints offense touches the ball. If they can do that, they have a chance to keep this game close.

    The way the Saints offense has performed both at home and away as of late, I can’t see any team stopping them right now. Perhaps another team on another night and in another building. But the Lions on Saturday night, at the Super Dome, will not be the opponent, time or place. The Saints are simply too potent and their weapons will prove too mighty for the Lions.

    The Lions will gain some important experience from this game which could prove fruitful in future years, but don’t expect them to knock off the Saints this Saturday.

    Prediction: New Orleans 41, Detroit 23

Atlanta Falcons (10-6, #5 in NFC) at New York Giants (9-7, #4 in NFC)

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    The early game on Sunday will see the 10-6 Atlanta Falcons traveling to take on the New York Giants. Despite having a worse record, the Giants will host this game by virtue of their winning the NFC East Division.

    I think this will be a very interesting game because it’s difficult to tell week in and week out which Giants team will show up. They’ve shown the ability to play with the big boys, as they’ve beaten New England on the road and gone toe to toe with the then-unbeaten Green Bay Packers. But they’ve also lost four games to non-playoff teams, including three at home.

    Meanwhile, the Falcons are determined to prove that their aggressive move to acquire the rights to WR Julio Jones on draft day was the correct one. They felt they were a playmaker away from making a Super Bowl run, and Sunday may go a long way in determining whether or not that was the right call.  

    Jones has indeed added another dimension to the Falcons offense. Teams must account for another weapon alongside WR Roddy White. White had another 100 catch season, but Jones give the Falcons a home run threat every time he touches the ball. He averaged 17.8 yards per catch and a shade under ten yards per target.

    I expect Falcons’ QB Matt Ryan to attack the Giants with a no-huddle offense early in this game and I believe the Falcons will target CB Aaron Ross by throwing deep passes to Jones, while using White and TE Tony Gonzalez on underneath and intermediate routes.

    Running back Michael Turner led the NFC in rushing this season, but he is not a breakaway threat. The Falcons will try to use Turner to wear down the Giants defense as the game moves on. 

    The Giants defense is not the elite unit it has been in the past, but they still boast a formidable pass rush. Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora are now healthy after each missing time with injuries, but Jason Pierre-Paul has broken out from under their shadows.The second year player posted 16.5 sacks, good for fourth in the NFL. The trio will look to break up Matt Ryan’s timing and force to release the ball earlier than he would like.

    The Giants pass defense has shown both the ability to make a big play and give one up. The team’s 20 interceptions is impressive, but their over 4,000 passing yards allowed certainly is not. If they can avoid giving up large chunks in the passing game, they could be able to keep the Falcons in check.

    New York’s offense is led by Eli Manning, who had perhaps his best season. He passed for 4.933 yards and 29 TD. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw missed four games with a foot injury but still led the Giants in rushing yards. Brandon Jacobs is best suited as a complementary back at this point in his career.

    The best weapons New York possesses are their wide receivers. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz combined for 2,728 yards this season. That fact is even more impressive when you consider that Nicks missed a game and Cruz really was not a part of the offense for the early part of the season. Cruz in particular has emerged as an elite playmaker and crowd favorite. This duo (along with Mario Manningham) will give the Falcons a lot of problems in coverage if Atlanta cannot find a way to put pressure on Manning. 

    The Falcons have been very good against the run this year, allowing only 97 yards per game on the ground. Their linebackers are their strength, led by Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon. However, the linebacking corps may be hurt by the loss of Stephan Nicholas.

    Their pass rush continues to be led by defensive end John Abraham, who paced the club with 9.5 sacks. The pass defense is a bit more consistent than the Giants’, but similar in that they can just as easily make a play as they can give one up. I think this game will be determined by which team holds their opponent’s dynamic young receivers in check.

    The Giants are such a Jekyll and Hyde team that there’s simply no way to predict which team will show up. When you think they should come out firing on all cylinders, they lay an egg. Then, just when their fans give up on them, they perform at their best.

    For me, I think this game comes down to the mentality of the Falcons. I think they are going to be determined to prove that Jones is the missing piece to a championship puzzle. If they can come out aggressively on offense and feature Jones and White in a fast-paced, no-huddle attack, I think they will do just enough to squeak out a victory.

    Prediction: Atlanta 30, New York 27 (OT)

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, #5 in AFC) at Denver Broncos (8-8, #4 in AFC)

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    The final game of Wild Card Weekend will see the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers visiting the AFC West Division Champion Denver Broncos. Denver, like New York, will host this game by virtue of winning their division.

    This will probably be the most watched game of the weekend, as you have a perennial powerhouse in the Steelers on one side, and either America’s favorite or least favorite quarterback (depending on your point of view) on the other side in Tim Tebow.

    Tebow’s star has started to fall a bit as of late as teams have adjusted to Denver's zone-read offense. He has completed just 30 passes total over the last three games for 439 yards and 1 TD. For the sake of comparison, Green Bay’s backup quarterback Matt Flynn completed 31 passes for 480 yards and 6 TD last week alone. 

    Pittsburgh has evolved into more of a passing team this season than in years past, and that will likely be amplified by the loss of RB Rashard Mendenhall to a torn ACL. However, Isaac Redman should prove to be a more than serviceable replacement. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is currently struggling with an ankle injury, but he will suit up and should be able to pick Denver’s secondary apart.

    Wide receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown each had over 1,100 receiving yards this season while combining for nearly ten yards per target. Whichever one finds Denver CB Andre’ Goodman across from him (as opposed to shutdown corner Champ Bailey) should be able to make a big play when necessary.

    Denver’s defense was the real reason for the team’s resurgence around mid-season. While most of the focus was shifted towards Tebow and his late game heroics, it was the defense that kept Denver in games throughout that stretch.

    During their six game winning streak, Denver gave up just 17 points per game, including four games in which they allowed no more than one touchdown. LB Von Miller and DE Elvis Dumervil have combined for 21 sacks this year. But Miller has slowed down drastically as of late after surgery on his thumb and was even benched during Denver’s Week 17 loss.He hasn’t recorded a sack in his last three games and has only registered two tackles during that time. If they can’t put pressure on Big Ben, the Steelers’ QB should be able to find open receivers.

    During Denver’s hot streak, Tim Tebow’s best asset was his decision making ability. Tebow went without a single turnover during the month of November, and it’s no coincidence that Denver went 4-0 during that month. However, Tebow has committed ten turnovers in the past five weeks, including losing a fumble in each contest.

    The Broncos lead the NFL in rushing thanks in large part to Tebow and the resurgence of RB Willis McGehee, who recorded his first 1,000 yard season since 2007. The biggest receiving threat is Demaryius Thomas, but his route-running and hands leave quite a bit to be desired. The loss of Pro Bowl RG Chris Kuper will make it even more difficult for Denver to move the football.

    Pittsburgh's defense is notorious for stopping the run and creating turnovers, making this an ideal matchup. They were eighth in rush defense and first in pass defense, allowing an amazing 5.6 yards per pass attempt. It's safe to say that Tebow will not do much through the air in this contest, so Denver's best chance to win this game will be to run the ball almost exclusively and hope to bust a big play here and there.

    They will attempt to wear down the Steelers defense as the game wears on in the thin air and altitude of Denver. But Pittsburgh has been there before and will likely ensure that Denver cannot employ this strategy. If Pittsburgh jumps out to an early lead, the defense should be able to put an abrupt end to Tebow Time.

    I honestly can't envision a scenario in which Denver can win this game. In the best case scenario, Denver would start with the ball and go on a ten minute drive which would culminate in a touchdown. But even then, the Steelers should be able to adjust and shut the Broncos' "attack" down the rest of the way.

    Denver's defense will be able to keep the game mildly competitive, but they would have to force multiple turnovers in order to give Tebow a shot to win the game in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh's offense doesn't need to be a juggernaut in this game. They just need to methodically move the ball and pick and choose when to take their shots.

    I have a feeling we'll be spending the majority of the fourth quarter of this game listening to Phil Simms and Jim Nantz opinion as to what John Elway should do regarding Denver's QB situation in 2012.

    Prediction: Pittsburgh 27, Denver 9