After a sub-par end to the NFL Regular season (5-10-1) to finish the year at 124-122-10 we now get a clean slate as we head into the Playoffs for the NFL Wild Card Weekend. Basically this weekend confuses the heck out of me - and its one I've struggled with in the past. Wild Card Weekend features the teams that have either turned it on late to make a push to get in (Giants, Bengals), teams that you just have no idea which team will show up (Broncos, Texans, Lions), and teams that have been solid all season long - but still have question marks with either injuries or lack of experience (Steelers, Falcons). I left the Saints out of this little blurb because they are the only clear cut team that will make it out of the weekend and still have a legitimate shot to contend for the Super Bowl. If there's one thing I know about Wild Card weekend - things tend to get pretty Wild...
Saturday, January 7th
Cincinnati Bengals @ Houston Texans (-3), 4:35 ET - NBC
Is it possible to make it through seventeen weeks of games to avoid watching and then have one show up in the Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs? Yes, yes it is. This game right here takes the weekly award which should take the cake for the last time this year. Unless somehow the Broncos and Bengals run the table to the AFC Championship game. While I'll avoid watching it - this game does warrant some analysis - because I'll likely place a wager on each game this weekend. I'm told it's what all the cool kids are doing.
The Texans have stumbled into the playoffs with three straight losses after a great start to the season. Their last victory came against this Bengals team in a 20-19 last minute comeback. Throughout the season the Texans have been one of the best defensive units all year and have a complimentary run game to support them. If the Texans can get out early in this one the combination of Arian Foster and Ben Tate will be a lethal weapon for the Texans and rookie QB T.J. Yates. The biggest question mark about this team is their QB - and thats a huge question mark. There's a possibility that Jake 'the snake' Delhomme could see some significant playing time if Yates isn't ready to go and that should be a huge red caution flag.
The Bengals have been one of the surprise teams all year long. Led by two rookies, QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green, the Bengals have been able to rely on their youth to get them to this point in the season. Green was so good this year that he got the nod from the league to attend the pro bowl in Hawaii this year. The biggest knock against this Bengals team is that they haven't beaten the good teams. All of their wins have come against non-playoff teams (0-4 vs. Baltimore and Pitt) and had just one victory over a team with a winning record (Tennessee at 9-7). Not exactly the beam of confidence I'm looking for.
In a playoff game that features two starting rookie QB's for the first time in league history - I look for the Texans to be the more foolproof team with their strong ground game and home field advantage. The addition of WR Andre Johnson doesn't hurt either. I'll take the Texans at home and lay the field goal.
Detroit Lions @ New Orleans Saints (-10.5), 8 PM ET - NBC
This will be the most enjoyable game of the weekend - or it should be. Vegas thinks a lot of points will be scored in this one as they've set a record high over/under at 59. It's easy to like the Saints and Drew Brees after what they've accomplished this year and the Lions are no stranger to the end zone either - in fact you could bet one single dollar on this game for NO Touchdowns being scored in this game and your return on investment would be a whopping $100k. It should also be noted that the Saints have covered 9 straight games against the spread. That's really good - but can it keep up?
This Saints team is as good as any team on the turf. On an average game this year, Drew Brees went 29-of-41 for 342 yards with 3 touchdowns and 1 INT. He's had the help of a trio of running backs Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas, and the offseason acquisition of the year Darren Sproles. This Saints offense which put up the second most points in the league is a certifiable juggernaut. The Defense is nothing special - but they have the ability to rush the passer as they'll be blitzing Stafford from every angle possible.
This is me going out on a limb - I truly feel that the Lions have the two best players in this game. DT Ndomakung Suh and WR Calvin Johnson. Sorry Drew. As good as Brees is - these two guys have the ability to absolutely Dominate a game from positions that are tough to take-over. Suh and the Lions defensive line are among the best in the league in getting to the QB and slowing down the run. In order for Detroit to have any shot here - Suh will probably have to eat his offensive lineman counterpart - I'm not putting it past him. Johnson is a stud. Through the first 8 weeks of the season he had recorded 11 TDs until teams finally realized they should try to cover him with a blanket. He still posted a ridiculous season going for 96 receptions, 1,681 yards, and 16 TDs. Fact of the matter is - there is no stopping Megatron.
The Lions play a dangerous game where they like to go down by as many points as possible and then try to scratch and claw their way back into the game. They set a league record this year by winning 3 games in which they were down by 17 or more points at one point. Something tells me the Saints will be up by 17 or more points in this game - but the Lions coming all the way back in this one seems out of the question against arguably the leagues best offense. I'll take the Lions to cover - but the Saints to advance next weekend to San Francisco.
Sunday, January 8th
Atlanta Falcons @ New York Giants (-3), 1 PM ET - FOX
All week I've been going back and forth on which team to back here. Plain and simple I just don't know which Giants team will show up. Do we get the dominate performance that we saw in week 17 against the Cowboys to clinch the division? Or do we get the dud that they put up in week 15 against the lowly Redskins? Honestly, nothing would surprise me with this team.
The Giants have the ability to make Quarterbacks wish they never put a helmet on. Their D-Line has the best pass rush in the league bar none when they are healthy - Jason Pierre-Paul has turned into one of the leagues best players and he's joined by Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Mathias Kiwanuka. The problem is their secondary is extremely suspect. Apart from Corey Webster the Giants have struggled to keep opposing WRs in front of them and out of the end zone. That could pose a huge problem since the Falcons have two pretty good WRs in Roddy White and Julio Jones. The biggest story for the Giants this year has been Tom Coughlin finally breaking a smile. I kid, I kid. It's been the emergence of everyones favorite salsa dancer, WR Victor Cruz. This undrafted free agent has come out of nowhere to give the Giants some much needed explosiveness - 5 TDs of over 65 yards. I'm sure Eli Manning will do some spin-move/ballet rendition to get away from defenders, close his eyes, and launch the ball downfield for a huge completion to Cruz at least once this game.
The Falcons are about as consistent a team as there is out there in this tournament - you just know what you're going to get. They're built for a long playoff run and have all the right pieces in place. The key for the Falcons will be protecting QB Matt Ryan against the G-Men pass rush and establishing the run with Michael Turner. I just checked and when Turner gets at least 17 carries - the Falcons are a remarkable 10-1 with their only loss coming to New Orleans in OT. I'm gonna go ahead and say - we should be seeing a LOT of Michael Turner.
For this matchup I'll go wit the safer pick - because I'm a pussy. The uncertainty of which Giants team will show up is too much for me to worry about. I'll take the Falcons plus the points at Giants stadium.
Pittsburgh Steelers (-9) @ Denver Broncos, 4:30 ET - CBS
This game I couldn't be more sure about - which means one thing. Don't bet it - stay away from it at all costs. The Steelers come into this game without RB Rashard Mendenhall (torn ACL) and S Ryan Clark (high altitude) who leads the team in tackles. QB Big Ben has also been hobbled with a high ankle sprain the last couple of weeks. For the Broncos - they have QB Tim Tebow - still not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
I'll keep this analysis short and simple - mostly because I don't have much to say. If the Saints/Lions game is expected to break all types of scoring records - this game might be expected to break all types of defensive/special teams records. Not sure if you can bet it - but take the over on how many punts there will be in this game.
For the game - I'll side with Timothy Tebow and the Broncos to keep this closer than 9 points at home. Could I see this game getting out of control in Pittsburgh's favor? Not really. I like the drama of a last quarter Tebow drive to conclude the Wild Wild Wild card weekend.
Enjoy the weekend everyone, stay safe and watch some fooooootball!
Playoff Record: 2-2
Season Record: 124-122-10