Friday, January 6, 2012

End of Season Recap, Postseason Preview; Part 2

Four months ago I called Green Bay the NFC Super Bowl favorite.  That has not changed.  Four months ago I called the Jets the AFC Super Bowl favorite.  That has changed. 

Finally, it seems that the NFC is the stronger conference.  The Packers, 49ers, and Saints, who are quite clearly the class of the NFL, are joined by the big-game Giants, upstart Lions, and always dangerous Atlanta Falcons.  Meanwhile, the AFC is a smorgasbord of inconsistent and injured “elite” teams paired with the Texans, Bengals, and Broncos, who some might see as the worst trio of playoff teams ever.  The only reason the Bengals and Broncos are in is that every other AFC competitor also lost their regular season finales. 

Wildcard Round

Cincinnati Bengals (6) vs. Houston Texans (3)
Nobody would have believed that Cincinnati and Houston would be facing off in the first round of the playoffs at this time 12 months ago.  Yet, here we are with Cincinnati and Houston, two of the worst AFC teams since 2002.  Carolina’s rookie quarterback, Cam Newton, put up a lavish statistical spectacle this season but it is Cincinnati’s second round draft pick, Andy Dalton, who gets my nod for rookie of the year.  He and fellow rookie, A.J. Green, not only carried Cincinnati to the postseason but also propelled my fantasy roster to the league title.  However, the Houston Texans, led by whatever quarterback is yet to join the Walking Dead, have the defense and running game in place to make a legitimate Super Bowl run.  With the Jets yelling, cursing, eating, and filming new Pepsi commercials back home, a new AFC team is ready to make an unexpected postseason run.  The two teams have already faced each other this season in week 14.  That game ended with a T.J. Yates touchdown pass to win it for Houston with two seconds remaining.  Expect similar results.
Houston 20, Cincinnati 17
(From left to right) Texans quarterbacks Matt Schaub, Matt Leinart, and
T.J. Yates
Pittsburgh Steelers (5) vs. Denver Broncos (4)
When was the last time a team in the midst of a three game losing streak hosted a playoff game?  I don’t know, but it’s going to happen this Sunday.  Tim Tebow has “led” the Denver Broncos to the AFC West title.  I need to say that again.  Tim Tebow has “led” the Denver Broncos to the AFC West title.  Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger, the toughest player in the NFL, continues to nurse seemingly every bone is his body  heading into the playoffs.  As if matters could not get any worse for Pittsburgh, they lost running back Rashard Mendenhall in their season finale.  Interestingly enough, I don’t think Mendenhall’s injury should make much of a difference.  The days of a run-first offense in Pittsburgh are long gone and Mendenhall has been a glorified, average runner for most of the season.  I still think Pittsburgh is the best team in the AFC.  If Roethlisberger plays (which he will), I just can’t see him allowing Tim Tebow to knock him out of the playoffs.  Tebow and Roethlisberger are both great winners, but the superior and more experienced team comes out on top. 
Pittsburgh 38, Denver 13. 

Detroit Lions (6) vs. New Orleans Saints (3)
Old school footballers are going to have a coronary watching two teams demonstrate just how insignificant defense or a running game is in the modern NFL.  Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford combined for 10,514 passing yards and 87 touchdowns this season.  Those numbers are by far the highest totals that the two starters in a postseason game have ever produced.  I think rather than play a conventional four, fifteen-minute quarter game, both teams should start with the ball at their own 20 and get seven plays to score a touchdown.  Oh wait, that’s what will happen anyways.  Since losing the biggest head-scratcher of the season against the Rams in week 8, the Saints have rattled off eight straight wins, including four over playoff teams (Detroit in week 13).  While some people might argue that a high-scoring points machine like the Lions is the type of team that can compete with the Saints, I believe that in order to conquer Drew Brees, somebody not named the Packers is going to need to do it with power running and aggressive defense.  The Lions do not offer this and are ranked  29th, 22nd, and 23rd in rushing offense, pass defense, and run defense respectively. 
New Orleans 45, Detroit 33. 
Finally able to stay healthy for an entire season,
Matt Stafford has proven he was worth the first
overall selection
Atlanta Falcons (5) vs. New York Giants (4)
This should be the most competitive, back-and-forth game of Wildcard Weekend.  Both teams faced a daunting regular season schedule.  The Giants somehow survived a four game losing streak, although you can’t really blame them when it occurred against San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Green Bay.  As for Atlanta, after starting the season 2-2, their four additional loses have all come against playoff teams.  I really like the matchups Eli will be getting against Atlanta’s secondary, a unit that ranks 20th in pass defense.  Cruz and Nicks have emerged as perhaps the best wide receiver duo in all of football.  However, Atlanta has its own weapons in Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.  After going for over 100 yards just once through his first nine games, Roddy White has since turned his season around and had four 100 yard days over his last seven.  He should easily get to 150 yards against a Giants secondary whose love for injuries is only surpassed by their love for allowing big plays.  Injuries have also been an issue for the Giants at the linebacker position and have hindered their ability to guard tight ends.  They allow an average of 59 yards/game to the big boys over the middle, the fifth most in the NFL.  If Atlanta can get Michael Turner going, who finished the year with his worst full-season yardage total since coming to Atlanta, then it could be a long day for the Giants defensively.  Ultimately though, this game will come down to Eli Manning’s ability to make plays in the clutch against Matt Ryan’s attempts to do the same thing.  I’d rather have Eli.
New York 34, Atlanta 31

Attempting to map out the entirety of the NFL postseason doesn’t really work because of reseeding.  But, due to the possibility of creating an appearance of brilliance, I will wrap up this column with my picks for the rest of the NFL postseason (these will change once all my Wildcard weekend picks prove to be wrong). 

Divisional Round

Pittsburgh Steelers (5) vs. New England Patriots (1)
This largely depends on the health of Roethlisberger.  If healthy, the Patriots secondary will be under fire (as usual).  The back-to-back comebacks against inferior Miami and Buffalo are disconcerting.  The winner of this game will be in the AFC driver seat.    
Pittsburgh 31, New England 28 (OT)

Houston Texans (3) vs. Baltimore Ravens (2)  
Overrated Baltimore will have their inconsistent and too-quick-to-abandon-the-game-plan offense exposed against defensively gifted Houston.  A three seed defeating a two seed usually isn’t overly surprising, but this will be the upset of the postseason.
Houston 17, Baltimore 10

New York Giants (4) vs. Green Bay Packers (1)  
There is simply no way I can pick against the Packers.  However, I believe this divisional game will be their toughest assignment of the postseason.
Green Bay 31, New York 24

New Orleans Saints (3) vs. San Francisco 49ers (2)
I’ve been underrating them all season, but I still cannot fathom an Alex Smith led attack defeating the unparalleled Drew Brees.  San Fran has a strong defense, but New Orleans’ unit is opportunistic.
New Orleans 24, San Francisco 17

Championship Round

Pittsburgh Steelers (5) vs. Houston Texans (3)
Now with a 12-3 postseason record, Ben Roethlisberger’s experience will be the deciding factor against inexperienced Houston.  Houston takes its second ranked rushing attack against the number eight rushing defense of Pittsburgh.  Troy Polamalu turns the game around with an only-he-can-do-that game changing play as the Steelers avenge their early season loss. 
Pittsburgh 24, Houston 10
Over the last 5 years, it seems as though no defensive
player has made as many game-changing plays as
Troy Polamalu (such nice hair)
New Orleans Saints (3) vs. Green Bay Packers (1)
The last NFC game of the season will a rematch of the first in which Green Bay dramatically defeated New Orleans 42-34 on opening night.  Since then, much has changed throughout the NFL, but the Saints and Packers have remained at the offensive zenith for almost all of it.  With nearly identical defensive strategy, comparable receiver talent, and similar running attacks, the game will come down to whether or not Aaron Rodgers deserved the MVP award over Drew Brees.  He did.
Green Bay 43, New Orleans 35

Super Bowl

Pittsburgh Steelers (5) vs. Green Bay Packers (1)
For the first time since the Bills and Cowboys did it during the 1993-94 seasons, we will have a Super Bowl rematch from the previous year.  Both quarterbacks will have opportunities, while still young in their careers, to undeniably enlist themselves among the league’s all time greats – Rodgers wins back to back Super Bowls and a league MVP, Roethlisberger gets his third ring and 5th overall appearance.  Extensively breaking down the matchups at this point would be premature, but I see no reason why we should get anything less than the entertaining game we watched in 2011.  Like the Cowboys did over the Bills, Green Bay will again triumph. 
Green Bay 37, Pittsburgh 29


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