Thursday, January 5, 2012

NFL Wild Card Round Preview

No Week 17 Review. Since I'm doing Playoff Previews as well as an off-season preview, I really don't find it necessary. Instead I'm going right into my Playoff Previews. Here are my records to end the year.

Head-to-Head Record: 165-91
Spread Record: 38-29-1

Almost every team in the Wild Card round of the Playoffs is heading into it with a big question mark attached to it. Two teams, Denver and Cincinnati, backed their way into the Playoffs and have pretty much no momentum going in. The Texans, a team I thought could get to the Super Bowl, sure haven't looked like that kind of team in the last month of the season. The NFC doesn't seem as wide open as the AFC, with the Saints and Packers looking like the heavy favorites. But lets not get ahead of ourselves, here we are only going to focus on the Wild Card round of the Playoffs. Lets go!

Cincinnati Bengals vs Houston Texans: Saturday 4:30 P.M. on NBC
As I just said above, neither of these teams are going into the Playoffs with a lot of momentum. The Bengals got into the Playoffs thanks to losses by Oakland and Denver. The Texans have lost three in a row and almost had to rely on Jake Delhomme in the Playoffs after T.J. Yates left last week's game. For the Texans, it is their first Playoff appearance in franchise history. They took advantage of a down year for the AFC South. The Jaguars were horrible, the Colts didn't have Peyton Manning, and it took the Titans half a season to finally get everything together. Had the Titans played better all year they probably would have won the division. The Bengals exceeded everyone's expectations this year by even getting to the Playoffs. I thought they were a Bottom 5 team this year. But Coach Marvin Lewis got rid of the distractions, mainly Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, and righted the ship to get his team here. Even if the Bengals didn't get to the Playoffs, 9-7 was still an accomplishment for them. These two team met in Week 14, with the Texans winning on a late TD to win 20-19. That was their last win. Lets look at 3 storylines headed into this game.

Can the Texans Go Far With T.J. Yates?
The Texans had high hopes going into the year, and rightfully so. With Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, and Andre Johnson leading the offense, many thought the Texans were Playoff bound for the first time ever. They still got there, but they took a different path. After Schaub got hurt in Week 10, Matt Leinart took over. Then Leinart got hurt and T.J. Yates took over. Yates struggled in the last month of the season to get any kind of offense going. Of course, Yates didn't have his star WR Andre Johnson at his disposal. But that is not an excuse for Yates poor play. Now Yates faces the high pressure of the Playoffs, and he is coming off taking a big hit last week against Tennessee. In his 5 regular season starts, Yates has only thrown 3 TDs to go along with 3 interceptions. Yates will need to step up his play in the Playoffs if the Texans have any hopes of advancing.

How Will the Bengals Rookies Handle Playoff Pressure?
If it wasn't for Cam Newton's all world year, Andy Dalton would be under consideration for Rookie of the Year. Dalton isn't putting up flashy stats, but he has been a great game manager for the Bengals. He doesn't wow you with his flashy skills, but he doesn't make mistakes that cost his team games. He also has WR A.J. Green to help him. Green is a big play threat that can change the game with one long catch. But we all know the Playoffs are a different type of season. While the Bengals finished 9-7, they only beat one team with a winning record, the Titans. They also lost to every AFC Playoff team besides the Patriots, who they didn't play. While the Texans have struggled recently, they are still a good all around team. The Bengals rookies have done well during the regular season, but can they keep it up in the post-season?

Which Defense Comes Out On Top?
I expect this game to be a bit on the low scoring side because both of these teams have solid defensive units. The Texans finished the year second in total defense, the Bengals finished seventh. Both teams are solid against the run, and each team finished in the Top 10 in the league in sacks. The Texans lagged a bit when Wade Phillips left the team, but they should have everything together now. The Bengals pass defense, however, has struggled since losing CB Leon Hall to injury earlier in the year. The Bengals will probably have to double cover Andre Johnson if they really want to shut him down.

I expect this game to be very similar to these two's Week 14 meeting. A close, low scoring game throughout that will be decided in the final minutes of the 4th quarter. You know that the Texans will be motivated by their home crowd who will be pumped for their first Playoff appearance. If the Texans can get to Andy Dalton, I think they have a great shot at winning. The Bengals, meanwhile, will need to focus on shutting down Arian Foster and Ben Tate and make T.J. Yates beat them. Both teams struggled to end the season, but I think the Texans have more overall talent, and they win their first playoff game in franchise history. I think Andre Johnson is a big factor in this one and shows why, when healthy, he is a top WR in the NFL.

Houston 24  Cincinnati 19

Detroit Lions vs New Orleans Saints: 8 P.M. on NBC
Well, the Lions have no one to blame for themselves for this match-up. All the Lions had to do was beat the Packers second stringers, but they couldn't even do that. In fact, they let back-up QB Matt Flynn thrown for 480 yards and 6 TDs, something that neither Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers ever did as a Packer. If the Lions defense couldn't stop Matt Flynn, how do they expect to stop Drew Brees? They couldn't stop Brees in their Week 13 match-up, which saw the Saints win 31-17. The Saints are rolling into the Playoffs. They have won eight in a row, and some would consider them a better all around team than the Packers. Drew Brees has been making his case for the MVP award. The Saints offense looks unstoppable, and I don't know if anyone can stop them. Questions Time!

Can Anyone Stop Drew Brees?
I kind of answered this in my game preview. The Lions couldn't stop Matt Flynn, what makes them think they can stop Brees? In their Week 13 meeting, Brees threw for 342 yards and 3 TDs. The Lions are in the bottom half of the league in pass defense, which is not a good sign for them. The Lions will need to pressure Brees if they want to stop him, but Brees is so good at getting the ball out quickly that even that makes it hard to stop him. And you can't sit back in coverage and give him time to find his secondary targets. Its tough stopping Brees, and I don't know if the Lions can do it.

Don't Forget That Lions Offense Though. But Can They Hang with the Saints?
While the Lions didn't play the best defense last week, the offense definitely showed up to play. Matthew Stafford threw for over 500 yards and the offense looked good again for the third week in a row. Stafford has been able to utilize all the weapons at his arsenal, similar to what Brees does in New Orleans. While Calvin Johnson is the star, he also gets taken out of the game at times due to double and even triple coverages. But Stafford uses his other options like Nate Burleson, Titus Young, and Brandon Pettigrew. He will need to use all of those guys to keep up with the Saints offense. Stafford threw for over 400 yards in their Week 13 match-up, but the team only scored 17 points. The Lions will need more than that to beat the Saints. They're capable of that on offense.

Can the Lions Avoid Dumb Penalties?
The Lions had a problem with penalties towards the end of the year. In their match-up with the Saints they had two 15 yard personal foul penalties. They have a tendency to lose their focus at times. If the Saints offense is having their way with the Lions defense, can they keep their composure long enough to stay in the game? Or will the Lions take dumb penalties and cause the game to get out of reach? You never know when Ndamukong Suh could snap again. The Lions can't let a couple early Saints touchdowns get them down and do stupid things.

Unlike the Bengals/Texans game, I think this will be a very high scoring affair. The Saints defense is good, but they don't get to the QB often and don't force a lot of turnovers. The Lions can match the Saints with scores for a short time, but eventually they will need their defense to step up and stop Drew Brees. If the Lions front seven has the game of their life and pressures Brees, then the Lions might have a shot. But the Lions best defense might be their offense. If the Lions offense can keep the Saints offense off the field through good clock management, then the Lions will have a shot. But I don't think that will happen. The Saints are just playing so well right now that the Lions can't stop them. The Lions made the Playoffs like their as many expected, but they are a few pieces away on defense from being a Title contender. Saints win.

New Orleans 45  Detroit 34

Atlanta Falcons vs New York Giants: 1 P.M. on FOX
This is probably the toughest game of the weekend to predict. Both teams are evenly matched. The Giants won their "win and your in" game against the Cowboys Sunday night that got them here. The Giants have been inconsistent all year, but they have played well the last two weeks. The Falcons clobbered the Bucs in their finale and are probably sending the Packers Thank You baskets for beating the Lions. You know the Falcons didn't want to see the Saints again, two weeks after being clobbered by them. Both of these teams are very similar on offense which should lead to a great match-up. Neither team out matches the other greatly, so expect a close match up throughout. Question time? You bet!

Which Giants Team Shows Up?
As I said, the Giants have been a very up and down team this year. The Giants have beaten the Patriots on the road, a decent Jets team, and almost upset the Packers. But the Giants also lost to the Seahawks at home early in the season, and were swept by the Redskins. The Giants offense is usually never the problem, but the defense has had flashes of inconsistency all year. Injuries have been a big part of that, but the Giants are finally almost fully healthy heading into the Playoffs and that will be a big help, especially with the pass rush. But the Giants have looked impressive in their last two games, both wins against good teams. If that Giants team shows up Sunday, they will be tough to beat.

Can the Falcons Offense Keep Clicking?
Outside of their loss to New Orleans, the Falcons offense has been rolling in recent weeks. They totaled 31, 41, and 45 points. Now yes, those games were against Carolina, Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay, but those are very impressive numbers on offense. With Julio Jones fully healthy, the Falcons have a very potent offense attack. Matt Ryan has lead the Falcons to their third straight Playoff appearance. He has one of the better receiving corps in the league with Roddy White and Julio Jones at WR, and Tony Gonzalez is possibly the best TE to ever play the game. He's also never won a Playoff game, and with his career running out of time, you know he is graving that first playoff win. Oh, and the Falcons also have Michael Turner at running back. You can't focus on one aspect of the Falcons offense because they are one of the most balanced offenses in the league.

Will No Dome Affect the Falcons?
I know lots of people don't like to say weather is a factor for teams that play in domes, but I think it could be here. Not only do the Falcons play in a dome, but they also played New Orleans twice, at Minnesota, and at Indianapolis. That's 12 games indoors. Two of their other games were against Carolina and Tampa Bay, very warm weather cities. The weather won't be bad in New York on Sunday, but it will be colder than normal. Being outdoors can change a team's gameplan and affect their play, but only if they let it happen.

As I said, this is the toughest game of the weekend to predict. Both of these teams are evenly matched, especially on offense. I think I have to give the edge to the Falcons on offense. Their WRs are more explosive and Michael Turner is a better running back than Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Tony Gonzalez could be a huge factor in this game. The Giants don't have the greatest linebackers so they may have to bring a safety down to cover Gonzo. But that would leave one-on-one match-ups for Roddy White and Julio Jones. The key for the Giants will be their pass rush. If they can get to Matt Ryan then they will win this game. But with Osi Umienyora plagued by injury, it takes away a threat if he plays. This one is an honest coin flip for me. As much as I love the Falcons offense, they still haven't won a Playoff game with Matt Ryan. They lost last year as the #1 seed. The Giants have Playoff experience and know what to expect come Playoff time. I'm giving the Giants the edge here, but I'm not confident. But I would be saying the same thing if I was picking Atlanta. Giants win a nail biter.

NY Giants 28  Atlanta 27

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Denver Broncos: 4:30 P.M. on CBS
Remember that time when Tim Tebow was the darling of the NFL? Yeah, that seems like ancient history. The Broncos have lost three in a row and backed their way into the Playoffs thanks to a Raiders choke job at home against San Diego. Tebow has looked awful in his last two starts. You can't blame him for the loss to New England, it wasn't his fault the defense couldn't stop anything. The Broncos come into the Playoffs on a three game losing streak, but the Steelers come in banged up. Ben Roethlisberger is still nursing a high ankle sprain, and they just lost Rashard Mendenhall to a torn ACL. The Steelers have also struggled to score in recent weeks. What time is it? It's question time!!! (had to throw in a C.M. Punk reference)

Will TEBOWMANIA Meet Its Final Resting Place?
Broncos fans enjoyed the ride Tim Tebow gave him during his first seven starts, but you have to wonder if even they are starting to realize that he may not be the QB of the future in Denver. Tebow has looked horrible the last two weeks. Against a bad Buffalo defense in Week 16, Tebow threw 1 TD, ran for another, but also threw 3 interceptions and lost a fumble. Last week against Kansas City, he lead no TD drives and had 1 fumble and interception. Teams are finally catching on to Tebow. They're dropping everyone back in coverage, keeping their defensive lines in their running lanes, and making Tebow beat them with his arm. And trust me, I've seen Tebow throw in person, he's not going to beat you with his arm. The Steelers love to blitz the QB, but you have to wonder if they will just sit back in this game and let Tebow try to throw against them. I don't see how Tebow does that.

Can the Steelers Avoid Being One Dimensional?
In Week 17 the Steelers lost running back Rashard Mendenhall for the rest of the season to a torn ACL. Mendenhall wasn't a game changer, but he was clearly the best back on the Steelers roster. Now the Steelers will have to rely on Isaac Redman to carry the load for them, and he doesn't have a proven track record in the backfield. The Steelers have been a pass heavy team, and  you have to wonder if they might become a bit too pass heavy this week with Mendenhall out. Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown will stretch out the Broncos secondary, but if the Steelers can't run the ball then the Broncos will just drop their safeties back to prevent that. The Steelers will need to try and establish some sort of run game early on, because if they don't the Broncos can key on the pass and put pressure on Big Ben.

Will QB Pressure Be the Key to Victory?
I think this will be the key factor in determining the winner of this game. Each team has some of the best pass rushers in the NFL. The Broncos boast rookie Von Miller (11.5 sacks) and Elvis Dumervill (9.5). The Steelers bring James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who each have nine sacks. If Miller and Dumervill can get to an immobile Ben Roethlisberger, then the Steelers offense might face some problems. Big Ben suffered a set back with his ankle injury last game, so it might be difficult for him to move around in the pocket. If the Steelers bring pressure, Tebow can escape the pocket and make some plays with his legs. That won't stop the Steelers from blitzing, but Tebow could burn them if they do it too much.

This game has low scoring affair written all over it. And I mean really low scoring. The Broncos offense is having trouble doing anything of note. Their option style offense has been figured out. Tebow can't throw. Even with Ryan Clark out for Pittsburgh, it still doesn't mean Tebow can win this game in the air. The Steelers might not have much of a running game but they still have some threats at WR that can make a big play when needed. Big Ben is one tough son of a gun, and you know he will make a play or two that no other regular QB will make. He has the Playoff experience and doesn't have a problem winning on the road in January. The Steelers get a big TD pass from Mike Wallace, and that is the only TD of the game.

Pittsburgh 16  Denver 6

There's my Wild Card Preview. For those wondering, I'm still sticking with my pre-season Super Bowl prediction of the Ravens over the Packers in the Super Bowl. Divisional Round Preview same time next week.

Until Next Time,
Justin C
Follow Me On Twitter @JCWonka

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