By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Here’s my take on how the NFL’s Wild-Card weekend is going to shake out.
(Home team in all CAPS)
Saturday January 7th
Cincinnati 20, HOUSTON 17 – 3:30 PM
I’m sure everyone out there had the fifth and ninth quarterbacks selected last April making NFL history this weekend, right? For the first time in the Super Bowl era (since 1966), two rookie signal callers face off in a playoff game, as Andy Dalton leads the Bengals to Houston to battle TJ Yates and the Texans.
The Bengals spent their off-season mired in a staring contest with Carson Palmer, and this stalemate led to them selecting Dalton in the 2nd round of the draft. So for being Cincinnati’s Plan B, Dalton exceeded all realistic expectations this season, and transformed me from non-believer to believer. Next to the top overall selection – Cam Newton – Dalton was the most impressive rookie quarterback this season, spawning a lot of optimism in the Queen City. Paired with sensational rookie wide receiver AJ Green, Dalton and Green became the first rookie combination to throw for more than 3,000 yards and have more than 1,000 receiving yards in NFL history. Cincinnati’s formula this season has been to play smothering defense, run the ball, work the ball down the field to Green, and use athletic tight end Jermane Gresham as a safety valve for Dalton. This formula was executed perfectly for Cincinnati, as it only suffered one defeat by more than eight points.
Few teams in the NFL could withstand injuries to their three most important players – four if you include the hamstring bug that bit running back Arian Foster – and win a division title, yet that’s exactly what the 2011 Texans did. The Texans lost elite pass rusher Mario Williams in Week 5 to a torn pectoral, starting quarterback Matt Schaub in Week 10 to a Lisfranc injury, and star wide receiver Andre Johnson had in-season hamstring surgery. Their playoff appearance is a testament to impressive coaching, and being a part of the awful AFC South. An unsung hero this year for the Texans is first year defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. In one season, Phillips transformed the Texans from the NFL’s 30th ranked unit, to No. 2, with the only marquee addition being cornerback Jonathan Joseph. Offensively, the Texans have been able to stay afloat thanks to a stout offensive line that bullied opposing front-sevens, clearing the way for two top-20 rushers in Foster and Ben Tate.
These two teams faced each other in Week 14 in Cincinnati, when the Texans mounted an impressive second-half comeback. Trailing 19-10 in the third quarter, Yates let the Texans to 10 straight points and a 20-19 victory. I’m picking the Bengals in somewhat of an upset this weekend, as I think Dalton starting all 16 games this year is a big advantage. Yates’ play has slipped over the past three weeks. In fact, he hasn’t thrown a touchdown since that Week 14 match-up against the Bengals. While I expect the Texans defense and running game to be up to the challenge, I don’t think Yates will make enough plays to pull this game out.
NEW ORLEANS 34, Detroit 27 – 7:00 PM
Dust off your Prince records, as the Detroit Lions head to New Orleans for their first postseason appearance since 1999. Paced by All-World wide receiver Calvin Johnson’s NFL record-setting nine receiving touchdowns through five games, the paper champion Lions’ 5-0 start was the talk of the NFL. But a 2-5 record over their next seven games had the Lions on the outside looking in at the NFC Playoffs, trailing the Bears and Falcons for the final wild-card spot. The Lions then reeled off three straight wins to clinch a playoff spot, but their Week 17 loss to the Green Bay Packers looms large. Surely, the Lions would much rather be heading to MetLife Stadium for a match-up with the Giants, but instead, they face the hottest team in (arguably) the most hostile venue in the NFL.
All season long, I’ve said the Saints are the only team with enough firepower to knock off the Packers, and their performance over the course of the season strengthened my conviction. The NFL should have it’s first quarterback co-MVP’s since 2004 – when Steve McNair and Peyton Manning shared the award – as Drew Brees has been nothing short of spectacular this season. Brees shattered Dan Marino’s single-season passing yardage mark, finishing with a staggering 5,476 passing yards, and the Saints offense set an NFL-record with 7,081 yards.
These two teams squared off in Week 13, when the Saints prevailed 31-17. While the Saints did enough to win, the Lions beat themselves in this game. Marred by undisciplined and borderline dirty play all year, the Lions committed 11 penalties for 107 yards, five of which nullified 112 passing yards. Additionally, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh missed the first match-up against the Saints, serving the first game of his two-game suspension. Even with the litany of penalties and no Suh, the Lions were within seven points to start the fourth quarter of this game, so this will be an intriguing game featuring two high-octane offenses playing in a familiar domed stadium.
I like the Saints in this game for a variety of reasons. Drew Brees will dissect a suspect Lions secondary, the Saints have the best combination of guards in the NFL, who will hold their own against Suh, Fairley and Williams on the inside, and the frenzied home crowd will aid the exotic fronts defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dials up to scramble Matthew Stafford. Who dat, who dat, who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? Not the Lions.
Sunday January 8th
NY GIANTS 24, Atlanta 23 – Noon
In the inaugural playoff game at MetLife Stadium, the Giants and Falcons face each other for the first time in the postseason. The Giants seem to be playing their best football at the right time, while the Falcons punched their playoff ticket by bum-stomping the faux-football outfits from Florida, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.
Surely, the Giants didn’t anticipate having the NFL’s worst running game in 2011, and having to rely on some epic fourth-quarter performances from quarterback Eli Manning, but that’s exactly how the season played out. Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs dealt with nagging injuries and Jeckyl-and-Hyde like performances all season long, putting the onus on the right shoulder of Manning. But Manning was certainly up to the challenge. Manning turned in one of the best seasons of his career, throwing for almost 5,000 yards, 29 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, and a 93 quarterback rating. Manning has made wide receiver Victor Cruz a household name, and with Hakeem Nicks on the opposite side, the Giants receivers force opponents to play honest, and keep the extra safety out of the box.
While the Giants record of 8-8 doesn’t look very impressive on paper, three of those losses came at the hands of the Packers (whom they took to the wire), Saints, and 49ers, so the Giants definitely played a schedule that has them battle-tested for the playoffs. Defensively, the Giants can create pressure with their front four better than any team in the NFL. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and linemates Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck are healthy and peaking at the right time.
The Falcons are trying to pick up their first postseason win in the Matt Ryan-era. Way back in Week 1, I suggested the Falcons may lament the steep price they paid to draft wide receiver Julio Jones. Obviously, I never doubted Jones’ talent, I just thought the Falcons needs were great enough – especially on defense and the offensive line – that they couldn’t afford to give up the opportunity to fill holes. Alas, they made the move and now have two receivers that must be schemed for, which opens up opportunities up the seam of a defense for the ageless Tony Gonzalez, and keeps the extra man out of the box, creating running lanes for bowling-ball running back Michael Turner.
I like the Giants in this game, as everywhere they are strongest – defensive line and wide receiver – the Falcons are weakest. The Falcons are a completely different team out of the dome, so I like Eli to set up a Divisional matchup in Lambeau, where they can exact revenge against the Packers who definitely benefited from a missed call by the officials on Jake Ballard’s touchdown / non-touchdown call.
Pittsburgh 23, DENVER 10 – 3:30 PM
The fact the Broncos are hosting a home playoff game to a team with a superior record is an indication that the NFL playoff system needs to be re-visited. Much like the Saints having to travel to Seattle last year to play a team they were seemingly better than, calls into question: Why does a division winner automatically get home field advantage? Alas, the Seahawks won that game last year, and this weekend, hobbled Steelers take to Mile High to battle the Broncos.
What can be said about the Broncos that hasn’t been said already, in particular about their quarterback (in name only) Tim Tebow? Tebow has defied the rules of what I’ve come to know as quality NFL quarterbacking and “led” his team to a 7-3 record and a division title, despite the fact they lost their last three games of the season. All year long, I was perplexed at how many people let themselves fall victim to Tebow-mania, losing their football sensibilities in the process, offering up ridiculous sentiment that Tebow should be considered for MVP. In a season where Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees turned in some of the most incredible quarterbacking performances the NFL has ever seen, all I can do is laugh and shake my head at such suggestions. The real reason the Broncos were able to win seven games – in spite of their quarterback – was by playing smothering defense and deploying a bruising running game. Well, over the past three weeks, the Broncos have been outscored 88-40, so their playoff run will last all of 60 minutes.
A few weeks back, I thought the Steelers might be the most complete team in the AFC. But injuries to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and most recently a torn ACL for running back Rashard Mendenhall have forced me to re-think this. While I fully expect the Steelers defense to completely dominate Tebow and company this weekend, I’m not sure what their long-term playoff prospects are, especially if they end up playing the Ravens in the Divisional round, as the Ravens defense will certainly exploit Roethlisbergers’s immobility in the pocket. In terms of this game, get your terrible towels out and enjoy the bevy of helium balloon-like throws from Tebow. If Romeo Crennel was able to devise a scheme to confound Tebow, just wait-and-see what Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau dials up this weekend.
Regular Season Record: 170-86