Once again, I’m going to pick every NFL playoff game, each week, for the entire playoffs. Feel free to laugh at me over the weekend if I get these horribly wrong.
6) Cincinnati Bengals vs 3) Houston Texans
This is a matchup of two underwhelming offenses–since week eleven, both have struggled to top 20 points–and two rookie quarterbacks. On paper, Houston looks better. With Arian Foster, Houston’s running attack is excellent, whereas Cincinnati has had just one 100 yard rusher since week four. Both defenses are above average, although Houston’s is definitely elite, and Cincy’s is not as effective. Cincinnati only makes up ground in the receiving corps, as AJ Green, Jerome Simpson and Jermaine Gresham are apparently better than Owen Daniels, Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones and a significantly limited Andre Johnson.
That indicates that, shocker, this matchup could be decided by quarterback play, a thrilling (sort of) matchup between TJ Yates and Andy Dalton. The load is no doubt lighter on Yates, who simply needs to keep the Bengals from focusing entirely on stopping Foster. By contrast, Dalton will likely have to carry the Bengals offense unless Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott can get some good yardage against a really tough Texans run D (96ypg, 4th in the NFL).
That’s going to be difficult, considering that he’ll be making his first playoff start, on the road, where no doubt Texans fans will be dying to show love to the first Texans’ playoff team in their short history. Unless Dalton can solve the top notch Texans defense–and, bear in mind, he struggled against other top defenses such as the 49ers, Steelers and Ravens–the Bengals may need a implosive performance from Yates in order to grab the road win. Given that Yates will be playing at home, against a less formidable defense and with a better running game to bolster him, I’m guessing that he can do enough to get Houston the win.
The Pick: Texans 17, Bengals 13
6) Detroit Lions vs 3) New Orleans Saints
It’s easy to see why this game earned the primetime spot: two devoted fanbases, two top five offenses, two 5000+ yard, 40+ touchdown quarterbacks and two of the NFL’s most fierce receiver stables. Best case scenario, we get an epic shootout that ends up being 45-41 or something. Worst case scenario, New Orleans thrashes the Lions just as they’ve been thrashing everybody. No matter what, I think there will be a high point total.
That said, I find it hard to believe that New Orleans will lose this Saturday. Since 2008, they is 30-5 at home (including playoffs), including 8-0 this season. This season, Drew Brees has 27 touchdowns and just six interceptions, and his Saints offense averages over 40 points per game in the Superdome. The New Orleans running game averages over 130 yards per game and features multiple running backs with highly differing skill sets. Finally, the receiving corps features five receivers with over fifty catches, including Marques Colston and the seemingly impossible to cover Jimmy Graham. It seems impossible that Detroit’s 23rd ranked defense can possibly keep up. And if they fall behind early, they’ll likely stay behind; Drew Brees has 27 touchdowns and a 112 passer rating when the Saints is leading.
Not that the Lions don’t have firepower of their own. Their running game isn’t formidable, but their passing game features the now excellent Stafford throwing to Titus Young, Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew and, of course, Calvin Johnson (1681 yards and 16 TDs). If the offense clicks the way it did in Green Bay last Sunday, the Saints’ 30th ranked pass defense is also going to have trouble keeping up.
[Tangent: To me the current elite QB tier: Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger, Rivers (for now) and Peyton Manning if he gets healthy. However, if Stafford knocks off New Orleans and then gives Green Bay another excellent game, he jumps to the bottom of that tier. Also at the doorstep: Eli Manning (so close), Joe Flacco (if he wins the AFC), and Matt Ryan (major longshot). Big January for the elite QBs pantheon.]
Overall, this matchup presents two excellent offenses and two less than stellar defenses. It will be Brees, who has been better than anybody not named Aaron Rodgers this season, who will make the difference. He is a Super Bowl MVP playing at home, and Stafford is making his playoff debut in perhaps the most intimidating arena in the league. To unseat New Orleans, Detroit will need to start fast, win the turnover battle and likely get a huge performance from Calvin Johnson. The odds of all those things falling into place are likely too great. My guess is that New Orleans will overwhelm the Lions and take a double digit victory.
The Pick: Saints 38, Lions 27
5) Atlanta Falcons vs 4) New York Giants
This may be the toughest call. Atlanta has a much better run game (17th ranked vs 32nd ranked), a better overall defense and are winners of eight of their past eleven. The Giants have more dynamic receivers, a better quarterback and a much better pass rush, but they have had an up and down second half and barely made the postseason. It’s difficult to say which team is better in the matchup, given that neither seems to counter the other’s strengths.
So much of this matchup is dependent on unanswered questions. Can New York’s 29th ranked secondary come close to limiting Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez? If so, can Atlanta’s run game pick up the slack? Can New York pressure Matt Ryan, even though he’s only been sacked 26 times this season? Can Atlanta’s defense, which looked destroyed against New Orleans just two weeks, handle Eli Manning’s potent passing assault (5th in the league in yardage)? Can Matt Ryan win on the road in the playoffs?
That final question is the most troubling: Matt Ryan’s quarterback rating was a just above average 84.6 on the road, and the Falcons are 4-4 this season in enemy territory, compared to 6-2 in Atlanta. Furthermore, Matt Ryan is yet to win a playoff game or even come close. For what it’s worth, however, New York is only 4-4 at home this season (5-4 if you count their “road” game against the Jets), even though Manning is just as good no matter where he is.
Both teams have strengths and limitations. For Atlanta, their strength is a potent offense and solid offensive line play, and their weakness is a poor pass rush and a rough secondary. New York has a terrible secondary and an anemic ground game, but they can depend on Manning, and he has delivered time after time this season. I don’t think the Falcons have the defense to slow down Manning, and so, once again, he’ll be the difference maker in what could be a tight game.
The Pick: Giants 24, Falcons 20
5) Pittsburgh Steelers vs 4) Denver Broncos
Now that that’s out of my system, let’s play a game called “which quarterback has been worse over their past two games”. Our contestants are Ben Roethlisberger and Tim Tebow. That’s obviously a joke; Tim Tebow probably wishes he could have posted Big Ben’s passer ratings of 52.3 and 73. That said, this pick looked like the slam dunk of the playoffs before Rashard Mendenhall injured his knee, Ryan Clark was officially scratched and Roethlisberger began to look like a shell of his Pro Bowl self. It doesn’t seem like Denver can possibly move the ball against the Steelers’ top ranked defense, but given how ineffective Pittsburgh’s offense has looked lately, can we really rule out a Broncos win?
Actually, to an extent we can. Denver’s bottom feeding offense looked utterly helpless against the Bills and Chiefs recently, and the defense, though talented, will have an epic challenge in picking up the slack. If Tim Tebow can lead the Broncos to a win over a deadly Steelers defense that will reportedly be sending eight and nine man rushes in order to stop Denver’s top ranked run game, then he really is magic. They would need to win the turnover battle, completely shut down Pittsburgh on the other end and snatch a freaky 14-13 or 6-3 victory or something bizarre like that. It was doable against teams like the Chicago Bears, but I think the Steelers are too good to succumb to that.
What is more interesting to me is the recent Roethlisberger situation. Obviously it’s not the Steelers’ fault Roethlisberger got injured, but given that their MVP apparently suffered a setback in a win over Cleveland that still left them at the five seed, did the Steelers damage their quarterbacks postseason potential for nothing? I understand playing him against San Francisco–they had a shot to take the AFC North lead and needed all their power against the 9ers–but given how well Charlie Batch led the offense against the Rams, why wouldn’t they just let him play against the lowly Browns and hope that giving Roethlisberger another week of rest would pay off in the long run? Instead, they played him, he looked awful, he hurt himself more and they have the five seed anyway.
I’m not casting doom on the Steelers; this Broncos game should be easy (key word: should), and I predict Roethlisberger will earn a favorable matchup with New England next week. But until Roethlisberger got injured, I legitimately thought of the Steelers as the favorite to win the AFC, even if they would have to win on the road a few times. Now, his health is like a cloud over Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes, and suddenly I wouldn’t bet on them winning the AFC, even if the odds were forgiving. Regardless, I know the Steelers are still the favorite to win this game: I think they’ll win in a defensive struggle.
The Pick: Steelers 13, Broncos 6