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NFL Picks – Wildcard Weekend

The opening round of the NFL Playoffs offers some intriguing matchups. As a bitter Eagles fan that hasn’t quite gotten over their postseason absence, that’s all I have to say.

It’s true. I’m bitter. I miss the Eagles. The Winter Classic made the pain easier right up until the Flyers choked. All is not lost, however. Despite missing the playoffs, I can rest comfortably at night knowing these three things:

  1. The Eagles finished 5-1 in the NFC East, including a sweep of the Dallas Cowboys.
  2. The Eagles went undefeated against the loose-lipped Ryan brothers.
  3. If there were a prize awarded to the team no one wanted to see in the playoffs, the Eagles would have won it.

Ok, so none of that really matters, but it’s all I got. Just let me mourn.

Last Week:  10 – 6 – 0
Season:     157 – 99 – 0

Saturday, January 8 (4:30PM ET)

(6) Bengals at (3) Texans
Sadly, the Texans team that will make the franchise’s first playoff appearance won’t be the same Texans team that was one of the NFL’s best two months ago. However, despite injuries at key positions, the Texans are still good enough to win Saturday. Here’s why.

First, the Bengals aren’t very good. If you’ve ignored your TV, computer or radio all week, you’ve missed someone screaming about the Bengals having only one win against a winning team. More importantly, the Bengals have proven all season they can’t beat teams that run the football and play really good/great defense. Take a look at the Bengals’ losses; Steelers (2x), Ravens (2x), Texans, 49ers, Broncos.

Second, the Texans are nearly identical to the Ravens; stellar running back, excellent defense, average quarterback (ok, even Joe Flacco is better than TJ Yates), and solid special teams (Houston’s is actually significantly better than Baltimore’s). Houston’s greatest deficiency (aside from their 3rd string quarterback) is its head coach. Gary Kubiak performed well with his back to the wall this season after underachieving throughout his tenure with the Texans. Will the playoff pressure get to him? I say no.

Third, Andy Dalton has hit the rookie wall. In his last five games, Dalton surpassed 200 yards only once. His completion percentage never topped 58%. On a positive note, Dalton only threw one interception over that span (he also fumbled once), so at least he’s protecting the football. The same can’t be said for his teammates. The Bengals have lost fumbles in each of their previous six outings. Cedric Benson even fumbled five times (two were lost) over a two game stretch against St. Louis and Arizona in December.

Finally, the Houston defense has proven itself worthy of being the NFL’s 2nd ranked defense. When Andre Johnson went down, the Texans kept winning. When Matt Schaub was lost for the season, the Texans kept winning. Only when Wade Philips took a brief sabbatical did the unit struggle, and even then it was still solid.

The Texan defense, a raucous crowd, and a healthy Arian Foster will be enough to propel TJ Yates to the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs. Now, if Jake Delhomme is pushed into a staring role, then things may get a little hairy. TEXANS If I were Charles Barkley; Texans -3

Saturday, January 8 (8:00PM ET)

(6) Lions at (3) Saints
If you’re the Detroit Lions, you must be thrilled. Not only did you nearly overcome the greatest performance by a backup QB since Frank Reich, but you also drew the Saints in the first round as a reward. Congratulations!

I know the Saints were humiliated in a first round upset a year ago, but that’s not happening here. The Saints are better offensively than they were a year ago, they’re clearly hungrier, and most importantly, they’re at the Superdome. You know, where they haven’t lost a meaningful game since October 24th… of 2010.

Do the Lions even have a chance? Well, after I offered this analysis of the Seahawks chances last year – All week I’ve listened to analysts and media folk tell me this game will be closer than everyone expects. I think this is what is referred to as, “Group Think.” Who started it? I have no idea. How can anyone believe the Seahawks have a chance? – I’m going to refrain from absolutes to preserve whatever dignity I have left. However, it does look bleak for the Motor City.

The Detroit defense ranked in the bottom ten in total yards, passing yards, rushing yards, and points allowed. Conversely, the Saints offense led the NFL in total yards, passing yards, and finished 2nd in points scored. While the Lions offense is a potent unit in its own right, depending on it in a hostile environment without much playoff experience outside of Nate Burleson is asking a lot. Furthermore, Detroit’s offensive strength (passing game) encourages a shootout. Going head-to-head with Drew Brees in a shootout in the Superdome gets you a round of golf the following week.

The Lions need a running game to eat clock, slow the game’s tempo and keep Brees in a baseball cap. Or, the Lions could further their reputation as a dirty team and ask Ndamukong Suh to pile drive Brees on the game’s first possession. Thus removing Brees from the equation with at least a concussion, if not more. Either way, the Lions come out looking like losers. But let’s be honest, that’s a fitting look for the NFL’s most arrogant team. SAINTS If I were Charles Barkley; Saints -10.5

Sunday, January 9 (1:00PM ET)

(5) Falcons at (4) Giants
There are currently two opinions on the Giants. One argues the Giants are cruising at the right time. (I should have used “Cruz”ing. Darn.) The other argues the Jets and Cowboys were simply more flawed than the Giants and the Giants are an easy out. I’m with side one. The Giants do a few things exceptionally well. The Falcons do a lot of things adequately, but nothing exceptionally well.

In the passing game, I’ll take Eli Manning over Matt Ryan. I’d even take Eli if he had a bum knee and sore elbow. Matt Ryan is what he is; a nice quarterback that will get you to the postseason but won’t win anything for you. Atlanta has the flashy receivers, but Julio Jones has the dropsies and Roddy White looks old to me. Down the road I’ll probably want Jones, but for one game, right now? I prefer Hakeem Nicks and Victor “One cut and I’m too fast to catch” Cruz. The running games are a wash, at least to me. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw have good days and bad days. Michael Turner mostly has decent but not great days.

I expect the Giants to force the Falcons into a shootout. Not necessarily because they believe in their secondary (they shouldn’t), but because Eli along with the Giants pass rush are the team’s greatest strengths. If you’re going to lose in the playoffs, lose firing your strongest weapons.

As we’ve learned in recent years, the NFL Playoffs are more about who’s playing the best right now rather than who has the best team. The Falcons may sport a better roster from top to bottom, but the Giants are simply playing better. Atlanta’s last victory over a team with something to play for was against the Titans on November 20th. In their other two games against contending teams since that win, the Falcons lost to TJ Yates in his NFL debut and got destroyed by the Saints with the NFC South on the line. The Giants, on the other hand, had their postseason start in December. Four of New York’s final five games were against teams fighting for playoff positioning or their playoff lives. With that, I’ll take the Giants. Matt Ryan drops to 0-3. The Packers get a little nervous. GIANTS If I were Charles Barkley; Giants -3

Sunday, January 9 (4:30PM ET)

(5) Steelers at (4) Broncos
The whole Tim Tebow experience was significantly more exciting/enjoyable when the Broncos were winning and Tebow wasn’t committing multiple turnovers each game. Though, before we write off Tebow and the Broncos, let’s remember this is almost the exact scenario the Saints found themselves in a year ago. (Facing an inferior team that was gifted a playoff berth due to a lousy division with no discernable offensive threat.) Are we willing to throw the Broncos off the playoff wagon and leave them for dead without considering a few things first?

For example, the Steelers haven’t exactly dominated as of late. Against the Chiefs, Browns, and 49ers over the past six weeks (all teams with top 12 defenses), the Steelers won by more than four only once, even losing to the 49ers by 17. Furthermore, Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been and won’t be healthy for Sunday’s contest. Without him at full strength, the Pittsburgh offense has struggled to score points. We all know what happens when you don’t score against the Broncos. (Until last week, that is.)

The loss of Rashard Mendenhall won’t make it easier on Big Ben’s busted knee, either. Let’s also not forget the Steeler defense, while still exceptional, hasn’t created turnovers like it has in the past. The defense smothers opponents and keeps them off the scoreboard, but it doesn’t score points and rarely puts the offense in position to do so, either.

In other words, I don’t see how this is an easy win for the Steelers. They’ll struggle to move the ball and score because they can’t run the football all that well. With Roethlisberger’s knee injury and limited mobility/escapability, the Bronco pass rush should have opportunities to create big plays.

To review; low scoring affair, outcome could hinge on one or two big plays, Pittsburgh’s best weapon is gimpy, and although the magic has dissolved, Tim Tebow has pulled off crazier things before. I’m just saying. STEELERS If I were Charles Barkley; Broncos +10

*****

Last Week: 8 – 6 – 2
Season:    122 – 122 – 12

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