Saturday, January 21, 2012

2011-2012 NFL Playoff Predictions - Conference Championships

At least I was .500 last week. The AFC games went as anticipated, but NFC favorites, New Orleans and Green Bay, both made earlier than anticipated exits.

New Orleans @ San Francisco
What a way to start the weekend. New Orleans was able to put 30+ points despite being outdoors and 2,000 miles from home, but it wasn’t enough as San Francisco mustered 36, their second highest point total (48 v. TB) of the year. Alex Smith and Vernon Davis had the game of their lives, but the bigger story may have been just how much went wrong for the Saints. They had 5 turnovers, all of the excruciatingly costly variety. It all started when Pierre Thomas got knocked out by Donte Whitner at the Niners’ 2 yard line, causing the Saints to leave 3 or 7 points on the field in their first possession. Then there’s a Brees INT that was returned inside the 5. After the Niners scored, Courtney Roby fumbled the ensuing kickoff. An Akers FG later, and the Saints are down 17-0 and without Pierre Thomas. The Saints got back into the game and seemingly had it won, but they left too much time on the clock, as their defense couldn’t hold the Niners to a FG attempt and a shot at advancing in overtime. What a dramatic win for the Niners.

Denver @ New England
Contrary to popular belief, the NFL season did not end when the Broncos season fizzled out in a 45-10 yawner that saw Tom Brady complete 26 passes for 6 TDs while the holy hype train completed just 3 more passes than Brady tossed TDs despite playing catch up for the entirety of the contest. Hell, the Patriots even dabbled with Aaron Hernandez as a ball carrier, giving him 5 totes which he turned into 61 yards and a near rushing score. Rob Gronkowski continued his dominance over opposing defenses, catching 10 passes (1 more than Denver’s QB completed) for 3 TDs. It was laughable how easily New England marched down the field and scored at will on the overmatched Broncos. This one was well decided at halftime, where the Patriots led by 28 and put it on cruise control the rest of the way. Tom Brady moves on and continues his drive for a 4th ring while John Elway gets to start his heartburn of an offseason attempting to put more lipstick on his pig.

Houston @ Baltimore
Guessed this score correctly (20-13). Baltimore was clearly the better team in this one, but they’ve got an ugly way of playing not to lose. Despite being the inferior team starting a rookie QB on the road in the playoffs, the Texans had a shot of tying it up ahead of the 2 minute warning before TJ Yates’ was intercepted by Ed Reed. Yes, the Ravens are moving on to the AFC title game, but there were a few negatives to take from this one. Joe Flacco continues to wilt under pressure. I like Flacco, but I’m put off by his inability to improvise when the play breaks down. He’s got to get a lot better in that area if this team is going to be able to match points with the Patriots. Ray Rice was held to under 3 yards per carry and was held out of the endzone on three straight runs inside the 5 in what could have been a huge empty drive. Arian Foster pretty much did what he wanted against their defense, totaling 154 yards and a score. Torrey Smith was held to just 9 yards on 1 reception. He’s got to be productive, regardless of who’s covering him, if the offense is to be productive. Again, it’s a win, but Baltimore can’t feel great about their mo heading into the showdown at Foxboro.

Giants @ Packers
Wow, I’ve got to say that even though I called the Giants as my surprise playoff team, I’m shocked at how easily they had their way with the Packers, shutting down Aaron Rodgers and his arsenal of weapons. Despite playing catch up for the majority of the game, no Packers receiver was able to tally more than 45 yards, and Donald Driver was the only one to find the endzone. Hakeem Nicks caught as many passes as Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson together, more than doubled their combined yardage total, and scored twice. This one went so not as expected for the Packers. Rodgers not only threw an INT but turned the ball over on a sack. I quit counting the dropped passes, but the one by Jermichael Finley on 3rd down inside the Giants’ 40 down 7 was a dagger. The next time they got the ball, Ryan Grant fumbled, and Mario Manningham scored on the next play. The Packers were done after that. The Giants are an extremely opportunistic team firing on all cylinders right now, and I truly believe that Eli is one of the elite QBs in the league. He has come miles in the confidence standpoint, and it’s as if the game has finally slowed down for him.

Conference Championship Predictions

Ravens @ Patriots (Sunday, 3:00)
In the first of what should be two tremendous matchups, the Ravens travels up the east coast to face a Patriots team that they beat the last time these two hooked up in the playoffs. When the Ravens won at New England two years ago, they dominated the Patriots on the ground and made life miserable for Tom Brady. Ray Rice ran for 159 yards and scored twice. Flacco wasn’t at his best, throwing for 34 yards and an INT in that one. You know Baltimore won’t be overwhelmed in that atmosphere, but Brady and that offense are on fire.

When the Patriots have the ball I think you’ll see Lardarius Webb take on Wes Welker and for Jimmy Smith to cover Deion Branch. That Webb-Welker matchup should be entertaining. Flashing back to the game from two years ago, what stands out most for me in that one is that Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski had yet to become Patriots. Who is going to stop those guys this time around? While, the Ravens will mix coverage all game to give Brady different looks, I expect to see them put Cary Williams on Aaron Hernandez, matching speed with speed, as often as possible. Spending most of the game shadowing Gronkowski should be safety Bernard Pollard with some help from Smith and the linebackers. Look for Pollard to beat on Gronk early and often, trying to cut him down before he’s able to make plays after the catch. I expect Pollard to be the key to their success defensively Sunday. If those DBs can keep their heads above water, that will free up Ed Reed to do what he does best – roam the field and make plays.

When the Ravens have the ball they’ve got to establish Ray Rice on the ground, for multiple reasons. One, it keeps Joe Flacco from having to win the game or spend the most of it trying to make too many plays. Two, it keeps Brady and those receivers on the sidelines. Last week, the Texans focused on shutting down Rice and making Flacco beat them. They were able to slow Rice and keep Flacco in check, but unfortunately the Texans didn’t have enough offense to be completely successful. The Patriots won’t have that problem, so everyone on the Ravens’ offense must step it up this week. It’s going to be tough. Anquan can catch in traffic, but he’s not separating from anyone. Torrey Smith doesn’t have much of a route tree in his arsenal, so he’s not maximizing his speed and elusiveness. No one’s confusing Dickson and Pitta for Gronkowski and Hernandez. Like it or not, Flacco is going to have to make some plays in this one. Will he wilt under pressure, or will he extend plays and perhaps write a new chapter in his legacy?

I’ve been on the Ravens all year, but it’s going to take a near perfect game on both sides of the ball for them to leave Foxboro victorious. Tom Brady is going to get his, but I’m expecting the Ravens to take the run game out of play and make shutting down the TEs a priority. The more they can force Brady to throw deep, the better off they’ll be. Make no mistake, I obviously view Gisele’s guy as one of the game’s elite of all time, but if I can make Ed Reed more of a factor and force Brady to look more for Branch and Welker than Gronk and Hernandez, I like my chances.

Everything looks to be in New England’s favor right now. They destroyed Denver, and Baltimore barely got by Houston. No contest right? New England will have a much tougher time against Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs than they did against the Broncos, while the Ravens should find New England’s defense more giving than Houston’s. The Ravens’ defense slows down Brady just enough, and Ray Rice finds the endzone three times, lastly on the game’s final drive, as Baltimore exits Foxboro with another road playoff win.

Ravens 30-27

Giants @ 49ers (Sunday, 6:30)
I wonder what the preseason odds would have been on these two teams meeting up in the NFC title game. The Giants needed a win against Dallas in week 17 to just make the playoffs, and here they stand, one game away from getting back to the Super Bowl. The Niners are the league’s most surprising team, going from 6-10 last year to 13-3 this year, good for the second best record in football. These two teams met back in week 10 with San Francisco pulling out a 7 point home victory when the Giants were unable to pick up 2 yards on 3 plays from the Giants 10. That would have given them first and goal from very close and a great chance of forcing extra football. Justin Smith batted down an Eli Manning pass on 4th down, and Alex Smith came out for a few kneel downs before the celebration ensued. With all of the veterans on the Giants, that loss is surely serving as at least a bit of motivation this week.

The key to San Francisco’s success this year was, on paper, simple – run the ball and stop the run. Jim Harbaugh hinted at a more open offense last week, asking Smith to make the plays championship QBs must make, and he obliged with 4 total TDs and a shade under 300 yards passing. If there was a big play to be made by the Niners last Saturday, Alex Smith was front and center – from the 2 TDs to Davis and the play of the game, his 28 yard keeper TD. Can he pull it off two weeks in a row, this time against a much stouter defense? I don’t believe they’ll be able to establish much on the ground, and I think Harbaugh knows that. I’m sure he’s been feeding and prepping Smith all week on ways to expose and beat that aggressive Giants defense. If the Niners are to advance to their first Super Bowl since Steve Young and Jerry Rice torched Junior Seau’s Chargers almost 20 years ago, they’ll need to repeat last week’s A+ performance on both sides of the ball. Will Davis bust loose for a third straight game (15 catches, 298 yds)? Will Justin and Aldon Smith put enough consistent pressure on Eli and company to disrupt the offense’s timing? If so, All Pro Patrick Willis, breakout backer Navorro Bowman, and super safety Dashon Goldson will be able to do what they do best – cover a lot of ground and make big plays.

Do the Giants look determined or what? After embarrassing the Falcons and stifling the champs, you’ve got to like the defense’s chances of making things hard on the Niners. The front four, specifically JPP, Tuck, and Osi, should be able to put quite a bit more consistent pressure on Alex Smith, forcing him into more mistakes and less big plays downfield. Davis is SF’s biggest passing weapon, but the Giants pretty much shut down Tony Gonzalez and Jermichael Finley in their last two games. Also, Davis had one big play on a defensive breakdown against the Niners in their last matchup. Surely, Coach Coughlin has brought this up a few times during the week. Offensively, if that line doesn’t collapse on Eli, you’ve got to like his chances of making plays downfield with Nicks, Cruz, and Manningham. Nicks is in a zone right now, looking like a guy putting together a playoff run we’ll remember for a while. New York will need Jacobs and Bradshaw to loosen up the defense, at least a little bit, and I think the former will end up being a factor in this one; if nothing else than to keep the Niners a little more honest defensively.

The Giants began a four game losing skid with that week 10 loss. Will the Niners be the team to end their current 4 game win streak? While San Francisco returning to prominence is nostalgic, I can’t get all the way on board just yet. They needed an abundance of turnovers and a couple of career games to get this far, and with the Giants wreaking of positive mojo, I can’t see the Niners being as fortunate this week. I don’t think Smith will be able to match scores with Eli, and no one has abused defenses the last three weeks as much as Nicks. The Giants hold Vernon Davis in check and are able to generate enough pressure with their front four to force Smith and the Niners into too many 3rd and unmanageables. Eli and a stout defense get New York one step closer to another storybook championship.

Giants 24-20

Thursday, January 12, 2012

2011-2012 NFL Playoff Predictions - Divisional Round

Wow, great start last week. Went 1-3 with my picks, but no major bracket damage sustained. Quick recaps.

Cincinnati @ Houston
I was surprised at how well Houston perked up in the postseason. Wade Phillips had that defense clicking and forcing Andy Dalton into bad decision after bad decision. Cincinnati’s defense, specifically that secondary has a bit of soul searching to do. Two players in particular, Reggie Nelson and Chris Crocker, need to search a little deeper. Those two left their manhood in Cincinnati. I understand that Arian Foster is a strong runner, but you’re not tackling Jim Brown.

Detroit @ New Orleans
This one went about as expected, but it could have played out quite a bit differently had Detroit been able to capitalize on Marques Colston’s first quarter fumble. Already up 7-0, Detroit got the ball back with a chance to put the home team in an early 2 TD hole, but the Lions ended up punting from midfield and never increased their lead. The Saints cut the deficit to 4 just before the half and took the lead for good just 2 minutes into the second half. Calvin Johnson certainly got his (12-211-2), but Drew Brees, again, got more.

Atlanta @ NY Giants
What a disappointment the Falcons are. After getting embarrassed at home last postseason by the Packers, you go out and invest your draft in Julio Jones, and aren’t able to put up a single offensive point. I repeat, a single offensive point. Matt Ryan and Mike Smith continue their road and playoff losing ways and did so in pathetic fashion. Horrible play calling overall but especially in short yardage. All that planning and focus, and you lay an absolute egg against one of the league’s worst pass defenses. Well done Falclowns. Great job by Eli working the deep ball and keeping the passing game clicking even without Victor Cruz doing a lot.

Pittsburgh @ Denver
Now I didn’t expect this banged up Steeler team to go far this postseason, but I figured they’d bring their defense with them to Denver. After holding baby jesus to 1, yes 1, offensive yard in the opening quarter, the Steelers played some of the most undisciplined football in recent memory, allowing constant 1 on 1 (or none) situations for Denver to abuse them with. Fitting that this one would end on the first play of overtime with the Steelers overcommitting and chasing their postseason hopes into the endzone.

Divisional Round Predictions

Saints @ 49ers (Saturday, 4:30)
Something’s gotta give. The Saints finished second in the league (to the Packers) in points scored per game (34.2) and receiving TDs (46), while only the Steelers allowed fewer points per game than the Niners (14.3). The Saints lost three games on the season, all of them on the road. The Niners went 7-1 at home with their one loss coming in the overtime game against the Cowboys. Drew Brees’ home/road splits are telling. He threw 29 TDs and only 6 INTs at home, but he tossed only 17 TDs and increased his INTs to 8 on the road. He was also sacked twice as much (16 v. 8) on the road.

Alex Smith was very efficient at home, throwing 12 TDs and only 3 INTs, and Jim Harbaugh is going to want to continue that in San Francisco’s first postseason game since 2002. I fully expect San Francisco to go with a heavy run and short pass game plan. A key matchup will be Michael Crabtree against, I’m guessing, Jabari Greer. Vernon Davis is still their most explosive offensive talent, but Crabtree has established himself as the Niners’ primary passing weapon, catching at least 5 passes in 5 of their last 7 games. When they go to the ground, it will be Frank Gore getting the ball, but the veteran rusher has had a really quiet second half of the season. Gore hasn’t eclipsed the 100 yard mark since November 6 against Washington and has only 3 TDs in that stretch.

There’s no doubting what New Orleans is going to do when they get the ball. Brees is going to be throwing it a lot which works in their favor since San Francisco excels defensively against the run and are nothing special against the pass. They gave up 427 yards to the Dallas combo of Tony Romo and Jon Kitna and surrendered another 416 yards passing to Michael Vick. Eli got them for 311, and Ben racked up 330, both Niner wins. What gives? Does Brees throw more road scores than normal, or does that pass defense finally clamp down on a big time passer?

While I think Brees will do his thing, I’ve got Pierre Thomas being the difference maker in this one. Yes, the Niners are stout against the run, but Thomas has been incredibly reliable and productive with limited touches. While Darren Sproles is always a sliver of space away from breaking off a highlight TD, I think New Orleans is going to have to run the ball more than normal in this one, and Thomas is the guy they’ll lean on. Roman Harper is apparently gimpy with an ankle injury but will give it a go. One of the games elite run stopping safeties, Harper will be key to keeping Gore minimized and forcing Smith into poor passing decisions. It’s not as pretty as last week, but the Saints move on.

Saints 31-27

Broncos @ Patriots (Saturday, 8:00)
Denver will no doubt attempt to start this game the way December’s matchup between these two teams began. In that contest, the Broncos leaned heavily on the run game early and were able to get out to a 9 point 2nd quarter lead before Tom Brady led the Patriots on 5 unanswered scoring drives, putting the game away in the 3rd quarter. New England is putting up a ton of points, but it would be scary if those guys could put together a complete game for a change.
Going back over a month, the Patriots have unnecessarily struggled against inferior opponents. They let the Redskins hand with them throughout, they allowed the Colts to score 3 unanswered 4th quarter TDs, trailed Miami 17-0 at halftime, and spotted Buffalo a 21 point lead in their regular season finale, a game they needed to win to clinch home field advantage. They can’t afford to let Denver hang around and chance destiny. Look for Brady to spread it out and take advantage of his TEs – Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The latter is the key to their offense. Each play, Brady approaches the line, reads Hernandez’s coverage, calls the play, and goes though his progressions accordingly.
Despite last week’s heroics, the Broncos backed into the playoffs on a three game losing streak, a streak that started with that 41-23 loss to the Patriots. They were able to take down a team with a stubborn, undisciplined defense and a gimpy, statutory QB. They’ll face a weaker defense this week, one that they’ve recently faced and partially bested, but I have a hard time seeing them hold the Patriots to 23 points, Pittsburgh’s point total from last week. In fact, the Patriots have scored 23 or less points just 3 times this season, and they’re averaging over 36 points during their 8 game win streak. They’ve got to establish Willis McGahee early and often, or this will likely get ugly.
New England isn’t going to leave itself susceptible to the big plays the way Pittsburgh did last week. They’ll be facing this “unnatural” offense for a second time this season and should be a focused, pissed off team of players looking to avoid embarrassment at home and losing their third straight postseason opener. Denver gets to 23 points, but so does New England, and then some. I like Hernandez to have another big game, but Stevan Ridley established himself as the Patriots’ best ball carrier late in the year and could very well have a career game against a Bronco team that has struggled against the run.
Patriots 34-23
Texans @ Ravens (Sunday, 1:00)
The AFC’s second matchup of the week features two more teams that squared off earlier this year. Back in week 6, Matt Schaub and the Texans traveled to Baltimore and hung around for 3 quarters before falling 29-14. Joe Flacco lit up a tough Texans secondary for 305 yards, his 3rd highest output of the season, Anquan Boldin accounted for 132 of those yards on 8 catches, and Ray Rice eclipsed the 100 yard rushing mark. Despite the offensive production, the key to that game was Baltimore holding Arian Foster and Ben Tate to a combined 90 yards on the ground, and more importantly, no scores.
One player missing from that matchup was Texans receiver Andre Johnson. The All Pro hampered by a hamstring got into the endzone last week, and I’ve got to think the Texans are going to look to feature him again in order to give Foster and Tate some running room. This will easily be the toughest defense rookie passer TJ Yates has yet to face in his brief professional career. He defined “game management” last week, but I’ll be shocked if the Ravens allow Foster to rack up 153 yards on the ground this week like he did against the Bengals, giving Yates the comfort to constantly work in short yardage situations. Owen Daniels will be limited by a “hand issue” (see broken bones) and I’m guessing will serve mostly as a decoy.
Ray Lewis is supposedly back to 100% health, and Anquan Boldin is reportedly over his late season knee injury. If I can pull a negative out of the last matchup, it’s the fact that Baltimore had to settle for Billy Cundiff field goals on 5 occasions. More of those trips across the 50 need to result in 6 points this time around. They also must make Rice the focal point of the offense. He needs to have more touches than pass attempts by Flacco. On defense, the Ravens will need to shut down the outside runs, something Houston does well and often, and force the undersized Texans blockers to play more vertically.
Johnson gets lose for one score, but Foster and Tate get shut out again. Rice gets his touches and controls the ball for Baltimore in a game that doesn’t turn out as close as the scoreboard indicates.
Ravens 20-13

Giants @ Packers (Sunday, 4:30)
Ok, lesson learned. Last week I mentioned the Giants as my pick for this year’s surprise playoff team, but I foolishly believed Atlanta was ready for prime time. After emasculating the Falcons, New York is in position blow up the brackets in a matchup with the champs. This is the third postseason rematch of a regular season hookup; one which saw the Packers emerge (escape) from New York with a 3 point victory as Eli Manning was nearly able to match scores with Aaron Rodgers in a matchup of two of the league’s worst pass defenses.

New York already had Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora to terrorize opposing passers, but second year end Jason Pierre-Paul exploded for 16.5 sacks and has become one of the league’s most explosive defensive players. Green Bay was one of the league’s worst teams at protecting their QB, but they did go the majority of the season without veteran left tackle Chad Clifton and lost Bryan Bulaga for a quarter of the year to injury as well. Fortunately for Rodgers and the Packers, both Clifton and Bulaga are expected to be a go for Sunday’s showdown. How those two handle New York’s edge rushers will go a long way in determining whether or not the champs are still playing next week.

As a wannabe Packer fan, I start getting uncomfortable when I think about Eli Manning squaring off against that 32nd ranked pass defense again. Eli’s been locked in the last two weeks, throwing for 623 yards with 6 TDs and 0 INTs against the Cowboys and Falcons. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are both on fire, and even Mario Manningham got into the endzone last week. The Patriots, Saints, and Giants join the Packers as the four worst teams in the league against the pass, so at least Green Bay is in good company in being overly generous against the pass.

Cruz, Nicks, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and Jermichael Finley all eclipsed 80 yards receiving and totaled 4 TDs between them in the last meeting. Why should that change this time? The Packers don’t force a lot of three-and-outs, but what they need to do is have the Giants ending more of their drives with Lawrence Tynes than they do with Mason Crosby. James Starks’ ankle isn’t an issue anymore and he’s ready to get back on the field. He has a chance to be a big factor against a Giants defense that will be focusing on Rodgers and perhaps leaving some gaps in that run defense for the strong Starks to take advantage of.

When the Giants are clicking, they’ll score on anyone, and only the Vikings, Raiders, Bills, and Bucs gave up more TDs through the air than the Packers this year. I look for Eli to throw for 3 TDs on the day, but again it won’t be enough, as the Packers earn their 14th straight home win on the arm of Aaron Rodgers and 4 passing TDs, 2 to Jordy Nelson. This game has the potential to be a classic.

Packers 38-34

Summary –
Saints, Patriots, Ravens, and Packers advance

Remaining Rounds –
No changes. My potential final four are still alive, and I’m sticking with the Saints to beat Ravens in the Super Bowl.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011-2012 NFL Playoff Predictions

The dust has settled on the 2011 NFL regular season, and six teams remain. Four months ago, I wouldn’t have been surprised if you had told me that Green Bay and New England would be the #1 seed in their respective conferences. I would have been surprised had Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and New Orleans not make the playoffs. The Texans were expected to win the South with the Manningless Colts, and anything goes in the NFC East where the Giants emerged as division champs. Actually, I nailed 8 of the 12 teams; 4 in each conference.

The real surprises are in the other three teams – Cincinnati, Denver, and San Francisco. The Bengals went the distance with a rookie QB, while the Broncos somehow managed to make it to the dance with a guy who regularly goes full quarters without completing a single pass. The biggest surprise though comes from the west where Jim Harbaugh took basically the same 7-9 roster from last year and clinched a first round bye.

Who’s going to win this thing? Can the Packers repeat? Will the Patriots finally win another playoff game? Are the Ravens for real? Can the Steelers get back to the finals? Can anyone slow down the Saints? Will the Giants ride their momentum wave to another title? Looking at the field, I feel that I can quickly and comfortably eliminate four of the contenders. Here we go:

Houston Texans
The Texans endured nearly a third season ending QB injury last week when rookie TJ Yates suffered a shoulder “bruise” against the Titans. Andre Johnson looks good to go for this week, but he’s only appeared in 3 games since October 2. Sure they still have Arian Foster and Ben Tate heading up one of the league’s best run games, but this is a team that capped off the regular season with three straight losses to teams with a combined 13 wins, including the Suck-for-Luck Colts. You don’t end a regular season that way and march through the playoffs.

Denver Broncos
In his last three games Tim Tebow is 0-3 with a 41% completion percentage, a 1-4 TD to INT ratio, and an awesome 43.1 passer rating. He only throws to one receiver a game, and he’ll be facing the Steelers in round 1. Taint happenin’ Timmy.

Cincinnati Bengals
0-7. That’s the Bengals record this year against the field of playoff teams. Think they’re gonna run off 4 straight? Me neither.

Detroit Lions
Matthew Stafford had one hell of a season, but I have a hard time backing a team that lost a meaningful game to a Packers team taking the week off; everyone except Matt Flynn who just threw another touchdown. Now they get to face Drew Brees and the Saints team that beat them 31-17 a month ago.

That’s a third of the field that I feel doesn’t have much of a chance of hoisting a trophy in Indy. Let’s eliminate another third.

Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons still struggle on the road (4-4 this year), and they’ll have to play all their games away from the Georgia Dome unless they meet up with Detroit in the conference title game. Their biggest win streak of the year was 3 games, bookended by the Panthers and Colts, so they’ve yet to put together a serious run this year. I think their matchup with the Giants is the most intriguing of the wild card round games, but I wouldn’t like their chances of then going to Green Bay and dethroning the champs.

San Francisco 49ers
Aside from the MNF win against the Steelers, I wasn’t impressed with what I saw from the 49ers over the last month of the season against their division. In three road games, they lost to Arizona and beat the Seahawks and Rams by a combined 9 points. Yes, the Seahawks had been playing a lot better late in the year, but there’s no excuse for that Rams game. The Niners clinched a bye with that win, but that game was in question for far too long. I still don’t buy Alex Smith as a championship QB, and they’ll be going into their divisional round game off a bye, off some not-so-great football, and facing (probably) the Saints.

Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have the championship QB, but they’re not without questions. Will Isaac Redman pick up the slack created with Rashard Mendenhall’s season ending ACL injury? Will LaMarr Woodley and Maurkice Pouncey be good to go for the playoffs? Will that offensive line be able to block anyone? When will Big Ben take the hit to the ankle that ends his season? I’ve learned not to underestimate this bunch, but I think they’d have to overcome too much. Something tells me Roethlisberger doesn’t finish their last game.

New York Giants
Here’s my guess at this year’s surprise team. They were the last team to punch their dance card, but, now healthy, they’re as capable as anyone of putting points on the scoreboard. I’ve bought in. I really like me some Eli Manning, and damn Victor Cruz can play some football. JPP looks like a star in the making on defense, and the playoffs have always seemed to generate that next big thing kind of player. If they can beat the Falcons, I believe that the Giants are one of two teams (Saints) that can go to Wisconsin and beat the Packers. Still, this is a team that lost at home to the Redskins by 13 just 3 weeks ago and tasted defeat at the hands of the 49ers, Saints, and Packers this season. While I really think they could shock the world, I had to get this thing down to a final four and they just missed the cut.

Each of these remaining teams could take home the Lombardi, and it wouldn’t surprise me. The Packers look to be getting healthy and hot at the right time, and someone is going to have to beat them at home to get to the Super Bowl. New Orleans was my preseason pick to win it all, and I definitely still like their chances. Should the Saints and Packers hook up again in the conference championship game, it will probably end up a more exciting contest than the Super Bowl. The Patriots clinched the top seed in the AFC, but that defense has got to keep Tom Brady up at night. In recent weeks they’ve gotten behind the Bills and Dolphins by multiple scores and come back to win both games. They can’t do that against the Packers, Saints, or the last team in final four, the Ravens. I’m not completely on the Joe Flacco bandwagon, but I’m driving Ray Rice’s. Put the ball in that man’s hands 25+ times a game, and trust that defense.

Predicted Matchups and Outcomes

Wild Card

Bengals @ Texans
It’s not that the Texans are losing. It’s HOW they’re losing. I don’t like what I’m seeing from that team, and I believe the Bengals are strong enough on both sides of the ball to get ahead of and hold them off. They also finished the regular season playing a lot better ball than Houston. Andy Dalton throws 2 TDs, and TJ Yates turns it over twice.

Bengals 20-17

Lions @ Saints
Again, you don’t let the Packers light you up in a game they’re really not into and then go to New Orleans and beat the Saints. Stranger things have happened, but I think Detroit’s season ends Saturday.

Saints 38-24

Falcons @ Giants
I’m really excited about this matchup. These teams resemble each other quite a bit on both sides of the ball, and I’m having the hardest time picking this winner. In the Falcons’ favor, I really like how Brent Grimes matches up with Victor Cruz, and both Roddy White and Julio Jones can torch that Giants secondary. That may just be enough for the Falcons to help Ryan and Mike Smith earn their first playoff wins. I know I listed the Giants as my surprise team, but as the week goes on I’m leaning more and more towards the upset. Atlanta has to be hungry to avenge last year’s early exit. Julio Jones is the player of the game.

Falcons 37-27

Steelers @ Broncos
If you look up ‘struggling’ in the dictionary you’ll see a picture of Tebow throwing a football. The league’s best defense isn’t the antidote to that ail. Denver’s only hope is to establish the ground game with Willis McGahee and hope Tebow can complete a few fundamental passes. The banged up Steelers drew the right team in the opening round.

Steelers 20-9

Order of Confidence (high to low) –New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Atlanta

Divisional Round

Bengals @ Patriots – Patriots
Andy Dalton and AJ Green keep it interesting for a little while, but the Patriots have too much firepower for the Bengals.

Steelers @ Ravens – Ravens
Yep, they go 3-0 against the Steelers on the season. I don’t think the physical Ravens are what the Steelers want/need right now.

Saints @ 49ers – Saints
The Niners are one and done. I can’t see them keeping pace with the Saints even if the game is outdoors out West. This won’t be NO/SEA from last year.

Falcons @ Packers – Packers
It’s close for a half, but Green Bay ends up being too much for Atlanta. The Falcons become one dimensional, and Matt Ryan throws 2 costly interceptions.

Conference Championships

Ravens @ Patriots – Ravens
Ray Rice does it again. The Ravens have all the defense and just enough offense to take down the Patriots in Foxboro.

Saints @ Packers – Saints
The Saints prove to be the hottest team in football at this point and get opening game revenge against the Packers.

Super Bowl

Ravens v. Saints – Saints
Yep, no change here. Same two teams. Same predicted outcome. Brees is the MVP.

I’ve still got the Saints beating the Packers at Lambeau and facing the Ravens in the Super Bowl. I believed that they would be the last two standing at the end of the season, and I’ve yet to see anything to sway me from that.