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