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.

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