What a great season we just had. A team nearly went undefeated, and another almost went defeated. Brett Favre declined an invitation from the Texans and Bears to come back, and Mark Sanchez declined an invitation to be a starting quarterback next season. Oh, and do you even remember there being a lockout? It seems like ages ago.
I’ll just cut to the chase, here are my NFL Wild Card Weekend NFL Picks. Home teams in CAPS.
TEXANS (-3) over Bengals
As an NFL fan, it’s really sad that the season Houston finally makes the playoffs, they lost their start quarterback and pass rusher for the year. Defensively, they’re still fine with Brian Cushing, J.J. Watt, DeMeco Ryans, and Johnathan Joseph, but the offense is hurting considerably.
The Texans had the second best rushing attack in the game to match Matt Schaub’s prolific air attack, giving Houston one of the best rounded offenses in the league. But now with T.J. Yates at the helm, teams can put seven and eight and nine men in the box to force him to pass. Yates is 2-3 as a starter with 158 yards passing per game and 3 touchdowns to 3 interceptions. He’s far from good, but he’s not Jake Delhomme bad.
With that in mind, you’d think that the Texans would be a pushover at home. But they’re not playing the Steelers. They’re not even playing the Broncos. They’re playing the Bengals.
Most people thought the Bengals were headed to another year of mediocrity, and if you had suggested they’d make the playoffs, I’d have called you crazy. In fact, I may or may not have picked them to go 3-13 this year. But their 9-7 record is deceiving, and I’ll tell you why.
The 17-week NFL season is a marathon, but since each team only plays sixteen games, a couple of wins can really distort a team’s record. Cincinnati had a horrific strength of schedule (facing the Browns twice, the NFC West, and the AFC South), while only beating one team with a winning record: 9-7 Tennessee.
The Bengals had seven games against playoffs teams and struck out. In fact, they were out-scored 171-113. Andy Dalton isn’t good, he’s a fine game manager with a great defense. Cedric Benson isn’t a good running back, he just gets over 19 touches per game. The Bengals aren’t good, they’ve just feasted off of sub-par competition.
SAINTS (-9.5) over Lions
What’s more embarrassing than losing to a team that lays down in front of you? Letting their backup quarterback set a franchise record with 480 passing yards. So now I pose this question to you: if the Lions let Matt Flynn walk all over them, how much damage will Drew Brees do to them?
To be frank, I don’t think that this game will be very close. Then again, I thought that the Saints would absolutely run over the Seahawks in the first round last year. But that’s beside the point. The Lions defense is more porous than SpongeBob right now, and Drew Brees is more precise than an LA plastic surgeon. So instead of discussing why the Saints will run away with this game, I’ll discuss which team has a better shot at downing the Packers: the Saints or Niners.
It sounds almost crazy, discussing Drew Brees and Alex Smith in the same sentence. But the discussion is not exactly which quarterback is more likely to take down the Packers, but rather which team has a better show. These teams are very different: the Saints are an overpowering offensive team and the Niners are a pound-you-till-you’re-out aggressive team. We’ve seen the Saints already lose to the Packers in Week 1, but they came as close to beating Green Bay as anyone did without winning.
But while we’ve seen the Saints against Green Bay, we haven’t see San Francisco take on Green Bay, let alone a juggernaut offense all year. That is unless you count pre-Week 7 incarnations of the Lions and Eagles. They’ve mostly played average (or worse) offensive teams, which has allowed them to stay on their game plan: run the ball, run the ball, and run the ball. They’ve never fallen behind by more than 20, and haven’t trailed by more than seven since Thanksgiving. But I think if and when they fall behind big to the Packers, they’ll have to leave their game plan and will end up running into trouble.
In the end, I’ll give the Saints a better shot against the Packers than I will the Niners. They’ve got a very similar team to the Packers, but they’re just about completely healthy. While the Packers ended the year a bit shaky, the Saints were firing on all cylinders. I won’t give you my pick yet, but I’ll say that it’ll make one helluva Championship Game.
Falcons (+3) over GIANTS
On a personal note, I’ve always like the Falcons and disliked the Giants. But I’m not going to let that get in the way of serious football logic with this pick, I actually do think the Falcons can win this game. Matt Ryan may not have taken The Leap this year, but as a whole, I think the Falcons are the better team.
The Giants are a funny team to say the least. They’re known as a smash-mouth team, yet they’re 32nd in rushing. There are holes across the defense, yet they’re 3rd in the league in sacks, mostly sending only four pass rushers. Citizen Eco-Drive claims that Eli Manning is unstoppable, but, well…
Atlanta, on the other hand, is very predictable and explainable. As Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz pointed out, the Falcons had the most consistent defense this season according to their defensive metric DVOA. Ever. They beat up on bad teams, outscoring teams 314-201 in their ten wins–against teams with a record of 60-100. The six losses came against teams with a combined record of 63-33 by a combined score of 159-88. They beat up on the poor and lose to the rich.
Each team is clearly flawed–I don’t see either team putting up much of a fight against the Packers or Niners. But I think the Giants lack of a run game and inability to stop the pass will ultimately lead to their downfall. Atlanta can drop seven players into coverage and force Eli Manning to pull a Mark Sanchez and throw away the game. This one should be close, but I think the Falcons offense will be too much for the faulty Giants D.
Steelers (-8) over BRONCOS
There are too many Tim Tebow/Ben Roethlisberger jokes, I’ll be the bigger man and stay away from them. No, I’ll give you just one: Tim Tebow is such a good citizen, he makes Ben Roethlisberger look like Kobe Bryant. No, wait, Lawrence Taylor.
At first glance, this game looks like a blowout. And it probably will be. But the Steelers lost stud running back Rashard Mendenhall for the year, safety Ryan Clark is out for this week, and Big Ben is still banged up. Pittsburgh is clearly a step behind the Ravens, but you can never count out a team run by Ben Roethlisberger.
Similar to Baltimore, Pittsburgh has always been known for a stingy defense and adequate defense. But in the last couple of seasons, both teams have transformed into very nice offensive teams. With the emergence of Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown as very good deep options, Pittsburgh can beat you through the air. But we’ve seen so much of this Steelers team that we often get tuned out to just how great they are, turning our attention to younger, more exciting teams.
Pittsburgh may be banged up, but their offense is betweeen 3 and 14 times better than the Broncos. We’ve all talked for ages about the merits of Tim Tebow, but for now, he’s not going to take down the big boys without better weapons. Eric Decker couldn’t even tear it up at Minnesota his senior year. The Broncos win games by pounding the ball, and the Steelers are eighth in the league at stopping the run. Not to mention being tops in pass defense.
I’d pick the Broncos against the Bengals and Texans. I really would. But the Stillers are in an entirely different league compared to the Broncos. Weirder stuff has happened in the Mile High air, but Pittsburgh should run away with this game. As a final thought, the Broncos scored 17 combined points to close the year against the vaunted Chiefs and Bills D. How well could they possibly do against Pittsburgh? This is your Lance in my Pants Lock o’ the Week.