As the NFL season heads into the postseason, the games obviously will become more intense and exciting, as will my analysis. The slate set for this week’s Wild Card is extremely exciting, and for this special playoff edition I will cover all four games instead of only the top three. There are many exciting story lines to keep track of, like Tebow Time – Playoff Rerun, Tom Brady and his playoff run, and most exciting of all whether Aaron Rodgers and the Packers can become the first team to repeat since 2004-2005, when Brady and the Patriots accomplished the feat. Nearly all of the teams in the playoffs, with the exception of a couple, certainly have the talent to make it to Super Bowl XLIX in Indianapolis this February, so get ready for four straight weeks of the best football action in the world.
*Note: Fantasy seasons might be over, but Fantasy Watch will still be given for people in playoff challenges.
Denver Broncos (4) vs Pittsburgh Steelers (5)
Sunday January 8th, 4:30 PM: Sports Authority Field @ Mile High
Background/Storylines: Denver (8-8) and Pittsburgh (12-4)
Denver has had one of the most media-sensitive seasons of any 8-8 teams I have ever watched (going toe-to-toe with this year’s “Dream Team” Eagles). The magic of Tebowmania associated with fourth quarter comebacks against mostly mediocre teams seemed to hide some glaring flaws in the team’s offensive success. Tim Tebow completed less than 50% of his passes this season, and had under a 75 quarterback rating. He really struggled throwing the ball, and this inefficiency was finally solved in the last three weeks, forcing Willis McGahee to carry the ball against a stacked box often. Even so, McGahee had on the of the best season in the NFL. Also, the Broncos top 5 defenses allowed them to compete for the NFC West, which they won on the last day of the regular season when the Oakland Raiders lost.
Pittsburgh had an excellent season, save for a couple of duds against rival Baltimore, and seemed to perform at the level that experts around the league have come to expect from the NFL’s “Gold Standard”. Ben Roethlisberger threw for a near-career high 4100 yards this season, although his TD/INT ratio wasn’t as high as last year (3:2). Overall, the offense was above-average this season. That type of offensive production was more than enough, however, with the top-ranked defense overall in the NFL. Veteran stars James Harrison, Ryan Clark, LaMarr Woodley, Brett Keisel, and Troy Polamalu all played well this season, and coach Mike Tomlin continues to prove that he CAN compete with Bill Belichick.
Key Matchup: Denver Running Attack vs Steelers Front 7
The Denver Broncos organization may say that Tim Tebow has worked on his passing mechanics, but we all know that he still cannot throw the ball more than 25 times in a game to be effective, which means plenty of QB draws and Willis McGahee carries will be drawn up by John Fox and his planners. Against most teams, with the Broncos stout defense, the running game is enough to chew up the clock and score when needed, but against the Steelers it will be as tough as ever. The Steelers front 7 consists of 5 former Pro-Bowlers, with a run-stopping 3-4 scheme under D-Coordinator Dick Lebeau. If the Steelers can maintain their number one rush defense against Denver, the Broncos’ offense might never get off the ground, making for a long day in Denver.
Fantasy Watch: Tim Tebow (DEN) and Steelers Defense (PIT)
As you’ll see, the Steelers are my defense of the week, but if you can’t get them I would go with the Broncos D against a hobbled Big Ben and backup running back Isaac Redman. However, on offense the only two viable options (by virtue of touches) are Tebow and McGahee, but since the defense will be concentrating on stopping McGahee, Tebow could rack up some points on QB fakes or play action passes. Don’t expect a 30 point game, but if he can sneak in a rushing touchdown, he could be worth starting in “payroll” leagues.
The Steelers defense is facing a quarterback who has been averaging two turnovers, one opposing defensive touchdown, and under 15 points per game in the last three weeks. The only ways that Denver has scored points has been with an early running attack and late play-action success, and that running attack is missing two pivotal peices, fullback Spencer Larsen and right guard Chris Kuper. With the staunch Steel Curtain run defense, don’t expect the Broncos to accomplish much of anything, and the Steelers D to be a fantasy difference-maker in all formats.
X-Factor: Von Miller, DJ Williams, & Joe Mays (DET) and Antonio Brown (PIT)
The Broncos have been pretty good against the pass this season, featuring cornerback Champ Bailey, still a shutdown corner, and young pass-rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. Even with their defensive captain, safety Brian Dawkins, still out with an injury, this pass defense can really wreak some havoc against a limited Ben Roethlisberger. However, they have been a little suspect against the run, especially of late. This means that, with the Steelers slated to give the ball to Isaac Redman a lot, the linebacking corps consisting of blossoming stars D.J. Williams, Joe Mays, and Von Miller will have to play the best game of their young careers to give the Denver defense a chance to keep it close.
On the other side, the most important player for the Steelers is the second wideout, Antonio Brown. With Champ Bailey most likely covering the elusive Mike Wallace, Brown will get an opportunity to go against less-talented, but still serviceable, veteran cornerback Andre’ Goodman. If he can put up big numbers, it will open up lanes for Isaac Redman and create matchup problems for guys like Heath Miller and Hines Ward.
Prediction: Steelers 24, Broncos 17
Even though the Broncos will keep it close throughout, the Steelers have too much talent for Denver to compete with. Tebow will play a fairly good game, but Ben Roethlisberger will tough out a nice road win in the thin air of Denver, ending the Broncos’ cinderella season and propelling Mike Tomlin to his fifth playoff win.
New York Giants (4) vs Atlanta Falcons (5)
Sunday January 8th, 1:00 PM: MetLife Stadium
Background/Storylines: Giants (9-7) and Falcons (10-6)
The Giants had an interesting season, to say the least. Tom Coughlin has watched his top young defensive player, Jason Pierre-Paul, evolve into one of the best defensive players. Period. However, not much else has gone right for the New York defense, as injuries and struggling veterans have forced the Giants to play a more conservative style of defense. On the contrary, the offense has exploded led by Pro-Bowl quarterback Eli Manning. After declaring at the start of the season that he was an elite quarterback, and taking some heat for it, Eli has slowly silenced his critics by putting up unbelievable numbers, including a career-high 4933 yards. Wide receiver Victor Cruz has also had a breakout season, gaining almost 1400 yards across from another Pro-Bowl caliber wideout Hakeem Nicks. However, as good as the passing offense was (3rd), the rushing offense struggled mightily (32nd) due to a messy running back situation. A Week 17 win over rival Dallas catapulted the New York Football Giants into the playoffs, and they hope to continue the momentum from their last two wins.
The Falcons, on the contrary, started out slowly played well for nearly the rest of the season. After beginning the season 2-3, the Falcons won 5 out of their next 6 and kept on going from there, finishing at a respectable 10-6. Matt Ryan had the best statistical season of his career, throwing for career-highs in yards (4177) and touchdowns (29). In addition, running back Michael Turner was third in the league in rushing, with 1340 yards, and Roddy White finished second in the NFL with 100 catches even after a terrible start to the beginning. Along with rookie receiver Julio Jones and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, this offense has a surplus of weapons to be utilized. On the defensive side of the ball, nobody made fantastic individual news, but the collective unit was strong against the run but below-average against the pass. However, the combination of quarterback Matt Ryan and coach Mike Smith is 0-2 in the playoffs, so they will need to buck a trend to win this game.
Key Matchup: Falcons O-Line vs Giants D-Line
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Matt Ryan has 12 touchdowns and 0 interceptions against a rush of four or fewer, which he can expect a Giants team that doesn’t blitz a lot. This can be attributed to their lack of secondary success, which means more defensive backs, and the success of their defensive line, featuring stars such as the aforementioned Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora. If the Falcons offensive line, which has been extremely good, given up 26 sacks this season, good for sixth best in the entire league. With as many weapons as the Falcons do, the Giants don’t have the luxury of blitzing, so winning the battle at the line of scrimmage will be extremely important to winning this game.
Fantasy Watch: Roddy White (ATL) and Hakeem Nicks (CIN)
Roddy White only had one 100+ yard performance in his first nine games, but since then he has put up four to go along with five touchdowns. Going against a Giants secondary that doesn’t feature a top corner, he could put up big numbers due to his tremendous talent. The only ways that White wouldn’t be a top fantasy choice would be if Matt Ryan looked to Gonzo or Julio Jones often, or if the pressure put on Matty Ice is just too much for him to handle.
On the flip-side, Hakeem Nicks has slowly been upstaged this season by upstart wideout Victor Cruz, who has put up ridiculous numbers and taking over the number one role away from Nicks. Even though Hakeem’s stats are overall better than last year, when he took over the number one role from Steve Smith, he has not been as explosive as Cruz and has flew under the radar. However, the man still had over 1100 yards receiving and is one of the biggest red zone threats in the game. If Victor Cruz manages to get the “in”opportunity of facing former Pro Bowl cornerback Dunta Robinson, Nicks will be free to go against Atlanta’s weaker corners.
X-Factor: Michael Turner (ATL) and Eli Manning (NYG)
Michael Turner had an excellent season this year, rushing for over 1300 yards and 11 touchdowns. Over is tenure in Atlanta, he has had 3 season of over 1300 yards and has become one of the best at his position. However, in the two playoff losses the Ryan-Turner-White Falcons have suffered, Michael has been held to only 81 yards on 28 carries combined. Against a tenacious pass-rush, early success in the run game could help to neutralize some of what Pierre-Paul and Tuck will bring, and make it easier for Matt Ryan to air it out at near the end. A balanced offense is what has allowed Atlanta to be so successful, and that should be a main focus once again against New York.
I know it is a little redundant to pick a quarterback as an X-Factor, but in this case Eli Manning truly is the X-Factor, even though he is the star as well. After posting career highs in almost every category this season, Eli looks to expound on his previous successes in the playoffs (including a Super Bowl ring), and certainly looks like he has the capability and the weapons around him. However, Eli used to be known for coming up small late in big games, but this year it has not been the case. A consistent Eli Manning will be huge for the Giants, and the difference between a loss and win.
Prediction: Falcons 24, Giants 21
This game will be the closest of all the others, just because these two teams are evenly matched for the most part. The edge goes to Atlanta however, because of their running game and ability to somewhat play a good game in the secondary. The Giants running attack is last in the league, and none of their defensive backs scare you much. Eli Manning will keep New York in it, but in the end Atlanta will prove to be too much.
Houston Texans (3) vs Cincinnati Bengals (6)
Saturday January 7th, 4:15 PM: Reliant Stadium
Background/Storylines: Texans (10-6) and Bengals (9-7)
Coming into the season, many experts proclaimed the Texans the favorite in the AFC South, and boy were they (we) right. The Texans couldn’t get it going early, starting 3-3, but then went on a 7-game winning streak that propelled straight to the top of the AFC. However, the loss of Matt Schaub to injury was a major setback, and since that this team hasn’t really been competitive, both because of confusion and because of rest. Running backs Arian Foster (1224 yds) and Ben Tate (942 yds) are one of the most feared running back tandems in the league. Houston had the second-best rushing offense, and to along with it had the 2nd-best defense as well. They used this style of ground & pound to win many of their games.
Unlike the Texans, Cincinnati was not hailed as a top AFC contender coming into the season. In fact, most experts picked them to be last, due to a rookie quarterback and a lack of talent at the skilled positions. However, even though their offense ranked in the middle of the pack in yardage, rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green always found a way to connect late in the fourth quarter to win games when needed. They were indeed helped by Cincinnati’s top ten defense. However, in the last six games, Cincinnati gave up nearly 130 yards per game on the ground, after ranking 1st in that category through six games, but has still been a strong defensive unit throughout.
Key Matchup: Owen Daniels/Joel Dreessen vs. Manny Lawson/Thomas Howard
The Texans are going to have some measure of success in the run game, no matter what. Even though they have a strong presence at middle linebacker in Ray Maualuga and at defensive tackle in Geno Atkins, the Texans offensive line along with fullback Lawrence Vickers will still be able to rack up yardage. This is especially true since the Bengals have struggled against good running teams of late. However, stopping T.J. Yates and this struggling pass offense could really help the cause. All season, the tight ends of Houston have been the go-to targets in the passing game, combining for nearly 1200 yards. However, Cincinnati has been extremely good against the tight end this season, only allowing 48 yards per game. If Lawson and Howard can shut down Daniels and Dreessen, there will be less pressure on the Bengals’ run defense.
Fantasy Watch: Ben Tate (HOU) and Jermaine Gresham (CIN)
With Arian Foster still a must-start every time he goes out on the field, he is not one person to have to look out for in this game. However, if your playoff league is deep, or you have to pay a certain amount of money per player, then Ben Tate could be a cheap 10-15 points. With Houston pounding the ball often, perhaps 40 times in this one, Tate could see anywhere from 10-15 carries. That is a lot for a guy averaging over five yards per carry, and could really help your team out. Andre Johnson, who’s value has dipped consistently over this whole season, is also poised to have a decent game against Cincinnati corner Nate Clements.
Since the Texans defense will be keying in on workhorse Cedric Benson, and explosive wide receivers A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson, look for Jermaine Gresham to have a very good game. While the Texans are known for their great linebacking corps, most of that fame comes from the inside linebackers, Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans. If Gresham gets matched up on one of the Houston’s other linebackers, Andy Dalton could be feeding him all day, resulting in a boatload of fantasy points.
X-Factor: T.J. Yates (DAL) and Kyle Cook (CIN)
Again, making a quarterback in the X-Factor is normally frowned upon, but in this case he is not the best player on the team, but the most capable of making them lose. If Yates falters, which he could considering that it is his first playoff game, the Texans offense could become mayhem and lose all rhythm. However, if he can channel his inner Alex Smith, Yates can turn into a serviceable game manager who throws good passes when necessary. The Texans don’t need 350 yards from Yates, but they don’t want 3 turnovers either.
Kyle Cook, the center, has been extremely important to the success of the Bengals this season. And he will be even more important against a Houston team that loves to run stunts and bring exotic blitz packages with linebacker Brian Cushing. Cook will need to call-out matchups and set up the Bengals overachieving offensive line at the line of scrimmage, and then block Shaun Cody, a very good run-stopper. If Cook can play the best game of his life, the Bengals might be able to run the ball sort of effectively and also keep pressure away from Andy Dalton. Those two things would probably win them a game.
Prediction: Texans 23, Bengals 21
Both teams, having experienced long playoff [win] droughts, will come out with a lot of adrenaline. It will be a little feisty and sloppy at first, but when it settles the game will be extremely close throughout. However, I think Houston’s ability to keep A.J. Green off the field will be key, and they will just hold off Andy Dalton for their first win in franchise history.
New Orleans Saints (3) vs Detroit Lions (6)
Saturday January 7th, 8:00 PM: Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Background/Storylines: Saints (13-3) and Lions (10-6)
The New Orleans Saints has become synonymous with “explosive” over the last several years, and this season was no different. They set a multitude of offensive records, including total yardage, passing yardage, and first downs in a season. In addition, Drew Brees set the QB yardage record, Jimmy Graham set the TE yardage record (only to have it broken minutes later), and Darren Sproles set the all-purpose yardage record. The Saints offense, which was ranked first in total yardage, scored a league-high 34 points a game as well. Pro-Bowl quarterback and MVP candidate, Drew Brees, has so many weapons that each guy individually doesn’t rack up the stats he would on another team: Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, the list is just too long.
The Detroit Lions, unlike the Saints, have not been synonymous with anything but “losing” over the last five or six years. However, the arrival of Jim Schwartz seems to have revitalized this franchise, and turned a laughingstock into a 10-6 playoff contender. Quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson were the most feared quarterback-to-wideout combination in the league, and will be forces for years to come. Turmoil at the running back position didn’t help either, but the emergence of Kevin Smith as a decent option has really helped. However, a 22nd ranked defense is an area of concern just as it is for the Saints. They have given up such performances has 470 yards and 6 touchdowns to Matt Flynn, and 342 yards and 3 touchdowns to these same Saints.
Key Matchup: Matthew Stafford/Nate Burleson vs. Jabari Greer
With Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams most likely putting Tracy Porter and Roman Harper on MegaTron, Stafford will need to find a way to find other targets. These include Burleson, Titus Young, and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Stafford will need to look more often for these guys instead of searching the field for Calvin Johnson, and if he can do so in an efficient manner, the Saints defense might not be able to keep the Lions off the field.
Fantasy Watch: Marques Colston (NO) and Brandon Pettigrew (DET)
One star wide receiver who has gone under the radar this season has been Marques Colston. Not only has he been disregarded because of such performances by his peers, including Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker, and Steve Smith, but because of how many other weapons the Saints have at their disposal. However, even with tight end Jimmy Graham gaining 1300 yards, Colston managed to haul in 80 balls for nearly 1200 yards himself. He had a good fantasy season, and could be a low-price stud against a suspect secondary.
The aforementioned Brandon Pettigrew could be a huge part of Jim Schwartz’s game-plan, knowing that the Saints will be bent on stopping the best wide receiver in the league, Calvin Johnson. If Brandon Pettigrew can find seams in the wide open Saints secondary, he could put up better numbers than his counterpart, Jimmy Graham, and cost even less. He is a high-risk, high-reward option but could carry a team farther in any playoff pool.
X-Factor: Darren Sproles (NO) and Ndamukong Suh (DET)
Darren Sproles is the most versatile player, and the most explosive, in the entire NFL. After breaking Derrick Mason’s record for most all-purpose yards in a season, he has finally proved to his doubters that he is the real triple threat (receiving, returning, rushing). He is the heart and soul of the Saints offense, if only because he is a matchup nightmare and takes the focus away from other playmakers on the field. If he continues to perform, the Saints could runaway with this game.
On the flip-side, Ndamukong Suh will be the Lions X-Factor for the second week in a row. The last time these two teams played, Suh was still serving his suspension, and the Saints cut through the Lions offense like butter. If he can be a difference-maker, and shut down the three-headed running attack of New Orleans (Ingram, Thomas, Sproles), then the Lions defense could have a shot at slowing down Drew Brees. However, if he cannot, the Lions might not even break a sweat before they are out of the game.
Prediction: Saints 38, Lions 28
In a regular season game, I believe this game could be much more of a shootout, but in the playoffs defenses usually buckle-down to a degree. However, I don’t think Matt Stafford will be able to keep up with Drew Brees, and the Saints’ home-field advantage will prove to be important as they win yet another playoff game under the tandem of Drew Brees and Sean Payton.
Manav Khandelwal is the head NFL analyst of Khandyman Sports, and writes his featured NFL column, Xs and Os, every Saturday.