The 2011-2012 NFL playoffs are only a day away. The games kick off late tomorrow afternoon when the Cincinnati Bengals head to Houston to face the Texans in their first ever playoff contest. Later that night, Detroit makes their debut to the 21st century version of the NFL playoffs to face the red-hot New Orleans Saints. That games a must watch for fans of offense, and the passing game in particular. Sunday kicks off with a 1 p.m. game featuring the New York Giants, fresh off two big wins against rival opponents, hosting Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons. The late afternoon game features the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers visiting the Denver Broncos.
Saturday 4:30 Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) at Houston Texans (10-6) (NBC)
This game is a real tossup. The Texans come in reeling, battered with injuries throughout the season – notably Matt Schaub and Mario Williams. T.J. Yates (5 starts, 3 TD 3 INT, 61.2 completion percentage) has given no one confidence he lead the Texans in the playoffs, but behind the strong running game led by Arian Foster (278 rushes, 1,224 yards, 10 TD), Houston will hope to get things going offensively. Star wide out Andre Johnson was limited to seven games in the 2011 regular season, but returned in a limited role week 17 against Tennessee. Johnson could be the boost Houston is looking for. Defensively, Houston has been sound all year long – even without their star of the squad Mario Williams going down earlier this season. Behind new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Houston defense has risen to fourth in the NFL in points allowed per game (17.4). Last year, the Texans finished a putrid 29th, as they allowed 26.7 points per game.
Cincinnati has also surprised many this year with their playoff appearance. Even with a week 17 loss to Baltimore, the Bengals snuck in as the sixth and final seed in the AFC playoff. Cincinnati has been boosted by the play of rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, who threw for 3,398 yards and 20 touchdowns. On the receiving end of Dalton’s passes has been freakish athletes A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham. Green caught 65 passes for 1,057 yards for 7 touchdowns while Gresham chipped in with 56 receptions and six scores. Running back Cedric Benson was also a vocal point of the offense, rushing for over 1,000 yards. The real issue for the Bengals is, going into tomorrow’s contest – Cincinnati will go in with a 0-7 record against playoff teams.
Prediction: I almost flipped a coin to choose this one, but in the end I just can’t trust head coach Marvin Lewis to win a playoff game for Cincinnati. Congratulations Houston, you’ve earned a date with the Baltimore Ravens. Houston over Cincinnati 20-10.
Saturday 8:00 p.m. Detroit Lions (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3) (NBC)
This game will feature two of the best offenses in the NFL. The Saints are led by star quarterback Drew Brees, who eclipsed Dan Marino’s previous record for most yards thrown in a season. Brees finished the regular season with 5,476 yards for 46 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 71.2. The guy on the opposite sideline isn’t too bad himself, Matthew Stafford. Stafford also joined the 5,000 yard club, joining Marino, Brees and Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady – throwing for 5,038 yards. Stafford also threw a remarkable 41 touchdowns on the season. Each side has an explosive playmaker to assist these two stars as well. For the Saints, tight end Jimmy Graham has become a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Graham caught 99 passes for 1310 yards and 11 touchdowns, and quickly became Brees’ favorite target in the 2011 campaign. The Lions counter with wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who averaged 17.5 yards a catch on his way for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns. If you’re looking for defense, you best wait until Sunday because these teams aren’t stopping anyone.
Prediction: Hard to go against Brees and the Saints here. Out of all the playoff teams out there, they might be the one’s riding the most momentum coming into the postseason. Detroit will put up a fight, but the Saints march on. New Orleans over Detroit 48-35.
Sunday 1 p.m. Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at New York Giants (9-7) (FOX)
This game should be intriguing, and the matchup to watch will be Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan versus the tenacious pass rush of the New York Giants. Ryan threw for 29 touchdowns and 4,177 yards in the regular season. The Giants’ defense finished tied for third in sacks during the 2011 regular season, getting to the quarterback 48 times. Offensively, the Giants have created headlines thanks to the play of UMass product Victor Cruz. Cruz has been on the receiving end of 82 passes, 9 touchdowns and accumulated 1,536 yards. New York quarterback Eli Manning had a great season, tossing for 4,933 yards, 29 touchdowns and led the G-Men to a league high six fourth quarter comebacks this season.
Prediction: The Giants are my sleeper team in the playoffs. Behind the play of Manning and the pass rushing defense, the Giants have the tools to beat anyone in the playoffs if they come out and play their best game. They should get by a solid Atlanta squad before a likely rematch between the Green Bay Packers awaits. New York over Atlanta 26-17.
Sunday 4:30 p.m. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) at Denver Broncos (8-8) (CBS)
When I talked about the Lions-Saints matchup it was all about offense. Well this is certainly the opposite of that, as this one will come down to which defense can step up and play better. The Steelers are the clear favorites thanks to the fact they’ve made a habit out of winning and are extremely well-coached, not to mention their quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has traditionally been money in the playoffs. The Steelers come into the game limping – Roethlisberger’s been battling an ankle injury, starting running back Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL last week at Cleveland and safety Ryan Clark is out Sunday because a blood disorder affects his ability to play outdoors in the high altitude of Denver. While the Steelers are physically limping, their counterparts are mentally beat up after ending the season with three straight losses to finish 8-8. Denver quarterback Tim Tebow has gotten much of the headlines for the Broncos – both for his late game heroics and failures late in the year, but don’t look for him to do much damage at all against the vaunted Steelers’ defense.
Prediction: Simply too many holes on Denver to pick them to beat a team when healthy could be the clear-cut favorite to win the AFC. The Steelers may be banged up, but no way the Tebow train gets by the Steel Curtain. With a victory Sunday, the Steelers will head to a big-time rival’s stadium to try and upend either the top-seeded New England Patriots or division rival, the Baltimore Ravens. Steelers win 14-6.
Statistics courtesy of nfl.com
Photos courtesy of houstontexans.com, neworleanssaints.com, giants.com and denverbroncos.com