This week in: American Football – Wildcard Weekend

The final weekend of the season determined the last three playoff spots in the NFL and wrapped up all of the various seeding and draft issues that were still in play. The highly touted win-or-go-home matchup between the Giants and the Cowboys ended up being virtually over by half-time, as New York raced out to a 21 point lead that held up, securing the NFC East title for Tom Coughlin’s men.  Dallas will now have plenty of time in the offseason to rue their home loss to the Giants – when they had led by 12 points with only six minutes left – and they ended up slumping to third in the division behind the Eagles having lost all four of their games against Philadelphia and New York.

Denver lost to the Chiefs, led by former Broncos QB Kyle Orton, but topped the AFC West on a tiebreaker, as they finished the year tied with both Oakland and San Diego on 8-8.  Cincinnati were defeated by Baltimore – the win clinching the division and a first round bye for the Ravens – but continue on thanks to losses for all the other Wild Card hopefuls except for the Titans, who missed out on a tiebreaker as they were beaten by the Bengals in Week 9.  Indianapolis did what they needed to do, namely lose in Jacksonville, to ensure they have the rights to the first pick in April’s draft.  New England rallied from a 21-0 deficit to the Bills to win 49-21 and clinch home-field advantage in the AFC, while the Steelers had to make do with a Wild Card as their win in Cleveland was rendered moot by the Ravens own victory further south in Ohio, the aforementioned game in Cincinnati.

The Packers, who had already clinched the top seed in the NFC, benched QB Aaron Rodgers to ensure he was healthy for the playoffs, but his replacement, Matt Flynn, showed his own worth by throwing for 480 yards and 6 touchdowns, in a 45-41 shootout win over the Lions.  That loss

New single season passing yards record holder - Drew Brees

meant Detroit would be the sixth seed even if Atlanta lost at home against Tampa Bay – which did not happen anyway as the Falcons put up 45 points of their own to enter the playoffs on a high. In New Orleans, Drew Brees added another 389 passing yards to his own record, having broken Dan Marino’s long-standing mark the week before, and added five touchdowns for good measure.  It is now a genuine debate as to who should win the MVP between Brees and Aaron Rodgers – though both men would prefer to win the Superbowl in February rather than be concerned about any personal accolades.

Predictions review

Before I go into the Playoff matchups – a quick review of my pre-season and weekly predictions:

Against the spread weekly picks – 134-122 (but 10-22 in the last 2 weeks)

Pre-season picks:

(Correct picks in bold)

NFC North – Packers                                                    AFC North – Ravens

NFC South – Saints                                                       AFC South – Titans Texans

NFC East – Cowboys Giants                                       AFC East – Patriots

NFC West – Cardinals 49ers                                      AFC West – Chargers Broncos

Wild Cards – Eagles, Falcons, Lions                      Wild Cards – Colts, Steelers, Bengals

So 6 right, 6 wrong – on the plus side – my Superbowl pick is still alive:

Packers over Patriots

Wildcard Weekend

Saturday 4:30pm – Bengals @ Texans

When these two teams met in Cincinnati in Week 14, Houston’s third-string quarterback T.J. Yates led a fourth quarter comeback to claim a victory that secured the Texans first playoff place in their franchise’s history.  Following that win, Houston lost their final three games of the season, but were still able to claim the third seed in the AFC.  Yates, who has been starting in place of the injured Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, missed much of last week’s defeat to the Titans, but should be available for this Saturday.  Cincinnati got a Wild Card despite having the misfortune of being in the AFC North with the powerhouses of the Steelers and Ravens, but their overall schedule was not the hardest.  Of their nine wins this season, the only team the Bengals beat who ended up with a winning record was Tennessee.  Rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, had a great first year and is a candidate for Rookie of the Year (though it will probably go to Carolina’s Cam Newton) – but the team around him is unconvincing.  With the Texans strong running game, and assuming Yates is able to play – I think the Texans will be heading to Baltimore for the Divisional round.

Prediction – Texans -3 over Bengals

Saturday 8:00pm – Lions @ Saints

New Orleans spent the season becoming the new “Greatest Show on Turf” with Drew Brees breaking the passing yards record and racking up huge numbers of points.  Not only did they win their last nine games, they also covered the spread in each of those fixtures.  However, the Saints should always come with a warning – last year’s unexpected playoff loss in Seattle shows that if they do not play to their potential, they have the ability to lose games they should win.  This season it happened also – other than the Week 1 defeat to the Packers, the games that New Orleans lost were: in St. Louis, which gave the Rams their first win of the year; and in Tampa Bay, the last fixture that the Buccaneers won before a ten-game losing streak.  Detroit went to the Superdome in Week 13 and were within a touchdown of the Saints heading into the fourth quarter, but ultimately fell to a 31-17 defeat.  The Lions quarterback, Matthew Stafford, threw for over 5,000 yards this season, becoming just the fourth man in NFL history to do that (Brees twice, Tom Brady, Dan Marino) and, in wide receiver Calvin Johnson, they have a significant deep threat.  The game is likely to be a shootout, with neither team having strong defenses and both having explosive offenses – and given what Matt Flynn did to Detroit last week, Drew Brees could have a field day.  I think New Orleans will find it much more difficult to win on the road in San Francisco and (potentially) Green Bay – where the games will be outside and possibly cold weather – but indoors at home, they are almost unbeatable at the moment.

Prediction: Saints -10.5 over Lions

Sunday 1:00pm – Falcons @ Giants

Although the Giants went 3-5 in the second half of the year, their performances in four of the final five weeks were impressive and suggest they could find the same momentum they got in the 2007 season which they rode all the way to the Superbowl.  Eli Manning’s performance against the Cowboys last week showed that on his day he is still able to lead his team to victory and in Victor Cruz, he has a receiver with the foot speed to blow open a defence.  The Falcons had a very consistent season, there was no great standout performance but they took care of business against lesser teams, and ended up as a Wild Card behind the Saints in the South.  They have a very balanced lineup and, on offense, they have strong personnel at: quarterback (Matt Ryan); running back (Michael Turner); and wide receiver (Roddy White and Julio Jones).  New York, under Tom Coughlin, have always been at their worst when they are playing teams they are expected to beat – home losses to the Seahawks and Redskins this year provides further evidence of that.  Should they get through this game and then could go to Green Bay on a cold and snowy day when the rushing tandem of Bradshaw and Jacobs could cause the Packers ropey defense many problems.  Because of that reason, I’ll be hoping for Atlanta to win – and thus, I’m picking them to do just that.

Prediction: Falcons +3 over Giants

Sunday 4:30pm – Steelers @ Broncos

Because they are a Wild Card, Pittsburgh (12-4) must travel to Denver (8-8) for their first playoff game, but the Steelers will be confident against a Broncos team who have lost their last three games. Tim Tebow had an incredible run of success after he was made Denver’s starting quarterback in Week 7, going 7-1 in his first eight games before the drop off in the final three.  Pittsburgh will be without their main rushing threat, Rashard Mendenhall, for the duration of the playoffs and their QB, Ben Roethlisberger is still limited in his movement due to a high ankle sprain.  The Steelers will also be without their safety, Ryan Clark, as this game is being played at altitude in Denver – Clark suffers from sickle-cell trait and the last time he played there, in 2007, ended up having to have his spleen and gallbladder removed.  With two key players out, their starting quarterback injured, and playing this game on the road, Pittsburgh should be considered underdogs – but Denver have been so bad of late that nobody believes in them.  That is always a huge motivation for a team to prove people wrong and I can see them keeping it close and Tebow taking over again late in the fourth quarter as the Steelers defense is tiring.  I am definitely picking them to cover the huge spread, but I also think the Broncos will win this game outright.

Prediction: Broncos +9 over Steelers

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