Saturday, January 7, 2012

NFL - WILD CARD Round Playoffs Preview

The 2011 NFL season is in the books and now the playoffs begin, starting today with the Cincinnati Bengals traveling to play the Houston Texans while the Detroit Lions take on the New Orleans Saints in the Big Easy in the "prime time" game tonight.
The Sunday games will feature the Atlanta Falcons going on the road to play the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Denver Broncos in the Mile High City in the final of the four weekend wild card games.

Following is a preview of the Saturday games with predictions as well  ...

AFC Wild Card Playoff Game - Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) at Houston Texans (10-6) 

Breakdown: The Bengals roll into this one as the third place team in the AFC North while the Texans lost three in a row down the stretch after wrapping up the AFC South in early December.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton
Cincinnati is a surprise team this year that features rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, who passed for 3,398 yards in the regular season along with 20 touchdown passes and only 13 interceptions. He doesn't get rattled and make the mistakes very often that can cost teams games.
The Bengals also have running back Cedric Benson, who had a typical season with 1,067 yards rushing (3.9 ypc average) and scored six touchdowns.
The main target at wide receiver includes Dalton's favorite go-to guy, A. J. Green, who had a spectacular rookie season as well, grabbing 65 passes for 1,057 yards (16.3 ypc average) and seven touchdowns. Tight End Jermaine Gresham (56 catches, six TD) and Jerome Simpson (50 catches, 14.5 ypc average and four TD) also provide the Bengals a solid passing game.
The Texans counter with a solid one-two punch in the backfield in Arian Foster (1,224 yards rushing with 10 TD) and Ben Tate, who gained 942 yards (5.4 ypc average) and scored four times on the ground.
Houston will go with T.J. Yates at quarterback provided he is healthy enough to play after suffering a shoulder injury in the final regular season game. If Yates can't answer the bell, then veteran fill in Jake Delhomme will play.
All-everything wide receiver Andre Johnson is expected to be back after suffering through a season of misery with two hamstring injuries that limited him to just 33 catches and two touchdowns. The leading receiver for Houston is Tight End Owen Daniels with 54 grabs for 677 yards and three scores.
On defense, both teams are solid as Houston was a top five team in total defense throughout the season implementing Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips 3-4 scheme.
The Bengals were also among the top ten overall on defense, limiting opponents to just 316 yards per game, giving up 104 per game rushing and 212 passing yards per game.
The Texans can get to the quarterback as they registered 44 sacks this season while allowing only 286 yards per game (96 rushing and 190 passing) and holding opponents to an average of 17 points per game. And that was without Mario Williams (out for the season on IR list), who is the team's best pass rusher.

 Fast fact: The Texans edged the Bengals in Cincinnati a month ago, 20-19 to wrap up the AFC South division. Since then, the injury bug bit them again (Yates) while the Bengals gained much needed confidence heading into the post-season by winning close games that enabled them to make it this far.

Keys to Game: The Texans must avoid long third down passing situations and keep the Bengals on their toes defensively by pounding it again and again with Foster and Tate. If they succeed in that game plan, they can win this one.
The Bengals will look to mix it up on offense and play the solid defense to keep them in it and then go for the knockout late in the game, as has been their style of play all season long. If Dalton and Green can hook up on a couple of big pass plays, that will definitely open the running game up for Benson.

Prediction:  Cincinnati 20, Houston 17

NFC Wild Card Playoff Game - Detroit Lions (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

Breakdown: The Detroit Lions are making their first playoff appearance since 1999 and playing the high scoring Saints, led by QB Drew Brees, will be no easy task.
The Saints put up 547 points (second only to Green Bay in 2011) during the regular season while the Lions scored 474 points, including 40-plus points in a game four times.
Lions QB Matthew Staafford finally had a season where he didn't miss significant time due to injuries and put up some eye-popping numbers, including 5,038 passing yards and 41 touchdown passes with just 16 interceptions.
Drew Brees had a record setting season
But Drew Brees topped all those figures as he set new NFL records with 5,476 passing yards and also had a record regular season completion percentage of 71.2 percent along with 46 TD passes and only 14 picks.
The Saints also have a running game to go with their record setting aerial attack as four running backs combined to go for 2,127 yards during the regular season.
Darren Sproles leads the way (603 yards and a 6.9 ypc average) along with Pierre Thomas (562, 5.1 ypc average), Mark Ingram (474, 3.9) and Chris Ivory (374, 4.7). In addition, Sproles also made 86 catches for 710 yards and seven touchdowns and also scored on a kick return.
Tight End Jimmy Graham provided Brees with a huge target as he hauled in 99 catches and scored 11 touchdowns. Marques Colston had 80 receptions for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns while Lance Moore had 52 grabs for 627 yards and eight scores as well.
Throw in Robert Meacham (40, 640, 6 TD) and Devery Henderson (32, 503, 2 TD) and it's easy to see that the Lions already vulnerable pass defense will be up against it in this game.
Detroit can throw the football and the Saints have been prone to get burned by the big play in the 2011 season. New Orleans allowed 260 pass yards a game, which ranked near the bottom of the league.
Stafford has perhaps the best wide receiver in the game in Calvin Johnson, who made 96 catches for a league high 1,681 yards (17.5 ypc average) and also scored 16 touchdowns.
Along with Johnson, Tight End Brandon Pettigrew  made 83 catches for 777 yards and five touchdowns while Nate Burleson (73, 757, 3 TD) and Titus Young (48, 607, 6 TD) provided depth to the wide receiving corps.
Kevin Smith (356 rush yards, 4.9 ypc average and four TD) provided a lift to the ground game when Jahvid Best went out injured early in the season.
The  Saints will blitz quite often on defense, which will get them into trouble on occasion and they only had 33 sacks despite the pressure.
Detroit is tough to run against, led by the volatile Ndamukong Suh up front, allowing 128 yards per game but making big stops on third down situations consistently in the regular season. Detroit's secondary had 21 interceptions in the 2011 season, including two taken back for scores while allowing 239 yards per game through the air.

Fast fact: The Saints beat the Lions in the Super Dome in the regular season, 31-17 when Suh was serving a suspension from the NFL. The Saints were 8-0 at home during the regular season, outscoring their opponents 329-143. That figures out to a 41-18 scoring edge at home for the Saints. Wow!

Keys to Game: The Lions must harass Brees consistently and force him to make mistakes, which no teams have been able to do regularly in 2011, evidenced by just 14 interceptions thrown by Brees and his only being sacked 24 times.
The same holds true for the New Orleans defense, because given time, Stafford will pick them apart as he looks downfield for Johnson for the big play.
If the Saints get their running game going early to compliment the passing game, forget it, they will DESTROY the Lions.
Detroit must stop the run and get to Brees and try to rattle him. If they can keep the scoring in the 20-30 point range, they have a shot at winning the game.

Prediction: New Orleans 45, Detroit 24


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