Sunday, January 8, 2012
NFL - WILD CARD Round Playoffs Preview
The Pittsburgh Steelers face the surprising Denver Broncos in the AFC Wild Card game later this afternoon in what is being anticipated as a Steelers blowout in the Mile High City.
The following offers a breakdown of the two games with predictions ...
NFC Wild Card Playoff
Game - Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at New York Giants (9-7)
Breakdown: Both of these teams had up and down seasons, so anything is possible here.
The Falcons started slowly, then got it rolling before finishing in second place in the NFC South division while the Giants rode a roller coaster after a 6-2 start.
After the quick start, New York lost four in a row before winning three of the final four games, including two huge wins against Dallas, to win the NFC East division.
One can expect the Falcons to roll over the Giants in the Meadowlands Stadium (like the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins did) OR for the Giants to blow out the Falcons, which happened to Atlanta on occasion in road games this past season.
Both of the teams quarterbacks had decent seasons as Matt Ryan threw for 4,177 yards and 29 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. Eli Manning passed for 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns as well with 16 interceptions.
The difference could be in the running game as Atlanta's Michael Turner (1,340 yards rushing with 11 touchdowns) outplayed Ahmad Bradshaw (699 rush yards, nine TD) and Brandon Jacobs (571, seven TD) during the regular season.
The wide receiving corps are pretty equal between the two teams.
New York has Victor Cruz, who had a monster season with 82 catches for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns, including a record setting 99-yard TD catch. Hakeem Nicks made 76 catches for 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns.
Atlanta's Julio Jones had a big rookie year with 54 grabs for 959 yards and eight touchdowns while Roddy White made 100 catches for 1,296 yards and eight scores. The X factor could be Falcons Tight End Tony Gonzalez, who made 80 catches for 875 yards with seven touchdowns.
Will the Giants defense have an answer to slow down the veteran tight end?
The Giants MUST stop the run, as they allowed 121 yards per game this year, but if Turner is allowed to get big chunks of yardage against them, it could be a long afternoon for the Giants.
The defense also allowed 255 yards passing per game, so they have to pressure Ryan because if he gets time to pick apart the secondary, that will only add to their woes. The Giants had 48 QB sacks this year.
Meanwhile, Atlanta showed they are tough to run against, allowing just 97 yards per game while the passing defense allowed 237 yards per game. Pressuring Manning will be key for the Falcons defense, as their secondary can cover opposing receivers. The Falcons had 19 interceptions during the regular season.
Prediction: Atlanta 24, New York 20
AFC Wild Card Playoff Game - Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) at Denver Broncos (8-8)
Breakdown: No contest here, right?
Well, maybe... but they still have to play this game in Denver, where the Broncos play tough defense.
Pittsburgh has the big edge at quarterback with Ben Roehtlisberger, but he has been injured the past month with a high ankle sprain and that limits his mobility.
Roethlisberger (4,077 yards passing with 21 TD and 14 INT) can shred the Denver secondary if he has the time to do so. Denver's defense sacked opposing quarterbacks 41 times during the regular season so it is vital they get to the hobbled 'Big Ben' in the game.
The main targets for Roethlisberger are Mike Wallace (71 catches, 1,193 yards and eight TD) and Antonio Brown, who made 69 catches for 1,108 yards. Tight End Heath Miller is the safety valve Big Ben looks to on a regular basis along with cagey veteran Hines Ward, who may be a factor in this one as well.
The Steelers will rely on Isaac Redman (479 yards, 4.4 ypc average, four TD) to run the football with Rashard Mendenhall out for the year with a knee injury.
Denver has Tim Tebow at QB and he has been in a huge funk the last three games, even though the team made the playoffs.
Tebow completed only 47 percent of his passes this season after taking over as the starting QB back in mid-October.
The running game is the key factor for the Broncos if they are to win this game. Denver led the league is yards rushing per game during the regular season, averaging 165 yards per game.
Tebow ran for 660 yards (5.4 ypc average) and six touchdowns while Willis McGahee gained 1,199 yards (4.8 per carry) and scored four times.
But the Pittsburgh defense allows just 100 yards per game on the ground, so something has to give in this area.
When Denver does throw the ball, Tebow looks to Eric Decker (44 catches for 612 yards and eight TD) and Demaryius Thomas, who had 32 grabs for 551 yards and four touchdowns.
Turnovers will also be a key factor to the game as they always are, especially in the post season.
The Broncos have been giving the ball away regularly in the three-game losing streak at the end of the season. But neither team really generates many turnovers, especially in the secondary. Pittsburgh had only 11 interceptions this season while the Broncos intercepted just nine passes.
One thing to remember is that while the Denver Broncos were winning six in a row from November to mid-December, they were catching teams (Jets, Chargers, Raiders, Bears) that were in big time slumps and in the case of the Bears, missing key players (Jay Cutler and Matt Forte') because of injuries.
The Steelers are not playing at their best heading into the post season and Roethlisberger is not 100 percent healthy going into this game, so it stands to reason the Broncos can spring the upset if they can hang around in this one and Tebow and company can find the "fourth quarter magic" once again.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 24, Denver 10