NFL Wild Card Weekend proved just how big the NFL is in America. The ratings for last weekend were huge for the NFL and showed how much we love football in this country.
Houston won its first playoff game in franchise history in their first playoff game ever as a franchise. The Texans defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 31-10 in a game that changed off an interception return for a touchdown by JJ Watt.
Even though the Bengals lost it looks like the Bengals’ future is bright. A couple of nice drafts have stocked Cincinnati with talent including a young quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver AJ Green.
The Bengals have some good pieces on defense and should build on this past season. A great storyline to watch next season is can the young Bengals continue to grow up.
Speaking of teams with a bright future, the Detroit Lions finally made the playoffs after two decades on missing out. The Lions lost a shootout to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints 45-28 but who doesn’t lose shootouts to the Saints.
Detroit has drafted well and has a very young team. If the Lions can find a running game next season, this team will only get better.
The Lions need to fill some holes in the draft or with free agency and add depth. Just like the Bengals next season, watch to see if the Lions continue to grow.
Expectations were high in Atlanta this season. The Falcons traded a ton of picks for wide receiver Julio Jones out of Alabama.
Jones was supposed to provide the Falcons a deep threat to open up their running game. Atlanta had a nice season but had to go on the road to face the New York Giants.
The Giants stopped the Falcons on a few fourth down plays and took all the momentum from Atlanta. New York would take that captured momentum and never let it go while defeating the Falcons 24-2.
Atlanta became the first playoff team in history to score exactly two point and two points only. The Falcons playoff window is not closed but this team and quarterback Matt Ryan (0-3) need to start winning playoff games.
Which game was the most watched on Wild Card Weekend? It was the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Denver Broncos.
This game was the most watched program on TV since last year’s Super Bowl. There are a couple of reasons why this game was so highly watched.
One the Steelers are a national team. The Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and the New England Patriots along with Pittsburgh are huge ratings draws nationally.
The second reason is that Denver quarterback Tim Tebow is the most polarizing figure in the NFL. People want to watch to see if the Broncos win or lose.
It is a referendum on Tebow if he wins or loses. If Tebow wins he can be an NFL quarterback and if he loses it prove he can’t be an NFL quarterback.
The Steelers stuffed the run and forced the Broncos to throw the ball. Tebow would win the game with his arm or Denver would not win.
Even after Pittsburgh forced overtime, they stuck to their plan and it burned them once again as Tebow threw an 80 yard touchdown pass to win the game 29-23.
There is a question how long the playoff window for the Steelers stays open. The defense is getting older and needs to be retooled. How much many more years can Ben Roethlisberger take a pounding and stay an elite quarterback and the offensive line still needs work.
Wild Card Weekend now leads us to the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. Three of the four matchups are rematches of regular season games.
Houston played Baltimore in week six of the regular season. The Ravens defeated the Texans 29-14 at home.
The New York Giants hosted the Green Bay Packers in week 13 of the season. Green Bay defeated New York on a last second field goal for a 38-35 win.
Finally in week 15, New England traveled to Denver and defeated the Broncos 41-23. The score might look lopsided but it was a closer game than score indicates.
To be fair the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints played in the preseason. There is no way to consider a preseason game any indication of a real game but the Saints did win that preseason matchup.
In the divisional playoffs, since format changed in 1990, at least one road team has won. In five of the last six years two road teams have won.
There is a simple blueprint for Saints, Giants, and Broncos to win this weekend. One common theme is shared between the 49ers, Patriots and Packers.
Here is a look at the playoff games this weekend (excluding the Saints/49ers) in order of which his more highly anticipated.
Houston Texans @ Baltimore Ravens (12p.m. CBS, Sunday Jan. 15)
These two teams are nearly mirror images of each other. The Texans are the second ranked overall defense and the Ravens are the third overall defense.
Houston is ranked third against the pass giving up 190 yards per game with 44 sacks and 17 interceptions. Baltimore is ranked fourth in pass defense only allowing 196 yards a game with 15 interceptions and 48 sacks.
The Ravens are second against the run in the NFL giving up just 92.6 rush yards per game. Texans are not terrible facing other teams rush attacks being ranked fourth and only allowing 96 yards on the ground.
Even on offense these two teams are similar as well. Both the Ravens and the Texans like to run the ball.
Houston is the second ranked rushing team in the NFL averaging 153 yards on the ground. Baltimore is ranked tenth in rushing putting up 124.8 rushing yards per game.
At time the Ravens go way from the running game and seem to forget about running back Ray Rice. Houston will need their backs to put up numbers to help rookie quarterback TJ Yates.
Both teams are ranked very close in the passing game. Houston is averaging 219 yards for 18th in the NFL and Baltimore is ranked 19th with 214 passing yards per game.
In the first meeting the Texans had quarterback Matt Schaub but not wide receiver Andre Johnson. Schaub is not hurt and out for the season but Johnson is back and major weapon.
The Texans failed to reach 100 yards rushing in the first meeting with just 93 yards as a team. Arian Foster led the way with 49 yards on 15 carries and Ben Tate added 41 yards on nine carries.
Baltimore rushed for 113 yards as a team with Rice leading the way with 101 yards on 23 carries. Running the ball opened up the passing game.
Joe Falcco threw for 305 yards on 20 completions out of 33 attempts. Falcco was also sacked twice and hit eight other times.
The Ravens balance helped sustain drives and were only forced to punt twice in the game. Houston on the other hand punted six times.
Strange stat of the game was that the Texans won the turnover battle but lost the game. Houston didn’t commit a turnover and got two turnovers (interception, fumble) from Baltimore.
Baltimore had to settle for field goals which kept the game close but kicker Billy Cundiff was a perfect five for five on field goal attempts. Texans kicker Neil Rackers never attempted a field goal.
Statistics in the first game were nearly even. Since was Baltimore able to keep drives alive they had six more first downs and 109 more total yards.
Health for both teams is as good as it gets this deep in the season.
Houston injury watch is wide receiver Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels. Both should play.
Baltimore is very healthy with the week off. The Ravens only big injury is to wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
The Ravens were plus two in giveaway/takeaway. Baltimore had 26 takeaways (15 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries) and 24 turnovers (12 interceptions, 12 fumbles lost).
Houston was plus seven in the turnover margin. The Texans had 27 takeaways (17 interceptions, 10 fumble recoveries) and 20 giveaways (9 interceptions, 11 fumbles lost).
Both these teams wanted to take the next step this season. Houston wanted to make the playoffs and Baltimore wanted to take the next step as an elite team.
Houston took that step. Anything else from here is just gravy for the Texans. Baltimore won their division, got a home game, and a first round bye.
A Ravens loss in this game means they have not taken that next step. Everything Baltimore did this is predicated on winning this game and playing for the AFC Championship.
The future looks bright for the Texans and win or lose they should be in the playoff mix next season. Houston looks even better with all the injuries they had this season. Those players should be back and ready to go next year.
Baltimore has an aging defense much like the Steelers. The window for this team is closing because the defense will need to be retooled.
Joe Flacco can use this post season to prove he belongs in elite status (much like Matt Ryan, I don’t have him as elite). Boldin and deep threat Torrey Smith will need to come up big.
This game should come down to which team can run the ball the best. Baltimore needs to run the ball well to set up their passing game. Houston needs to run the ball effectively to take pressure off rookie quarterback TJ Yates.
Ray Rice will carry the load on the ground for the Ravens and Baltimore can’t forget about him to become a pass first team. Rice needs to get 20 to 30 touches with the majority coming as rush attempts.
Arian Foster and Ben Tate need to rush the ball for yardage to help Houston win. Both backs take pressure off Yates and opens up the Texans passing game for him. Texans must also get turnovers and score points off of those turnovers.
Baltimore had a week off and should be healthy. Questions of how far Houston can go with a rookie quarterback are warranted.
The Ravens were a perfect 8-0 at home. Baltimore’s defense feeds off that home crowd and will disguise looks to confuse Yates. Ravens will also pressure Yates with blitzes to get hits on him.
New York Giants @ Green Bay Packers (3:30p.m. Fox, Sunday Jan. 15)
Many believe that the New York Giants are starting to repeat their run from the 2007 season. That run to Super Bowl XLII featured a close loss against the New England Patriots in the regular season.
The Giants, as everyone knows, went on a playoff run in which they beat the Packers in Green Bay and beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. New York is facing a similar situation in this game as that magical season.
In the regular season the Packers defeated 38-35 the Giants on a 31 yard Mason Crosby field goal as time expired. New York made a furious comeback and tied the game at 35-35 with less than a minute left.
The Giants left too much time on the clock for Aaron Rodgers, who drove the Packers down the field to set up the game winning kick. Much like that New England game in 2007, this loss proved New York could stand toe to toe with Green Bay.
That first meeting was an offensive shootout with both teams combining for 896 yards. Green Bay had 449 yards in total offense and New York added 447 yards of offense.
Both teams defense should be on pressed again to make stops.
New York is ranked 27th in total defense in the NFL and Green Bay is ranked 32nd or dead last. The Giants are allowing 376.4 yards per game and the Packers are allowing 411.6 yards.
Green Bay is decent against the run allowing just 111.8 yards and is ranked 14th in rush defense. Ranked 19th against the rush, the Giants are not terrible against the run allowing 121.3 yards per game.
Passing is where both teams give up big yards on defense. New York is ranked 29th in pass defense allowing 255 yards a game and Green Bay is ranked 32nd (last) by allowing 300 passing yards per contest.
Both teams rank in the top ten of total offense. Green Bay is ranked third with 405.1 yards a game and New York is ranked eighth with 385.1 yards per game.
Neither team is great at running the ball. The Packers are ranked 27th while averaging 97.4 yard and New York is 32nd (last) struggling to 89.2 yards.
To be fair, in the Giants first playoff game against the Falcons, New York rushed for 172 yards as a team. Leading the way was Brandon Jacobs with 92 yards on 14 carries and Ahmad Bradshaw with 63 yards on 14 carries.
Finally the Giants running backs did not look timid running the ball. Both Jacobs and Bradshaw ran the ball hard and rushed for key first downs on short yardage.
New York also out rushed the Packers in their first meeting gaining 100 yards to 89 yards.
Passing is a big part of both teams offense. In the first meeting the Giants passed for 347 yards while being outgained by the Packers 360 passing yards.
Green Bay is ranked third in passing offense with 308 yards a contest and New York is ranked fifth with 296 yards per game. Rodgers joined the elite passing quarterbacks on his playoff run last season and Eli Manning has forced himself on the list after his performance this season.
The Packers have been winning with great offense but terrible defense. The key question is how Green Bay winning by just outscoring opponents.
There is a very simple answer. Green Bay is second in the NFL is turnover margin.
The Packers have a plus 24 in takeaways and have 38 takeaways (31 interceptions, 7 fumble recoveries) with just 14 giveaways (8 interceptions, 5 fumbles lost). Perfect example is the first meeting between these teams.
In that first matchup, Green Bay forced two turnovers with an interception and fumble recovery. That Manning interception was returned by Packers linebacker Clay Mathews for a touchdown.
New York forced a turnover themselves, which was an interception. The Giants were plus seven in turnover margin for the season. New York had 31 takeaways (21 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries) and 24 giveaways (16 interceptions, 8 fumbles lost).
There were four games this season in which the Packers didn’t win the turnover battle but tied other team. In three of those four games, Green Bay forced at least one turnover.
In the Packers lone loss, against Kansas City, Green Bay didn’t commit a turnover but did not force a turnover. That was the only game of the season that the Packers did not force a turnover.
Green Bay also faces a major distraction this week. Earlier in the week, Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin lost his son Michael to drowning.
There is no telling how this will affect the Green Bay offense in this playoff game. Players will be facing the Giants with heavy hearts and play a game with someone close to them facing a great personal loss.
While not the same thing, look at the New Orleans offense after head coach Sean Payton broke his leg. The Saints offense took forever to get going at times with Payton dealing with the broken leg.
Green Bay is facing an even bigger challenge and has to separate real life from a game. Head coach Mike McCarthy does a lot of the play calling but he will not have Philbin to help make adjustments.
The Packers have had to reconstruct their offensive line because of injuries. Green Bay has a few players recovering from injuries. Wide receivers Greg Jennings (knee) and Randall Cobb (groin), running back James Stark (ankle) all should play but are banged up.
Injuries on defense are piling up for New York. Giants defensive players banged up are defensive end Osi Umenyiora (knee/ankle) and cornerback Aaron Ross (concussion), with running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) joining them.
There are several ways the Giants can pull off the upset. First the Giants need to run the ball like they did against the Falcons.
Jacobs and Bradshaw must run hard and keep Rodgers and the Packers offense on the sidelines. New York needs a huge rushing advantage over Green Bay in this game.
Secondly the Giants need to turn their offensive possessions into touchdowns and not field goals. Green Bay finds ways to get into the end zone. New York can’t settle for three points on too many trips offensively.
New York must also use the front seven of their defense to put pressure on Rodgers. The Giants must harass Rodgers consistently like the Chiefs did and it would help if New York can get jams on the Packers receivers much like Kansas City did.
Finally, the Giants must win the turnover battle. It would help if the Giants cashed in those turnovers for points.
In the first meeting, New York turned a Rodgers interception into a touchdown drive. But right before the half, the Giants fumble away a chance at points to help the Packers lead 21-17 at the half.
Green Bay just has to do what they have done all year long. Score points on offensive possessions and get turnovers by their defense.
The Packers also must put their offensive coordinator out of their mind. Green Bay will be playing this game for Philbin but can’t let his loss affect them on the field.
Biggest question is which Giants team is going to show up. The Giants, who can’t rush the ball, commit turnovers and can’t get stops on defense or the Giants who played against the Falcons last week.
If the team that beat the Falcons shows up this week the Packers are in big trouble. Giants are saying the right things this week but talk is cheap.
New York has one of two quarterbacks in the NFL to ever win a playoff game in Lambeau field. Difference is that those two quarterbacks didn’t beat Rodgers at quarterback for Green Bay.
This is Rodgers first home playoff game of his career. He will feel the pressure to win at home in Green Bay.
Pressure is all on the Packers. New York is playing with house money. I have a feeling the Giants will run the ball but won’t win the turnover battle.
Pick: Green Bay (Giants win if they win rushing and turnover battle)
New Orleans Saints @ San Francisco 49ers (3:30p.m. Fox, Saturday Jan. 14)
Denver Broncos @ New England Patriots (7p.m. CBS, Saturday Jan. 14)
The biggest game of the weekend will see the Patriots face the Broncos. Last weekend, Tebow and Denver blew up the internet from Facebook to twitter to everything else in between.
Now Tebow (God’s Boy) faces Tom Brady (Golden Boy) for the second time this season. Television ratings and the internet might explode before this game is over.
This game will feature two different offensive styles between two very different offensive teams. New England the second ranked in total offense and Denver is ranked 23rd in total offense.
The Patriots are dangerous through the air as the 2nd ranked passing team at 318 yards per game and the Broncos are ranked 31st in passing with just 152 yard a game. Denver is the best rushing team in the NFL (ranked 1st) with 164.5 yards and New England is ranked 20th with 110.3 rushing yards.
Unless New England plays the same type of defense the Steelers did against Denver, expect for this game to be won by the Patriots passing game against the Broncos running game.
New England is ranked 17th in the NFL in rush defense only allowing 117.1 yards and Denver is ranked 22nd in rush defense giving up 126.3 yards per game. The Broncos are ranked 18th against the pass giving up 232 yards through the air and New England is ranked 31st in pass defense allowing 294 yards.
In the first meeting the Broncos used their running game to jump out to a 16-7 lead early in the second quarter. Everything went wrong for Denver from there.
The Broncos had three fumbles that the Patriots cashed in for 20 points. Turnovers turned a Denver lead in to New England rout.
Turnovers played a major part in the New England season. The Patriots were third in the NFL at plus 17 in turnover margin. The team had 34 takeaways (23 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries) and 17 giveaways (12 interceptions, 5 fumbles lost).
In two of three Patriots losses, New England lost the turnover battle. Pittsburgh used a precision passing attack to keep Brady on the sideline but had one turnover to New England’s none.
Only one games this season the Patriots lost the turnover battle but won the game. Against the Dallas Cowboys; New England had four turnovers but the Cowboys couldn’t turn those turnovers into touchdowns.
Denver is not good enough, like Pittsburgh, to win the game using their running game to keep Brady on the sideline but lose the turnover battle. The Broncos have to win turnover battle and run the ball.
The Broncos were one of the worst team in the NFL in turnover margin at minus 12 on the season. Denver had 18 takeaways (9 interceptions, 9 fumbles recovered) and 30 giveaways (13 interceptions, 17 fumbles lost).
Tim Tebow was 11 out 22 passing for 194 yards with no touchdowns but even more import no interceptions. Tebow was responsible for one of the three fumbles (Quan Cosby, Lance Ball) that the Broncos lost.
Denver comes into the pretty healthy but does have injuries to key players. On Broncos injury report is safety Brian Dawkins (neck), linebacker Von Miller (thumb), and wide receivers Eddie Royal (toe) and Eric Decker (knee). Dawkins and Decker could miss next playoff game.
New England always fills up the injury report. Patriots have listed quarterback Tom Brady (shoulder), wide receiver Wes Welker (toe), and safeties Patrick Chung and James Ihedigbo on their injury report. Expect all the players listed to play.
Denver needs to put pressure on Brady. In the first game, the Broncos only had just two sacks and three quarterback hits.
The Broncos have to make Brady feel uncomfortable in the pocket. It will be up to Denver’s front seven (Von Miller, Robert Ayers, Elvis Dumervil, and others) to hit Brady repeatedly.
It would help the Broncos pull off an upset by forcing Patriots turnovers and turning them into points. Denver must stay creative play calling allowing Tebow to throw the ball with bootlegs and rollouts.
The Broncos cannot just run the ball and must let Tebow take shots down the field. Denver also cannot kick field goals and go for touchdowns in the red zone when near the goal line.
All the pressure is on New England heading into this game. The Patriots have not won a playoff game since losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Since that loss, the Patriots are 0-2 in the playoffs and missed the playoffs in the 2008 seaosn. As the number one seed in the AFC last season New England lost to the New York Jets at home.
The year before that the Patriots lost at home against the Ravens. As great as New England is another loss at home in the playoffs and 0-3 in the playoffs since the Super Bowl XLII loss will lead to major questions.
Denver on the other hand is playing with nothing to lose. Against the Steelers the Broncos had no chance and many expected Denver to get blown out in the game.
Everyone expects the same thing in this game. No one thinks the Broncos will win and feel the game will be a blowout.
As long as Denver can repeat their early success against the Patriots without the turnovers, they will have a chance to pull off the upset. New England must have turnovers and score on nearly every possession.
Can the magic of Tim Tebow even been factored in? Yes, as long at Tebow plays as well as he did against the Steelers (turnover free and good decisions) the Broncos will win.
I believe the Tebow story does not end this week. The Patriots defense is terrible unless they get turnovers and the Denver defense is playing much better.
If the game is close in the fourth quarter, New England will start to feel like they will get Tebowed.