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2012 NFL Wild-Card Preview

Wild-Card weekend is nearly here and there’s lot to break down, so let’s get right to it.

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) at Denver Broncos (8-8)

If Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t playing with a high ankle sprain, Rashard Mendenhall wasn’t out with a torn ACL and Ryan Clark didn’t carry the sickle-cell trait, it would impossible to see this matchup ending in anything but a Pittsburgh romp.

But the Steelers are dealing with all kinds of adversity, as well as the burden of being a big road favorite in the playoffs. With the Saints’ shocking loss to the 7-9 Seahawks on the road in a 2010 wild-card game still fresh in everyone’s memory, it’s tough not to ponder the Broncos’ chances at an upset, given the circumstances.

As opposed to Seattle, which had two things going for it – a running back, Marshawn Lynch, who has a remarkable ability to get stronger as the season progresses; and a quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, who had been to a Super Bowl – Denver is afforded no such luxuries to fall back on.

Running back Willis McGahee averaged just 78.3 rushing yards over the final four games. Quarterback Tim Tebow crashed and burned during that time, fumbling seven times (four lost) and throwing five interceptions.

The Denver pass rush, spearheaded by Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, should be able to make life difficult for a hobbled daltonRoethlisberger and keep the game close. But for a Broncos offense that scored a combined 17 points over the final two weeks against the Bills and Chiefs, it’s going to be nearly impossible to find the end zone against a Steelers defense that ranked first in the NFL in points allowed (14.2) and didn’t give up a touchdown in three of the last four games.

The Broncos will need a defensive or special teams score to throw a scare into Pittsburgh, which isn’t likely.

Steelers 16
Broncos 6

Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) at Houston Texans (10-6)

There’s always one wild-card game game featuring a team or teams that, talent-wise, are a notch below the rest of the field. Last year it was the Chiefs, who were smoked at home by the playoff-seasoned Ravens. In 2009 it was the Bengals, in ’08 the Dolphins etc. The downfall of the so-called playoff fraud always boils down to its ability, or lack thereof, to take care of the football.

Make no mistake: Turnovers will determine the outcome of the Bengals-Texans game. Neither team protected the ball well when they met in Week 14. Houston committed four turnovers and Cincinnati two. And both teams continued to have ball security issues down the stretch. The Texans gave the football away at least once in each of their final three games, and turned it over nine times from Weeks 14-17. The Bengals have also yet to play an errorless game in that stretch, tallying six turnovers.

A closer look paints an even darker picture for the Texans. Of those nine turnovers, five were committed by T.J. Yates. The rookie quarterback threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles over the final quarter of the season, while also fumbling an additional time.

Dig a little deeper and go back to Houston’s 17-10 win over the Falcons in Week 13, a game in which Yates lost one fumble, lost a second on a strip-sack that was returned for a touchdown before a pair of bizarre offsetting substitution penalties called it back, and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. That play was overturned because of a holding penalty, taking a second defensive score off the board for the Falcons.

Certain contests, despite the outcome, can serve as a harbinger of things to come. The Atlanta game was noteworthy in that respect.

On the flipside, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton fumbled one time and threw just one interception from Week 13 on.

Not to be lost in the mix are the issues of Texans star running back Arian Foster, who has put the ball on the ground in four of the last five games, fumbling a total of five times (three lost).

Considering either one or both of Yates and Foster will be touching the ball on every snap – or, gulp, Jake Delhomme – Houston’s recent problems taking care of the football are unlikely to suddenly vanish. Dalton may be a rookie quarterback going on the road for his first playoff game, but all the pressure is on the Texans to come through in the franchise’s maiden postseason appearance. How does Houston respond following a turnover late in a tight game that hushes an anxious crowd? The writing is on the wall for an upset.

Bengals 20
Texans 17

Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at New York Giants (9-7)

With the Giants, it’s a ongoing case of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. Which team is going to show up? The one that nearly knocked off the undefeated Packers in Week 13 and followed with three stirring victories in the final four games (two over Dallas and one over the Jets)? Or the one that got flattened by the Redskins in a critical Week 15 tilt?

Anyone who is able to properly diagnose the Giants can predict how this game will play out. The Falcons couldn’t be any different than New York, in that you know what you’re getting from them. According to the number-crunchers at Football Outsiders.com, Atlanta is the most consistent team ever measured by its DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) system.

The Falcons play at a similar level week in and week out, a level that was good enough to knock off the likes of Detroit, Tennessee and Carolina, but not the Saints, Packers or Texans.

Looking at the Giants, it’s easy to finger the Redskins loss as evidence of a similar performance looming in the playoffs. But the Redskins also handily beat the Giants in Week 1, which suggests they may have simply had their number this year. The ebbs and flows of divisional rivalries can be tough to quantify sometimes.

The Giants fell victim to the most brutal of stretches from Weeks 9-13, during which they faced, in succession, the Patriots, 49ers, Eagles, Saints, and Packers, arguably the five best teams in the NFL.

The Falcons are consistently decent but never spectacular. The Giants are better than their record and playing at home. staffordA primary strength of both teams is their ability to throw the football. Eli Manning has a Super Bowl MVP; Matt Ryan is 0-2 in the playoffs.

Giants 27
Falcons 21

Detroit Lions (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

Winners of eight straight, the Saints are blistering hot. Drew Brees has thrown 27 touchdowns and four interceptions throughout the win streak, during which New Orleans has averaged nearly 37 points per game, including back-to-back 45-point eruptions against the Falcons and Panthers at the Superdome to close out the regular season.

To underscore just how unstoppable the Saints have been, consider the following: They had 10 drives apiece in those games. Against Atlanta, those drives went touchdown, touchdown, interception, touchdown, interception, touchdown, field goal, punt, punt, touchdown. One of Brees’ picks came in the end zone and the pair of punts didn’t come until New Orleans had a 38-16 lead in the fourth quarter and had taken its foot off the pedal.

The Saints’ efficiency against Carolina was even more ruthless: touchdown, touchdown, interception, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, punt, downs. Brees was picked at the Panthers’ 11-yard line and the Saints had driven 63 yards to the Carolina 13 before Chase Daniel took a knee four times to conclude the game.

If any team stands a chance of hanging with the Saints in the dome, it’s the Lions. Led by a white-hot Matthew Stafford, Detroit finished the season with wins in three of its last four games. Stafford threw for 520 yards and five touchdowns in a wild Week 17, 45-41 loss to Matt Flynn and the Packers. He has averaged nearly 378 yards per game in that span, throwing 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions.

The Lions have made a habit of getting down big early before surging back. Detroit has overcome deficits of 13, 17, 20 and 24 points to win. Stafford has been at his best in the second halves of those big comebacks against the Raiders, Panthers, Vikings and Cowboys.

The problem with that formula is that it requires the other team to either have a quarterback prone to making multiple huge mistakes (Tony Romo, Cam Newton) or an offense that can be stopped for consecutive drives (Vikings, Raiders).

Brees won’t be gift-wrapping any turnovers and the Saints’ last 20 drives don’t bode well for a Lions defense that has allowed an average of 26.5 points and 455 yards per game over the last four, and a Stafford-led offense that tends not to get its wheels turning until the second quarter. Brees will be motoring toward San Francisco by that time if Detroit stalls out of the gate Saturday night.

Saints 41
Lions 27

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