2012 NFL Playoffs: Wildcard Weekend Preview

New York Giants Eli Manning gets set to pass in the first quarter against the Seattle Seahawks in week 5 of the NFL season at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on October 9, 2011. UPI /John Angelillo

Bengals @ Texans, Saturday, 4:30PM ET
The biggest concern for the Bengals right now might be the fact that rookie Andy Dalton has hit a wall. He’s topped 200 yards passing in just one of his final five games and he missed practice on Wednesday after being hospitalized with flu-like symptoms. In his Week 14 matchup against Houston, he went 16-of-28 for 189 yards and one touchdown, which wasn’t enough as the Texans rallied for a 20-19 victory. For all the talk surrounding Houston’s quarterback situation this week, Dalton may be the key to this game. The Texans’ pass rush is one of the best in the league and their run defense has been stout as well. Cedric Benson was limited on Wednesday because of a foot injury and he’s also been dealing with a back issue. If the Bengals can’t get their running game going, Dalton will become the focus. Wade Phillips will surely throw a few wrinkles at the rookie in his first postseason game, so it’ll be interesting to see how Dalton responds to his biggest test as a pro. Win or lose, Dalton has had a great year and performed well beyond expectations. But for the Bengals to advance to the Divisional round, he’ll have to raise the level of his play.

Lions @ Saints, Saturday, 8:00PM ET, Saturday
The key to this game isn’t Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson or Detroit’s secondary. Believe it or not, it isn’t Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham or Sean Patyon either. The key to this game is Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Corey Williams and the rest of the Lions’ defensive line. You don’t beat an elite quarterback by blitzing him on every play. You beat him by dropping defenders into coverage and rushing him with your front four. Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady – they’re all the same. They can beat a blitz because they know their respective offenses like the back of their hand and they know exactly where to go with the football to burn a defense. But like any quarterback, they struggle the most when under pressure. Granted, it’s easier said than done to only bring four down linemen on a given play. If Suh and Co. don’t reach Brees, he’ll have plenty of time to wait until his receivers get open before delivering those accurate passes of his. Plus, a big reason why Brees is so good is because his offensive line has been excellent in pass blocking this season. Opponents try to overload with blitzes because Carl Nicks, Jermon Bushrod and Jahri Evans have been immovable objects up front. But it’s gut-check time for the Lions. They certainly have enough offensive weapons to match Brees and Payton, but if they can’t bring heat using their front four then they’ll be dead upon arrival.

Falcons @ Giants, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
While most of the national focus this week is on the explosive battle in New Orleans and whether or not Tim Tebow has any magic left in that inaccurate left arm of his, this Falcons-Giants matchup might be the most even of the four Wildcard games. Both teams are built to run the football and therefore, fans may be treated to a heavy dose of Michael Turner, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. But it’s been the play of Matt Ryan and Eli Manning that has gotten the Falcons and Giants as far as they are. Ryan’s 92.2 QB rating is his best in four seasons as a pro and in his last four games he has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10:0. Manning, meanwhile, has compiled a QB rating of 92.9 this year, which is only bested by his 93.1 mark in 2009. He also set franchise records for passing yards (4,933), attempts (589) and completions (359), and has set an NFL record by throwing 15 of his 29 touchdowns in the fourth quarter. He’s one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, that the Giants have five wins this season in which they erased fourth-quarter deficits. While Atlanta’s ability to slow New York’s pass rush will be a huge factor this weekend, this game will likely come down to the basics: penalties, turnovers, and execution (or lack thereof).

Steelers @ Broncos, 4:30PM, Sunday
With how pitiful Tim Tebow and the Denver offense looked last week at home versus Kansas City, there are plenty of NFL observers who envision a blowout this Sunday at Sports Authority Field. But as I wrote earlier this week in my “Five Questions…” piece, the Steelers aren’t exactly steamrolling into the playoffs. In their last four games Pittsburgh is averaging just over 14 points per game, which includes a 27-0 win over the hapless Rams in Week 16. It’s no coincidence that the Steelers’ offense started to struggle when Ben Roethlisberger hurt his ankle in a Week 14 victory over the Browns. But even two weeks prior to that when Big Ben was healthy, the Steelers managed just 13 points in a 13-9 win over the Chiefs. For as bad as Tebow has looked the past two weeks, Denver’s defense certainly has the capability of keeping things close, especially if the Steelers can’t run the ball without Rashard Mendenhall (season-ending knee injury). Granted, the Broncos aren’t going to win if they only manage a field goal like they did last Sunday, but this might not be the rout that many people expect.

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2011 NFL Free Agency Predictions: Where will Nnamdi Asomugha land?

Seattle Seahawks Golden Tate (81) can’t hold on to a Matt Hasselbeck pass as Oakland Raiders Nnamdi Asomugha (21) defends in the second quarter at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California on October 31, 2010. The Raiders defeated the Seahawks 33-3. UPI/Terry Schmitt

With the lockout in the rearview mirror, NFL fans can now put away their “Lawyer Jargon for Dummies” textbooks and start hitting the rumor mill once again.

Since I’m a fun guy who likes to have some fun and enjoys a little fun, I’ve decided to have a little fun by trying to predict where some of the top free agents will land over the next two weeks. Remember, this is all for fun and is not to be taken too seriously. If you’re the asswipe who reads these things and immediately gets in a tizzy because you disagree, then be aware of my one and only rule when it comes to predictions: Don’t criticize me if you don’t have the stones to leave your own predictions in the comments section.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s have some good ol’ fashion family fun! (Have I overused that word yet? Did the joke land? It wasn’t funny in the first place? All right…) Here are 10 free agents and my predictions for where they might land. In the “Hedging my bet with” section, I list an alternative to where I think said free agent may wind up.

Nnamdi Asomugha, CB: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It has been reported that the 2011 NFL salary cap will (roughly) be around $120 million, which leaves the Bucs with (roughly) $60 million to spend in free agency. Of course, that doesn’t mean that cheapo Malcolm Glazer will open his wallet, but we do know that the new CBA comes with a salary cap floor. Thus, teams like the Bucs will have to spend something in free agency. The Bucs have built a solid, young core centered around quarterback Josh Freeman. With Aqib Talib’s legal situation up in the air, they have a definite need at corner and if teams like the Eagles, Cowboys and Jets feel as though Asomugha’s price tag is too steep, maybe the Bucs will step in and shell out big money to land the top free agent on the market. (And if you’re wondering about whether or not Asomugha is a fit for Raheem Morris’ defensive scheme, don’t worry about it because the man is a fit for every defense.)
Hedging my bet with: New York Jets

DeAngelo Williams, RB: Carolina Panthers
The emergence of Mike Goodson and Jonathan Stewart make Williams expendable but the Panthers are still the frontrunners to retain him in my eyes. He says he wants to stay in Carolina and while he’d be a fool to not at least test the market, I think he’ll eventually stay put. The Panthers realize they need a good stable of running backs no matter who starts at quarterback this season, so re-signing Williams is still a priority despite expanding rolls for Goodson and Stewart.
Hedging my bet with: New York Giants.

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NFL Week 7 MVP, COY and ROY power rankings

Raise your hand if you can figure out this NFL season. Yeah, that’s what I thought. A few hands went up in Pittsburgh, a couple in New England, and a few more in New York/New Jersey. Choosing players and coaches who might be in line for postseason awards is even more difficult to grasp, but we’ll give it another shot here….


MVP Power Rankings

1. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts—His team is 4-2 and a contender in the tough AFC. But more than that, Manning leads the NFL with a 103.4 QB rating—319.3 yards per game passing, 13 touchdown passes and just 2 picks. The guy is once again dominant, and he’ll continue to make life miserable for opposing coordinators.

2. Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons—The Falcons are 5-2 and one of the top teams in a wide-open NFC, and this guy is probably the biggest reason why. He busted on to this list by catching 11 passes for 201 yards and 2 scores against Cincinnati last Sunday—a whopping 18.3 yards per catch. I’m really not sure how you defend this dude, who keeps making us open our mouths wide with some acrobatic grabs and pure athleticism.

3. Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants—Don’t look now, but the NFL has a new leading rusher (708 yards). He’s short (listed as 5’9” but probably more like 5’8” with a heel lift), and extremely hard to bring down. Now that he’s healthy and listed as the starter for the 5-2 Giants, Bradshaw is taking over, running behind a good O-line, but also making plays happen in the open field himself, and making guys twice his size miss. If he could only just stop fumbling (four times in seven games)….

Honorable mention: Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers; Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers; Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles; LaDainian Tomlinson, New York Jets; Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers; Osi Umenyiora, New York Giants; Arian Foster, Houston Texans; James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers; Jerod May, New England Patriots

Coach of the Year Power Rankings

1. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers—Sure, the Steelers got lucky with that fumble-non-recovery thing against Miami last week. But Mike Tomlin has his team ranked at or near the top in everyones’ power rankings. The man knows how to win, no matter who is under center—but with Big Ben there, and with a healthy Polamalu and another defender (James Harrison) who almost retired because the league told him to stop hitting guys so hard, there isn’t a doubt anywhere that the Steelers will go deep into the postseason.

2. Tom Coughlin, New York Giants—I’m gonna be a homer here, but you can’t not give credit to a coach who brings his team off of life support after three games, and then has them on top of the NFC by winning four straight. This, despite a team that ranks near the bottom of the NFL with a minus-five turnover differential—thanks to 10 fumbles lost and 11 picks. And also despite all those Bill Cowher rumors a month ago. The bottom line? The players have his back, and the defense is now playing lights-out under first-year coordinator Perry Fewell.

3. Jeff Fisher, Tennessee Titans—At some point you just have to bring Fisher, the longest tenured NFL coach, into the conversation, because he brings his team to play every week. Last season, the Titans started 0-6 and ended up 8-8 and almost in the playoffs. This year, his feisty bunch is 5-2 and in first place in the AFC South. They’re never out of any game no matter who is at QB, and Chris Johnson hasn’t even begun to catch fire yet.

Honorable mention: Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks; Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay Bucs; Todd Haley, Kansas City Chiefs; Rex Ryan, New York Jets; Andy Reid, Philadelphia Eagles, Steve Spagnuolo, St. Louis Rams; Bill Belichick, New England Patriots; Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons.

Rookie of the Year Power Rankings

1. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys—I’m just glad my Giants won that game on Monday night, because this dude almost stole the show all by himself with three touchdowns—2 receiving and 1 on a punt return. He’s ridiculously explosive and has all-around scary talent. I mean, is it too early to call Dez a future Hall of Famer? Probably, but in 15 years, don’t forget that I just said that.

2. Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions—Opposing offenses were able to breathe easy last week with this beast on bye. Today, Donovan McNabb will get to know him a bit better.

3. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams—Even last week in a losing effort, two of Sam’s 13 completions were for touchdowns, and he’s on pace for 20 TD tosses. Not bad for a rookie.

Honorable mention: Jahvid Best, Detroit Lions; Max Hall, Arizona Cardinals; Rolando McClain, Oakland Raiders; Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals

Brandon Jacobs is one unhappy camper

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 21: Brandon Jacobs of the New York Giants yells from the sideline against the Pittsburgh Steelers during their preseason game at New Meadowlands Stadium on August 21, 2010 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Three years ago, Brandon Jacobs carried the rock 202 times for 1,009 yards and four touchdowns for the Giants during their Super Bowl season. In 2008, he bested those totals by rushing 219 times for 1,089 yards and 15 touchdowns.

But in 2009, his carries went up but his yardage declined. He rushed 224 times for 835 yards, which comes out to a paltry 3.7 YPC average. Making matters worse, he scored only five times while backfield mate Ahmad Bradshaw rushed for 778 yards and seven scores.

Now Jacobs is pissed. He received only 10 carries in the Giants’ four preseason games, down from 21 totes last year. Meanwhile, he’s lost his starting job to Bradshaw, who is now New York’s featured back.

Following the team’s final preseason game last week against the Patriots, Jacobs had this to say to ESPN New York:

“No question,” Jacobs said. “To be in this business, you have to know that. No one’s your friend in this business. This is a cutthroat, backstabbing business. That’s just the way it goes. It’s been like that before me. If you expect anything else out of a business like this, you’re crazy.”

“It’s almost hard to stay positive in a situation like this, but that’s what I’ve got to do,” Jacobs said.

On Wednesday, Jacobs told the Newark Star-Ledger that people had made too big of a deal out of what he said:

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Is Bradshaw passing Jacobs on the depth chart?

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 06:  Brandon Jacobs #27 and Ahmad Bradshaw #44 of the New York Giants celebrate after Jacobs scored a 74 yard touchdown reception in the third quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at Giants Stadium on December 6, 2009 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Giants beat writer Mike Garafolo of the The Star-Ledger seems to think so

RB Ahmad Bradshaw (yes, I put him in the starter category because he’s taking all of the first reps with the starters, it seems) continues to look like his rookie self. He went off left edge and moved well, changing direction a few times. RB Brandon Jacobs looked pretty good tonight as well.

Here are the stats from last season:

Jacobs – 224 rushes, 835 yards, 5 TD; 18-184-1
Bradshaw – 163 rushes, 778 yards, 7 TD; 21-201-0

Bradshaw averaged more than a yard more per carry and only finished 40 yards behind Jacobs in total yards despite 58 fewer touches.

How you feel about this situation depends on how you feel about Jacobs’ knees. If he’s healthy, he’ll almost certainly get enough first and second down work and goal line carries to keep Bradshaw from being a bona fide fantasy RB2.

But here we are, about a month away from the season and Bradshaw appears to be pressing Jacobs for the starting job. This could be a coaching ploy to motivate Jacbos (whom Garafolo also said looked good), it could be a way to reduce Jacobs’ workload in the preseason since he’s coming off of knee surgery, or it could be an actual change to the Giants depth chart. For what it’s worth, Tom Coughlin says that the press is “too hung up on that stuff.” (Spoken like a man who doesn’t have a fantasy football draft to prepare for.)

Considering Jacobs is going a full two rounds earlier than Bradshaw (who is a nice value in the 9th), the latter would appear to be a better value given his upside. Regardless, fantasy owners who draft Jacobs in the 6th or the 7th should definitely grab Bradshaw in the 8th as insurance.

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