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Fade Material: NFL Wildcard Weekend Predictions

Pittsburgh Steelers James Harrison sacks Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton for a lost of six yards in the second quarter at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 4, 2011. UPI/Archie Carpenter

My predictions for the college football regular season were 31-23-2 against the spread and my picks for the NFL regular season were 33-32-3 ATS after a 3-1 effort in Week 17.

Is that enough intro foreplay for you? Good – let’s get to the Wildcard Weekend predictions.

Bengals @ Texans, 4:30PM ET, Saturday
Andy Dalton has officially hit the rookie wall. As I noted in my Wildcard playoff preview, he’s topped 200 yards passing in just one of his final five games and he missed practice earlier this week after being hospitalized with the flu. He should play but how effective he’ll be after spending the week with his face presumably hovering over a toilet bowl instead of the Bengals’ playbook remains to be seen. I fully expect Wade Phillips to throw a few wrinkles at the rookie and for Houston’s defense to take over this game from the start. The Texans can worry about the fact that T.J. Yates is their starting quarterback next week when they travel to Baltimore.
THE PICK: TEXANS –3

Lions @ Saints, 8:00PM ET
I truly believe that the Lions have a shot at upsetting the Saints this weekend in New Orleans. They have a legit quarterback in Matthew Stafford, one of the best players in the game in Calvin Johnson, and a pass rush that can get after Drew Brees. But betting against the Saints at home is the equivalent of sticking your hand in a circular saw and expecting there not to be blood. (Too much?) Thus, I’m taking the easy way out and going with the over. New Orleans’ defense is a much better unit at home than on the road, but Detroit’s passing game is explosive. Points won’t be an issue in this game but both teams will probably have to get into the 30s for the over to hit. No problem – I’ll take that bet.
THE PICK: OVER 58.5

Falcons @ Giants, 1:00PM ET
A lot of people are expecting a shootout for this game but I just don’t see it. Both teams have a tendency of playing things close to the vest and conservative in big games, which is why the under is an attractive play. Even though striking a balance offensively should be their main goal, Atlanta will likely lean on Michael Turner in attempts to avoid New York’s nasty pass rush. On the flip side, the Giants haven’t been able to run the ball much this year but that doesn’t mean they can’t. The Falcons will be without starting strong-side linebacker Stephen Nicholas (knee), who is one of their better run defenders. In his place will be 2009 sixth round pick Spencer Adkins, who has mainly been a special teams contributor throughout his short career. Those, look for the Giants to pound the rock as well in what should be a close game throughout.
THE PICK: UNDER 47

Steelers @ Broncos, 4:30PM ET
The total is sitting really low but I’m not going to over-think this one. Tim Tebow is going to have a hell of a time figuring out Pittsburgh’s defense and Denver’s D is good enough to slow down a Steelers’ offense that has been in a major funk the past couple of weeks. Without Rashard Mendenhall (season-ending knee injury), the Steelers will rely on Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game, which is worrisome seeing as how Big Ben is dealing with an injury of his own. If Pittsburgh was at full strength I wouldn’t hesitate to lay the nine points but at this point the under is the safer bet.
THE PICK: UNDER 34

Check out the most current NFL Betting Lines.

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2012 NFL Playoffs: Five Questions for Wildcard Weekend

Every Tuesday throughout the NFL season I’ll discuss five of the biggest questions surrounding that week’s slate of action. This week it’s Wildcard Weekend in the NFL, as the playoffs kick off on Saturday. Can the Lions and Broncos pull off major upsets? Which team will show up in East Rutherford? Will the Texans have T.J. Yates at quarterback versus Cincinnati? Let’s dive in.

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford congratulates New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (R) after the Saints beat the Lions 31-17 in their NFL football game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana December 4, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

1. Can the Lions slay the Saints?
Eight opponents walked into the Superdome this year with high hopes of pulling off an upset and all eight walked out with red bottoms after being spanked by a Saints team that has been unbeatable at home this season. Seeing as how the Lions were among the eight opponents who the Saints carved up this season, they seemingly don’t have a shot this Saturday when they travel back to New Orleans in the opening round of the playoffs. (Oddsmakers certainly don’t think the Lions have much of a shot, as Detroit opened as a 10.5-point underdog.) That said, the Lions do posses a legit quarterback in Matthew Stafford, one of the best players in football in Calvin Johnson, and a front four that’s capable of getting after Drew Brees. Remember, due to his two-game suspension for stomping on Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith, the Lions were without Ndamukong Suh the first time these two teams met. The only tried and true method to beating an elite quarterback like Brees is to pressure him with your front four. Blitzing doesn’t work, because he’s so comfortable in Sean Payton’s offense that he’ll beat one-on-one coverage or quickly find holes in the defense. While there’s no doubt the Lions have their hands full this weekend, they’re a damn good football team when they don’t beat themselves (which, unfortunately, is rare). In fact, if it weren’t for a couple of costly penalties and big drops by Lion receivers, Detroit may have come back against the Saints earlier this year in New Orleans. We’ll see if the boys from Motown can keep their composure and pull off the biggest upset of the weekend.

2 & 3. Can Tebow prove his critics wrong/Can the Steelers shake out of their offensive funk?
This will be a two-parter. When your quarterback can’t complete more than six passes when a division title and a trip to the postseason are on the line, critics will come out in droves. Tim Tebow was simply brutal in the Broncos’ Week 17 loss to the Chiefs, leaving even his staunchest supporters to leap off his bandwagon. But let’s keep in mind that Denver’s defense continues to play at a high level and kicker Matt Prater is almost a guarantee from all distances. Plus, it’s not like the Steelers are pictures of perfect health. Long before Rashard Mendenhall tore up his knee in the final regular season game of the year, Ben Roethlisberger suffered a high ankle sprain that he hasn’t fully recovered from. It’s clear that Pittsburgh’s offense is in a major funk and while its defense shouldn’t have much trouble shutting down Tebow this weekend, it’s not like the Broncos don’t have the capabilities of pulling off an upset if they keep things close. Champ Bailey had his hands full with Dwayne Bowe last Sunday and Pittsburgh’s speedy receiving corps highlighted by Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown is a mismatch for Denver’s secondary. But will the offensive line give Big Ben time to throw? The Broncos’ strength defensively is in their ability to rush the passer. It won’t matter if Wallace and Brown shake loose in Denver’s secondary if Roethlisberger is constantly under pressure. That said, if Kansas City was able to hold Denver to just three points on the road, Pittsburgh’s defense is liable to pitch a shut out. That wasn’t meant to be a knock on Romeo Crennel’s defense, which is highly underrated, but Dick LeBeau’s complicated scheme could have Tebow’s head spinning. In what figures to be a low-scoring game, it’ll be interesting to see if Denver’s defense can come up big one more time and if Tebow has any magic left in those legs of his.

4. Which teams will show up in East Rutherford?
While there are obvious differences between the two teams, the Falcons and Giants mirror each other in many ways. First and foremost, they’re both highly inconsistent. The Giants proved that they have the weapons to upset the Patriots in Foxboro and sweep the Cowboys to make the postseason, but this is the same team that also lost to Seattle and Washington at home. The Falcons, meanwhile, beat the Lions in Detroit and nearly defeated the Saints at home, but managed just 13 points in a Week 3 loss to the Buccaneers and almost blew double-digit leads against Seattle, Tennessee and Minnesota. Both coaching staffs tend to play things too conservatively when they have a lead or are playing in tight games. Where Green Bay and New Orleans don’t stop attacking you until the final seconds tick off the clock, Atlanta and New York have a habit of taking their foot off the gas. In the case of the Giants, they have often fallen behind and had to play catch up in the fourth quarter. As for the Falcons, they like to build a lead and slowly give it away in the second half. But both teams also have fast defenses, good running games, weapons in the receiving corps, and are led by solid quarterbacks in Eli Manning and Matt Ryan. In other words, both teams have the capability of taking it to an opponent if they happen to be firing on all cylinders that day. But the key words in that previous sentence are “happen to,” because you just never know which team will bother show up.

5. Will the Texans be able to overcome injuries yet again?
It’s a marvel the Texans have made it this far. It truly is. They lost their starting quarterback in Matt Schaub, his backup in Matt Leinart, their top defender in Mario Williams, and they’ve had to go much of the season without leading receiver Andre Johnson, too. Now T.J. Yates is hurt. Has a team ever hosted a playoff game after its top three quarterbacks all went down with injuries during the regular season? Furthermore, has a team ever advanced in the postseason without its top three quarterbacks? While the Texans insist that Yates (separated shoulder) will play this Saturday versus Cincinnati, there are reports out of Houston that suggest he may be done for the year. If that’s the case, then it’s Jake Delhomme time, which is scary if you’re a Texans fan. I don’t care if he did nearly bring Houston back last week against Tennessee: Delhomme is a turnover waiting to happen. If the Texans can’t control the game with Arian Foster and Ben Tate, then there’s a good chance that the Bengals will be advancing to the Divisional Round next week. It’s going to be an interesting afternoon in Houston this Saturday, to say the least.

Quick-Hit Reactions from Week 17 in the NFL

Every Sunday throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…

Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow loses the ball while tackled by Kansas City Chiefs safety Kendrick Lewis during the second quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 1, 2012 in Denver. Denver still makes the playoffs despite losing to Kansas City 7-3. UPI/Gary C. Caskey

- Good luck, Broncos. You may have backed into the playoffs because the Raiders just happened to catch the Chargers on one of San Diego’s good days, but don’t make any travel plans for New England or Baltimore. You’re not going to win with a quarterback who can‘t even complete 10 passes in the biggest game of the year. I thought the Tim Tebow storyline was pretty fun for a while but at the end of the day it’s just bad football. The Steelers are severely banged up and their offense is in a major funk, but they only need about 10 points to beat the Broncos next week in the Wild Card round. If Denver somehow finds a way to pull off the upset then I’ll eat as much crow as Broncos fans want to dish out. But with a division title and a playoff berth on the line, Denver managed just one field goal at home against a Kansas City team that had nothing to play for. Thus, I don’t think I’ll have the taste of crow on my lips any time soon.

- Has any team lost three starting quarterbacks to injuries in one season and still host a playoff game? That must be some kind of record. Some kind of cruel, horrific record for a Houston Texans team that must feel like its cursed. The Texans finally make the playoffs and they have to start Jake Delhomme at quarterback because their fifth-round rookie T.J. Yates, who was subbing for the injured Matt Leinart, who was subbing for the injured Matt Schaub, separated his shoulder in the final game of the season. At this point all Houston can do is laugh because really, what else could go wrong? I mean, they’re about to start Jake freaking Delhomme in a playoff game and the guy was signed off the streets about an hour ago. How unfortunate for a Houston franchise that has been waiting a very long time for this moment.

- I was prepared to rip the Bengals after backing into the playoffs and for going 0-4 against the Ravens and Steelers this season. But what does Cincinnati have to be ashamed of? Nobody thought the Bengals would win five games this year, let alone nine and qualify for the playoffs in a tough conference (with a rookie second-round pick starting at quarterback, no less). And seeing as how the Texans will start Jake Delhomme at quarterback next week, the Bengals could advance to the Divisional Round! There’s no sense ripping a team that has a very good chance of winding up among the final eight this season.

- When Eli Manning takes care of the football, the Giants usually win. It’s as simple as that. The G-Men were 4-0 this season when Eli didn’t turn the ball over at all and 5-2 when he “only” turned the ball over once. They were 0-5 when he had multiple turnovers in one game. Granted, I imagine that if I did the same study on all the quarterbacks in the league, I’d probably get similar results. Turnovers are a huge part of the game whether it’s a quarterback, running back or receiver coughing the ball up. But when Eli turns the ball over it seems to have a trickle-down effect that hurts the entire New York team.

- Tony Romo comes up short again in a playoff-type situation. Who would have saw that coming?

- The Lions really blew it today. All they had to do was beat Green Bay’s backups and they would have clinched the fifth seed in the NFC. Instead, their defense couldn’t stop Matt Flynn from doing whatever he wanted and now the Lions will have to play in New Orleans next weekend instead of traveling to New York or Dallas. Granted, if they want to advance to the Super Bowl then they’d have to play beat the Saints or Packers at some point anyway. But it would have been nice to let the Falcons try and deal with the Saints right out of the gates instead. Furthermore, even if Detroit does upset New Orleans next week, the Lions haven’t beaten the Packers in Green Bay since 1991. How much confidence do they have heading into the playoffs knowing that they couldn’t even beat the Packers’ JV squad? (Of course, with ultra-sick Calvin Johnson lining up at wide receiver, I still wouldn’t count the Lions out against anyone.)

- Good for the Ravens. This is a Baltimore squad that has looked like a completely different team on the road this year than at home, but it went into hostile territory today and took care of business. Now that they have home field advantage for at least one playoff game, you have to like the Ravens’ chances of making a Super Bowl run. The AFC is incredibly flawed this year and New England’s defense is Charmin Extra Soft. Thanks to the incredible Ray Rice, the Ravens have as good as shot as the Patriots of playing for a NFL title.

- How f’n good are the Packers that they can score 45 points with Flynn as their starting quarterback and several of their starters resting on both sides of the ball? If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a hundred times: Ted Thompson has done one hell of a job building the best depth in football.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn (2nd L) passes against the Detroit Lions during the second half of their NFL football game in Green Bay, Wisconsin January 1, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Hauck (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- Speaking of Matt Flynn, I’m torn. I wouldn’t blame a quarterback-needy team for trying to acquire him next offseason after what he did today against the Lions, but how much of his success is because of Green Bay’s offense? Everyone looks good driving a Cadillac, know what I mean?

- Should the Patriots be concerned that they’ve spotted opponents double-digit leads in each of their last two games before rallying in the second half? Considering how explosive Tom Brady and the New England offense has looked, I guess not. But if they spot Baltimore a 21-0 lead in the playoffs then the Pats may have some issues staging more comebacks.

- It seems like nobody has mentioned his name among the head coaches that could be fired on “Black Monday” (at least from a national perspective), but what about Chan Gailey? What has he done in Buffalo that merits him keeping his job? That team took a 21-0 lead today in Foxboro and then stood back and admired its work as the Patriots scored the next 49 points. Why should Buffalo be convinced that Gailey is the right man for the job after the way the Bills crashed and burned this season?

- Even though the Steelers have morphed into a passing team over the past couple of years, losing Rashard Mendenhall (knee) for the playoffs would be a crushing blow. They’ll likely get past the punchless Broncos in the Wild Card round, but Mendenhall allows Pittsburgh to stay balanced offensively and gives defensive coordinators something else to think about when game planning to stop the Steelers. With Mendenhall out for at least one week and Ben Roethlisberger hobbled, there’s no doubt the defending AFC champions are limping into the postseason.

- ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reports that the Rams will fire GM Billy Devaney and head coach Steve Spagnuolo this week, as well they should. St. Louis was absolutely decimated by injuries and it didn’t help that Sam Bradford had little time to learn Josh McDaniels’ offense during the lockout-shortened offseason. But Devaney had a horrible draft and failed to build roster depth, while Spagnuolo made questionable in-game decisions week after week. It’s rumored that Spags will wind up in Philadelphia next season as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, which makes a ton of sense. As of right now it’s clear he isn’t ready to be a head coach in this league.

- The 49ers have had a hell of a season but even their most diehard fans have to admit that there’s something a little off about this San Francisco tea. Maybe it’s because they clinched early and they’ve just been waiting for the postseason to start but this doesn’t seem like the same dominant squad that it was about a month ago. Granted, the Niners did beat the Steelers handily in Week 15, but Pittsburgh is in the midst of a major offensive funk and Ben Roethlisberger played hurt in that game. I’m not suggesting that the Niners won’t reach the NFC Championship Game but compared to the Saints and Packers, this feels like a very beatable San Francisco team.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones runs in for a touchdown in the first half of their NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Atlanta, Georgia January 1, 2012. REUTERS/Tami Chappell (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- It’s too bad the Falcons are so intimidated by good competition (they’re 1-4 against playoff teams this year), because they certainly have the weapons on both sides of the ball to make a serious postseason run. Matt Ryan has looked very sharp in the second half of the season, Julio Jones has emerged as a dangerous playmaker the past five weeks and Sean Weatherspoon, John Abraham, Brent Grimes and William Moore are playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. The Falcons clearly aren’t better than New Orleans or Green Bay, but when the offense is firing on all cylinders and the defense plays like the relentless, confident unit that it did today against Tampa Bay, then Atlanta could certainly give the Saints and/or Packers a game. But I know what will happen in the playoffs: The coaching staff will play things conservatively, the players will all wait for the next guy to make a play, and the Falcons will once again be left searching for answers for why they came up short. (See the New Orleans game last Monday night as an example.) It’s frustrating really, because if the Falcons really turned things loose then they could be that dangerous Wild Card team that Green Bay was a year ago. (Or at least a poor man’s version of Green Bay.)

- The Jets’ season ends as Mark Sanchez throws three interceptions – what a shock. For the past two seasons, the Jets’ defense and running game has compensated for Sanchez’s horrendous play, and he fooled people into thinking he was better than what he was because he played well in the postseason in front of a national audience. But now he doesn’t have the playoffs to redeem himself, so maybe the Jets will seriously consider other quarterback options this offseason. They would be foolish not to.

- Great effort by your team over the past three months, Raheem Morris. Job well done.

- Jared Allen is worth the price of admission for Minnesota Vikings fans. Whether the Vikings are 3-13 or 13-3, dude never lets up.

- The Indianapolis Colts are now on the clock. Let the 24/7 Andrew Luck discussion begin.

How the Lions and Bills are proving pundits wrong

Philadelphia Eagles tight end Brent Celek (R) sacks Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Orchard Park, New York October 9, 2011. REUTERS/Doug Benz (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Preseason predictions in any sport mean absolutely nothing. It’s a fun way for the media and fans to get hyped for the regular season but it’s not like players and coaches are concerned about who prognosticators predict to win the Super Bowl.

That said, it is interesting to look back at how the “experts” whiffed when it came to predicting the success of the Lions and Bills. Granted, there’s still plenty of time for both teams to fall flat on their faces (after all, the Lions were 6-2 in 2007 before losing seven of their last eight to finish 8-8) and to be fair, there were several pundits who believed Detroit would make the playoffs as a Wild Card. But you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would have laid money on Detroit and Buffalo being a combined 9-1 at this point in the season.

Thus, what did pundits miss that prevented them from believing the Lions and Bills would be this good (at least record wise)? Below are a couple of thoughts.

THE PASS PROTECTION
Both teams were expected to be hampered by their offensive lines and yet outside of the Titans, no team has been better in pass protection than Buffalo. Third-year players Andy Levitre and Eric Wood have really come into their own while Fred Jackson has stepped up his efforts in pass protection as well. The Bills blew it in 2009 with the selection of mega-bust Aaron Maybin, but give Buffalo credit for also pulling the trigger on Wood and Levitre in that same draft. They were dedicated to rebuilding their O-line and now they’re starting to reap the rewards. As for the Lions, their pass protection hasn’t been great but it’s certainly been much better than people expected coming into the season. While Jeff Backus continues to be exploited at tackle, veteran Dominic Raiola has made up for his poor run blocking with solid pass protection and the same can be said for Stephen Peterman. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew has also come a long way as a pass blocker since his rookie year in ’09.

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Sunday Evening Quick-Hitters: Reactions from Week 3 in the NFL

Every Sunday evening throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…

DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING…

New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (83) chases Buffalo Bills cornerback Drayton Florence, as he runs an interception in for a touchdown, in the fourth quarter of their NFL football game at Orchard Park, New York September 25, 2011. REUTERS/Doug Benz (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- Raise your hand if you had the Bills sitting atop the AFC East standings alone after Week 3. I can hear someone right now: “Actually, I did call the Bills being 3-0.” LIAR! Nobody had the Bills at 3-0 because that would mean they would have had to beat the Patriots at home in Week 3 and pfff, like that was going to happen. Well, it did happen. Not unlike last Sunday against the Raiders, the Bill spotted the Patriots a 21-0 lead and then proceeded to storm back, intercepting Tom Brady four times as Ryan Fitzpatrick led the comeback of all comebacks. And what a great decision by Chan Gailey at the end. He knew with the score tied 31-31 and the Bills well within field goal range that he could bleed the clock, kick the field goal and leave Brady with no time to respond. Outstanding coaching move. Outstanding game. Outstanding win.

- I definitely thought the Giants would keep things closer than the 9-points that Vegas gave them heading into Philly, but wow. Didn’t see an outright win coming. With most of his receivers out due to various injuries, Eli Manning had one of the better games of his career. You really have to hand it to the Giants, who were playing on a short week and who have been banged up all year. Instead of lying down like many expected, they took the fight to the Eagles’ front doorsteps and then delivered a knockout in the fourth quarter. I don’t care if Michael Vick stays in this game or not: The Eagles weren’t winning it.

- What do you mean Cam Newton didn’t throw for 400 yards? See, total bust. Just like everyone predicted…

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