Football fans across the Hamptons are looking forward to the New York Giants playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday—few, if any, more than our own in-house prognosticator…me. Eli Manning and the boys in blue should be marching on to Green Bay next week—don’t you agree? Whether you do or don’t, I invite you to go head-to-head throughout the NFL playoffs to see if you can top the DansHamptons gridiron guru with your picks. I’ll even help you out with breakdowns, info and my choices before you chime in. Now…are you ready for some football?
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans (Saturday January 7)
Overview: It’s the battle of rookie quarterbacks in Texas—the first-ever NFL postseason meeting in the Super Bowl era between two first-year signal callers.
On paper, it would seem that the Bengals have the advantage with QB Andy Dalton. Dalton started all 16 of the Bengals’ games this season for a 9-7 record, and his 3,398 passing yards are the fifth-most passing yards by a rookie quarterback in the Super Bowl era.
Texans QB T.J. Yates, who began the season third on the QB depth chart, is just 2-3 in games in which he’s started. But that includes a Week 14, 20-19 win over the Bengals. With the victory, the Texans clinched the AFC South, and Yates led the Texans on an impressive fourth quarter drive to score 10 unanswered points.
However, both teams appear to have cooled-down down the stretch. The Texans enter the game on a three-game losing streak. And, after completing 158 passes in 257 attempts through his first eight games, Dalton completed just 142 passes in 259 attempts through the final eight. In four of his final five games, he’s been held to under 200 passing yards.
This is all to say that the first game of the NFL postseason is the ultimate wild card, and will likely be the closest and lowest-scoring of the four games this weekend. The Texans will rely heavily on the their No. 2 ranked running attack, led by RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Dalton and team receiving-leader A.J. Green will be charged with the task of thwarting Houston’s dominant offensive line.
Players to watch:
T.J Yates (Houston): Yates left the final game of the season against the Tennessee Titans with a separated shoulder after just four attempts. He’s still expected to start, but how strong can he come back?
Andy Dalton (Bengals): Dalton has the edge in experience, and he’s the AFC’s first alternate QB in the Pro Bowl.
•The Bengals were 5-3 on the road this season, and the Texans were 5-3 at home.
•The Bengals are looking for their first postseason win in 21 years—the longest playoff drought in the NFL.
•The Texans are making their first postseason appearance in franchise history.
•Cincinnati was 0-7 against playoff teams this season.
Kelly’s Pick: Texans over Bengals
Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints (Saturday, January 7)
Just a few short years ago, a Saints-Lions matchup would have been one of those games where it looked like neither team was going to win. Who would have thought that a 2012 game would feature two quarterbacks who have thrown at least 5,000 yards?
The key for the Lions will be their defense, and containing the Saints talented offense led by QB Drew Brees. Brees threw for 5,476 yards in 2011 to set an NFL record. And, to top it off, the combination of Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles are averaging over 120 rushing yards per game. Another problem for the Lions is tight end Jimmy Graham, who played only one year of college football and has taken the team by storm in his second season with 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The Lions struggle in the secondary, but their best bet is going to be to stop Brees before he can get the ball to Sproles, the team’s rushing leader, and Graham, the team’s top receiver. The Lions will benefit from having safety Louis Delmas, who was selected to the Pro Bowl as an alternate, and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh—both of whom were out when the teams last met—back in the lineup.
However, it would be remiss for the Saints to forget that they’re going to be facing the Lions’ own 5,000 yard passer in Matt Stafford. The Lions’ top receiver is Calvin Johnson, whose 1,681 receiving yards were five-shy of a franchise record.
Players to watch:
Matthew Stafford (Lions): QB Matt Stafford finished with 5,038 passing yards to break a single-season franchise record dating back to 1995. The Lions defense will have to hold off on the penalties, as key to a win would be for them to keep the ball in Stafford’s hands.
Drew Brees (Saints): Clearly the MVP of the Saints. How about for the whole league?
•In 2011, the Saints are 8-0 at home, and the Lions are 5-3 on the road. Overall, Detroit is 3-8 in New Orleans.
•Though favored, the Saints aren’t taking this game for granted. Last season, the Seattle Seahawks stunned the Saints to become the first team to both enter and win a playoff game with a losing regular-season record.
•The Saints were one of three teams this season to beat the Lions by more than 30 points.
Kelly’s Pick: Saints over Lions
Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants (Sunday, January 8)
There are always exceptions that prove the rule, but here on the East End—as with most of our Tri-State neighbors—the NFL-MLB lines are typically drawn at Jets-Mets and Giants-Yankees. And there’s good reason for this: It’s superhuman to ask a sports fan to endure an entire 11 months of nail-biting come-from-behinds, near-misses and the occasional epic collapse. The outcome of Sunday’s game will be decided by which Giants team decides to show up. Or, more acurately, whether or not the Giants decide to finish this game.
There are always exceptions to the rules, but I believe that on the East End and throughout the Tristate area, the NFL-MLB lines are typically drawn at Jets-Mets and Giants-Yankees. And there’s good reason for this: It’s superhuman to ask a sports fan to endure an entire 11 months of nail biting come-from-behinds, near-misses and the occasional epic collapse.
So, if the Giants can keep up their late-game heroics (New York won six games in the fourth quarter this season, and Eli Manning now holds the NFL record for fourth quarter touchdown passes with 15), the game belongs to New York.
It’s no secret that the Giants have an incredible pass rush—they had 48 sacks this season. In the battle of Giants defense vs. Falcons offense, the Falcons are going to have to avoid being in ‘long’ situations on second and third downs.
The Falcons are still waiting for their fist playoff win under QB Matt Ryan. However, Ryan can’t lead the team to victory or demise by himself. Michael Turner has been the Falcons’ best running back with 1,340 yards on the ground, and he’ll have to maintain that consistency if the Falcons hope to thwart the Giants’ defense. The Falcons have won eight of their last 11 games, but they’re 4-4 on the road and 2-2 in open-air stadiums this season.
Players to watch:
Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants): In only his second year in the NFL, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has made the Pro Bowl, which says something about his explosive style of play. His 16.5 sacks are the best for the team since 2003—not bad for someone who didn’t even begin the season as a starter, but in the face of team injuries, stepped-in to start 11 of 15 games.
Matt Ryan (Falcons): The pressure is going to be on Falcons QB Matt Ryan to perform. He set a franchise record for passing yards this year but has yet to win a playoff game.
-In his four seasons as a starter, Falcons QB Matt Ryan is 43-19, but that breaks down to 26-4 at home and just 17-15 on the road. He’s also 0-2 in the playoffs.
-Giants QB Eli Manning gets a lot of grief for throwing interceptions, but the numbers indicate that, on paper, he’s not as bad as we all might think. Last season, Manning threw 25 interceptions (4.6 percent of his passes), and this season he has thrown 16 (a mere 2.7 percent).
-The Falcons made a last-minute draft-day trade for standout Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones. With 54 catches this season, Jones added almost a yard to Matt Ryan’s yard-per-attempt average.
-The Falcons and Giants have never met in the playoffs.
Kelly’s Pick: Giants over Falcons
Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos (Sunday, January 8)
The ‘Terrible Towel’ and ‘Tebow Time.’ Are there two more widely recognized – or widely hated – gimmicks in the NFL? Probably not. So, who will it be – that golden rally towel or the Mile High City’s golden boy?
Rationality says that it will be the Steelers. Pittsburgh has an aggressive defensive line (the league’s top pass defense), and Broncos QB Tim Tebow is not a pocket-passer. No doubt they’ll do everything in their power to keep him locked in the pocket and force him to throw – and hopefully make mistakes – from there.
The Steelers will suffer a blow with the absence of safety Ryan Clark. Clark has a sickle-cell trait that can be triggered at higher elevations. He has 100 tackles on the season, but it will likely be his leadership on the line that Pittsburgh will miss the most.
However, there’s always that fourth quarter. Tebow has an overall 46.5 completion percentage, but all stats seem to enter some sort of nonsensical twilight zone during ‘Tebow Time.’ In fact, his fourth-quarter passing percentage is well above his average at 53.8 percent. That number jumps to 57.1 percent in overtime.
Another little-talked-about key to a Broncos’ win would be kicker Matt Prater. Tebow is a mortal miracle-maker. What if he misses the touchdown and drives the Broncos into field-goal range instead? Prater is a solid kicker up to 39 yards, but he has only made 13 of his 26 field goal attempts in the 40-49 yard range.
Player to watch:
Troy Polamalu (Steelers): With Clark out, safety Troy Polamalu will have to step up his leadership role. Everyone knows that he can play lights-out, but how will he deal with making sure everything is together on the line?
Tim Tebow (Broncos): The quarterback is prone to both mistakes and miracles. He won seven of his first eight starts, but comes into Sunday’s game on a three-game losing streak.
-Prior to injuring his ankle against Cleveland on Dec. 8, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger had a 95.6 passer rating. In the two games since, he’s had a 62.2 quarterback rating.
-Roethlisberger has won seven consecutive January games.
-The two teams have met in the playoffs six times, each taking three. The winner of the previous matchups have made it to the Super Bowl five times.
Kelly’s Pick: Steelers over Tebow… I mean Broncos.