By: C.J. Doon
The NFL Wild Card weekend is normally synonymous with words like “exciting”, “breathtaking”,
“exhilarating”, and “must-see TV”. This year? It was about as exciting as a six-hour car ride.
One of the biggest reasons for this year’s snooze-fest was the absence of exciting, big-name teams. The Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, and Chicago Bears all notably missed out on the postseason, and as a result, we saw the Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings, and Indianapolis Colts take their place. And, predictably, they all fell flat on their collective faces.
Now, I’m not saying that any of the 12 teams that made the playoffs don’t deserve to be there. Each playoff team won 10 or more of their 16 games this season, and proved themselves to be part of the NFL’s elite. But would I (and most likely the rest of America) have rather seen the New York Giants or Chicago Bears face the Packers in Lambeau instead of Joe Webb and the E-Street Band? Abso-fricking-lutely.
Luckily, the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins decided to play a competitive football game (shocking, I know!) on Wild Card weekend, which featured two outstanding rookie quarterbacks in Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Washington’s Robert Griffin III. After falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter, Wilson – the 75th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft – led the Seahawks to 24 unanswered points, sending the Redskins packing. RGIII, who has captivated NFL audiences since his very first touchdown pass in New Orleans, played admirably with a sprained knee, but became ineffective as the game wore on.
Griffin is one of the toughest competitors you will ever see, which is part of the reason why he was voted team captain midway through the season as a rookie. However, both Griffin and head coach Mike Shanahan need to learn how to protect Washington’s franchise player. Seeing Griffin’s knee bend awkwardly during the waning moments of the game was a frightening scene, but was something that could have been avoided. It was the result of a football player’s stubborn mindset: play through injury, because you never know if you’re going to get another chance to get back on the field. Just look at the Alex Smith situation in San Francisco – one freak injury, and suddenly Colin Kaepernick is starting for the Niners in the Divisional Round.
You either play hurt and keep your job, or sit out and risk losing it to someone else. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality in today’s game.
I applaud RGIII’s guts and grit, but it’s time for NFL players and coaches to get smart. Had Griffin been told to sit out after the injury first occurred four weeks ago, there is a good chance he would have been 100% healthy once the playoffs rolled around. If that means placing your playoff hopes on the back of second-string rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins, so be it. Had Griffin’s knee been fully healed – or at the very least stable – for the Wild Card round, there is a very good chance the Redskins would be advancing towards the second round. Instead, Griffin suffered a tear of his ACL and LCL, and now we must hold our collective breath to see what kind of player returns to the field next season. And what do the Redskins have to show for it? A lousy first-round exit.
Now, let’s jump right into this week’s Totally Realistic Playoff Predictions!
This week, it’s the Divisional Round.
Home team in CAPS
Baltimore Ravens (4) vs. DENVER BRONCOS (1)
The Ravens accomplished their first goal of the postseason: send Ray Lewis out with a win in Baltimore. Lewis had announced that this season will be his last in the NFL, which made Baltimore’s 24-9 victory over the Indianapolis Colts that much sweeter. The Ravens’ defense – a unit that had been criticized for much of the season – returned to form on Sunday, limiting Andrew Luck and the Colts’ offense to three field goals. The rookie sensation could only muster 288 yards passing on 54 attempts, and was sacked three times, twice by defensive end Paul Kruger. Kruger also forced a huge fumble from Luck on the Colts’ second possession, which prevented Indianapolis from scoring and gave the momentum back to the home team.
Luck’s counterpart Joe Flacco played like an elite quarterback in the victory, throwing for 282 yards and two touchdowns. With Sunday’s win, Flacco became the first quarterback in NFL history to appear in the playoffs every year during his first five seasons. Many will argue that the Ravens won despite Flacco in the past, but now that Flacco is playing some of the best football of his career, the Ravens have a very real chance of grabbing that elusive Super Bowl title.
Standing in their way are the 13-3 Denver Broncos, led by MVP-candidate Peyton Manning. The Broncos have been one of the most impressive teams in the NFL, appearing in the Top 4 in points per game on both offense and defense. Wideouts Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas are one of the best receiving duos in the game, giving Manning the offensive firepower he needs to light up the scoreboard. Baltimore’s defense has played well recently, but can they find a way to slow down Manning?
The key matchup in this game will be Baltimore’s front four vs. the Broncos’ offensive line. Pro-Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady has protected Manning’s blind side all season, but will have his hands full when he faces Terrell Suggs, Paul Kruger, and Haloti Ngata. If the offensive line can keep Manning clean, and give the old veteran enough time to throw, the Broncos can exploit the injury-riddled Ravens’ secondary.
The Pick: Denver 27, Baltimore 17
Green Bay Packers (3) vs. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (2)
Green Bay heads into Candlestick Park well-rested, because let’s be honest, the Packers barely even broke a sweat in their 24-10 victory over the Vikings. Aaron Rodgers and the Pack are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winning 10 of their last 12 games after starting the season 2-3. Rodgers, the NFL’s reigning MVP, has a career playoff record of 5-2 and is coming off another stellar playoff performance, completing more than 69% of his passes for over 270 yards and one touchdown. Wide receivers Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, and James Jones all enter Saturday night’s contest healthy, which could spell trouble for San Francisco’s secondary.
The 49ers will be hosting a playoff game in the Divisional Round for the second consecutive season, thanks in large part to head coach Jim Harbaugh. Last season, Harbaugh and Alex Smith led the 49ers to a thrilling come-from-behind victory over the New Orleans Saints on a last-second touchdown pass to Vernon Davis before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the Conference Championship. This year, the season rests in the hands of second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who will be making his first career playoff start. After taking over for an injured Alex Smith in Week 10, Kaepernick put together a record of 5-2, and added a new dimension to the Niners’ offense with his ability to scramble and extend the play with his feet.
Without a doubt, San Francisco is a team that is built for the postseason: they run the football well and play stifling defense. They rank among the Top 4 in rushing yards per game, and hold their opponents to fewer than 95 yards rushing and 200 yards passing per game. The major wild card for the 49ers will be the play of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. If Kaepernick can maintain his poise, take care of the football, and make some plays with his feet, I think the 49ers can win this football game. However, I think the young quarterback will try to do too much and make some mistakes in his first playoff game, which will open the door for Aaron Rodgers and the Pack.
The Pick: Green Bay 28, San Francisco 21
Seattle Seahawks (5) vs. ATLANTA FALCONS (1)
I have to hand it to the Sports Guy, Mr. Bill Simmons. He predicted the Seahawks would win the Super Bowl before the season, and said Russell Wilson would become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. After defeating the Redskins on Wild Card weekend, Wilson’s Seahawks are just two wins away from making that dream a reality.
(Note to self: make more extremely unlikely bold predictions next season!)
It’s interesting to note that the past two Super Bowl champions (Green Bay and New York) have very similar stories. Both teams got hot down the stretch, entered the postseason as the #5 seed in the NFC, and went on to upset some of the NFL’s top teams en route to a Super Bowl title.
Hmm…what 2012 team fits that narrative?
That’s right, the Seattle Seahawks!
Of course, there are minor differences. Seattle is riding the hot hand of their rookie quarterback, and makes it hay running the football down their opponent’s throats (something the 2011 Giants and 2010 Packers NEVER did). But they all share one common theme: mojo baby, and lot’s of it!
If there was ever a more mojo-less mess (say that three times fast), look no further than the Atlanta Falcons. Seriously, has there ever been a less intimidating 13-3 football team in the history of the NFL? Atlanta has beaten up on inferior talent this season, putting together a record of 5-1 against weak divisional opponents in the NFC South. In fact, Atlanta has only played two playoff-caliber teams all season! Both games resulted in victories for the Falcons, but each win was a bit flawed. The Week 2 win over Denver is questionable. Peyton Manning was still figuring out a new team and a new offense, and the Falcons took advantage of three rare Manning interceptions. The Week 15 trouncing of the New York Giants was a bit more convincing, but any football fan will tell you that that was not the same team that won the Super Bowl last season.
So what do we make of the 2012 Atlanta Falcons?
They have a frightening passing attack led by fifth-year pro Matt Ryan, and possess two of the most dynamic receivers in the game in Julio Jones and Roddy White. Not to mention 36-year-old tight end Tony Gonzalez can still bring it. Their defense only allows 18.7 points per game, but again, that was against inferior competition. Their running game? Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers aren’t going to give the Seahawks nightmares anytime soon.
The Falcons are certainly good enough to win, but something tells me they won’t be ready to play Sunday afternoon. I think Matt Ryan & Co. do their job on offense, but the Falcons’ defense ends up letting the team down late in the game. It goes against all conventional wisdom to pick a rookie quarterback on the road against the NFC’s top seed, but Atlanta has simply not shown me enough toughness, grit, and swagger this season.
And besides, it’s destiny that the Packers and Seahawks meet in the NFC title game to play in the infamous “Fail Mary II: Revenge of the Pack.”
The Pick: Seattle 35, Atlanta 27
Houston Texans (3) vs. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (2)
Here is a list of reasons why the Houston Texans will not win this football game.
- Matt Schaub is the starting quarterback for the Houston Texans.
- Tom Brady is NOT the starting quarterback for the Houston Texans.
- Tom Brady is a three-time Super Bowl Champion, two-time Offensive Player of the Year, and two-time NFL MVP.
- Matt Schaub is none of those things.
- This is how Matt Schaub celebrated his first career playoff victory.
- This is how Tom Brady celebrated a first down in Week 14.
The Pick: New England 31, Houston 13
Last week: 3-1