By: C.J. Doon
After a thrilling set of games in Week 17, the 2012 regular season is officially in the books. The final Sunday of the season featured two “win-and-you’re-in” games, including a virtual first round playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins that would decide the NFC East champion.
With the Minnesota Vikings’ 37-34 victory over the Green Bay Packers on a last-second field goal by kicker Blair Walsh, the Vikings clinched a playoff berth, and broke the hearts of Giants and Bears fans everywhere. In the night game, Washington’s fantastic pair of rookies and stifling defense paved the way for the Redskins first division crown since 1999, with a 28-18 victory over the Cowboys. Offensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner RG3 and sixth-round draft pick Alfred Morris combined for 363 yards of total offense and four TDs, sending America’s Team packing. For the third time in five seasons, the Cowboys had a chance to win the division on the last game of the season. And for the third time in five seasons, the ‘Boys will be booking their plane tickets for an early vacation.
Out of the 32 teams that play in the NFL, only 12 survive the long, grueling season to advance to the playoffs. It’s not enough to post a winning record – the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants (9-7) and the Chicago Bears (10-6) were eliminated on the last day of the season. It takes focus, commitment, consistency, and maybe just a little bit of luck to make it to the Big Dance. In other words, every quality that Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys don’t possess.
Now without further ado, I present for your viewing pleasure my Totally Realistic Playoff Preview! (Plus, Super Bowl pick!)
This week, we tackle Wild Card Weekend.
Home team in CAPS
Cincinnati Bengals (6) vs. HOUSTON TEXANS (3)
Just three weeks ago, the Texans were sitting pretty at 12-2, and were all but guaranteed to have a first round bye. After back-to-back to losses to end the season, the Texans now enter the postseason as the #3 seed, and must host the red-hot Cincinnati Bengals on Wild Card weekend. The Bengals enter the game having won seven of their last eight games, including a 34-13 shellacking of the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. During that stretch, the Bengals defense did not allow more than 17 points in a victory. In fact, of the 12 teams remaining in the postseason, Cincinnati’s defense ranks 5th in points per game allowed (20.0), trailing only Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, and Atlanta. Second-year quarterback Andy Dalton has avoided the “sophomore slump”, and has found a reliable target in wideout A.J. Green, who ranks among the Top 10 in the NFL in receptions (97), yards (1,350), and touchdowns (11).
For the Texans, Arian Foster has solidified himself as one of the few elite running backs in the NFL. Utilizing the Texans zone-blocking scheme, Foster has rushed for over 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns, while wide receiver Andre Johnson has bounced back from a sub-par 2011 season with more than 1,500 yards receiving in 2012. Oh, and quarterback Matt Schaub made the Pro Bowl. For reasons I have not been made aware of.
The Texans’ defense is one of the best in the NFL, coming in at fourth place in DVOA, according to FootballOutsiders.com. Defensive lineman J.J. Watt has turned into an absolute star in only his second season, recording 20.5 sacks in 2012. Watt is the main cog of the Texans’ 3-4 defensive scheme, lining up at defensive end or tackle on any given play. It is going to be tough for the Bengals to run the ball against the Texans’ fearsome front, which means Andy Dalton is going to have to make some big throws and take care of the football for the Bengals to have any chance at an upset. I think Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are going to play well, but the Texans’ defense will tighten up late in the game, and ultimately seal the victory with a huge turnover in the fourth quarter.
The Pick: Texans 24, Bengals 20
Minnesota Vikings (6) vs. GREEN BAY PACKERS (3)
Call it “The Rematch”. Minnesota defeated the Packers on a last-second field goal in Week 17 to sneak into the playoffs, and prevented the Packers from grabbing the #2 seed and a first-round bye. The Vikings enter the game riding the high from their victory over the Pack, but this time around they must leave the warm and cozy Metrodome and travel to frigid Lambeau Field. Adrian Peterson defied all odds this season by rushing for over 2,000 yards just months after tearing his ACL and MCL, and finished just nine yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record. In the Vikings’ two games against the Packers this season, All-Day has rushed for 409 yards and two touchdowns. But it’s not Peterson I’m worried about. I know Peterson is going to bring it each and every game. The major wild card for the Vikings is quarterback Christian Ponder.
In the Vikings’ first game at Lambeau in early December, Ponder threw two interceptions in the red zone in the second half, all but guaranteeing a Packers’ victory. In Game 2, with the playoffs on the line, Ponder took extreme care of the football, completing 16 of 28 passes for 234 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions. The question is, which Christian Ponder is going to show up on game day?
Adrian Peterson has put the team on his back all season, and that’s not going to change in the playoffs. I expect to see a monster performance from Peterson, but I think Ponder is going to throw one too many costly interceptions late in the game to spoil the upset bid. The game is going to come down to which quarterback can make the big play, and limit his mistakes. I’ll take Aaron Rodgers every time.
The Pick: Packers 31, Vikings 27
Indianapolis Colts (5) vs. BALTIMORE RAVENS (4)
After being drafted by the Colts with the #1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Andrew Luck has turned a struggling 2-14 football team into an 11-5 powerhouse. The Stanford grad broke Cam Newton’s record for most passing yards by a rookie in a single season, throwing for 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns with a total QBR of 65%. Luck has been so impressive that they’ve completely forgotten about former Colts great Peyton Manning, who, by the way, has won 13 games and led the Broncos to the #1 seed in the AFC. After head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia in September, interim coach Bruce Arians led the Colts to a Wild Card berth, until Pagano returned in Week 17 to coach the team in a win over the Houston Texans. #ChuckStrong was the rallying cry for this Colts’ team, and the community in Indianapolis showed a stunning outpouring of love and support for their head coach that was truly inspiring. Win or lose, the Colts should be proud of such a remarkable season.
Facing the Colts will be the #4 seed Baltimore Ravens, who limp into the playoffs after losing four of their last five games. Joe Flacco, playing in the final year of his rookie contract, will need to shake off some late-season rust and put together another strong playoff performance to solidify himself as the Ravens’ franchise quarterback. This year’s Ravens squad does not possess the same fearsome defense that has made the team successful in the past, but veteran safety Ed Reed, linebacker Ray Lewis, and sack-master Terrell Suggs will all be healthy and fired up when game day arrives on Sunday. Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin, and Torrey Smith are all capable of making big plays, but need Flacco to play well in order to make an impact.
This game is going to come down to the fourth quarter, which means both quarterbacks will need to lead a late drive to win the game. Andrew Luck has led seven game-winning drives this season, including four 4th quarter comebacks, while Flacco has led three game-winning drives, including three 4th quarter comebacks. The Colts look like the team of destiny this season, but I think the Ravens’ veteran players will be able to play within themselves and take advantage of the inexperience of a young Colts team. Andrew Luck and the Colts are going to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come, but not this season.
The Pick: Ravens 28, Colts 27
Seattle Seahawks (4) vs. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (5)
Of the 12 teams that made the playoffs this season, six feature a rookie or second-year quarterback. Young quarterbacks used to have to wait their turn to see the field (See Rodgers, Aaron or Young, Steve), but now, the sky’s the limit! Young quarterbacks like RG3, Russell Wilson, and Andrew Luck have completely overhauled the culture of their respective franchises, turning slumping teams into Super Bowl contenders. The first-round matchup between the Redskins and Seahawks is only the second playoff game in NFL history between two rookie quarterbacks. The last time was 2011, when Andy Dalton faced T.J. Yates in the Wild Card round.
Seattle vs. Washington is easily the most exciting matchup of the first round, with the fearsome rushing attack of RG3 and Alfred Morris taking on the equally scary rushing tandem of Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. Seattle heads into the game riding a five-game winning streak, and have outscored their opponents 193-60 in those games. The Seahawks are the only undefeated team at home this season, but own a pedestrian 3-5 record on the road. Washington’s crowd will be buzzing for the Redskins’ first home playoff game since 1999, which could shake the Seahawks off their game. Russell Wilson has shown a tremendous ability to avoid the rush all season long, which will take the sting out of Washington’s blitz-heavy defense. I think Wilson outplays a hobbled RG3, but Washington’s defense steps up late in the game and creates a turnover that leads to a game-winning field goal.
The Pick: Redskins 23, Seahawks 21
Totally Realistic Super Bowl Pick
Patriots 34, Green Bay 31
It pains me to say this, but the Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl. There’s just no doubt about it. The only thing that stands between another Brady-Belichick Super Bowl ring is Peyton Manning and the Broncos, and I just don’t think they can do it. The Broncos’ defense has been superb this season. Von Miller has the ability to take over a game by himself, Champ Bailey is still a shutdown corner…and yet, I’m going to take Brady and the Pats every single time. Why? Because it’s Tom Brady.
You might be saying, “Yeah, but what about the Niners game? They were getting killed!” Yes, they were losing 31-3 at halftime, but did you see the furious comeback Brady led in the second half? Brady led the Pats to four straight touchdown drives against one of the league’s best defenses. The Patriots almost won the Super Bowl last season, and are even better this season! That’s scary. They can now run the football with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead, and have upgraded at wide receiver with the addition of Brandon Lloyd. Not to mention, Gronk is set to return at full health after the first round bye.
So, there you have it folks. The Pats are going to win the Super Bowl. I really, really, really wanted to jump on the “RG3 wins the Super Bowl and then ascends into heaven” bandwagon, but you know, this is the “Totally Realistic Playoff Preview”. Maybe next time.