So when the season started, I predicted a rematch of Super Bowl XXXI, Packers vs. Patriots. Lo and behold, they’re the two #1 seeds heading into the post-season. The bad news is, the top seeds don’t seem to both advance to the big game these days.
The Packers know they’ll be facing a team they’ve already played in the divisional round. If the Lions win in New Orleans, they’ll head back to Lambeau. Otherwise the Pack gets the winner between the Giants and Falcons. One thing’s for sure: the road through the NFC will be brutally tough this season. I think the league’s top three teams reside in this conference and any of the six could get hot and advance to the Super Bowl.
Here’s how I see this weekend’s games going:
Detroit at New Orleans: The Saints are 10 1/2 points favorites in this one–a rematch of a game last month, when the Saints won by two touchdowns. The Lions were in this one, but as usual, penalties and a lack of discipline cost them. They also were without Ndamukong Sue, who was serving his stomping suspension.
A concern for Detroit is the health of Megatron. He’s nursing a sore Achilles, but has not missed practice. Obviously, they need him at his best to keep up with Brees and the Saints. The strength of the Lions is their front four, a unit built for the speedy carpet that the Dome provides, so I expect them to be a factor in this one. The Saints were 8-0 at home and most expect them to rout the Lions and move on to a date with the 49ers.
I think the Lions put up a great fight here. If they can keep their heads and not commit dumb penalties they’ll be in it till the end. Ultimately, Brees is too tough in games like this and I say the Saints win, 38-31.
Atlanta at New York: The Giants are a field goal favorite and are gathering steam as the team that’s getting healthy and hot and may be that dangerous “wildcard weekend” team. I’m not buying it. They’ve been a confounding team all season: a team that could go up to New England and win and a team that lost at home to Seattle. Yes, they’re healthier on the defensive line, but their back seven is still vulnerable to strong offenses and I think they’ll have a tough time slowing the Falcons’ high-powered offense.
Working against Atlanta are a few factors. They’ve only beaten two teams with winning records and the next playoff game that Coach Mike Smith, QB Matt Ryan and TE Tony Gonzalez wins will be their first. They’ve had a year to think about the playoff whipping administered by the Pack last season and are hoping they can take up the mantle of road warriors–beginning at Met Life Stadium.
Eli Manning is a proven playoff winner, Ryan knows he needs to win one of these to lose the “loser” tag. I think his team is equipped to do just that. They’ve got a running back in Michael Turner who can keep drives going and keep Manning off the field. Rookie Julio Jones is healthy and provides a field-stretching target in the passing game. With Roddy White and Gonzalez, they will be able to put points on the board. The forecast calls for partly sunny skies and temperatures in the low 40s–tailor made for these offenses.
I like Atlanta to move on, call it 31-27 and a playoff rematch with the Pack the following weekend.
The AFC playoffs are a lot less compelling, from where I sit. Two rookie QBs face off for the first time ever in a playoff game in Houston. This shapes up as a defensive battle. I have a hard time believing in the Bengals, a team that needed to beat the Texans at home late in the season to improve their playoff standing, but couldn’t keep Yates and the Texans from moving down the field for a winning score late. And in this game, Yates will have Andre Johnson back. Throw in a strong running game with Arian Foster and I think Houston moves on to the divisional round.
The Steelers will have no issues with the Broncos, despite being really banged up. They’ll be without center Maurkice Pouncey, safety Ryan Clark and running back Rashard Mendenhall. Big Ben is still hobbled and is nowhere near 100%. But the Broncos come in losers of their last three and with a QB who seems to have lost his confidence and does not appear anything close to ready for a matchup with a defense like the Steelers. Pittsburgh wins, 17-6.
A final reminder, there will be no “Packer Preview” this week, since the Packers have the week off. But Trent Tucker and I will break down the four playoff matchups Saturday morning at 8am CST on KFAN and kfan.com.