The NFL’s 2011 regular season has come to an end and even though we already have coaches being fired, other coaches getting ready to pack their bags, and the Colts gearing up for their first #1 overall draft pick since Peyton Manning, we here at The Universe are not desperate enough to ignore the real story: the Playoffs!
I can begin with thanking the good Lord above for leaving that fat slob Tex Ryan and that nooodle-armed Pretend-xican of a QB Mark Sanchez far from our playoff blotter. I want nothing more than to see them fail, year after year (well, maybe I’d like it more if BOTH the Jets and Giants failed, but…can’t win ’em all). Sometimes, I stay up late at night wishing that all the feet in the world just disappeared along with every bottle of Cheese Wiz. That’s how much I enjoy seeing Tex Ryan NOT getting what he wants. Hell, he clearly eats everything else, so you’d think he’d enjoy eating his words after this season’s Super Bowl talk, and maybe he does, but I must say he handled it like a coach should: shouldering all the blame. Which is more than I can say about that coward Santonio Holmes. Woof. I hope Bart Scott gave him a tombstone pile driver from hell after that game!
Alright, that’s enough of that. I can’t stand the Jets and their terrible coaches/players, but I don’t want to give them any more attention than they’ve already suckled out of the NFL’s magical teet of a season. Let’s move on to some winners!
I’m going to go team-by-team, breaking down the AFC first, followed by the NFC, and within those breakdowns, we’re going to be making a little progression towards the ultimate goal: that Vince Lombardi trophy!!
New England Patriots (13-3)
The Patriots’ destruction of the Bills in the final week of the season helped solidify the #1 overall seed in the AFC for them as well as home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. This team is obviously one of the most well-coached in the league and is a legitimate powerhouse for the ‘chip. They get a first-round bye which helps Belichick and the gang get a head-start on their potential opponents which is scary. Their offense is as always, legendary, but what distinguishes this year’s Pats’ offense more than any other one we’ve seen from them since the 18-0 Randy Moss team is the big-play ability of The Gronk and Aaron Hernandez. Not since Moss have we seen a red zone threat like these two, and I’d argue they’re even better than Moss in that not only are there two of them, but their athletic prowess is much better as well. They’re big, they’re strong and they’re ridiculously skilled in both blocking and receiving. Sprinkle a little Wes Welker on top and this is arguably the best Pats’ offense, ever.
That being said, this team possesses a GLARING weakness that cannot be overlooked: their defense. Ranked 31st in the league overall, Belichick throws out a sieve of a secondary every game, and if Andre Carter or Shaun Ellis forgot to drink their Ensure that morning, their pass-rush is just as porous. It’s been said that you can’t win a championship without defense, and there’s nobody in the world praying that this isn’t the case more than Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. And speaking of the Bill, who was once such a vaunted strength for this team, his sideline magic hasn’t done squadoosh for the Pats in the way of playoff victories since 2007!
Luckily for the Pats, there’s really only one team on the AFC side of things that can pass the ball well enough to expose their secondary. Unlucky for them, however, is that they’re probably going to be facing that team in the 2nd round in the form of Ben Rapelisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Final Prediction: Super Bowl Pretenders
Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
Coming in at the #2 spot is Bodymore’s favorite team, the Ravens. As always they have one of the best defenses in the league and though time has slowed them (Ray Lewis in particular) somewhat, Ed Reed, T-Sizzle and Haloti Ngata are still in their prime. Yes, Lewis has slowed, but name 5 other MLB’s that you’d rather have leading your defense when it matters than Mr. Five-Deuce. You can’t, because he’s a born leader of men and let’s not forget that Lew Dog had a nice 4-game respite about 3/4 of the way through the Ravens season. Nobody in the playoffs benefits more from a first-round bye than the Ravens do as they can come into the playoff stretch fully rested and focused for a ‘chip.
They’re not ONLY defense, however. A one Mr. Ray Rice will be the first to tell you this, and I will agree, that he is without a doubt the key to Baltimore’s Super Bowl engine. Rice has gotten 15 or less rushing attempts 5 times this year and in those 5 games the Ravens are 1-4 (the lone win coming against the lowly St. Louis Rams). Using Rice a lot eats up the clock, giving the defense plenty of rest and keeping scoring responsibility out of Joe Flacco’s hands. John Harbaugh needs to utilize his stud of a back early and often, especially if (and when) they get matched up against division rival Pittsburgh down the road.
The key for the Ravens’ success comes down to the play-calling of Harbaugh. Will he be content to pound it, and pound it, and pound it with Ray Rice until the long pass to Torrie Smith or Anquan Boldin becomes open? Will he wise up and ask as little as possible from Joe “Spatter Cannon” Flacco? I think he will, and I think the Ravens have a legit shot at gold. Final Prediction: Super Bowl Contenders
Houston Texans (10-6)
Dragging themselves into the #3 ranking are the Houston Texans. Losers of 3 straight, the Texans look ripe for an embarrassing showing in their first-ever playoff appearance. Not so fast. This team has the league’s 2nd-rated Total Defense and Rushing Offense; two stats the are synonymous with winning franchises. Whether it’s Ben Tate or Arian Foster rushing the ball for them (or both?!), this team should not be laughed at. And if you do laugh, get ready to be punched in the face by Brian Cushing, DeMeco Ryans and the rest of that beastly defense. Their defense is good enough to dominate and win in an ugly game, and they’re going to have to be dominant because this offense is seriously lacking through the air.
Obviously, you’ve heard of their QB troubles and now it looks like TJ Yates will be gone as well, so we could be looking at a team that’s going to be starting Jake “I was a Free Agent to start the year because I was cut by the FUCKING BROWNS” Delhomme. As good as this defense is, I don’t think this TEAM is good enough to get any further than the second round as evidenced by their losing streak to end the season which came at the hands of 3 teams with a combined 17-31 record (Carolina, Indianapolis, Tennessee). Ultimately, I think they beat the Bengals at home, then get blown out by the Ravens on the road. Final Prediction: Super Bowl Pretenders
Denver Broncos (8-8)
No team has had a larger, more undeserving spotlight this year than the Denver Broncos. I’m sorry, but it’s just true, and believe this when I tell you, I am a TEBOW FAN! As much as I love Tebow though, this team has won this year thanks almost exclusively to a FILTHY defense and stout rushing attack. Led by co-defensive rookie of the year Von Miller (see below for my other co-winner), John Fox’s defense completed an amazing turnaround not only from last year’s group which ranked dead last in total defense, but also from a dismal start to 2011. Paired with this young and able defense is a rushing attack that’s true and tested featuring “Whatchu’ talkin’ bout” Willis McGahee, Lance “Gimee da” Ball and even Tim “The Toolman” Tebow. It’s no secret what this team is going to try and do: run, run the ball, and run the ball some more. They feel as though if they’re slightly ahead or within striking distance come the 4th quarter that they’re going to win the ball. And why blame them? They have Tim Tebow in the backfield…
The same Tim Tebow that willed the Florida Gators to a national championship, started his NFL career 8-3 and along the way drew comparisons to God’s other favorite son- Baby Jesus. Like I said, I love the kid, I want him to win EVERY single game EVER. I don’t think there’s ever been a better example of a Professional in the NFL. But let’s be real here, while he’s very capable of doing amazing things and willing his teams to victory through faith alone, he’s more Mother Teresa, less Jesus. He will persevere and reach deep into his soul to do wonderful things, but the guy is NOT a miracle maker. His inefficiencies at this point in his career are just too much to overcome, and I think his coach’s lack of faith in him hurts the team the most. I get that he’s not a great passer, but 271 passing attempts vs. 122 rushing attempts? Come on, man!
This is a fun team to root for, but certainly not a fun team to watch. Final Prediction: First-round losers
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Meet the team that’s going to be the Judas to Tim Tebow’s Jesus. Uncalled for, I know, but the first-round match-up between the Steelers and Broncos could turn into an ugly demolition. The Steelers are my AFC pick for the team you least want to play. Battle-tested, well-coached, and disciplined this is yet another “Pittsburgh Steelers” team. I use quotations because there’s something about the Pittsburgh franchise that constantly produces humble, under-the-radar, championship caliber teams year after year. This year is no exception. Assuming the Big Rapist is healthy and ready to go, Pittsburgh possesses arguably the most balanced team on both sides of the ball in the league. It’s looking like they’re going to be without starting RB Rashard Mendenhall for the duration of the playoffs, but if there’s any position in this league that can simply be “plugged in”, it’s running back (see the 2010 Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers). Isaac Redman has proven plenty able to take over for Mendenhall and in an offense that relies more on passing than rushing, Steelers’ fans shouldn’t worry.
I don’t even have to go into their defensive prowess, I’ll simply list what may seem like a Pro Bowl roster, but in reality is what is starting for the Pittsburgh defense: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, and Ike Taylor. This is a Super Bowl winning, nay, a Super Bowl WON defense that could be the x-factor in the Steelers run this year.
That being said, there’s one thing that concerns me about this team: their performance in big games. Their four losses this year came at the hands of the Ravens (2), Texans, and 49ers. Some may say that means they don’t have a single “bad loss”, but I would argue that they only have A SINGLE “good win”. Their Week 8 win against the Patriots in Pittsburgh is the only win on their schedule that impressed me. They had a chance to stand out by beating any of those 3 teams above, but they couldn’t get the job done and a combined record of 3-4 against playoff teams (2 wins coming against the barely eligible Bengals) doesn’t strike me as impressive in any way.
That being said, I think the Steelers roll all the way into the Conference finals against the Ravens in Baltimore. Who wins this game, it’s anybody’s guess, but I think a Steelers’ victory comes down to the old law of common sense: it’s damn near impossible to beat a good team 3 times in one season in the NFL. Final Prediction: Super Bowl Attenders
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
Another team limping into the playoffs, the 9-7 Bengals make a surprise appearance in this year’s playoffs. Picked by every person with a brain to finish near or at the bottom of the AFC, Andy “Red” Dalton, AJ Green and a surprisingly potent defense all came together to create a magical season for the striped cats. You can argue that no matter where this playoff run goes, it will be a success as it gets some playoff experience under Dalton’s belt and it saves Marvin Lewis’ job (one of the most underrated coaches in the NFL) for one more year. Combine all this with the fact that Cincy pulled an Ocean’s 11 on Oakland’s draft pick vault, and this team is set for long-term success all around.
But, I don’t think this year’s going to amount to much. Granted, they get a dream match-up in the first round against the STRUGGLING Houston Texans, but I don’t even see them winning that game. Maybe if they pulled off that final week victory against the Ravens I’d be singing a different tune, but their offensive talent is simply not enough to challenge the Texans’ defense. In what could be the ugliest game of the playoffs, I see a young Cincy squad succumbing to Texan mania. Final Prediction: First-round losers
Green Bay Packers (15-1)
The defending Super Bowl champions saunter into the #1 overall seed in the NFC and end the year with the best overall record in the NFL. Their offense comes equipped with the same championship pieces of a year ago PLUS a newly emerging star in Jordy Nelson, a fully healed Jermichael Finley, and a double-headed monster at RB in the form of a healthy Ryan Grant and 2nd-year man James Starks. The #3 ranked total offense in the league is led by co-MVP Aaron Rodgers, and backup Matt Flynn proved in the final week of the season that a Colts-esque crumble if the starter goes down WILL NOT happen here. Add return man Randall Cobb and this offense is no joke. With the best QB in the league calling the shots, it would NOT be a hard sell to have the Pack being the first team going back-to-back since 2005.
But, just like the New England Patriots, this team has a MAJOR flaw that cannot be overlooked: defense! The worst statistical defense in the league belongs to the Packers, and one has to wonder whether that can be overcome. “Well, they won it last year with the same defense” some may say, but that’s simply not true. Last year’s defense was ranked 5th overall and it lost KEY pieces in its transition to this year in the form of DE Cullen Jenkins (Free Agency), MLB Nick Barnett (Free Agency) and defensive quarterback S Nick Collins (injury). You’d think that’s not enough to cause such a massive downfall, but losing Collins for the year is arguably the second-biggest injury loss throughout the league behind Peyton Manning in Indy.
As bad as this defense is, the Pack still managed to flirt with perfection and lock up Lambeau for their run at repeating. The Pack will be a tough team to face, clearly, but I think they ultimately come undone due to their porous defense. The Chiefs’ supplied the formula on how to beat them: stingy defensive line play paired with a solid run game and a QB who doesn’t make mistakes= a Packers loss. New Orleans certainly is not going to pull this off against the Pack, but fortunately for Bourbon Street’s finest, they won’t have to- Green Bay loses a heart breaker to…be revealed shortly. Final Prediction: Super Bowl Pretenders
San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
My personal favorite of the playoff teams this year comes in the form of the team from the Bay. I can’t help but root for them: they’ve got a coach that I like in Jim Harbaugh, a QB I can’t help but root for in Alex Smith, and a defensive leader in Patrick Willis who will not only knock your fucking block off, but who has a pretty amazing story himself. The winners of one of the weakest divisions in football, I’m not sure what to make of the Niners just yet. While Smith has played extremely well leading the West Coast styled-offense, it’s no secret that this team’s success is rooted in their defensive performance. The 4th-ranked defense in the league is led by the Ray Lewis clone, Willis, and co-defensive rookie of the year Aldon Smith. While Willis is the unquestioned leader, and Smith is a sack machine (his 14 fell a half sack short of Jevon Kearse’s rookie record), the kudos doesn’t stop there as the defense features 4 Pro Bowlers total. Carlos Rogers is resurrecting his career at CB and 2nd-year LB NaVorro Bowman is 2nd in the league in tackles while uber-underrated S Dashon Goldson is finally getting the recognition he deserves. I watched this team play against the Steelers in Week 15 on MNF and it was one of, if not THE most entertaining game I watched all year. This defense is a thrill to watch and I can’t help but root for Jimmy Harbaugh to continue bringing San Fran W’s.
I also can’t help but wonder just how good this team is. I don’t know if it’s their record the past couple of years, the fact that Alex Smith is their QB, or that this is essentially the same EXACT team that has played so terribly the past 3-4 years; their only relevant addition being Coach Harbaugh. I want it to be true, but I simply can’t believe it: can a coach REALLY make this big of a difference? I don’t know for sure, and while I will say that the Niners are a contender, I will also say that they could be packing their bags after going up against Drew Brees and New Orleans in Round 2. I’m not sold on the Niners’ title chances at this point because they’re such an enigma, but they have the talent (9 Total Pro Bowlers) and the determination to do it. Final Prediction: Super Bowl Pretenders
New Orleans Saints (13-3)
Naw’lens is led by red-hot, record-breaking Drew Brees and a Sean Payton orchestrated offense that could probably outscore an NBA team. Fresh off a season in which he broke Dan Marino’s record for total passing yards and set a new record for completion percentage, Drew Brees looks prime to bring another ring to the ‘Nolia. Owners of the #1 ranked offense in all of football, New Orleans can hang enough points on the scoreboard to beat anybody. For some reason, teams continue to sleep on the best TE in football, Jimmy Graham, and whether they overlook him or simply can’t contain him, Darren Sproles is the best all-purpose RB in the league. Sproles and Graham, to me, are the difference between this Saints team and last year’s Saints team (the one which experienced a significant Super Bowl hangover). Sproles’ production on special teams is Hester-like in that if you don’t kick AWAY from him, he WILL give his offense a short-field to work with. And handing the ball to Drew Brees within 60 yards of the end zone is something you simply cannot do if you want to beat the Saints. Then there’s Graham, whose skill is just beginning to take shape. I will now become the Saints’ offense as well as Johnny Beatwriter, as I play the dual role of interviewer and interviewee: Who are you going to go to on 3rd and short? Jimmy Graham. Who are you going to go to when you need a big play? Jimmy Graham. When nothing’s working and you need a spark, who are you going to turn to? Jimmy Graham. One number, one play, whose number are you calling? Jimmy Graham. Jimmy Graham is the answer to any question you could ever have about this Saints’ offense, from A to Z, Brees and Payton channel everything through the former Hurricane basketball player.
Yet the offense is anything but one-dimensional. They have a stable of stud RB’s as well as a talented core of WR’s. How’d they ever lose, then, you ask? Well, their defense is certainly a weak spot. While not as bad as Green Bay’s or New England’s, New Orleans’ defense is far from a dependable unit. Ranked 24th overall, they lack a double-digit sack producer and they only have one player with more than a single interception (Patrick Robinson has 4). You can attribute some of these gaudy defensive numbers to the fact that teams who face them are constantly playing from behind, but the simply fact of the matter is this defense does not cause turnovers. They are the worst of all NFC playoff teams in turnover differential (-4) and when you’re on the field as much as they are, you’d expect more TO’s, but that’s just not the case.
That being said, I have the confidence in defensive coordinator Greg Williams to game plan like a champ and shore up any deficiencies come playoff time. The difference between the Packers and the Saints? Their second round match-up. Final Prediction: Super Bowl Attenders
New York Giants (9-7)
The New York Football Giants come in at the 4th seed after finally showing up in a win and get in scenario at home against the Cowboys. The Giants are without a doubt my second most hated team behind the Jets, but for some reason I’m okay with them getting into the playoffs. Maybe it’s because She-Li Manning finally dropped the “mediocre QB” label in my book, or because as much as I hate the Giants I don’t think there’s a better coach in the NFL for them than Tom Coughlin, and this playoff appearance saved his job. Let me rephrase, the appearance didn’t save his job, but the performance they’re about to put on without a doubt will. Remember my earlier claim about a mystery team dethroning the Packers? Well, meet surprise guest #1- the New York Giants. Obviously, in order to face the Pack the Giants must first beat the Falcons and the Saints need to prevail against the Lions but I foresee both “musts” occurring. This Giants team barely squeaked into the playoffs not because of a lack of skill or talent, but because they seem to always do this, every year. They kind of sandbag it throughout the season, tuning out Tommy C and letting their opponents push them around. But they’re in, again, and they’re my NFC pick for the team you least want to face.
Their defense isn’t what it has been in the past, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the potential for that and more. With Jason Pierre-Paul taking over for Osi Umenyiora as the freak pass-rusher, and Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips, Aaron Ross, Corey Webster and Prince Amukamara anchoring the league’s most underrated secondary, this is still a New York defense. A New York defense that can give the likes of Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers FITS. The only question mark I see with this team is their ability to stop the run, with an AWFUL line backing corps, the G-Men face a potential first-round exit when they go up against the run-happy Atlanta Falcons. I don’t think that happens, however, and I see the Giants rolling into Lambeau come round 2.
And that’s where Eli Manning comes in. Yes, the Giants defense can stymie Aaron Rodgers, but if Eli is back there throwing interceptions left and right it won’t matter in a Packers blowout. What the G-Men need is consistent Quarterbacking and I don’t think they’ve ever had as consistent or as good quarterbacking as they do this year. Pre-season, I was the biggest Eli hater around, attributing his Super Bowl win to a great defense more than anything else. While my stance on that win hasn’t softened, Eli’s now one of the Giants’ biggest strengths, and when you throw out an offense with Eli, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, you have a shot at hanging with Rodgers and co.
I think the G-Men are destined for an NFC championship game match-up with New Orleans. And while the Giants have a defense that can stop Aaron Rodgers, something that the Patriots and Saints don’t, I don’t think they have enough offense to compete with the Saints in the Super Dome. There’s something about that place come playoff time that’s special. Brees, at home, on turf= scary. The G-Men knock off the Pack, but go down in the bayou. Final Prediction: Super Bowl Contenders
Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Leading what could be the 2nd most balanced football team in the NFL is young QB stud Matt Ryan. Matty Ice turned in a hell of a year for the Peach State’s favorite team. While Ryan went from possible weak spot to obvious strength, much like Eli Manning did, the Falcons’ offense took a major step back in the run game. The addition of Julio Jones could have been what led to a change in philosophy from pound on the ground to air it out, or it simply had to do with an added trust of Ryan. I’m not sure what it was, but the way this team is built now makes for a very good regular season team, but they’re simply not good enough to compete in the playoffs. They grab a short straw in having to travel to the Meadowlands to face the Giants and despite having an above average offense and defense with no glaring holes, the Falcons will be heading home early. Not much to say here other than they’re still young, and their future is amazingly bright. Final Prediction: First-round Losers
Detroit Lions (10-6)
A posh pick to make the playoffs this year, Detroit didn’t disappoint its many believers by just squeaking into the final wild card spot. Matt Stafford is clearly the answer in Detroit, when healthy, and Titus Young emerged into a solid 2nd option in the passing game. Their defense is accentuated my head coach Jim Schwartz’s intensity and the nasty play of 2nd-year DT Ndamukong Suh. While I love the direction this team is headed in, I think they face an unfortunate situation in round 1 by having to head down to Naw’lens to face the Saints. I like this team against the Falcons, Giants and Niners, but NOT against the Saints. Again, not much to say here beyond the fact that this was a hard fought and successful year for the Lions. They have a glaring need at RB for the future, but can they really afford another first-round miss on offense? I don’t know how they shore up their running game moving forward, but if they develop a refined rushing attack and add another play maker or two on defense then the Lombardi trophy could be parading down the streets of the Motor City next year. Let’s hope it doesn’t get stabbed, shot or robbed in its time there. Final Prediction: First-round Losers
Super Bowl Prediction
So judging quickly by my write-ups, we’re looking at a Saints vs. Steelers Super Bowl which would make the 2nd in the past 4 years for whoever were to win (2nd in 3 for the Steelers). While I think defense is important, and it’s a must to win a championship, I don’t think the Saints’ defense is THAT bad to where you’d have to say the offense won in spite of it. I admittedly do NOT like the Pittsburgh Steelers. They’re too Yankee-like for me: business-like, professional, winning; but they play with some serious fire (see: James Harrison). While I think Pittsburgh can easily win this game based on the simple fact that Ben Rapelisburger is THE BEST big game QB in the league (yes, over Brady and Rodgers and Colt McCoy [joke]) because of his ability to prolong plays, I don’t think they do it.
Super Bowl 46 is taking place inside, on turf, where Drew Brees and co. make their living. If this game were being played outside, in the northeast somewhere I don’t see how the Steelers lose. But, because it’s clearly going to be an offensive-led, high-paced battle, I don’t think the grit and experience of the Pittsburgh Steelers can outmatch the intensity and talent of the New Orleans Saints.2012 Super Bowl Champions: the New Orleans Saints
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