NFL Playoff Power Rankings: Wild Card Round
Now that Santa and his minions have gone into hibernation and the NYE Facebook photo albums are quickly getting old we can finally focus on what really matters in these young days of 2012: the NFL playoffs. I feel like Smiling Bob of Enzyte commercial fame when I think about the four wild card matchups set to take place this weekend. Each contest has its own riveting storylines, not to mention the giant trolls (Packers, 49ers, Patriots, Ravens) waiting around the next corner for the weekend’s survivors. We’ve entered a new phase of the season in which every team’s record is 0-0, but the ultimate goal remains the same. Which teams have the best chance to pop champagne in Indianapolis come February? Below are the Playoff Power Rankings, taking into account a combination of each team’s season as a whole, their play down the stretch, the stars leading the charge, team health and the X-factors. I dare you to find a more thorough ranking.
1. Green Bay Packers (15-1)
Season as a whole: 1
Only eight times in the Super Bowl’s 45 year history has the defending champion extended their reign to hoist the Lombardi trophy a second consecutive time. Thus, despite what oddsmakers in Vegas say about the Packers, history is not on Cheesehead Country’s side. It may not be the “what”, but the “who” on Green Bay’s side that really matters. Likely to be voted the repeat MVP, Aaron Rodgers has quickly shed Brett Favre’s shadow in just his fourth season under center. Rodgers has done little more than mask one of the most average defenses in the league en route to a near-perfect season. How average is Green Bay’s defense? It ranks dead last in yards per game; in the bottom five in yards per play, first downs allowed per game, third down conversion percentage allowed, and penalties; and in the middle of the pack in points per game. The saving grace for this unit is its turnover ratio (+24), a category in which it ranks second in the NFL thanks to its league-leading number of interceptions (31) and the offense having the second lowest number of giveaways (credit to Mr. Rogers).
Play down the stretch: 3
Losing a potential perfect season to the middle-of-the-pack Chiefs is probably more a blessing than a curse for the Packers’ championship desires, though it still remains a silly blemish on an otherwise squeaky clean resume. That game aside, the Pack won a tight game on the last play against the Giants in Week 13 and took care of Chicago and Oakland in convincing fashion. Week 17 is difficult to judge because Green Bay played with backup Matt Flynn at the helm. We learned that the offense is more than just A-Rodge, as Flynn had a franchise record-setting day, and that the defense is still extremely vulnerable to high-flying offenses. The Green Bay defense averaged 25.4 points per game over the last five weeks.
Star leader: 1 (tie)
As aforementioned, Aaron Rodgers asserted himself as the best quarterback in the league, making Green Bay the team to beat in the process. Rodgers has been unbelievably efficient with only 10 turnovers (6 INT, 4 fumbles) to 48 touchdowns (45 passing, 3 rushing). His season passer rating of 122.5 is significantly higher than the next best mark (Drew Brees, 110.6).
Team health: 4
Several Packers are banged up but on the mend. Most notably, Greg Jennings has returned to running route in practice after tearing his MCL and missing the final three games of the season. The offensive line gets a boost with the return of tackles Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga. The only player missing from practice is running back James Starks, who has another week to recover from knee and ankle injuries. Nick Collins remains the only key packer on IR, though Green Bay has been adapting to his injury since October.
It is difficult to say whether Jordy Nelson’s breakout year is more a product of Aaron Rodgers’ success or his own. Either way he has become a top ten target seemingly over night, ranking ninth in yards (1,263), fifth in yards per catch (18.6), third in touchdowns (15), ninth in catches of 20+ yards (19), eleventh in yards per game and within the top 25 in YAC (389) and first downs (47).
2. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
Season as a whole: 3
The Saints put together a solid season, yet ending up without a bye has to sting. The sting is especially painful when taking into account two of the team’s three losses came at the hands of Tampa Bay and St. Louis (a combined six wins this year). Had New Orleans been completely focused from beginning to end it could have matched Green Bay’s 15-1 record. It’s a shame to see all the quality opponents the Saints took down (Chicago, Houston, Atlanta twice, New York Giants, Detroit and Tennessee) when New Orleans does not have a first round bye to show for it. Regardless, this is one of the most complete teams in the league, giving up only 21 points a game compared to the 34.2 the offense puts on the board.
Play down the stretch: 1 (tie)
New Orleans is hot. They are tied with New England for the longest current winning streak at eight games. As aforementioned, within those eight wins were the Falcons twice, the Lions, Giants, Titans and a much-improved Panther team. The average margin of victory throughout the winning streak: 16.6. In the last five games the Saints averaged 37 a game while surrendering only 17.4.
Star leader: 1 (tie)
Brees is a statistical maniac. More than that, he puts points on the board with the best of them; New Orleans has finished fifth, twelfth, first, first, eleventh and second in points per game since Brees came over from San Diego in 2006. He spreads the ball with great efficiency, favoring the open target rather than the most talented one. Just two years removed winning it all, Brees turned in the masterpiece season of his career so far with highs in completions, completion percentage, yards (obviously), touchdowns and passer rating, and the second lowest number of turnovers he has ever recorded. Brees is New Orleans’ leader physically, mentally and emotionally; his team buys what he is selling.
Team health: 3
The Saints are the epitome of health. Mark Ingram was recently put on IR and will have toe surgery, but the rookie is just one component of New Orleans’ four-headed rushing attack. Wide receivers Lance Moore (hamstring) and Robert Meachem (bruised knee) have been kept out of practice this week as precautionary measures, though Meachem returned to practice Wednesday, and both expect to be available this week. New Orleans is not missing any other key contributors from the season.
Jimmy Graham, like Jordy Nelson, has gone from role playing pass catcher to an elite, record-setting receiver. Graham, also like Nelson, has become the favorite target of his MVP caliber quarterback. Though his record for receiving yards by a tight end was broken by Rob Gronkowski the same week it was set, Graham is right behind Gronk in every statistical category. He has from another one of Brees’ numerous outlets into a legitimate downfield and redzone threat. His combination speed, strength and hands make him a matchup nightmare for bigger linebackers and his production is up there with the best wide receivers in the league.
3. New England Patriots (13-3)
Season as a whole: 2
The top three teams showed us that this year is all about offense, and a defense that bends but does not break. New England gave up yards at an alarming rate, barely outgaining their opponents this year 6848-6585, but had the third best turnover differential (+17). The pass-happy Pats dialed the throw on a ridiculous 58% of plays, averaging 38 a game, while effectively using the ground game as a counter to the fast-paced no huddle. Only three of New England’s 13 wins came by a touchdown or less, while they were outscored by a grand total of 15 points in three losses. Brady relied heavily on versatile tight ends Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and with great success, helping Gronk set just about every receiving record by a tight end this year while also getting Hernandez close to 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
Play down the stretch: 1 (tie)
While New England cruised for most of the season, it wasn’t for a lack of competition. They had Baltimore and Pittsburgh on their heels for the top seed in the AFC down to the wire and managed to keep both team just out of arm’s reach. Though the Patriots had some close calls against the less-talented Broncos, Redskins and Dolphins, in the end they did what was necessary to preserve home field advantage. In the final five games, Brady hit at or above his season averages in yards, completion percentage, touchdowns and passer rating while throwing two picks.
Star leader: 1 (tie)
No active player knows how to come through under pressure quite like Tom Brady according to the three rings he has sitting at home in the trophy case. Brady does not appear to be slowing down at age 34, posting perhaps the second best statistical season of his career behind the 2007 campaign, and leading a defense as woeful as the Packers’ to the top seed in the AFC. Unfortunately for Brady his effort in surpassing Dan Marino’s single-season passing yards record has gone largely unnoticed due to the fact that Brees finished with more yards. Perhaps he will only use it as added fuel to will a Patriots team that features a lot less pure talent than in years past.
Team health: 8
New England’s health situation is a bit unclear. The team does not have to release an injury report because of the bye week. What we do know is that Andre Carter and his 10 sacks are now on injured reserve, a huge blow for an already porous defense. Bill Belichick has been mum on Tom Brady’s left shoulder and Wes Welker’s knee, though both are listed as probable with over a week until the Patriots have to suit up.
Few teams are capable of reigning in all of Brady’s passing weapons in any single game, though it is not impossible. For that reason BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the rest of the rushing committee in New England serves mostly as a strategic change of pace to New England’s offensive flow, relying on the Law Firm just over ten times a game to catch the defense off guard. He is by no means a sexy running back, of which there are only a remaining few, but Green-Ellis and fellow back Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead get the job done when called into action.
4. Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
Season as a whole: 5 (tie)
Baltimore probably wishes it could turn back the hands of time on its two stinkers against Jacksonville and Seattle for another shot at home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Perfect home and division records can help the Ravens sleep at night as they prepare for the divisional round of the playoffs, one more loss and they would have been on the road all the way to the Super Bowl. Flacco took a step back in his progression from last season, and he certainly underperformed in three of the four losses as well as some of the wins, but Ray Rice and the defense stepped up (even with Ray Lewis’ first absences in a long time) to take care of business.
Play down the stretch: 4
Had the defense not let Philip Rivers and Ryan Mathews shred them for 34 points in Week 15, Baltimore might have been the one seed in the AFC. Alas, the Ravens were in another fight to stay ahead of division rival Pittsburgh, which it barely managed to accomplish thanks to a squeaky clean division record. Rice and the defense deserve most of the credit for getting Baltimore the coveted bye.
Star leader: 6
When Ray Rice runs, Baltimore wins. It’s pure fact. In each of their four losses this year Rice had 13 carries or less. The only victory in which Ray had less than 18 carries came against St. Louis. His durability and talent allows the Ravens to overcome Flacco’s inconsistencies. Rice ranks in the top 10 in every rushing category, and in the top five in total yards (1,364) and touchdowns (12).
Team health: 1 (tie)
Baltimore has yet to release an official injury report this week, but Anquan Boldin (knee) is back in practice this week. The only other players worth mentioning are guard Marshall Yanda (chest) and defensive end Cory Redding (ankle), and both suited up Week 17.
Chris Johnson might have been the only bigger case of Jekell and Hyde than Flacco this season. Baltimore never knew which quarterback was going to show up each week, the one who turns in passer rating perfomances well below 80 or the one who could protect the ball and guide the offense efficiently down the field. One thing we do know is that he is unlikely to turn in a monster performance with 300 yards (four times all year) and multiple touchdowns (six) in any given game.
5. San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
Season as a whole: 2 (tie)
San Francisco put together an old school campaign, winning games on the strength of its defense. Only one other elite team, Baltimore, used the same blueprint and has for years. Both teams have a Harbaugh at the helm, interesting. That may not bode well, though, for the 49ers come crunch time when defense tires and a guy like Aaron Rodger or Drew Brees can will his team down the field. The numbers are very impressive. San Francisco allowed just one running back to top 100 yards all season and held teams to a paltry average of 77.3 yards per game. The Bay Area representatives also boasted the best turnover ratio, taking the ball away 38 times and giving it up only 10, a testament to steady ball control from Alex Smith and Frank Gore. Soft division schedule aside, San Fran got wins over tough oppnents in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit, the Giants and Steelers.
Play down the stretch: 5 (tie)
Though they have the bye and it now matters little that San Fran dropped a disappointing game to Arizona in Week 14, you can’t ignore that loss and two close calls against the other division foes (Seattle, St. Louis). This team is built on defense, but it still needs an offense to score more than the 23.6 it averaged in the last five weeks for a fighting chance to beat the top teams. That is unless, of course, the defense can do what it did to an injured Roethlisberger and the Steelers in its Week 15 20-3 victory on prime time television.
Star leader: 10
Frank Gore is a guy that has been pegged for a real breakout several seasons running (pardon the pun). Each year he turns in roughly the same “good but not great” effort: averaging roughly 1,100 yards and seven scores on 236 carries for seven seasons. That amounts to a high yards per carry of 4.6, yet Gore remains a consistent second-tier back when San Francisco needs him to be more with a shaky Alex Smith at quarterback. The 49ers will likely dial a heavy dose of running in the playoffs, giving Gore the chance he deserves to show that he is the face of the franchise.
Team health: 1 (tie)
San Francisco has been hit only minorly by the injury bug this year, and are currently in great shape as they will watch the wild card round from their couches. Kyle Williams will be fully recovered from his concussion by next weekend, as will Ted Ginn from his ankle issue. Both are back in practice. It is worth monitoring cornerback Carlos Rogers (knee) and Patrick Willis (hamstring) as the divisional round gets closer.
The list of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks since 1993 is an exclusive club, featuring guys like Aikman, Young, Elway, Favre, two Mannings, Brees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger and Brady. The only guys who don’t seem to belong are Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer. That doesn’t bode well for a guy like Alex Smith, who is more of a game manager a la Rex Grossman, Matt Hasselbeck and Jack Delhomme (all Super Bowl losers in the last decade). If Smith can shed his “game manager” title and rise to the occasion, the 49ers have a chance to go far on the strength of their defense.
6. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Season as a whole: 7
It was only a year ago that the Falcons were the top seed in the NFC. This season, by most calculations, has been a disappointment for Hotlanta. Sure three of their six losses came at the hands of New Orleans and Green Bay, but if the Falcons want to be respected as an elite team they have to pull out wins against the best. On the same token, a lot went right in the grand scheme of things. Michael Turner’s burners were in full effect, the emergence of rookie Julio Jones gave Matt Ryan two top-1o targets and the Falcons were +8 in the turnover differential.
Play down the stretch: 8
Strange though it may sound, Atlanta actually had a chance to win the NFC South going into Week 13. Had the Falcons been able to put up more than ten points against a stout Houston defense and win that game, and take one of two from the Saints, they would have been 12-4 and tied with New Orleans atop the division. As is stands the Falcons are lucky to have avoided a first round match-up with their division rival by stomping the bottom-feeding Panthers, Jaguars and Bucs near the end of the season, and getting some help from Detroit in the final week. It isn’t exactly clear whether late-season momentum is on their side after an up-and-down last five weeks.
Star leader: 7 (tie)
Matty Ice hasn’t quite earned his nickname, awesome though it is. Ryan led the Falcons to only three wins against teams that finished with a .500 record or better, beating Philadelphia, Detroit and Tennessee but falling to Chicago, Green Bay, Houston and New Orleans twice. His career number suggest that Ryan is slowly improving with each season, but he has yet to make any real noise in the postseason. This would figure to be the year as Ryan is equipped with more offensive weapons than ever and has his offense working on all cylinders.
Team health: 7
Atlanta received some good news on the injury front this week as linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (head), Turner (groin), and safety William Moore (groin) returned to practice. Cornerback Brent Grimes (knee) and linebacker Stephen Nicholas (toe) are still out, though key guys like Roddy White (hip) and Jonathan Babineaux (hamstring) are back to full speed. Atlanta has had to deal with the loss of defensive veterans Kelvin Hayden and Mike Peterson.
X-factor: 6 (tie)
There is no doubt Roddy White is still Ryan’s favorite target after receiving almost double the number of targets than Julio Jones. But Jones is more important than just the third option in the passing game. He stretches the field for guys like White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner to see less secondary pressure in the short field. Nearly a third of his 54 catches were plays of 20+ yards and his YAC total of 417 is the best on the team. Every team looks for that back-breaking long play in the playoffs and Julio Jones is one of the best deep threat options left in the playoffs behind Calvin Johnson, Mike Wallace and Victor Cruz.
7. New York Giants (9-7)
Season as a whole: 10 (tie)
The season wouldn’t feel right without New York, Dallas and Philadelphia bludgeoning themselves and each other into mediocrity. We know that all three teams are better than their 9-7 and 8-8 records suggest, but this year the Giants were the best of the three over the course of the seventeen weeks. Philly might have been the best down the stretch, but they waited too late to get on a roll. Eli Manning lugged the G-Men through a mid-season melt down in which they dropped four straight to fall all the way to 6-6. Losing games to Washington (both meetings) and Seattle make for serious head scratchers when New York topped the Patriots, Cowboys (twice), Jets and Cowboys (twice) in the same year. This is the first year in a long time that the Giants aren’t missing multiple key pieces due to injury.
Play down the stretch: 7
Most analysts suggest the Giants are peaking at the right time. That might be true, but the fact remains that it took them until a Week 17 showdown with the underachieving Cowboys to secure their spot in the playoffs. Beating Dallas twice and the Jets all in the final four weekends is huge, but that glaring 23-10 loss to the Redskins in Week 15 meant New York were looking over their shoulders until the very end. Manning was shaky in the last five weeks, turning in two subpar games, two good games and one stellar performance in the playoff-clinching win over Dallas.
Star leader: 5
Eli Manning owns one of the most dramatic and surprising Super Bowl victories of all time. Nobody will ever take that away from him. In my mind he still sits behind the Fantastic Four (Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger) in terms of the ability to rely on him for a game-saving performance against any of them. His fourth quarter comeback numbers are astounding, this season Manning led six game-winning drives (the second time he has reached such a total). He deserves all of the credit for laboring New York to the NFC East title through a very up-and-down year.
Team health: 5
A team used to being hit rather hard by the injury bug, the Giants are in relatively good shape this late in the season. They have overcome the preseason torn ACL suffered by top cornerback Terrell Thomas and only two players are listed as questionable: tight end Jake Ballard (knee) and cornerback Corey Webster (hamstring), though Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and Osi Umenyiora (ankle/knee) have been fighting injuries for a few weeks.
X-factor: 6 (tie)
Victor Cruz came from complete obscurity to put up top three receiving numbers in almost every category. More importantly, his newfound presence gives the Giants the deep threat they have lacked for years and makes up for the preseason departure of Steve Smith. He pairs up nicely with emerging star Hakeem Nicks as a possession/deep-threat combination. If Cruz can wreak havoc like he did with 25 catches of 20+ yards and five of 50+ yards, the Giants should be in good shape this weekend against Atlanta.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Season as a whole: 5 (tie)
Pittsburgh hung around with Baltimore like the unpopular kid on the playground trying to get in with the cool crowd. It is hard to explain why the Steelers struggled in beating lower teams such as Indy, Jacksonville, Kansas City and Cleveland, but the fact remains that their four losses came at the hands of division winners Baltimore, Houston and San Francisco. Pittsburgh would sure like to have one of those losses to Baltimore back, but other than that the season went about as well as they could have hoped for (minus losing Rashard Mendenhall to an ACL tear in Week 17). Taking care of Tennessee, Cincy and New England was important for a team constantly hit with injuries and suspensions. The defense has been up to snuff despite missing the services of James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and other key contributors.
Play down the stretch: 5 (tie)
The going got tough for the Steelers in the back end of the year. Depending on Roethlisberger’s bum ankle surely kept Mike Tomlin on edge the entire time. Regardless, Pittsburgh went 4-1 over the last five games, dropping an ugly one to San Fran in which Big Ben was playing against both the 49ers and his ankle. A healthy quarterback might have written that script differently, with the defense holding San Fran to just 20 points, and Pittsburgh would be sitting at home this weekend instead of Baltimore. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh travels to Denver to take on Tebow and the Prophets minus their lead running back.
Star leader: 1 (tie)
Despite a rash of injuries you can never count out a team with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm, even if he has one functional foot. Big Ben is tougher than nails and flat out knows how to win. With three Super Bowl appearances and two triumphs, his experience in the limelight falls short only to Tom Brady. Though his stats suggest an off year, Roethlisberger lost only to Baltimore twice, San Francisco and Houston, all playoff teams and division winners. Not to mention the bevy of suspensions and injuries to the defense that he has had to overcome. Choosing between Rodgers, Brady, Brees and Roethlisberger in a single game situation is essentially a wash.
Team health: 12
Health is Pittsburgh’s biggest enemy as they prepare to face the Broncos on the road. Losing Rashard Mendenhall in the final week of the season to a torn ACL is about the worst scenario you could have dreamed up. Ben Roethlisberger could have used the bye week to heal his severely sprained ankle. James Harrison (toe), center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle), end Brett Keisel (groin) and Troy Polamalu (calf) have all been out of practice midweek while LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) is back to full strength. With Mewelde Moore listed as questionable the Steelers are forced to feature Isaac Redman as the lead back.
The Steelers like their chances to win when Troy Polamalu is on the field. They are 85-38 when he plays, and have gone just 6-7 since 2009 when he is on the sidelines. The accolades speak for themselves: seven Pro Bowls, 4 All-Pro selections, 5-time AFC Defensive Player of the Week, NFL 2000s All-Decade Team and the 2010 AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year. His stats are far from gaudy, but his presence deep, in the flat and at the line of scrimmage cannot be put into numbers.
9. Detroit Lions (10-6)
Season as a whole: 8 (tie)
The turnaround this franchise has undergone since the arrival of Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh is heartwarming, even to a Bears fan. Winless three seasons ago, and managing just eight victories in the last three seasons, making the playoffs is quite a triumph for Detroit. What might be more impressive is the Lions’ ability to overcome Suh’s and Schwartz’s off-the-field distractions to stay above water and clinch the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. The defense has struggled to bottle up opponents, though its 34 takeaways are tied for second most this season. With a strong front line led by Suh and Cliff Avril, the Lions have been aggressive to pressure the quarterback but an injury-plagued secondary has been heavily exploited.
Play down the stretch: 9
Detroit’s schedule was anything but forgiving in the last six weeks, facing Green Bay twice, New Orleans, Oakland and San Diego. The Lions took care of the latter two teams, but a failure to get just one win from the former two means another game against the streaking Saints. The biggest disappointment has to be the 45-41 shootout loss to the Matt Flynn-led Pack. Not only did Flynn fill in nicely for Green Bay in a game that had zero significance for the defending champions, but Flynn set franchise records for passing yards and touchdowns in a game that carried all matters of importance to Detroit.
Star leader: 7 (tie)
Matthew Stafford/Calvin Johnson
This combination might possess the most raw talent in the business. Stafford put up big boy numbers in just his third season (5,038 yards and 41/16 TD/INT with a 63.5% completion rate). Johnson regularly dictated the way opposing defenses drew up coverage, drawing double teams and still producing MVP numbers (96 catches, 1,681 yards, 16 TDs). His ability to outrun, out-muscle and outjump defenders borders on unfair. The winning pedigree is the only thing this pair lacks.
Team health: 11
Detroit is monitoring the status of several key components, namely Johnson (achilles), defensive tackle Nick Fairley (foot), safeties Louis Delmas (knee) and Chris Harris (back), and cornerbacks Chris Houston (hand), Aaron Berry (shoulder) and Alphonso Smith (foot). Jahvid Best’s absence has caused issues with Detroit’s running game, which now depends on the oft-injured Kevin Smith, who has been limited in practice this week.
Ndamukong Suh is an absolute monster with the ability to disrupt a team’s offensive flow. He blocked a field goal against the Raiders in Week 16 to give Detroit a 9-5 record and a spot in the playoffs. With just four sacks, 36 tackles and no forced turnovers Suh had a quiet statistical season but often all it takes is one strip of the quarterback to affect a game.
10. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
Season as a whole: 10 (tie)
Playing in the same division as powerhouses Baltimore and Pittsburgh, Cincy has its work cut out for it every season. What’s more, with a rookie quarterback and rookie wide receiver leading the offense, that challenge is only more difficult. Both rookies had breakout first seasons in squeaking the Bengals to a wild card berth and favorable first round matchup with Houston. This young team, backed by a surprisingly solid defense, is still a ways away from top flight status with losses to San Francisco, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Houston. Hopefully this new resurgence will put fans in the seats in the coming seasons.
Play down the stretch: 10
The Bengals are one of three teams that backed their way into the playoffs, losing three of their last five and leaning on tiebreakers to get to the postseason. Cincy’s last win against a winning team came Week 9 against Tennessee.
Star leader: 11
Cincinnati depends on its rookie duo of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green a whole lot. The Bengals’ run/pass percentage breakdown this season was 47/53. Green was the target on 22% of Dalton’s throws and accounted for 30% of the team’s receiving yards. Dalton struggled against the better teams he faced, particularly division foes Baltimore and Pittsburgh (twice each), San Francisco and this week’s opponent, Houston. Obviously Green’s production lives and dies largely at the hands of Dalton, though he really only disappeared in three of Cincinnati’s seven losses (San Fran, Pittsburgh and Baltimore). Are the rookies ready to disprove the “experience” theory?
Team health: 10
Cincinnati can breathe easy now that Andy Dalton has beaten the flu, though they are still working on getting him and defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Frostee Rucker back to full participation in practice. Center Kyle Cook and safety Chris Crocker are good to go. The Bengals miss Leon Hall dearly in the secondary.
A lethal passing attack has allowed Cincinnati to refrain from leaning on Cedric Benson for most of the season. In fact, his 1,067 yard season came largely on the strength of 50-70 yard games, topping 100 yards just three times and scoring in only five contests. If Benson can get the wheels churning it will take a lot of pressure off Dalton, Green and Jermaine Gresham to constantly come up with big plays.
11. Houston Texans (10-6)
Season as a whole: 8 (tie)
Houston should be proud of its first playoff appearance and division title, though it came with the absence of Peyton Manning. The Texans fought through injury issues with Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson, winning on the strength of their rock solid defense that is without stud Mario Williams. Yet this season wasn’t without its serious mental lapses that an elite team cannot afford to have. Losing to Oakland early on and dropping the final three games to Carolina, Indy and Tennessee surely doesn’t feel good, nor does TJ Yates’ separated left shoulder. If Houston’s postseason run ends before it gets off the ground, they have a lot to look forward to with the return of Schaub and Johnson getting back to full strength next season.
Play down the stretch: 12 (tie)
TJ Yates’ inexperience caught up with the Texans in the last three weeks of the season as they lost to three teams they should have beaten, no excuses. Winning those three games would have magically vaulted Houston to a 13-3 record and a first round bye. Alas, this young team is not quite ready to keep such exclusive company.
Star leader: 9
Arian Foster is about as good a player to lean on as any when the injury bug hits. In the five games Foster played alongside rookie TJ Yates, he topped 100 yards in three of them despite added attention in the box and had a workman’s load of 107 carries in that span. Foster managed to top 1,000 rushing yards with room to spare despite missing three games, averaging 94 yards per game as well as four catches and 50 yards per contest. Can he overcome Yates’ big game inexperience and take Houston past the first round in its first playoff visit ever? A tall order for sure.
Team health: 9
The Texans, besides the obvious health issues at quarterback, have some nicks and bruises that should not keep anyone from suiting up. Center Chris Myers (knee), defensive tackle Shaun Cody (knee) and TJ Yates (shoulder) are all back to full participation in practice while Foster, Andre Johnson, cornerback Jonathan Joseph, and Owen Daniels are still limited participants.
It is unfair to expect a guy like TJ Yates, coming out of a weak college football program at North Carolina, to excel when unexpectedly shoved into his first professional action midway through his rookie season. Yet that is the nature of the beast. In terms of his own expected progression Yates is light years ahead of where he should be, but like fellow newcomer Tim Tebow, he is no longer held to those expectations. Yates’ standards have changed andas the quarterback he has to be the leader, not Foster or Johnson.
12. Denver Broncos (8-8)
Season as a whole: 12
No team deserves to be playing this weekend less than the Broncos, and most Denver fans will readily admit to that. It was only a matter of time before Tim Tebow’s rushing attack was figured out by the rest of the league. John Fox temporarily looked like a genius by benching Kyle Orton and promoting Tebow, but the proof is in the pudding and the pudding just isn’t ready yet. Tebow’s passing numbers are appalling and though his rushing stats are very solid, running quarterbacks and run-based offenses have not fared well in the postseason in recent history. Averaging 18 points and dropping games to Buffalo and Kansas City do not inspire confidence or fear.
Play down the stretch: 12 (tie)
If it weren’t for a lackluster AFC West filled by three other teams who did not seem to want the playoffs, the Broncos surely would not be playing host this weekend or playing at all. Denver went 2-3 over the back third of the season, ending on a three game skid in which they averaged 13.3 points a contest. Defenses are finally adapting to the scheme Fox created to fit Tebow’s playing style, and not just good defensive units but the Patriots, Bills and Chiefs. This is a team quickly scrambling to rediscover the confidence it had in a young leader who reeled off seven wins in eight games.
Star leader: 12
There isn’t a more unproven team leader in the playoffs than Tim Tebow. Tebow’s play has been highly scrutinized now that the league has seen Denver’s vulnerabilities with him under center. He might have college championship pedigree, but Tebow has never faced a true elimination game in which he was not far and away the most talented player on the field.
Team health: 6
Brian Dawkins has yet to return to the practice field after being held out of the season finale against Kansas City due to a neck injury. Eddie Royal has been limited by a toe issue, though he has not featured much in the passing game behind Eric Decker and Demariyus Thomas. Dawkins remains the key player out due to his role as the veteran emotional leader of the defense.
Opponents will be expecting a heavy dose of Timmy Time. If Willis McGahee can continue his resurgence as a workhorse back who averages nearly five yards a carry then Denver will have an easier time controlling the clock, keeping its defense rested, and will not have to worry about scoring in bunches and play their pace.