Aside from Green Bay’s dominating season, it’s tough to say much of the season has played out they way many expected. Nine of the division’s have different champions this year then in 2010, something that hasn’t occurred since the realignment in 2002.
The playoffs are always difficult to predict, but we’re going to try anyway. As always, if you disagree, leave your predictions in the comments below, or tweet me your thoughts @notsolegato.
The Wildcard Round
Cincinnati at Houston – The Texans have overcome more obstacles than any other team this season on the road to the franchise’s first playoff berth. Injuries to Mario Williams, Matt Schaub, and Andre Johnson could have derailed Houston’s season, but instead the team rallied around TJ Yates and they won the AFC South.
The match up of rookie quarterbacks will be the best chance of an upset in the wildcard round. Experience is crucial in the playoffs, and while Andy Dalton is making his first playoff start, he has far more experience than Yates.
The Bengals weren’t able to take down the Texans when they played earlier in the year, but history won’t repeat itself on Saturday. It figures to be one of the best games of the weekend, but the banged up Texans will come up just a bit short and will have to wait at least one more year for a playoff win.
Pittsburg at Denver – At first glance, this game seems obvious. Pittsburg is clearly the better team, falling just short of winning the AFC North title. Meanwhile, the Broncos fell backwards into the playoffs and are far from the magical ride they were on just a few weeks ago.
Still, this game could be surprisingly tricky. Pittsburg will be without Rashard Mendenhall for the playoffs after he tore his ACL, Denver is always a tough place to play thanks to the high altitude, and there is the danger of Tim Tebow pulling off another miracle.
In spite of all that, it’s really difficult to imagine a scenario where the Broncos pull off an upset. Anything could happen of course, but you have to feel Pittsburg wins this one pretty soundly.
Detroit at New Orleans – This one is going to be fun. With Calvin Johnson and Drew Brees wreaking havoc on both defenses, this match up is going to be a must watch. Both of these offenses will be scoring plenty, so where can we find a potential edge?
You have to give the nod in coaching to New Orleans. Sean Payton has been here before, and since he’s been back on side lines instead of the in the press box the Saints have looked pretty unstoppable at times. For the Lions, it’s Jim Schwartz at the helm. He’s certainly shown himself to be a good young coach, but he’s inexperienced in these types of situations, and he’s shown at times that he’s had difficulty keeping his cool.
In a game that is sure to have a ton of points put up, one or two plays could be the deciding factor. It’s going to be a shoot out, and when that’s the case you have to pick the team that has the best marksman. Stafford is growing into a great quarterback, but Brees is one of the best in the game right now, and he’ll lead the Saints to a win.
Atlanta at the New York Giants – It was a struggle, but someone finally won the NFC East. The Giants certainly had their ups and downs through the season, but they’re playing well here when it counts.
The Falcons will have a tough task on their hands, leaving their dome to play outside in chilly New York, but don’t count them out. The Falcons are playing well recently too, having won 3 out of the last 4.
It might be cold, but regardless of the temperature Matt Ryan is still going to have plenty of options to throw to, and I’m not sure the Giants are going to be able to handle that. With Eli Manning playing like he is right now, part of me sees the Giants making another improbable run through the playoffs. However, I’m picking the Falcons to steal an upset win on the road.
Cincinnati at New England – A late entry for the most surprising stat of the 2011 season: The Patriots have yet to beat a team with a winning record. Is that reason for some optimism from Cincinnati?
If Cincinnati wants to get the win, they’re going to have to make AJ Green the focal point of the game. Get him targets early and often, and he’ll have plenty of chances to make plays against the Patriot’s abysmal secondary.
Still, I just don’t see Andy Dalton taking out Tom Brady in the playoffs, at least not this year. New England will get their first win over a winning team in this match up as they move on to the AFC Championship.
Pittsburg at Baltimore – It only seems fitting that the Steelers and Ravens would face off again this year. They’re the two best teams in the league’s division, and this one will be sure to be a slug fest. These teams absolutely hate each other, and while there won’t be too many points scored it’ll be a great game to watch.
Baltimore is going to have a huge challenge in this one. It’s exceedingly difficult to beat a good team once, much less three times as they’ll be trying to do. It’s even more difficult when the teams are as familiar with each other as these two are.
Pittsburg will have plenty to overcome as well, primarily the injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Mendenhall. But they’re a veteran team with tons of playoff experience, and it will pay off as they’ll get past the Ravens and earn a match up with the Patriots.
New Orleans at San Francisco – This game is going to be a clash of philosophies. With New Orleans you have the priority of a high scoring offense, the 49ers choose to grind wins out on the ground and with strong defense.
So which on will win out in this match up? San Francisco has been a great story all year without question, but it’s just not quite their time to shine yet. The Saints’ offense is more elite than the 49er defense, and Brees just has more big time game experience than Alex Smith. The time for San Francisco will come, but for the time being it’s the Saints advancing to the NFC title game.
Atlanta at Green Bay – On paper, this game doesn’t feel like one that’s going to be very close. In reality, that’s probably going to be the case.
Green Bay has been on a roll this season that won’t be rivaled for quite some time. They have to be confident in themselves, having just won the Super Bowl as a wild card team last year. More over, the Packers are healthy this year, making them an even scarier prospect.
The Falcons will fight hard early, but they just won’t be able to keep up with the Packers high flying offense for 4 quarters.
Pittsburg at New England – If this game were played in a vacuum, you could make the argument that Pittsburg could be favored. They have the firepower at wide receiver to destroy the Patriots defense, and they have the players on defense to rattle Brady.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, however, this game will be played in New England, and the already hurting Steelers will be coming off a brutally physical match up against the Ravens. Pittsburg will likely just be too beat up to take down New England on the road, giving the Patriots yet another Super Bowl berth.
New Orleans at Green Bay – Another week, another shoot out in the NFC side of the bracket. It’s tough to pick a team that really has a strong edge in this match up. Both teams have coaches and quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls, and both teams have looked pretty darn near unstoppable at times this season.
It just may come down to the weather in this match up. Green Bay in January is always a tricky scenario, and if it’s snowy or windy it’s a huge advantage to the Packers. While they’re an offense that’s predicated through the air, they’re also much more prepared to play in the poor conditions that a Green Bay winter can hold. It’s a game that could easily go either way, but I think the Packers will come out on top.
New England vs. Green Bay – A match up of two big fan bases, two premiere quarterbacks, and a game that promises plenty of touchdowns is exactly what the league would hope for, and it’s what it will get come Super Bowl Sunday.
Bill Belichick is likely already working on ways to stop Green Bay’s passing attack, but it’s going to take more than a solid game plan to slow Aaron Rodgers down. The Packers just have too many weapons, and the Patriots have too many holes in the secondary to really have much hope in slowing the Packers down.
It will go down as on of the best quarterback match ups in the Super Bowl of all time, and it’s not likely to disappoint. Green Bay will put on a aerial display and take home their second world championship in a row.
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