NFL 2011 Wild Card Weekend

Five Quick Hits

* During a 5½-minute stretch on Sunday afternoon, FOX showed two plays and nine commercials. That's not okay.

* The Hall of Fame has announced this year's 17 finalists, and for the most part it's a good group. The only ones I definitely wouldn't vote for are Jerome Bettis, Charles Haley, and Andre Reed.

* My favorites: Jack Butler, Cris Carter, Dermontti Dawson, Chris Doleman, Curtis Martin, Will Shields. That leaves off some great players I'd like to see enshrined.

* In his sixth season with the Texans, Gary Kubiak has now led the team to its first ever postseason win. Most owners these days wouldn't keep a coach past five years if he never made the playoffs. Good on ya, Houston.

* Someone at FOX has got to tell Jimmy Johnson to go easy on the tanning beds. Jimmy, you're orange.

***

Jim Nantz: "You said to me this week you thought [Rashard] Mendenhall was one of the top 10 backs in the league."
Phil Simms: "I don't even think that's a question."

Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Michael Turner, Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles ... It's at least a question. Mendenhall ranked 21st in the NFL in rushing yards this year. Wild card analysis below, divisional round predictions below that, All-Loser Team at the bottom.

Wildcard Roundups

Texans 31, Bengals 10

In the first-ever postseason battle of rookie quarterbacks, Andy Dalton tossed three interceptions, and Houston scored 24 straight to overcome an early deficit. Some of the Texans were visibly nervous in the first quarter, as T.J. Yates and Arian Foster admitted in post-game interviews. But the Bengals failed to capitalize on their opportunities, and when you let a good team stick around, you generally pay for it.

The turning point in the game was Dalton's first interception, when rookie lineman J.J. Watt made an acrobatic play to steal the pass at the line of scrimmage, running into the end zone untouched for Houston's first lead of the day. Before that play, it felt like the Texans were lucky just to be hanging on. Immediately afterwards, you got the sense Cincinnati was in trouble. Turnovers play a critical role in any game, but the past few seasons, it seems like every playoff game hinges on turnover differential. I think it was Shannon Sharpe who said on Sunday that in the playoffs, momentum swings more often and more dramatically than in the regular season. That does seem to be the case.

The Bengals lost by three touchdowns, so let's be clear that I'm not trying to blame any one person, but man, Chris Crocker had a rough game. He dropped a potential interception that he probably could have run back for a touchdown, and he's the guy who got stiff-armed on Arian Foster's brilliant 42-yard touchdown run. The Bengals allowed more than 31 points only once all season, at Pittsburgh in Week 13. They seemed to sleepwalk through most of the second half, but credit the Texans for coming up big in their most important game ever.

Saints 45, Lions 28

The Saints set a playoff record for offensive yardage, and the two teams combined to tie a 1995 Bills/Dolphins matchup for the most combined yardage in a postseason game. In that game, Dan Marino passed for 422 yards, but Buffalo actually rushed for 341 — more than twice as many yards as New Orleans (167) and more than 10 times as many as Detroit (32). It would be nice to see the Lions add some balance to their offense next season. We already know they can throw. Calvin Johnson proved again, even in defeat, that he is the greatest receiver in the game today, catching 12 passes for 211 yards and 2 TDs, becoming only the sixth player, and the first since Steve Smith six years ago, to gain at least 200 receiving yards in a playoff game.

This was the second wild card game in the last three years with over 1,000 yards of combined offense. Remember the Cardinals/Packers game a couple years ago, when Aaron Rodgers passed for 422 yards and scored 5 TDs, and Kurt Warner threw more touchdown passes than incompletions? The contest set postseason records for total points (96) and combined first downs (62). There were more yards gained in New Orleans on Saturday.

The definitive factor was New Orleans' ability to sustain drives. The Saints didn't punt all game, converting 7/10 meaningful third downs (a kneel-down in the final minute made it 7/11) and going 3/3 on fourth down.

Giants 24, Falcons 2

This season, the Giants ranked 25th in points allowed, 27th in yards allowed, and 29th in passing yards allowed. Every opponent they faced in 2011 scored at least one touchdown and at least 14 points. Even the Rams! Only one team all season gained under 300 yards of offense against the Giants (Dolphins, Week 8). The Giants hadn't held any opponent to under three points since a shutout victory over the Buccaneers two and a half years ago.

So the Falcons came into New York (yeah, New Jersey, I know) and just laid this offensive egg of massive proportions. They gained only 247 yards and failed to score on offense or special teams, lighting up the scoreboard only with a lonely safety. The Giants played well defensively, but let's be honest. This is not a great, or even particularly good, defensive team. Atlanta's offense stunk on Sunday.

If you wanted to blame one person for the loss, in which Atlanta gained its fewest yards and points of the season, I'd look at head coach Mike Smith. The Falcons came into this game with Napoleon's battle plan: (1) Show up, (2) See what happens. I don't know what their strategy was, unless it involved repeated quarterback sneaks into the heart of New York's defensive line.

The Falcons' fourth-down decision-making in this game was a horror. On the first play of the second quarter, the Falcons went for it on 4th-and-1 from the Giants' 24, passing up a 42-yard field goal attempt for the early lead. Matt Ryan got stuffed on the sneak, and the Giants took over. That led to the safety, so it wasn't a total disaster, but on the subsequent drive, facing 4th-and-1 from the opponent's 42, Smith opted to punt. Huh? You'll go for it from the 25, where you can kick an easy field goal, but not from the 42, which is too far for a field goal and too close to punt? Matt Bosher's kick was fair caught at the 15-yard line, a 27-yard punt.

In the third quarter, down 10-2 and facing 4th-and-1 from the 21, the Falcons again passed up a makable field goal and came up short on the quarterback sneak. At what point do you stop saying to yourself, "We'll get 'em next time," and start realizing that your opponent is better at defending this play than you are at running it? The uninspired play-calling on 3rd- or 4th-and-short was only part of the problem. Smith declined to challenge an apparent fumble early in the first quarter — a huge play — and accepted a holding penalty on the next down, giving New York 4th-and-4 at the 36 instead of 3rd-and-27 at the 13. I know you're happy the Giants are going to punt, but that's a 23-yard swing in field position. You don't think your defense can stop them on 3rd-and-27?

Given the lopsided outcome, it barely seems worth noting that the Giants were repeatedly on the wrong side of close calls by the officiating crew.

Broncos 29, Steelers 23

On Sunday, Pittsburgh's coaching staff was too stubborn to win. Ben Roethlisberger, who started the game well short of 100%, aggravated his ankle early in the second quarter. He threw interceptions on each of his next two plays, though one was nullified by a Denver penalty. At halftime, Ben had 134 yards and a pick (48.1 passer rating), compared to 185 and a touchdown for Tim Tebow (122.3 rating). Ben repeatedly held the ball too long, had another turnover saved by a bad call, when his fumbled lateral — clearly a backwards pass — was judged to be an incomplete pass, and the whistle made the play non-reviewable.

A similar issue arose in the Saints/Lions game, when Detroit looked to have a sure fumble return TD. That's a short-coming of the replay system, something that the league should try to address.

Anyway, Roethlisberger looked awful. The Steelers should have sat him down for Charlie Batch. Ben played when he probably shouldn't have in Weeks 15 and 17, too. Do the Steelers have that little faith in Batch, or does Roethlisberger have the power to overrule his coaches?

I don't think the Steelers took Denver seriously. They played a hobbled quarterback because they didn't believe they needed a healthy one. They had no pass rush, because they didn't believe Tebow could throw. He passed for a career-high 316 yards, including five passes of 30 yards or more, and wasn't sacked, for only the second time as a starter (the first being Week 10, when he only attempted 8 passes). Tebow's 10.9% sack percentage was the worst of any starting QB this season, and the Steelers didn't get to him once.

I realize it's tough when you're missing so many defensive starters. Ryan Clark didn't play because of a serious medical condition. Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel were injured in the first half and never returned. Lamar Woodley was on and off the field. That's no excuse. The Steelers weren't prepared, and they played sloppy. They used a critical second-half timeout when the clock wasn't running. Backup center Doug Legursky drew two penalties for being late with the snap, and he hiked the ball over Roethlisberger's head on a play that pushed the Steelers out of field goal range.

Injuries obviously played a role in Denver's victory, but let's not make excuses. The Broncos showed up ready to play. Pittsburgh expected them to roll over and die. You hate to say this about a team of professionals, but it looked to me like the Steelers didn't try hard enough. They didn't prepare properly, they didn't make the right in-game adjustments, and they made critical mistakes throughout the game.

Divisional Forecast

In the first round of this year's playoffs, all four home teams won. That hasn't happened since 2006.

Saints at 49ers

New Orleans has looked unstoppable recently. The Saints have won nine games in a row, and scored more than 40 points in four straight. Their 17-point victory over Detroit was actually the first time in a month the Saints hadn't won by more than 20. But now New Orleans has to play the 49ers in San Francisco. The Saints went 8-0 at home, but just 5-3 on the road. The franchise actually has never won a road playoff game. And the Niners were 7-1 at home this season.

This is not a great matchup for San Francisco. The 49ers have a great defense, particularly run defense. The Saints can run, but they win first and foremost through the air. If the Niners are going to come out on top, they'll have to match Drew Brees' big plays with big defensive plays: sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries. They also need to attack the Saints in the air, where New Orleans has shown flashes of serious vulnerability, especially when the game stays close.

This is probably deranged, but I think we tend to overrate offense and underrate defense, and this cross-country road trip is a big deal for the Saints, so I predict the 49ers win an upset, coming away with a hold-your-breath 1-point victory.

Broncos at Patriots

The Broncos get just six days to rest before their next game. They'll travel halfway across the country, to face the Patriots in a building where they almost never lose. New England easily defeated the Broncos in Week 15, and now Denver will be without Eric Decker. Many of us underestimated the Broncos last week, but New England won't do that, and Denver probably can't bring its A-game two weeks in a row. There's no comparison between a gimpy Ben Roethlisberger and a healthy Tom Brady, plus the Broncos have a long road trip on a short week, facing one of the best home teams in the NFL. New England by 17.

Texans at Ravens

I've been known to overestimate the importance of home field advantage, but it's hard to overstate in this case. The Ravens are an entirely different team at home (8-0) than away (4-4). Houston got a huge boost from the home crowd and closed roof against Cincinnati, but those advantages will be reversed in Baltimore.

The Ravens' run defense is 2nd-best in the NFL, allowing only 3.5 yards per attempt and 92.6 per game. That means the Texans probably need big games from T.J. Yates and Andre Johnson. Defensively, I'd aim to neutralize Ray Rice and hope Joe Flacco has one of his off days. A big play or two on special teams wouldn't go amiss. Too many things have to go right for the Texans to come out on top here. I'll say Baltimore by a touchdown.

Giants at Packers

There's a comparison to be drawn between the Giants' 38-35 loss to Green Bay in Week 13, and their 38-35 loss to the undefeated Patriots in Week 17 of the 2007 season. The Giants lost that game, but proved they could play with New England, and when the two rematched in the postseason, it was the Giants who won Super Bowl XLII. This year's Giants proved they could hang with Green Bay, and the rematch comes with the Packers potentially rusty and the Giants on a roll.

Unfortunately for New York, Aaron Rodgers has played exceptionally well in the postseason: 303 yds/gm, 13 TD, 3 INT, 112.6 rating, and 3 rushing TDs in five games. The Packers may be rusty from their first-round bye and a meaningless Week 17 game in which several stars, including Rodgers, sat out. But the Pack also could be the healthiest they've been in months, playing in a home stadium where they haven't lost all year and facing a team they already beat on the road. Apart from the final game without Rodgers, the Packers won all their home games this year by at least 8 points, the closest being the Week 1 matchup with New Orleans.

I don't believe the Giants can stop Rodgers, so they'll have to match points in a shootout. They can keep it close, but that's not the way you beat this team. Green Bay advances with a 9-point victory.

***

Finally, a Sports Central tradition, our annual All-Loser Team: an all-star team made up entirely of players whose teams missed the postseason. If this team could actually be assembled, it would beat any and every team in the playoffs.

2011 NFL All-Loser Team

QB Tony Romo, DAL
RB LeSean McCoy, PHI
FB Greg Jones, JAC
WR Larry Fitzgerald, ARI
WR Steve Smith, CAR
TE Jason Witten, DAL
C Nick Mangold, NYJ
G Davin Joseph, TB
G Andy Levitre, BUF
OT Jason Peters, PHI
OT Michael Roos, TEN

DT Calais Campbell, ARI
DT Cullen Jenkins, PHI
DE Jared Allen, MIN
DE Trent Cole, PHI
OLB James Anderson, CAR
OLB Lance Briggs, CHI
ILB London Fletcher, WAS
CB Darrelle Revis, NYJ
CB Brandon Flowers, KC
FS Eric Weddle, SD
SS Kam Chancellor, SEA

K Sebastian Janikowski, OAK
P T.J. Conley, NYJ
KR Patrick Peterson, ARI

Honorable Mentions: Maurice Jones-Drew (RB, JAC); Jason Babin (DE, PHI); Chris Clemons (DE, SEA); Brian Urlacher (ILB, CHI); Derrick Johnson (ILB, KC); Tamba Hali (OLB, KC); DeMarcus Ware (OLB, DAL); Brandon Browner (CB, SEA)

Offensive Loser of the Year: LeSean McCoy, PHI
Defensive Loser of the Year: Jared Allen, DE, MIN
Most Valuable Loser: Cam Newton, QB, CAR

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