Are you ready for some football?

While Eagles fans may not want to hear it, the NFL playoffs kick off today with two intriguing matchups that are the definition of polar opposites.

The first game features two teams, the Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals, being led by rookie quarterbacks, T.J. Yates and Andy Dalton respectively, who will be asked to manage the game, not make mistakes, and make a big play at the right time. On the other end of the spectrum tonight’s game between the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions features two of the most prolific passers in the NFL. Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford put up video game type numbers this season with each throwing for more than 40 TDs and 5,000 yards, including Brees’ record-breaking total of 5,476 yards. While the Texans and Bengals will rely on two defenses that finished in the top 10 in total defense this season, the Saints and Lions will feel fortunate every time their defenses get a stop, after both finished in the bottom third of the NFL. I’ll take a deeper look at both games, and wrap things up with a Super Bowl pick.

Bengals @ Texans (-4)

Both teams have had surprising seasons for different reasons. The Bengals arrived earlier than anyone expected after jettisoning veterans Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco and replacing them with rookies Andy Dalton and A.J Green. Dalton played with incredible poise for a rookie and Green is a future star who lived up to his billing as a top 5 pick. The Bengals took advantage of a weak schedule (yes we mean you NFC West) as all 7 of their losses came to playoff teams, with 4 coming at the hands of the beasts in their division, the Ravens and the Steelers.

Meanwhile the Texans finally broke through and won the AFC South (with a little help from Peyton Manning’s neck surgery), relying on a power running attack featuring Arian Foster and Ben Tate and one of the best defenses in the NFL, led by former Dallas head coach Wade Phillips (some guys really are better as coordinators). That approach is in contrast to the air assault piloted by Matt Schaub in the past, and it’s served the Texans well – after season ending injuries to Schaub and backup Matt Leinart, as well as a gimpy Andre Johnson (hamstring), Houston will needs its rushing attack and defense to take some of the pressure off the rookie Yates.

I went back and forth on picking a winner in this one; I like Dalton better than Yates, but like the Houston running game and defense, as well as their dome advantage. Either way, I think this one is decided by a field goal late, so I’m taking the Bengals plus the 4 points (for entertainment purposes only) and I like the under (38) on what I expect to be a low scoring game. I’m going with the Texans to pull this one out at home, maybe even in overtime, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bengals win this game.

Texans 20 Bengals 17

Lions @ Saints (-10.5)

This one should be entertaining. I expect some serious fireworks in the Superdome as the veteran Brees battles Stafford, who finally stayed healthy for 16 games and showed why he was the number 1 pick in the 2009 draft. While Stafford has the big arm that scouts drool over, Brees makes up for an average arm with deadly accuracy (an insane 71.2 completion % this season).

Both teams will rely heavily on their star quarterbacks as their running games are virtually nonexistent due to injury (Mark Ingram, Jahvid Best) and ineffectiveness. Both defenses are sieves, so I expect this one to go over the total (59.5). But I feel like the 10.5 points is a tad high for just that reason. Sure, Brees and the Saints offense have been red hot and I don’t think the Lions have a prayer to stop them. But the Lions can put up points in a hurry as well, and unless the Saints force turnovers, I don’t see them stopping the Detroit offense.

However, turnovers, particularly from Stafford, are exactly what I expect. As talented as Stafford is, I’ve yet to see him play large in a big game; he instead tends the force the issue and throw interceptions (see Thanksgiving Day vs. Packers). I think Stafford will eventually mature as a quarterback(he’s still just 23) and graduate to the elite tier at his position in the NFL – I just don’t see it happening in a ear shattering Superdome, where the Saints are nearly unbeatable. Yes, the line is high but Brees is good enough to cover it.

Saints 42 Lions 30

Super Bowl prediction

Out of the 12 playoff teams, I think only 6 or 7 are legitimate Super Bowl contenders: Green Bay, San Francisco, New Orleans, New York, New England, Baltimore, and maybe Pittsburgh, depending on their health.

Though I’m not totally dismissing them as a contender, I’m still crossing Pittsburgh off the list first, due to those health concerns. Big Ben (no way I’m typing that last name out) is on a gimpy ankle and he already will be asked to do more after the unfortunate loss of running back Rashard Mendenhall to a torn ACL last week. They’ll beat Denver and put Tebowmania to rest but that’ll be the end of the line most likely.

Next I’m crossing off the Giants; while they have the talent on both sides of the ball, New York takes on the personality of head coach Tom Coughlin and is just too inconsistent and temperamental to trust. Plus I don’t think they have the secondary to play with Green Bay or New Orleans.

That brings us down to 5 teams. In the AFC, I like Baltimore over the Patriots. Both Baltimore and Pittsburgh are bad matchups for New England – physical football teams that will attempt to get up on the line of scrimmage and disrupt the Patriot receivers and bring pressure to throw off Tom Brady’s timing. The New England defense is terrible and I think the Baltimore (or Pittsburgh) D can slow down Tom Brady enough to win, even at Gillette Stadium. I think Baltimore goes to the Super Bowl, as long as Joe Flacco doesn’t pull his Jekyll and Hyde act again (which is a real possibility). Two words for Ravens head coach John Harbaugh: Ray Rice!!

In the NFC, while the Saints are nearly unbeatable at home, they still struggle on the road. The 49ers play excellent defense and special teams, and I’ve been so impressed by head coach Jim Harbaugh, that I think an extra week of preparation could make a difference and allow the Niners to beat the Saints at home. As for the Packers, I’m concerned that they really haven’t played well since losing their undefeated season in Kansas City. Now they may have shut it down a bit after sealing their positioning early, but it’s also hard to turn the light switch back on. Also, simply put, it’s extremely difficult to repeat, which made their unbeaten streak to start the season even more impressive. I think San Francisco’s D, special teams, and running game are built for a January game at Lambeau, and knock off the defending champs.

That would give us a rematch of the Harbaugh Bowl in the Super Bowl. And I think we get a repeat of the Thanksgiving matchup as Baltimore would somehow be the first good defense Alex Smith would face in the playoffs, and I think the Ravens would remind him… Well, that’s he’s Alex Smith. So the Lombardi trophy will go to the guy who should’ve been coaching the Eagles three years ago: congrats John Harbaugh, wish you never left.


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