Sunday 1:00 PM EST Atlanta Falcons (10-6) vs. New York Giants (9-7)
The Falcons and the Giants shared a major theme in common this year – they both looked like Super Bowl contenders some weeks and below-average other weeks. The Falcons finished the season with victories of 41-14 and 45-14 against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively, while losing to the Saints 45-16. Meanwhile, the Giants defeated the Dallas Cowboys, twice, and the New York Jets, while losing to the lowly Washington Redskins at home, in their final four weeks.
The disparity in the two teams’ schedules, however, cannot go unnoticed. The Falcons’ victories were over two teams headed for high draft picks, while the Giants played for their playoff lives against stiffer competition in the Cowboys and Jets.
The Falcons have a balanced offense and an explosive weapon in rookie wideout Julio Jones, but they do not excel in any aspect of the game. And while QB Matt Ryan put up strong numbers this season, his splits against playoff teams vs non-playoff teams is troubling. Ryan average stats against playoff teams this year were 24 for 43 with 275 yards, 1.2 TDs and 1.4 INTs – very pedestrian numbers.
The Giants, on the other hand, do two things as well as or better than any team in the league. Quarterback Eli Manning put together an incredible season in which he has been asked to shoulder an enormous load as the Giants ranked dead last in rushing offense. Manning, unlike Ryan, excelled when it mattered most as he threw for an NFL-record 15 TDs in the 4th quarter and posted a 110.0 passer rating in that time. Additionally, Manning’s weapons are even more dangerous than Ryan’s. Victory Cruz and Hakeem Nicks had excellent seasons as Cruz came on this season literally out of nowhere to become the league’s most dangerous slot receiver outside of Wes Welker.
On the defensive side of the ball, to say the Giants’ secondary has been porous would be a compliment. That being said, the Giants have been banged up all season and will be as healthy on Sunday. With the return of Osi Umenyiora to the Giants’ already dominate defensive line, the G-Men should be in Ryan’s face all afternoon and provide cover for the secondary.
Prediction: Giants win 27-14.
Sunday 4:30 PM EST Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) vs. Denver Broncos (8-8)
Where to even begin? Tim Tebow, a home playoff game, against the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense. Which Tim Tebow is going to show up? The Tebow that inspired his team to five come-from-behind victories, including a six game winning streak? Or the Tebow who looked awful in three straight losses to close out the season?
The stars seemed to have aligned for a Disney-esque ending for Tebow and the Broncos cinderella season as the visiting Steelers are depleted and have been decimated by injuries. All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey is out with an ankle injury, running back Rashard Mendenhall is out with a torn ACL, QB Ben Roethlisberger is nursing a severe high ankle sprain, and pro-bowlers Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley are all probable to play but are hampered by various injuries. If ever there was a time to catch the Steelers, it is now. Additionally, the Steelers’ strength as the No. 1 passing defense is somewhat curbed by the fact that the Broncos rarely throw the ball and rely heavily on a rushing attack.
The public and pundits all initially were backing the Steelers to blow out a struggling Broncos squad, however, as the week has progressed and the injuries stack up for the Steelers, the opinion seems to have swayed back in the favor of the Broncos. The narrative has completed shifted from a week ago. Recollections of last season’s Seattle Seahawks – New Orleans Saints tilt are being recalled, in which the 7-9 Seahawks upset the heavily favored defending super-bowl champs Saints at home. The Broncos and Tebow’s fairytale playoff run are the trending theme.
How have people forgotten about Ben Roethlisberger? Roethlisberger is the toughest player in the league and maybe one of the toughest ever. High ankle sprain, broken nose, whatever the injury is, Big Ben is going to bring his best. In 2008, Roethlisberger suffered a concussion and spinal cord contusion in Week 17 and still carried the Steelers throughout the postseason to a Super Bowl victory.
If the Steelers’ injuries prove to be too much and their luck runs out, it will not be this week against the Broncos, down the road, playing the Baltimore Ravens or the New England Patriots may prove to be an issue, but for now, the Broncos do not have enough to expose Pittsburgh. The Kansas City Chiefs held Tebow to 6 of 22 passing, 60 yards, an INT and a fumble. The Chiefs’ defense is good, but not Steelers good. Harrison, Woodley, and Polamalu should have a field day at the line of scrimmage against this Tebow led offense.
Prediction: Steelers win 30-10.