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Pick ‘em – Wild Card round

We didn’t make picks in Week 17, more because of life happening than because we were dodging something. But we’re back with a vengeance this week with our wild-card picks. Instead of simply picking games against the spread, we’ll go a little further and tell you why.

Texans QB T.J. Yates faces the Bengals again, via chron.com

Houston -3 over Cincinnati

This is the trickiest game to pick all weekend, because both teams have major warts. The Bengals didn’t beat a winning team all season, and even lost to the T.J. Yates-led Texans at home. The Texans have fallen apart due to injuries. Ultimately, we’re going to go with the home team to make enough plays defensively – thanks in large part to rookies J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed – to get the win. Houston 14, Cincinnati 10

New Orleans -10 vs. Detroit

The Saints should win this game, and if it’s a shootout (as everyone expects) they’ll likely get a late turnover for the cover, because that’s what their defense is built to do. Credit goes to the Lions for breaking through and reaching the playoffs, but they don’t have enough defense for this matchup. New Orleans 31, Detroit 17

N.Y. Giants -3 over Atlanta

The Falcons, like the Bengals, haven’t beaten anyone great while taking care of lesser teams. The Giants, meanwhile, struggled at times against lesser competition but always rose to the occasion. Plus, the Giants team we saw beat the Cowboys in Week 17 had a healthier defense than what we’ve seen all season. That should be enough for the Giants to get one playoff win and move forward into a much more daunting second-round matchup. N.Y. Giants 24, Atlanta 20

Pittsburgh -9 at Denver

The thing that made the Broncos a threat during their midseason rally was defense, and that defense has declined in the past month or so. If Denver can’t stop Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, they won’t even come close to being in position for Tebow Time. There’s no in-between in this game – it will either go down to the wire, or the Steelers will win by 17 points or more. We think the latter is far more likely. Pittsburgh 24, Denver 3

And by the way, here’s a little bonus from someone who went 48-34-2 ATS in NCAA picks this year: LSU beats Alabama by more than the 1-point spread. We’ve believed for a while that the Tigers are the best team in college football, as shown by regular-season wins over 3 BCS bowl winners – and all 3 away from home (Oregon in Dallas, at Alabama, at West Virginia). They’ll prove it again by winning the national championship Monday night.

Season: 43-50-5 pro, 91-84-7 overall

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Football Relativity: Wild-card weekend

Each week, we compare all 32 NFL teams using our Football Relativity comparison. On the comparison, the 10 level is reserved for the best teams, and the 1 level for the worst. Normally, we note throughout where teams have moved up or down from last week. But this week, we go from comparing all 32 teams to focusing on the 12 playoff teams. All of these teams were at the 7 level or higher last week.

Broncos QB Tim Tebow makes his playoff debut this week, via orlandosentinel.com

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Packers closed out the season with a win even after sitting QB Aaron Rodgers and CB Charles Woodson, among others. At 15-1, Green Bay is not a perfect team, but they have a dynamic offense and a defense that causes turnovers. We’ve seen in recent years that this is a potent combination in the postseason. Green Bay may not be built to win a slugfest, but there aren’t many teams that could force the Packers into that kind of game.

9 – Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints – The Saints closed with a flourish to finish 13-3, but it wasn’t enough for them to get a bye week. The Saints are nearly the Packers’ equal, and are built in much the same way. But the path New Orleans will have to take – a home game against a dangerous Detroit offense, followed by a road trip to San Francisco – may be too much. We see the Saints winning this week (something like 45-31), but we’re not sure they’ll even get to Green Bay for a rematch of Week 1.

The Ravens, meanwhile, earned a bye by locking down the AFC North. That’s key, because it takes away the possibility of laying an egg in the first round. We rate the Ravens above the Patriots because we like their ceiling more, but Baltimore hasn’t always been the most consistent team. But we can certainly see them gearing up for two big games and making it to the Super Bowl.

8 – New England Patriots – The Patriots earned home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, but their defense once again showed major holes against Miami in Week 17. New England won’t be able to survive against Baltimore or Pittsburgh if they fall behind early like they have in the last two weeks. But we’re not sure those problems can be solved during a single bye week.

7 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers are unlike any of the other top teams in the NFC and maybe even in the league in that they’re built around an elite defense. If they can turn their divisional-round game (likely against the Saints) into a slobberknocker, they might be able to get a playoff win. But Alex Smith, Frank Gore and company don’t have enough firepower to keep up with the Saints and Packers and Patriots. The 49ers simply aren’t good enough on red-zone offense to make a long playoff run.

6 – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers are an odd team. They have the look of a contender, since they are coming off a Super Bowl appearance last season and have a championship pedigree. But it will be interesting to see if the Steelers really are at that level. While the offense has incredible punch with WRs Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, we don’t think the Steelers can beat the Patriots or Ravens on the road. But they should have enough firepower to get through a trip to Denver this week.

5 – New York Giants, Detroit Lions – We put these teams above other wild-card weekend participants because of ceiling. The Lions have a high ceiling because of offensive firepower. The defense can’t stop the pass, which is a bad omen heading into a game against the Saints, but if the Lions somehow create a few turnovers, they could outscore the Saints.

The Giants, meanwhile, looked like a team that’s finally getting healthy against the Cowboys. With playmakers like WR Victor Cruz on offense and DE Jason Pierre-Paul on defense, the Giants can put together a peak performance. We see them winning this week against Atlanta, and if so they’ll challenge the Packers because they always seem to rise to the occasion.

4 – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are a good team but not a great team. They can beat lesser teams, but they really haven’t risen to the occasion to beat a better team at any point this year. That’s enough for a playoff berth, but it’s not enough to advance now that the postseason has arrived. We see them being one-and-done again this year.

3 – Houston Texans – The Texans aren’t the team they could have been without major injury problems, but they still have enough upside to get a home win this weekend. Who knows who will play quarterback, but with a strong running game and an attacking defense should be enough for a feel-good moment in the franchise’s first playoff game.

2 – Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals are a junior version of the Panthers, beating lesser teams but never rising to the occasion against a better opponent. They even lost to the T.J. Yates-led Texans a month ago. Credit to Cincinnati for making it to the good level in QB Andy Dalton’s rookie year, but the run ends this week.

1 – Denver Broncos- The bloom seems to be off the Tim Tebow rose after a three-game losing streak, but the real problem is that the defense has also declined. We believe Tebow has shown enough to earn an offseason of development as the starting quarterback, but that doesn’t mean we expect him to overcome the Steelers this week. At least Broncos fans get to enjoy the buildup to a home playoff game.

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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

Each week during the season, we compare all 32 NFL teams using the Football Relativity tool, which puts the best teams at the 10 level and the worst teams at the 1 level. So before the season begins, we want to break down the upcoming season by discussing all 32 teams and their chances.

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Pack is back, and the defending champions get more toys to play with as key players like TE JerMichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant return from injured reserve. That should help the Pack, who barely snuck in the playoffs only to reel off an impressive run to a championship, have an easier berth into the postseason this year. QB Aaron Rodgers is ascending to the elite level, and there’s probably no better signal caller in the league right now. He has a deep group of wideouts led by Greg Jennings, who has become a true No. 1 wideout. And the offensive line, which was battered last year, has added first-rounders Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the past two years, which should add to consistency by the end of the season. On defense, the Packers have an attacking style that stars Clay Matthews and relies on a beefy, talented line with B.J. Raji and company. And in Tramon Williams, veteran Charles Woodson, and the ascending Sam Shields, the Packers have one of the league’s best CB groups. No team in the NFL is more talented across the board, and it’s been years since a defending champion came back with as good a chance to repeat.

9 – Philadelphia Eagles – The splashy “Dream Team” added a ton of name players, but the team’s fate will rise and fall on the health of Michael Vick. If Vick can stay healthy, the Eagles will put up points with the best of them. RB LeSean McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson lead a class of playmakers that’s beyond compare. However, the offensive line is in major flux with four new starters, and that could become an issue. On defense, the Eagles add a ton of big-name players, led by CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but there’s no guarantee that things will gel quickly. The Eagles have so much talent that by the end of the year they’ll be a power, but the early-season adjustments could cost them home-field advantage and ultimately leadership of the NFC.

9 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Pats have developed a recent history of excelling in the regular season and then falling apart in the postseason. But that troubling trend doesn’t change the fact that they’re a regular season power. Tom Brady had one of his best seasons in 2010, and while he no longer has Randy Moss, throwing to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and others will still work well. The running game was pretty good last year as well, and adding rookies like Stevan Ridley should only help. And the Pats have done a good job of adding young offensive linemen to keep that unit from getting old all at once. On defense, the Pats added a bunch of veteran defensive linemen that will help them be more versatile and should help them create more pressure. Vince Wilfork still is the heart of that unit. And younger players like ILB Jerod Mayo and CB Devin McCourty have added to the defense as well. New England is still trying to get its safety situation situated, but that doesn’t feel like a fatal flaw. Who knows if the Patriots can fix their postseason problems in 2011. But rest assured that they’ll be in the playoffs once again.

9 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have a ton of strengths and the same weakness that has lingered for years (although they’ve overcome it). The big strength is on defense, where Pittsburgh’s 3-4 remains one of the best attacking defenses in the league. That’s led by OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, but it features other standouts like NT Casey Hampton, ILB Lawrence Timmons, and CB Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh does a great job of integrating younger players and knowing when to let veterans go, and that allows the defense to maintain a high level. On offense, the Steelers continue to move toward a major passing offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger and a receiving corps that features vet Hines Ward and young speedsters Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. The big issue is the offensive line, which has an elite young center in Maurkice Pouncey but a lack of premium talent elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped the Steelers before, but we keep waiting for the shoe to drop. Still, the Steelers are ready to make a run yet again.

8 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – No team in the NFL depends on youngsters more than the Bucs do, but Tampa Bay is blessed to have a ton of talented and productive youngsters who can lead the team to prominence. Foremost among them is QB Josh Freeman, who has the game and the mindset to be a superstar. His crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – will grow with him. Those baby Bucs got the offense going last year; this offseason, the team added youth on defense with rookies at defensive end in Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers and at middle linebacker in Mason Foster who will start or play key roles. CB Aqib Talib gets in trouble off the field, but on the field he’s an elite corner, and DT Gerald McCoy returns to the field after an injury halted his rookie season. The Bucs will only make the playoffs if their youngsters continue to develop, but we see that happening. Freeman and company are headed to the playoffs in 2011.

8 (con’t) – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are going for broke in 2011 after an offseason designed to add pieces that put them over the top. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones is supposed to add breakaway ability that will keep opponents from keying on Roddy White. If that happens, QB Matt Ryan will have his best group of targets ever. The offensive line kept two key free agents in Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, which should allow the running game of Michael Turner and company to continue to thrive. The defense added pass rusher Ray Edwards to pair with John Abraham. The Falcons also have terrific players entering their primes in MLB Curtis Lofton and CB Brent Grimes. Atlanta is loaded; the problem is that the NFC South is loaded as well. So winning the division is no sure thing, but a third playoff berth in four years should be.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – A month ago, we were ready to write off the Ravens and predict them to miss the playoffs. But the Ravens have added some key veterans in WR Lee Evans, C Andre Gurode, and OT Bryant McKinnie who will help shore up trouble spots on offense. Those additions should allow QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, and WR Anquan Boldin to do their jobs without too much undue pressure. It’s time for Flacco to step up and lead a prolific offense, not just a decent one. On defense, the Ravens have premium players in DE Haloti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis, and S Ed Reed, but they need better play from the players around them. The pass rush flagged last year, and cornerback is a question mark unless guys like Cary Williams and rookie Jimmy Smith step up. The Ravens have the talent to make a postseason run if they can get into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what we expect them to do.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers were No. 1 in the league in offense and in defense last season, but the special teams were so horrific that it cost them games and ultimately a playoff berth. Even is San Diego fixes those units only a little bit, they’re going to be in the mix. The Bolts have an electric offense led by QB Philip Rivers, and this time around WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill will be around from Week One. If Antonio Gates stays healthy, the offense will be at full capacity. RB Ryan Mathews was a disappointment as a rookie, but Mike Tolbert was a nice surprise, and that duo will get the job done. On defense, the Chargers don’t have the superstars they once did, and losing ILB Kevin Burnett hurts, but there’s enough talent around to more than get the job done. The Chargers need to avoid a slow start and a special-teams implosion, but if they do they should cruise in the AFC West and threaten for the conference title.

7 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints defended their Super Bowl title with a wild-card berth and a disappointing playoff loss in Seattle last year. The offense, led by Drew Brees, was prolific, but it turned the ball over far too often. The running game will look different this year with Reggie Bush gone and rookie Mark Ingram in place, but the Saints still have a versatile group of backs and receivers that will give Brees options. On defense, the Saints rebuilt their defensive line, and they have a nice crew of young defensive backs led by free safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the linebacker crew is far from impressive, and the Saints have to prove they can stop opponents and not just create turnovers. New Orleans will be dangerous and could beat anyone in the league, but we are getting a sniff of inconsistency that will have the Saints falling to 9-7 and third place in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets are a hard team to figure, because they barely sneak into the playoffs and then make a run once they get there. The high-profile postseason wins can mask some issues with the roster. On defense, the Jets didn’t create as much pressure last year, and additions like first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson aren’t enough to fix that. The defense has really good players like ILB David Harris and CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but it will have to win by shutting down opponents instead of by creating a bunch of turnovers. Will Rex Ryan really want to play that style? On offense, QB Mark Sanchez shows up in big moments but isn’t consistent enough, and losing WRs Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brad Smith (replaced by Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) doesn’t help. Keeping Santonio Holmes was vital, because he can be a No. 1 wideout for Gang Green. The offensive line lost another veteran in the retired Damien Woody as well. It will be a hard slog for the Jets to get to the postseason, but based on their track record, we expect them to sneak in under the wire.

7 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs are building something good in Kansas City, but last year’s division title doesn’t mean that they’re on the road toward the elite just yet. With offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gone, K.C. needs QB Matt Cassel to continue his ascent. He had a fine season last year, as did WR Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs add WR Steve Breaston but lost emerging TE Tony Moeaki for the season. The running game will be strong with Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, and addition LeRon McClain, and the offensive line gets help from Jared Gaither. On defense, the Chiefs have a top-flight pass rusher in Tamba Hali, and rookie Justin Houston could emerge on the opposite side. And CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers do a good job, while S Eric Berry had a strong rookie year. The Chiefs are building something, but they’re not as talented as the Chargers and will slip down the standings a bit this year.

6 – Chicago Bears – The Bears improbably claimed the NFC North title last year, although their rivals to the north beat them in the NFC title game. Still, it was a promising performance for a team that has talent as well as holes. QB Jay Cutler drew criticism for going on in the conference championship game with a knee injury, but he took a beating all year and still produced. His receiving corps isn’t great, but he has a top back in Matt Forte. The problem is the offensive line, which was awful in the first half of the season but a little better in the second half. On defense, the Bears got a great performance from Julius Peppers in his first year with the team, and his presence unleashed Israel Idonije on the other side. LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are veterans who still produce, as is CB Charles Tillman. The Bears’ window is closing on defense, because so many key players have been around a while, but it should be enough to keep the Bears in playoff contention in 2011. They won’t beat the Packers this year, but a 9-7 wild card is still on the table.

6 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Under head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have done a good job of rebuilding from the lowest of lows earlier this decade. The centerpiece of that rebuilding process is QB Sam Bradford, who had a solid rookie season and showed the potential to be great. Bradford now gets to work with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who should be able to maximize Bradford’s talents. The Rams have depth but not stars at wide receiver, but youngsters like WRs Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and rookie TE Lance Kendricks are emerging. As they do, proven RB Steven Jackson continues to pile up yards behind an offensive line that has gotten a lot better with additions like 2010 rookie OLT Rodger Saffold and 2011 signee OG Harvey Dahl. On defense, the Rams finally got a breakout season from DE Chris Long, and MLB James Laurinaitis has proven to be a productive force. The secondary lags a little behind, but if the Rams can create enough pressure it should be enough. The Rams aren’t great, but they’re better and deeper than any other team in the NFC West and should claim the division this year after falling just short in 2010.

6 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – The Redskins have done some good things this offseason, but all the momentum has been covered up by the quarterback conundrum between Rex Grossman and John Beck. Grossman is getting the call to start the season. He’ll have a running game based around Tim Hightower, who fits the offensive system head coach Mike Shanahan wants to play. The offensive line is not the typical Shanahan unit, however. On defense, the Redskins have added several key pieces and should be even better than last year’s surprisingly solid group. Even with the quarterback play, the Redskins are a sleeper playoff team.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – Last year was a disaster for the Cowboys, who stumbled to such a terrible start that Wade Phillips got the boot. The team rebounded a bit under Jason Garrett, and now Garrett must prove that he can get the job done from day one. He’ll have Tony Romo this time around, as the quarterback returns from injury. With Romo, TE Jason Witten, and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, the Cowboys are strong at the skill positions, but changes on of the offensive line could be a problem. On defense, the Cowboys bring in coordinator Rob Ryan and his aggressive ways. That should allow OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to excel; the question is whether the secondary is strong enough to keep opponents at bay. The Cowboys won’t be a disaster, but there are enough questions that they’ll big in a dogfight to get past 8-8.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are flying (swimming?) under the radar as the season begins, but they are an interesting team. On offense, Reggie Bush adds a dynamic element to the offense, and Brandon Marshall seems to be getting off-field help that could help him produce on the field. None of that will matter, though, unless QB Chad Henne improves on his 2010 performance. Henne’s preseason performance was encouraging, but he’s at the prove-it point of his career. The offensive line has a standout in OLT Jake Long, but things over the rest of the line have been turned over. Relying on Henne and Bush is risky, but both have talent. On defense, the Dolphins are getting better and better. OLB Cameron Wake and NT Paul Soliai emerged as keystones last year, and free-agent signee ILB Kevin Burnett adds a new element beside Karlos Dansby. And as young CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith mature, the defense will be scary. The division is tough, but the Dolphins have a shot – if the Bush and Henne gambles pay off.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – We covered the Jaguars in this season preview – and then the Jaguars cut QB David Garrard. Still, in an AFC South division that could be won at 9-7, we believe the Jaguars can edge out the Texans and Colts to win the division.

6 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans have to believe their time is now. The Colts are in injury limbo, and the Texans made aggressive moves to upgrade the defense by adding CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning, DE J.J. Watt, and OLB Brooks Reed. New coordinator Wade Phillips has had good results in the past, but his system doesn’t match his best player, Mario Williams. If Phillips can put Williams to best use, the defense will work, but we’ll have to see it to believe it. On offense, the Texans will still be prolific thanks to QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and RB Arian Foster. But if the season comes down to shootout after shootout, we see the Texans falling short too often. The conventional wisdom has the Texans making the playoffs finally, but we don’t see it.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions are on the way up. Now the question is whether the next move forward is a step or a leap. We lean toward the step side, picturing the Lions as an 8-8 team but not a playoff squad. There’s plenty to like in Detroit: DT Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc, QB Matthew Stafford throwing deep to WR Calvin Johnson, and the electric play of RB Jahvid Best. But the injury issues that Stafford and Best have had in the past – and that rookie DT Nick Fairley has now – have to bride enthusiasm a bit. So does the state of the secondary, which still needs upgrades at cornerback. The Lions have gone from awful to competitive under head coach Jim Schwartz, but it’s not time yet for them to break through.

5 (con’t) – New York Giants – No team has been hit harder by injuries this preseason than the Giants, who lost starters CB Terrell Thomas and LB Jonathan Goff, along with four key defensive backups, all for the season. That leaves a defense that has big-time pass rushers in Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul with big deficits behind the strong front line. On offense, QB Eli Manning must overcome his turnover problems from 2010. He did make a ton of big plays, many to emerging star Hakeem Nicks, but losing Steve Smith and Kevin Boss in free agency hurts. And the offensive line, such a constant during most of the Tom Coughlin era, is getting a complete overhaul. This feels like a step back year for the Giants. They could easily fall into fourth in the always tough NFC East.

5 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – This is the year that the Colts’ playoff streak finally ends – and not just because of QB Peyton Manning’s injury problems. Manning had covered over a variety of faults for the Colts – a sorry offensive line, average running backs, and injury-plagued wide receivers. So while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie have talent, it’s hard to see the Colts taking full advantage, at least until Manning gets back to 100 percent. And on defense, while pass-rushing DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can create havoc, they aren’t shut down players. It’s hard to see the Colts’ D holding up when the offense isn’t staking it to a lead. A fall is coming – the question is whether it will be a slip out of the playoffs or a massive collapse for the Colts. The horseshoe ain’t going to be lucky this year.

5 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders went through a lot of change this offseason, installing Hue Jackson as head coach and and losing high-profile CB Nnamdi Asomugha. But Oakland is still talented. The defense has impact players in OLB Kamerion Wimbley, DT Richard Seymour, and CB Stanford Routt, and that will keep them in games. And the running game led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush was shockingly strong last year. QB Jason Campbell lost one of his best targets in TE Zach Miller, and while Kevin Boss is a solid starter, he’s a downgrade. So is the loss of OG Robert Gallery on an offensive line that is big and strong but inexperienced. Oakland will need young receivers like Jacoby Ford to continue to emerge for Campbell, and it’s fair to expect some inconsistency there. The Raiders won’t fall apart, but they lost a bit too much to match last year’s 8-win total or AFC West sweep.

4 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals were doomed in 2010 by horrific QB play, so paying a high price to add Kevin Kolb should make a big difference. Kolb is good enough to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who remains one of the best wideouts in the league. Arizona will need someone, maybe TE addition Todd Heap or breakout WR candidate Andre Roberts, to emerge as enough of a threat to take some coverage away from Fitzgerald. The running game is a question mark because of trades and injuries, so Beanie Wells and Chester Taylor need to step up. That won’t be easy behind a mediocre offensive line. On defense, the Cards need FS Adrian Wilson to return to prominence as rookie CB Patrick Peterson and second-year ILB Daryl Washington emerge as forces. The Cards will be better, thanks mostly to the upgrade Kolb provides, but that won’t be enough for a playoff run.

4 (con’t) – Cleveland Browns – The Browns are in the midst of a rebuilding project, but the progress thus far has been pretty good. QB Colt McCoy may never be a Pro Bowler, but he should emerge as a solid starter in the West Coast style of offense GM Mike Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur will use. His group of receivers is young, but rookie WR Greg Little and TE Evan Moore could be major factors. The Browns are in good shape up front thanks to OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, and RB Peyton Hillis provides a physical running game. On defense, the Browns are quite young, but they had a great find in CB Joe Haden last year, and they hope fellow youngsters like DE Jabaal Sherad and SS T.J. Ward also develop into stars. The Browns probably need one more draft and free agency cycle to truly move into contender-dom, but they should make a run toward respectability this season.

3 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are just over a year away from playing into overtime in the NFC championship game, but the decline has been steep. Now the Vikes have a beaten up offensive line, an aging defensive line, and a placeholder at quarterback. Donovan McNabb is a star when it comes to Q-rating, but his play on the field is no longer at that level. He’s just taking snaps until rookie Christian Ponder is ready. Neither quarterback will have great targets aside from Percy Harvin. At least Adrian Peterson remains one of the league’s elite running backs. But Peterson will struggle to keep this crew in games, not to mention ahead. On defense, DE Jared Allen’s play fell off last year, and DT Kevin Williams will miss the first two games of the year. Now the Vikings need to recenter their defense around LBs Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson. Leslie Frazier is a good coach, but there’s a reason this team fell apart on Brad Childress last year. The window has closed.

3 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – We covered the Bills in depth in this post.

3 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – The Broncos, under new head coach John Fox, should be more competitive than last year. QB Kyle Orton has proven to be effective if not always dynamic. He developed a terrific rapport with Brandon Lloyd last year, but can Lloyd repeat his breakout season without Josh McDaniels? He needs to, because the rest of the receiving corps is thin. At running back, Fox can use both Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. The offensive line has a premium left tackle in Ryan Clady but not much else. On defense, Elvis Dumervil returns, and rookie Von Miller comes to time, but neither player is a hand-in-glove fit for Fox’s 4-3. Defensive tackle is a trouble spot. In the secondary, vets S Brian Dawkins and CB Champ Bailey need to continue a solid level of play. The Broncos need a rebuild after the disastrous McDaniels draft results, and this year will show just how far they have to go.

2 – Carolina Panthers – We previewed the Panthers in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – We previewed the Seahawks in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s good news, bad news for the Bengals. They have some good young receivers in A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson. But the offensive line is no great shakes, especially with Bobbie Williams suspended for the first four games of the season, and it could cause trouble. Rookie QB Andy Dalton was good in college, but we don’t know if he has the skills to succeed at the NFL level – especially once defenses throw the kitchen sink at him. On defense, the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph, but they still have Leon Hall, who’s an elite player at that position. But the pass rush doesn’t generate enough pressure, and the linebacker play has been up and down. If the defense can come together, the Bengals could approach 8-8, but we see 4-12 as a more likely outcome.

1 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers, under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, have a few stars but lack talent in too many key areas. It starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith gets another chance despite a lack of results. Smith has a very good running back in Frank Gore and talented targets in WRs Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. And the offensive line, despite some high draft picks, struggled throughout the preseason. On defense, ILB Patrick Willis remains a superstar, but the talent around him is worse than last year, unless rookie OLB Aldon Smith is more ready to play than most expect. Harbaugh has a steep challenge in front of him, because the 49ers are among the league’s worst teams. They may steal some wins in the weak NFC West, but this franchise is at the bottom.

1 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans are in major flux, and we don’t see many signs of hope, but at least they kept RB Chris Johnson in town. He’s joined by veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, who will play until rookie Jake Locker is ready. The offensive line is still OK, and that should allow the running game to keep producing. And in WR Kenny Britt and TE Jared Cook, the Titans have talented receivers. But on defense, the Titans have lost a ton of key players, and aside from CB Cortland Finnegan and S Michael Griffin won’t be starting anyone you’d recognize. It’s hard to see the Titans shutting down many teams, even in the declining AFC South.

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Finding a Fit: Plaxico Burress

The Man

Will Plaxico Burress be left by himself, or will he find a new football home? Image by tedkerwin via Flickr

 

Plaxico Burress will be released from prison Monday, and with that backdrop we want to consider Burress’ future NFL home in the latest edition of Finding a Fit. This is the fifth edition in a series that will continue as long as the lockout drags on. In this series, we’re going to look at free agents and try to match them to their perfect fits. We’ll consider opportunity, skill specificity, personality, and even money as we do this.

Previous Finding a Fit features focused on Matt Hasselbeck, Nnamdi Asomugha, Ray Edwards, and Aubrayo Franklin. Click through to check those out, and if you’d like to suggest a player for finding a fit, leave a comment or let us know on Twitter.

Synopsis

Burress was once a true No. 1 receiver, both with the Steelers and the Giants. He is a long, lanky target who can get downfield and make the big play. Plus, he’s proven he is clutch, with his game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl 42 as proof. But for the last two years, Burress has been in prison because of a weapons charge in which he shot himself in the leg with a concealed gun in a night club. Now he’ll try to make an NFL return at age 33 and reclaim his career, which has featured 505 catches for 7.845 yards and 55 TDs.

Potential fits

N.Y. Giants – It seems as though the door is closed on a Burress return to the Giants. Former teammate Brandon Jacobs said as much in an interview last week. It makes sense for Burress to want a new start, and the Giants have a deep receiving corps with Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, and Burress-sized prospect Ramses Barden. It makes the most sense for both teams to move on.

N.Y. Jets – If Burress wants to stay in the Big Apple, the Jets could be an option, especially if free agents-to-be Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Brad Smith leave. But it appears that Burress would be a fallback option at best for the Jets, which is probably not the situation he’s looking for.

Philadelphia – Burress has made it known that he’d love to land with the Eagles, in large part because of the team’s success resurrecting Michael Vick’s career. But while the connection makes sense from an off-field perspective, on the field Burress doesn’t fit. The Eagles have a great young receiving corps in DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, and Riley Cooper. There’s simply no room for Burress to take up a roster spot.

St. Louis – Burress and Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo were in New York at the same time, and that connection could lead to a chance for Burress. QB Sam Bradford has a ton of young targets, but aside from Mark Clayton (and maybe Danny Amendola at this point), none are proven. Taking a low-cost shot at Burress makes sense, and few teams offer Burress more playing-time opportunity than the Rams.

Washington – The Redskins are receiver-poor, with only smallish Anthony Armstrong established as a solid option. So they will need to add a receiver in free agency, and Burress could offer depth or even backup in case higher-profile, higher-priced targets stay away. This situation bears watching.

Pittsburgh – The Steelers originally drafted Burress, but they let him leave via free agency because his off-field demeanor seemed to limit his talents. (The same thing happened with Santonio Holmes a few years later.) Reports indicate that Pittsburgh may consider a Burress return, but with Hines Ward still ensconsed and youngsters Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown emerging, the luxury of having Burress wouldn’t be worth the baggage of the past for the Steelers.

Cleveland – The Browns have a cadre of promising young receivers led by Mohammed Massaquoi and rookie Greg Little, but they don’t have a veteran go-to guy. So Burress makes sense from an on-field perspective. But Burress’ skills don’t necessarily match up with Colt McCoy’s best traits, and the Browns are rebuilding so much that Burress could be a distraction. So unless the opportunity is a low-cost flier, it’s hard to see the Browns being the ones to take the plunge in this market.

Chicago – The Bears don’t have a high-profile receiver, although youngsters Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, and Devin Hester. Burress would add a tall receiver and a red-zone threat, but is he precise enough in his route-running to play for Mike Martz? It’s hard to see Burress jumping into such a complicated system in a lockout-shortened season.

Oakland – The Raiders always end up on lists of homes for lost souls, and their receiving corps has promise in Louis Murphy, Jacoby Ford, and first-round bust-so-far Darrius Heyward-Bey. If no contender steps up, the Raiders could end up being Burress’ best option in terms of playing-time possibilities. This is a possibility that can’t be ruled out.

The best fits

1. St. Louis – It would be a bit out of character for the Rams to take a chance on a veteran like Burress, but he would provide a safety net for a young group of receivers, and he could be the difference between an NFC West title at 8-8 or 9-7 and another 7-9 season. Plus, the Giants ties with Spagnuolo add a comfort level.

2. Washington – If Burress wants to prove to the Giants that he can still play, Washington is the place he would get the most chance to play. The Redskins added a bunch of old receivers last year, but aside from Joey Galloway, none even made a regular-season catch. With Santana Moss facing free agency, Burress may provide a bit of security and a bit of leverage for the Redskins.

3. Oakland – The Raiders don’t have a strong need for Burress, but taking a shot on a veteran fits Al Davis’ history. This option makes less sense, but we get a nagging suspicion that Oakland is going to be a player in this market.

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AFC Conference Championship Thoughts

Rashard Mendenhall breaks through the Jets for his first-quarter TD

We’re looking back at the two conference championship games individually. In this post, we focus on the Steelers’ 24-19 win over the Jets. (For the NFC thoughts, click here.)

*Ben Roethlisberger did not have a pretty game, but he did a few things that make him such a dangerous quarterback in the postseason. First, he ran the ball well – running for 21 yards and a touchdown, and notching a couple of key first downs in the process. Secondly, even though he was not sharp throwing the ball on the whole, he completed key passes to Heath Miller and Antonio Brown that allowed the Steelers to run the clock out when they got the ball back with three minutes remaining. So even though he was 10-for-19 for 133 yards with two interceptions (one of which came on a deflection) and a couple of other dicey throws, Roethlisberger gets a gold star for this game.
*Mark Sanchez didn’t win, but he showed an immense amount of toughness for the Jets. He was absolutely battered in the first half, culminating with a sack that led to a Pittsburgh defensive touchdown that extended the Steelers’ lead to 24-0. But Sanchez rallied and played well in the second half, throwing touchdown passes to Santonio Holmes and Jerricho Cotchery and nearly leading the Jets back from a huge deficit. Sanchez is a winner, and as he develops as a passer his gifts as a leader will continue to really emerge.
*The Steelers completely controlled the game in the first half, starting with a nine-minute drive on their opening possession. And the defense held the Jets to a single net yard over the first 29 minutes of the game. While Pittsburgh didn’t keep that pace up throughout the game, the first half was where they won the game.
*We’ve never been huge Rashard Mendenhall fans, but he had perhaps his finest game Sunday. He ran for 127 yards, and he did it with a style that was both physical and shifty. We’ve never though Mendenhall had the ability to make things happen on his own, but he did just that against the Jets, especially early on. He would give ground and then successfully retake it, and that is something that we haven’t seen from him. Good for him for stepping up at a key time.
*The Steelers have hit on a lot of first-round picks in recent years on defense, even if it took those players time to develop. Ziggy Hood, who’s done a fine job filling in for Aaron Smith at defensive end, had two early stuffs to help to set the tone for the defense, and Lawrence Timmons led the team with 10 tackles from his inside linebacker spot. Adding those guys to dynamic players like S Troy Polamalu, NT Casey Hampton, and OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley makes the defense even scaries. That defense dominated the first half and stepped up in the second half with a goal-line stop in the middle of the fourth quarter.
*The other Jet who we have high praise for is WR Santonio Holmes, who had a 35-yard touchdown catch to continue his trend of strong postseason play. Holmes also ran a beautiful route to create a pick play that Cotchery exploited for the Jets’ final touchdown. Holmes doesn’t have huge numbers, but he plays as a No. 1 receiver every year in the playoffs. The Jets must re-sign him.
*The Maurkice Pouncey injury is a big one for the Steelers. They really need their rookie Pro Bowl center to recover from his high ankle sprain and return against the Packers, who have incredible athletes up front in their 3-4.

Santonio Holmes another big playoff play – always steps up at key times

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Divisional Round Saturday Thoughts

Let’s reflect on two memorable Saturday divisional-round games.

Hines Ward celebrates his TD catch vs. the Ravens

Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 24
*The score didn’t reflect it, but this was just as much of a defensive struggle as any other game in the series. The difference was that turnovers both defenses forced set up touchdowns on short fields, instead of field goals. With 11 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and tons of hard hits, this was an epic reminder of the kind of football the Steelers and Ravens always play against each other.
* The two defensive stars were Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Pittsburgh’s James Harrison. Suggs was an unstoppable force with three sacks and two other tackles for loss, including the sack that caused Ben Roethlisberger’s fumble which Cory Redding picked up when no one else considered doing so and returned for a touchdown. Harrison had three sacks of his own, two more tackles for loss, and two passes defensed, showing again why he’s the most complete 3-4 outside linebacker in the league.
*Redding’s touchdown was one of the most unusual plays you’ll ever see in a playoff game. While most players on both teams assumed the ball was the result of an incomplete pass, Redding realized he hadn’t heard a whistle and picked it up. He was in the end zone before everyone else, aside from two Ravens defensive backs, realized what was going on. Redding’s eureka moment gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead and a healthy dose of momentum they kept until the third quarter.
*Both running backs had crucial fumbles in this game. Rashard Mendenhall’s fumble in the first quarter set up Baltimore’s first touchdown, while Ray Rice’s fumble in the third quarter turned momentum and helped Pittsburgh get back in the game. We still like Rice better than Mendenhall, because Rice has far more elusiveness and ability to turn nothing into something. Mendenhall needs a hole blocked for him before he can get going and gain yards.
*The Ravens were supposed to have the receiver depth in this game, after adding Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the offseason, but it was the Steelers who got good performances from the two rookies they added. Emmanuel Sanders had four key catches, while Antonio Brown’s 58-yard bomb late in the game set up the game-winning touchdown. With Sanders, Brown, and Mike Wallace (who was the focus of Baltimore’s defense in this game), the Steelers are set up nicely for the post-Hines Ward era, whenever it begins. Boldin and Houshmandzadeh, meanwhile, both had key drops as Baltimore tried to rally for a game-tying touchdown in the final two minutes. Somehow, despite those additions, Derrick Mason remained the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver this season.
*Joe Flacco is becoming a good quarterback, and he’s had good success on the road in the playoffs in his three-year career. But in this game Flacco made costly errors – an overthrown ball that turned into a Ryan Clark interception, setting up Pittsburgh’s third touchdown. Then Flacco fumbled a snap to set up a field goal. Flacco is 4-3 in the playoffs, which is still quite good for a young QB, but he’s not good enough to beat an elite team in the postseason yet.
*Two other names deserving mention in this game were Baltmore CB Chris Carr and Pittsburgh DE Ziggy Hood. Carr, whom the Ravens signed when he was primarily a kick returner in Tennessee, has become a sure-tackling corner for the Ravens. Hood, a former first-round pick, filled in beautifully for the injured Aaron Smith, notching a sack and another fumble for loss. Hood and Brett Keisel are top-quality 3-4 defensive ends, which should let Smith play more limited snaps when he returns.

Aaron Rodgers celebrates another score

Green Bay 48, Atlanta 21
*Aaron Rodgers is officially making the leap in these playoffs. His masterful 31-for-36 game for 366 yards and three touchdowns is an all-time classic, giving him two terrific playoff games in a row. The Falcons had no answer for Rodgers and his deep group of receivers. All four of his top receivers had at least four catches, led by eight from Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson.
*Tramon Williams starred again as well. After his game-clinching interception against the Eagles, Williams added two more picks against the Falcons, including one he returned for a 70-yard touchdown late in the first half that really started the Packers’ onslaught. Charles Woodson is terrific, but Williams gives Green Bay a second terrific cover man.
*Clay Matthews continued his strong play with two more sacks. He has become an elite outside rusher, a la DeMarcus Ware.
*The one bright spot for the Falcons was kick returner Eric Weems, who backed up his Pro Bowl selection with a 102-yard kickoff return for a score. That’s something to watch for the Packers next week, because the Bears with Devin Hester and the Seahawks with Leon Washington both have elite return men.

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Steelers/Titans thoughts

Troy Polamalu makes an interception in the end zone against the Titans. AP/espn.com

Each week, we watch a specific game and share what we learned. This week we tuned into the Steelers/Titans clash in Nashville, which the Steelers won 19-11. It was a huge win for the Steelers, who move to 2-0 and assure themselves of a solid start in the absence of QB Ben Roethlisberger. When Big Ben returns, the Steelers will add a passing dimension to their game that they’ve been without thus far, and that will take them from a good team to a true contender.

Here’s what else we saw from both an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective.

On-Field Perspective
*The Steelers got off to a quick start with some shenanigans, using a reverse to spring Antonio Brown free for an 89-yard touchdown return of the game’s opening kickoff. Given the fact that Pittsburgh didn’t score a touchdown in regulation last week, and given the fact that the Dennis Dixon/Charlie Batch combo wasn’t going to score a ton, it was a calculated gamble that paid off big for Pittsburgh.
*Vince Young responded poorly to the intense pressure the Steelers put on him, turning the ball over three times (two picks and a fumble), and because of the turnovers the Titans yanked him from the game in favor of Kerry Collins. Collins’ lack of mobility made him a sitting duck for the Steelers, and he threw an interception and fumbled on his first two series, but you can’t blame Titans head coach Jeff Fisher for looking for a spark. Collins rewarded Fisher’s faith with some sharp passing in the last-ditch comeback effort the Titans mounted late in the fourth quarter.
*Batch, who entered the game when Dixon suffered a knee injury, is a caretaker but nothing more. Still, we prefer him to Byron Leftwich, who has a slower delivery and is more likely to make a crucial mistake. Leftwich was cut before the game but is expected to be re-signed after it.
*The Steelers’ defense is still a scary unit, and the presence of Troy Polamalu takes it to another dimension. Polamalu had an end-zone interception that snuffed out a Tennessee scoring chance. It was one of a whopping seven turnovers the Steelers caused. Pittsburgh also created a ton of pressure up front, as James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, and company were all over Young and Collins. Even more impressively, they kept RB Chris Johnson from breaking out, snapping his string of 12 straight 100-yard games.
*The Titans’ defensive line doesn’t get the credit that the Steelers’ does, but it is a solid unit that created pressure and did a nice job bottling up Rashard Mendenhall. Despite the Steelers’ banged-up offensive line that struggles over and over again, that’s still a credit to the Titans.
*Rob Bironas’ crazy middle on-side kick in the fourth quarter put him in the lead for crazy kicker of the week honors – even if it looked like it was drawn up by the Little Rascals, as Eric Stangel tweeted.
*Kevin Harlan, the CBS play-by-play man, is more detailed than anyone else on the national scene. At the same time, he communicates big moments both clearly and with excitement. He’s perhaps our favorite play-by-play guy on the national scene, and it was good to hear him in this one.

Fantasy Football Perspective
*We’re believers in both Hines Ward and Mike Wallace of the Steelers, but Dixon’s injury killed their value this week. Batch simply isn’t good enough at this advanced age to get them the ball. Fantasy owners have just two more games before Ben Roethlisberger returns, which will help both wideouts, but for now Ward and Wallace aren’t guys you can rely on comfortably.
*We don’t love Mendenhall as a No. 1 fantasy back, and this game showed why. Against a solid defense, he doesn’t have the breakaway speed to enhance his numbers. He ended this game with just 69 yards and a 3.0-yard-per-carry average. Plus, if Isaac Redmond gets goal-line carries (as he did late in the fourth quarter), Mendenhall’s stock slips a bit more. Mendenhall is a good but not great back who is in a great situation, and that’s why he has solid fantasy value. But don’t expect the spectacular from him. He’s a No. 2 fantasy back, not a fantasy franchise player.
*Don’t freak out about Chris Johnson’s so-so game.  The Steelers’ defense is death on fantasy running backs, and the seven-turnover performance around him really hurt Johnson’s prospects in this game. It hurts to get just 34 yards from your No. 1 overall pick, but it’s not reason for concern at this point.
*Titans WR Nate Washington scored a touchdown for the second straight week, but given Tennessee’s uncertain QB situation, he’s still not a great investment for fantasy owners. Washington isn’t ownable except in the largest leagues.

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