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We are 4-4 against the spread and 5-3 straight up so far in the playoffs, so this week is key to going over .500 in our postseason picks. Here’s what we expect to happen in the AFC and NFC championship games.
Baltimore +7 at New England
There’s a trend happening in this year’s playoffs, and nobody’s talking about it. Twice, we have seen high-flying teams upset by opponents who were far more physical. The 49ers did it to the Saints, and the Giants did it to the Packers. Now we expect the Ravens to do the same to the Patriots. The Ravens aren’t a perfect team, but they’re very well-balanced, which means they have enough offense to overcome a few big Patriots plays. But the Ravens’ defense will push around New England’s offensive line and give Tom Brady some heartburn. Meanwhile, on offense, Ray Rice and company should be able to find lanes, and despite the hullaballoo this week Joe Flacco will make some big-time throws against a Patriots secondary that still isn’t good. Brawn beats beauty, and the Ravens go to the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years. Baltimore 27, New England 24
San Francisco -3 vs. N.Y. Giants
No matter whether this line is two or three points, we believe the 49ers will surpass it. While the AFC championship is a game of contrasting styles, this one will be a slugfest, a la Ravens/Texans last week. And we believe the 49ers are the more physical team on both sides of the ball. While Eli Manning has gotten a lot of pub for making big throws thus far in the playoffs, he can’t block for himself. The 49ers should also be able to shut down the Giants running game. It’s not going to be pretty, but it should be effective for San Francisco to make its first Super Bowl appearance since the mid-1990s. San Francisco 20, N.Y. Giants 16
Normally, in the playoffs the kicker craziness abates, but we had two good crazy kicker candidates this week. So while Packers PK Mason Crosby’s surprise onside kick would normally suffice, this week the craziest kicker is Patriots QB Tom Brady. Brady quick-kicked on third down, punting for 48 yards and pinning the Broncos at the 10-yard. The fact that a fight broke out after the kick only made things crazier.
Our National Football Authority friends show you why Tom Brady is this week’s crazy kicker of the week.
Crazy Kickers of the Week 2011
Divisional round: QB/P Tom Brady, Patriots
Week 17: PK David Akers, 49ers
Week 14: P Andy Lee, 49ers
Week 12: PK Dave Rayner, Bills
Week 11: P Michael Koenen, Buccaneers
Week 10: PK David Akers, 49ers
Week 9: P Chas Henry, Eagles
Week 6: P Shane Lechler, Raiders
Week 5: P Daniel Sepulveda, Steelers
Week 4: PK Mason Crosby, Packers
Week 2: P Michael Koenen, Buccaneers
Week 1: P Sam Koch, Ravens
Preseason Week 4: P Dustin Colquitt, Chiefs
Preseason Week 2: P Andy Lee, 49ers
Preseason Week 1: PK Josh Brown, Rams
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. We will do so this week, but we will discuss only the 4 remaining playoff teams. As a result, we’re removing the 10-point scale and just discussing these teams in order of which we think is best.
Baltimore Ravens – Not many people will have the Ravens as the top remaining team in the playoffs, but we do. That’s because the Ravens have the most pieces of any team left. The defense, while not at the elite level it reached over the past decade, is still quite good. The offense has an elite runner in Ray Rice, as well as some terrific young pieces in the passing game. The weakest spot is quarterback Joe Flacco, who is inconsistent but can still rise to the occasion. The Ravens didn’t look great in their 20-13 win over the Texans, but that was a tricky matchup between two teams with similar styles, and the Ravens won out. Now they get to play the Patriots in a game of contrasting styles, and we saw in the Giants/Packers matchup and the Saints/49ers matchup this weekend that the physical style has a great shot of overcoming the flashier, high-flying approach. Plus, the Ravens have risen to the occasion at every big moment this year, with wins over the Steelers, 49ers, Texans, and more, so they won’t be intimidated going into New England.
San Francisco 49ers – We move the 49ers up after their enthralling 36-32 victory over the Saints Saturday afternoon. We discussed in this post the impact that Justin and Aldon Smith had for the 49ers, and they were part of a defense that completely outmuscled the Saints. That physical style will be tested this weekend against the Giants; like this week’s Ravens/Texans game, Giants/49ers will be a battle of two teams with similar approaches and styles. We believe the 49ers can play the style better than the Giants, as long as QB Alex Smith avoids key mistakes. Smith showed that he was clutch this past week, but he has a high bar to clear against Eli Manning this week.
New England Patriots – The Patriots lambasted the Broncos 45-10 this weekend, repeating their domination in Denver from earlier this year. QB Tom Brady and crew have one of the league’s most unstoppable offenses, thanks in large part to TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. And Tim Tebow and the Broncos were not refined enough offensively to test the Patriots’ sometimes spotty pass defense. But the Ravens are good enough to do so, and they will also be more physical up front than the Patriots are. Don’t let one playoff blowout against an inferior team trick you into thinking that the Patriots are far and away better than anyone else left in the playoffs.
We got off to a 3-1 start to the playoffs last week, missing only the Broncos’ upset win over the Steelers. Let’s see if we can hit that number or even improve on it this week.
New Orleans -4 at San Francisco
The 49ers are good, but being a defensive-first team trying to stop an offensive juggernaut is tough. That’s because offensive explosiveness gives you more of a margin for error. The 49ers, meanwhile, have little margin for error given the fact that they don’t score a ton of points because they don’t score touchdowns in the red zone. So even if DE Justin Smith and company and hold down the Drew Brees-led Saints offense, I don’t expect them to operate efficiently enough offensively to get over the hump and win. New Orleans 21, San Francisco 16
New England -14 vs. Denver
This is a huge line, which is not surprising given the fact that the Patriots have scored a ton of points this season while the Broncos have struggled at times to reach the end zone. The Patriots’ defensive isn’t that great, but we figure that they will do a better job of taking away Tim Tebow’s No. 1 passing option (even if it’s down the field) than the Steelers did. If they do that, Tebow could struggle, because he hasn’t done a great job of moving through his route progressions this year. New England may give up a few plays, as they did in the first meeting between these teams, but they should do a good enough job to let Tom Brady and the offense shine. In the end, that would make the game kind of similar to the 41-23 regular-season meeting. New England 38, Denver 21
Baltimore -9 vs. Houston
The wild-card round of the playoffs couldn’t have played out better for the Ravens. They avoid a third game against their AFC North rival Steelers and instead draw a Texans team that is solid but playing with a rookie quarterback in T.J. Yates. The Texans defense is good, but we saw the Ravens smash a similar team when they thumped the 49ers at home earlier this season – and when they beat the Texans (with Matt Schaub) 29-14. Baltimore has enough offensive firepower to make some plays thanks to Ray Rice and some young receivers, and the defense should be able to force Yates into mistakes. While Yates did a good job getting the ball downfield last week against the Bengals, we’re still not confident that he can do so against a top-level defense like the Ravens – especially on the road. Baltimore 24, Houston 10
Green Bay -9 vs. N.Y. Giants
It’s possible that the Giants could go to Green Bay and win. They could outmuscle the Pack on both sides of the ball and use a ball-control approach to steal a win. But while that pattern is possible, we don’t think it’s likely. Instead, we think that the Packers team that was terrific all year long will play up to that level and be so explosive that the Giants just can’t keep up. So while this matchup reminds everyone of 2007, when the Giants won in Green Bay and then avenged a late-season 38-35 loss in the Super Bowl, our preja vu tells us there won’t be any deja vu. Green Bay 35, N.Y. Giants 17
Season: 46-51-5 pro, 94-86-7 overall
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. We will do so this week, but we will discuss only the 8 remaining playoff teams.
10 – Green Bay Packers – The Packers made it through the bye week, and they should get WR Greg Jennings back in the lineup this week. That will help, but their matchup against the New York Giants is a tricky one. The Packers’ lines (on both sides of the ball) must do their job and keep the Giants from manhandling them the way they manhandled the Falcons on Sunday.
9 – Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints – The Ravens, who were on bye, will face the Houston Texans. Their defense has to be licking its chops at the thought of taking on a rookie quarterback on the road.
The Saints overcame an early deficit and thrashed the Lions 45-28. Once again, the Saints’ elite offense shined through, and once they got a lead they played from ahead as well as anyone in the league. They face a much trickier matchup this week at San Francisco, because the 49ers have an elite defense.
8 – New England Patriots – The Patriots dodged the Pittsburgh Steelers and instead will come off their bye against the Denver Broncos. Their 41-23 win in Denver a few weeks back looms large in that matchup, no matter how much magic Tim Tebow came up with on Sunday.
7 – San Francisco 49ers – The Niners come off their bye with the matchup everyone expected against the Saints. Getting New Orleans at home will help, but San Francisco must solve its red-zone problems and score touchdowns to have a shot. We are skeptical that San Francisco will score enough points to do so, even if they hold the Saints to 24 points or less.
6 – none
5 – New York Giants – The Giants put on a vintage performance in dominating the Falcons 24-2. As we said throughout last week, the Giants are finally getting healthy, and that allowed both lines to control the game vs. Atlanta. That gives them a chance against a Packers team that they nearly beat late in the season. But we still don’t see the Giants winning a shootout in Green Bay – which means they need to turn the game into a slugfest. If they can do that, they have a chance. Still, despite the fact that the Giants haven’t played this well all season, we don’t see them being good enough to pull three straight upsets and win another Super Bowl.
4 – none
3 – Houston Texans – The Texans looked better in beating the Bengals 31-10 than they had in the final month of the season. QB T.J. Yates hit some plays down field, which had been missing in recent weeks. That’s essential if the Texans are going to be able to challenge the Ravens this week. The Texans’ defense, meanwhile, did a great job. That unit will need to play even better against Baltimore. The Texans will be undermanned against the Ravens, but they have enough pieces to pull the upset if they play at their best possible level.
2 – none
1 – Denver Broncos – The Broncos pulled off the upset of wild-card weekend, beating the heavily favored Steelers 29-23 in overtime. The defense played better than it had in a December lull, and quarterback Tim Tebow obviously made some huge plays down the field. We were impressed by WR Demaryius Thomas, who seems to be growing into his immense potential. We still don’t think the Broncos can knock off the Patriots, but they gave their fans a great moment, and Tebow showed that he has the ability to continue to develop as a starter.
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.
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.
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. We’ll note throughout where teams have moved up or down from last week. Also, next week we will shift the comparison to focus on just the 12 playoff teams.
10 – Green Bay Packers – Green Bay bounced back from its first loss of the season with a convincing Christmas night win over the Bears. The blowout serves as a reminder that the Packers are the class of the league, after a week full of noise based on their worst performance of the season. Green Bay also claimed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with the win.
9 – Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers – These four teams have serious shots to beat the Packers, although they wouldn’t be favored. We like the Ravens and Saints the best of this bunch, because at their best they are most dangerous. Baltimore can’t afford a let-down during the playoffs like they had in the regular season; clinching a bye next week would help. The Saints need to take a lead, because when they do they are deadly. Again, a bye would help avoid a trip to San Francisco that could be problematic. The Steelers will likely have to go to the wild-card route, which they have done before, but it seems like a longer shock this year because of Ben Roethlisberger’s health. The Patriots clinched a bye and still can land home-field advantage, but their defense raises too many questions.
8 – Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions (UP A LEVEL), San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers got another win and still can land a bye, but while we can see them winning a playoff game at home, we don’t expect them to go to Green Bay and come out victorious. The Lions blasted the Chargers. They will be the most dangerous wild-card team in the NFC and maybe in the entire league. Explosiveness is scary, and the Lions have that offensively. The Falcons once again showed that while they are consistent, they aren’t dynamic enough to win playoff games.
7 – Cincinnati Bengals (UP A LEVEL), Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans (DOWN TWO LEVELS), New York Jets (DOWN A LEVEL), New York Giants (UP A LEVEL), Philadelphia Eagles (UP A LEVEL) – The Bengals took control of the race for the AFC wild-card spot with a win and a Jets loss. Cincinnati hasn’t beaten any elite teams, but credit to them for not losing any upsets either. The Jets lost to the Giants and seem to have a mess of problems. But they have had such problems before and still made playoff runs. If they make it in, you can’t completely count them out. The Cowboys and Giants will face off for the NFC East title. Neither team is great, but both have ceilings that can scare opponents. The Giants especially raise questions, because of the way they rose to the occasion against the Patriots and Packers this year. We’re writing off the Texans at this point. T.J. Yates can’t get the ball downfield, and as a result the offense isn’t scary enough. We don’t think even Andre Johnson can make a big enough difference. The Broncos fell apart in Buffalo and must show that their defense isn’t cracking. But with a win, they’re in. The Eagles are eliminated but are finally playing at a playoff level.
6 – Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers (DOWN A LEVEL), Tennessee Titans – The Raiders stayed alive with an overtime win against the Chiefs. But even if they make the playoffs, the Raiders are not a major threat to win in the postseason. The Chargers lost their momentum in Detroit and fell out of the playoff picture. The sum never equalled the parts in San Diego this year, and it wasn’t all Philip Rivers’ fault. The Titans stayed in the playoff picture with a win over the Jaguars, but playoff berth or no they aren’t serious threats.
5 – Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers (UP A LEVEL), Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks – The Cardinals and Seahawks fell below .500, but both teams had game efforts. The Cardinals lost in Cincinnati, while Seattle couldn’t hold off the 49ers at home. Both teams have improved during the season to the point where they are at least competitive. The Bears fell apart after losing Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, but the talent across the board still merits mid-level placement in the comparison. The Panthers are streaking at the end of the season and have tons of reasons for hope for 2012. They need to add pieces defensively, but Cam Newton is the real deal.
4 – Buffalo Bills (UP A LEVEL), Miami Dolphins – The Bills finally broke a long losing streak by blowing out the Bills. The Dolphins fell after taking a 17-point lead against the Patriots. Both teams have been competitive, at least in stretches, but both need more help in order to make a run at the playoffs in 2012.
3 – Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Washington Redskins (DOWN A LEVEL) – The Redskins had some momentum but fell apart against the Vikings last week. It’ll be interesting to see who Washington rates as keepers and who the Redskins reject. The Browns have some nice pieces on defense but need a huge upgrade offensively if they are going to compete in 2012. The Jaguars also will need to figure out who to keep defensively as they address several huge issues.
2 – Indianapolis Colts (UP A LEVEL), Minnesota Vikings – The Colts have built something the last couple of weeks. Dan Orlovsky has probably earned another job as a backup quarterback somewhere, and some of the defensive pieces have demonstrated value as well. The Vikings got a win in Washington, and Joe Webb is forcing himself into the quarterback of the future conversation.
1 – St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (DOWN A LEVEL) – Both the Rams and Bucs looked like ascendant teams at the end of last season,but this year they have completely fallen apart. Tampa Bay has lost nine straight, while the Rams could end up with the No. 1 overall pick for the second time in three years.
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. We’ll note throughout where teams have moved up or down from last week.
10 – Green Bay Packers – We discussed why the Packers are still ahead of the rest of the pack in Rise/Sink/Float.
9 – Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers – It was carnage week in the AFC, as three of the conference’s four 10-win teams lost. The Patriots were the only ones to get a win, with a 41-23 win in Denver. All of the sudden, they control their own destiny for home-field advantage with home games against Miami and Buffalo remaining. The Ravens laid an egg in San Diego but caught a break when the Steelers lost in San Francisco. Baltimore still holds the tiebreaker in the AFC North. We discussed the Texans’ loss in this game post. In the NFC, the Saints kept the pressure on the 49ers by throttling the Vikings. The Saints now face a Monday-night home game against the Falcons.
8 – Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers – The Falcons continued their pattern of taking care of business against poor teams with a dominant win over Jacksonville. It clinched Atlanta’s fourth straight winning season and should be enough for Atlanta to cruise to a wild card. The 49ers got a key win against the Steelers, but we still see them as a notch below the Saints in the NFC. Still, if San Francisco can hold onto a bye and get the Saints at home in the playoffs, they have a chance to advance. The Jets were blasted by the Eagles and now must rebound quickly against the Giants in a game key to both teams’ playoff hopes.
7 – Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, San Diego Chargers (UP A LEVEL) – We discussed the Chargers’ power surge in Rise/Sink/Float. The Cowboys thumped the Buccaneers on Saturday night but must beat a soaring Eagles team at home this Saturday if they want to win the NFC East. That may be the game of the week. The Lions got a comeback win in Oakland to clinch a winning season, and they need just one more win to roar into the playoffs for the first time in forever. A home game against the Chargers this week will be a tough place to do it, however. The Broncos lost to the Patriots at home, which wasn’t unexpected. But Denver still has a game lead in the AFC West and a favorable road matchup in Buffalo this week.
6 – Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders, New York Giants (DOWN A LEVEL), Philadelphia Eagles (UP A LEVEL), Tennessee Titans – We covered the Giants in Rise/Sink/Float. The Bengals beat the Rams to stay in the AFC playoff hunt. If the Jets slip up and the Bengals beat the Cardinals at home this week, they could sneak in. The Raiders lost a lead against the Lions, which could be costly in the AFC West. The Raiders must win in Kansas City to stay alive this week. The Titans laid an egg against the previously winless Colts, and that will probably close off their playoff hopes. They can rebound against the Jaguars this week to keep pushing toward a winning record. The Eagles smashed the Jets and now have a chance to resuscitate a season that looked DOA if they can win in Dallas this weekend.
5 – Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears (DOWN A LEVEL), Seattle Seahawks – All of these teams are 7-7, but they got there in different ways. The Bears have fallen apart since injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte. The Cardinals (who edged past the Browns) and Seahawks (who thumped the Bears) have moved up to 7-7. Arizona and Seattle have less-than-stellar quarterback situations, but the teams are growing despite that. They can stay in the playoff mix this week, with Arizona visiting Cincinnati and Seattle hosting the 49ers.
4 – Carolina Panthers (UP A LEVEL), Miami Dolphins, Washington Redskins – These three teams are showing some late-season friskiness. We discussed the Panthers’ upset win in Houston in this game post. The Dolphins went to Buffalo and ran the ball down the Bills’ throats. The Redskins dominated the Giants in a game the Giants needed playoff-wise.
3 – Buffalo Bills (DOWN A LEVEL), Cleveland Browns (UP A LEVEL), Jacksonville Jaguars (DOWN A LEVEL) – The Bills lost at home to the Dolphins, while the Jaguars were blasted in Atlanta. The Browns were competitive in Arizona and move up as a result.
2 – Minnesota Vikings (DOWN A LEVEL), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (DOWN A LEVEL) – The Vikings fell to 2-10 as the Saints destroyed them. They are Jared Allen but little else at this point. The Buccaneers were blown out at home against the Cowboys.
1 – Indianapolis Colts, St. Louis Rams – The Colts finally got a win at home against the Titans. The Rams got yet another loss against the Bengals.