For National Football Authority, we break down the reasons that the Houston Texans released WR Jacoby Jones. We analyze what Jones is (and isn’t) at this point in his career, and what teams should be interested. Click here to read all about it.
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In this post, we compare the significance of the trades made in the NFL between the opening of the 2012 offseason and the NFL draft. We’ll follow up this post, as usual, with posts on player-based trades during the draft and then in the offseason leading into training camp. As is usual with our Football Relativity posts, the 10 level is for the most significant trades, and the 1 level is for the least significant.
10 – Miami Dolphins trade WR Brandon Marshall to Chicago Bears for 2012 and 2013 third-round picks – Marshall fell off the national radar a bit in Miami, but he is still a true No. 1 receiver who is a catch machine. Plus, in Chicago he is reunited with Jay Cutler, with whom he had so much success in Denver. The cost isn’t bad, especially when you consider that the Bears had an extra third-rounder this year from the Greg Olsen trade. But Marshall’s off-field troubles – which included a police-involved incident just before the trade – obviously wore on the Dolphins. Still, if Marshall can stay out of trouble, he’s a huge addition for the Bears, who have not had a receiver of his talents in eons. His presence will allow Chicago’s other receivers to fall into more appropriate complimentary roles, which should make the Bears offense more potent. It’ll be interesting to see if Marshall can do what it takes to make that happens.
9 – none
8 – Denver Broncos trade QB Tim Tebow and 2012 seventh-round pick to New York Jets for 2012 fourth- and sixth-round picks – While the Tebow trade was the highest profile deal of the offseason, it won’t be the most significant. That’s because Tebow ultimately doesn’t have the on-field capacity of taking away Mark Sanchez’s job and keeping it. Tebow will steal some snaps and quite possibly some starts away from Sanchez, but if he becomes the No. 1 QB he won’t perform well enough to keep it. The best-case scenario for Tebow is to get a year on the bench in the system to develop and hone his skills and make a run at the starting job in 2013. But New York’s fan base and media isn’t patient enough for that to happen, and so ultimately the Tebow experiment will fail. The Broncos saw this coming in Denver, so they sold low on Tebow, getting minimal value back for a former first-round pick. It’s another in the long line of disastrous consequences of the Josh McDaniels hire.
7 – none
6 – Philadelphia Eagles trade CB Asante Samuel to Atlanta Falcons for 2012 seventh-round draft pick – We discussed this deal in depth in this piece.
5 – Houston Texans trade LB DeMeco Ryans to Philadelphia Eagles for 2012 fourth-round draft pick and swap of 2012 third-round picks (Texans gain 12 spots) – Ryans was incredibly productive in Houston, but he was lost in the shuffle a bit when the Texans switched to a 3-4 defense last year. He turned into a run-down-only linebacker who wasn’t on the field on passing downs. So the Texans, who were in major cost-cutting mode this offseason, dealt him to Philadelphia. With the Eagles, Ryans can fit more naturally into a 4-3 defense as the middle linebacker, which was a major trouble spot last year. His presence and leadership should help Philly’s other young linebackers perform a little better, which will be a nice side benefit. It’s a shame that Ryans fell out of favor in Houston, because he can play when healthy, but credit to the Texans for recognizing that he was no longer a fit and getting something in return.
4 – Cincinnati Bengals trade OLB Keith Rivers to New York Giants for 2012 fifth-round pick – Rivers, a former top-10 pick, battled injuries throughout his Bengals career, and as a result showed only flashes of brilliance. The Bengals had to move on with Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson, which made Rivers expendable. He’s a bit of a lottery ticket for the Giants, but if he’s healthy he adds a play-making aspect to a linebacking corps that is solid but unspectacular. It’s the kind of gamble that a defending champion can take, because the team is deep enough that a fifth-round pick would struggle to make the roster.
3 – Carolina Panthers trade RB Mike Goodson to Oakland Raiders for OT Bruce Campbell – This is a classic deal in which teams trade players who have fallen out of favor and hope a change of scenery changes things. There’s a better chance of that happening in Goodson’s case, since he has delivered on the NFL level in the past. He showed in 2009 and 2010 that he is a quality runner, receiver, and returner who can back up Darren McFadden in Oakland. But Goodson developed fumbling problems last year and fell into Panthers head coach Ron Rivera’s doghouse. Campbell, a former fourth-round pick, has massive physical ability but has never lived up to his potential. But the Raiders tried him at guard, when he’s more naturally a tackle. The Panthers hope he can develop into a right tackle option who can back up or even replace Jeff Otah. Neither player figured in his old team’s plans, so taking a shot on someone else makes sense. But the Raiders are a little more likely to cash in on this deal.
2 – Philadelphia Eagles trade OT Winston Justice and a 2012 sixth-round pick to Indianapolis Colts for a 2012 sixth-round pick – Justice had fallen out of favor in Philadelphia and lost a starting job, but he’s still a replacement-level right tackle. That’s the role the Colts have in mind as they seek to stabilize a problematic offensive line in advance of Andrew Luck’s arrival. The bargain-basement price – moving down half a round in the sixth – was well worth it, even if Justice doesn’t hold a starting job all season.
1 – New York Jets trade QB Drew Stanton and a 2012 seventh-round pick to Indianapolis Colts for 2012 sixth-round pick – The Jets signed Stanton to be Mark Sanchez’s backup, but after trading for Tebow, they did right by Stanton and found him another place to be a No. 2. The change-of-direction cost the Jets $500,000, but at least they got a little bit of draft value in return. For the Colts, who had no backup quarterback, adding Stanton is a solid move that didn’t even cost them a draft pick. Instead, they dealt the sixth-rounder they got in the Winston Justice trade and moved down to the seventh. Getting Justice, Stanton, and a seventh-rounder for their sixth-round pick is really good value for a Colts team badly in need of depth.
Each year, we use Football Relativity as a tool to compare the class of franchise and transition players. We’ll compare them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being a franchise MVP and 1 being a why-bother-keeping guy.
DEFINITIONS: Under the current rules, the franchise tag guarantees them one-year salaries equal to the average of the top five at their position as determined by a new, complicated formula. There are two kinds of tags: an exclusive tag, which guarantees more money on the one-year tender and prohibits a player from negotiating or signing with another team, and a non-exclusive tag, which offers a guaranteed one-year tender but also guarantees a team two first-round picks if the tagged player signs a long-term contract with another team.
On to the comparison. All players are non-exclusive franchise players except for the first entry, Drew Brees.
10 – QB Drew Brees, Saints – It’s amazing that the Saints couldn’t get a deal with Brees, who is an elite, championship-quality quarterback at the top of his game. But the team and Brees are so far apart on a long-term contract that they had to use the tag. That’s a good financial deal for the team in 2012 – the $15 million or so they’ll pay for the exclusive franchise tag is below market value for a quarterback of Brees’ caliber. But it keeps the Saints from tagging other free agents like OG Carl Nicks and WR Marques Colston, and it could also make it harder to get Brees signed long-term down the line. Chances are the Brees waits till the last possible moment to sign the tender, since that’s the only way he maintains leverage – by missing offseason workouts. That’s not a good way to go into the offseason and try to bounce back from a painful playoff loss in San Francisco. The Saints may claim to be financially responsible, but it seems like they’re just being cheap.
9 – RB Ray Rice, Ravens – Rice is by far the Ravens’ best offensive player, and they cannot afford to lose him. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine paying the freight for a long-term deal for a running back who has gotten as many carries as Rice has. But the Ravens need to follow the examples of the Vikings (with Adrian Peterson), the Panthers (with DeAngelo Williams), and the Texans (with Arian Foster) and keep Rice around for the long term. Baltimore has a strong front office, and so we can expect them to make a deal at some point this offseason. Until then, Rice stays put on a $7.7 million tag.
9 (con’t) – RB Matt Forte, Bears – Like Rice, Forte is a do-everything back who is the best offensive player for his team. And while Forte was injured last season, he returned to play in the Pro Bowl to prove he is healthy headed into free agency. Forte may be half a step behind Rice in terms of talent, but he is as productive and as essential. It’ll be interesting to see how the Bears end up paying Forte over the long haul.
8 – WR DeSean Jackson, Eagles – Jackson is one of the most unique players in the league. Few receivers have the pure speed that he has, and so few receivers can take the top off a defense like Jackson. But he’s also a prickly personality who probably needs to be a premium No. 2 receiver but who demands the attention, targets, and money of a No. 1 wideout. For those reasons, the Eagles may look to deal Jackson if the right offer comes along. If not, the Eagles will pay Jackson $9.4 million to keep him around for 2012, and that price, though steep, is still palatable. The resolution of this tag situation will be one of the most interesting sagas of the offseason.
7 – WR Wes Welker, Patriots – The Patriots found Welker as a restricted free agent and turned him into the league leader in receptions. He’s nearly unstoppable coming out of the slot, and at this point he is Tom Brady’s preferred target. Welker’s reliable presence has allowed the Pats to develop tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski into down-field targets, and that should take a little pressure off Welker. But until New England finds a true outside threat, Welker is still irreplaceable. That made it a no-brainer decision to put the tag on Welker and make sure he’s around in 2012.
6 – CB Brent Grimes, Falcons – Grimes has developed into the type of cornerback who gets the shutdown label. That’s been vital in Atlanta, who had sought to find that corner first by drafting DeAngelo Hall and then by paying Dunta Robinson. Grimes is now better than both of them, and that means the Falcons can’t afford to lose him. The $10.6 million franchise tag is pretty stiff, but it’s a price the Falcons can’t help but pay. If they want to move from being an annual playoff team to being a true title contender, they need to add players like Grimes, not lose them.
6 (con’t) – DE Calais Campbell, Cardinals – Campbell has developed into a top-flight 3-4 defensive end, and those guys are incredibly hard to find. So the Cardinals are willing to spend $10.6 million to keep Campbell around for 2012. Last year was Campbell’s best, as he had eight sacks, 11 passes deflected, and even blocked three field goals. He is now a core player for the Cardinals, and so tagging him is definitely worthwhile. Campbell did get the non-exclusive tag, but it’s unlikely he will get away for two first-round picks.
6 (con’t) – WR Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – After signing CB Stanford Routt, it became obvious that the Chiefs would let CB Brandon Carr enter free agency and instead tag Bowe, who has produced big numbers as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Bowe isn’t always consistent, and he can even disappear at times, but his combination of size and speed is rare. With a new offensive system in place now that Todd Haley is gone, the Chiefs need to give Matt Cassel and company the best chance to succeed, and that means keeping Bowe in town, even if he’s not a perfect receiver a la Larry Fitzgerald. So the $9.4 million tag for Bowe is a necessary move, even if it seems too pricy.
5 – S Michael Griffin, Titans – Instead of tagging CB Cortland Finnegan for $10.6 million, the Titans chose to keep former Pro Bowler Griffin around. The former first-round pick had his best season in 2010, and he has 17 picks in his five seasons. He’s a rangy player who helps corners like Finnegan play more aggressively by providing a safety net. That’s a worthwhile role, and it makes Griffin a solid investment at $6.2 million in 2012.
5 (con’t) – DE Cliff Avril, Lions – Avril is a developing player who had a career-high with 11 sacks in 2011. Obviously, he is benefitting from playing with a talented defensive line, but he has emerged as the best pass-rusher on the end over Kyle Vanden Bosch. Avril can be a core player, but the $8.8 million one-year tag is a little steep given his resume. Still, given the premium for pass rushers on the open market, it’s no surprise that the Lions used the tag to keep him around.
4 – S Dashon Goldson, 49ers – Goldson hit the free-agent market unfettered last year, but in the compressed offseason he didn’t get the kind of attention he wanted. After signing a one-year deal, Goldson now hits the market again, but this time the 49ers tagged him. He’s worth keeping for $6.2 million because he’s a big, rangy safety who hits. By tagging Goldson, the 49ers risk losing CB Carlos Rogers, who had a fine season last year. But Goldson’s tag is cheaper than Rogers’ would have been, and he’s been a key starter in San Francisco longer.
4 (con’t) – OLB Anthony Spencer, Cowboys – Spencer, a former first-round pick, had a break-out season in 2009 but has leveled off a bit the last two seasons. He’s a good outside linebacker who can create pass rush across from DeMarcus Ware, but he’s not a dynamic player. The Cowboys need to ink Spencer to a long-term deal to lessen the $8.8 million tag he’s currently under, but they’re wise to keep him.
3 – S Tyvon Branch, Raiders – Branch is a solid starter for the Raiders, not a game-changing player. But after losing CB Stanford Routt to a salary-cap saving move earlier this offseason, and with FS Michael Huff perhaps headed for the same fate, the Raiders wanted some continuity in the secondary. Branch will now provide that at strong safety for a $6.2 million price tag. By tagging Branch, the Raiders opted to let RB Michael Bush hit the open market. Picking Branch over Bush (a part-time player who would have cost $7.7 million) was probably the right move for a team with serious salary-cap management issues.
3 (con’t) – DE Robert Mathis, Colts – The Colts franchised Mathis then quickly re-signed him just after the deadline. We discussed more about why this isn’t a great idea in this post. Still, Mathis is a quality player and a potent pass rusher, so he’s worth a contract to someone.
2 – TE Fred Davis, Redskins – Davis is a good player, but he’s not a franchise-caliber player. Plus, he served a four-game suspension under the NFL’s substance-abuse policy to end the 2011 season. But the recalculated franchise value means that tight ends are tagged at $5.4 million, and Davis is worth that. In fact, the Redskins might be better off paying him a one-year contract than investing long term in a guy who needs to answer character questions. Davis is a talented receiver, and with Chris Cooley breaking down due to injuries, he will definitely help. But if the tag was at the 2011 level that was $2 million higher, Davis would be hitting the open market. By tagging Davis, the Redskins are letting S LaRon Landry hit the market, which makes sense, because Landry would cost more and is injured too often.
2 (con’t) – PK Phil Dawson, Browns – Dawson will cost more than most kickers – $3.8 million vs. $2.6 – because he was franchised last year as well. He has proven to be a solid kicker in the unfriendly Cleveland weather, and the original Brown (at least Brown 2.0) is a fan favorite. At some point, the Browns will need to lock Dawson in on a long-term deal to keep him, but they’re willing to pay the freight year by year for now.
2 (con’t) – PK Matt Prater, Broncos – Prater has huge power in his leg, which makes him a perfect fit for the high altitude in Denver. He’s good at creating touchbacks and also dependable on long-distance field-goals. That makes him a valuable weapon, especially in the Tim Tebow era where first downs aren’t always easy to come by. The Broncos get to keep that weapon at a reasonable $2.5 million price.
2 (con’t) – PK Josh Scobee, Jaguars – Scobee isn’t well known, but he also has a big-time leg that shows itself on kickoffs and field goals. For a Jaguars team that isn’t always a big spender, paying the lowest franchise tag to keep a solid kicker in town makes sense. Tagging DE Jeremy Mincey would have cost much more but kept an impactful pass rusher, but Scobee is a guy the Jaguars need too.
1 – PK Mike Nugent, Bengals – The recalculated franchise values made it almost a bargain to keep a kicker with a one-year franchise tag at $2.6 million, which is a bit below the market value of a top kicker. That led the Bengals to lock in Nugent, the former Jet who has done a nice job of stabilizing the kicking position since moving to Cincinnati. The Bengals may be better off letting Nugent play under the tag in 2012 and trying to lock in a long-term deal for 2013 and beyond than doing the long-term deal now, since Nugent is coming off a great year but has shown inconsistency in the past.
1 (con’t) – P Steve Weatherford, Giants – Weatherford had a nice season moving across the hall in the Meadowlands from the Giants to the Jets, and his NFC championship game performance against the 49ers was spectacular. He isn’t a Shane Lechler/Andy Lee level of punter, but for a one-year, $2.5 million price tag, he’s a worthwhile investment. It’ll be interesting to see if the Giants seek to lower that cap number by investing in Weatherford for the long term, or whether they wait for him to prove it once again.
1 (con’t) – PK Connor Barth, Buccaneers – Barth has emerged as a solid kicker in his 2 1/2 years in Tampa Bay, and his 26-for-28 field-goal performance in 2011 was terrific. But he’s not a kickoff specialist – Michael Koenen does that for the Bucs – and he’s not an elite long-distance kicker a la Scobee or Prater. Still, given the low franchise-tag number for kickers, you can’t criticize the Bucs for buying a little certainty for $2.5 million.
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
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.
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.
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
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.