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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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Super Bowl 45 thoughts

Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews celebrate, via foxsports.com

Here are thoughts breaking down the Packers’ 31-25 victory over the Steelers in Super Bowl 45.

*Aaron Rodgers wasn’t the surgeon he had been at other points in the playoffs (most notably against the Falcons), but he had a terrific game with 304 passing yards and three touchdowns. His 24-of-39 performance would have been even better without at least 5 drops by Packers wideouts, which says even more about how Rodgers played. Rodgers made the leap this year, and the playoffs affirmed that he’s among the league’s best this year.
*Ben Roethlisberger, on the other hand, threw two interceptions that his team couldn’t overcome. The first pick, which Nick Collins returned to a touchdown, wasn’t entirely Big Ben’s fault, since he couldn’t get anything on the throw due to pressure from Howard Green. But the second pick was into double coverage. Both picks resulted in Green Bay TDs, so it’s fair to say that Ben’s failings were part of the reason the Steelers lost.
*Not to toot our own horn, but our pre-game pick ‘em post was eerily accurate. The running game wasn’t really a factor on either side of the ball, although both James Starks (11 for 52) and Rashard Mendenhall (14 for 63) ran OK. Mendenhall’s fumble, however, was another key mistake. But the crucial matchup of the game was the fact that the Steelers couldn’t stop the Packers’ four-WR set. Rodgers consistently found Jordy Nelson (nine catches, 140 yards, TD, plus three drops), and Greg Jennings (4-64-2) made a few huge plays, and the formation kept Troy Polamalu in coverage, which limited his impact. On the other side, the Steelers got some big plays from Mike Wallace (9-89-1), but the Packers were able to clamp down on the Steelers, especially early. Only after Charles Woodson suffered a broken collarbone and Sam Shields had to leave for a while with an injury did the Steelers really gash the Pack through the air.
*The defenses didn’t cause a ton of havoc on either side. The Steelers got decent pressure on Rodgers, and more importantly kept him inside the pocket, but they got just three sacks. (Lamarr Woodley did continue his streak of having a sack in every postseason game he’s played.) The Packers had just one sack from Frank Zombo, but they did knock down a few passes on the line. Clay Matthews, the chief mischief-maker, spent as much time spying on Roethlisberger as actually blitzing, which is part of the reason why Ben had just one run for a first down. (Props to Troy Aikman, by the way, for pointing out the Matthews spy strategy early on.) But the Packers’ defensive line didn’t make an impact aside from Green’s big play.
*Mike Lombardi of the NFL network always refers to missed field goals as turnovers, and Shaun Suisham’s shanked 52-yarder in the third quarter was an unforced turnover. Suisham has never been a consistent kicker, so the idea of having him try a 50-plus field goal in a key spot was wrong-headed by Mike Tomlin. It cost the Steelers at least 22 yards (and maybe 30-35 yards) of field position, and also let the Packers out from under the thumb at a time when they were really struggling. It didn’t turn the game, but it was a major miscalculation.
*The Packers had a ton of drops. Nelson had three, including two that would have been for huge gains. James Jones dropped a potential touchdown – he’s had a ton of big drops in the postseason – and showed why, despite his speed and potential, he’s a No. 3 receiver and a starter. Still, Jones had five catches for 50 yards and made an impact after Donald Driver left the game with a foot injury.
*Unsung heroes: Antwaan Randle El had a huge 37-yard catch, another first-down catch, and a run for a two-point conversion for the Steelers, which was huge after rookie Emmanuel Sanders had to leave the game with a foot injury. Bush of the Packers was forced into more coverage responsibility after Woodson’s injury, and he had a big hit on Roethlisberger and added an interception early on without giving up a ton of big plays. Desmond Bishop of the Packers was all over the field, finishing with eight tackles and three tackles for loss, along with a fumble recovery. He was far more of a factor than A.J. Hawk, and given the fact that he started the year behind Nick Barnett, Bishop’s development was a huge factor. And C Doug Legursky, who replaced Maurkice Pouncey at center for the Steelers, held up just fine. He never got bowled over in pass protection, and the Steelers actually got him out in space to block a few times too (including the first two plays of the game).
*Thanks for reading all season. We more than doubled last year’s readership, and we’re thankful. But just because the season’s over, don’t stop visiting. We’ll be up and at it for the rest of the week, breaking down the Hall of Fame election, tracking franchise player tags, and commenting on the Titans’ coaching hire, among other things. For the latest, check back at www.footballrelativity.com or follow on Twitter for post updates and more discussions.

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Pick ‘em – Super Bowl 45

Ben Roethlisberger vs. Clay Matthews in 2009

It’s finally time for us to make our Super Bowl pick. We’ve already previewed who we think the playmakers will be and played out the storylines. So let’s engage in some preja vu and tell you not only who will win but how the game will be won.

*Neither team will be able to run the ball all that well with their running backs. We see Rashard Mendenhall fighting for 55 yards or so on like 17 carries, and we suspect Aaron Rodgers may outrush any Packers back – James Starks, Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn, and company. The running game is not going to be what decides the game.
*A huge question is whether either offensive line can effectively block their opponents. The Packers’ line isn’t great, and rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga has given up his fair share of sacks this season. So we believe James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley will get a few hits in on Rodgers. But we have the same doubts that the Steelers can block Clay Matthews coming off the corner as well as B.J. Raji and Cullen Jenkins inside. The Maurkice Pouncey injury really hurts the Steelers here, because the Pack’s playmaking interior players will be troublesome throughout the game. Still, though, since both teams can create pressure, the big plays out of the pass rushes should basically even out.
*So where do we find a big advantage? It’s in coverage. The Packers have three terrific cornerbacks in Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, and Sam Shields, and Shields’ emergence will be a key in keeping Mike Wallace from breaking free deep in the secondary. We believe the Packers can keep Ben Roethlisberger and company from throwing the ball all over the place. But we don’t have the same confidence about the Steelers. Troy Polamalu is a great player, but he’s better freelancing than in coverage, and the Packers can force Polamalu into coverage by using a four-wide receiver set. Ike Taylor can be trouble blitzing off the corner, but he’s not an elite cover corner either. The same is true from Bryant McFadden. We just see Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson breaking free more than once. If the Packers can keep the Steelers blocked for the most part, or if Rodgers can keep the chains moving with his legs when pressured, then Green Bay will eventually beat the Steelers through the air. And that’s where the game will be won.

So our pick is Green Bay 28, Pittsburgh 24

Conference championships: 2-0 both straight up and against the spread
Playoffs: 5-5 both straight up and against the spread

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FR: Super Bowl 45 Playmakers

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers. Image via Wikipedia

Each year, as we begin to preview the Super Bowl, we try to anticipate which players will become the big-play makers of the big game. (You can see last year’s post here, and the Super Bowl 43 edition here.) As always, we’re on a 10-point scale where 10 points is epic and 1 point is someone who is a possible playmaker in a remote situation. We’ve left out offensive linemen, because it’s so hard to distinguish them individually because they are meant to function as a unit.

If you think we missed someone, add a comment and where you think that Packer or Steeler fits in.

10 – QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers - This is Rodgers’ chance at the spotlight, and we believe he’s up to the challenge. Given the state of the Packers’ running game, the Packers’ chances rest on their quarterback, which means that he’s the man on the spot. He can make big plays with both his arm and his legs, and he has done just that in his playoff drive this season. Does he have one more game left?

9 – QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Mike Wallace, Steelers – Big Ben has two Super Bowl rings, but no MVP trophies, which is a little odd for a quarterback. You can’t say he’s played poorly, because he led a game-winning drive two years ago and hit Santonio Holmes for the winning TD. But Roethlisberger has set up Holmes and Hines Ward for Super Bowl MVP honors. So while Big Ben will play a huge role, the pattern indicates that if the Steelers win, it will be a receiver who gets the award. Our money is on Wallace, who has perhaps the best deep speed in the game. Wallace has been the focus of defenses in the playoffs thus far, but the Packers let Johnny Knox and Devin Hester break free deep in the NFC championship game, and if they can do it, Wallace can too. If the Steelers win, it’ll be correlated to a big game from Wallace.

8 – OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, Steelers – Harrison made a huge play in the last Super Bowl with an epic 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. And Harrison remains a huge force getting to the quarterback. But Woodley, who has compiled a sack in each and every postseason game in his career, will get to Rodgers at least once, and so he’s just as high on the list as Harrison. These two outside ‘backers will need to force at least one turnover for the Steelers to win.

7 – CB Charles Woodson, Packers - Really, we could have said pick a Packer corner, because both Tramon Williams and Sam Shields have been game MVPs for the Pack in the playoffs this year. But Woodson is a big-time player who can emerge on the biggest stage, and as one of the few Packers with Super Bowl experience, he won’t be afraid of the stage.

6 – RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall may have had the best game of his career against the Jets in the AFC championship game, and if he plays that way again, he can carry the Steelers to a win. Running against the Packers will be tough, but Mendenhall showed against the Jets that he might just be up to the challenge.

5 – OLB Clay Matthews, Packers – Matthews is the Packers’ star on defense, but after a ridiculous start to the season his playmaking has been a bit more sporadic this season. The matchup seems to favor Matthews against subpar Steelers tackles, but if the Steelers gear up their protection to stop Matthews, someone else will need to step up and pressure Big Ben. And even if Matthews can get to Roethlisberger, can he bring him down? Roethlisberger is basically as big as Matthews, and he’s perhaps the league’s toughest QB to bring down.

4 – WR Greg Jennings, Packers – Jennings may be the most overlooked No. 1 receiver in the league, but he certainly deserves the accolade. He’s good enough to carry the team, but he has so much help at receiver that defenses can’t focus on him. Jennings could have a breakout game a la Larry Fitzgerald two years ago that turns him from very good player to national star.

4 (con’t) – S Troy Polamalu, Steelers – Polamalu is one of the most popular and well-known Steelers, and he claimed defensive player of the year honors (over Matthews) this week. But his play of late hasn’t been dominant, and the fact that the Packers can spread the field with four receivers could force Polamalu into coverage instead of letting him freelance as he usually does. That will limit Polamalu’s impact in this game.

3 – TE Heath Miller, Steelers - Miller is a supersolid tight end who can help out blocking Matthews and company but also serve as a possession receiver or even a threat to get down the seam for a big play. The Packers have struggled against tight ends this year, and that could set Miller up for success on Sunday.

2 – WR Jordy Nelson, Packers – Nelson is the Packers’ fourth receiver, but he has been a popular target for Rodgers in the postseason, and we think he’s behind only Jennings in terms of the Packer wideouts we see making big plays this weekend. Of course, Rodgers will look for vet Donald Driver and the inconsistent but talented James Jones as well, but we can see Nelson piling up 70-80 yards or more on multiple receptions.

2 (con’t) – DLs B.J. Raji and Cullen Jenkins, Packers – The Packers’ defensive line doesn’t get a ton of publicity – or at least it didn’t until Raji broke free with an interception return for a touchdown against the Bears. But while Raji has been a dominator inside, Jenkins stepped up in the playoffs, and he’s just as likely to make the big play as Raji against the Steelers.

1 – ILBs Desmond Bishop, Packers, and Lawrence Timmons, Steelers - Bishop and Timmons have both had terrific seasons for their respective teams, but they don’t make the flashy plays that their defensive teammates do. But both guys are tackling machines, and if they can strip the ball on a tackle or pick up a fumble and return it for a score, they could find themselves joining unlikely Super Bowl MVPs like Larry Brown and Dexter Jackson.

1 (con’t) – DE Ziggy Hood, Steelers – We’ve been pounding the drum on how well Hood has been playing throughout the postseason, and if he does that again he’ll have a shot at raising his profile and making a splash on the biggest stage. In fact, we believe it’s more likely that Hood will make a big play than his D-linemates Casey Hampton or Brett Keisel doing so.

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