By Rick Morris
A quick overall note about the AFC playoffs: I find them to be a very disappointing sham overall. With the injuries to Matt Schaub and Rashard Mendenhall, two teams that were Super Bowl contenders now have no shot to get past New England and Baltimore. And do I have to even mention the deep-in-the-postseason viability of Cincinnati and Denver? Granted, I’m a purist (some would say snob), and I like to watch first-round games where teams have a chance to advance at least to the conference championship game. Say what you will about the New York Jets, but if they’d have made the playoffs, they’d be a threat to advance. And say what you will about San Diego, but they look more viable right now than just about anybody playing in the first weekend in the AFC. This knowledge clouds my enjoyment of the first-round AFC games.
On with the picks (7-8-1 last week, 120-126-10 overall, 2-1 in Big Three picks, 27-21-3 in Big Three picks for the season, 1-0 gold pick, 9-7-1 gold picks for the season):
Cincinnati at Houston (-4) – I see a lot of people oversimplifying this game and I don’t understand it. Yes, Andy Dalton is a more impressive rookie QB than TJ Yates. But he’s also the one who’s on the road, playing before a hyped-up crowd that has never seen their Texans in the playoffs and last saw the Oilers in the postseason in 1994. And he’s also the one facing a tougher defense to run on, meaning that Cedric Benson should be of less help to him than the supersonic combo of Arian Foster and Ben Tate will be to Yates. And he’s also the one who came up short against the Texans, the team with one of the best defenses in the league, at home a few weeks back. Houston won’t win the AFC, which was within reach with Schaub, but they’ll at least make it to the second round. Houston 20, Cincinnati 13.
Detroit (+10 ½) over New Orleans – Believe the hype, this one is going to be quite the shootout. It’s a perfect storm with two absolutely elite passing games and two defenses ill-suited to stop them. Detroit’s D is a shade better against the pass, but the Saints are an unstoppable machine at home. The sole hope for the Lions lies in their ability to ball-hawk, but Drew Brees isn’t making the requisite mistakes Detroit would need. One thing is for sure, we won’t be seeing a reprise of Sean Payton’s infamous pregame speech before last year’s playoff game in Seattle (“You could beat these guys wearing your flip-flops!”). New Orleans 34, Detroit 27.
Atlanta (+3) at New York Giants – Notwithstanding the talk about Matty Ice and Company being 0-2 in playoff games these past few years, there can be no doubt that the burden of proof is on the Giants. Every recent year except for their miracle Super Bowl run of 2007 has been plagued by late-season collapses and they only won the heinously overrated NFC East because Dallas and Philadelphia played with no guts for most of the season. And for all the talk that Eli Manning has broken through to the next level and Matt Ryan is still a work in progress, their statistics by year-end were fairly comparable. Both teams, when at full strength, can spread it out, but the Falcons can run the ball better with Michael Turner. New York has a pretty sweet pass rush when it’s chugging along like it has been the past few weeks, but it won’t be enough. Ladies and gentlemen, these birds are a live dog! Atlanta 27, New York Giants 23.
Pittsburgh (-8) over Denver – I cannot recall a more pointless playoff game in my lifetime. As someone who admires Tim Tebow’s lifestyle if not his horrendous pocket-passing skills and is a lifetime Steeler loather, I take no joy in that statement, but I cannot escape the truth of it. Ever since the book on Tebow has been out – confine him to the pocket, do not let him get outside and run – he has been like a helpless infant defecating in a diaper against the almighty likes of the Bills and Chiefs, so what’s liable to be much better for him against Pittsburgh? Rumors of copious practice time for Brady Quinn make sense, because only a quarterback who can run a standard offense if going to be able to bring them back – but that’s going to require a wholesale reversion on the fly to the “Kyle Orton offense” and that’s asking way too much. While the Broncos stepped up their defense in key situations during the “Tebow streak,” they can be both passed on and run on and the Steelers’ newfound deficiency in the latter won’t matter a whit. Pittsburgh is banged-up, but since they are going up against the “rugby offense,” it will take another week for that to matter at all. Pittsburgh 23, Denver 6.
New England 30, Pittsburgh 20
Baltimore 16, Houston 9
Green Bay 38, Atlanta 24
New Orleans 23, San Francisco 13
New England 24, Baltimore 17
Green Bay 31, New Orleans 26
Green Bay 41, New England 34