2011 NFL Playoff Predictions, Round 2, Part 1

We’re ready for Week 2 NFL playoff action, and there’s a number if intriguing match-ups on the slate for this week.  Unfortunately, due to a heavy work schedule, the only way I’ll likely be seeing any of these games will be courtesy of my DVR after they’re already over.  Considering that my team, the Chicago Bears, are playing in one of these games as a heavy, double-digit point favorite — that may not be such a bad thing.

But let’s not dwell on my concerns about the chances of Chicago possibly blowing what looks like a gift invitation to the NFC Title game in the form of their opponents, the (somewhat less this week than last) hapless Seattle Seahawks, and instead move right into my 2nd round selections, shall we?

Pittsburgh (-3) over Baltimore

Expect a hard-hitting contest in the latest clash of the war that is the Ravens-Steelers rivalry

In case you somehow missed it, the Steelers and the Ravens don’t like one another.  They really don’t like one another.  And that’s made for some tremendous games between the two bitter division rivals over the years — this week’s contest should certainly join the list as another memorable match-up — and much like took place the last time these two hooked up in the playoffs at Heinz Field, the 2008 AFC Championship Game, I expect the Steelers to come out on top again.

There’s no doubt that the Ravens looked awfully good last week — but that was against the paper tiger Chiefs, and not a legitimate Super Bowl contender like they’ll face in Pittsburgh this week.  Baltimore is pretty much the same team we’ve seen for much of the decade — they’re led by an outstanding, turnover-inducing defense, a running game headed by the still-underrated Ray Rice and the John Harbaugh-overrated Willis McGahee, and a still-wet-behind-the-ears QB in Joe Flacco.  What has changed, however, is the threat that Anquan Boldin brings to the team.  I mentioned last week that I thought he would be a major factor if the Ravens made a Super Bowl run, and he paid dividends against the Chiefs with 5 catches and a touchdown — along with Todd Heap (who added 10 catches for 108 yards).

Will the Ravens be able to move the ball as successfully against Pittsburgh?  Not very likely.  The Steelers gave up fewer points in the regular season than any other team, and they were particularly stingy against the running game, allowing only 3.0 yards a carry on the ground (best in the NFL) and only 5 rushing touchdowns all season (tied for the best in the league with, ironically, the Ravens).  Only two other teams since 2000 have given up fewer yards rushing than Pittsburgh did this year (the 2006 Vikings and the 2000 Ravens), so if Baltimore is going to put up points in this game, they’ll likely have to rely on Flacco and his receivers to move the ball.

One quarterback starting on Saturday has proven he can lead a team in the playoffs -- and it isn't Joe Flacco (at least not yet)

Pittsburgh is in a similar predicament — they’re not likely going to be running the ball effectively either, with the Ravens defense also giving up fewer then 4.0 yards a carry.  But Ben Roethlisberger inspires far more confidence in me than Flacco does — two Super Bowl wins and an 8-2 playoff record will do that for you — while the Ravens QB has yet to put his stamp on a signature win in January worth mentioning (in four of his postseason starts, Flacco has failed to throw a touchdown pass, and he was picked off three times in that 2008 title game in Pittsburgh).

In this game, with two opportunistic defenses that will be ready to pounce on any miscue, the outcome may well be decided by the offensive player who makes a mistake a crucial time and turns the ball over.  It’s my guess that said player will end up being Joe Flacco — and it will be the Steelers advancing to the AFC Title Game for the 4th time in the past six years.

Green Bay (+2.5) over Atlanta

Atlanta coach Mike Smith can't be happy at all to see Green Bay as Atlanta's opening playoff opponent

This is a tough, tough game to call — by far the hardest of the four games for me to come up with a feel for.  The only thing I’m 100% certain of is that Atlanta is being handled a major injustice by getting stuck with the Packers as their playoff opponent instead of the Seahawks, despite having the best record in the NFC and being the number one seed (in yet another example of “Every break that could go the Chicago Bears way in 2010-2011 continues”).  If there wasn’t a reason why a team’s record should be the determining factor for seeding once the playoff teams are decided, there is now (I’m not an advocate of going with the top-12 records regardless of conference like some people have advocated, but there’s no way a 7-9 team had any business getting a #4 seed and a home game over Green Bay and New Orleans, and there’s no way Atlanta should be stuck facing arguably the most dangerous team in the NFC in the semi-final round).

If you’ve forgotten, Green Bay and Atlanta met once already this season — back in Week 12 — a game won by Atlanta on a Matt Bryant field goal with nine seconds remaining in the game.  The Packers had rallied to tie the contest with under a minute to play on a Aaron Rodgers touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson (who made a beautiful catch).  But a long kickoff return and a face mask penalty gave the Falcons the ball to start past midfield and it took little for Atlanta to get in range of the game-winner.

So what’s changed since then?  Not a lot, really.  Rodgers and his Atlanta counterpart Matt Ryan are still two of the best young quarterbacks in football, and both teams feature outstanding defenses; neither should be a surprise — after all, that’s why these two teams are where they are.  Both Atlanta and Green Bay feature big-time receiving threats on offense as well in Roddy White and Greg Jennings, respectively.  And with Atlanta playing at home (like in their first meeting), there shouldn’t be any reason to expect that this time will be any different, right?

Except — I’m underwhelmed with Atlanta’s last month of the season, in which they lost a big test at home against the playoff-departed New Orleans Saints (a game in which the Saints defense — yes, that maligned defense — shut Ryan and particularly Michael Turner down entirely), beat the Seahawks, and won two games against the worst team in football, the Carolina Panthers.  I never got the feeling watching them — the feeling I get when I watch the Patriots or the Steelers, for example — that I was watching a team that could make and win a Super Bowl.  To be honest, I’ve feel more that way about Green Bay at this point.

This Packer is the key to his team's chances of victory in Atlanta

The Packers’ year turned around dramatically after they lost to Detroit and Rodgers was injured back on December 12 — a low point when it looked like the team’s chances were gone and their season over.  Their effort in losing to the Pats on the following Sunday on national television was a statement game for the rest of the team that proved that Rodgers isn’t the only important part of the roster, and with their leader back in tow, they rebounded to destroy the Giants, beat the Bears in a war, and held off the Eagles.

That last game may be the key to what’s different about the Pack this time around against the Falcons.  In their first meeting, Green Bay had no rushing game at all (Rodgers led the team with 51 yards rushing).  Suddenly, the emergence of James Starks may have finally filled the void that was left when Ryan Grant went down — and any effectiveness the Pack gets out of the running game will make Rodgers and company all that more dangerous — and may be the difference in the rematch.   I think it will be, setting up Green Bay to face … who?  You’ll have to check Part 2 of my selections for Sunday’s games by clicking here to find the answer.

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6 Responses to “2011 NFL Playoff Predictions, Round 2, Part 1”

  1. […] 2011 NFL Playoff Predictions, Round 2, Part 1 « The Last Honest Man Says: January 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm […]

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