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Handicapping the field for the first weekend of NFL playoff games

tom jones' two cents

The NFL playoffs get under way this weekend with two games today and two Sunday. Four teams — the Patriots and Ravens in the AFC and the Packers and 49ers in the NFC — have byes this weekend. So let's rank, in order, the eight teams playing.

1. New Orleans Saints

Right now the Saints could beat any team anywhere, maybe even the Packers in Green Bay. They haven't lost since Oct. 30 and scored at least 42 points in each of their past three games. QB Drew Brees is having one of the greatest seasons, with more than 5,400 yards passing and 46 TD passes. The Saints had the 30th-ranked pass defense (out of 32), but they've held opponents to 20 points or fewer in the past five games. They're a Super Bowl contender.

2. Detroit Lions

The good news: The Lions are No. 2 on our list. The bad news: They play No. 1 tonight. That game could total more than 80 points. It's the first time two quarterbacks (Matt Stafford, Drew Brees) who threw for more than 5,000 yards in the regular season will meet in a postseason game. Making the playoffs for the first time since 1999 was a good step for the Lions, but they are a year or two away from going deep into the postseason.

3. New York Giants

There's a lot to dislike about the Giants — their 9-7 record, for instance, as well as a four-game losing streak in November. Also, they lost to the Redskins and Seahawks at home. But there's a lot to like, too. QB Eli Manning is having the best season of his career, with nearly 5,000 yards passing. The Giants have momentum, having handled the Jets and Cowboys in their final two must-win games.

4. Atlanta Falcons

It's put up or shut up time for the Falcons. Atlanta is 43-21 in the regular season since Mike Smith took over as coach and Matt Ryan became the starting QB in 2008. But the Falcons are 0-2 in the playoffs in that span. I'm starting to wonder if Ryan deserves the nickname "Matty Ice." Another disturbing stat is the Falcons beat only two teams that finished with a winning record this season and lost to the Packers and Texans, and twice to the Saints.

5. Houston Texans

The Texans deserve better for their first postseason appearance. Injuries have crippled them. They are down to their third-string QB: rookie T.J. Yates, who has been dealing with a shoulder injury. They lost three in a row to end the season, but they really weren't playing for much. In their last truly meaningful game, they beat the Bengals, the team they face this afternoon.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers

They might be the most complete team in the league. They have an elite QB in Ben Roethlisberger, who knows how to win (10-3 in the playoffs, with two Super Bowl victories), and the No. 1-ranked defense. So why are they so far down on the list? Roethlisberger is badly hobbled by an ankle sprain, leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall is out with a knee injury, and the offense has all but vanished. Don't be surprised if the Steelers find themselves on the wrong end of a low-scoring struggle against the Broncos on Sunday.

7. Cincinnati Bengals

Rookie QB Andy Dalton has had a nice season, but I'm not sold on the Bengals. They were 1-6 against winning teams, and that victory was against the 9-7 Titans. It seems like every time they had a chance to prove they were real in a statement game, they lost: twice to Pittsburgh and in the season finale to the Ravens. They catch a break today by playing probably the only team in the AFC they can beat because of Houston's health problems.

8. Denver Broncos

QB Tim Tebow has been flat out inept of late, going 30-for-73 with four interceptions as the Broncos have dropped three in a row. The defense is terrific, but partly because of turnovers, Denver surrendered at least 40 points in two of its past three games. The Broncos have a shot against Pittsburgh because the Steelers are so banged up. Still, Tebow likely will need to put together at least a couple of scoring drives, and that might be asking too much.

Handicapping the field for the first weekend of NFL playoff games 01/06/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 6, 2012 11:57pm]
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