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Wild Card Weekend Preview: NFC

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

Two very intriguing games on the NFC side of the playoff bracket this weekend. We break it down.

Wild Card Weekend Preview: NFC

The NFL Playoffs are finally upon us with Wild Card Weekend set to kick off this Saturday.  I will give you a quick breakdown of two very interesting NFC matchups.  We'll start with Saturday's game in New Orleans and finish up with Sunday afternoon's showdown in the Meadowlands.

Saturday, 8 PM: Detroit Lions (10-6, 6th Seed, Wild Card) at New Orleans Saints (13-3, 3rd Seed, NFC South Champions)

The Skinny:

New Orleans is my second-ranked team in the CHARGED Elite even without that first round bye.  Simply put, New Orleans has the most dangerous offense in the league.  Drew Brees destroyed Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a season while also leading the league with 46 touchdown passes and a 71.2 completion percentage.  Jimmy Graham turned into one of the most dangerous tight ends in football.  Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory formed a four-headed attack at running back.  The cast of wide receivers is as dangerous as ever.  This team puts points on the board in a hurry.  While the defense isn't as good as the offense, it certainly isn't second-rate.  They give up yards (because so often teams are trailing) but were 13th in the league in points allowed this season.  The team is rolling into the playoffs on an eight-game win streak, and they look poised to make a deep run.

Detroit makes a long-awaited return to the playoffs, and they are rewarded with a trip to take on New Orleans.  But outside of Green Bay, Detroit's offense is one that has a shot to keep up with Drew Brees.  Matthew Stafford has more than lived up to the billing as a franchise quarterback this season now that he has been healthy.  In his first full season, Stafford passed for 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns, and just 16 interceptions.  The beneficiary of Stafford's passing was Calvin Johnson.  Megatron led the NFL in receiving yards and also threw in 16 touchdown catches.  Detroit has had to deal with injuries all year, though.  Jahvid Best has been out due to concussion problems.  The secondary is thin.  They have also had to deal with maturity problems, especially Ndamukong Suh.  The Lions have won three of their last four coming into the postseason, but they lost the final game of the season to Green Bay in embarrassing fashion.  Matt Flynn, the Packers' backup QB, threw for six touchdowns in the 45-41 win.  Imagine if Aaron Rodgers had been playing.

X-Factors:

Kevin Smith, RB, Lions - My gameplan against the Saints would be to keep the ball out of Drew Brees' hands for as long as possible.  Now the Saints don't need a lot of time to score, but the fewer opportunities you give Brees the better.  That's where Kevin Smith comes in.  If he can give a strong performance running the ball or simply catching screens or other passes out of the backfield to maintain possession and eat up the clock, Detroit could be in a great position to pull off an upset.  But you have to put 7's on the board, not 3's.

Roman Harper, S, Saints - New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has plenty of crazy blitz schemes that keep opposing offenses guessing.  As a result, Roman Harper, their safety, led the team in not only tackles, but sacks as well.  Harper is an extremely versatile defender, but New Orleans will have to be careful when they bring heat from the secondary.  If there isn't enough safety help, Matthew Stafford might be able to exploit some single coverages with his accurate deep throws.  Or else Harper just has to make sure he gets to the quarterback.

Prediction: New Orleans 38 - Detroit 27

The Lions will put up a good fight and might even have the lead for a little while, but New Orleans offense is simply too good right now.  They won't have any trouble scoring on Detroit and will put enough pressure on Stafford to force some turnovers.  New Orleans moves on.

Saturday, 1 PM: Atlanta Falcons (10-6, 5th Seed, Wild Card) at New York Giants (9-7, 4th Seed, NFC East Champions)

The Skinny:

The Atlanta Falcons didn't have quite the season everyone predicted they would have entering the year.  They got off to a slow 2-3 start, and injuries to Roddy White and Julio Jones hindered the offense for a while.  But they finished strong, got to ten wins, and didn't have to sweat out making the playoffs.  Matt Ryan had an up-and-down season, but when he's on, he's one of the top quarterbacks in the NFC.  And he has no shortage of weapons either.  White, Jones, Harry Douglas, and tight end Tony Gonzalez are all capable playmakers.  The defense is strong against the run, but vulnerable in the air.  John Abraham is the rock on the defensive front with 9.5 sacks, and Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon are sound tacklers in the linebacking corps.  From top to bottom, Atlanta is a solid football team that has the ability to play with anyone.

The New York Giants have had a roller coaster of a season.  They went from playoff locks to left-for-dead and then back to a playoff team in the span of two months.  This team is not for the weak of heart.  Their inconsistency is maddening.  The defensive struggles drive you insane.  The drops, failed conversions, and Brandon Jacobs' failed one-yard runs will crush your spirit.  But for every one of those, there are the Victor Cruz scampers, the Jason Pierre-Paul sacks, and the Eli Manning passes that lift your spirits and can be so gratifying.  This team hasn't made it easy all season long, but it appears that they are finally putting together the pieces.  The defense hasn't been completely atrocious over the past two weeks, and the offense has been there all year.  If the pass rush continues to be this effective, the Giants could be in business.

X-Factors:

Aaron Ross, CB, Giants - The only reason Ross is a starting cornerback for this team is the preseason injury to Terrell Thomas.  He's been picked on by opposing quarterbacks all season long, and this Sunday should be no different as he will be matched up with speedster Julio Jones.  If Matt Ryan has time to operate, he will likely be looking to exploit this matchup.  It's key for the Giants to try and put pressure on Ryan to try and mask the flaws in the secondary.  But if they can't, Ross will have to elevate his game against a very talented receiver.

Michael Turner, RB, Falcons - This is a pretty big name for an X-Factor, but Turner and Atlanta's ability to run the ball will play a huge role on Sunday.  The Giants have been pretty poor against the run this year, but Turner has been largely ineffective over the final part of the season.  Excluding that last game against the lowly Buccaneers, Turner had only averaged 56 yards a game during weeks 12-16.  But Turner has a chance to attack a poor run defense and at the same time take away their pass rush.  If Turner runs well, Atlanta has a great shot on Sunday.

Prediction: New York 24 - Atlanta 21

This one is going to be close, but I'm sticking with the Giants' mojo right here.  I think Eli Manning will outplay Matt Ryan and keep this magical ride going for the Giants.  They will find a way to win, be it a big defensive play or another Victor Cruz salsa dance.


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