NFL – 2016 POST SEASON WILD CARD GAMES 3 & 4

The 2016-17 NFL regular season finished last week and the following teams made it to the post season in each conference:

AFC NFC
1 – Patriots – AFC EAST WINNER (14-2) 1 – Cowboys –  NFC EAST WINNER (13-3)
2 – Chiefs – AFC WEST WINNER (12-4) 2 – Falcons – NFC SOUTH WINNER (11-5)
3 – Steelers – AFC NORTH WINNER (11-5) 3 – Seahawks – NFC WEST WINNER (10-5)
4 – Texans – AFC SOUTH WINNER (9-7) 4 – Packers – NFC NORTH WINNER (10-6)
5 – Raiders – WILD CARD (12-4) 5 – Giants – WILD CARD (11-5)
6 – Dolphins – WILD CARD (10-6) 6 – Lions – WILD CARD (9-7)

This weekend, seeds 3-4 will duke it out with the wild card teams (seeds 5-6), while seeds 1-2 have a bye.

In this blog posting, I’ll break down the last 2 games of the weekend and reveal who I think will win:

Dolphins at Steelers (Sun, Jan 8 – 1:05pm ET)

In the aftermath of Week 6’s game when Pittsburgh lost badly to Miami (15-30), Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin said, “Man, no need to sugarcoat [it]. We got beat soundly.”

I have a feeling after this week’s Wild Card game and rematch between the two teams, he’ll be sounding a different tune.  The two teams that met up on that Sunday (Oct 16) looked very different than they do today.

Namely, Miami is limping into the playoffs with key injuries to their best players and Pittsburgh is finally healthy, their defense surging, and the team is clicking on all cylinders.

These are the main factors that makes me think Pittsburgh will win today over Miami.

First, Miami’s roster for this Wild Card game will be missing starting QB Ryan Tannehill due to a knee injury.  He went out Week 14.

His backup Matt Moore has started Weeks 15-17 and has led Miami to a 2-1 record, but he has had an interception in each of the 3 games to only 8 TDs and his completion rate is only 63.2%, down from Tannehill’s 67.1%.

Also, even though Moore is an 8-year veteran in the league, he has never started a post-season game.

On the flip side for Pittsburgh, QB Ben Roethlisberger was injured during Week 6 but is healthy now and feeling much stronger.  And, he has a great deal of experience in the playoffs. (He’s started 17 postseason games and won 11, including 2 Super Bowls.)

Additionally, 16 of the Steelers’ 22 projected starters have played in at least one playoff game.  The Miami Dolphins haven’t made it to the playoffs since 2008.

Second, two of Miami’s best defenders are both out due to injuries (Reshad Jones, Isa Abdul-Quddus).  These two players were the ones that sacked Roethlisberger during Week 6.

The team will also likely be missing their #1 cornerback (Bryon Maxwell), who is doubtful to play and his replacement is pretty banged up as well.

The impact of losing these players has been noticeable.  In the last two games, the Dolphins have given up 985 yards.

With these holes in the secondary, it doesn’t seem as if anyone will be able to match up with the great Antonio Brown, statistically the 5th best WR in the league.  The 7-year veteran Steeler will be a major factor in this game and who by the way, wants badly to win a Super Bowl for his legacy.

Having Brown & Roethlisberger finally healthy for the postseason, they complete the “Big Three” on offense for Pittsburgh plus RB Le’Veon Bell.

Bell, voted by his teammates as the team MVP was also selected as the AFC Offensive Player of the Month for December. He was out from previous playoff games in 2014 and 2015 due to injuries.  But, this year, he is back and will be facing Miami’s poor rush defense that was only ranked 30th overall in the league in the regular season.

This trio makes the Steelers offense so versatile and exciting.  It doesn’t seem that Miami will be able to stop them unless their O-Line continues to have trouble with the likes of Miami’s DT Ndamukong Suh.

On the flip side, Pittsburgh’s O-Line have been unsung heroes this season.  The Steelers QBs were sacked only 20 times, tying the franchise record for fewest allowed in a 16-game season. The Steelers also finished second in the league to the Raiders, who gave up just 18.

Third, the Steelers defense and particularly their secondary is playing well.  They are also healthier than they were in October and should be able to contain Miami RB Jay Ajayi (who ran for 204 yards on them in Week 6).  Well, they’ll need to stop him and keep Miami off the clock for success.

In the end, the Steelers know what they must do to win and keep their 7-game winning streak alive.  They will use their previous experience with the Dolphins as their compass and exploit their “Big Three” whenever possible.

For Miami, they are a lesser team than they have been and are missing key personnel, plus they will be playing on the road in frigid temperatures.

No, I don’t think they can stop the Steelers today.

Conclusion:  Pittsburgh prevails

Giants at Packers (Sun, Jan 8 – 4:40pm ET)

This game is all about the New York Giants.  Their offense must put up more points than they have all season, Eli Manning needs to limit the turnovers, and their defense must stop Aaron Rodgers and the rising Packers.  If they don’t do these things, they will lose.

The questions remain then:  Can Eli Manning & Co. today score more points than the 19.4 per game they did during the regular season (good for only 26th) and gain more offensive yards than 330.7 (25th)?

There is a possibility.  The Packers’ secondary had some major injuries recently.  This could help to unleash the mastery of Odell Beckham Jr.

However, Green Bay’s defense has forced 13 turnovers during the past four weeks while Manning has thrown 16 interceptions this year to 26 TDs.  Not a great ratio.  He needs to protect the football and limit turnovers.

Also, NY’s O-Line may have kept the sacks down to just 22 on Manning, but they have benefitted from Manning’s quick release.  Green Bay will likely try to blitz him as much as possible, as his pass rating dips on the blitz.

Still, even if the Giants continue to struggle on offense, their defense may be able to do just enough to eke out a win.

So, can the Giants pass defense stop Rodgers?  Potentially.

They’ll need to be able to make a dent in that Green Bay O-Line who have prevented Rodgers from getting hit (only 76 times this season).  Obviously if you give that brilliant QB time – he will have the results he’s been having.

Since Week 12, the Packers have “run the table” just like Rodgers had predicted they would and largely have done so due to his great QB play.  With exception to Week 15, he has had at least 2 TDs in each game, 0 interceptions, completed 71% of his passes, and posted a passer rate of 100+.

Rodgers also finished the season by becoming the first Packers QB to ever throw for at least 300 passing yards and 4 TDs in back-to-back games (Weeks 16 & 17).

His success relies upon his ability to extend plays by throwing to receivers who break away and find open spaces in the secondary.  Thus, NY’s job will be to keep Rodgers from peeling out of the pocket and making the big plays.

There seems to be general confidence around the league that the Giants’ defense can do this.  Their secondary is “very strong” led by Janoris Jenkins and Landon Collins and who have been known to match one on one very well.

In the end, it’ll be up to NY to play some spectacular football to stop Green Bay this week.  They have all the tools necessary to get the job done.  It’ll be darn close, that’s for sure.

So, how do I see this going?  My gut is telling me Green Bay goes forward, but then again, the 2007 Giants took their 10-6 record into the wild card game and went on to win the Super Bowl.  They had Eli Manning as their QB and a great defense to back him up.  Some say this 2016 defense is even better.

I’m torn.  My New York roots nag at me to pick the Giants, but I think Green Bay is the better team overall.

Note:  If the Giants win, next up is Dallas.  Remember, NY is the only team to beat the Cowboys twice this year (Weeks 1 & 14).

Conclusion: Green Bay prevails

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