When historians look back at the 2011 NFL season, there will be little attention given to the fact it was one of the sloppiest seasons ever played in the league's history. Perhaps a slight nod of acknowledgement to the players lockout that pretty much wiped out training camp and retarded the development of the game.
Another footnote was how the game got softer, thanks to another laundry list of rules that effeminate football to the point it now practically resembles basketball with pads on. This mission, led by commissioner Roger Goodell, contradicts a history the league uses in their advertisements with pride. Commercials that celebrate gridiron warriors bloodied in a battle amongst the trenches that haven't been seen throughout the NFL in decades.
As the playoffs commence this weekend, no team may better personify the league right now than the Denver Broncos. After beginning the season 1-4, Denver rattled off seven victories in eight weeks before finishing the year with three straight losses.
Tim Tebow got a lions share of the credit for the Broncos victories, which included three in overtime. The defense gave up 17 of fewer points seven times this year, but the quarterback dominated the headlines. His image of being a wholesome religious boy captured so much attention, it drowned out critics who pointed to Tebow's miniscule 46.5 completion percentage this season.
Some considered him no more than a glorified fullback when he entered the 2011, while others of a modern day version Bobby Douglass. A second round draft pick by the Chicago Bears in 1969, the fellow lefty quarterback ended his 11 NFL seasons with a 43 percent completion percentage.
Douglass could run better than Tebow, once holding the record for most rushing yards gained by a quarterback when he churned out 968 yards in 14 games during the 1972 season. He averaged 69.1 yards rushing per game, which is better than the 64.9 yards Michael Vick had in 2006 when he surpassed Douglass' record in a 16 game season.
Tebow piled up 660 yards and six touchdowns on the ground this year. He played mistake-free football much of the year until the last two games of the year, where he tossed four of his six total interceptions. Tebow completed just 19 of 51 attempts for 245 yards over that time.
Denver still reached the playoffs despite an abysmal ending to a forgettable NFL season, thanks to playing in a division where three teams finished 8-8 and the fourth team went 7-9. The AFC West was perhaps the most mediocre in the NFL in 2011, which is a statement in itself because the NFC West, NFC East and AFC East were far from impressive as well.
Coaches and general managers on many inept teams suffered from the shortened season to the extent they lost their jobs. Yet the NFL, as it has for the past 40 years, continued to rake in piles of cash even though the product they present today recedes and mollifies each snap of the ball under the Goodell regime.
Image over substance is now in play as receivers and quarterbacks prance around untouched. College football shows the future is bleaker with recent bowl games where teams frequently combining to put up 80 or more points.
Defense is now as extinct as the commercialized images the NFL sells of warriors battling because now accolades are attained minus a struggle. Where honing skills through practice has now joined the defense as a spectator.
My cousin 7thStoneFromTheSun is nowhere to be found, though I did receive a blank postcard from Guam recently. While I will assume his prediction duties this week, it should be noted he finished 2011 with an overall record of 154-95
Cincinnati Bengals @ Houston Texans
The Bengals got into the playoffs because of a stingy defense that carried an erratic offense led by two rookies. The defense ended the season ranked seventh in yards allowed and ninth in points given up. While wide receiver A.J. Green, running back Cedric Benson and quarterback Andy Dalton are the key offensive weapons, Jermaine Gresham and Jerome Simpson also contribute heavily.
The Texans are playing in their first playoff game in franchise history. It is also the first time Houston has hosted a playoff game since 1993, when the Oilers accomplished the feat before becoming the Tennessee Titans not long afterwards. The Texans are also the first team from Houston to win a division title since that 1993 season.
Much has been made of the key injuries Houston's offense incurred this season. Quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart were lost for the season by the 12th game, and star wide receiver Andre Johnson suited up for just seven contests himself.
But the team finished with a 10-6 record thanks to a smothering defense that was second in the league in yards allowed and fourth in points given up. This was even accomplished despite losing star defender Mario Williams in the fifth game for the season.
Rookies J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed were special this year, but linebackers Conner Barwin and Brian Cushing have been stars in their own right. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph made the Pro Bowl, but his bookend, Jason Allen, was just as effective. Brice McCain and Kareem Jackson have also been solid, so opponents have found it difficult to pass the ball successfully often this year.
Cincinnati will need their defense and running game to be special this week. Houston will have Johnson back to help their rookie quarterback, but his limit appears to be no more than 45 snaps. The Texans have a powerful running game that was first in attempts, second in yards gained and third in touchdowns scored. While the Bengals were tenth in rushing yards allowed, they finished 20th in touchdowns given up.
Halfbacks Benson and Arian Foster will get a lot of attention, but the effectiveness of reserves Ben Tate and Bernard Scott may determine the outcome. Tate churned out 942 yards this season as he proved to be the best backup running back in the game today.
Dalton may make less mistakes than T.J. Yates, thanks to more snaps, but both teams will have the benefit of playing in the climate controlled Texans stadium. Return men Jacoby Jones, Danieal Manning and Brandon Tate could make a big play that breaks open the game.
These two teams battled just under a month ago, where the Texans prevailed with a 20-19 victory on a late touchdown pass from Yates to Kevin Walter. Houston had gained 127 more yards but coughed up two more turnovers than Cincinnati.
Johnson and Green will draw special defensive attention from two units that have excelled all season. Both franchises rosters are young and inexperienced, so several members will be participating in the first playoff games of their careers.
Once all the nervousness subsides, the defenses should take over. Houston's home field advantage will help carry their team a long way, but the combination of Foster and Ben Tate should drive the Texans into the next round.
24 Bengals 16
Detroit Lions @ New Orleans Saints
Many pundits are expecting an offensive battle in this game, mainly because both teams have offenses that can put up points in bunches. The two teams squared off in the beginning of December and gained 904 yards, with the Lions outgunning New Orleans by 28 yards in their 31-17 loss to the Saints.
Detroit's defense has been a major disappointment in 2011. Their vaunted defensive line never excelled as expected and the secondary was frequently ripped apart by the opponents passing attack. The Lions gave up 20 or more points 12 times this season, while giving up less than 312 total yards just once.
The Lions final game of 2011 saw them cough up a season high 550 yards, which included six touchdown passes and 480 yards to a fourth-year backup quarterback who entered the contest with 515 career yards and nine touchdowns off of 88 attempts. Detroit gained 25 more yards but lost 45-41.
The offense ranked fourth in scoring and fifth in yards gained this year, but Detroit's defense ranked 23 in both points and yards allowed. The running game was amongst the very worst in football, ranking 29th in total yards gained.
New Orleans was led by a balanced offensive attack that relied mainly on Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees. Brees set an NFL record this year with 5,476 yards passing, surpassing Hall of Famer Dan Marino. Detroit's Matthew Stafford wasn't too shabby himself, tossing the ball for a franchise record 5,038 yards and 41 scores. Brees had 46 touchdown passes.
The Super Bowl XLIV MVP now has set or tied several Saints franchise records. He set six NFL records in 2011, which includes most completions in a season, most 300 yard passing games in a season, most consecutive 300 yard passing games, most consecutive games with 350 yards passing and highest completion percentage in a season. He also has set or tied 16 other NFL records in his career thus far.
The Saints gained the most yards in the NFL this season while scoring the second most points. Besides having the top passing attack, the running game gained the sixth most yards in the league this season.
New Orleans relies heavily on Brees, but the quarterback has a plethora of weapons at his disposal. Four different running backs gained 374 yards or more while nine players ended up in double digits in receptions.
Detroit will be facing a defense that finished 24 in yards allowed, but 13th in total points scored upon. The Saints only picked off nine passes this season, but safety Roman Harper finished the season by leading the team with 96 tackles and a career best 7.5 sacks.
If New Orleans cannot rush the football, the arms of both Brees and Stafford will be put to use seemingly every play. The Saints run defense was the 12th best in the NFL this year, so the Lions anemic ground game faces quite a challenge ahead of them.
Greg Williams is a defensive coordinator who is known to love blitz packages to throw opposing quarterbacks off their game. If Detroit fails to run the ball, he will load up his Saints defense with complex packages. The New Orleans defense garnered 33 sacks this season, but Detroit gave up 36 sacks this season.
New Orleans has scored over 40 points six times this year and have never scored less than 20 in a game. Their defense has given up 20 or less than points in nine contests while Detroit has accomplished that feat just five times.
A bunch of yards should be gained in this game, but it may end up where the Lions end up fruitlessly try to catch up to the Saints all game. The Lions have had a habit of giving up a ton of points early before coming back, but not many teams have stopped the Saints from scoring in 2011.
48 Lions 34
Atlanta Falcons @ New York Giants
Two of the most erratic and inconsistent teams of the 2011 NFL season meet here. Both barely made the playoffs following underwhelming seasons that will soon be forgotten.
While injuries basically buried the Giants before the season started, they fought through a mediocre NFC East to capture the division crown in the last game of the season. Atlanta did finish the year with a respectable 10-6 record, but it seemed a far cry from expectations that had been placed on them after winning the NFC South in 2010 with a 13-3 record.
Atlanta might have seemed to regress slightly on offense this year, after moving up in the draft to snag wide receiver Julio Jones in the first round of the 2011 draft. They finished fifth in scoring in 2010, averaging 25.9 points per game, while finishing seventh in scoring this year by averaging 25.1 points per contest.
But the Falcons did gain 532 more yards while quarterback Matt Ryan and Michael Turner had very similar seasons to 2010. Star wide receiver Roddy White had 15 less receptions and eight less scores this season, but Jones picked up the slack while future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzales remained consistent and excellent as always.
The defense was also an area that regressed in a few areas as opposed to 2010. While finishing fifth last year in points allowed, Atlanta finished this season 18th. They also finished at plus eight in the giveaway/ takeaway ratio differential this year, as opposed to the plus 14 they had in 2010.
Atlanta did improve in yards allowed, interceptions, sacks and run defense this season, but they also had eight contests where they gave up 23 or more points. The Falcons offense had 11 games where they scores 23 or more points.
Atlanta is a well balanced team that has the talent, but gives the impression they are on the verge of exploding and have yet to do so. Most see the roster and fear any week will be the day they put it all together on a consistent basis, but it has yet to happen. Yet it is evident there is enough firepower there to win a Super Bowl.
The Giants winning their division, no matter how mediocre it was in 2011, shows a great deal of experience and character. They went through much of the season with a defensive secondary filled with players that would not have made the team if it were not for the numerous injuries to hit that unit.
The New York defense finished 29th in passing yards allowed, 27th in total yards allowed and 25th in points given up. Yet the offense finished eighth in yards gained and ninth in points scored. The running game was the worst in the NFL, but the passing game was ranked fifth in yards and sixth in passing attempts and touchdowns scored.
Pro Bowl quarterback Eli Manning had nine receivers end up with double digits in catches. Wide receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks combined for 158 catches for 2,728 and 16 touchdowns this year.
If the Falcons cornerback duo of Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes shuts down Cruz and Nicks, New York will be in major trouble. Atlanta may have too many weapons for the Giants to stop, bit no one can really be sure what versions of these teams will take the field Sunday.
37 Giants 20
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos
Tim Tebow will run onto the field Sunday with the cameras fixated on him. Mainly to appease a nation where religion is important, but also because he happens to play a position the NFL puts on a pedestal and carries like a golden child. Tebow truly embodies this NFL dream.
Yet he will face a nightmare on the sabbath in the form of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. A unit that ranked ranked first in both points a yards allowed, this veteran group will come into the salivating at the chance the expose a limited player with a questionable arm.
Pittsburgh will be dealing with injuries to starting halfback Rashard Mendenhall and strong safety Ryan Clark, but the team has more than enough depth at these positions to succeed. Plus their quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl rings and obviously knows how to win the big game.
The Steelers win the old school way of controlling the clock while the defense destroys their opponents. Tebow, playing in the first playoff game of his very young career, will have to summon all of his abilities to keep his team within reach of victory.
Ten Steelers have 11 or more receptions, so the Broncos defense will have their hands full trying to contain the Pittsburgh offensive onslaught. Denver's defense finished the 2011 season 20th in yards allowed and 24th in points scored upon.
The Broncos offense wasn't any better, finishing 25th in scoring and 23rd in yards gained. Their best player, halfback Willis McGahee, finished the season with 1,199 rushing yards. Denver had just two players with more than 19 receptions this season.
This game should get ugly quick. Unless the Broncos special teams and defense is exceptional, it should be over before halftime. This learning process may help Tebow one day, but teams have recently figured him out and there needs to be a dramatic improvement in his game if he wants to remain the starting quarterback for Denver in the future. This improvement, however, will probably not happen this Sunday.
27 Broncos 9