Prior to the Snap: Wild Card Weekend

Regular season? Like who does that anymore? It’s playoff time, and thus time to break out a digressively detailed look at this weekend’s four Wild Card matchups. Do Cincinnati fans have it worse than Houston fans? What car brand sponsorship do I refuse to acknowledge? What mistake has altered our perception of Victor Cruz more than any great play? And just how much does God love Tim Tebow?

#6 CINCINNATI AT #3 HOUSTON

Playoff time! As I’m fond of saying this time of year, the music’s changing…just like it used to in Tecmo Super Bowl.

Speaking of… Neither of these cities has seen a second-round playoff game since the year Tecmo Super Bowl came out, or 1991. Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game since a 1990 Wild Card Weekend win over—guess who—the Oilers. Houston hasn’t seen a playoff win since those Oilers won a year later on Wild Card Weekend against the Jets.

Those are long droughts: The longest in the league, along with Detroit (1991).

Quite a Saturday for moribund NFL cities: Well, to be fair, Houston didn’t have a team for several of those years, and they’ve still seen a playoff win more recently than Cincinnati. The Oilers, at least in their last gasp at relevance, were a team defined by playoff shortcomings.

Which city has had it tougher? You know I love these dilemmas. The Bengals are intriguing to me as a franchise because they’re so defined by about a 12-year stretch from 1991 to 2002. Like, if I just came out and said, “The Bengals are the Clippers of the NFL,” you’d probably agree with that statement.

Aside from not finding Mike Brown quite that detestable: But that really overstates the struggles Cincinnati has had. Prior to 1991, the Bengals had been around for 23 years and made seven playoff appearances. Obviously not great, but, accounting for the reduced number of playoff teams, not woeful (and certainly not Clippers-like. SD/LAC has made the postseason four times in 34 seasons since moving from Buffalo).

You would discount those Braves teams: Ernie DiGregorio!

So and then the Bengals have this legitimately God-awful stretch, where they don’t post a winning season and lose 12 or more games a ridiculous number of times (seven times in 12 years). This is a franchise that has been to the Super Bowl twice, and it’s been relatively competitive for much of the past decade.

Is there an analogue to this historical misperception? I think the Islanders are treading similar water in the NHL. Most people will tell you the Islanders are irrelevant, when in fact, up until 1993, they were as good as any franchise in the sport.

But isn’t that 12-year period — and let’s be honest, you’re being pretty nice cutting it off in 2002 before a series of 8-8 years — bad enough to affect the long-term historical perception of a franchise as young as the Bengals? Or are you going to sit here and argue that the Patriots aren’t that good a franchise, since they’ve only been successful for the last 12 years or so? Well…

Thank you: Well, maybe I should restate my point more clearly. It isn’t that the Bengals haven’t had a tough life as a franchise; it’s that they shouldn’t be considered this go-to awful franchise in the way the Clippers are in the NBA. The Lions have been worse. The Cardinals have been worse. The Falcons have probably been worse. Up until very recently, the Saints had been worse.

So your conclusion is…: Bengals bad, but not as bad as everyone thinks.

Makes for delicious AM radio fodder: Isn’t that what I’m here for?

Regarding the Texans: How wrong is it of me to conflate Texans and Oilers fans? Is it wrong to assume they jumped off the bandwagon to Nashville and got on the new one seven years later? I only knew one Oilers fan, and he wasn’t from Houston, so he had no qualms still loving Steve McNair in Tennessee. I imagine there’s a different emotion for those who saw the team move.

How about this game? Oh, does anybody really care about the game itself? I’m going to operate under the assumption that T.J. Yates will be under center for Houston, meaning this is the first postseason game started by two rookie quarterbacks since, well, they came up with this idea of a Super Bowl.

Which do you like better? Dalton. Obviously.

Such a sucker for red hair: And competency, I suppose.

Who’s the X-factor? Can Andre Johnson be an X-factor? I’ll be honest, I don’t really know what an X-factor is anymore. I think it’s a catch-all phrase for “What’s going to be important in this game besides the play of a star quarterback?” Anything else is apparently fair game for X-factor status. And in a game that lacks star quarterbacks, literally any individual player or strategy can be labeled an X-factor. So I’ll go with Andre Johnson. He’ll be the best player on the field on Saturday, and the Texans’ offense will need him to look like it.

More field goals or touchdowns in this one? Field goals. Obviously.

If you’re a Texans fan, what scares you most about the Bengals? That my quarterback is T.J. Yates.

If you’re a Bengals fan, what scares you most about the Texans? That the offense is pretty good at every position besides quarterback.

Can we even get into unfalsifiable historical comparisons for these teams? This is, pretty obviously, the best Texans team ever for a full season, although I’d venture that the 2009 team—as constructed at season’s end—would beat this one—as constructed at season’s end.

I don’t think this Bengals team is as good as the ’05 team that won the AFC North, and while I want to say it is better than the ’09 division champs, that’s because I only saw that team lay its two eggs against the Jets, and that probably wasn’t a representative sample.

So who wins? I’m going against the national consensus, provided that the national consensus is that the Bengals are going to win, and taking the Texans. In a tight game like this, I usually look at homefield, coaching and quarterbacking. But those last two seem irrelevant, because I don’t think either of the coaches or either of the QBs distinguishes himself from the other. So, you know, the Texans run the ball better than the Bengals do any one thing, and I trust Neil Rackers not to miss a field goal more than I do Mike Nugent. That’ll be the difference in a game that I believe with near metaphysical certainty will end with a score of 16-13.

#6 DETROIT AT #3 NEW ORLEANS

It’s a battle of 5,000-yard passers! I still don’t believe Matthew Stafford reached that plateau, too.

For the first time in any game…ever! Is breaking that record a big deal?

Is breaking that record a big deal? Not in the Joe Biden sense, no. Look, we’ve been closing in on this for some time. It reminds me of the home-run race in 1998. Not just because multiple people eventually broke Marino’s record, but because people coming close to breaking the record had become a nearly annual occurrence. Much like McGwire being so close to Maris in 1997 with his 58 homers, Brees had come within 100 yards of Marino back in 2008.

Of course, comparing the breaking of this record to the home-run record implies a similar level of significance, when that’s not the case at all. The single-season home-run record was arguably the most cherished record in all of baseball, and yardage by a quarterback trails things like TDs by a quarterback and yardage for a running back and sacks in football, in my estimation.

Is Drew Brees on steroids? Probably not. Would they help a quarterback?

Steroids help everyone. Come on: Not if you don’t work out.

Do you consider sacks a sacred record largely because Michael Strahan illegitimately holds it? Well, not because he illegitimately holds it.

What’s the highest number of points for this game where you would still take the over? Well, the previous game between the two was only 31-17, and that was with Ndamukong Suh sitting out for Detroit. The tendency is to think this is going to be a ridiculously high-scoring game reminiscent of Cardinals-Packers or, if you can’t remember that far back, Baylor-Washington. But I’d say somewhere in the realm of 55-60 points is my cutoff on the over.

So, combined, these two offenses aren’t as good as West Virginia’s? Well, the thing is, West Virginia was playing a college team.

Lions-Saints playoff game. Who saw that coming six years ago? To be honest, six years ago, I believe I was predicting a long run of Cavs-Magic Eastern Conference Finals.

That was less than three years ago: Whatever. There’s no proof of it on the blog.

The point is, the NFL is so comparatively young that franchise identities can be altered by relatively brief stints of success or failure. When I was achieving sports consciousness in the 1990s, the Lions were a consistent Wild Card team,* and the Saints were a team Rodney Hampton destroyed. Kids ten years younger than me have entirely different perceptions of those franchises—and pretty much every franchise. The only franchise that has been consistently good for the duration of my lifetime has been the Steelers.

*As I believe I’ve mentioned before, one of my earliest sports memories is Barry Sanders’ epic run against the Cowboys in the 1991 divisional playoffs—the Lions’ last playoff win. You can see the run at the 1:50 mark here.

How happy are you that the Lions, your second favorite team growing up, are in the playoffs? Eh, they’re not the same sans Sanders. Although it does fulfill a prediction I made Week One last season.

Would you trade Drew Brees for Matthew Stafford straight-up, considering their respective ages? I wouldn’t hang up right away, but no. Stafford has had too many injury concerns.

Would you trade Matthew Stafford for Drew Brees straight-up, considering their respective ages? To be honest, I don’t know.

How do the Lions win this game? The problem for Detroit is that, as you could see last week, it doesn’t possess the attributes most necessary to stop or even slow a potent offensive attack. Namely, the Lions can’t run the ball and control the clock. They’re going to try to outscore the Saints, and I don’t know if even the 2007 Patriots can outscore the Saints in the Superdome.

The Mercedes Benz Superdome: Right. The Superdome.

How much better is the Saints offense in the dome? Two touchdowns. They averaged more than 41 points per game in the dome compared to 27 elsewhere. Think that’s based on opponent? New Orleans averaged 39 in three NFC South home games and 25.25 in three NFC South road games.

How much should we factor in domes when considering quarterback performance? I factor it in a lot, perhaps too much. Fact is, I honestly don’t know how Peyton Manning’s career plays out if Indianapolis is an outdoors team. I don’t know how much better Tom Brady could have been earlier if he played in a dome. When comparing Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in the MVP race, I haven’t seen anyone point out that Brees is a different quarterback away from the confines of the dome, and that’s probably worth mentioning.

Yeah, Brees only threw for 2800 yards on the road. Dude sucks: I didn’t say he was terrible, and he did throw for more yards on the road than at home. He also had a higher interception rate and fewer touchdowns. Rodgers, on the other hand, threw two interceptions in eight road games.

Two? Two times.

So we know who your vote for MVP is: Matt Flynn!

You’re a Saints fan. What scares you about the Lions? That they’re going to score. That we’ve got nobody to stop Calvin Johnson, and Matthew Stafford on a roll can be as good as Brees.

Vice versa: That New Orleans is a rich man’s version of us, complete with a running game and home-field advantage.

Is this game close? I think it’s one of those games where you never really think the Saints are going to lose, but there will be a point in the second half, perhaps even the fourth quarter, where you realize, Hey, the Lions have a shot here.

Who ya got? Saints, 38-27.

#5 ATLANTA AT #4 NEW YORK

Let’s discuss this rationally: I can’t.

Who wins? Giants, 63-2.

A late Atlanta safety there? Yeah, Steve Weatherford runs it out of the back in the final seconds. Magnanimously.

Can we talk about this in a slightly less biased fashion? I can’t promise I’ll try, but I’ll try to try.

Your impressions of this Giants team: It’s been a season of extremes for the Giants, and I think part of that is due to the scheduling. They never really struck me as a 6-2 team through eight games, because those wins were against the likes of the Bills and Dolphins and Rams and Cardinals. Their four-game and five-out-of-six tailspin wasn’t necessarily surprising, given that it was against San Francisco and New Orleans and Philadelphia and Green Bay. So I think if those really tough games were scattered throughout the season, we’d all have a more accurate picture of who the Giants are: a pretty good, borderline playoff team. With a negative point differential.

Best team in the NFC East! According to the standings, yes. But the Cowboys and Eagles were probably better this season. New York just had a knack for pulling out close games late, while Dallas and Philly blew all those games.

What’s the one Victor Cruz play that sticks out most in altering the Giants season? Well, it depends how active you want this altering to be. The 99-yard touchdown against the Jets obviously changed everything. They lose the game without that. The 74-yard TD against Dallas as huge, as was the deep catch on 3rd-and-7 in a seven-point game in the fourth quarter.

But the play I go back to with Cruz is against Arizona, when he probably should have been called for a fumble on what turned into a game-winning drive. If that play’s ruled differently, the Eagles are hosting Atlanta this week. And how would we all feel about Victor Cruz then?

How do you feel about Victor Cruz now? There’s a line in A Confederacy of Dunces where Sergeant Mancuso’s love for his motorcycle is described as “platonically intense.” That seems apt when it comes to Giants fans and Victor Cruz.

Can you just call him Cruz? Why always Victor? I never noticed it until now, but he’s got one of those names that works really well first and last. Or as Cruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuz.

Settle the “How good was Eli Manning this season” debate: Again, I’m biased, but Eli Manning was really, really good. If I had an MVP ballot—and we’ve established that I don’t—he’d probably finish fourth behind Rodgers, Brees and Brady.

Except that NFL MVP ballots don’t include any finishers past first: Yeah, it’s an oversight.

But Manning has managed to post huge numbers, including several late comebacks, despite playing behind a porous offensive line—for evidence, just go back and watch how many sacks he avoids himself in that first game at Dallas—and without much of a running attack. He also had to deal with talented but fickle wideouts that flash brilliance one minute and drop passes and run incorrect routes the next. After seeing him struggle so much last season when Steve Smith was hurt, it’s been amazing to see him work Cruz into that slot role and Jake Ballard into Kevin Boss’ old role as the tight end. I didn’t see that coming.

How different is he from Matthew Stafford, who’s faced a lot of the same obstacles? Again, I just haven’t seen enough of Stafford to honestly say. Eli doesn’t have Calvin Johnson, though, that’s for sure.

Lot of talk now comparing this team to the ’07 Giants. Your thoughts? I think there are definitely similarities. Those Giants weren’t all that impressive during the regular season, benefiting from a light AFC East and NFC West-infused schedule. They were flawed, with a mediocre linebacking corps and sketchy quarterback play. Overall, the running game and defense were much better, and that meant Eli didn’t have to go out and win games quite the same way he has to now. He couldn’t have done that at the time. If you’re asking me which team I felt better about going into the playoffs, I’d probably say this one, just because it gave Green Bay much more of a game than the ’07 team gave Dallas. But I never saw that run coming, and just because there are some surface similarities doesn’t mean we can expect anything resembling that again. You play that postseason 99 more times, and the Giants don’t win the Super Bowl more than once or twice.

How do you perceive the Falcons? Similarly to how I have the last several years. Atlanta does everything pretty well, and nothing outstanding. Matt Ryan is a very good quarterback, the Falcons run the ball well although not as well as in some years past, and the defense is pretty good (very good if you use Football Outsiders’ weighted metrics). All in all, Atlanta is probably a better team than the Giants.

Probably? I’m not going to say “definitely” or “certainly.” I was surprised New York is favored in Vegas.

Can you perhaps steal some analysis from Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz’s appearance on the B.S. Report? Atlanta was the most consistent team on a week-to-week basis in FO’s 20 years of statistical analysis.

This means: They play the same, virtually every week.

Since you’ve stolen that nugget, how about criticizing something Schatz said on the podcast? Well, he pointed out how, even with their two wins to close the season, the Giants had the 26th best pass defense in the NFL over the season’s last eight games, compared to ninth in their first eight. He did not qualify this with: “Of course, playing Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo twice may have had something to do with this.”

Geez, someone’s defensive: And it ain’t the Giants! See what I did there.

It doesn’t really make sense. You were saying the defense was okay: Don’t misconstrue my critique of Schatz’s argument as disagreement with his basic premise. The Giants defense, particularly against the pass, is not good.

But you’re going to pick the Giants anyway: Part of this is me being optimistic, and the other part is rationalizing that optimism. Outside of the Superdome, the Giants play really well against good teams, and they have for a while now. Sure, they only went 1-3 against winning teams this season, but those four winning teams they played all won 13 or more games. They won in New England, they came a tipped ball away from tying it late in San Francisco, they gave up a late field goal to Green Bay, and they got shellacked by the Saints. The Falcons, while a good team, don’t fit the mold of the Saints or Eagles squads that have really handled the Giants the last few seasons, and New York has finally played a couple good games at MetLife Stadium.

You know, the Falcons did win TWO games against winning teams: The Titans and the Lions. I’ll take at New England over that.

How can you not mention playoff experience in picking the Giants? Eli Manning is 4-3 as a playoff quarterback. He’s not like Curt Schilling or anything. Matt Ryan is 0-2, and both teams he lost to went to the Super Bowl. That’s fine.

The final score? Already told you, 63-2. Or 23-20.

#5 PITTSBURGH AT #4 DENVER

Do we have to? You know, SportsCenter was doing this whole quarterback comparison thing—P.S. preemptively dubbing this the “Year of the Quarterback” has worked it, albeit in a non-programming sense, I think—and when they got to this game, Tedy Bruschi and Mark Schlereth just kind of laughed and moved on. So maybe we can do that.

Okay, does Denver have any chance? I mean, the Broncos aren’t as bad as the Seahawks were last year, and Seattle beat New Orleans. In a vacuum, Pittsburgh is better than that Saints team, but Ben Roethlisberger’s worrisome ankle changes that equation. Would it surprise me if Denver won? Sure. But it wouldn’t stun me.

How do the Broncos win? Look, I have a hard time seeing the Denver offense score more than like 10 points in this game. They need the defense and special teams to give them good field position, they need to control the clock and somehow run the ball effectively, and they need the Pittsburgh offense to stall completely.

Odds of those happening? Not high. I’d be more surprised by a Denver win than Denver being shut out.

So, Tebow, briefly: The thing that’s intrigued me the most about the Tebow coverage is the religious angle. Not anything specific about that angle, but rather that that’s been the prism Tebow is viewed through. I don’t hide from the fact that I disliked Tim Tebow in college, but his religion never had anything to do with my feelings toward him. I just thought he was overrated. (Dude played for a really good college team, he was a bench player for one of the two championships he’s often credited with, and his inspirational speech came after a home loss to Mississippi).

So I always thought the anti-Tebow vitriol was similar to the anti-Tyler Hansbrough sentiment. Religion never had anything to do with it for me. I find Tebow’s faith neither exemplary nor reproachable.

So you’re just indifferent to it? Pretty much. My understanding is that many players in the NFL are religious, and they simply don’t get the platform and/or attention Tebow does.

And Tebowing? It’s just called genuflecting.

Why did you use past tense when describing your dislike of Tebow? Because novelty has its perks, and while I doubt Tim Tebow will succeed in the NFL on any kind of long-term basis, any success he does achieve is bound to be interesting.

What will be more: the yardage of Matt Prater’s longest made field goal, or Tebow’s total passing yards in this game? If you count sacks as negative passing yards, Prater. If not, Tebow.

Final score: Steelers 16-3.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. [...] explain: Well, it kind of goes back to something I said last week, which is that the extent of the Saints’ home-field advantage hasn’t been emphasized enough. On [...]

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  2. [...] Rodgers, MVP? Self-evidently. For reasons discussed both last week and yesterday re: Drew Brees. Lest we forget, Aaron Rodgers is pretty [...]

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