By Jeff Risdon
By popular demand I have expanded the big board from 103 to 123.
I am still in the process of evaluating players, but this represents the impression right now based strictly on anticipated draft grade regardless of position except specialists. The upcoming workout season will help sort things out as well.
1. Chance Warmack, G, Alabama. His dominating performance in the BCS Championship Game elevated his profile even more. As close to a can’t-miss prospect as any in years.
2. Luke Joeckel, T, Texas A&M. His exceptional run blocking and power allow him to start on the right side if needed; not every top-level LT prospect has that ability.
3. Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State. Has no real holes in his game and is ready to step right into any scheme and threaten double-digit sacks.
4. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama. His run defense is cringe-worthy at times, but nobody in this draft covers better in a variety of schemes. Ready for prime time.
5. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri. Dynamic interior rusher with potential to be a consistent backfield crasher. As good as a prospect as Gerald McCoy was.
6. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah. Immovable object-type line anchor who flashes range and plays with great intensity…most of the time.
7. Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M. Converted OLB has great quickness and outstanding instincts. Still learning to play with power, but learning quickly.
8. Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon. Complete boom/bust edge rusher, but his “boom” is Aldon Smith potential. Ideal fit for hybrid front defenses.
9. Taylor Lewan, T, Michigan. Nasty run blocker improved his pad level and down blocking ability as 2012 progressed. Could be elite RT very quickly.
10. Kevin Minter, LB, LSU. Outstanding instincts and great range for this natural hustle/flow LB. Plays better in big games.
11. Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
12. Eric Fisher, T, Central Michigan
13. Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia. Spotlight: Ironically moved to top WR because of his work as a RB late in the year. Freakishly quick slot player & backfield threat.
14. Keenan Allen, WR, California
15. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
16. Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU
17. Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State
18. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas
19. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State. Spotlight: Very physical shutdown corner with playmaking flair, but must learn some restraint with his grabbing and holding.
20. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
21. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
22. Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina
23. Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB, LSU
24. Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Brigham Young
25. Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor
26. Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
27. Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame. Spotlight: His poor BCS Championship game cools the hype and reveals what he’s always been--a good-not-great 3-4 ILB prospect.
28. Jonathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
29. Robert Woods, WR, USC
30. Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State
31. Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
32. Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford
33. Oday Aboushi, T, Virginia
34. Lane Johnson, T, Oklahoma
35. Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina. Spotlight: The top RB has a great center of gravity and excellent vision, with strong burst and leg drive.
36. Brandon Jenkins, OLB, Florida State
37. D.J. Fluker, T, Alabama
38. Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma
39. Phillip Thomas, S, Fresno State
40. Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
41. Dallas Thomas, G/T, Tennessee
42. Matt Elam, S, Florida. Spotlight: He would be Jack Tatum’s favorite player today, a vicious and fearless hitter. Range is his biggest issue.
43. Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia
44. Margus Hunt, DE, SMU
45. Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
46. Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
47. Alex Okafor, DE, Texas. Spotlight: If you watched his dominant bowl game you wonder why he’s so low. Very up-and-down player with tweener attributes.
48. Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State
49. Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
50. Eric Reid, S, LSU
51. Logan Ryan, CB, Rutgers
52. Datone Jones, DE, UCLA
53. Barrett Jones, G/C, Alabama
54. Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn. Spotlight: Lanky edge rusher was better in ’11 than ’12, but so was the rest of the Auburn team. Could be undervalued as a result.
55. Zac Dysert, QB, Miami OH
56. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue
57. Da’Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee Tech
58. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
59. Matt Barkley, QB, USC. Spotlight: Was never as good as made to be last summer, but is not nearly as bad as his rep now. The shoulder injury kills chance to move up.
60. Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse
61. Larry Warford, G, Kentucky
62. Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State
63. Bennie Logan, DT, LSU
64. Quinton Patton, WR, LA Tech: Spotlight: Strong and blessed with good footwork, the highly productive Patton has excellent upside but must prove it against better competition.
65. Jamie Collins, LB, Southern Miss
66. Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee
67. Leon McFadden, CB, San Diego State
68. Kiko Alonso, LB, Oregon
69. Melvin White, UL Lafayette
70. Justin Pugh, T, Syracuse
71. Tank Carradine, DE, Florida State. Spotlight: Drafting team will need to be patient, but could be rewarded with double-digit sack potential once he’s healthy.
72. Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
73. Cobi Hamilton, WR, Arkansas
74. David Amerson, CB/S, North Carolina State
75. Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford
76. Travis Kelce, TE, Cincinnati
77. Kenny Stills, WR, Oklahoma
78. Kyle Long, T, Oregon
79. Blidi Breh-Wilson, CB, Connecticut. Spotlight: Big, physical corner recovered nicely from a knee injury in ’11. Zone shell teams will like him.
80. Michael Buchanan, DE/OLB, Illinois
81. Gavin Escobar, TE, San Diego State
82. Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee
83. DJ Swearinger, S, South Carolina
84. Khaseem Greene, OLB, Rutgers
85. John Jenkins, DT, Georgia. Spotlight: A strange evaluation, built like a nose but plays like a weakside DE. Missing bowl game for academic issues doesn’t help.
86. Jamar Taylor, CB, Boise State
87. James Gayle, DE, Virginia Tech
88. Jelani Jenkins, OLB, Florida
89. Mario Benavides, C, Louisville. Spotlight: My top pure center is very heady and tenacious but must prove he has the strength to handle the big boys at the next level.
90. Chris Harper, WR, Kansas State
91. Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
92. Jordan Hill, DT, Penn State
93. Brian Winters, T, Kent State
94. Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida. Spotlight: Shifty darter played his way upwards, markedly improved in the passing game.
95. Robert Alford, CB, SE Louisiana
96. Everette Dawkins, DT, Florida State
97. Travis Long, LB, Washington State
98. Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State
99. Jordan Reed, TE, Florida
100. Corey Fuller, WR, Virginia Tech. Spotlight: Doesn’t get as much attention as teammate Marcus Davis, but is a smoother, more reliable player.
101. Will Davis, CB, Utah State
102. Brandon Williams, DT, Missouri Southern State
103. John Simon, LB, Ohio State
104. Dax Swanson, CB/S, Sam Houston State
105. Denard Robinson, RB/ATH, Michigan
106. Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt. Spotlight: Compact power runner wastes no time in hitting the hole, could move up with strong Shrine Bowl week
107. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State
108. Nickell Roby, CB, USC
109. Travis Frederick, G/C, Wisconsin
110. Mike Glennon, QB, North Carolina State
111. Terry Hawthorne, CB, Illinois
112. Cory Grissom, DT, South Florida
113. Cyril Richardson, T/G, Baylor. Spotlight: Big and mean but with a quick first step off the snap, he surprised me by coming out early.
114. Marc Anthony CB, California
115. Kenjon Barner, RB/KR, Oregon
116. Aaron Dobson, WR, Marshall
117. Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina
118. Aaron Hester, CB, UCLA
119. Conner Vernon, WR, Duke
120. Mychal Rivera, TE, Tennessee
121. Ryan Swope, WR, Texas A&M
122. Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson
123. B.W. Webb, CB, William & Mary. Spotlight: Small-school corner is very good in coverage but excels on special teams too.
Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Draft
By Jeff Risdon
$.01--The most (and only) exciting game of the Wild Card Weekend was the finale. Seattle survived an early 14-0 deficit by scoring the final 24 points and vanquishing the Redskins. But the game loss is incidental to the bigger story regarding the Redskins, who may have suffered a much bigger loss.
Robert Griffin III entered this game very iffy with an injury to his right knee. He clearly was hindered last week, and his status for the game was openly questioned by preeminent athletic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. Griffin started the game very well but quickly declined, and by the middle of the third quarter he looked more like a lame racehorse headed for the glue factory than the best dual-threat QB in the league. Commentators on air and all over the internet were begging for Mike Shanahan to pull the plug and save RG3 from even further injury, not to mention giving the team a better chance to win with backup Kirk Cousins.
Shanahan stubbornly kept RG3 in the game, and it’s a decision he might regret for a very long time. In the fourth quarter Griffin reached down to snag a low snap and his lower leg jutted out at an angle that echoed of Napoleon McCallum all those years ago. It was sickening to watch. It’s even more sickening that it was completely preventable. Shanahan should be ashamed of himself for leaving Griffin out there, unable to protect himself and clearly unable to do anything positive for the team. I don’t doubt for a second that Griffin wanted no part of the bench, but this is where the team and specifically the head coach has an obligation to know better.
NFL fans can only hope the injury isn’t as awful as it looked, because it sure looks like the kind of injury that would forever alter the way RG3 has to play. At minimum, I’ll be very surprised if Griffin doesn’t miss the entire offseason and the early part of next year. Remember when Antonio McDyess was dominating the NBA with his above-the-rim play, and how after his knee issues he was a 6’10” guy that couldn’t dunk anymore? That’s the kind of injury we could be looking at here for Griffin. I pray that isn’t so. If it is, Shanahan should be fired, period.
$.02--In what was perhaps the least entertaining playoff game in years, the Texans beat down the Bengals 19-13. The game featured one offensive touchdown, an Arian Foster plunge early in the third quarter, and a dismal offensive performance from Andy Dalton and the Bengals.
Houston’s defense got back to being the Bulls on Parade of midseason vintage and not the leaky unit that finished the season losing three of four. JJ Watt was his typical MVP-caliber self, but it was the supporting cast showing up strong that made the difference. Former Bengal Johnathan Joseph eliminated star WR AJ Green from the field; Dalton failed to throw a ball his direction the entire first half. Connor Barwin had his finest game of the season with two tackles for loss and a deflected pass, plus a QB hurry on 3rd down that forced a punt. In fact, the Bengals had a whole lot of that on third down. They became the first team to fail to convert a single 3rd down conversion since 1989, when Boomer Esiason’s Bengals did so against the Bills in the game that sent Buffalo to its first Super Bowl. Houston nearly doubled the hapless Bengals in time of possession, a function of Arian Foster & friends running well in their 39 carries and the Cincinnati offense doing nothing.
That lack of offensive punch is something that punctuated the Cincinnati season for the last month. The NFL average for first downs in a game was a hair above 19. The Bengals topped that figure just once in their final five games including this loss. They didn’t score more than one offensive touchdown in the final three games. Dalton was sacked 21 times in those games, and his yards per attempt of 5.6 in that span would rank 31st over the length of the season. His erratic deep throwing caught up with Dalton, and it was evident in this game. Twice he had Green open in the end zone, and twice he just missed, one on a very good defensive play by Joseph.
The Bengals now enter the offseason with a lingering, quietly growing question about their quarterback. He’s been terrible in both playoff games, and teams are catching on that overplaying the shorter routes and getting pressure makes Dalton, and Jay Gruden’s offense as a whole, pretty ineffective and punchless. This team sorely needs a player who can create after the catch on the short throw, a player with quickness and dynamic versatility to make the first tackler miss and clear out the safety help on Green. Just to be safe, they probably need to tap into the second tier of QBs too. Dalton is entering a critical year, and Bruce Gradkowski as the backup is eminently replaceable.
$.03--Baltimore advanced to the Divisional Round with a convincing victory over the feel-good Colts, 24-9. The team might as well have changed their name to Rayvens for the day, as it was all about celebrating and reveling in all that is Ray Lewis. And Lewis and his defensive mates did not disappoint the purple-clad faithful.
Lewis returned from a triceps tear wearing a brace that made my 4-year old daughter wonder if he was Darth Vader from Star Wars Episode III, the only watchable one of the first trilogy. He made his impact early, nearly intercepting a pass and clobbering Vick Ballard in the hole on a run. His pregame dance, replete with prop turf and choreographed pyrotechnics that KISS would admire, whipped the stadium and the Ravens defense into a frenzy that never really diminished. It certainly fired up Paul Kruger, who had the single most impressive weekend of any player with his utter and thorough domination of the beleaguered Colts line. Kruger got 2.5 sacks and menaced Andrew Luck into several hurried, awkward throws.
Joe Flacco had some of those as well, but he and Anquan Boldin hooked up on several big throws. Most notable was an 18-yard touchdown pass that Boldin somehow held onto despite having a defender’s arm between his hands and his body, an incredible display of hand strength and determination. Flacco continues his mastery of the Wild Card round, having won his first playoff game in every season of his 5-year career. Rookie RB Bernard Pierce provided a nice lift with Ray Rice being his usual productive self, and the Ravens are moving on at the expense of the hated former Baltimore team.
I will always remember this Colts season as the Chuckstrong season. Yes the team on the field was a very pleasant surprise, and Andrew Luck and his young offensive corps offer immense promise going forward. But the story of Chuck Pagano fighting leukemia, emotionally inspiring his team and triumphantly and humbly returning to the sidelines, that’s the 2012 Indianapolis Colts I will never forget. It will be very difficult for that team to replicate the magic next year, so Colts fans had better relish just how special 2012 really was for the team.
$.04--Green Bay blew the doors off the rival Vikings in one of the more one-sided playoffs games you will ever see. The 24-10 final was a lot closer than the game seemed after about the first 20 minutes. The big story from this one was Minnesota QB Christian Ponder not being able to answer the bell with an elbow issue, which forced Joe Webb under center on about three hours’ notice. The lack of prep time showed.
Webb looked very much like a player drafted to play wide receiver instead of quarterback. He made a few positive gains on the Vikings’ first drive with his legs, but beyond that he was wretched. His throws were often embarrassingly off target, and the Packers safeties caught on quickly that Webb was not going to threaten them with his arm. Green Bay adapted to the QB run with beautiful positional discipline and outside integrity from their LBs, notably Erik Walden. There was no mercy in the Lambeau dojo, as the return of Charles Woodson inspired the Packers defense to their best performance of the season. They stymied Adrian Peterson, never letting him get the edge as he had done so effectively, so frequently in the two prior meetings. AD still managed 99 yards but had over a third of that on the aforementioned opening drive.
Two things were very evident from this game. First, the Packers are going to be real hard for anyone in either conference to defeat this postseason. The defense is getting healthy and clicking at just the right time, and Aaron Rodgers is as good as any QB in the game. With the offensive weapons at his disposal, Green Bay should be considered no lower than 1A as a Super Bowl favorite.
Secondly, the Vikings absolutely must invest something fairly significant in their QB position this offseason. Ponder is wildly inconsistent and has a rather alarming propensity to be hurt at critical times. At Florida State he missed their bowl game in 2009, the ACC Championship game in 2010, and departed their bowl game in his senior season early. His throwing motion lends itself to chronic elbow issues. I can see giving him another season, but they must upgrade the backup situation. If I’m GM Rick Speilman, I’m taking a quarterback no later than the third round and/or looking at the veteran scrap heap.
$.05--The coaching carousel is in full twirl mode, and nothing is spinning more wildly than the recruitment of Oregon coach Chip Kelly. The Bills, Browns, and Eagles have all courted Kelly with the sort of fawning more common in Disney movies for cartoon princesses than the NFL. ESPN has reported as “breaking news” no fewer than 11 times the status of the suitors, and entire talk shows in both Cleveland and Philadelphia have devoted themselves to all things Chip Kelly.
As the process drew more excruciating and curiously more than a little Favre-esque in terms of attention whoring, the Bills and Browns decided to get off the carousel and go in different directions. Buffalo hired Doug Marrone, most recently the Syracuse coach but better known in NFL circles from his days as offensive coordinator for the Saints teams that put up ridiculous stats. It’s not exactly a sexy choice, but it’s probably a decent one. The Browns also interviewed Marrone but have yet to “restart” their search after deciding enough was enough with chasing Kelly, who is clearly enjoying the process.
Now Kelly is allegedly deciding between the Eagles gig or staying at Oregon. Except that nobody really believes he’s staying with the Ducks because the NCAA hammer is about to fall on them for some recruiting service violations that make Ohio State’s TattooGate seem like kindergarten play (or until Nike pays off the NCAA to look the other way, like south a few hundred miles). The Eagles are probably the best fit of the three, presuming they keep Michael Vick and at least some of the injured offensive linemen get close to normal upon their returns.
I understand the fascination with Kelly. His hyper-drive offensive pace and use of speed all over the field has taken college football by storm. The Ducks often look more like a track team than a football team, and for certain types of opponents the game is literally over almost as soon as it starts. I think Kelly is smart enough to adjust his go-go scheme to the NFL confines of smaller rosters, faster and more physical defenses, and the perils of having a quarterback playing running back 20 times a game. I think his ego and his personality will work with NFL players the way it has for Pete Carroll, another enthusiastic, competitive, adaptive mind. But I’ll say this--Kelly has rubbed more than a few powerful NFL people the wrong way with his vapid, shameless courtship, enough that it had better work quickly or else…
**Late edit-Late Sunday night Kelly advised the Eagles he was returning to Oregon. After all that, plus his flirtation with Tampa Bay last winter, it’s safe to say Chip Kelly will never get another NFL opportunity. He’s like the buxom bombshell that refuses to do nude scenes in movies even though her cleavage is a supporting actress in everything she does. I’m looking at you, Scarlett Johannson!
1. Conventional draftnik wisdom is that the Colts will go almost exclusively defense in the draft, but their OL must significantly improve if they want to win a playoff game. Consider they have drafted nine O-linemen in the last 6 drafts, but only 2011 1st rounder Anthony Castonzo is still with the team. He is also the only one that was on an active roster in the final 14 games for any team. Bill Polian, meet Matt Millen.
2. The NFL chose the coaching staffs of the Lions and Raiders to lead the teams at the Senior Bowl in a couple of weeks. This is a huge advantage for those teams and a real coup for Jim Schwartz and the Lions, who coached there in 2010 as well. Aside from getting to know the players extremely well, it’s also a chance to field test some new schematic ideas. It’s worth noting that last year’s coaching staffs were Minnesota and Washington, two teams that went from top-5 draft status to the playoffs. My fellow Lions fans can only hope!
3. Glad to see that Kansas City learned from Cleveland’s mistake. When they decided that Andy Reid was their man as head coach, they quickly removed GM Scott Pioli. Reid comes from the Mike Holmgren coaching tree, Pioli from the Belichick stick. Just as Holmgren and Eric Mangini could never coexist in their awkward year together, this was doomed. Kudos to the Hunt family for making an emotional decision. It was the right one on all accounts.
4. All the coaching vacancies, all the names being tossed about and yet two coaches very deserving of second chances are invisible. What does Jim Fassel have to do to even get an interview? And is Brian Billick really that much more insufferably high-maintenance than Jim Harbaugh or Rex Ryan, to name two?
5. I’m happy to see the Panthers opted to stick with Ron Rivera as head coach for another season. Year Two was not up to expectations, but there were very legitimate signs of progress late in the year. He and Cam Newton appeared to find common ground, and the defense quietly became a beast. I predicted they were a playoff team this past summer, and that went horribly awry. I saw enough this year to make the same forecast next summer too.
6. If we all stop talking about the Pro Bowl and how ridiculous some of the players who made it over some others are, it will go away. Or so we must hope.
7. Cowboys majordomo Jerry Jones promised major changes, yet he’s not firing Jason Garrett or either coordinator. The only major change option remaining is for Jerry to fire himself as team GM. Sorry Dallas fans, as long as Jerry is the owner, Jerry is the GM.
8. The Jets have it worse than Dallas fans, however. In firing GM Mike Tannebaum but keeping Rex Ryan as coach, they have created precisely the sort of lame-duck, authority-clashing situation that Cleveland just went through. Except Rex Ryan is not going to be as tight-lipped and understanding as Pat Shurmur was as the dead man walking in Cleveland. No GM worthy of that title would consider walking into that flaming bag of dog feces. 2013 is apt to be more of a spectacular debacle than 2012 for the J-E-T-S.
9. Speaking of Rex Ryan, pictures leaked out that he has a tattoo of his wife wearing nothing but a Mark Sanchez Jets jersey, making bedroom eyes and perhaps Tebowing. Excuse me while I get some mouthwash to cleanse the taste of vomit I just choked back…
10. Not NFL related, but the NHL finally achieved some degree of labor peace and will apparently start playing fairly soon. I was once a huge hockey fan but the lockout before this one largely lost me. I will not be back, Gary Bettman.
Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions
By Jeff Risdon
Last Week: 12-4, my best final week ever. That tackled the season with a 174-82 mark, counting the tie as a loss.
Wild Card weekend is all about two things: momentum and matchups. When momentum and matchup converge for the same team, it’s real hard to pick against it. You’ll notice that as a theme here…
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans: As I was watching the Texans lose to the Colts last Sunday, I posited on Twitter that I thought the Bengals were going to crush the Texans in this game. Here’s why:
• Since RG Antoine Caldwell went down with injury, the Texans offensive line has gone from an asset to a detriment. RT Derek Newton, himself an injury replacement for Rashad Butler, has shuffled in and out of the lineup. The running game has largely held up, but the pass protection has been a significant downgrade.
• Matt Schaub is in a serious slump. Over the last four games, Schaub has thrown one touchdown while getting sacked 12 times. This is intertwined with the line issue, as Schaub is as immobile as they come. The bread and butter of the Texans passing game, bootlegs and rollouts on play action, have been all but eliminated thanks to the protection issues and Schaub’s inability to adapt.
• The Houston pass rush has ground to a halt outside of JJ Watt. Outside is the key word there; Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed have not been effective, and rookie Whitney Mercilus has tailed off. They have combined for 1.5 sacks in the last five weeks. For a 3-4 defense, that lack of outside production is fatal.
• Cincinnati’s own pass rush is devastating. Geno Atkins is the best interior rusher in the league with his 12.5 sacks and relentless attacking, but he’s no lone wolf. Michael Johnson bagged 11.5 rushing off the edge, with fellow end Carlos Dunlap getting 6.5. They rotate in Wallace Gilberry who also got six sacks. The point? You can’t help on Atkins much, and if you help on the ends, Atkins alone will kill you. He matches up head on against rookie Ben Jones, who has been woefully overmatched by far lesser talents than Atkins.
• A.J. Green and his propensity for making big plays in key moments. The Texans have issues in coverage. Forget the low completion percentage they allow because they give up big plays, ranking 26th in yards per completion. The decline in play of Johnathan Joseph has been one of the more underreported stories in the AFC. If the Texans overplay Green, they leave themselves vulnerable to Andrew Hawkins and emerging rookie Marvin Jones. Cincinnati’s complementary weapons to Green are better and more explosive than Houston’s side dishes to Andre Johnson.
• Neither team is built to come from behind, which makes scoring first an imperative. The Bengals did not allow a touchdown on the opening drive all season long. They know how to come out of the gate strong, allowing the fewest 1st quarter points in the league. The Texans ranked 21st in that category and are trending in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, no team scored more 1st quarter points than Cincinnati. That’s a decided advantage to the road team.
These are two ships passing in the night, with the Bengals winning seven of their last eight and the Texans losing three of four. The Bengals sputtering offense concerns me, as does the fact that they are the Bengals. The franchise has never won a road playoff game and has found interesting and creative ways to lose many of them. But I’m sticking to my gut here.
Bengals 17, Texans 16
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay: How quickly we get a rematch of last week’s thriller, where the Vikings won their way into the playoffs with a last-second win over the rival Packers in Minnesota. Adrian Peterson ran wild, and rookie kicker Blair Walsh tied the NFL record for most 50+ yard field goals in a season.
Those two players are really the only reason why Minnesota has any chance at Lambeau Field. Peterson is otherworldly as a runner, and he had no trouble gashing the Packers defense in either meeting this year. Even with extra defenders in the box, AD can turn any run into a touchdown. And when he isn’t able to get it into the end zone, Walsh has the leg to put valuable points on the board. Green Bay’s kicker, Mason Crosby, is the biggest weakness on the team. If Peterson controls time of possession and the game breaks into a kicking duel, Mike McCarthy might as well jump in Lake Michigan. That’s where disgruntled fans who have been completely flummoxed by his unwavering, inconceivable loyalty to the worst kicker of the last 15 years will throw him if Crosby costs them a game.
Fortunately for McCarthy, he won’t need a towel other than to wipe the Gatorade off his face when they bathe him in it after the win. In the playoffs, the better quarterback usually wins. When the gulf between the quarterbacks is as vast as between Aaron Rodgers and Christian Ponder, it’s near impossible to overcome.
The Vikings defense isn’t too shabby, but unless Rodgers ventures into “off day” mode--which he has done a few times this year--the Packers offense will score plenty of points. Newfound running threat DuJuan Harris offers some semblance of offensive balance, while mercurial TE Jermichael Finley appears to have finally extricated his head from his rectum. The Vikings cannot cover all those weapons, and Rodgers has enough escapability to frustrate Jared Allen.
I also think the return of Charles Woodson to the Green Bay defense will help take away Ponder’s only legit passing game weapon, Kyle Rudolph. Jarius Wright has come on nicely down the stretch, but fellow rookie Casey Hayward has seen him in the SEC and has been playing great all year long. Green Bay moves on, comfortably but not emphatically.
Packers 28, Vikings 22
Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens: When Ray Lewis announced his retirement on Wednesday, this game went from a toss-up to a lead pipe lock in my mind. I was already leaning towards the Ravens, who have been in this situation before and are very good at plowing out of the first round of the playoffs. Now the Ravens, who have not played well for much of the last six weeks, have a renewed enthusiasm and reason to come out motivated. Play For Ray.
Lewis is the undisputed defensive icon of the last 20 years. He is beloved by players of all generations for his competitive fire, his dedication to his craft, and his team-first forceful encouragement. For most of his career he was the best ILB in the game, though he has fallen off the past few seasons. But when I think of leaders in the NFL, the first guy that comes to mind is #52 in purple. You’d better believe the Ravens are going to rally around that.
Andrew Luck has been a great story, albeit a better story than actual quarterback. Chuck Pagano is the feel-good story of the season, if not the decade, and his ties to Baltimore mean he’ll receive a heroic welcome back. But in this city, in this game, it’s all about Ray Lewis. No way he goes out with his team losing to the team that hightailed it out of Baltimore and sucked the hearts out of so many fervid fans. No way Ray Lewis lets that happen. No way the Football Gods let that happen. Sorry Colts, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Enjoy the first of many trips to the playoffs, you weren’t supposed to be here anyways.
Ravens 23, Colts 20
Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins: This is set up to be a marquee matchup between two of the most exciting rookie QBs ever in Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. For football fans with an open mind, this is the epitome of the future--mobile, hyper-accurate QBs with intelligence, athleticism, and considerable charisma controlling the game. The fact that both are black rankles some, but those people can keep on enjoying their myopic, antiquated, sad little world. Regardless, I think this compelling matchup hinges on which defense can do a better job against the opposing QB, as I see their talents essentially washing out one another.
Washington might be at home, but their defense is not at an advantage here. London Fletcher and his backer mates have been pretty good in the middle of the defense, but the front and back ends are vulnerable. The Skins do get CB Cedric Griffin back from his four-game suspension, which should help the pass defense. They need all the downfield help they can get, because DC Jim Haslett loves to blitz. He called up 27 against Dallas last week, and no team brought six or more rushers on a higher percentage of opposing pass attempts than the Redskins. The problem here is that Russell Wilson wants teams to blitz him. His top attribute is his ability to avoid the initial blitz surge and create plays behind it. That’s a real bad matchup for Washington.
As much as you can like a defense against the wizardry of RG3, I like Seattle’s chances. They clog the interior without needed to crash down with their ends, and their LBs are both patient and fast. Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright are very good read-and-react backers, and they are quick enough to make plays in space. The size of their corners disrupts passing angles down the field, and Kam Chancellor is very good at blowing up moving targets should RG3 get free. The gimpy Griffin of last week doesn’t stand much of a chance against this defense. I expect he will be better, but the Skins do have another option.
Last week, Washington showed they could ride Alfred Morris to victory, and backs who can take it right to Seattle have had some success. Morris wastes no time in getting north/south, and he is very good at anticipating the defender reaction off the block. If his presence can draw Chancellor and fellow safety Earl Thomas away from overage help, the Skins have a real chance. The Washington faithful are desperate to cheer for anything that wins, so I expect the crowd to be raucous and hyper-sensitive. If Morris breaks a 30-yard run, they might hear it up the road in Baltimore. But I don’t think there will be enough of that to overcome the number of times Wilson & friends find success against the home defense.
Seattle 30, Washington 27
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