Ponder This… Wild Cards the Teams to Beat?

The Giants, Saints and Steelers; 3 of the last 4 teams to win a Super Bowl, and 3 of the 24 NFL teams to have their seasons ended in Week 17. Maybe the regular season performances of the Saints were to be expected after the many sanctions imposed on Sean Payton, Joe Vitt and the remainder of the Saints organisation as a result of the ‘bounty scandal’. The Saints still topped the league for ‘passing yards per game’ but with a poorly performing defence, the Saints regularly struggled to defend early leads, and even Drew Brees misfired on occasion when the game was on the line.

Take Week 13 against The NFC 1 seed Falcons. Neither defence in that specific game put pressure on the opposition QB, yet both quarterbacks still underformed and while Brees posted much bigger numbers than Ryan, the game was effectively decided by one crucial Quarterback statistic, ‘interceptions’. In this NFC South clash Brees registered a career-high 5 and was ultimately outshone by a more clinical Matt Ryan who has showed remarkable composure all season-long. Even when other members of the Falcons team struggled during the latter part of the season, Ryan maintained his composure throughout.

Falcons Cornerback Brent Grimes intercepts a Drew Brees pass intended for Robert Meachem

If a team is to win this year’s Super Bowl it is imperative that they have a quarterback who won’t make mistakes on the big stage, while the Steelers and Giants have quarterbacks who have done it all before, neither Ben Roethlisberger or Eli Manning have been as dependable at the helm of the offence as in previous years. Eli Manning was being touted as the superior Manning brother in the opening weeks of the season but Eli’s form dipped dramatically and he went through a dismal spell of 3 games where his quarterback rating strayed below 60. The Steelers did suffer from Big Ben’s mid-season injury, but with their playoff hopes still intact going into last week’s game against the Bengals, Roethlisberger gifted an interception to the Bengals and untimately gifted their opponents and undeserved win. Its not as if he can shift the blame onto his teammated either has the Steelers once again had the league’s top defence.

Would you prefer any of them to Matt Ryan? Tony, Eli and Big Ben

Games 1-4
Usually you can btable 3e confident that the league’s top defence will feature in the post season, but unlike in previous years, statistics haven’t really indicated towards the top performing teams.
The Steelers, Bucs, Cardinals and Eagles all top various statistical categories for defence, while the pass-happy Saints and Lions once again have two of the NFL’s best offences.
The teams that have succeeded so far this season and the team’s that will competer in this year’s Super Bowl will most likely have the best balance of the two. In preparation for the wilcard games we shall have a look at the 12 playoff contenders and see how there form has been over 4 game periods this season.
Games 1-4
The Falcons and Texans already look like the teams to beat while all 3 playoff rookies have early struggles.

Games 5-8

table 4

The pre season Super Bowl favourites begin to separate themselves from the many .500 teams while the Bengals and Redskins languish in the bottom ranks of the playoff teams.

Games 9-12
table 5

A dramatic turnaround for the Bengals as they go from 0-4 to 4-0. The Patriots become Super Bowl favourites after several punishing performances and the Colts continue to have a negative points difference despite adding to their win tally.

Games 13-16
table 6

‘Its not how you start, but how you finish’
A quote that will no doubt be repeated throughout the playoffs. With every playoff team having a similar end of season record, it might come down to what team finished the season strongly and can continue on their form into the playoffs. This puts not only the Broncos in a very strong position but wildcard teams the Vikings and Seahawks also. What is most striking about this table though is the points difference for the Seahawks. If the Seahawks can replicate this form for another 4 games they may be the team to beat! In previous seasons form has been crucial so the wild card teams should be among the favourites and rightly so, but can the inexperiecned QBs lead those teams to the Super Bowl or will the number of road games be their undoing? Also, if we compare the 1st table to this one, the Falcons and Texans are nowhere near in as strong a position as they once were, and although tops seeds have lost their last few games before, in those instances the Colts (2006) and Saints (2009) were resting big name players.

WILDCARD WEEKEND- what separates the men from the boys
The wildcard match-ups provide us with an opportunity to see what divisions really possess the NFL’s best teams. This year there is the distinct possibility that no AFC North teams could feature in the divisional round of games with both the hopes of the Ravens and the Bengals on the line this weekend. Over in the NFC the Seahawks can ensure that no NFC East teams will feature in next weekend’s games if they beat the Redskins on Sunday.

With NFL seedings the way they are, it is expected that each division champion will be superior to any wildcard teams, but as the past few seasons that simply isn’t the case. For instance, in both 2008 and 2010 teams missed out on a playoff place despite the fact that they had recorded 3 more wins than some division champions, and after the Seahawks reached the playoffs with only 7 wins the NFL briefly looked to rectify this issue. I use the word ‘briefly’ because the Seahawks then promptly beat the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, leaving many in little doubt that the Seahawks deserved to be there. Fortunately in this year’s playoffs there none of these debates, as for the first time since the 2005 regular season, every playoff team has at least 10 wins under their belt which just shows how evenly matched every playoff team is. What is even more fascinating is that all of this weekend’s wildcard teams are on a significantly better run than each of their division champion opponents. There are always doubts surrounding those teams who enter the post season as a wildcard but when we look at those four teams, each one of them definitely merits their inclusion.

Big Portions are still part of the ‘Atkins Diet’

The Bengals defence has looked impressive from front to back this season, and with the potentially game-changing talents of AJ Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins at their disposal the Bengals can make big plays when it matters. This was evident in the Bengals defeat of the Steelers two weeks ago, but while Andy Dalton secured his first win against the Steelers, the QB did struggle has he has done in the latter half of the season. What was crucial for the Bengals was that their defence carried them through, but can the Bengals defence continue their heroics against the Texans?

The Vikings will be up against a familiar foe in the form of the Green Bay Packers, who they narrowly defeated 37-34 just last week in the Metrodome. Can the Vikings have another 4-0 run and clinch an unlikely Super Bowl? Well its likely Adrian Peterson can, but it depends on how the rest of his teammates perform. The Packers go into the game as considerable favourites but the Vikings defence has impressed in recent weeks and the Vikings have seen off impressive defences in the shape of the 49ers, Texans and Cardinals (yes, 1st in sacks amazingly), so while its Christian Ponder’s first playoff game I believe he can handle whatever the Packers defence throws at him. Just like the start of the season Ponder has taken some of the load off Adrian Peterson in the last few games and the Vikings offence has been particularly clinical on vital 3rd down conversions with Jairus Wright making a big impact. If the Packer offence isn’t at its brilliant best at home I can see the Vikings sneaking a win, the only problem is Rodgers is brilliant and is arguably the best.

Predictions:
Bengals V Texans
17 – 28

Vikings V Packers
27-31

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