NFL 1st Round: Sunday Previews

Sunday’s NFL 1st round games feature the #4 vs. #5 matchup in both conferences, so where the winners advance will depend on who won Saturday (see the Notebook preview of those games for explanation). It’s Atlanta-NY Giants and Pittsburgh-Denver today. Here’s a look at both…

Atlanta-NY Giants (1 PM ET, Fox): Both teams excel at getting the ball to their wideouts. New York’s Victor Cruz has made electrifying plays the last two weeks in must-win spots against the Jets and Cowboys, but he’s been outstanding all year long, in compiling over 1,600 yards receiving. On the opposite flank, Eli Manning can target Hakeem Nicks. When Atlanta has the ball, Matt Ryan can look for Roddy White. While White hasn’t been as good as he was a year ago, he’s had some good games in recent weeks and in any one-game shot is a potential game-breaker. The other receiver is rookie Julio Jones, who’s fulfilled every hope Atlanta had when they drafted him to take pressure off White. Thus, if we assume that this phase of the game is a wash, it will be strengths/weaknesses further down the ladder that determine who advances. Some factors to consider…

*If you haven’t followed the Giants closely since their Super Bowl run four years ago, you might be unaware that the once-proud running game is now the worst in the NFL at yards-per-carry. Atlanta’s rush defense is pretty good, so there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Manning. And for our interesting stat of the day, the Giants have never won a home playoff game with Eli—that Super Bowl run came all on the road, they lost in 2005 to Carolina, in 2008 to Philadelphia and haven’t been back since. Add to that some concern about Manning’s ability to throw the ball in the swirling winds in January and there’s a feeling that this might not be a coincidence. Score a factor in Atlanta’s favor.

*If Ryan and Manning are both on, then a few key sacks will be critical in stealing a possession here and there. Each team has one good defensive end and another potential sleeping giant, but the Giants have a decided edge in each spot. Jason Pierre-Paul has had a much better year than John Abraham, and on the flip side Justin Tuck is more likely than Ray Edwards to have a breakout game. As far as pass protection goes, it’s a wash, with both offensive lines being good. Score one for the G-Men.

*While neither team has run the ball well, with Atlanta that’s often by choice, as they get away from Michael Turner. I didn’t say it was a good choice, just that was a  choice. If Mike Smith and his offensive staff make better choices on Sunday, Turner has a chance of controlling the tempo and giving Atlanta a big edge.

*If it comes down to turnovers, the Giant defensive backs play the ball better than the Falcons do. Corey Webster and Aaron Ross are more likely to steal an interception or two on the corners, then are Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson.

If this is looking like a dead-even game to you, it’s sure looking that way to me. One school of thought says to take the Giants as the home team and one with some experience winning playoff games. The other side says as long as Atlanta doesn’t get too cute and keeps Turner actively involved in the offense, the Falcons will win. I’m going with the latter. 31-24 Atlanta.

Pittsburgh-Denver (4:30 PM ET, CBS): All week long we’ve basically heard about how the Steelers are going to destroy Tim Tebow. Heck, in the Notebook’s newsletter (sent out for free each Monday, sign up on the right side of the home page), I often speculated that the game being over by halftime meant we could check out some good NBA and NHL action in the early evening and not miss anything. I still feel that way, but constructive analysis means exploring all options, so let’s consider the Denver case for pulling this upset as a nine-point underdog.

*Pittsburgh’s pass protection is terrible, Ben Roethlisberger is still limping around with the high ankle sprain and Denver has two very good pass rushers in defensive end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller.

*With running back Rashard Mendenhall out for the entire postseason, Pittsburgh’s ability to take the pressure off Big Ben with the running game is limited.

*The Steeler run defense isn’t as strong as their pass defense, making it possible for Willis McGahee and Tim Tebow to get something going on the ground. Furthermore, having the best pass defense in the AFC is pretty much a wasted strength against Denver, where Tebow can make any defense look great against the pass.

*Denver can exploit Pittsburgh’s high-pressure schemes with the linebackers, but using Tebow on quarterback draws to keep LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison at home and mitigate a Steeler strength.

*Pittsburgh’s red-zone offense is subpar, making it more likely the game stays close and gives Tebow a chance for some fourth-quarter magic and outstanding kicker Mike Prater to be a difference-maker.

That’s the case and it’s not as though as I think any Denver fan who has hope is living in some kind of utopia, especially with the game at home. But we have to counter with the following points…

*Denver’s red-zone offense is even worse than Pittsburgh’s and when you only get limited scoring chances, they have to be turned into touchdowns.

*The loss of Mendenhall is overrated. Isaac Redman is capable of doing just as well—or just as mediocre as the case may be. Pittsburgh no longer lives and dies with the running game. Thinking they do is as outdated as thinking the Giants are a muscular running team.

*Roethlisberger has two great playmaking receivers on the outside in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. All it takes is one or two hits down the field to give the Steelers a lead and put Tebow in a catch-up situation.

*Pittsburgh’s won 12 games without a big year from Troy Polamulu, so they can win here without a big play from him. But what if last year’s Defensive Player of the Year does step up with a game-changing play. We’re talking ball game if that happens.

The bottom line? Like any team in the playoffs, especially one at home, you can construct a reasonable victory scenario for Denver. But reasonable doesn’t mean likely, and I’m going with the conventional wisdom and calling this one for the Steelers, 23-6.