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Inside the Matchup
Wildcard Weekend

By: Damon Autry | Sal Marcoccio | Chris Eakin | Kyle Smith

 Predictions - YTD
Rk Staffer W L %
1 Autry 46 17 73.0
2 Marcoccio 44 20 68.8
3 Smith 42 22 65.6
4 Eakin 38 27 58.5


Bengals @ Texans - (Autry)

Passing Game Thoughts: All things considered, Andy Dalton got off to a solid start as a rookie, but his play nosedived late in the season. Only once in the last seven games did he throw for more than one TD. The good news is, his interceptions decreased—only one in the last six games. Meanwhile, A.J. Green’s play stayed steady—that is, until the last two games of the season in which he went for a TOTAL of four catches for 51 yards and no TDs. Andre Caldwell was lost for the season; in his place stepped Jerome Simpson and all he’s done is make 12 catches over the last three games. Jermaine Gresham must be accounted for as well. The TE has 24 receptions in the last six games.

Houston’s pass defense isn’t necessarily coming into their first playoff appearance flying high. They surrendered 275 passing yards to Tennessee last week—the most they’ve allowed since Baltimore threw for 289 yards in Week 6. However, The Texans remain the 3rd best pass defense and should be a tough obstacle for the Bengals to overcome.

Running Game Thoughts: The bell cow that Cedric Benson has been has made many fantasy owners satisfied with him as their RB2. He hasn’t had more than 91 yards in any of the last five games and only has one TD in that stretch. Dalton’s production has peaked, so it stands to reason that Benson will be an even bigger part of the offense. Expect Benson to be a huge piece of the offensive attack this week and get more than 20 touches for the first time since Week 14.

The Texans rank 4th in the league against the run and only two teams have given up more than the 8 TDs they’ve surrendered in 2011. Houston has given up on average 90 yards on the ground the last two games and hopes to ride that momentum into this contest. The Texans will certainly see a heavy dose of Benson this week, so they’d better be prepared.

Andy Dalton: 210 yards passing / 1 TD / 1 INT
A.J. Green: 65 yards receiving
Jerome Simpson: 55 yards receiving
Andrew Hawkins: 35 yards receiving
Jermaine Gresham: 45 yards receiving / 1 TD
Cedric Benson: 65 yards rushing / 1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: What’s up with Andre Johnson? After a 2010 campaign that saw him miss the last quarter of the season, he followed that up with two stints on the sideline with separate hamstring injuries. His temporary perch at the top of the fantasy WR position has been vacated for the ultra-talented Calvin Johnson. Andre’s apparent fragility aside, the Texans are reeling with the fact that they’re down to their third-string QB—and even he, TJ Yates, has experienced some chinks in his durability armor. After leaving last week’s game with an injured shoulder, it is said that Yates will suit up for the contest.

Cincy’s pass defense limited Baltimore’s passing game to a measly 126 yards last week. Granted, they didn’t have Anquan Boldin, but his presence wouldn’t have meant much. The Bengals have lacked the ability to force turnovers, so that bodes well for the inexperienced Yates. Leon Hall’s absence in the Cincy secondary could present problems with Andre Johnson returning from his injury, but expect a middle-of-the-road contest this week with the defenses playing a primary role.

Running Game Thoughts: Arian Foster took a seat on the sideline during last week’s loss against Tennessee. Ben Tate took his place and rumbled for 97 yards, including a 56-yard scamper. Houston is sure to focus on its running game considering the challenges they have at the QB position. Expect 30-plus touches between both Foster and Tate this week, as they will become the focus of a Houston offensive attack that will lead with its running game. If Houston is to win this game, it will be because of their running game. Period.

This is no way to be going into the playoffs for Cincy’s defense. They’re coming off a week in which they surrendered the most rushing yards all season—221 yards against Baltimore last week. Houston is sure to exploit whatever weakness they exhibited to their benefit. Foster will have a huge game, and Tate will fill in admirably where needed.

T.J. Yates: 225 yards passing / 1 TD
Andre Johnson: 70 yards receiving / 1 TD
Jacoby Jones: 35 yards receiving
Kevin Walter: 25 yards receiving
Joel Dreessen: 40 yards receiving
Arian Foster: 110 yards rushing / 40 yards receiving / 1 TD
Ben Tate: 45 yards rushing / 1 TD

Prediction: Texans 24, Bengals 20 ^ Top

Lions @ Saints - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: Led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson, the Lions bring the league’s fourth-ranked passing offense into their playoff game against the Saints. Stafford was third in the NFL in both passing yards (5,038) and touchdown throws (41). Those are MVP-type numbers in other years, but fantasy gold no matter what season it is. Johnson’s 1,681 receiving yards led the league, his 16 touchdown catches were second, and his 96 receptions ranked fourth. Though Stafford threw for 408 yards against New Orleans when Detroit faced them in Week 13, he had only one scoring pass, and it wasn’t to Johnson. Megatron actually had his second-lowest fantasy point total of the season in that contest, as he caught six passes for 69 yards and failed to score.

The Saints were 30th in the NFL in pass defense, though that’s not entirely on the team’s defensive players, as odd as that might sound. With New Orleans often scoring quick and taking leads, opposing squads had to throw the ball to try and keep pace or catch up. More telling numbers may be that they were tied for 16th in touchdown passes given up and ninth in completion percentage allowed. The Saints allowed seven quarterbacks to throw for at least 300 yards, but over their last 10 games, only three QB’s managed to throw multiple touchdown passes against the Saints, and just five wide receivers caught a touchdown pass against them.

Running Game Thoughts: With Jahvid Best sidelined due to an injury, Kevin Smith returned to the Lions and did a decent job, scoring seven total touchdowns in seven games. His rushing numbers weren’t great, as he gained more than 50 yards just once in those games, but his ability to catch the ball gave him added value to fantasy owners. Smith had six carries for 34 yards and a touchdown against the Saints in Week 13, and added 46 yards on six receptions. He shares the backfield with Maurice Morris, but Morris had only one contest with more than 50 rushing yards this year and two games with over 25 receiving yards.

New Orleans was 12th in the league against the run, and tied for 15th in rushing scores allowed. However, they gave up 5.0 yards per carry, which was 29th in the NFL. No runner gained at least 80 yards against them in their last six games, and just one ball carrier had more than 60 yards. More impressively, over their last eight games, the Saints allowed just three rushing scores.

Matthew Stafford: 325 yds passing, 3 TD, 1 INT
Calvin Johnson: 115 yds receiving, 2 TD
Nate Burleson: 75 yds receiving
Brandon Pettigrew: 50 yds receiving, 1 TD
Titus Young: 25 yds receiving
Kevin Smith: 45 yds rushing, 1 TD / 30 yds receiving
Maurice Morris: 25 yds rushing / 15 yds receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: Saints quarterback Drew Brees was a fantasy treasure this season, breaking the single-season record for passing yards with 5,476 and leading the league with 46 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 71.2. He thrashed the Lions for 342 yards and three touchdowns in Week 13, one of his 13 games with at least 300 yards and multiple touchdowns. His most potent weapons are wideout Marques Colston and tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham was third in the league with 99 catches this season, fourth with 11 touchdown grabs, and seventh with 1,310 receiving yards. Meanwhile Colston was tied for 12th with 80 receptions, 14th with 1,143 yards, and tied for 11th with eight touchdown catches. Graham didn’t score against the Lions in Week 13, but did have eight receptions for 89 yards, while Colston had six catches for 59 yards. The most productive Saints wideout in that game was Robert Meachem, who caught just three passes, but collected 119 yards and one score.

Detroit has the NFL’s 22nd-ranked pass defense, and was tied for 22nd in passing touchdowns given up. They were also 22nd in completion percentage, but did snare 21 interceptions, which was the fifth-highest total in the league. The Lions have really struggled against the pass of late, having allowed multiple touchdown throws by a quarterback in four of their last six contests, and at least 299 passing yards in five of those six games. Also in that time, Detroit allowed six wide receivers to accumulate at least 89 yards, and wideouts have caught 11 touchdown passes. Basically, they’re ripe for the picking against Brees and his plethora of offensive weapons.

Running Game Thoughts: The Saints running game has been a three-pronged attack all season, though those prongs have changed from time-to-time. Whoever was in the backfield was effective, and New Orleans is sixth in the NFL in rushing offense this season, tied for seventh in rushing scores, and fourth in yards per carry. Rookie Mark Ingram got the bulk of the work early on, but an injury has sidelined him for a few weeks and he’ll miss the playoffs. That means Chris Ivory is the team’s main ball carrier, and though he has just one rushing score this year, he’s run for at least 50 yards in all four games that he’s received double-digit carries. Pierre Thomas gets between 5-10 carries per game, and though that obviously doesn’t mean big yards, he has run for five touchdowns over his last five games, and adds a quality receiving option out of the backfield. But as good as Thomas is catching the ball, he doesn’t compare to Darren Sproles. The diminutive Sproles only ran the ball 87 times, and while he did pick up 603 yards and two scores, he does most of his damage on receptions. He caught 87 passes this year, gaining 710 yards and scoring seven times in the process. One of those scores came against Detroit in Week 13, a game in which he had 28 rushing yards on four carries and 46 yards on five catches.

The Lions allowed over 2,000 rushing yards this year, and are 23rd in the league in run defense. They are tied for sixth with eight other teams in rushing scores given, but just behind the Saints at 30th in yards per carry allowed. Detroit hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Week 7, but over their last nine games, six backs have gained at least 60 yards, and in their last seven games have allowed four backs to accumulate at least 45 receiving yards, so dual-threat players at the running back position clearly give them trouble.

Drew Brees: 350 yds passing, 4 TD, 1 INT
Jimmy Graham: 95 yds receiving, 2 TD
Marques Colston: 85 yds receiving, 1 TD
Robert Meachem: 40 yds receiving
Lance Moore: 30 yds receiving
Devery Henderson: 20 yds receiving
Chris Ivory: 55 yds rushing
Pierre Thomas: 40 yds rushing, 1 TD / 15 yds receiving
Darren Sproles: 35 yds rushing / 50 yds receiving, 1 TD

Prediction: Saints 38, Lions 28 ^ Top

Falcons @ Giants - (Marcoccio)

Passing Game Thoughts: Matt Ryan is coming off his best season as a professional and will be looking to put last season’s playoff disappointment behind him. The Falcons were the No. 1 seed in 2010 but were outgunned by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons spent the offseason adding weapons to their passing game, notably through the draft. The team traded up to draft Alabama star Julio Jones and drafted scat back Jacquizz Rodgers in the fifth round. Jones suffered from a balky hamstring during the middle of the season, but otherwise had an outstanding rookie year. Jones is a dynamic playmaker who dispelled pre-draft chatter about his less buttery hands with his play on the field. Veteran WR Roddy White (100-1296-8) had another stellar season and ageless TE Tony Gonzalez (80-875-7) had his best season since joining the team. White is a great deep threat who is heavily targeted by Ryan and Gonzalez was able to take advantage of the space underneath created by the speed of White and Jones. Ryan has learned to read defenses well and finally has a full set of weapons at his disposal.

For most of the season the Giants’ secondary was very susceptible to the pass. They have played much better in recent weeks, once DC Perry Fewell decided to abandon the complicated coverages he was trying to install and simplified the defensive schemes. It also helped that Justin Tuck is finally healthy and the Giants’ vaunted pass rush has stepped up big time as a result. DE Jason Pierre-Paul has played like a beast all season and with Tuck healthy it’s difficult for opposing teams to keep the quarterback pocket clean. While Matt Ryan has matured as a QB, he still has some difficulties when under heavy pressure. The Giants should be able to wreak some havoc in front of the home crowd, but it will be a difficult task to handle the size and speed of the Atlanta pass catchers.

Running Game Thoughts: At 29 years old Michael Turner has shown signs of slowing down. You don’t hear many people calling him “The Burner” any longer, but he can still be an effective runner against weaker run defenses. Turner still has good vision and strength on his inside runs, but rarely does he break any long runs, which isn’t necessarily a huge problem for a team with such a dynamic passing game. Jacquizz Rodgers adds a new dynamic as the CoP/3rd down back for Atlanta. While he also doesn’t possess elite speed, he does have excellent quickness and cutting ability. He’s also surprisingly strong for a 5’8” back. The Giants haven’t been particularly strong against the run this season, so don’t be surprised to see Atlanta try and get the running game going early in the contest in order to slow down the Giant pass rush and open things up for the passing game in the second half.

The Giants’ run defense allowed 121.3 ypg and 15 rushing TDs on the ground during the regular season. They’ve struggled most of the year after losing starting middle linebacker Jonathan Goff to injury during the preseason and felt the loss of interior lineman Barry Coefield in free agency. At times they’ve looked like a decent unit, but for the most part their front seven talent is more suited for getting to the QB than for stopping the run.

Matt Ryan: 305 yds passing 3 TDs, 2 Ints. / 10 yards rushing
Roddy White: 95 yds receiving, 1 TDs
Julio Jones: 70 yds receiving
Harry Douglas: 35 yds receiving
Tony Gonzalez: 50 yds receiving, 1 TD
Michael Turner: 60 yds rushing / 5 yds receiving
Jacquizz Rodgers: 25 yards rushing / 35 yards receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: The Giants’ passing game looked like it was starting to collapse down the stretch due to a myriad of injuries and dropped passes, but it bounced back in a must win game against Dallas in the season finale. Eli Manning is one of five QBs that put up an MVP caliber season in 2011. Manning was amazingly cool in pressure situations and led the Giants to several comeback and near comeback wins this season. Second year WR Victor Cruz broke out against Nnamdi Asomugha and the Eagles in Week three and from there continued to be one the most surprising players in the league. Cruz finished third in the league in receiving yards with 1,536 and scored 9 TDs on the year. Hr has nice size and speed and is a skilled runner after the catch – and he has an amazing tendency to make big plays out of nothing - like his 99 yard TD reception against the Jets where he caught a short pass between two defenders, broke through and was off to the races down the sideline. Fantasy players this offseason were counting on WR Hakeem Nicks to be an elite player, but it was Cruz who took the mantle instead. That’s not to say that Nicks (76-1192-7) was a tremendous disappointment, but injuries and the aforementioned drops led to the former Tarheel not reaching the lofty expectations thrust upon him.

The Atlanta Falcons are a below average pass defense (236.6 ypg and 25 TDs) that should offer little challenge to the Giants’ passing attack. Dunta Robinson hasn’t lived up to his high draft status and he should struggle with Nicks. John Arbraham is a legit speed pass rusher but if the Giants keep in an extra blocker they won’t have much else to worry about on the defensive line.

Running Game Thoughts: Ahmad Bradshaw is not 100% recovered from his cracked foot, but has looked better each week since he’s been back. Bradshaw is one of the most well rounded running backs in the league. When healthy, he has big play potential as a runner and pass catcher and the strength to gain the difficult yards. The issue though has been his inability to stay completely healthy, and his foot may never allow him to run completely pain free. Brandon Jacobs may be looking at the end of his career with the Giants, but is still an important part of the offense. He doesn’t have the surprising speed anymore, but he’s incredibly difficult to bring down. Jacobs is at his best when he’s playing with some anger so the Falcons would be wise not to get him riled up early in the game.

The Falcons are also a below average run defense. They allowed 121.3 ypg and 15 rushing TDs during the season. The Giants’ once superb o-line has been beaten down over the years due to wear and departure but is still a solid unit and should be able to deal with the undersized Falcon front line.

Eli Manning: 285 yds passing 2 TDs
Hakeem Nicks: 85 yds receiving, 1 TD
Victor Cruz: 75 yds receiving, 1 TD
Mario Manningham: 30 yds receiving
Jake Ballard: 25 yds receiving
Ahmad Bradshaw: 85 yds rushing, 1 TD / 20 yds receiving
Brandon Jacobs: 50 yards rushing, 1 TD / 15 yards receiving

Prediction: Giants 34, Falcons 24 ^ Top

Steelers @ Broncos - (Eakin)

Passing Game Thoughts: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has clearly been less effective after spraining his ankle two weeks ago. He has been one of the best in the league at improvising when plays break down - breaking tackles, moving around in the pocket, and could always create big plays. Without his mobility he has been limited and has to get the ball out quick. This changes the Steelers pass attack. The change has led to an increase in targets for their possession receivers Hines Ward, Jerricho Cotchery, and TE Heath Miller. These are the guys Denver will have to keep in check with nickel corners, safeties, and linebackers. Pittsburgh has the advantage in the slot against Denver as the Broncos are not very deep in the secondary, and need their Linebackers to rush the passer. With Big Ben having a bad thumb, he may not be under center much so look for Pittsburgh to run a lot of no huddle, preventing Denver from bringing in their defensive sub packages, and exploiting mismatches.

The spread pass attacks of New England and Buffalo have both exploited Denver in recent weeks. Hines Ward can almost serve as a tight end for run plays and split out in the no huddle and exploit the Denver linebackers from the slot. Denver will need to be flexible, shift around pre snap in order to keep Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil free to rush. They have struggled getting pressure in recent weeks, which is a big reason for Denver’s defense coming back to earth of late. The Broncos cannot win this game without pressuring Roethlisberger.

On the outside, Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace have been outstanding. Wallace might be the best deep threat in the game and when he is slowed down, Antonio Brown steps up to the plate. Limited time in the pocket may slow down the Steelers ability to get him the ball downfield, however, Wallace has become a more diverse player this year, and is now capable of running intermediate routes and getting yards after the catch. It doesn’t look like Denver safety Brian Dawkins will play. He hasn’t practiced after missing last week with a neck injury. Denver will miss his tackling and leadership in helping to corral Wallace and Brown.

Running Game Thoughts: The Steelers will have to find some running balance despite not having Rashard Mendenhall (ACL). Much of the running duties will fall upon Isaac Redman. Redman isn’t green. He has already played a big role as the backup to Mendenhall all year and been just as effective. He isn’t quite as explosive, and has had some fumbling problems but the Steelers don’t have any other option at this point. With Roethlisberger injured, there is added pressure to run the ball effectively. Denver is 22nd against the rush allowing 127 yards per game. They need to hold Pittsburgh under 80 yards to have a chance.

Ben Roethlisberger: 245 yds passing, 2 TDs / 1 Int
Mike Wallace: 65 yds receiving
Antonio Brown: 70 yds receiving
Hines Ward: 65 yds receiving / 1 TD
Heath Miller: 35 yards / 1 TD
Isaac Redman: 80 yds rushing / 1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: I’m not sure Tim Tebow is ready to face the dynamic Pittsburgh defense that leads the league is passing yards allowed. Few teams are able to confuse opposing offenses better than the Steelers. Tebow struggles making reads, often locking on his first option and quickly adlibbing if he doesn’t find them open right away. The Steelers will play a lot of man coverage with good cover corners much like the Chiefs that held Denver to just three points last week. When Denver has won, they have hit Eric Decker or Demaryius Thomas for at least one or two big plays on deep throws.

Pittsburgh has not played with their full linebacking corps often this year, at times missing either Lamar Woodley or James Harrison. They are healthy now, unsuspended, and active this week. They are the heart of the pass rush, making it all the more difficult for Tebow to find the time to make those big plays. Opposing quarterbacks need to account for safety Troy Polamalu. Most struggle to do so, so it’s not a disservice to Tebow to say that this key matchup favors Pittsburgh. It’s worth noting that Steelers starting free safety Ryan Clark will have to sit out due to a sickle cell ailment that is exacerbated in the Denver altitude. He is the deep play preventer for Pittsburgh that protects the Steelers corners. He will be replaced by Ryan Mundy. Mundy is a talented player in his own right but could play a big role in whether or not Denver will hit on any big plays.

Running Game Thoughts: Denver will lean on their running game as they have all year. The option run has declined in productivity as defenses around the league have seen the film and have been able to make adjustments. Denver still runs well between the tackles with 1000-yard rusher Willis McGahee and spot support from Lance Ball. Both are power runners that fight for yards in the mold of Marshawn Lynch - not extremely explosive but consistent and tough. Even with 159 yards rushing last week versus Kansas City, Denver couldn’t put points on the board. They have turned the ball over recently and will need to play mistake-free football to win. Pittsburgh is still tough to run on but not the Steel Wall of old so McGahee should finish with decent yardage. The Steelers rank 8th allowing 100 yards per game. McGahee should eclipse that, but once Denver gets near the red zone the Steelers will stiffen up, forcing Tebow to make plays.

Tim Tebow: 205 yds passing, 0 TDs / 1 Int
Eric Decker: 45 yds receiving
Demaryius Thomas: 60 yds receiving
Daniel Fells: 35 yds receiving
Willis McGahee: 110 yds rushing / 25 yards receiving / 1 TD

Prediction: Steelers 24, Broncos 13 ^ Top