The jokers are wild

Posted Jan. 05, 2012 @ 9:16 a.m.
Posted By Tom Danyluk

Watching the NFL wild-card scene take form over the past several weeks had the feel of the big Italian collapse at Bardia, where the Aussies came in with 16,000 men and came out with 36,000 prisoners, and Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary put a spin on Churchill and proclaimed, "Never before has so much been surrendered by so many to so few." Such pageantry. The gallant March of the Indifferent.

We'll be watching anyway.

Bengals (9-7) at Texans (10-6): How bad is QB T.J. Yates' shoulder? Who cares? says the Texans' third-stringer, who was pulled for the Texans' fourth-stringer, Jake Delhomme, in Sunday's loss to Tennessee. "It's my left shoulder; I don't need it."

Conventional thinking says he might not need much of his right shoulder either versus Cincinnati, because it's the non-QB statistics in this game that seem to pull the most weight. Houston still carries the No. 2 rated defense in all of football, and the No. 2 two running game. They're also the host team, and that combination alone should be enough to pry another one from the Bengals, who have been fiddling around since 1968 in trying to come up with some kind of road playoff win. 

However, there is a recent data set to examine. The clubs met back in mid-December, with the Texans getting a shot of luck on the final play of the game, Yates' right shoulder delivering a last-second six-yard TD pass to close out an 80-yard drive and the win. That journey came without their superstud WR Andre Johnson in the lineup. He'll be in gear on Saturday. Even Johnson at 70 percent will force the Bengals to shift people his way.

The Bengals owned the lead for 90 percent of that December game and their defensive front had pinched down on those Texas runners pretty hard; only 41 yards for Arian Foster … minus out Ben Tate's 44-yard burst and the rest of his day was seven carries for 23.

The Texans certainly aren't riding any crest coming in. It's more like a steady undertow — three consecutive losses, to Carolina, Indy and Tennessee to close the regular season. And it's another in the parade of "biggest game of my career" dates for Cincy's Marvin Lewis. I see Andy Dalton, his surprising rookie quarterback, making enough throws to get the game into the fourth quarter. Maybe along the way their defense can pry away a cheap turnover or two. Who knows? I'm going with a hunch pic here. The Bengals finally get one … for 1968. Bengals 23, Texans 19.

Lions (10-6) at Saints (13-4): I have a great, churning fear that this could spiral into some kind of Baylor-Washington or Wisconsin-Oregon thing. … Big 12 ball, where the points rip like bullets and defense is a toll booth on the turnpike. I despise that grade of football. It's mindless. Saints games have gone like that this year, at least on their side of the ledger, with Drew Brees trashing records and the club averaging 41.1 points in its eight home wins.

The anomaly on New Orleans' record this season was the October defeat at St. Louis. The ever-recycled story of quarterback pressure. The Rams were a garbage team all season long, but their defensive line rallied and dumped Brees five times that day. DLE Chris Long, their speed man, collected three of them alone. A sixth sack came on a gamble, a full-out jailbreak of a blitz, where the Rams launched seven men after Brees and LB James Laurinaitis got there.

The only way the Lions survive is if their front four wrecks the game. Heavy blitzing won't work, not with Brees and all his dump-off options. OK, six sacks is asking much, but they'll need four … even five. Sorry, but that's what's required here. DT Ndamukong Suh, if you remember, was on suspension for their Week 13 game in New Orleans. Brees wound up 26-for-36 in his passing that day, three big TDs, and the Saints never broke a sweat. This time, big man Suh will play.

Suh, Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Nick Fairley … the names on the Detroit rush line. They'll have to dominate. They'll have to storm the hill. It's their battle to lose. Saints 34, Lions 23.

Falcons (10-6) at Giants (9-7): The most intriguing of the weekend's quartet. OK, subtle intrigue. Neither are honest contenders, but the two haven't clanked sabres since 2009, so it's a fresh-looking matchup for the eyes.

The book on Atlanta never seems to change — dangerous indoors, swirling offensive numbers, rice paper pass defense, fodder for the muscle teams. A 3-8 road playoff history. Last year they found themselves in the perfect home playoff setup; then the Green Bay busses pulled up and it was a bloodbath — 442 yards of offense allowed. At least they're predictable.

The Giants? Now we're delving into a weird psychological study. A club that morphs from week-to-week, that shows no consistent response to the sound of "must win." Any grade of passer can mess with them, from Brees and Rodgers down to Rex Grossman and Charlie Whitehurst. They can mangle the pocket with their pass rush yet it rarely seems to take over the game. OK, 11 sacks over the past two weeks. But across the past three seasons, the Giants are a drab 13-11 at home, including 6-6 in December. Despite his Super Bowl triumph in '07 the Impeach Coughlin campaign still has its marchers.

But there's always Brother Eli, who somehow keeps the NY operation breathing. So without flipping through the pages of Jung or Pavlov or Adler, how should this one play out? It might come down to a quick check of the weather vane. Atlanta's prayers are always for tepid outdoor conditions. If they get them, Matt Ryan will bomb and bomb away, attack, trying for big numbers and fast points against the league's 29th-ranked pass defense. They'll be successful, despite the Giants' pressure.

If the day freezes up and those fine southern pass catchers (Julio Jones, Roddy White) get shriveled, knotted fingers, then Atlanta will grind down quickly and New York will have enough to close out an ugly game.

Sunday Forecast: mid-40s, chance of a shower. World Series weather. Lordy, nobody wants to cooperate for this one, do they? OK, Manning finds a way. Giants 24, Falcons 16.

Steelers (12-4) at Broncos (8-8)

Here's a statistic: the Broncos' offense, the frantic, gasping Tebow attack, is mocked for its 19.3 points per game. Here's another one. The Steelers, defending AFC champs, live just above there, at 20.3.

Now, how about that Steelers casualty report? Like darkness and fog across the land. I can almost hear Boris Karloff reciting the names of the afflicted … Roethlisberger, still gimpy, still trying to manage that ankle; Rashard Mendenhall, their featured ballcarrier, done, torn knee; Ryan Clark, the top free safety, out with his blood disorder …

Yes, I'm digging in the back of drawers here, through the lint and crumbs and paper clips, searching for why the Steelers shouldn't be the chalk pick here. So hard to back Tebow — not against those Steelers maniacs he'll see on defense. We know the reasons. They'll hunt him down. He'll end up in knots.

I do see a day of dueling punters, though, placekickers constantly checking the wind … and a lone Pittsburgh touchdown. That should be enough for the damaged Steelers to move along. Steelers 16, Broncos 12.


Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at You can contact Tom at