Feb 032013
 

NFL AwardsSuddenly our picks for the post-season awards aren’t looking so far off of the mark.

The NFL announced it’s post-season award winners last night, and we have a recap of the award winners, along with the Gridiron Rats recipient.Um… yeah… we might have pretty well.

Here’s a summary of the award winners.

PetersonMOST VALUABLE PLAYER –  ADRIAN PETERSON, MINNESOTA VIKINGS

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR – ADRIAN PETERSON, MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Adrian Peterson was elected the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, gaining 30.5 of the 50 votes cast by an Associated Press group of NFL writers. Coming off an ACL tear in December 2011, Peterson fell just nine yards short of the single-season rushing record, gaining 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns. Peterson also captured honors for offensive player of the year, capturing 36 of the 50 first place votes. Peterson is only the third player to win both the MVP and the player of the year honors in a single season, joining Alan Page and Fran Tarkenton.

For the MVP voting, Peyton Manning received 19.5 first place votes. For the Offensive Player of the Year, Peterson finished ahead of Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Calvin Johnson.

Gridiron Rats also gave both awards to Peterson.

JJ WattDEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR – JJ WATT, HOUSTON TEXANS

JJ Watt won the Defensive Player of the Year award Saturday night, with a near unanimous 49 out of 50 first place votes (Von Miller got the lone dissenting vote). Watt had a monster season with 20.5 sacks and 16 pass deflections, to go along with 81 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles. There is little question that “JJ Swatt” was the league’s most disruptive defensive player in 2012.

Not surprisingly, the Gridiron Rats award went to Watt as well. (That’s 3 for 3 if you’re keeping score at home)

Robert-Griffin-IIIOFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR – ROBERT GRIFFIN III, WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Perhaps our most controversial pick, Griffin earned the AP’s recognition with an impressive rookie campaign as he helped transform the Washington Redskins into a playoff team for the first time since 2006. Griffin landed 29 of the 50 first place votes, followed by Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. Griffin finished the season with 3,200 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, only five interceptions, and he ran for another 815 yards and seven touchdowns.

We are now four for four, as the Gridiron Rats award went to Griffin as well.

Luke KuechlyDEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR – LUKE KUECHLY, CAROLINA PANTHERS

Luke Kuechly picked up 28 of 50 first place votes to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Kuechly tallied 164 tackles as a rookie, to go along with one sack, two interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and eight passes defensed. Kuechly received the NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month award in December, recording a league-high 59 tackles over the final five games of the season. Bobby Wagner of Seattle finished second with 11 first place votes, followed by Casey Heyward, Janoris Jenkins, and Lavonte David.

Kuechly also got the nod from Gridiron Rats, meaning we are five for five. Sensing a trend yet?

ManningCOMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR – PEYTON MANNING, DENVER BRONCOS

Anyone who thought Peyton Manning’s best days were behind him proved to be very wrong in 2012, as Manning returned from four neck surgeries and a missed 2011 campaign to lead the Broncos to a 13-3 record and first seed in the AFC playoffs. Manning threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 105.8. Manning beat out Adrian Peterson for this award. Sadly for Manning, his brilliant regular season was once again tarnished by a post-season meltdown.

Not surprisingly, Manning also captured the Gridiron Rats award, placing us one award away from a perfect record. (Can you tell we are a little pleased with ourselves?)

Bruce AriansCOACH OF THE YEAR – BRUCE ARIANS, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

It’s quite a story when an offensive coordinator wins the Coach of the Year Award, but there is no coach more deserving of this award than Bruce Arians. Arians took over when Head Coach Cuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, and he guided the team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth just one year removed from finishing with the league’s worst record, allowing the Colts to draft Andrew Luck with the first pick in the NFL Draft. Chuck Pagano finished second in the voting, followed by Pete Carroll and Leslie Frasier.

Arian was our first award winner at Gridiron Rats, meaning we were a perfect seven for seven in foreshadowing the AP winners. Mind you, that wasn’t our goal; we were simply recognizing the players and coaches that we thought were most deserving of these honors. But apparently the AP voters felt much the same way about each award, and if we are to be criticized for our selections (and there is plenty of debate to be had for some of these awards), then at least we have the satisfaction of being supported by the “official” awards.

Jan 142013
 

Vote!Thanks for the nice turnout in our poll for NFL Most Valuable Player. Our reader’s choices reflected our own results, at least as far as the top three players are concerned. Adrian Peterson was a runaway pick of our readers, followed by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Here are the overall results:

Poll #21: Who is your choice for NFL MVP this season?

Adrian Peterson, Minnesota (54%, 19 Votes)
Peyton Manning, Denver (23%, 8 Votes)
Tom Brady, New England (11%, 4 Votes)
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay (6%, 2 Votes)
JJ Watt, Houston (6%, 2 Votes)
Robert Griffin III, Washington (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 35

Our new poll focuses on the list of 2013 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There are a maximum of five individuals who can emerge from the group of nominees to be inducted, and we want to get a sense of who our readers would like to see inducted next summer. Please note that you can vote for up to five people. You can see our synopsis of each candidate here.

Poll #22: Which five individuals should be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013?

G Larry Allen (DAL)
G Will Shields (KC)
T Jonathan Ogden (BAL)
RB Jerome Bettis (PIT)
WR Tim Brown (OAK/LA)
WR Cris Carter (MIN)
WR Andre Reed (BUF)
DT Warren Sapp (TB)
DE Michael Strahan (NYG)
DE Charles Haley (SF)
LB Kevin Greene (LA)
CB Aeneas Williams (AZ)
Bill Parcells (NYG)
Ed DeBartolo, Jr. (SF)
Art Modell (CLE/BAL)

We will leave this poll up for two weeks, and will announce the results on January 28.

Jan 102013
 

Packers - 49ersIn a span of five playoff appearances between 1995 and 2001, the Green Bay Packers stood in the San Francisco 49ers path to a sixth Super Bowl Championship. On four of five occasions Green Bay emerged victorious and have had good luck in Candlestick Park where they have emerged victorious twice in three chances. Fast forward to 2013 where the 49ers, still chasing the elusive sixth world championship, are set to renew their playoff rivalry with Green Bay. This will be a rematch of Week One when San Francisco drew first blood, limiting the anemic Green Bay running game to 45 yards, and offensively received stellar performances by QB Alex Smith (20-26, 211 yards, 2 TDs) and RB Frank Gore (112 Yards, 1 TD). Much has changed since the 30-22 San Francisco victory that was never in question despite what the score may indicate. While the Niners have continued their winning ways throughout the season, Colin Kaepernick—a Wisconsin born Packer fan– has replaced Alex Smith and will be making his first playoff start. Meanwhile, the loss to the 49ers was the first loss of three that would occur in the first five weeks for Green Bay. The Packers would recover in stellar fashion behind the MVP caliber play of QB Aaron Rodgers (ironically, a Niner fan growing up) by winning 9 of their last 11 en route divisional crown and a 4th consecutive playoff appearance.

Keys for Green Bay
Despite the constant threat of being torched through the air by Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay rushing attack—and attack is a term used lightly here—is not likely to foster any type of impactful effort against the league’s number four ranked defense against the run. DuJaun Harris was superb in his 100 yard effort against the Vikings and FB John Kuhn picked up a score on the ground as well. However, there are vast differences. The X-Factor for Green Bay will be the ability for Don Barclay and the Packer offensive line to give Rodgers the time needed to work effectively against a pass defense that has been as effective against the pass as it has against the run. Given time to executive, Rodgers should enjoy some level of effectiveness to finally healthy targets Randall Cobb and Greg Jennings. Rodgers, looking to up his playoff record to 6-2, was able to pick up 279 yards through the air in the week one contest. It should be noted that Rodgers has never come back against a team above .500 in the fourth quarter in 18 tries; the Packers will need to build an early lead for Rodgers to avoid such a predicament in his first ever trip to Candlestick.

The Packers defense will need to build off their successful performance against Adrian Peterson in the Wild Card round. Peterson, who averaged over 200 yards per game against Green Bay in 2012 in two regular season games, and torched them for 199 yards in Minnesota’s playoff clinching week 17 victory, was held to 99 yards in the Packers 24-10 victory a week ago. They were also successful in limiting QB Joe Webb on the ground. While nowhere near the level of Kaepernick it was suspected that the main asset Webb could utilize was the speed element of his game—which Green Bay had no time to game plan for due to the Vikings late QB change. In Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick (5 rushing TDs in 2012), San Francisco boasts an RB that has had recent success against the Packers combined with a QB with elite speed. Additionally, LaMichael James is a handful when spelling Gore in relief. Ultimately, Green Bay will need to mirror last weeks’ effort if their 17th ranked defense is to contain the Niners 4th ranked rushing attack. To do so B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and C.J. Wilson must be effective in dealing with the physical multiple tight end and goal line type sets that San Francisco’s used in Week 1. If the Packers can limit the San Francisco running game they could find themselves trending toward their performance in their Super Bowl winning run a couple of seasons ago which was buoyed by a strong run defense throughout the playoffs. Charles Woodson and the Green Bay secondary remains the strong suit of the Packer defense, but stopping the run will go a long way toward stacking the odds against an inexperienced QB by forcing their opponents to move away from the balanced attack the 49ers favor.

Green Bay passed the test against the number 2 rushing attack in the league last week and also where able to get a look at an option style quarterback—albeit one less talented than Kaepernick—in Webb. Kaepernick, in his 5-2 run as a starter, threw 10 touchdowns against only three picks to go with his 5 rushing scored and his 7.2 yards per carry clip. The Packers struggled with Alex Smith in Week 1 and Kaepernick’s speed element makes him profoundly more difficult to game plan for. Nonetheless, if there is a weakness in Kaepernick’s game to compliment his lack of post season experience it is his propensity to put the ball on the ground. He fumbled seven times in seven starts but lost only one—the Packers will need to capitalize if Kaepernick puts the ball on the ground. Furthermore, the Packers remain solid in the secondary and will hope to benefit from mistakes that can be forced if the Packer front seven can pressure Kaepernick.

Keys for San Francisco
Whether it’s John Harbaugh firing his offensive coordinator with a month to go in the season or brother Jim replacing Alex Smith in-season despite a 21-6-1 run as a starting including last season’s post season run, no one will ever accuse the Harbaughs of following conventional wisdom. Last week, John was successful in Baltimore’s first effort of the season with the Ravens defeated the Colts 24-9. This week it is Jim’s turn to throw egg on the critics of his bold move—though his risk to a much higher degree. How Colin Kaepernick performs in his first season start will not only determine whether or not the 49ers earn a shot at an NFC Championship and Super Bowl appearance it was also validate or invalidate Harbaugh’s risky switch. So far, in the regular season, Harbaugh has been rewarded; however, with a quarterback who has been successful and won recently in the playoffs sitting idle the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Pro Bowler’s Joe Staley and Mike Iaputi will need their usual effectiveness in protection. Additionally, Gore and James will need to continue on their recent run of success on the ground. If the Niners are successful in those two key areas it will go a long way to mitigating any nerves and the overall inexperience of Kaepernick. Furthermore, Kaepernick will then be able to target Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree and pick apart the Green Bay secondary.

If you hold up the starting lineup for last year’s 49ers team and the 2012 unit you will note minimal change to the defense on paper. However, the Justin Smith that lined up on the defensive line in 2011 was perhaps the top defensive player in the league last year—making 1st Team All-Pro and 2nd Team All-Pro simultaneously. This year he enters the game after missing two weeks with a triceps injury—emotional impact only goes so far and it will only be known as the game unfolds how much of a physical impact his return will have. Smith went down against New England and the defense quickly unraveled and matters got bad as they gave up 28 unanswered points. Bad turned to ugly the following week when the Seattle scored 42 points in Smith’s absence. How effective Justin Smith is on Saturday with also impact the other Smith—Alden—whose 19.5 sacks this season were a strong derivative of the double teams faced by his namesake at on the defensive line. The Niners will need Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, NT Isaac Sopoaga, and LE Ray McDonald to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers and what will likely be a one dimensional Packer attack

With Pro Bowl Safeties Donte Whitner and FS Dashon Goldson, in addition to CB’s Tarell Brown and Carlos Rodgers (who experienced a career year in 2012), the Niners fourth ranked passing defense is healthy and matches up well with Greg Jennings and Randall Cobb. Jennings has been catching his stride lately with 3 TDs in as many games and Cobb is healthy; however, the Niners will need to keep the Packer deep threats in front of them. With the front seven likely to limit the Packer ground game, the San Francisco secondary will need to limit buy not completely ground the league’s top quarterback.

The Outcome
This is the most interesting of the three games this weekend that feature rematches of regular season lop-sided affairs. The unknown that is Kaepernick in this situation makes this game a virtual pick ‘em in the eyes of many. Questions surrounding Justin Smith’s healthy only further muddy the picture of what the outcome could be. If Smith is healthy and Kaepernick is not caught in the moment it would be hard to pick against the 49ers in a game at home against a team that is 4-4 on the road. The Packers offense will likely be rendered one dimensional against San Francisco—however, that one dimension happens to be the best player in the league. The Packers were workmanlike in taking apart the Vikings last weekend; meanwhile, the Niners have been prone to embarrassing performances on defense in the absence of Smith. Nonetheless, I am counting on Smith to return in grand fashion and Kaepernick to seize the moment. Rodgers will have a strong day but in the end will move to 0-19 when attempting to comeback against better than .500 opponents. This could be one for the ages.

San Francisco 28 Green Bay 27

Jan 072013
 

WilsonThey saved the best for last on wildcard weekend, with the Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks giving us the most exciting game of the post-season’s opening weekend. Here’s a quick recap of the four games from Saturday and Sunday.

Houston Texans 19 Cincinnati Bengals 13
The Texans didn’t look great, but the Bengals looked worse in the opening contest. Arian Foster ran for 140 yards and a touchdown as the Texans held on to win. Matt Schaub went 29/38 for 262 yards, but threw a pick six that accounted for Cincinnati’s only touchdown of the day. Andy Dalton was not sharp, going 14/30 for 127 yards and a pick. The Texans’ defense limited the Bengals’ rushing game to just 80 yards on the day. The Texans now travel to New England to face the Patriots, where they lost 42-14 last month.

Green Bay Packers 24 Minnesota Vikings 10
Clay Matthews walked the talk as the Green Bay Packers not only stopped Adrian Peterson from again eclipsing the 200 yard mark, but held Peterson under the 100 yard mark as he gained 99 yards on 22 carries. Joe Webb was the Vikings’ emergency starter due to an injury to Christian Ponder, and Webb was just 11/30 for 180 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Aaron Rodgers had another solid outing, throwing for 274 yards and a touchdown on 23/33 passing. The Packers were able to cruise despite only gaining 76 yards on the ground, and must now travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers, a team that they lost to in Week 1.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Indianapolis Colts 9
The Colts hung around for the first half, but the Baltimore Ravens’ passing attack was simply too much for Indianapolis in the second half as the Ravens whipped the Colts 24-9. Anquan Boldin caught five passes for 145 yards and one touchdown to spark the Ravens and extend the career of linebacker Ray Lewis by another game. Rookie running back Bernard Pierce partially stole the show on Sunday, running for 103 yards on just 13 carries, while Ray Rice rushed for 70 yards on 15 carries. Joe Flacco threw for 282 yards and two scores, outdueling rookie Andrew Luck, who threw for 288 yards, but no touchdowns and one interception. Vick Ballard ran for 91 yards as the Colts shredded the Ravens’ defense for 152 rushing yards, but turnovers and sacks on offense and poor run defense stifled the Colts’ chances to pull off the upset. The Ravens now square off against the Denver Broncos. Denver beat Baltimore 34-17 in Week 15.

Seattle Seahawks 24 Washington Redskins 14
The Redskins raced out to an early 14-0 lead, but the Seahawks fought back and scored an unanswered 24 points to lead Seattle into the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. Russell Wilson threw for 187 yards and one score and ran for another 67 yards, while Marshawn Lynch pounded the Redskins’ defense for 132 yards and one touchdown. Robert Griffin III left the game after injuring his knee midway through the fourth quarter, though it was obvious that he was still feeling the effects of his earlier injury. Griffin went 10/19 for 89 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. The Seahawks now travel to Atlanta to square off against the Falcons. This will be the first meeting of the season between the two teams.

Jan 072013
 

Rat's Awards ImageOur final award this season is for the Most Valuable Player. Here is where we take the statistically amazing years by some players and factor in their overall value to the success of their team. This year’s MVP vote was a close one, with the winner getting 4 first place votes and the runner-up receiving the other three. And we bet you can guess who those players are.

Our MVP nominees included: Tom Brady (NE), Arian Foster (HOU), Robert Griffin III (WAS), Andrew Luck (IND), Peyton Manning (DEN), Adrian Peterson (MIN), Aaron Rodgers (GB), Matt Ryan (ATL), Aldon Smith (SF) and JJ Watt (HOU).

Tom Brady3rd Place – Tom Brady, New England Patriots
The numbers: 4,827 yards, 34 TD, 8 INT, 12-4 record
Arguments for: Tom Brady had another stellar season as the Patriots’ signal-caller, with a TD:INT ration of better than 4:1 as he threw for over 4,000 yards and led the Patriots to yet another division title and second seed in the AFC playoffs. he did it with a revolving corps of receivers yet again as the Patriots struggled with injuries to key players throughout the season.
Arguments against: Despite some uneducated opinions, Brady is not the product of the Patriots’ system, but rather the driver behind it. None the less, the talent surrounding Brady is extraordinary, particularly the tight end duo of Hernandez and Gronk, the phenomenal slot receiver Wes Welker, and a highly competent group of running backs. Had Ryan Mallett been forced to take over this team due to injury, there is a very fair chance that the Patriots still win the division.

Manning2nd Place – Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
The numbers: 4659 yards, 37 TD, 11 INT, 13-3 record
Arguments for: All Peyton Manning did in returning from a missed season is lead a new team to a 13-3 record, division title, and first overall seed in the AFC Playoffs. He finished sixth in passing yards, third in touchdowns and co-led the league in completion percentage.
Arguments against: Tim Tebow led this team to a division title last season. While the Broncos had the fourth rated offense in the NFL, they also had the second rated defense, so there is a fair argument that another quarterback still gets this team to the post-season the weak AFC West, though it’s doubtful that the Broncos would have gotten the #1 seed.

PetersonWINNER – Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
The numbers: 2,097 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, 217 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown
Arguments for: Simply put, the Vikings don’t come close to the playoffs without the performance of Adrian Peterson this season. Minnesota had the 20th rated offense in the NFL and the 16th rated defense, so neither unit propelled this team to a 10-6 record and a very unexpected wildcard bid. Nor was it the performance of quarterback Christian Ponder, who had a passer rating of 81.2 and 18 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, but who was inconsistent in his performances throughout the season. By comparison, during the Vikings’ four game winning streak at the end of the season to make the playoffs, Paterson amassed 651 yards, or an average of 162.7 per game. In the Vikings’ ten wins, Peterson ran for 1,235 yards, or 123.5 per game. No Peterson, no playoffs, and likely another losing record in Minnesota.
Arguments against: We’re not sure there is a good argument against Peterson being this year’s MVP. While there is at least one other player who is arguably equally deserving, there is no one more deserving. Yes, the Vikes got bounced in the first round of the playoffs, but this is a regular season award, voted for prior to the playoffs.

Jan 062013
 

Rat's Awards ImageOur next to last award acknowledges the game’s offensive difference-makers. Adrian Peterson had an amazing season running the ball and seemingly willed the Minnesota Vikings into the playoffs after a horrific 2011 campaign. Peyton Manning returned from a one year hiatus and multiple neck surgeries and looked to be in mid-career form as he led the Denver Broncos to a 13-3 record. Tom Brady was, well, Tom Brady and once again put up numbers that most quarterbacks can only dream of. Calvin Johnson had monstrous numbers in receiving yards, and Robert Griffin III breathed life back into the Washington Redskins franchise. Those were just some of the amazing offensive exploits for 2012 in the National Football League.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Our nominees in this category included Tom Brady (NE), Drew Brees (NO), Robert Griffin III (WAS), Calvin Johnson (DET), Andrew Luck (IND), Marshawn Lynch (SEA), Peyton Manning (DEN), Doug Martin (TB), Adrian Peterson (MIN), and Matt Ryan (ATL).

3rd Place – Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Ho hum. Another year, another 34 touchdown passes versus only eight interceptions. Brady threw for 4,827 yards as the Patriots won the AFC East yet again with a 12-4 record. And, as happens almost every season, Brady aired it out with seemingly a different receiving corps each week, as Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Julian Edelman all lost significant time to injuries. Through thirteen NFL seasons Brady remains the model of consistency for NFL quarterbacks, yet he is still tough enough to regularly grind out short first yard runs to keep the chains moving.

2nd Place – Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
We’ve noted Manning’s exploits in the Comeback Player of the Year piece, but the stats are worth repeating given the fact that he missed all of last season with multiple neck surgeries. Manning threw for 4659 yards, 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while leading the Broncos to a 13-3 record. He finished sixth in passing yards, third in touchdowns and co-led the league in completion percentage. So much for being washed up.

Adrian PetersonWINNER – Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

Nine yards. That’s all that separated Adrian Peterson from the single greatest rushing season in NFL history. Peterson ran for 2,097 and 12 touchdowns, plus 217 receiving yards and one touchdown through the air. Even more impressively, Peterson did this even when other teams built their defensive game plans to stop him. He ran for 210 and 199 yards against the Packers in two games, for 182 yards against the Seahawks’ stout defense, for 212 yards against an improved Rams’ defense, and 262 yards in two games against the Bears. And all of this following a torn ACL and MCL, coupled with a highly inconsistent quarterback, makes Peterson our clear choice for this award.

Jan 052013
 

Bengals-TexansCincinnati’s 23-17 drubbing of the Baltimore Ravens marked the completion of a 7-1 second half and allowed them to notch their first back-to-back winning seasons since the Paul Brown and Bill Johnson eras of 1975-1977 and repeat post season appearances since 81-82. More importantly, it marked the complete turnaround from a 3-5 start and earned them a return trip to Houston—the site of last season’s 31-10 playoff loss. Last season the Bengals were an upstart team with a rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, leading the way. This post season the expectations are different for the Bengals. An only slight underdog, Cincinnati has a year of seasoning under their belt, an aggressive defense, and could very easily be riding an 8 game winning streak into the playoffs. A rematch with Houston will provide a year-over-year litmus test and the 2011 goal of making the playoffs has been replaced by strong hopes that the Bengals can deliver their first playoff victory since 1990 when Sam Wyche patrolled the sidelines.

For the Houston Texans expectations coming into the season were set with all eyes on a February trip to New Orleans. 2011 saw Houston get over the hump by winning the AFC South and entering the post season for the first time. However, expectations were quickly tempered when a season ending injury limited Matt Schaub to 10 starts. A subsequent injury to backup QB Matt Leinhart gave way to TJ Yates—even further dashing Super Bowl hopes. The Yates led Texans managed to notch the first playoff victory in franchise history against the Bengals before bowing out to the Ravens. This year, fully loaded and healthy, Houston started 11-1 and appeared a virtual lock to earn some wild card weekend rest and home field advantage through the playoffs. Then, four consecutive matchups against teams currently playing in this post season led to three losses and Saturday’s once unlikely rematch. Nonetheless, Houston enters this weekend boasting both an offense and defense ranked in the league top ten.

The Keys for Cincinnati
For the second consecutive season Mike Zimmer’s defense is amongst the top 10 in the league and particularly strong against the run. However, in the first playoff game against Houston the Bengals defense was gashed for over 150 yards by Arian Foster and a Houston offense that lacked their starting quarterback and typically strong passing attack. Geno Atkins and company cannot afford such a letdown this season and must limit the production of Foster by all means necessary. If Cincinnati can limit Foster’s production and also put pressure on Matt Schaub they will find an offense that is not as dissimilar to their own despite what the numbers indicate. While the Bengals have limited downfield receiving options beyond AJ Green and Jermaine Gresham, the same can be said for Houston beyond Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. If Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and company can be effective up front versus Foster and also apply pressure then the Bengals and their talented secondary will gain advantages over all receivers not named Johnson.

BenJarvis Green-Ellis is banged up and even healthy it would be unlikely that the Bengals could gain an advantage against the Houston front seven to sustain a strong rushing attack. The key for the Bengals is for the offensive line to limit JJ Watt and the Houston pass rush long enough for Green, Gresham, and a supporting cast of supplementary receivers led by deceptively talented Andrew Hawkins to do damage in the secondary. Andre Smith must do his best to contain Watt who devastated the Bengals in last season’s matchup. If Dalton is to reverse the results of his 0 touchdown 3 interception performance in his playoff debut it will start with pass protection.

The Keys for Houston
As Houston limps into the post season the key elements to reverse the recent course of failure are very similar to the pertinent areas of focus documented for Cincinnati to pull off their own victory. If the Bengals need to hold up to Watt and win at the line of scrimmage the same can be said for Houston. Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson have accounted for 33 of the Bengals 50 sacks on the season and Schaub has found himself on the receiving end of nearly a dozen sacks in the last three games—this will need to change for Houston to be successful. The Texans zone-blocking scheme will need to find its early season success so that Foster and the running game can run the ball to protect Schaub. It will also be useful in setting up Foster both in the red zone and allow him to be successful on screens in the flat. Like the Bengals, Houston is going to be hard pressed to find a consistent third vertical threat against the talented opposing secondary—but that does not mean they will be unable to do enough to make Johnson, Daniels, and Fosters big enough threats in the passing game to be victorious.

Defensively, Houston will have to use their pressure game. Watt, quite possibly the most dominant defensive player in the NFL, leads an attack that is duly adept at getting to the quarterback and stopping the run. They must both pressure Dalton and render the already injured Green-Ellis a non-factor. If they do so the matchup of Jonathan Joseph, with some help from Danieal Manning, against Green becomes much more manageable.

The Outcome
This game has all the makings of a classic defensive battle pitting two of the NFLs finest defensive units and coordinators in Wade Phillips and Mike Zimmer against each other. Cincinnati has been superb with its season on the line—which it was from the point they fell to 3-5 until they clinched a post season spot in week 16. Andy Dalton looks more like a QB poised to take the next step than the rookie who faced the harsh reality of playoff football a year ago. However, one needs to take a deeper look at the Houston late season slump before dismissing them as a team bound to finish the season with a fizzle. In two of the three late season losses they faced mad bombers Tom Brady and Andrew Luck both of who trump Dalton’s deep passing prowess. In the other loss, one in which they contained the passing game, they were dominated by the juggernaut that is Adrian Peterson—of whom Green-Ellis is not.

Houston’s season has resembled a powerful heavyweight prizefighter that dominated early on in battle only to run seemingly out of gas late in the fight. Fortunately, they racked up enough points on the scorecard to survive to win a decision and live to fight another day. The playoffs mark a new fight and Houston should have enough in the tank to win an early round home game.

Houston Texans 21 – Cincinnati Bengals 14

Jan 042013
 

Rat's Awards ImageAlthough we nominated six players for this award in 2012, there were clearly only two possible winners. Peyton Manning returned to Pro Bowl form in 2012 after missing 2011, while Adrian Peterson bounced back from a torn ACL and MCL that shortened his 2011 season to lead the league in rushing and fall a mere nine yards short of the NFL rushing record for a single season, held by Eric Dickerson.

COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Our nominees in this category included Manning, Peterson, Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman, Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne.

3rd Place – Andre Johnson. Houston Texans

Johnson played in only 7 games due to injury last season, catching 33 passes for 492 yards and two touchdowns. In 2012 he stormed back into form, catching 112 passes for 1,598 yards and four touchdowns. It was Johnson’s best statistical season since 2008, and Johnson played a key role in the fast start that the Houston Texans got out to as they once again took the AFC South. Johnson became only the second player in NFL history with three seasons of at least 100 catches and 1,500 yards.

2nd Place – Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

Last season was Peterson’s career low point as he missed four games due to injury and rushed for only 970 yards. While a torn ACL and MCL is an injury that often takes players more than a full season to recover from, Peterson shattered all expectations by posting a career high 2,097 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, falling just nine yards shy of Dickerson’s record and exceeding his own best season by 337 yards. Peterson also caught 40 passes for 217 yards and one touchdown. He served as the main source of offense for the resurgent Vikings, whose own quarterback was a model of inconsistency throughout the season.

Peyton ManningWINNER – Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos

Taking six out of seven first place votes, Manning is our runaway winner for this award. He missed all of 2011 due to neck surgeries, and his return to form was anything but a given when he switched to the Denver Broncos in the off-season. Manning threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns (against 11 interceptions) while leading the Broncos to a 13-3 record and the first seed in the AFC playoffs. Manning’s stats for 2012 were eerily similar to his numbers in 2009 and 2010, save that he actually threw fewer interceptions this season. His 105.8 passer rating is his best since the 2005 season. The 36 year old wonder not only made Broncos’ fans forget all about Tim Tebow, he has them legitimately thinking about a Super Bowl title.

 

Jan 032013
 

Vote!OK, so I’m going to pretend that Poll #20 never happened. Despite decent traffic, no one seemed interested in the poll, so we’ll call it a dud and move on.

Poll #21 looks at our reader’s choice fr the 2012 MVP, grabbing the top six players from our own site’s MVP voting. Our MVP will be announced on Monday, January 7, but we’ll leave this poll up until the 14th before getting back onto our regular schedule. The GiR award winners in seven categories will begin rolling out tomorrow morning. We begin tomorrow with Head Coach of the Year and Comeback Player. On Saturday we will have the Offensive and defensive Rookies of the Year, followed on Sunday with Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year.

Poll #21: Who is your choice for NFL MVP this season?

Tom Brady, New England
Robert Griffin III, Washington
Peyton Manning, Denver
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
JJ Watt, Houston

Jan 022013
 

15cgvike1203.jpgMinnesota Head Coach Leslie Frazier has given a high appraisal of backup quarterback Joe Webb’s ability, making it no secret that he feels Webb can be an NFL starter. So it was faith in Christian Ponder, rather than the sense he lacked depth at the QB position, that prompted Frazier to stick with Ponder through his mid-season struggles. Ponder rewarded his coach with a 234 yard 3 td performance in Week 17 at home that capped a 4-game winning streak, in which Ponder was picked off only once, and launched Minnesota into this week’s re-match at Lambeau. Ponder’s ability to relocate his early season efficiency in conjunction with Frazier’s guile and Adrian Peterson’s historic comeback season have turned around a franchise that bottomed out at 3-13 just a season ago.

For Green Bay, 2012 was more of the same from a franchise that has taken on a level of consistency and success in the McCarthy-Rodgers era. Aaron Rodgers overcame the lack of a marquee running attack and injuries to both Greg Jennings and Randall Cobb to post MVP caliber numbers. Green Bay overcame a 2-3 start, albeit a controversial loss to Seattle thrown into that mix, to win 11 of their final 13 games. Saturday brings round three of the Vikings-Packer series back to Lambeau where the Packers overcame a 14-10 halftime deficit against Minnesota on Dec. 2 and have not lost since opening day.

The Keys for Minnesota
It was Ponder’s 2 interceptions thrown to Morgan Burnett that sunk the Vikings on Dec 2nd and rendered Adrian Peterson’s 210 yard performance for naught. Fast forward to Week 17 when Peterson rushed for 199 yards but Ponder avoided turnovers and passed for three scores in the wild card clinching victory. Ponder will need to be equally as efficient if Minnesota is to win the rubber match. Additionally—it almost goes without saying—Peterson needs to continue his dominance against the Packer defense.

If Minnesota did one thing right on the other side of the ball in Week 17 it was in the pass rush where they were able to register 5 sacks. Unfortunately, the back end of the defense did not fare as well—giving up 365 yards and 34 points. Greg Jennings seems to be returning to form while Randall Cobb is likely to be available for Rodgers this week. Minnesota will need to slow down Green Bay in the secondary if they are to move on.

The Keys for the Packers
The Green Bay defense proved more than proficient at getting to the quarterback this season—ranking inside the top 5 in sacks. However, they have not fared well against the Vikings pass protections schemes and have sacked Ponder once in two games this season. Green Bay will need to put more pressure on Ponder in the second year quarterbacks playoff debut. The Packers can withstand another big performance by the NFL rushing champion as long as they make the Vikings offense one dimensional.

On the offensive side of the ball Aaron Rodgers will need to produce like Aaron Rodgers typically does. The Vikings defensive line has been able to find Rodgers, who has been able to overcome 7 sacks in the two meetings to produce stellar numbers. One has to wonder if Rodgers overcome back-to-back 5 sack performances? The Packers would be served best not to find out and would likely benefit from better pass protection and a better performance by the running game. They rushed for 72 yards in the week 17 loss versus 137 in their victory on Dec. 2nd. DuJuan Harris will likely get the chance to lead the Packers rushing attack.

Outcome
It can be argued that Minnesota has outplayed Green Bay in 6 of the 8 quarters the teams have played. Two things have held true through the two meetings: Green Bay cannot stop Peterson and Aaron Rodgers has been able to overcome Minnesota’s pressure to exploit the Vikings’ secondary. The “Wild Card” here is Ponder and whether or not he has the ability to build the performance of last week when he not only took care of the ball but he made big plays when needed. Similarly to the Colts and the Redskins, Minnesota getting to this point marks a dramatic resurrection from where they were a year ago. Win or lose, the Vikings are headed in the right direction. However, this week that direction is a return flight to Minneapolis where they can begin an off-season with designs on building on the success of 2012. Green Bay 35 – Minnesota 21