Subjugating admission to an ego that athletic abilities have waned is tough for many professional athletes. Especially when the person is under 40 years old and feels years of acquired knowledge have made them more valuable than ever before.
Hines Ward recently told reporters that he has no plans to retire and wants to play with the Pittsburgh Steelers next season. Having spent all of his career with Pittsburgh, the 14-year veteran told reporters he is willing to take a reduction in pay off his 2011 salary of $4 million.
Ward says he will be "devastated" if he cannot finish his career with the only professional team he has played for, but Pittsburgh will have to decide in a few months if they want to give the wide receiver a roster bonus in order to give him a chance to make the team in training camp.
Not only is he the the eighth player in NFL to accumulate 1,000 career receptions, Ward is coming off maybe his worst NFL season since his rookie season in 1998. A reserve behind Courtney Hawkins and Charles Johnson that season, it was the only year of Ward's career he didn't start a game.
Antonio Brown began to take starts away this year from Ward, whose nine starts in 2011 were his fewest since the 1998 season. Brown and fellow wide receiver Mike Wallace would be named to the Pro Bowl this year, further pushing Ward into a role of the sage veteran who is more of a coach than player at this stage of their career. His 46 receptions in 2011 were the fewest Ward has had since his rookie season. Burt it wasn't just a decline in production there that may have the Steelers brass undecided as to whether or not they bring him back for another year.
He was always a possession receiver whose game was more noted for leadership and a run blocking ability that was truly bone-jarring. But Ward averaged a career low 8.3 yards per reception this year, and the two touchdown receptions Ward scored were his fewest since he failed to score as a rookie.
Wanting to hang on another year is nothing new for the NFL player. There has been a ton of wide receivers who wanted to extend their careers one last season, but few who went out to the retirement pastures having left an indelible mark on those last gasps for glory.
Jerry Rice is thought of by many to be the finest wide receiver in NFL history. The Hall of Famer spent 16 years with the San Francisco 49ers, but the team decided to part ways when Rice wanted to keep playing. He joined the Oakland Raiders and remained extremely productive for three season, one of which included a Pro Bowl nod, but wanted to keep playing in 2004.
Father Time finally caught up to Rice by then, so the Raiders traded him to the Seattle Seahawks early in the season. He still tried to play in 2005, but ultimately decided to retire after realizing he would never top the depth charts of any team again.
Rice broke the all-time receptions record of fellow Hall of Famer Art Monk, who is the first NFL player to ever have over 100 receptions in a season. Monk himself extended his career perhaps too long, just as did Rice and many others.
After having spent 14 seasons with the Washington Redskins, the team decided to trim their payroll and parted ways with Monk. He joined the New York Jets for a year and was a moderately effective player, but decided to try and keep playing. Monk joined the Philadelphia Eagles for three games in 1995 before deciding to retire.
Monk wanting to keep playing the game was no different than what his mentor, Charley Taylor, did. The Hall of Famer, who left the NFL as the all-time leader in receptions, tried to play his 13th season for the Redskins in 1977.
Taylor, who had missed the entire previous season due to injury, began the season starting and eventually lost his job to Danny Buggs. He retired as a player, but soon rejoined Washington and coached the wide receivers to three Super Bowl victories.
These are just a few examples of how Ward's NFL future could play out. Few end their careers on a high note, as Wes Chandler and Max McGee did.
Chandler spent 11 years with the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers, which included four Pro Bowl nods. He joined the 49ers in 1988 and played just four games, but garnered a Super Bowl ring that season before finally retiring.
McGee spent 12 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, but had just 16 receptions for 325 yards and four scores in his last two years with the Packers. Yet his nine receptions for 201 yards and three touchdowns in the postseason helped Green Bay win two consecutive Super Bowls and helped McGee retire at the top.
Whenever Ward does decide to retire, he will most likely receive a few votes for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Despite making the Pro Bowl just four times, he is the Super Bowl XL MVP and was named MVP of the team Steelers times. Ward is the Steelers all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches.
Recruited by Georgia University as a quarterback, Pittsburgh had Ward throw just three passes in his career but did run the ball 57 times for 428 yards and a score. He was a precision route-runner who was the only dependable weapon Pittsburgh's passing game had for several seasons.
Yet his leadership skills was perhaps as important as his playing ability. Ward's desire to win would have fit well with the famous "Steel Curtain" defense that won four titles, and his helping the franchise win two more just helps Pittsburgh stay one of the more respected teams in the NFL.
His blocking ability allows Ward to stand out from the rest of the wide receivers in the league. Unfairly termed a dirty player by some, all Ward did was out-think opponents and put himself in the right position to make crucial blocks that also happened to break bones.
In 2008, he laid out a unsuspecting Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers. While not penalized for the play, the ever-softening NFL did change rules in 2009 by making it illegal a blindside block if it comes from the blocker's helmet, forearm or shoulder and lands to the head or neck area of the defender. It is called the Hines Ward Rule by many.
Whether or not Ward remains in the NFL, let alone with Pittsburgh, remains to be seen. It is obvious he is nearing the end of a fabulous career, one that can continue thanks to rules that cater to the offensive side of the football.
His wisdom, blocking ability and leadership should attain a job offer next season, but Pittsburgh may end up being forced with giving Ward's roster spot to a younger and cheaper player. It may not be what the teams wants, but the examples of Rice and Monk are proof that sometimes the bottom line of a fiscal situation outweighs the heart.
Yooooooooo! Dis IS 7thStone wunce again! OK, I took a little trip but I iz back four now cuz I gots 30 days of extenshun to cum up with da money deez goombas claim i owe. Interest iz a killer yo!
My cuzin 3rd filled in and went 4-4 in my absince. He almost called dat Patriots/ Broncos score perfectly tho. I tink I can be better dis weak.
Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
Baltimore has never beaten the Patriots in six regular seesun games since 1996, but dey did win in New England during da 2009 playoffs. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has four of those wins and is coming off a 2011 where he threw for career best totals in attempts, completions and passing yards.
Brady is one of just two players in NFL history to win both the league's most valuable player award and Super Bowl MVP multiple times. He is very much in the running for a third NFL MVP trophy, because the Patriots have relied on his prowess heavily all seasun.
Da Patriots don't run da football a lot, relying on five halfbacks two share da carries. Brady has spread da ball out too 12 different receivers, which includes fore players wif over 50 receptions.
New England's defense is nothing special, ranking 31st in yards allowed and 15th in points coughed up. Their 17th ranked rushing defense will be under the spotlight against a Ravens team that relies heavily on their ground game.
If Baltimore cannot run the ball well, da onus will bee on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco, whose 57.6 compleshun percentige dis yeer was da worst of his career, has won 46 of his 64 regular seesun starts. Da fourth-yeer pro has been drawing criticism recently for an inability to win big games, but da fact is dat Flacco has also won five of eight playoff games as well.
Ray Rice is the key to the Ravens offensive attack. Not only did he lead the team in rushing and receiving, but da 2,068 yards from scrimmage he had dis yeer led da NFL. Flacco has found five receivers more den 40 times dis seesun.
Baltimore has a veteran defense that is perennially amongst da best in da league. Dey ranked third in both points and yards allowed dis yeer, as well as furst on touchdown passes given up.
Fore Raven defenders wuz named two da Pro Bowl dis yeer, but da Ravens secondairy will have two bee grate for dere teem to win. Strong safety Bernard Pollard will be da most watched, cuz he will be given da assignment of trying to cover New England's two young stud tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Baltimore has a pair of young stud tight ends in Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson themselves. While their combined 94 receptions and eight scores may pale in comparison to the 169 catches and 24 touchdowns Gronkowski and Hernandez got, the two are none the less an effective duo.
New England lost just one home game this yeer, while all fore of da Ravens 2011 losses happened on da road. Both squads know how too win da big game and are laden wif experienced veterans.
3rdStone picked da Ravens too win it all befour dis seesun started, while I tought dey will reech da Super Bowl. Tho I tink da Pats might win dis, I decided to go wif 3rd and stick wif da Ravens.
Ravens 31 Patriots 24
New York Giants @ San Francisco 49ers
Dis surprise matchup iz indickadiv of a NFL seesun that kinda sucked tanks too no training camp. While da Niner was expected by few two bee hear at da beginning of dis seasun, praktically no one tought da Giants wuld ger hear after losing like half of dere defensive players before dey even got on da field dis yeer.
New York is a teem dat throws da ball a lot cuz dere running game sucks out loud. San Francisco has a grate defense, led by excellent linebackers, and a offense dat leens on using halfback Frank Gore too eat up da clock wif a lot of touches.
Vernon Davis is finally getting to show America his amazing athleticism tanks too da improved play of quarterback Alex Smith. Smith stopped turning da ball over dis yeer two, which allowed Davis more chances two get balls and be spechul.
Da Giants go as far as Eli Manning's arm takes dem. Dere team is mediocre, as dere 9-7 record shows dis yeer, but da quarterback has had his best seasun ever in 2011. He has excellent wide receivers to work wif, which helped Manning set career high marks in attempts, completions and passing yards while making his second Pro Bowl in his eight yeers.
Since da Niners wide receivers are pretty lousy, I expect even da beat up New York secondairy to play wif dem and allow da defense to concentrate on Gore and Davis. San Francisco needs Michael Crabtree to play as good as he thinks he is.
Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown need to play well enuff too force New York into running da ball more. San Francisco should shut down most of da Jints offense for da most part, but dis iz da key area to push dem too victory.
Gore will be needed to run well, because da Niners do not want two rely to much on Smith. If da Giants blitz a lot to shut down Gore and try to shake up Smith, a pretty yung San Francisco offensive line will bee put two da test.
Dese teems met a weak befour Thanksgiving dis seasun in San Francisco. Da Niners won 27-20 tanks too for field goals by Pro Bowl kicker David Akers. New York gained 90 more yards, but two interceptions by Rogers helped da Niners seel da deal in da forth quarter.
I don't know if da Niners swipe too more balls dis Sunday, but I can sea it. New York has da edge in experience, but San Francisco holds a decisive edge at spechul teems. Gore was shut down in da first meating between da squads, so I am looking for improved production from him.
49ers 23 Giants 21
OK yous mugs, enjoy Sunday. I iz gunna catch da games at dis cuties house, where I expect us tii due our own stretching exercises at halftime. Capeesh?
Change is once again a headline in the NFL. General managers and head coaches have been coming and going for decades, so the year 2012 isn't any different.
The Indianapolis Colts have a new general manager in Ryan Grigson, a former NFL and CFL tight end who rose quickly through the ranks of the Philadelphia Eagles front office the past few years. His hiring now has some wondering if he will fire incumbent head coach Jim Caldwell and which player the Colts will use the first pick of the 2012 NFL Draft on.
With the surprise firing of Bill Polian as general manager, out went the assumption the Colts would select quarterback Andrew Luck. Grigson, who also worked for the Arena Football League and Canadian Football League, will be bringing a new philosophy to Indianapolis.
Some pundits wonder if quarterback Peyton Manning, who has given the franchise a championship and 11 Pro Bowls since he joined the team in 1998, will be back next season. It seems like a ridiculous question to many, considering Manning has led the team to two Super Bowl appearances and has won four NFL MVP awards. Yet his 2011 season was lost due to a lingering neck injury that still has some observers concerned to whether or not it will ever fully heal.
The bottom line of the Colts financial situation is often brought up as a reason the team may part ways with Manning, who had just signed a contract worth $90 million over five years before the 2011 season began. If the Colts were to draft a quarterback with their first pick, they might have to pay over $20 million to sign the player. Cam Newton, the first pick of the 2011 draft, received $22 million for four years.
But there are now no guarantees if the Colts stay with the soon-to-be 36 year old Manning and not even draft a quarterback on a team with many holes that were seen as the team finished this year with a 2-14 record. There is no guarantee now that Luck, who is similar to Manning in many ways, will not be passed up on favor of Robert Griffin III.
Assuming Indianapolis drafts one of these quarterbacks, the remaining player will not wait too long to find a suitor. Many are thinking the Cleveland Browns will look to replace second-year pro Colt McCoy by using the fourth overall pick. The Washington Redskins, who sit sixth in the draft order, desperately need a quarterback and could possibly try to work a trade with either the Minnesota Vikings or Saint Louis Rams to grab Griffin or Luck.
Griffin, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, is as hot a commodity as Luck. While Luck is fairly mobile, Griffin has world class speed. Both quarterbacks possess excellent arm strength, but Griffin throws one of the most beautiful deep balls in all of football right now.
Grigson is knowledgeable to a game where the field is wide open to constant scoring opportunities, as his AFL and CFL experience show. Defense has become a thing of the past in the NFL today, so the electric Griffin might light up the scoreboard with the help of rules heavily slanted to that side of the football.
Passing is king now in the NFL, and Newton showed a running quarterback with a big arm can set records while exploiting rules where a quarterback is not allowed to be hit too high, too low or too hard. Rules Griffin can easily excel in as long as he stays healthy.
Indianapolis isn't the only team in flux this year. The Jacksonville Jaguars have already hired their new head coach after tabbing Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey for the job.
Mularkey had played nine seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers as a tight end known for his blocking abilities. He got into coaching soon after and worked his way up to becoming head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 2004.
Buffalo went to the playoffs in his first year, the last time the franchise has accomplished that feat since. After is disappointing second season, the Bills brought back Hall of Famer Marv Levy as general manager. Mularkey resigned after he and Levy failed to agree in the direction of the team, so he took a job with the Miami Dolphins for two seasons before being hired by Atlanta in 2008.
His offenses tend to work best when well balanced. This was true in Atlanta, where he helped quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner, tight end Tony Gonzales and wide receiver Roddy White get to the Pro Bowl. He had balance in his first year with the Bills, led by quarterback Drew Bledsoe, running back Willis McGahee along with wide receivers Lee Evans and Eric Moulds.
Mularkey is certainly isn't perfect. A big reason for his failure in Buffalo was because he chose to release Bledsoe and go with J.P. Losman at quarterback. His struggles during his first year in Miami saw him demoted to coaching the tight ends the following season. For all of the success Mularkey has attained thus far, his teams are just 2-5 in the playoffs with him serving as head coach or offensive coordinator.
It was a given Jack Del Rio wasn't going into 2012 as head coach of the Jaguars, especially after he cut his starting quarterback to play a rookie who obviously would have been better off learning on the sidelines a year or more. Del Rio went 68-71 in his nine seasons, but his time was tarnished by former owner Wayne Weaver telling reporters he regretted firing Tom Coughlin as head coach in 2002.
Jacksonville has a new owner now, but it remains to see if he is loyal as Weaver was to Del Rio. The Jaguars need improvement in many areas, so rebuilding may take time.
Gene Smith remains general manager of the team, taking over for NFL legend James Harris in 2009. Harris, the first black player to start a NFL season at quarterback and the first black quarterback to go to the Pro Bowl or be named Pro Bowl MVP, joined the Detroit Lions.
With Maurice Jones-Drew, Mularkey has a All-Pro halfback in the prime of his career. The defense is underrated and still young. It may not take as long as expected, given a few fortunate breaks, but the Jaguars fans are hoping more from a franchise that has had seven winning seasons since it joined the league in 1995.
While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking for a head coach and the Saint Louis Rams need a general manager, the Oakland Raiders have recently filled one of their open positions by hiring Reggie McKenzie as general manager.
With gridiron icon Al Davis having died back in October of last year, the team had to suddenly replace a man who had been running the team since 1962. Davis has more than a legacy that won three Super Bowls, he had a wealth of knowledge, insight and experience that is irreplaceable. His son, who now owns the team, knew he had a lot work cut out for him the day he took the reins of the Silver and Black.
This is not the Reggie McKenzie who was a Pro Bowl guard that blocked for Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson and was a part of the "Electric Company". This McKenzie played linebacker for four seasons with the Raiders in the late 1980's. After sitting out of the league for four seasons, he suited up for two games with the San Francisco 49ers in 1992.
He spent the last 18 seasons as the Director of Football Operations for the Green Bay Packers. His twin brother, Raleigh, was a guard on the famous offensive line of the Washington Redskins called the "Hogs". He won two Super Bowls and is one of the 70 Greatest Redskins.
McKenzie's first move was to rebuild a team that lost four of their final five games in 2011 and hasn't been to the playoffs since 2002. Hue Jackson, the head coach who was recently fired despite just one season on the job, told reporters that McKenzie “basically wants to gut the place.”
The Raiders are not only now looking for a head coach, they may leave Oakland again for Los Angeles. They did this back in 1982 and stayed there until 1994 before returning to Oakland.
The person many are starting to think will be head coach of the Raiders next year is Winston Moss. Moss is a former linebacker who played for the Raiders in the early 1990's. He has been a linebackers coach of the Packers since 2006, so McKenzie is very familiar with him.
It will be strange and interesting to see how the Raiders do without Al Davis, just as it was when he was there. Whether or not they will achieve any semblance of the excellence Davis did remains to be seen.
OK, 7thStoneFromTheSun is still missing. I got another blank postcard, this time from Kazakhstan, so I guess he is still on the run from owing markers to people you don't want to know. I went 2-2 in his place last week, acing Saturday's games and failing the next day.
New Orleans Saints @ San Francisco 49ers
Two teams that are the polar opposites of each other. While the Saints are a dome team who lights up a scoreboard like a video game, the 49ers resemble an old school team who grinds opponents into submission with a sound running game and suffocating defense.
If this game were in New Orleans, I'd pick the Saints all the way. While the weather is expected to be mild in San Francisco on Sunday, it will be played outdoors and possibly benefit the Niners with more than just the home field advantage of having nearly 70,000 screaming fans cheering for them. The Saints have never won a playoff game on the road.
The Saints rolled up 626 yards last week, led by quarterback Drew Brees throwing for 466 yards and three touchdowns. While the Detroit Lions got repeatedly gashed in the air, New Orleans kept them off balance by averaging almost five yards on 36 carries.
San Francisco's defense was the second best in points allowed this year, as well as fourth best in total yards given up. Five players from this unit were named to either a Pro Bowl or selected First Team All-Pro. Middle linebacker Patrick Willis is possibly the best in the NFL at his position.
Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore is the 49ers best offensive weapon, but they have also gotten a solid season from quarterback Alex Smith. Much maligned since being the first overall selection of the 2005 draft, Smith has had the best season of his career in 2011.
Tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree are his main targets, but Smith has been so efficient that he threw just five interceptions all year. The 49ers ranked first in the NFL this season in the all important giveaway/ takeaway ratio.
Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers and defensive end Ray McDonald gave San Francisco the best seasons of their career this season. While Rogers had a career high six interceptions this year, McDonald set career best marks with 5.5 sacks and 38 tackles.
Rookie Aldon Smith led the team with 14 sacks, but Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith and linebacker Ahmad Brooks pitched in with a combined 14.5 sacks as well. Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Golden also gave the Niners the best year of his career this season.
Golden and strong safety Donte` Whitner may hold the key to a 49ers victory. Both were very important to the team this year, finishing third and fourth in tackles respectively. Brees loves to throw to Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, so the duo will be tested often.
Willis and Navarro Bowman are tackling machines who piled up 234 tackles this year, so New Orleans may find it difficult to run the ball effectively. Brees will have to be sharp this weekend and find an extra target to help win the game.
With Rogers most likely shadowing Marques Colston, Brees will have to pick on cornerback Tarell Brown by going to Devery Henderson or Robert Meachum. Lance Moore is expecting to play despite a tender hamstring, so San Francisco defensive backs like Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Madieu Williams and Shawntae Spencer will need to be sharp.
It will be a challenge to stop the Saints electric offense, especially since inclement weather will not be there to help. Gore needs to be special against a run defense than ranked 12th in yards allowed this season.
But Smith also needs to play excellent. The Saints pass defense ranked 30th in yards allowed, but try to cover up this area by frequent blitzes. Roman Harper, an excellent strong safety, will need to shut Davis down so Smith gets uncomfortable by having less options.
I am not convinced yet that there is a team in the NFL who can keep the Saints from scoring. The rules of the game today totally help this unit blow up the gridiron with insane statistics weekly. They have lit up defenses all year, which includes stout units like the Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears and Tennessee Titans.
San Francisco has the superior special teams unit, thanks to Pro Bowl kicker David Akers and Pro Bowl punter Andy Lee. If they can control field position, this area could make the difference in the end.
San Francisco has not given up more than 27 points this season and 11 or less points seven times. The Saints have scored over 40 points seven times in 2011, an area the 49ers have reached just once.
This is Roger Goodell's NFL, so offense is king and the quarterback is the golden child. The old adage that defense wins championships will be put to the test, but the cards are stacked against it.
Saints 27 49ers 20
Denver Broncos @ New England Patriots
The NFL is clearly now on board with Tim Tebow. The Broncos quarterback silenced a ton of critics by recently winning his eighth of 12 starts this year, which included an upset overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.
He isn't going to complete even half of his passes, but his legs and savvy seem to be enough to get the job done. The Denver defense has been the overlooked hero of this magical run, producing the only three Pro Bowl players on the team this year, as they seem to always stop the opponent at the most crucial moments.
Denver shouldn't be here. They went 8-8 and were minus 12 in the giveaway/ takeaway ratio this season, while giving up 81 more points than they scored.
The Patriots are the opposite. Even though their defense is somehow sending two members to the Pro Bowl, it is one of the worst units in the league in yards allowed.
These two teams met a month ago, where Tebow ran for 93 yards and two scores while actually completing half of his passing attempts. New England won 41-23, but the 393 Denver gained that week was just 19 yards short of their season high mark.
Tom Brady is the difference in this game. The Patriots quarterback, who will finish his career inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, just had possibly the best season of his illustrious career by throwing for a career best 5,235 yards.
He is one of four Pro Bowlers on offense, which includes tight end Ron Gronkowski and wide receiver Wes Welker. Brady also throws the ball to a plethora of weapons, which also includes tight end Aaron Hernandez and wide receiver Deion Branch.
The Patriots use five different players to run the football, but the passing game is what got them a 13-3 record this season. Denver ranked 18th in passing yards allowed this season, as well as 24th in points given up.
While Tebow has showed magic this year, Brady has done so most of his 12 seasons. Denver should be very proud of their team because no one expected anything that happened this year to transpire, but all dreams must end eventually.
Patriots 45 Denver 16
Houston Texans @ Baltimore Ravens
If you like defense, then watch every play of this battle. Baltimore finished the 2011 season with the third best defense in both points and yards allowed. Houston was second in yards allowed and fourth in points given up.
These two teams met earlier in the season in Baltimore, where the Ravens walked away with a 29-14 win behind five field goals and solid games by quarterback Joe Flacco and halfback Ray Rice. Despite having two turnovers to none by Houston, the Ravens gained 109 more yards that contest.
It is well documented how the Texans continued to win this year despite several key injuries. But the replacements fill in well and the defense has been special all season.
Houston beat a Cincinnati Bengals team last week, another team with a good defense, 31-10 despite gaining just 40 more yards and garnering two less first downs. Rookie quarterback T.J. Yates did not hurt the team and played decently, which was helped greatly by the return of wide receiver Andre Johnson.
Halfback Arian Foster gashed the Bengals for 153 yards and two touchdowns, but the Pro Bowler has been accomplishing feats like this all season. Foster and backup Ben Tate piled up a combined 2,166 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground this year.
When Baltimore beat Houston earlier this season, the duo was limited to 90 on 24 carries because quarterback Matt Schaub hoisted the football 37 times that game. Yates won't be asked to do this, so the Texans running backs will get a lot more work this weekend.
The Ravens ranked second in run defense this season. Three of the four Pro Bowlers on this until play along the front seven of a smothering defense that gave up 14 or less points eight times in 2011. Houston has accomplished that feat 10 times so far this year.
While Houston's defense unbelievably produced just one Pro Bowlers this year in cornerback Johnathan Joseph, it is a young team with just one starter 30 years old. They have somehow gone this year without the press they deserve, but the turnaround from their miserable 2010 season is nothing short of spectacular.
Baltimore will need all of their offensive weapons clicking against this unit, yet tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson could be the key as they go up against Texans safeties Danieal Manning and Glover Quinn. The young tight ends combined for 94 receptions this season.
Rice is the backbone of the offense, having led the team in both rushing and receiving this year. His reserve, Ricky Williams, needs to be effective when called upon because Baltimore relies so heavily on Rice's abilities.
Baltimore obviously has the advantage in postseason experience here, since it will be just the second playoff game ever in Texans history. I picked the Ravens to go to the Super Bowl before the season began, so there is no reason to recant now.
Ravens 21 Texans 13
New York Giants @ Green Bay Packers
Few expected the Giants to get this far after their roster was destroyed by injuries before the season got started, but they have won the big games when called upon. Some are trying to compare this team to the 2007 squad that won a Super Bowl, but they couldn't be more wrong in this comparison.
Not only is quarterback Eli Manning a lot better now, the defense and running game carried the team to a title in 2007 and are nowhere near as good this year. New York finished ninth in scoring and eighth in yards gained this season, something they ranked 14th and 16th respectively in 2007.
The running game ranked fourth best in 2007, but it is now the worst in the league. The defense, which ranked eighth in rushing yards allowed and 11th in passing yards given up in 2007, now ranks 19th and 29th respectively. There is no comparison between the two squads
Green Bay, the defending champions, dominated the NFL with a 15-1 record this year. They had the top scoring offense and ranked third in yards gained. The defense ranked last in both passing and total yards given away, but that stems from opponents chucking the ball all game while desperately trying to attempt a comeback.
Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers had 10 teammates end the season with receptions in double figures. Rogers also found 10 different players in the end zone. Halfbacks Ryan Grant and James Starks followed Pro Bowl fullback John Kuhn to gain 1,137 combined yards, but the Packers leaned on the 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns via Rodgers arm.
Seven Packers are going to the Pro Bowl this year and their plus 28 in the giveaway/ takeaway ratio was the second best in the NFL this year. Not are they a veteran team that knows how to win it all, Green Bay is a lot healthier this season compared to 2010.
It will be a high scoring affair Sunday, a game where a lot of yards are rolled up. Green Bay has the better defense, running game and quarterback, but their huge advantage at tight end and special teams could make the difference.
These two teams met just over a month ago in New York, where the Packers won 38-35 on a late field goal. Both offenses rolled up 896 total yards, as Green Bay totaled just two yards than the Giants. Rodgers and Manning had similar games, but the Packers defense made the difference thanks to a touchdown off an interception by Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews.
This game could very well follow that pattern, but the home field advantage for Green Bay could provide the difference. The tundra of Lambeau Field will be frozen, as temperatures are expected to not go higher than 27 degrees Sunday.
When historians look back at the 2011 NFL season, there will be little attention given to the fact it was one of the sloppiest seasons ever played in the league's history. Perhaps a slight nod of acknowledgement to the players lockout that pretty much wiped out training camp and retarded the development of the game.
Another footnote was how the game got softer, thanks to another laundry list of rules that effeminate football to the point it now practically resembles basketball with pads on. This mission, led by commissioner Roger Goodell, contradicts a history the league uses in their advertisements with pride. Commercials that celebrate gridiron warriors bloodied in a battle amongst the trenches that haven't been seen throughout the NFL in decades.
As the playoffs commence this weekend, no team may better personify the league right now than the Denver Broncos. After beginning the season 1-4, Denver rattled off seven victories in eight weeks before finishing the year with three straight losses.
Tim Tebow got a lions share of the credit for the Broncos victories, which included three in overtime. The defense gave up 17 of fewer points seven times this year, but the quarterback dominated the headlines. His image of being a wholesome religious boy captured so much attention, it drowned out critics who pointed to Tebow's miniscule 46.5 completion percentage this season.
Some considered him no more than a glorified fullback when he entered the 2011, while others of a modern day version Bobby Douglass. A second round draft pick by the Chicago Bears in 1969, the fellow lefty quarterback ended his 11 NFL seasons with a 43 percent completion percentage.
Douglass could run better than Tebow, once holding the record for most rushing yards gained by a quarterback when he churned out 968 yards in 14 games during the 1972 season. He averaged 69.1 yards rushing per game, which is better than the 64.9 yards Michael Vick had in 2006 when he surpassed Douglass' record in a 16 game season.
Tebow piled up 660 yards and six touchdowns on the ground this year. He played mistake-free football much of the year until the last two games of the year, where he tossed four of his six total interceptions. Tebow completed just 19 of 51 attempts for 245 yards over that time.
Denver still reached the playoffs despite an abysmal ending to a forgettable NFL season, thanks to playing in a division where three teams finished 8-8 and the fourth team went 7-9. The AFC West was perhaps the most mediocre in the NFL in 2011, which is a statement in itself because the NFC West, NFC East and AFC East were far from impressive as well.
Coaches and general managers on many inept teams suffered from the shortened season to the extent they lost their jobs. Yet the NFL, as it has for the past 40 years, continued to rake in piles of cash even though the product they present today recedes and mollifies each snap of the ball under the Goodell regime.
Image over substance is now in play as receivers and quarterbacks prance around untouched. College football shows the future is bleaker with recent bowl games where teams frequently combining to put up 80 or more points.
Defense is now as extinct as the commercialized images the NFL sells of warriors battling because now accolades are attained minus a struggle. Where honing skills through practice has now joined the defense as a spectator.
My cousin 7thStoneFromTheSun is nowhere to be found, though I did receive a blank postcard from Guam recently. While I will assume his prediction duties this week, it should be noted he finished 2011 with an overall record of 154-95.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Houston Texans
The Bengals got into the playoffs because of a stingy defense that carried an erratic offense led by two rookies. The defense ended the season ranked seventh in yards allowed and ninth in points given up. While wide receiver A.J. Green, running back Cedric Benson and quarterback Andy Dalton are the key offensive weapons, Jermaine Gresham and Jerome Simpson also contribute heavily.
The Texans are playing in their first playoff game in franchise history. It is also the first time Houston has hosted a playoff game since 1993, when the Oilers accomplished the feat before becoming the Tennessee Titans not long afterwards. The Texans are also the first team from Houston to win a division title since that 1993 season.
Much has been made of the key injuries Houston's offense incurred this season. Quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart were lost for the season by the 12th game, and star wide receiver Andre Johnson suited up for just seven contests himself.
But the team finished with a 10-6 record thanks to a smothering defense that was second in the league in yards allowed and fourth in points given up. This was even accomplished despite losing star defender Mario Williams in the fifth game for the season.
Rookies J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed were special this year, but linebackers Conner Barwin and Brian Cushing have been stars in their own right. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph made the Pro Bowl, but his bookend, Jason Allen, was just as effective. Brice McCain and Kareem Jackson have also been solid, so opponents have found it difficult to pass the ball successfully often this year.
Cincinnati will need their defense and running game to be special this week. Houston will have Johnson back to help their rookie quarterback, but his limit appears to be no more than 45 snaps. The Texans have a powerful running game that was first in attempts, second in yards gained and third in touchdowns scored. While the Bengals were tenth in rushing yards allowed, they finished 20th in touchdowns given up.
Halfbacks Benson and Arian Foster will get a lot of attention, but the effectiveness of reserves Ben Tate and Bernard Scott may determine the outcome. Tate churned out 942 yards this season as he proved to be the best backup running back in the game today.
Dalton may make less mistakes than T.J. Yates, thanks to more snaps, but both teams will have the benefit of playing in the climate controlled Texans stadium. Return men Jacoby Jones, Danieal Manning and Brandon Tate could make a big play that breaks open the game.
These two teams battled just under a month ago, where the Texans prevailed with a 20-19 victory on a late touchdown pass from Yates to Kevin Walter. Houston had gained 127 more yards but coughed up two more turnovers than Cincinnati.
Johnson and Green will draw special defensive attention from two units that have excelled all season. Both franchises rosters are young and inexperienced, so several members will be participating in the first playoff games of their careers.
Once all the nervousness subsides, the defenses should take over. Houston's home field advantage will help carry their team a long way, but the combination of Foster and Ben Tate should drive the Texans into the next round.
Texans 24 Bengals 16
Detroit Lions @ New Orleans Saints
Many pundits are expecting an offensive battle in this game, mainly because both teams have offenses that can put up points in bunches. The two teams squared off in the beginning of December and gained 904 yards, with the Lions outgunning New Orleans by 28 yards in their 31-17 loss to the Saints.
Detroit's defense has been a major disappointment in 2011. Their vaunted defensive line never excelled as expected and the secondary was frequently ripped apart by the opponents passing attack. The Lions gave up 20 or more points 12 times this season, while giving up less than 312 total yards just once.
The Lions final game of 2011 saw them cough up a season high 550 yards, which included six touchdown passes and 480 yards to a fourth-year backup quarterback who entered the contest with 515 career yards and nine touchdowns off of 88 attempts. Detroit gained 25 more yards but lost 45-41.
The offense ranked fourth in scoring and fifth in yards gained this year, but Detroit's defense ranked 23 in both points and yards allowed. The running game was amongst the very worst in football, ranking 29th in total yards gained.
New Orleans was led by a balanced offensive attack that relied mainly on Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees. Brees set an NFL record this year with 5,476 yards passing, surpassing Hall of Famer Dan Marino. Detroit's Matthew Stafford wasn't too shabby himself, tossing the ball for a franchise record 5,038 yards and 41 scores. Brees had 46 touchdown passes.
The Super Bowl XLIV MVP now has set or tied several Saints franchise records. He set six NFL records in 2011, which includes most completions in a season, most 300 yard passing games in a season, most consecutive 300 yard passing games, most consecutive games with 350 yards passing and highest completion percentage in a season. He also has set or tied 16 other NFL records in his career thus far.
The Saints gained the most yards in the NFL this season while scoring the second most points. Besides having the top passing attack, the running game gained the sixth most yards in the league this season.
New Orleans relies heavily on Brees, but the quarterback has a plethora of weapons at his disposal. Four different running backs gained 374 yards or more while nine players ended up in double digits in receptions.
Detroit will be facing a defense that finished 24 in yards allowed, but 13th in total points scored upon. The Saints only picked off nine passes this season, but safety Roman Harper finished the season by leading the team with 96 tackles and a career best 7.5 sacks.
If New Orleans cannot rush the football, the arms of both Brees and Stafford will be put to use seemingly every play. The Saints run defense was the 12th best in the NFL this year, so the Lions anemic ground game faces quite a challenge ahead of them.
Greg Williams is a defensive coordinator who is known to love blitz packages to throw opposing quarterbacks off their game. If Detroit fails to run the ball, he will load up his Saints defense with complex packages. The New Orleans defense garnered 33 sacks this season, but Detroit gave up 36 sacks this season.
New Orleans has scored over 40 points six times this year and have never scored less than 20 in a game. Their defense has given up 20 or less than points in nine contests while Detroit has accomplished that feat just five times.
A bunch of yards should be gained in this game, but it may end up where the Lions end up fruitlessly try to catch up to the Saints all game. The Lions have had a habit of giving up a ton of points early before coming back, but not many teams have stopped the Saints from scoring in 2011.
Saints 48 Lions 34
Atlanta Falcons @ New York Giants
Two of the most erratic and inconsistent teams of the 2011 NFL season meet here. Both barely made the playoffs following underwhelming seasons that will soon be forgotten.
While injuries basically buried the Giants before the season started, they fought through a mediocre NFC East to capture the division crown in the last game of the season. Atlanta did finish the year with a respectable 10-6 record, but it seemed a far cry from expectations that had been placed on them after winning the NFC South in 2010 with a 13-3 record.
Atlanta might have seemed to regress slightly on offense this year, after moving up in the draft to snag wide receiver Julio Jones in the first round of the 2011 draft. They finished fifth in scoring in 2010, averaging 25.9 points per game, while finishing seventh in scoring this year by averaging 25.1 points per contest.
But the Falcons did gain 532 more yards while quarterback Matt Ryan and Michael Turner had very similar seasons to 2010. Star wide receiver Roddy White had 15 less receptions and eight less scores this season, but Jones picked up the slack while future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzales remained consistent and excellent as always.
The defense was also an area that regressed in a few areas as opposed to 2010. While finishing fifth last year in points allowed, Atlanta finished this season 18th. They also finished at plus eight in the giveaway/ takeaway ratio differential this year, as opposed to the plus 14 they had in 2010.
Atlanta did improve in yards allowed, interceptions, sacks and run defense this season, but they also had eight contests where they gave up 23 or more points. The Falcons offense had 11 games where they scores 23 or more points.
Atlanta is a well balanced team that has the talent, but gives the impression they are on the verge of exploding and have yet to do so. Most see the roster and fear any week will be the day they put it all together on a consistent basis, but it has yet to happen. Yet it is evident there is enough firepower there to win a Super Bowl.
The Giants winning their division, no matter how mediocre it was in 2011, shows a great deal of experience and character. They went through much of the season with a defensive secondary filled with players that would not have made the team if it were not for the numerous injuries to hit that unit.
The New York defense finished 29th in passing yards allowed, 27th in total yards allowed and 25th in points given up. Yet the offense finished eighth in yards gained and ninth in points scored. The running game was the worst in the NFL, but the passing game was ranked fifth in yards and sixth in passing attempts and touchdowns scored.
Pro Bowl quarterback Eli Manning had nine receivers end up with double digits in catches. Wide receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks combined for 158 catches for 2,728 and 16 touchdowns this year.
If the Falcons cornerback duo of Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes shuts down Cruz and Nicks, New York will be in major trouble. Atlanta may have too many weapons for the Giants to stop, bit no one can really be sure what versions of these teams will take the field Sunday.
Falcons 37 Giants 20
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos
Tim Tebow will run onto the field Sunday with the cameras fixated on him. Mainly to appease a nation where religion is important, but also because he happens to play a position the NFL puts on a pedestal and carries like a golden child. Tebow truly embodies this NFL dream.
Yet he will face a nightmare on the sabbath in the form of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. A unit that ranked ranked first in both points a yards allowed, this veteran group will come into the salivating at the chance the expose a limited player with a questionable arm.
Pittsburgh will be dealing with injuries to starting halfback Rashard Mendenhall and strong safety Ryan Clark, but the team has more than enough depth at these positions to succeed. Plus their quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl rings and obviously knows how to win the big game.
The Steelers win the old school way of controlling the clock while the defense destroys their opponents. Tebow, playing in the first playoff game of his very young career, will have to summon all of his abilities to keep his team within reach of victory.
Ten Steelers have 11 or more receptions, so the Broncos defense will have their hands full trying to contain the Pittsburgh offensive onslaught. Denver's defense finished the 2011 season 20th in yards allowed and 24th in points scored upon.
The Broncos offense wasn't any better, finishing 25th in scoring and 23rd in yards gained. Their best player, halfback Willis McGahee, finished the season with 1,199 rushing yards. Denver had just two players with more than 19 receptions this season.
This game should get ugly quick. Unless the Broncos special teams and defense is exceptional, it should be over before halftime. This learning process may help Tebow one day, but teams have recently figured him out and there needs to be a dramatic improvement in his game if he wants to remain the starting quarterback for Denver in the future. This improvement, however, will probably not happen this Sunday.