By Doug Halberstadt
Seventeen weeks ago, 32 NFL teams started out the season with one goal in mind — to make the playoffs. After a grueling 16-game regular season, 12 teams realized that goal. Now, those 12 teams have a new goal — to make it to the Super Bowl.
The road to that goal begins this weekend for eight of those 12 teams. Saturday, Jan. 7, in the AFC, the No. 6 seed Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) will be in Houston to battle the No. 3 seed Texans (10-6).
Both teams limped into the playoffs. The Bengals lost their final regular-season game to the Baltimore Ravens, 24-16. The Texans have lost three straight, including a 23-22 heartbreaker to the Titans last Sunday, Jan. 1. The Bengals and the Texans faced one another in Week 14 (Dec. 11) during the regular season. The Texans won that game 20-19 in Cincinnati. I’m looking for the Texans to put a halt to their losing streak and drop the Bengals out of the Super Bowl hunt.
In the NFC Saturday game, the No. 6 seed Detroit Lions (10-6) visit the No. 3 seed New Orleans Saints (13-3). The Saints finished the regular season with eight straight wins, including a 45-17 pounding of the Jaguars last week.
Despite scoring 41 points last week, the Lions lost to the Packers.
The Saints defeated the Lions 31-17 in Week 13 back on Dec. 4. I’ve said all year that the Lions were made of paper and weren’t as good as their record indicated. I think the Saints will prove me correct and end the Lions’ season once and for all.
Sunday (Jan. 8), the No. 5 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) are at the No. 4 Denver Broncos (8-8). The Steelers won their final two games, while the Broncos were losing their last three. These two teams did not play one another during the regular season.
There’s no doubt Tim Tebow and his Broncos captured the imagination of fans all across the country during their winning streak earlier this year. I believe it’s pretty clear that Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers are still the better all-around team. I’m going with the Steelers to win on the road and advance to the second round.
The final wild-card weekend game features the No. 5 seed Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at the No. 4 New York Giants (9-7). Both teams finished the regular season with victories. The Falcons trounced the Buccaneers 45-24, and the Giants eliminated the Cowboys with a 31-14 win in the Meadowlands.
The Falcons and the Giants will also be meeting for the first time this year. Some people might think Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning might have the upper hand in this game based on their playoff experience. I’m not one of those people.
I like Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and his running back, former Northern Illinois Huskie Michael “The Burner” Turner to create headaches for Coughlin’s defense. I’m saying we’ll see the Falcons move on and watch the Giants hang it up for the season.
For the record, I finished the regular season with a 168-88 record. That’s a 65 percent winning percentage. My goal was 70 percent for the season. Now, I can put that behind me and focus totally on the playoffs!
Doug Halberstadt can be reached via e-mail at Dougster61@aol.com.
From the Jan. 4-10, 2012, issue