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Cheat Sheet for NFL playoffs

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Back in early September, I made “20 Bold (and Beautiful) Predictions for the 2011 season.” Some of those predictions — the Bengals finishing with one win, the Seahawks finishing with two wins and the Rams winning the NFC West to name a few — were way, way off.

ROAD TO INDY

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But some of those predictions? Well, some were eerily spot-on.

Cam Newton defying his critics (and the odds) and having a wonderful rookie year in Carolina? It happened.

Matt Stafford making the leap and becoming the quarterback the Lions expected him to be when they drafted him first overall in 2009? It happened.

Mark Sanchez taking a giant step back and the Jets missing the playoffs for the first time in three years? That happened, too.

The Texans seeing immediate impacts made by J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed, their first two draft choices of the 2011 Draft, and winning their first division title in franchise history? Yep.

The last of my predictions in that column, something I calculated with a series of algorithms, an abacus and lots of staring at code in a windowless room a la Jonah Hill in “Moneyball,” was a Patriots-Packers Super Bowl in which the final score would be 34-30.

According to my John Nash-ian calculations, Green Bay would repeat as Super Bowl champions in a memorable Super Bowl performance. A shootout of the highest order, indoors in the building that Peyton Manning built, on the biggest stage in American sports — Aaron Rodgers would outduel Tom Brady in a clash of two of the league’s premier quarterbacks.

And now, after a regular season in which the Packers D finished the season ranked 32nd in the league in yards against per game and the Patriots D finished ranked 31st in yards against per game — and, yet both teams secured home field throughout their conference’s respective playoffs — I realize my preseason Super Bowl prediction was a bit off.

The Packers are still going to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, but the score won’t be 34-30.

I’m thinking 45-42 is a bit more accurate.

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How are we going to get there?

Here’s a “Cheat Sheet: Playoffs” special edition in which I’ll give you 10 more bold and beautiful predictions for the postseason, as well as our picks for this weekend’s games.

Ten Bold and Beautiful Playoff Predictions:

1. Behind their fearless two-headed running back tandem, an opportunistic 3-4 defense and a wild home crowd taking in its first playoff game in Texans franchise history, Houston beats Cincinnati in the rare playoff game where Wade Phillips comes away looking like a genius

2. In games played in their building on primetime TV this year, the Saints beat the Colts 62-7, the Giants 49-24, the Lions 31-17 and the Falcons 45-16. They’ll handle the upstart Lions in similar fashion, capitalizing on a crowd that’s had an entire Saturday on Bourbon Street to “prepare” and a young Lions defense that surrendered six touchdowns to Matt Flynn last week.

3. The Saints, then, promptly go out to San Francisco, where they’ll be favored by four to five points, and get smacked around by a 49ers team no one’s respecting. Outside of the friendly confines of the Superdome, the Saints are a different team. The 49ers will own the line of scrimmage, milk the clock and knock off everybody’s “sexy” Super Bowl pick. Had the Saints beaten either the Rams or Buccaneers earlier this season, they’d be home against the Niners … and win by three touchdowns. Alas, they didn’t, and they won’t.

4. “Tebow Time” ends with a clunker Sunday afternoon in Denver. The Broncos are 0-4, including their last three games, when Jim Nantz and Phil Simms call their games on CBS. With a week to prepare, Dick LeBeau’s defense will stop the run and force Tebow to beat them through the air. He won’t.

5. “The Myth Of Matt Ryan” continues on right into next year. What’s the one thing Mike Smith (as a head coach), Matt Ryan and Tony Gonzalez have in common (despite nonstop media love)? None of them have ever won a postseason game. They won’t win in New York this weekend, either. But, don’t worry. Someone will predict them to win the Super Bowl — like people do every year — next August.

6. The Patriots get their revenge for their regular-season loss to the Steelers, beating Pittsburgh in the divisional round in New England. Brady and Belichick win their first playoff games since the David Tyree catch and move on to the AFC Championship Game.

7. Eli Manning gives the Packers another scare, this time in Lambeau Field, but again, comes up short. The difference maker in this one? Randall Cobb, Green Bay’s electrifying rookie return man, brings a kick back late in the fourth quarter of yet another Packers-Giants thriller.

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8. I saw Josh Charles -- the star of CBS’ “The Good Wife” and one of the greatest films in cinema history, “Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead” -- walking around Manhattan’s 13th street on Monday afternoon. Decked in purple gear, the Maryland native and Ravens die-hard was floating on air. Charles’ Ravens will improve their record at home to 9-0 with a shutout of the Texans in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs next Sunday afternoon. Baltimore’s never played a home playoff game under John Harbaugh. They’ll blow out the Texans.

9. The Packers and Patriots ride the momentum of big divisional round wins to beat the 49ers and Ravens in the NFC and AFC Championship Games. In the end, it’s the quarterback play, and Alex Smith and Joe Flacco aren’t beating Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady on the road.

10. Packers 45, Patriots 42. Madonna sings that underrated “Ray of Light” dance song, we see a lot of ads for that “Whitney” show, Mike Florio makes his Super Bowl debut by wearing a new suit, and Aaron Rodgers wins the MVP for the second straight year.

Now, here’s some more on my picks for this weekend’s games:

Week 17 Record: 11-5

Overall Regular Season Record: 170-86

WILD-CARD WEEKEND TRIVIA QUESTION OF THE WEEK:

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice rushed for 191 yards on 24 carries (7.95 average) with two touchdowns and caught two passes for eight yards in the Ravens’ 24-16 triumph at Cincinnati. Rice amassed 1,364 rushing yards and 704 receiving yards in 2011 to join which running back as the only other player in league history to register at least 1,200 rushing yards and 700 receiving yards in multiple seasons?

SATURDAY GAMES

Cincinnati at Houston: According to my guy Jon Zimmer at the NFL, aka “The NFL History Czar,” the Andy Dalton-T.J. Yates matchup on Saturday marks the first time in league history two rookies squared off in a playoff game. The amazing thing? Neither player was drafted in the first round of last April’s draft. I like Yates — bad shoulder and all — to get the best of “The Red Rifle” in this one. Tate and Foster will get the Texans out to an early lead, Johnathan Joseph (playing against his former team) will contain A.J. Green, and Gary Kubiak will do just enough to lock up Houston’s first and only playoff win in franchise history.
The Pick: Texans 23, Bengals 17

Detroit at New Orleans: Detroit comes into this one six days after having a backup quarterback light them up for 480 yards and six touchdowns. What’s Drew Brees in the Superdome going to do to that defensive backfield? These teams squared off a few weeks ago and the Saints won by two scores. Expect something similar, here. I love Stafford and Calvin Johnson, but Gunther Cunningham’s D just isn’t up for this task yet.
The Pick: Saints 38, Lions 24

SUNDAY GAMES:

Atlanta at New York Giants: For a while there, the Giants couldn’t beat the Falcons in Giants Stadium. In 2001, Doug Johnson — filling in for Michael Vick — beat the Giants 17-10 in East Rutherford. A year later, Kurt Kittner (yes, Kurt Kittner) got the best of Big Blue in a 27-7 win in the swirling winds of New Jersey. But that was a different stadium, with a different coach and a different quarterback. The Falcons’ receivers and Tony Gonzalez present giant problems for the Giants defensive backfield, but this team will find a way. They’ve done just that all season long.
The Pick: Giants 27, Falcons 23

TEBOW TIME

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Pittsburgh at Denver: It was fun while it lasted, right? Seeing Romeo Crennel’s Kansas City D completely dominate the Broncos offense in a must-win last week, it’s hard to pick the Broncos with any real conviction. Denver comes into this one on a three-game losing streak, with Tim Tebow committing seven turnovers in those three losses. It’d make for a heck of a story if Tebow (the saint) got past Ben Roethlisberger (something, well, less than a saint), but it’s not happening. The Steelers come into this one limping and bruised, but that won’t stop the defense from creating turnovers and the offense from turning those turnovers into scores.
The Pick: Steelers 20, Broncos 10

WILD-CARD WEEKEND TRIVIA ANSWER:

2011 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Marshall Faulk rushed for 1,200 yards and had 700 receiving yards four different times in his NFL career. No NFL players outside of Faulk and Rice accomplished the feat twice.
 

Tagged: Kurt Kittner, Mike Smith, Falcons, Bengals, Broncos, Lions, Packers, Colts, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Jets, 49ers, Ravens, Steelers, Texans, Tony Gonzalez, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Ray Rice, Matt Ryan, Matt Flynn, Tim Tebow, A.J. Green

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