3 New Orleans Saints @ 2 San Francisco 49ers 4:30 PM SAT FOX
The 49ers may have been this season’s biggest surprise, and all things considering, a return to the glory days of the franchise is not something to complain about. The Saints are the NFL’s hottest team right now, winning 9 games in a row dating back to Week 8. What will win out: Amazing offense or stout defense?
49ers offense vs. Saints’ defense:
It’s the 26th ranked offense in the NFL against the 24th ranked defense during the regular season, and while it doesn’t really sound exciting, it will be. The Saints defense gives up a ton of yards and points, while not forcing the turnovers like we’ve become accustomed to seeing. The ‘9ers run a good ball control offense led by Frank Gore, and he should have a big game against a Saints defense that had problems stopping the run all season. While the 49ers may not score like the Lions or Packers are capable of, they still will score, and they can in bunches. Alex Smith needs to simply be consistent and not make mistakes, and get the ball to Vernon Davis in the gaps in the scheme. The 49ers offensive line should be able to hold up well against the bevy of Saints blitzes that will come, and Alex Smith’s mobility should really help with that, even though they have allowed a ton of sacks this season. In the battle of units that were not focused based on the performances of the other units on the respective teams, the 49ers offense has the advantage, but only slightly.
Saints offense vs. 49ers defense:
This is the matchup we all want to see. I have to think Drew Brees is a really good player at Tecmo Super Bowl, because he’s putting up those kinds of numbers in every game. They had over 600 yards of total offense last week. But, this is the best defense he’s faced all season by far, and the last truly impressive unit he faced in Houston, he hung 40 on them. The 49ers are aggressive on defense, especially with their amazing linebacker corps. Despite all you hear about the 49ers defense, they were only 16th in the league against the pass, and their secondary does have some holes. They have decent talent there, but they haven’t faced an offense like they will with Drew Brees. Obviously, Jim Harbaugh has worked to fix some of the issues present in the final game of the regular season against St. Louis, but New Orleans has way too many weapons for the 49ers to stop all of them. You have to give the Saints the edge here.
The 49ers were 7-1 at home this season, and New Orleans had their fair share of road struggles. New Orleans was only 3-2 this season in outdoor games, but the environment shouldn’t pose a problem for the Saints, at least now anyway. The Saints have way more playoff experience than San Francisco does, but the Saints made this trek out west last year and lost to Seattle in the postseason, so that may not hold the value it normally does. On the strength of being at home in this battle, San Francisco gets the nod.
Player to Watch: Alex Smith
You don’t want to say this game is on him, but he has a lot of pressure on his shoulders. He has to manage the game well, and not give the ball back to the Saints on a short field, because they will score at will, even against a great defense. He has to use his mobility to escape blitzes and pressures, and also attempt to have a vertical passing game to test the New Orleans secondary, which is vulnerable.
Pick: New Orleans 28 San Francisco 16
Their offense is just too good to be stopped right now, and it’s as simple as that. The 49ers had an amazing season, but their playoff inexperience and the Saints offense will be too much for them.
4 Denver Broncos @ 1 New England Patriots 8 PM SAT CBS
The Patriots are the number 1 seed, and they have constantly proved to be one of the league’s best teams, despite a horrible defense and only having beaten one playoff team all season. In come the surprising Broncos, led by… you-know-who… who have the chops to possibly pull another huge upset. What will we see on Saturday Night: The Denver team that won 7 of 8, or the one that got housed at home by the same Patriots?
Broncos Offense vs. Patriots Defense
The Broncos racked up nearly 400 yards of total offense in the first meeting between the two teams, and really made the Patriots defense look silly for most of the game. They rushed for 252 yards, which is still an astounding number, but only passed for 141 yards. The Patriots must be able to keep the Broncos offense in check, starting by doing something the Steelers couldn’t do, which is stopping the option game. The read option burned the Steelers, and the Patriots had some of that happen to them too, but they did an overall better job in containing it. The way to stop the Broncos passing game also involves playing tight man to man coverage and trying to take away the deep ball is a key. Pittsburgh couldn’t do that, so it will be interesting to see how New England attacks those matchups against Demaryius Thomas and others. Even though the Patriots should be effective enough in keeping the Broncos offense at bay, I’d still give them a good chance at putting up big numbers.
Patriots Offense vs. Broncos Defense
Is there any reason to think that the Patriots won’t have the same kind of success that they did in the first game against Denver? Nope. The Patriots put on a show against Denver the last time these two teams played, and that day it was mainly due to the success of the Tight Ends for the Patriots, which Denver could not cover. Both Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski had huge game, and the issue with taking away one of them is bringing out the other one. This had added fuel if the Patriots run the ball with any kind of success, which they can and probably will do. With the emotional leader of the Broncos defense, Brian Dawkins, likely out for the game, the Pats will be able to easily attack a vulnerable Broncos defense.
The Patriots lost one game at home this season, and while Denver was a better team on the road than they were at home, this is still a tough assignment. It doesn’t help that they are on a short week while the Patriots are rested. The Patriots have lost their last 3 playoff games dating back to the 2007 AFC Title Game, but I doubt they are thinking about that. The effect of Josh McDaniels returning to New England will likely be minimal, but it may still have a slight impact.
Player(s) to Watch: New England Tight Ends
I already talked about them a bit above, but they will hold the key to the New England offense. With Champ Bailey likely shutting down Wes Welker, the TE’s should, if successful, be able to open up the defense for other players to make plays. Denver couldn’t stop them in Week 15, and I doubt they will be able to in this one.
Prediction: New England 34 Denver 19
This will be closer than many think, but the Pats have too many weapons on offense for the Broncos to keep up on both sides of the ball. They’ll make it interesting, like they always seem to, but New England will likely pull away late.
3 Houston Texans @ 2 Baltimore Ravens 1 PM SUN CBS
Houston’s first foray into the postseason ended well, with a 31-10 win over the Bengals. The Baltimore Ravens have finally accomplished their major goal other than winning a Super Bowl, which is a home playoff game. Can T.J Yates pull off a big upset on the road?
Texans Offense vs. Ravens Defense
T.J Yates has been consistent enough to win games for the Texans, now going 3-3 in his 6 total starts. He didn’t have to do very much to beat Cincy last Saturday, thanks to his defense and mainly Arian Foster running wild. He only had 49 yards in the first meeting between the two teams, and he will have to possibly triple that in order to give Houston a legit shot to win this game and that will be pretty tough against the 2nd ranked rushing defense in NFL. Foster and his complement back Ben Tate will have to wear out the front 7 quickly in order to open up passing lanes for the receivers. The Texans did not have Andre Johnson in the first meeting, and that should help out going up against a weaker Ravens secondary than usual. The Texans just didn’t play well in the first meeting of the two teams this season, and with T.J Yates under center, it’s hard to find other reasons to see why they’ll do better.
Ravens Offense vs. Texans Defense
The Ravens offense hasn’t really been a juggernaut this season either, but at home, they seem to crank up the offensive intensity more. This is due to the running of Ray Rice, and when he’s on, he drives the entire Baltimore offensive machine. He had 101 yards in the first game between the two squads, and he’ll need to match that at least to keep their offensive moving. Joe Flacco will also have to try to exploit the matchups that can cause the Texans some issues, mainly with that second corner spot with Kareem Jackson and Jason Allen. Torrey Smith will likely be matched up on that side, and that could be the big matchup to watch in the passing game. The Ravens offensive line will also have to cope with the major pass rush of Houston led by J.J Watt, Connor Barwin, and Antonio Smith. If they can keep Joe Flacco upright, look for the Ravens to have more offensive success. It will be a slugfest with this matchup as well, and it’s sure to be interesting, even though Baltimore should have a slight edge.
The Ravens haven’t lost a home game to a team not named the Steelers since the 2009 season. They are 20-4 at home over the last 3 seasons, and the Texans have never beaten the Ravens before in franchise history. It’s going to be tough for Houston to head into the raucous environment in Baltimore and maintain the same energy that they did against Cincy. This is worth noting though: When the Ravens have won their division, they promptly lost the ensuing home playoff game, both in 2003 and 2006.
Player to Watch: Torrey Smith
The Ravens big deep threat will likely have the favorable matchup against the second Houston corner, which is very favorable for him to stretch the field vertically like he does so well. If he can get some big plays early, that may be the death knell for the Houston defense in trying to defend both the deep ball and Ray Rice.
Prediction: Baltimore 20 Houston 7
There is just too much for Houston to overcome in this matchup here. This is a very tough draw for them on the road in an environment like this against a very physical team. The Ravens home edge and just being more sound at the QB position should propel them to victory.
4 New York Giants @ 1 Green Bay Packers 4:30 PM SUN FOX
Have we seen shades of 2007 for the Giants? Sure looks like it, especially with the 38-35 loss to a team that was once undefeated, which seemed to re-invigorate the squad. They also beat Green Bay at Lambeau in order to make the Super Bowl, so there’s that too. The Packers are very different though, and will the Giants be able to hold up against a really tough Green Bay team?
Giants’ Offense vs. Packers Defense
There is a funny stat going around that should be mentioned: The 2008 Detroit Lions have given up fewer passing yards than this year’s Green Bay Packers, and they didn’t win a single game. Obviously, they didn’t have Aaron Rodgers, but that’s beside the point. Eli Manning has had his best season ever numbers wise, and he really backed up his statement that he is an elite QB. He’s done all of this without a running game too, which makes the fact even more impressive. He’s spread the ball around well, and the receiving corps has become one of the best in the NFL. He also hasn’t made the characteristic “Eli” mistake too often this season, which is obviously an improvement. The only thing the Packers defense has done this season well is force turnovers, and they will have to do that in order to win this game. They won’t generate a ridiculous pass rush either, and their corners and safeties will be tested big time against this vertical passing game. Really, the difference in the overall matchup here is the Giants running game, and whether they can generate something. If they can’t, it will put maybe a bit too much pressure on Eli to throw for 400 yards.
Packers Offense vs. Giants Defense
Aaron Rodgers will likely be the MVP this season, and there is no questioning as to why. His offense has been nothing short of ridiculous, and he lights up defense every time he plays a new one. In the only game where the Packers offense struggled, which was in Kansas City, the Chiefs played close against the Packers receivers and did a good job rushing the passer. These are 2 things the Giants can do very well, despite their massive holes in the secondary. The Packers rushing game almost seems insignificant; especially when you consider that it hasn’t played much of a role all season. If the Giants can get a consistent pass rush on Aaron Rodgers, then he has a chance of being flustered early, but his escape ability will minimize that. The Giants corners and safeties cannot be distracted by his running ability and just play tight coverage against the Packer wideouts, and the linebackers have to be aware of Jermichael Finley across the middle. There is no guarantee the Packers will put up Madden like numbers, but there is also no guarantee they won’t light up the scoreboard anyway.
The Packers are at home, which helps them out tremendously, but it really won’t play a role in this game, considering the fact that the Giants always seem to be a better home team than they are on the road. Aaron Rodgers’ 3 weeks of rest may cause some rust early, but the Packers offense can easily overcome an early hole.
Player to Watch: Ahmad Bradshaw
He really has to get his game going, because not only will his rushing open up the passing game, but it will also allow the Giants to dominate time of possession, which is really key in a game that figures to be a shootout. The Giants have not done very well in running the football this season, so this will be something to watch.
Prediction: Packers 42 Giants 38
This is going to be a shootout, no matter which way you look at it. But, I put a bit more faith in Aaron Rodgers in this situation than I do in Eli manning, despite everything that he has done this season. The Giants need to run the ball and rush the passer in order to have a really good chance to win this game.
Enjoy Divisional Round Weekend!
(Sorry for the Grey text background... blogger is annoying)
(Sorry for the Grey text background... blogger is annoying)