Eli Manning, Giants and Aaron Rodgers, Packers, on Dec. 4
The NFL turns up the heat this coming weekend with the best regular-season teams—the Packers, the 49ers, the Patriots and the Ravens—getting their first games of the 2012 playoffs.
It will be crazy; it always is. There will be the expected and the unexpected. There will be classic venues like Lambeau Field and places that haven't seen playoff football in a while, like Candlestick Park.
We've looked at the matchups, and here are some early predictions.
Ted Ginn Jr., 49ers
The punting game is frequently overlooked in key matchups in the post season, but it’s worth a look in this one.
New Orleans has one of the game’s best punters in Tom Morstead, and the 49ers counter with one of the NFL’s best kick returners in Ted Ginn.
Ginn has not been returning punt and kickoff returns because of a left ankle sprain, but he’s feeling better, especially with the week off.
Look for Ginn to break a big one against the Saints.
Arian Foster, Texans
If the Ravens are licking their lips in anticipation of facing the Texans Sunday in Baltimore, there is some justification.
The teams have played each other five times, and Baltimore has won all five. In Week 6, the Ravens scored a relatively easy 29-14 win.
The Texans ran all over the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, with running back Arian Foster crushing the Cincy defense for 153 yards on 24 carries.
With Baltimore’s defense providing the opposition, he won’t get 153 yards—he had 59 the last time the two teams met—and he won’t get 24 carries because quarterback T.J. Yates is going to have to throw plenty to keep the Texans in the game.
Eli Manning, Giants
When the two teams met in December, Rogers clicked for 369 yards and four touchdowns and Manning for 347 yards and three scores.
The difference isn’t as much in the quarterbacks as it is in the defenses. The Packers' is formidable. The Giants defense is questionable at best, the two points allowed to the Falcons Sunday notwithstanding.
Look for Rodgers to ring up big numbers and for Manning to struggle mightily in the cold climes of Green Bay.
Drew Brees, Saints
The Saints have pretty much scored at will this season, including scoring 42 or more points in the last four games—45 points exactly in the last three. The Drew Brees-led offense has racked up more yardage than any team in the NFL and ranked second in points scored.
As a counterpoint, the 49ers have shut down offenses with amazing efficiency this year, giving up more than 20 points just five times. San Francisco has allowed the fewest yards and the second-fewest points.
San Francisco has 23 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries—the 38 takeaways are the best in the NFL. The Saints offense has been better than most at holding on to the ball—19 total turnovers.
Even so, look for San Francisco to win this one thanks to a couple of takeaways.
Joe Flacco, Ravens
Baltimore has had Joe Flacco starting at quarterback for four seasons now, and it's gone to the playoffs each time.
On top of that, the Ravens have won the first game of the playoffs each time. They haven’t made it to the Super Bowl yet, but Flacco is likely to have a huge game against the Texans.
He threw for 305 yards the first time the two teams met back in Week 6, and in three career starts against Houston, Flacco has thrown four touchdowns and just one interception.
The Texans haven’t shown they have found a way to shut Flacco down, and they’re not going to find one Sunday either.
Much will be made in the course of the next week about how the Giants rallied on Dec. 4 to tie the Packers at 35-all before losing 38-35 on a short field goal by the Packers’ Mason Crosby.
You can disregard most of it. That game was played with the Giants at home in the Meadowlands.
This one is at Lambeau Field, and it will be the first time the Packers have a home game in the playoffs since the 2007-08 season.
Last year’s run to the Super Bowl was done entirely on the road. This year, the Packers aren’t going to be stopped by the Giants at home.
Aldon Smith, 49ers
Aldon Smith has had a terrific rookie season, leading the team with 14 sacks. Even so, he doesn’t play about half the time because he’s used only in the San Francisco nickel package on defense.
But the Drew Brees-led New Orleans offense is going to force the 49ers to go into the nickel package much of the day.
It will be interesting to see how Smith holds up with the extra work, but it’s not just time that’s a factor here.
He’s going to be paired with Jermon Bushrod, the Saints’ left tackle who allowed just three sacks in 16 games.
The winner of the Aldon Smith-Jermon Bushrod battle will play for the winning team, and it will be Smith.
Andre Johnson, Texans
Andre Johnson has had a monster season for the Houston offense if you extrapolate his statistics for seven games (33 catches, 492 yards) out to 16 games (75 catches, 1,125 yards).
He wasn’t active the last time the two teams met back in Week 6 thanks to a series of hamstring problems.
He caught five passes from quarterback T. J. Yates in the 31-10 win over Cincinnati Saturday to keep the Texans moving forward in the playoffs.
Things get much more difficult this week against the Ravens defense.
Look for Baltimore cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams to put a blanket on Johnson and shut him down this week.
Charles Woodson, Packers
In many ways, Charles Woodson personifies the Green Bay defense. He was a very good player in Oakland for eight years. He came to the Packers six years ago and, if anything, has been even better.
Woodson tied for the league lead with seven interceptions this year, but when the Packers played the Giants back in Week 13, he didn’t have one.
That’s no surprise. Woodson has never intercepted Eli Manning, either as a Raider or a Packer.
That ends now. Manning is going to have to put the ball up 40-plus times in an effort to keep pace with the Packers, and Woodson will make him pay for it.