NFL Playoff Picks: Predictions for Every Divisional Round Game

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterJanuary 10, 2012

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 08:  Quarterback Tim Tebow #15 of the Denver Broncos motions to a receiver during the AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Sports Authority Field against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Mile High on January 8, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Steelers in overtime 23-29.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Just eight teams remain in the NFL's race to Super Bowl 46. Who will come out on top, and why?

During the opening Wild Card Round all four home teams won. Can that trend hold true with teams like the Denver Broncos traveling to New England and the New Orleans Saints heading to San Francisco?

Let's get on to the picks and analysis you're all waiting for.


Denver Broncos at New England Patriots

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 1:   Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots watches a run against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on January 1, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

When Denver Has the Ball

The game plan is simple—get Tim Tebow the ball and let him make plays. Tebow singlehandedly exposed the Pittsburgh Steeler defense suffering from injury. Tebow will be the man again in Foxborough this weekend.

The big play for Denver is the belly-option it loves to run with Tebow and Willis McGahee. This play sets the stage for Denver to use play-action passing—which is what led to its win in overtime last week. New England will need to step up to shut down the option, but it must also keep an eye deep and play true Cover 3 to defend the pass.

If the Patriots hope to win, they have to give Tebow looks to make him give the ball. Then they have to shut down the run.

What the Patriots can't do is get Tebow corralled and forget to tackle him. Or just flat-out miss.

When New England Has the Ball

Clearing out the middle of the field and protecting Tom Brady are the keys this week. They were the keys when the Patriots beat the Broncos in Week 15. 

You'll see here that when Tom Brady has time and can step into his throw, he'll find targets across the middle. The play call does a great job crossing the defense and clearing out the middle. With great run-after-catch options, Brady will pick apart the Denver defense if he gets looks like this.

The Broncos simply have to pressure Brady. If he gets a pocket that looks like the one shown here, Denver will lose.

Prediction: New England 38, Denver 17


Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens

CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 01:  Ray Rice #27 of the Baltimore Ravens runs with the ball during the NFL game against  the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on January 1, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

When Houston Has the Ball

The Houston Texans lost their first matchup with the Baltimore Ravens earlier this season despite a healthy Matt Schaub. Arian Foster wasn't as healthy, but Schaub makes a big difference. 

What Houston didn't do the first time around was generate a run game that would throw off the hard-charging Baltimore linebackers. That will be the key this time around. Arian Foster will be a key player in the Houston game plan this week.

Baltimore will need a very sound game defensively to shut down Foster as both a runner and a receiver. He's deceptively fast and picks up yards in 12-yard gains that look like small runs. Getting penetration, as shown here, is the key.

When Baltimore Has the Ball

Ray Rice has been the focal point of the Baltimore defense all season. Why would that change now?

Rice will get the bulk of the responsibility on offense this week, but it is worth noting that Anquan Boldin went over 100 yards receiving the last time these two met. If Boldin can get separation on Johnathan Joseph—and if Joe Flacco has time to work—the passing game could be a key for Baltimore when working the underneath routes.

Houston has to get after Flacco in the backfield. The Texans know that Ray Rice can pick up yards, but flustering Flacco early will be the best ticket to a possible victory.

Prediction: Baltimore 20, Houston 13


New York Giants at Green Bay Packers

GREEN BAY, WI - DECEMBER 25: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers is chased out of the pocket while playing the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field on December 25, 2011 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

When New York Has the Ball

The New York Giants' game plan has become almost completely centered on the passing game. With three great wide receivers, it makes sense.

New York will once again put the ball in Eli Manning's hands, but it'll ask him to attack a defense that can be dangerous when rushing the passer—especially off the edge. That's where New York struggles the most. If the tackle play isn't exceptional, the Giants will have trouble protecting Manning long enough to get the ball downfield.

Manning attacked Green Bay vertically last time around, and it worked pretty well.

Green Bay knows its strength lies in rushing the quarterback and forcing him into mistakes. Manning is good for an interception per game, which should give the playmakers in the Packer secondary hope for making something happy this weekend.

When Green Bay Has the Ball

This should be no secret. Aaron Rodgers will be the key. But so will the offensive line.

The key for both teams will be Jordy Nelson. How do the Giants cover him, and do they commit their safeties to deep coverage? How do the Packers use him to find mismatches in the defense? When the two teams met before, Nelson was a key player thanks to his speed off the line.

The Packers' passing attack is good enough to cause problems all night for New York, and a healthy Green Bay offensive line will give the Giants' pass rush all they can handle. Keeping Rodgers clean is a key, but he's a dangerous enough scrambler to hurt the Giant pass rush. And no matter how hard the Giants play, they have to keep the ball away from Aaron Rodgers late. Unlike last time.

Prediction: Green Bay 35, New York 31


New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers

SEATTLE - DECEMBER 24:  Running back Frank Gore #21 of the San Francisco 49ers rushes against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on December 24, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

When New Orleans Has the Ball

Drew Brees has been nearly unstoppable this year, but he's not faced a defense as good as the one in San Francisco either. This should be an epic showdown between two elite units.

The player to watch isn't just Brees, but tight end Jimmy Graham. The 49ers match up well with Graham if they commit safety Donte Whitner to coverage. Whitner is a hard hitter, but he's also good when locked up in zero coverage.

Brees is the best in the game at quickly getting back in his drop steps, shuffling up in the pocket and throwing deep. His deep accuracy is as good as any in the NFL...when he has time to throw. When Brees is pressured from the middle of the defense, he reverts to a normal quarterback.

The 49ers will set out to pressure Brees from all over the pocket by moving around Aldon Smith and trying to overwhelm Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief at offensive tackle. 

When San Francisco Has the Ball

Expect Frank Gore to see his share of the workload this weekend. The New Orleans Saints rank 12th in the NFL in yards per game allowed on the ground. Gore will be the focal point for an offense that will hope to come out of this game alive.

The Saints won't expect many points from the 49ers, and they shouldn't, but San Francisco is dangerous thanks to field-goal kicker David Akers. If Akers gets in range, he's nearly automatic. You can say the Saints will keep Alex Smith and the offense out of the end zone, but keeping Akers off the scoreboard won't happen.

The Saints defense lives on playing with a lead. When faced with a deficit, it is not good enough to force turnovers or create havoc. If New Orleans falls behind, it is in trouble.

Prediction: San Francisco 24, New Orleans 20


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