NFL Divisional Sunday: Saints, Patriots, Ravens, Giants Will Win
We've reached the Divisional Round of the best time of the year, the NFL playoffs. Eight teams remain, each with Lombardi Trophy hoisting dreams. Four will advance to next weekend's Conference Championship games. Here are my previews for each divisional matchup.
Saints End 49ers Dream Season
There is no better NFL story in 2011/12 than that of the 49ers. After changing coaching staffs, changing offensive and defensive playbooks, having no offseason workouts, and coming in with a QB most of the Bay Area would like to have shipped to Oakland, the Niners only wound up being the first team to clinch a playoff berth.
Jim Harbaugh could not have created a steadier situation, bringing the team along and making everybody believe in the program. A 13-3 record is a testament to a fantastic coaching job.
But then, there are the Saints, looking to show the world that last season's road playoff loss in Seattle was an anomaly of the worst kind. New Orleans is playing the best all-around ball in the league right now, if you take both sides of the line into account.
Drew Brees has replaced the No. 9 with a big red "S" on his chest, doing everything and doing it right. And while he and the offense will be a supreme test, I believe this game will tip on the way the Saints defense makes Alex Smith feel very uncomfortable in the pocket.
Unless the Niners can master a lot of three-step drop success, in honor of their late genius, Bill Walsh, Smith may find himself on the Candlestick turf a whole lot of the time.
The Saints offense gets the ink. The Saints defense gets the job done. And I don't care how many passing yards anybody had, at this time of year, defense still wins championships.
Broncos-Patriots Rematch Provides Same Result
It was way back on December 18th when the Patriots brought the Denver Broncos six-game win streak to a crashing halt with a 41-23 win in Denver. Tebow-mania even slowed down for a few minutes.
Tebow, however, grew by leaps and bounds as a QB in the wild-card win over the Steelers in playoff Week 1. Taking John Elway's advice to make his reads, throw the ball, and stop worrying about mistakes, Tebow showed he probably does belong at this level, mechanics and all.
But going into New England for a playoff game will be a different feeling. Even though the Broncos as a team will have more confidence in their QB, the Patriots have the guy who is likely the all-time best. Tom Brady gets the job done, period, paragraph, end of story.
I was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean the last week of the regular season and somebody told me the Dolphins were way ahead of the Patriots.
"What quarter is it?" I asked.
"Come back and tell me what's going on when there's 45 seconds to go and Brady has the ball."
The Patriots defense is suspect, and this game will be closer than the December pairing. Tebow will play very well again. It may come down to the kickers. But the Patriots will win out. Because they know how to.
And that's all you know, and all you ever need know.
Ray and the Ravens Dominate the Texans
4.7/carry, 12 touchdowns. Ray Rice is the key to Baltimore's win over the Houston Texans in Baltimore.
The Texans advanced to their second ever playoff game with a tough win over the Bengals. But now, they're on the road, and it's even tougher to win on the road in the playoffs, where everything about the game is magnified times 10.
They key in this game is Rice. The Ravens will run him down the Texans throats rather than try to place the entire burden on Joe Flacco. In a season where passing dominated and the running game was thought of as the Model-T of football, playoff time is different. At least 150 for Rice on the ground as the Ravens control the clock and take the win.
(Plus, Ray gave all his linemen $4,500 watches this week. They'll block a little extra hard for him.)
Giants Return to Green Bay and Pack the Packers in Again
It seems to me we've heard this song before. And it's lovely to hear it again.
The Giants. The Packers. Great tradition. Great uniforms. Playoff time on the Frozen Tundra.
The last time, of course, it was in unspeakably cold conditions at Lambeau as the Giants knocked off the Packers 23-20 in overtime to advance to the Super Bowl, where they ended New England's perfect season.
The Giants front line, when everybody is pumping, is enough to create problems for Rodgers and the Packers, "Discount Doublechecks" not withstanding.
Jason Pierre-Paul, the only NFL player with three first names, all but singlehandedly won the clincher against the Cowboys, and he and all his linemates were tough against the Falcons in what was really a shutout for the defense, since the Falcons only points came on a safety.
As the old boxing saying goes, Rodgers can run, but he can't hide. He'll have to leave the pocket a lot. But if the Giants DBs do anything close to a competent job, the D-line will have Rodgers, and the Lambeau faithful, doing a lot less leaping on Sunday.