The media will be in full force in Foxboro this Saturday night.
The 2012 NFL Playoffs got off to quite a start this past weekend. The home teams won all four Wild Card games, leaving only the NFL’s eight division winners left to compete for the eventual title of Super Bowl Champion.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, this weekend is the Divisional round. The top two seeds in each conference will be in action for the first time this postseason after earning first round byes and will host the four winners from last week’s games. As was the case last weekend, there will be two games this coming Saturday and two more on Sunday.
Saturday’s first game will showcase Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints as they head west to face the San Francisco 49ers. This game will take place at 4:30 EST and be shown on Fox. The nightcap will feature Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos making their way east to take on Tom Brady and the top-seeded New England Patriots. This game will air on CBS at 8:00 EST.
The early game on Sunday will have Ray Rice and the Baltimore Ravens hosting the Houston Texans. This game will take place at 1:00 EST and air on CBS. The second game will feature likely NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers playing host to Eli Manning and the New York Giants. This game will begin at 4:30 and be shown on Fox.
The four teams hosting games this weekend boast a combined 53-11 regular season record including an incredible 30-2 record at home. So will we see another 4-0 week out of the home teams? Let’s examine the matchups to find out.
The 49ers face their biggest test yet against New Orleans.
The opening Divisional Round matchup on Saturday features NFL single-season passing record holder Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints taking on the NFC West Division San Francisco 49ers. First year head coach Jim Harbaugh has done a tremendous job of turning the 49ers around, and San Francisco is making its first playoff appearance since the 2002 season.
This game will showcase a classic offense v. defense matchup, and there are arguments to be made on both sides with regard to which side will have the advantage. So what’s going to give?
As we saw in last week’s 45-28 victory against the Lions, the Saints are chock full of offensive weapons. Five different players scored touchdowns as New Orleans amassed an NFL playoff record 626 yards of total offense. During the regular season, the Saints set an NFL record for total yardage and scored a whopping 34.2 points per game, becoming only the fifth team in NFL history to score 540 points in a season.
However, New Orleans has been far less prolific on the road this season, particularly on grass. In five games on grass this season, the Saints were just 3-2 and averaged 25.8 points per game, a far cry from the 8-1 record and 41.1 points per game they averaged at home.
The 49ers were second in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing only 14.3 points per contest. Their season high in points allowed was 27, a number the Saints eclipsed on 10 different occasions during the regular season. San Francisco was fourth in the NFL in yards allowed. Rookie linebacker Aldon Smith tied for fifth in the NFL in sacks with 14. The 49ers’ opportunistic defense forced 38 turnovers during the regular season, which tied for the NFL lead.
But San Francisco’s defensive numbers are slightly less impressive when you consider that nine of their opponents finished the year in the bottom ten in the NFL in scoring offense. The 49ers have yet to face an offense with the firepower that the Saints possess.
On the offensive side of the ball, Alex Smith has had his best season after being seen by many as a bust for the majority of his career. The former first overall pick in the NFL draft hasn’t wowed anyone with his numbers but has matured into a very disciplined game manager. Smith threw only five interceptions during the year. In fact, the 49ers as an offense committed just 10 turnovers, tying an NFL record.
RB Frank Gore paced San Francisco’s eighth-ranked rushing attack with his fifth 1,000 yard season. WR Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis are Smith’s go-to guys, combining for over half of both of the team’s receptions and receiving yards. Perhaps their best offensive weapon is kicker David Akers, who set an NFL record with 44 made field goals.
The Saints' run defense wasn’t tested much last week, as the Lions tallied just 10 rushing attempts during last week’s Saints victory. Of those, only six were designed running plays to featured back Kevin Smith. Because the Saints are susceptible to the run, their best bet is to score early and often, forcing the 49ers to pass the ball. This would allow defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to utilize his various blitz packages to attempt to rattle Smith and force him to throw the ball earlier than he would like.
If the Saints are forced to stay honest and defend the run for all four quarters, they could struggle and wear down as the game continues. San Francisco’s game plan will be to try to control the clock with their running game and win the field position battle. San Francisco boasts an elite special teams unit. Punter Andy Lee and return specialist Ted Ginn generally provide the 49ers with a decided advantage in field position, which has gone a long way in the team’s success this year.
I believe that the key to this game lies in the ability to convert on third down. The Saints were successful on 56.7% of their third downs, while the 49ers converted a mere 29.4% of third downs. While settling for field goals is fine againt the likes of the NFC West, it simply won’t cut it against the potent and powerful offense of New Orleans. The Saints' ability to sustain drives and score touchdowns instead of field goals should provide them enough of a cushion to win this game.
Prediction: New Orleans 24, San Francisco 19
Tom Brady is looking to get back to the AFC Championship game.
The second game on Saturday will showcase the AFC East Division Champion New England Patriots hosting Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos. This will be a rematch of the Week 15 contest, which New England won 41-23 in Denver. Tom Brady led the way in that game with 320 passing yards and two TD passes and a rushing touchdown, and Aaron Hernandez caught a season-high nine passes for 129 yards with a touchdown.
The Broncos rushed for 252 yards (including 167 in the first quarter) and three touchdowns in the Week 15 contest, but were plagued by three lost fumbles which led to 13 New England points. New England scored 27 straight points in the second and third quarters en route to an easy victory.
Tim Tebow surprised many by leading the Broncos to victory in last week’s Wild Card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Particularly surprising to me was the fact that Tebow was able to beat the Steelers through the air, throwing for a career high 316 yards. I still don’t believe he is a legitimate starting quarterback in the NFL, but I have to give the devil his due (uh, poor choice of words?) -- he made several quality throws throughout the course of last week’s game, including the game-winning 80-yard TD throw to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime.
Tebow ran for two touchdowns in the previous game against New England, but Denver attempted just 16 designed runs over the course of the final three quarters once New England had established a healthy lead. If Denver can keep the game close, its ability to run the football could prove fruitful as the game progresses.
New England’s defense is hardly an imposing force. Its rush defense was average at best, finishing eighth worst in yards per carry at 4.6 and right around the middle of the pack in total rushing yards allowed. Its pass defense was downright anemic. It was a bottom 10 unit in total yards allowed (4,703), yards per attempt (8.0) and touchdown passes allowed (26). They will also be without DE Andre Carter, who tied for the team lead with ten sacks.
However, benefiting New England in this game will be the presence of MLB Brandon Spikes and SS Patrick Chung, both of whom missed the Week 15 game against Denver and could help contain Denver’s NFL best rushing attack. CB Kyle Arrington is the Patriots’ best cover corner and tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions. He will likely be assigned to Thomas. The rest of the secondary is very suspect in coverage, but Denver may not have enough receiver depth to exploit that deficiency.
Tom Brady threw for 5,235 yards, the second-most yards in NFL history, to go along with 39 TD passes. Wide receiver Wes Welker led the NFL in receptions for the third time in his career and led the AFC in receiving yards. Second year tight end Rob Gronkowski set NFL records for both yardage and touchdowns by a tight end and finished second in the AFC in receiving yards. He averaged a whopping 10.7 yards per target, and combines with Hernandez to make the most formidable tight end duo in NFL history.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the Patriots with 667 rushing yards and 11 TD, but rookie Stevan Ridley has emerged to be the Patriots’ best running back over the past month. Ridley averaged 70 yards rushing over the last three games, while Green-Ellis struggled down the stretch, in part due to a toe injury. I expect Ridley to handle a decent amount of the every down work, while Green-Ellis will handle short yardage and goal-line situations.
Denver’s defense was able to capitalize on an injured Ben Roethlisberger last week. Big Ben’s ability to extend plays with his legs was largely limited, and Denver held the Steelers in check and recorded five sacks. The key to their victory last week was limiting Pittsburgh to early field goals which allowed the Broncos to remain patient on offense and stick with their game plan. They ran on 34 of 55 offensive plays last week and would figure to draw up a similar game plan against New England.
Top CB Champ Bailey had three passes defended last week and will be highly depended on once again. But he can’t cover everyone, and if the pass rush doesn’t create pressure on Brady he should be able to locate the open receiver with relative ease.
Tebow may very well have earned himself some rope heading into next year with last week’s unlikely victory. He didn’t turn the ball over, made some good throws and was efficient in the play-action passing game. If Denver’s defense can execute the same game plan as last week and keep New England off the scoreboard early, the Broncos can stick to the run game on offense and try to limit the number of times Tom Brady and company touch the football.
However, the Patriots present a unique challenge because their offense is so explosive. Brady is a master at picking apart opposing defenses and locating mismatches. He will look to get rid of the ball quickly and pick on CB Andre’ Goodman and FS Quinton Carter in coverage. Denver should be able to keep this close, but look for New England to win its first playoff game in four years.
Prediction: New England 31, Denver 20
Ray Rice looks to flex his muscles against the Texans this weekend.
Sunday’s first game will see the AFC North Division Champion Baltimore Ravens hosting the Houston Texans. This will be the eighth playoff game for the Ravens over the last four years, but their first at home over that span. Baltimore defeated Houston 29-14 in Week 6 behind Joe Flacco’s 305 passing yards and Ray Rice’s 101 rushing yards. Billy Cundiff tacked on five field goals and the Texans were held to just 293 total yards by the Ravens’ defense, including just 49 rushing yards for Arian Foster.
This will be a knock-down, drag-out affair. Both defenses rank in the top four in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and rush defense, so expect a defensive struggle in this one.
Foster was the hero of last week’s 31-10 Wild Card victory over Cincinnati, accumulating 182 total yards and two touchdowns, including a highlight reel 42 yard TD run in the fourth quarter which effectively ended Cincinnati’s season. WR Andre Johnson paced the Texans with 90 receiving yards and a touchdown, but struggled on occasion with drops. Houston was able to employ a 35:20 run-pass ratio, relegating rookie QB T.J. Yates to game manager status. Yates was effective, completing 11 passes for 159 yards and the touchdown pass to Johnson. Most importantly, Yates did not turn the ball over. Houston will look to employ a similar game plan against the Ravens this week.
Baltimore’s defense was its usual stellar self during the regular season. They allowed just 3.5 yards per rushing attempt, which tied the 49ers for best in the NFL. They led the NFL in passing touchdowns allowed (11), forced fumbles (21), and passes defended (112). They were also third in the NFL with 48 sacks.
MLB Ray Lewis led the team with 95 despite missing four games. The former two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year looks to be back to 100 percent health and had 12 tackles and a sack in Baltimore’s earlier victory over Houston. Terrell Suggs led the AFC in sacks with 14, and CB Lardarius Webb tallied five interceptions and 20 pass defenses. Free safety Ed Reed is battling a right shoulder injury but is always a threat to bait opposing quarterbacks into game-changing mistakes.
The Ravens’ offense is paced by RB Ray Rice. The fourth-year running back led the NFL with 2,068 yards from scrimmage and also scored 15 total touchdowns this season. Joe Flacco amassed 3,610 passing yards and 20 touchdowns. Veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin led the way with 887 receiving yards, and rookie WR Torrey Smith added a new dimension to Baltimore’s offense by providing a much needed deep threat. Smith averaged 16.8 yards per catch and led the Ravens in TD receptions with seven.
Baltimore utilizes two tight ends in the passing game, as Ed Dickson (54 catches, 528 yards, 5 TD) and Dennis Pitta (40 catches, 405 yards, 3 TD) have stabilized the position formerly occupied by Todd Heap.
Houston’s defense held Cincinnati to just 300 total yards last week, registering four sacks and three turnovers in the process. The highlight was rookie DE J.J. Watt’s game-changing interception return for a touchdown towards the end of the first half, giving the Texans a lead they would never relinquish.
The revamped defense struggled against Baltimore in Week 6, but immediately followed that performance by winning seven straight games, allowing an average of just 12 points per game during the streak. Houston does an excellent job at batting passes down at the line of scrimmage as they demonstrated last week, so look for them to try to disrupt Flacco’s timing in the short passing game.
This game has all the makings of a classic defensive battle. I see this as an even matchup, so when in doubt, I look at the likelihood of each quarterback to win or lose the game on his own. While Joe Flacco will probably never be confused with Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Tom Brady, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has enough trust in him to take the occasional shot down the field to stretch the defense and keep them honest.
I don’t see T.J. Yates having earned that trust yet in his rookie season. Baltimore will likely commit an extra defender into the box to stop the run and allow Ed Reed to play center field and try to bait Yates into a critical error which could end the Texans’ first ever playoff run.
Prediction: Baltimore 16, Houston 10
Aaron Rodgers looks to continue his magical season on Sunday.
The final divisional game will feature the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers hosting Eli Manning and the New York Giants. The Packers went 15-1 this season and earned the NFC’s top seed by virtue of winning the NFC North.
One of the Packers' victories came against the Giants in Week 13. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers threw for 369 yards and 4 TD and drove Green Bay down the field at the end of regulation to set up a game-winning 31-yard field goal by Mason Crosby on the game’s final play in a 38-35 victory. Manning threw for 347 yards in the loss, as the Giants came within an eyelash of ending the Packers’ then-undefeated season.
Manning continued his fantastic season in New York’s victory over Atlanta last week. He threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Hakeem Nicks. Nicks also scored two TDs in the loss to Green Bay and could be in line for another big day. The key to New York’s win was the ability to establish the running game. The Giants finished dead last in both yards per carry (3.5) and total rushing yards (89.2 per game) during the regular season, but broke through for 172 rushing yards and 5.5 yards per rush against the Falcons.
Breakout WR Victor Cruz was held in check, but Mario Manningham picked up the slack with 68 receiving yards and a TD. The passing offense continues to roll along, and if New York can continue to keep defenses honest with the run, they have a legitimate shot of defeating Green Bay.
The Packers finished last statistically in both total defense and passing defense. However, as is the case with New Orleans and New England, this is slightly misleading because Green Bay was often scoring at such an amazing clip that opposing offenses were forced to adjust and throw more than usual. Packers’ opponents attempted a league-high 637 passes and threw for 4,796 yards during the course of the year. Like the Saints and Patriots, the Packers are not particularly strong against the run on a per play basis, allowing 4.6 yards per rush.
The biggest strength of Green Bay’s defense is their ability to create turnovers, particularly in the secondary. 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson recorded seven of Green Bay’s NFL-leading 31 interceptions, far and away the most of any team. Woodson often plays in the slot and could see a lot of Cruz, leaving Nicks and Manningham on the outside against lesser CBs Tramon Williams and Sam Shields.
Rodgers leads the prolific Green Bay passing attack and will almost certainly be rewarded with the NFL MVP award. He threw for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns despite resting in Week 17. Perhaps most impressive was that he threw just six interceptions and lost no fumbles. WR Jordy Nelson led all qualified receivers in both yards per catch (18.6) and yards per target (13.16) while catching 15 TD passes. Greg Jennings totaled 949 receiving yards despite missing the last three games with a sprained MCL. He should be fully recovered in time for Sunday’s game. James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb all possess playmaking ability and allow Green Bay to spread the field against opposing defenses.
The Packers use the run only sparingly to keep defenses honest. They employed almost a 50/50 split between RBs Ryan Grant and James Starks, but rushed for just 97.4 yards per game as a team. Their biggest weapon in this game may be TE Jermichael Finley. In their Week 13 contest, Finley caught six passes for 87 yards and a touchdown, and the Giants have struggled against elite tight ends throughout the year. They should be able to move the ball through the air as long as Rodgers has time to throw in the pocket.
The Giants defense was phenomenal against the Falcons, recording a virtual shutout, as the only Atlanta points came via a safety on defense. New York held Atlanta to just 247 yards of total offense and were equally effective against both the run and the pass. I was most impressed with their ability to play the pass, as Matt Ryan averaged just 4.9 yards per attempt. The Falcons' longest play of the day was a 21-yard pass to Roddy White.
I don’t expect New York to be able to control Green Bay’s offense in the same fashion, but the Giants are playing with a lot of confidence defensively and possess an outstanding pass rush. Green Bay’s offensive line is banged up, so look to see if New York can get Rodgers on the ground and limit the number of big plays. If they are successful in disrupting Rodgers' timing, they have a chance to pull off the upset.
This has the potential to be the most intriguing matchup of the weekend. The Packers have only lost one game in the last 13 months and will have the home field advantage and a week of rest. The Giants have the experience of their prior matchup with Green Bay and the knowledge that they can hang with the Pack.
I think this will be a highly competitive game, but in the end I see Aaron Rodgers being the difference. As great as Eli Manning has been this season, he is still prone to the occasional hiccup, be it a bad throw or a bad game. Rodgers, however, has been nearly perfect for almost a season and a half. He hasn’t turned the ball over more than once in a game all season and he has weapons all over the field. He could struggle at times with New York’s pass rush behind a suspect offensive line, but I believe that he will be able to make a big play when Green Bay needs him to and lead the Packers back to the NFC Championship game.
Prediction: Green Bay 31, New York 27