We have reached the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs following a Wild Card round that did not disappoint viewers.
The Broncos pulled out an improbable win over the mighty, albeit hobbled, Steelers on an 80-yard touchdown pass in overtime by Tim Tebow. The Saints flexed their second-half muscle on the Lions who had no answer for Drew Brees and his multitude of weapons. The Falcons were grounded by the imposing Giants defense which held them without a point on offense.
The bad news for each of those winners is that they must hit the road to face a team which earned a first-round bye during the regular season.
I went 2-2 on straight-up picks, taking one loss at the hands of Tebow and the other to the unimpressive performance of the Cincinnati Bengals. An even worse 1-3 record against both the spread and over/under number left me sunk for the week, and hoping that my competition suffered similar defeat in order for me to remain in the first place spot I held at season’s end.
This week begins the time when legacies are created, and dreams are crushed. Can any underdogs steal a win on the road, or will we see each conference’s top-two teams advance to their respective conference championships?
Here’s how I see it playing out:
New Orleans Saints (-3.5) at San Francisco 49ers (O/U = 47.5)
We begin the week with arguably its most intriguing matchup when the red-hot Saints travel to San Francisco. The New Orleans offense looked human for the first half against Detroit, but reminded everyone in the second half just how they went about setting all of those offensive records in the regular season.
The below-average Lions secondary was no match for the Saints’ firepower and were exposed in a 30-minute beatdown in quarters three and four. On this note the Saints carry a lot of momentum into the Bay to face a Niners defense which has been one of the league’s best this season.
Jim Harbaugh has orchestrated one of the greatest one-year turnarounds in recent memory taking the 6-10 team to a 13-3 record this season, earning them the NFC’s second seed and a first-round bye. San Fran didn’t give up a rushing touchdown until Week 16 of the regular season, a stat that really doesn’t need much explanation.
They are a hard-nosed group that hasn't slipped all season and will have their home turf under their feet as they look to withstand the imminent blow of the Saints' offensive machine. It is a classic battle of offense versus defense, making it hard to predict which side’s strength will be able to overpower the other.
With the experience Brees and the rest of the Saints have following a Super Bowl run in 2009 they will come into this one ready to rock, whereas the 49ers may take some time to transition into the intensity needed in a playoff matchup like this.
That short learning curve, however slight, might be just enough of a window for the Saints to sneak in a couple of scores and hold off a less than formidable Niners offense to steal this one on the road.
Straight: New Orleans
Spread: New Orleans
Denver Broncos (+13.5) at New England Patriots (O/U = 50.5)
In a finish that can only be described as magical, the underdog Broncos and their overachieving quarterback silenced even more critics with an overtime victory against the Steelers in the Wild Card round. Tebow put on arguably his best performance as a pro, tallying 316 yards passing and two scores to go along with another touchdown run.
Just when everyone thought they had met their match against a defensive group that couldn’t possibly allow Tebowmania to continue, they rose to the occasion and advanced to the Divisional round this week. It’s fair to assume Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are just fine with that outcome.
The Patriots will surely welcome the Broncos and their polarizing QB to Foxborough with open arms in comparison to the black and yellow defense they could have been matched up against. The Pats defensive coaching staff likely took plenty of notes from the Steelers game plan, which showed quite effectively exactly how not to play defense against the Broncos offensive scheme.
A group which has been almost exclusively run-based since Tebow arrived took to the air against a scheme which sometimes provided the entire middle of the field safety-free. While many folks have made the claim that Tebow cannot throw the football it appeared Dick Lebeau took this mentality to heart and he paid the price for it. The Broncos passing attack actually looked, dare I say, impressive against the questionable defensive strategy and we can be sure that the Patriots will feature a much more balanced opposition.
Although at this point it almost appears as though divine intervention is on the side of Tebow and the Broncos, the logical pick here has to be the Pats at home. That being said, don’t expect Denver to go down without some sort of fight against a Patriots defense that has been the worst in the NFL. A 13.5 point cushion is astronomical for a game this time of year and may be too much for Brady and company to cover against a stout Denver defense.
Straight: New England
Houston Texans (+7.5) at Baltimore Ravens (O/U = 36)
The Texans held serve at home against a young Cincy squad for the right to face off against the perennial powerhouse Baltimore Ravens. Third-string rookie quarterback T.J Yates showed an inordinate amount of poise in Houston’s victory, outdueling Rookie of the Year candidate Andy Dalton.
After losing out to finish the regular season, many folks had the Texans losing to the Bengals (including myself) but it was clear from the start that Arian Foster had other plans. The Texans RB put on a show and ran in a couple of scores to go with 100-plus yards in the decisive victory. The atmosphere will, however, be different in Baltimore to say the least.
Yates and company were able to ride the home-field wave in the organization’s inaugural playoff game, but a well-worn Baltimore crowd will provide a very different feel for the young starter this weekend. If Foster is not able to perform to the level he has been at as of late then the respectable Houston defense will have the unenviable task of slowing down one of the league’s top rushers in Ray Rice.
While the Raven’s offense has been very up and down this season, they appear to have found there groove after taking care of Cincinnati in the final game of the regular season. It’s hard to see them not showing up ready to play in this one.
In the end the mountain of playoff experience for the Ravens will be too much for the newcomers to handle and the Texans will likely have to take a loss in stride as a learning experience.
New York Giants (+7.5) at Green Bay Packers (O/U = 52.5)
The last team into the NFL playoffs was the New York Giants, but judging by their play against the Falcons in their Wild Card matchup you wouldn’t have guessed it. Their defensive front gave Matt Ryan and the Atlanta offense fits, and didn’t allow a single offensive score, limiting the Falcons to two points on an early safety. When you take into account the kind of points the ATL offense had put up on occasion, this achievement is nothing to scoff at.
However, mighty as that Falcon offense may be, it is not in the same league as the defending Super Bowl Champion’s. The Packers have lit up the scoreboard almost at will this season and even went back and forth against Detroit in the final week of the regular season in a victory when many starters, including Aaron Rodgers, didn’t see any action.
They have been firing on all cylinders since the season began, and unless the Giants are able to figure out something that nobody else has all year, it’s hard to see them walking into Lambeau Field and winning this game.
While the emergence of Victor Cruz alongside Hakeem Nicks has provided great offensive balance for the G-Men, they will be overwhelmed if forced to go tit for tat with this GB offensive group. If, by some wild chance, the NY defense can hold the Pack under 30, this game could remain in the balance until late, but even then I will take Green Bay to pull out a win at home.
It looks like we are headed for a serious shootout between NO and GB in the NFC Championship.
Straight: Green Bay
Spread: Green Bay
Four of the remaining seven games of the year will be played out in the matchups discussed, which serves as a sad reminder that football season does not last forever. So be sure not to miss any of the action this weekend as we will not be treated to this much great competition for several months.
See you next week for the Conference Championships.