2012 NFL Playoffs: Picking the Divisional Round Winners and Losers
Welcome, NFL Playoffs fans, to the best weekend of professional American football action of the entire year.
This is the weekend of the NFL Divisional Playoffs, and it does not get any better than this.
The action kicks off Saturday at 4:30PM (FOX) when the New Orleans Saints (14-3) visit the San Francisco 49ers (13-3) for a matchup that will feature Drew Brees and the record-setting Saints offense vs. the 49ers' second-ranked scoring defense.
The Denver Broncos (9-8) will visit the New England Patriots (13-3) at 8:00PM (CBS) in a game featuring America's most popular athlete, Tim Tebow, and the NFL's most accomplished active quarterback, Tom Brady.
Sunday's divisional action begins with the Houston Texans (10-6) visiting the Baltimore Ravens (12-4) at 1:00PM (CBS). Both teams have punishing defenses and bruising rushing attacks that each rank among the NFL's best.
Finally, All-Pro defensive lineman Jason Pierre-Paul and the New York Giants (10-7) bring their imposing pass rush to Lambeau Field, where they will mount their best attack against 2011 Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers and the defending champion Green Bay Packers (15-1) at 4:30PM (FOX).
SPOILER ALERT: Now that the formal introductions are out of the way, read on to find out which teams will advance to next weekend's Conference Championship round and who will be sipping margaritas on a Mexican beach by Wednesday.
Saints vs. 49ers
NFC Divisional Playoff
Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012: No. 3 New Orleans (14-3) at No. 2 San Francisco (13-3), 4:30 ET (FOX)
This is an old NFC West matchup that the 49ers dominated throughout their championship years of the 1980s and 1990s.
But these are not the old 'Aints coming to South San Francisco for a divisional playoff game.
Neither are these the underachieving 49ers of the past decade, who have not won a playoff game since their frantic 39-38 comeback win from 24-points down over the New York Giants nine years ago.
Drew Brees and the Saints have been lighting up defenses all season long to the tune of 34.2 points per game, breaking a slew of offensive records along the way—including most passing yards and most total yards in a season.
San Francisco's rookie head coach, Jim Harbaugh, has managed to harness the strengths of the 49ers' offense and defense in a way that former coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary failed to do.
The 49ers will have to play ball-control offense and try to avoid getting into a shootout with the Saints, though New Orleans' high-flying offense averaged two fewer touchdowns on the road than they did in the Superdome.
So, I'm saying there's a chance for San Francisco to advance to the NFC Championship game next weekend, but it's not a good one.
Brees is going to retire as a multi-time Super Bowl champion, so he may as well keep his chances alive this season.
Prediction: Saints 31, 49ers 21
Giants vs Packers
NFC Divisional Playoff
Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012: No. 4 New York Giants (10-7) at No. 1 Green Bay (15-1), 4:30 ET (FOX)
The Giants are a tricky team to figure out.
They started the season 6-2 before losing four in a row and rebounding to win four of their last five games, including last weekend's 24-2 Wild Card win over the Atlanta Falcons.
Green Bay, on the other hand, is not hard to figure out. They are just hard to stop.
Aaron Rodgers has been playing some of the best football we've ever seen, according to perhaps the best quarterback of all-time, Joe Montana.
The Giants' strengths are their pass rush and their passing game, and they will need both to be operating at peak efficiency to have any shot at dethroning the defending Super Bowl champion Packers.
That said, Tom Coughlin and the Giants have knocked off the best before when it counted most, beating the undefeated New England Patriots 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII four seasons ago.
Eli Manning can get hot and complete 15-20 passes in a row at any time, but he is also prone to turning the ball over—he threw 16 interceptions and lost four fumbles during the regular season.
The Packers' No. 1 scoring offense does not waste many scoring opportunities.
The Packers beat the Giants 38-35 in Week 13 at New Meadowlands Stadium to put a bookend on New York's mid-season losing streak, but the enigmatic G-men have played better since, excluding their inexplicable 23-10 loss to the Washington Redskins in Week 15.
The lesson is, the Giants are guaranteed to lay an egg. The question is whether or not it will be golden.
Prediction: Packers 42, Giants 26
Broncos vs. Patriots
AFC Divisional Playoff
Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012: No. 4 Denver Broncos (9-8) at No. 1 New England Patriots (13-3), 8:00 ET (CBS)
As ESPN's Chris Berman used to say in his soft-spoken, yet husky voice about Deion Sanders, this game is on "Prime Time, Prime Time."
Many of those folks tuning in will also be watching to see if Gisele Bundchen's husband, Tom Brady, can end the Patriots' three-game playoff losing skid en pursuit of his fourth Super Bowl ring.
But aside from all the glitz, this game is going to be about whether or not the Broncos' vaunted defense can hold the Patriots' No.3 ranked scoring offense to 20 points or less, so that Tebow can lead another miracle win that has defined Denver's season since he took over as the starter in Week 7.
If this game was being played at Mile High, I would put the odds of such an upset at about 40:60, but unfortunately for Broncos/Tebow Nation, they are playing at Foxboro where the Patriots rarely lose, especially in the Playoffs.
Sorry, Tebow Maniacs, but midnight is set to strike on the Broncos' Cinderella season around 11:30 ET Saturday night.
Prediction: Patriots 28, Broncos 24
Texans at Ravens
AFC Divisional Playoff
Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012: No. 3 Houston (11-6) at No. 2 Baltimore (12-4), 1:00 ET (CBS)
What promises to be the hardest-hitting game of the weekend features two of the NFL's top three defenses and a pair of 1,200-plus yard rushers.
Houston is without its Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback, Matt Schaub, who was injured for the season in Week 11, and they will start rookie quarterback T.J Yates on Sunday.
Ray Lewis and the Ravens' defense will no doubt have their collective ears pinned back and ready to attack Yates at every opportunity. But their primary concern will be stopping the Texans' two-headed rushing attack of Arian Foster (1,224 yards) and Ben Tate (942 yards) that finished second in the NFL this season.
The Ravens' offense will counter with Ray Rice (1,364), the NFL's second-leading rusher against Houston's stout fourth-ranked run defense.
In a game of diametrically opposing forces, the two sides will just have to line up and pound one another for sixty minutes, and see which teams breaks down first.
With Houston's injury troubles this season, I believe it will be the Texans who fold late in the game to give Baltimore a close win.
Prediction: Ravens 24, Texans 21