NFL Playoff Picks: Who Will Advance to Conference Championships?

Kraig LundbergAnalyst IIIJanuary 14, 2012

NFL Playoff Picks: Who Will Advance to Conference Championships?

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    As we prepare for the divisional round of the 2012 NFL playoffs, we'll take a look at all four of the week's matchups and pick winners for each.

    With eight teams left in the Super Bowl hunt, it's anyone's guess who will win it all this year.

    Which teams will take another step toward that and advance to their respective conference championship games?

AFC: No. 1 New England Patriots vs. No. 4 Denver Broncos

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    After their surprise upset win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card Round last week, the Denver Broncos will travel to Foxboro to try to get redemption against the New England Patriots.

    Conventional wisdom says the Patriots should win this game handily, but the same could have been said about the Dolphins, Raiders, Chiefs, Jets, Chargers, Bears and Steelers, and we all know how that worked out.

    That's why they play the game.

    By now, everyone should know never to count out the Tim Tebow-led Broncos, but Tom Brady and the Patriots have been known to come through in the clutch as well, so if Denver keeps this close, it should be a very interesting fourth quarter.

    Tebow made Pittsburgh pay dearly for their defensive game plan last week, and while the Patriots will probably do more to confuse the inexperienced quarterback, they and the Steelers are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of numbers when it comes to pass defense.

    Still, it won't be easy for the Broncos to keep up with Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and I think the Patriots ultimately pull this one out at home, even if Tebow puts forth another great effort.


    Patriots 34, Broncos 24

NFC: No. 2 San Francisco 49ers vs. No. 3 New Orleans Saints

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    One of the best matchups of the week, it will be very interesting to see the old adage "defense wins championships" put to the test when the San Francisco 49ers take on the high-flying New Orleans Saints at home.

    The Saints have been on an impressive tear lately—their last loss dates all the way back to October 30th (a fluky loss to the Rams)—and they have averaged a 24-point margin of victory over their last four games.

    Drew Brees and the Saints have looked unstoppable on offense lately, but this week they get a stiff test from the second-best defense in the NFL in terms of points allowed—and it won't be in the dome that they are so used to dominating in.

    The 49ers have not been nearly as explosive offensively this season. Rather, they rely heavily on the running game along with efficient quarterback play, which Alex Smith has done a superb job of this year.

    These two teams stack up pretty evenly across the board, but there's one glaring disparity: the passing game.

    The Saints have the top passing attack in the league, while the Niners rank just 16th in passing yards allowed. New Orleans has weapons that create nightmarish mismatches (just ask the Detroit Lions), and I don't know if San Francisco has the secondary to stop them.

    Many people think that the home-field advantage and New Orleans' perceived weakness to outside conditions will cancel that out, but I'm not buying it. Momentum also has to play a factor, and the Saints have been dominating while the 'Niners struggled a bit to close out the year.

    I believe "defense wins championships" still rings true, and my Super Bowl pick reflects that belief, but it won't be the case in this particular game.


    Saints 31, 49ers 23

AFC: No. 2 Baltimore Ravens vs. No. 3 Houston Texans

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    Coming off an impressive home win over the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round, the Houston Texans get a much stiffer test this week against the seasoned Ravens in Baltimore.

    Houston's first playoff appearance began with a big win, but it will be hard pressed to collect No. 2 against the Ravens. 

    For an upset to happen, basically every Texan would have to be playing lights-out football. More specifically, though, rookie quarterback TJ Yates would need to have the game of his life. If Yates can be effective enough in the passing game to loosen up the defense and get Arian Foster going on the ground, an upset would be very possible.

    Andre Johnson will also need to be a factor, though, which means he will have to shake off the rust (he dropped two passes last week).

    Defensively, the Texans will have to keep doing what they have been doing. Baltimore is balanced on offense, but they rarely get explosive plays and the Texans could conceivably shut them down.

    The Ravens will need a solid game from Joe Flacco as well as a heavy dose of Ray Rice, and they'll want to try and test Houston's defense deep with Torrey Smith at times to keep them honest.

    On defense, the Ravens will lean on their veterans to stop Houston in their tracks. Ed Reed will be watching for an errant TJ Yates pass like a hawk, and Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata will try to stifle Arian Foster. Terrell Suggs will try to get to Yates off the edge.

    This Baltimore team is beatable, but at the same time, they've looked so good against quality opponents (including Houston) this year that it's hard to pick against them.


    Ravens 17, Texans 16 

NFC: No. 1 Green Bay Packers vs. No. 4 New York Giants

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    Four weeks ago, nobody would have dreamed that this rematch would even be taking place, but here we are watching the Giants defying the odds yet again.

    Looking to statistical rankings wouldn't do this game justice, because lately the Giants have been much better in so many areas than their numbers would suggest. After New York's 24-2 stomping of the overmatched Atlanta Falcons, many are comparing this team to the 2008 Super Bowl team and picking them to run the table in a similar fashion.

    However, the 15-1 Packers will have something to say about that. The last time these two played, Green Bay escaped with a 38-35 victory over the resilient Giants, which can be compared to the 2007 game against the then-undefeated Patriots, whom New York beat in a rematch in that season's Super Bowl.

    But even though the Giants are better now than they were, taking on the Pack in Lambeau Field is a different animal.

    Both of these teams have outstanding passing games led by star quarterbacks, and both teams have struggled to stop the pass, so we could see a score very similar to the first contest.

    When it comes down to crunch time, though, I think Aaron Rodgers will get it done while Eli Manning may not against an opportunistic secondary.

    The Giants run is cut short at Green Bay.


    Packers 33, Giants 29