NFL Divisional Round: Preview and Analysis for All 4 Games
Wild Card Weekend was fun, and almost surprisingly, every home team won. That means every wild-card team is out (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit and Atlanta) and all eight division winners are still alive.
Three of the four upcoming games represent rematches of regular-season games, the exception being the Saints-49ers matchup.
The Patriots defeated the Broncos, 41-23, in Week 15 behind Tom Brady's 320 passing yards and three total touchdowns.
The Ravens topped the Texans, 29-14, in Week 6 after outscoring Houston 13-0 in the fourth quarter.
The Packers squeaked by the Giants, 38-35, in Week 13 thanks to a last-second, 31-yard field goal by Mason Crosby.
But if the playoffs have proven one thing over the years, it's that nothing is guaranteed.
Stats are just stats, and the past is just that. Neither should hold weight for teams gunning toward the conference championships.
The Divisional Round is next up, and this slideshow previews each game.
New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers
The first game of the weekend sees the super-hot Saints traveling to San Francisco to take on the 49ers.
Both teams finished 13-3, but did so in wildly different fashions. The 49ers are renowned for defense, especially against the run, while the Saints do their damage almost solely on offense.
With their Wild Card win over Detroit, the Saints have now won nine straight games dating back to Nov. 6. They've really hit their offensive stride, scoring 42 or more points in their last four games.
Almost quietly, New Orleans' backfield trio of Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory helped put up the sixth-most rushing yards in the league—132.9 per game.
But with the 49ers maintaining such a stout run defense—they allow only 77 rush yards per game—New Orleans will probably stick to the air attack. San Francisco's secondary proved to be more susceptible to passing.
On offense, San Francisco relies on a ground game with the tandem of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. Gore's production slowed considerably over the second half of the season due to a lingering knee injury, but the week off should help him.
Alex Smith has been a game general more so than a dominant passer, but he does come up with big throws across the middle. Look for TE Vernon Davis to be on the receiving end of these.
A noticeable weak spot for the 49ers is their inability to convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. Field goals will not be enough against a team like New Orleans.
Picking a winner is tough, but I'm going with the Saints due to their experiential advantage in playoff games.
Denver Broncos at New England Patriots
In what is probably the most anticipated matchup of the weekend, the Broncos visit New England to take on the Patriots, the AFC's top seed.
I am the first to admit I was unconvinced about Tim Tebow's ability to succeed at this level, but Sunday's emotional win over Pittsburgh has partially changed my mind.
If he gets the job done in New England, I may become a full-fledged believer.
While utilizing a rush-happy option and wildcat offense, Tebow and the Broncos really did their most damage with big pass plays Sunday. The NFL's most loved and hated quarterback put up a career-high 316 yards on just 10 completions, including two touchdowns.
The culmination, an 80-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas in overtime, will be a defining moment of Tebow's season no matter what happens the rest of the way.
The Patriots, meanwhile, are probably taking the events in stride. Bill Belichick's team is a perennial playoff threat and won't be intimidated by a team they defeated just a few weeks ago.
Like the Saints, the Patriots have a suspect defense, but did enough damage on offense to make it a moot point. They were third in points (32.1) and second in passing yards (317.8) in 2011.
If Denver continues its newly-found aerial onslaught, they may be in position to take advantage of a Patriots secondary that gives up nearly 294 passing yards per game.
It is too difficult for me to pick against New England in this game, but it has the makings of a huge upset special. If the game stays close into the fourth quarter, the momentum shifts to Denver.
Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens
Unlike in their regular-season matchup, Matt Schaub will not be quarterbacking the Texans. Nor will Matt Leinart, for that matter.
Third-string QB T.J. Yates took over for Houston on Nov. 28 during the team's 20-13 win over Jacksonville after Leinart went down with a broken collarbone.
The team plugged right along and reached their first playoffs in team history by winning the AFC South.
The moment didn't overcome the Texans, as they defeated Cincinnati last week by a 31-10 score in a Wild Card Game.
Arian Foster, the NFL's fifth-best rusher in 2011, exploded for 153 yards and two touchdowns. Houston's defense intercepted Andy Dalton three times, including a pick six, and only allowed 76 rushing yards.
The Texans now face the Ravens, winners of the tough AFC North. They are especially noted for a tough defense across the board, allowing only 16.6 points, 92.6 rushing yards and 196.3 passing yards per game.
On offense, Ray Rice guides the running game and also is utilized as a receiving threat out of the backfield. He is third on the team in receiving yards with 704, and caught three touchdown passes to go along with his 12 rushing scores in 2011.
The Ravens went 6-0 in their division, but the big question is whether they will take the next step in the playoffs this year. They've lost two straight Divisional Round games and lost in the AFC Championship three years ago.
Baltimore should be in position to win this game, but an upset is very possible when considering the Ravens' recent playoff missteps.
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers
The 15-1 Packers led the NFL in scoring (35 points per game) but also had the worst passing defense (299.8) this season. Giants QB Eli Manning was the fourth-leading passer in the NFL during the regular season, notching 4,933 yards.
He also threw 16 interceptions, the most of any remaining playoff quarterback. With the worst rushing offense in the league, the Giants will need Manning to limit his mistakes and make big plays if they are to win in Green Bay.
In their regular-season meeting, the Packers and Giants put on a passing clinic.
Manning finished with 347 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Aaron Rodgers had 369 yards, four touchdowns and an interception.
Only a last-second field goal lifted the Packers over the Giants at the Meadowlands back on Dec. 4.
Considering that close call and their beatable defense, the Packers will need Rodgers to continue his dominance on offense.
After a convincing 24-2 win against Atlanta in which they did not allow an offensive score, the Giants could present a bigger challenge to the reigning champs than most would like to give them credit for.
The Broncos-Patriots game may be the most anticipated of the weekend, but this one could very well provide the most fireworks.