2012 NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round Preview
Three of the four matchups are very compelling, and don't worry, the Tebow Show will be around for at least one more week.
(2) San Francisco over (3) New Orleans
The Niners will host their first playoff game since the 2002 season, when they edged the New York Giants 11-6. This game should have some more fireworks.
New Orleans' strength is San Francisco Achilles' heel: the quarterback position. On the black-and-gold side, Brees had a year for the ages, crushing Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a season by 400, and leading another iteration of the powerhouse New Orleans offense. He has almost too many weapons at his disposal that it makes a robust Swiss Army knife look like a piece of crap: Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham (the second-best tight end this season), Darren Sproles (a revelation – how did NOLA get him for so cheap?), Pierre Thomas, Robert Meachem, and if he were healthy, Lance Moore (very good slot receiver). Is that even fair?
Alternatively, Alex Smith is not given the free reign Brees has. In fact, Smith is often placed in positions to "not lose" opposed to trying to win outright. In fairness, his best targets are Michael Crabtree (an average receiver) and Vernon Davis (an upper-end tight end), neither of whom had standout seasons. The bread and butter on offense is run, run, run with Frank "The Tank" Gore. And hey, 13 wins later, it has worked thus far.
Defensively, the Niners are much better than the Saints are in just about every crucial category: yards allowed, points allowed, sacks, interceptions, fumbles recovered, etc. They are anchored by All-Pro iron men Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis at inside linebacker, along with rookie pass-rushing phenom Aldon Smith and All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith. Their defense is ridiculously good-looking.
The Saints have one of the worst defenses in the league, statistically, but when a team can put up 35 points without breaking a sweat, the defense doesn't need to be Alabama-good. They have some good players such as Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter, Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith, but it's hard to have faith in a defensive squad unless one is confident in the other side of the ball, which is why the 49ers will win.
This game shouldn't be a field-position battle, but if it does, then San Francisco holds a giant edge. They have two All-Pro kickers in David Akers and Andy Lee, one of the two best kicking pairs in the league (look across the Bay to Oakland for the premier duo). Sproles is a more dynamic returner, but Ted Ginn Jr. is good himself. An easy edge to the Niners.
The unstoppable force of the Saints offense will not demolish the immovable force that is the red-and-gold defense. The Bay Area crowd will be amped to host its first playoff game in a decade. While Brees has been beyond remarkable, he will struggle some against the strongest defense he has played all year, with a week more of gameplanning under its belt. This will likely be the best game of the weekend.
(1) New England over (4) Denver
OK, raise your hands: who really thought Denver would be here? Well, that's more than was expected. I foolishly picked Pittsburgh to win and even cover against the Broncos, but I guess that’s my bad for picking against God.
Denver stunned the football world by dramatically pulling out a win in overtime against the vaunted Steelers. Timothy Richard Tebow had the best game of his short pro career, posting 316 passing yards and a pair of scores against the staunchest defense in the NFL. Willis McGahee was largely ineffective running the ball, but second-year wideout Demaryius Thomas had his coming out party, catching three balls for over 50-yard gains, including the awesome 80-yard, game-winning touchdown. Both facets of the offense will have to click to take down the Pats. The Denver offensive line has been very good this season, and will be a key to keeping the game close.
Now to the quarterback who has been marginalized in the pre-game discussions: Tom Brady. Crazy to think that, but after TebowCenter, it's kind of true. Brady had another sublime season, beating Marino's old record and adding 39 touchdowns without an elite wide receiver. That's unfair to say, because the Patriots are starting a new trend in the league with their super-athletic, dominating tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They're too big for _____ to tackle and too fast for ______ to cover. If you knew the first blank was "defensive backs" and the second was "linebackers," you’ve heard the argument before. Nevertheless, Gronk beasted and now holds the single-season records for touchdowns (18) and receiving yards (1327) by a tight end, and this offense is still high-octane.
The Patriots are a mess defensively. They feature no consistent pass rush, a decent run defense, and an atrocious secondary. Per Football Outsider's rankings, they have the second-worst defense in the entire league. Ouch. Brandon Spikes is a good player and Jerod Mayo is a great linebacker, but after losing Andre Carter, the pass rush has been weak. The secondary sometimes stars Julian Edelman. You know, wide receiver Julian Edelman. That's not a particularly good omen.
The teams have nearly equal kicking units, but the advantage goes to the home team. Britton Colquitt and Matt Prater were very good this year, but outside of Denver, their powers will be limited, whereas Zoltan Mesko (find me a cooler name than Zoltan Mesko. Try.) and Stephen Gostkowski have performed well in Foxborough. Neither team boasts an impressive return game, so that's a wash, but Eddie Royal could make some plays now that he has returned to fielding punts.
With all that being said for the Patriots bad defense, the Broncos' offense will be more susceptible to stopping themselves than the Patriots will be, resulting in a win for New England. Brady and the offense are just way too good, and while Tebow could have another strong performance, his defense will let him down.
(2) Baltimore over (4) Houston
This will be the most one-sided affair of the weekend.
Houston's offense was good against Cincinnati, as Andre Johnson finally returned, 100-percent healthy, and Arian Foster (right) ran all over the Bungles en route to a 31-10 victory. T.J. Yates was not dreadful, but he was not facing a strong defensive unit, which he will be when he takes the field in Baltimore. Yates will make or break Houston's performance. If he's a lost puppy, then they will fall. If he doesn't take many risks and makes no mistakes, then they will have a chance to win.
On the other sideline, Joe Flacco lives up to his name by taking lots of flac. He's not near the worst quarterbacks playing, but he's not particularly close to the best. He's an average Joe signal caller. Fortunately, it does not all rest on him. He has All-Pro-caliber running back Ray Rice to put the team on his back as well as solid receivers in Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, not to mention a great offensive line. He has tons of help, and it'll be up to him to not mess it all up.
When Mario Williams went down, I thought the Texans defense was in trouble, and yet, they never completely fell. New additions J.J. Watt, Johnathan Joseph and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips vastly improved the defense. Plus, Brian Cushing had a great third season, earning team MVP honors. They exhibited their dominance against Cincy last Saturday, which included a great pick-six by Watt.
Ultimately, Baltimore has the stronger defense, led by Terrell Suggs from Ball So Hard University, Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. And those are just their marquee players; they have a very strong squad on D. Their last three games, they were above average overall, including an abusive meeting with Philip Rivers in Week 15, a 34-point drubbing. But the following weeks they got back on track, allowing 30 points total against Cleveland and Cincinnati. I think they will have a nice day against Houston.
Both teams have good kickers with Billy Cundiff and Neil Rackers, but Ravens' punter Sam Koch had a better season than Houston's Matt Turk did. Plus, Baltimore has a fearful returner in Ladarius Webb.
Baltimore will win by double-digits, and I feel pretty confident about that fact. Ray Rice will have a big game, and T.J. Yates, the rookie, will shine for all the wrong reasons.
(1) Green Bay over (4) New York Giants
The defending champs take on the surging Giants in what should be a hotly-contested match. Let's look at both sides.
The Giants, however, have a powerful two-headed monster at tailback, with Ahmad Bradshaw and the rejuvenated Brandon Jacobs. The two combine to be a deadly combo, but the notable part of the New York offense is the passing game and the emergence of Victor Cruz, the undrafted, salsa-dancing sensation from UMass who had over 1,500 yards during the regular season. Eli Manning had one of his better seasons, falling 67 yards shy of 5,000. The key to the game will not be the Giants offense, but its better half.
Green Bay has talented players on its defense. That’s a fact. The problem all year has been the team has not played to its potential, which sounds ridiculous because they only lost one game all season. A team with B.J. Raji, Charles Woodson, Clay Mathews and Tramon Williams should have done more. They had the best record in the league, so what do I know. They were dead last in passing yards allowed and could be run on with the right team.
Jason Pierre-Paul is the man of the Giants defense. For one, he is a freak of nature, with Jevon Kearse-esque measurable (6-foot-5, 278 pounds), who had 16.5 sacks in 2011. Statistically, they weren't close to some of the more recent Giants teams, but coming off an ostensible shutout of Atlanta, they are in form. JPP, Antrel Rolle, Osi Umenyiora and Kenny Phillips and the rest of the defense will have a large task to deal with Rodgers and his green-and-yellow army.
Advantage: Packers. The punters are too close to matter, and Mason Crosby had a better year than Lawrence Tynes, but the key difference is the returners. Randall Cobb has made his impact this year by returning kicks, including a 108-yard return on opening night, and as a more consistent, better punt returner.
This game will be close, but with home-field advantage and a quarterback a level ahead of any other in the game, the Packers will narrowly win to host the NFC Championship game the following weekend in the (hopefully) frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
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