Thursday, January 12, 2012

NFL Divisional Round Preview

Here I am, back again. It is Playoff Weekend again in the NFL, but now the big boys in both conferences are here. I went 3-1 last week, with my only loss being Pittsburgh against Denver. But you have to hand it to big play Tebow in that one. First let me share my thoughts on the losing teams from Wild Card Weekend.

-Cincinnati played tough, but that pick 6 killed all of their momentum heading into the second half. That is the one thing Andy Dalton had to avoid heading into half time. The Bengals are still a young team and will be back in the hunt for a Playoff spot next year. Having Jay Gruden stay on as offensive coordinator and not leave for Jacksonville or Miami is huge for them. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green will continue to grow into one of the best QB-WR tandems in the league, and that defense isn't going anywhere. Hopefully next year people actually come to watch this team play.

-Detroit hung with New Orleans for three quarters. They got hosed on that errant whistle at the end of the first half. That should have been a fumble and TD for them. But Drew Brees and the Saints offense flexed their muscles in the second half, and the Lions defense wasn't up to stopping them. The Lions need to get some secondary help in the off-season, and there is no reason to believe the Lions won't be competing for a division title next year. Re-Signing DE Cliff Avril will be key for them.

-Atlanta may have put up one of the more embarrassing Playoff performances in recent memory. I would rather be shut out then score only two points. The offense played rather well the last month of the season, but they just vanished in New York. Michael Turner wasn't used enough. I think Falcons fans everywhere are glad offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey left for Jacksonville. I bet the Falcons held the door wide open for him. The Falcons are still young and have a ton of talent on offense, but questions will now arise if Matt Ryan can ever win a big time game. He's now 0-3 in the Playoffs.

-Pittsburgh is a mixed bag. Their defense was banged up. They didn't have Ryan Clark, but that is still no excuse for letting Tim Tebow burn them for big plays like that. The defense is old and in need of a rehaul with some young blood. I'm also of the opinion that Ben Roethlisberger shouldn't have played in the second half. I think a healthy Charlie Batch, or even Dennis Dixon might have been a better option. Sure Ben made some plays, but I think Batch or Dixon could have done better. The Steelers are an old team, especially on defense, and that could haunt them next season.

Alright, onto this week's action. Every game looks intriguing and I think there is potential for some close games and upsets. Lets take a look.

New Orleans Saints vs San Francisco 49ers: Saturday 4:30 P.M. on FOX
I actually find this to be the most interesting game this weekend. The Saints are coming in rolling on offense. Drew Brees played the last two months of the season as if he were on Rookie level in Madden. Brees knows how to find his open target and get the ball there in time. The 49ers defense, meanwhile, is as close to a shut down unit as you will see in the NFL. They can get to the quarterback and show offenses a variety of looks and blitz schemes. The 49ers are a completely different team under new coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh has brought a new sense of life to a team that looked lifeless last year. Now they face their biggest challenge yet with the high powered Saints coming to town. And now it is time for your favorite part of all of this, Question Time!

Can Alex Smith Play Well Enough to Win?
There is no doubt that Alex Smith has played much better this year than he did last year. Smith is a better game manager this year. He also has an all world defense helping him out. But there is no doubt in my mind that the Saints will find ways to score, and that means Alex Smith will have to do enough to keep his team in the game. Smith only threw for 17 TDs this year. The 49ers will probably rely heavily on Frank Gore. The Lions were able to run the ball effectively against the Saints. But the Saints also respected Matthew Stafford's ability to beat them. The Saints may stack the box against San Fran, making Smith beat them. The Saints don't cause a lot of turnovers, so Smith needs to stay on his game and not let the Saints defense gain any momentum in the game.

Will Drew Brees Succeed Against the 49ers Defense?
This will undoubtedly be the Saints toughest match-up this year. The 49ers rank 4th in total defense in the NFL. But they also only rank 16th against the pass. The 49ers only real weakness on their defense is the safety position. That means you better expect a lot of Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles in the Saints passing attack. The 49ers ranked in the Top 10 in the league in sacks and also tied for second in the league with interceptions with 23. Drew Brees better expect to see a lot of Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, and Patrick Willis in his face. When the Lions pressured Brees they forced him into some errant throws, but the Lions couldn't capitalize. The 49ers will, so Brees needs to be careful with what he does.

Are the Saints the Same Team Away from the Dome?
Looking through the Saints schedule from the regular season, you can't deny that the Saints are a different team playing outdoors. Here are the Saints point totals from playing outdoors all year: Week 1: 34 at Green Bay, Week 4: 23 at Jacksonville, Week 5: 30 at Carolina, Week 6: 20 at Tampa Bay, Week 14: 22 at Tennessee. As you can see, the Saints haven't played a lot of outdoor games this year. All of those games were close affairs, even the Jacksonville game when they ended up winning by 13. The Saints play slightly less better football outside, and the most evidence is in their red zone efficiency. They only converted 7 of their red zone attempts outdoors.

The winner of this game will be determined by who delivers the first blow. If the Saints march down the field on their first couple drives and score, then it will be tough for the 49ers to comeback. If the 49ers stop the Saints offense, pressure Brees and force a turnover or two then the 49ers can win this game. I really think the outdoor factor is a big part here. It wouldn't surprise me if the 49ers have their field not in the greatest condition heading into the game. The 49ers offense should be able to score against the Saints defense. While the Saints defense will blitz the hell out of you, they won't create turnovers and can be beaten in the secondary. The 49ers didn't play their best football down the stretch, but I think they can do enough to stop the Saints offense in this one. Frank Gore goes over 100 yards rushing and the 49ers squeak out a win on a last second Dave Akers field goal.

San Francisco 22  New Orleans 21

Denver Broncos vs New England Patriots: Saturday 8 P.M. on CBS
You know CBS loves having this match-up on Saturday night in prime time. The Broncos upset the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday to earn this re-match against the Patriots in the divisional round. In these teams Week 15 meeting, the Patriots pulled away from the Broncos and won this game 41-23 in Denver. The Patriots used a lot of Aaron Hernandez in the game, something I'm sure the Broncos weren't expecting since the Pats already have Rob Gronkowski. Tebow didn't play a terrible game against the Pats. It was more of the defense that let Denver down. I expect a closer affair than that meeting.

Can the Patriots Defense Stop Tim Tebow?
Tebow had an average game against the Patriots in Week 15, throwing for 194 yards and rushing for 93 yards and two TDs. But Tebow just threw for 316 yards and two TDs against the #1 pass defense in the NFL. What does the Patriots pass defense rank? That's right, they rank 31st in the NFL against the pass. The reason the Broncos had so much success against Pittsburgh is because the Broncos passed the ball a lot from their usual run looks. The Patriots already have enough problems in their secondary, and you can bet the Broncos will use similar looks to confuse the Patriots secondary.

What Weapon Will Tom Brady Use This Week?
Tom Brady usually plays very well in the Playoffs. He has struggled the last two years, but Brady knows how to get the job done in January. Those 3 Super Bowl rings mean a lot. What makes the Patriots offense special this year is that they can pick and choose what weapon will be the focal point of the offense every game and you won't see it coming. You can bet the Broncos weren't thinking about Aaron Hernandez beating them for 129 yards and a touchdown in their last meeting. The Broncos were so focused on shutting down Rob Gronkowski that they totally forgot about Hernandez. Brady also has that pesky Wes Welker at his disposal. Welker was shut down by the Broncos in their last meeting as well. The Broncos will need an entire defensive effort to survive against New England.

Who Wins the Turnover Battle?
In these two teams last meeting, the Broncos were done in by 3 fumbles in the second quarter. Up 16-14 in the second quarter, the Broncos fumbled on two straight possessions that lead to 10 points, then fumbled on a punt return with 3 second left in the half that lead to another Patriots field goal. The Pats took a 27-16 lead into the half and didn't look back. The Broncos cannot afford to go through a stretch of football like that this week and expect to be able to win the game. Playing in Foxboro will help the Patriots defense slightly and any kind of momentum the Patriots defense can gain through turnovers will be a problem for Tim Tebow and the Broncos offense.

Like I said in the intro, this will be a closer game than these two teams Week 15 meeting. Most games are when teams meet for a second time. The Broncos offense has a ton of confidence after beating the #1 pass defense in the league. The Broncos weren't able to have much success running the ball last week against Pittsburgh, but that should change this week. Pittsburgh stacked the box against Denver, the Patriots won't have that luxury with a weak secondary. For the Broncos defense, they will need to get pressure on Tom Brady. The last two years in the Playoffs Brady has been pressured and the Patriots have lost, in Foxboro, because of it. But you know that those last two Playoff losses are sticking in the back of Tom Brady and Bill Bellicheck's mind. I really believed the Patriots would be one and done in the post-season, but they get a good match-up here against Denver. I think Tom Brady has too many weapons at his disposal for Denver to stop. As much as I love the underdog Tim Tebow story, I still have to pick the Patriots here. But it is still a close game down to the end.

New England 38  Denver 30

Houston Texans vs Baltimore Ravens: Sunday 1 P.M. on CBS
Another rematch from the regular season. This one, however, took place all the way back in Week 6. The Ravens defeated the Texans 29-14 in Baltimore. That game saw the Ravens completely shut down Arian Foster. Foster only ran for 49 yards on 15 carries. You can bet that will be in the Ravens game plan again this week. The game was close until the 4th quarter when the Ravens pulled away and the Texans couldn't stay with them. This is another game, again, that I think will be closer than the regular season match-up. The Texans are a more cohesive unit, especially on defense. The Ravens come into the Playoffs rolling, winners of 6 of their last 7. Many people see them as the favorites to win the AFC and go to the Super Bowl. But the Texans will have something to say about that.

Can the Texans Carry Over the Momentum from Last Week?
The Texans rolled the Bengals in the second half last week. After J.J. Watt's interception return for a touchdown at the end of the first half, the Texans didn't look back. The Texans rode Arian Foster in the second half and he racked up 153 yards on 24 carries. Foster wasn't completely healthy for the Ravens match-up. A healthy Foster is such a huge difference for the Texans. The defense had a huge game as well with 3 interceptions. T.J. Yates didn't put up world beating numbers, but he did enough to help his team win and had a nice throw to Andre Johnson for a touchdown. The Texans were riding high at the end of the game last week, and if they can carry that confidence over to this week, they will give the Ravens a game.

Which Joe Flacco Shows Up?
The key for a Ravens trip to the Super Bowl is Joe Flacco. No ifs, and or buts about it. In typical Joe Flacco fashion, he had a very up and down year. In his two match-ups against the Steelers Flacco looked great. He lead a great game winning drive to win the game in Pittsburgh and threw a nice TD pass to Torrey Smith to win the game. But then there were times this year where Flacco looked awful, including road losses to Jacksonville, Seattle, and San Diego. The good news for Flacco is that the game is in Baltimore, where he tends to play better. As long as Joe Flacco isn't the focal point of the Ravens offense he does fine. The Ravens offense needs to be focused around Ray Rice, who ran for over 100 yards against the Texans in their Week 6 match-up.

Which Defense Breaks First?
This is a match-up of two of the premiere defenses in the NFL. The Texans rank 2nd overall in total defense whereas the Ravens rank 3rd. Both teams can get to the quarterback as well as they rank in the Top 10 in sacks. Both of these QBs are just average, so if either defense can rattle the other QB they may gain the upper hand. Both teams have stellar secondaries, so big passing plays will be limited. Whichever defense blinks first will be on their toes for the rest of the game. The Ravens are lead by a handful of veteran players, while the Texans have some young players on their defense looking to make a statement.

Unlike the other AFC match-up, this game will probably be low scoring. Each team has two of the best running backs in the game so you can bet both will try to establish the run game early. I think I give the edge to Ray Rice. He's so small, quick and agile that it makes it tough for defenses to tackle him. If the Ravens are able to take away both Andre Johnson and Arian Foster, it will be tough for the Texans offense to get going. I expect Joe Flacco to have a typical Joe Flacco type of game. Nothing flashy, but nothing that costs his team the game either. The Ravens will lean on Ray Rice. And in the end, Flacco is still a better game manager and has more experience than T.J. Yates. The Ravens are able to make one more play than the Texans, and that gives them the victory on Sunday.

Baltimore 21  Houston 17

New York Giants vs Green Bay Packers: Sunday 4:30 P.M. on FOX
Despite all of the hype that Tim Tebow will get, this is the game that I most want to see this weekend. The Giants gave the Packers quite the game in New York in Week 13. It looked like the Giants had forced the game into over time, but the Packers were able to drive down the field in just over a minute and get into field goal range, sealing a late victory for the Packers. This game should be just as close. The Giants are playing their best football of the year at the right time. The defense shut down a very good Falcons offense last week, including three 4th and less than a yard stops. The Packers, of course, still have Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers is such a great QB that he is almost impossible to contain. This one has shootout written all over it.

Will the Giants Offense Keep Rolling?
Despite having two losses, you could say that the Giants offense has played exceptionally well 5 out of the last 6 weeks, with their only bad performance coming against the Redskins. Eli Manning is showing that he is a very talented QB. He's arguably at the top of the second tier of QBs after Rodgers, Brees, and Brady. Manning has thrown 14 TDs the last six games, so if you take away that 0 TD performance against Washington he has done very well. Manning may have the best WR trio in the league with Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham. Eli is definitely an elite QB, and he has played like one in recent weeks. And with the Giants running game finally going, the offense is going to be very tough to stop.

Can the Giants Pass Rush Get to Aaron Rodgers?
The Giants pass rush only had two sacks in their last meeting against Green Bay. While the Giants only had two sacks against Atlanta, they pressured Ryan a lot and came up with huge stops on 4th down. The Packers offensive line isn't the greatest in the world. With Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyora and Jason Pierre-Paul coming at Rodgers, it may turn out to be a long day for him. Rodgers has a lot of options to get rid of the ball quickly, but the Giants pass rushers are so athletic that they can get to Rodgers very quickly. The Packers game plan should be quick, short passing routes designed to get the ball out of Rodgers hands quickly so he doesn't have to worry about being sacked on every passing down.

Can the Packers Defense Step Up to the Challenge?
The Packers had one of the worst defenses in the league this year. They ranked 31st overall in team defense. While the run defense wasn't bad, teams were able to throw on the Packers at will. But the Packers also lead the league in interceptions with 31 overall, eight more than any other defense in the league. In the Packers last meeting with the Giants, Clay Matthews had a huge interception that was returned for a touchdown. The Packers took that momentum and it gave them a lead. But the Giants were also able to get back in the game because the Packers defense let their guard down. The defense showed they could step up in last year's Super Bowl run, and they will need to do it again if the Packers want to repeat as Champs.

As I said, this game will be a shootout. But also, if there is any chance of an upset this weekend, I think this game is it. I know the 49ers are the underdog against New Orleans, but they are also the #2 seed. The Giants are playing to their full potential and will cause fits for the Packers. If the Giants pass rush can rattle the Packers early, then they have every shot of winning this game. The Giants offense can hang with the Packers. It all depends on if the Packers defense can create a turnover or two. This game will go back and fourth just like their previous match-up. The Giants defense is healthy now. They were missing Osi Umenyora last time, and he can make a difference. As much as I love the Giants and think they are completely capable of pulling off an upset, I still think the Packers can pull out a win. Aaron Rodgers drives down the field for a game winning field goal to end the game.

Green Bay 41  NY Giants 38

I really think all four of these games are wide open and would not be shocked in the least if I went 0-4 this week. It should be an exciting week of football.

Until Next Time,
Justin C
Follow Me On Twitter @JCWonka

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