EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JANUARY 08: Brandon Jacobs #27 of the New York Giants celebrates after the Giants won 24-2 against the Atlanta Falcons during their NFC Wild Card Playoff game at MetLife Stadium on January 8, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
The Wild Card round of the 2012 NFL playoffs is complete and for the first time in five years all the home teams won on opening weekend. That means the AFC and NFC divisional rounds will feature two No. 1 vs. No. 4 games and two No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchups.
Wild Card weekend was great (after all, it was playoff football), but three of the games were decided by 22, 21 and 17 points. Hopefully the Divisional round features some closer games. The early point spreads for divisional weekend -- three of them are eight or more -- aren't very promising, though.
Four games are on tap for Saturday and Sunday. Here's a preview and an early prediction for the divisional round.
Now this is what the NFL playoffs are all about. You take one of the best offensive teams in the league (Saints) and pit them against one of the best defensive teams (49ers) and let them go at it. The idea of Drew Brees and this explosive offense lining up against the surprisingly good 49ers defense is the story line of the game entering Saturday's matchup.
The 49ers are the home team, but the Saints are the favorites. New Orleans is on a streak offensively that we simply haven't seen before. Brees is averaging 350 yards passing per game including a ridiculous 466 yards on Saturday night against the Detroit Lions. New Orleans has scored 40 or more points in their last four games. Something has to give this weekend if the 49ers plan on stopping that offensive attack.
That said, while the Saints are great, the 49ers are showing us so far that they're legit, too. Their offense is more about running the ball and not making mistakes than it is about throwing for 350 yards like Brees. The defense is the strength of the team, where San Fran is ranked No. 2 in the league in points allowed. They have the personnel to attack Brees -- guys like Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman -- and their cornerbacks can cover. If there was a team built to compete with some of these offenses we're seeing, it's the 49ers.
Prediction: I'm taking New Orleans. I respect the 49ers defense and what they've done all year, but I just don't think they can slow this Saints offense down enough to win. New Orleans wins, 30-23.
You think this game will be hyped up at all this week? Yeah, me too. On one side, you have Tim Tebow and the Broncos, who are coming off an OT victory over the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers. On the other hand, you have Tom Brady and the Patriots, who have been in this position almost every year for the last decade. And for another slice of intrigue: New England this week hired Josh McDaniels, the former Broncos coach who drafted Tebow.
The Patriots are clearly the favorite in this game -- early lines say 13.5 points. They have the third-ranked offense in the league and, despite some of the criticisms of their defense, they're still in the middle of the pack in points allowed. This is a veteran-laden team with players who have been here before. The Patriots will also be playing at home, where they've lost just one game this year.
As for the Broncos, we can throw offensive statistics out the window. Say what you want about Tebow and the Broncos offense, but they get it done when they have to (and there's no bigger "have to" moment than OT in the AFC Wild Card game against Pittsburgh). Officially, the Broncos are the 25th-ranked offense and 24th-ranked defense. The Broncos story line this year has been the defense keeping the game close enough for Tebow to step in and win it. It doesn't always work out that way but that's the path some will expect this game to take.
Prediction: Like the 49ers, I respect what the Broncos are doing but I can't pick them to beat another elite AFC team on the road in the playoffs. The Patriots beat the Broncos 41-23 the last time these teams played about a month ago and I think the final score in January will be similar. The only concern I have with this pick is that Tebow threw for over 300 yards last week against a great pass defense and now he faces a pass defense that is, at best, below average. But that's not enough to stray me away from picking the Pats. New England wins, 34-20.
The Houston Texans are coming off their first playoff appearance and, after beating the Cincinnati Bengals, their first playoff win. The Texans are traveling to Baltimore to face the Ravens, a team that's already beat them this year. The Ravens are known for their defense, of course, while the Texans are actually one of the league's most balanced teams.
The Texans are the 10th-ranked offense and fourth ranked defense. The offense is easier to figure out with T.J. Yates now running the show -- run, run and run a lot more. The Texans are first in rushing attempts and 30th in passing attempts so they don't make any secrets about what they'll do. Yates can be a liability at times but Houston's running game is so good that Yates isn't exposed very often. The Texans defense actually being good is a new thing this year (you can thank the arrival of Wade Phillips). But they have few weaknesses defensively and will have some confidence after holding the Bengals to 10 points.
The Ravens defense is the story in Baltimore, as it is every year. The Ravens finished the year as the third ranked defense overall and they were ranked second in rushing yards given up. The latter is the key stat to remember because the Texans run the ball more than anyone in the league. The Ravens offense has been getting better in recent years and they're still anchored by Ray Rice, the do-it-all running back. Joe Flacco isn't very accurate this year so the Ravens will rely on Rice quite a bit.
Prediction: The Ravens haven't lost at home this year and the Texans are playing their third string quarterback. It's a little more complicated than that but I'm not going to make it that hard. The Ravens are favored by more than a touchdown in this game for a reason. Baltimore wins, 20-13.
The final game of the divisional round may be also be the best matchup. The Packers, as everyone knows, are the best team in football with just one loss in the regular season after starting 13-0. They have Aaron Rodgers, who will likely win the league MVP, and a host of receivers that few people have stopped this year. The Giants know big games -- four years ago they up-ended the previously unbeaten New England Patriots in the Super Bowl and three weeks before that game they had gone into Green Bay and beat a Packers team in the NFC Championship led by none other than Brett Favre.
Everyone knows about the Packers and how great they've been. They have the league's top ranked offense, the league-MVP-to-be and one of the top stable of receivers in the league. They've lost one game on the season but have looked a little more vulnerable late in the season. Green Bay's defense gives up a ton of yards but, like the Patriots, they're ranked in the middle of the league (19th) in points allowed. In the Packers' one loss of the year, the Chiefs provided the blueprint for how to beat them (which is easier said than done): pressure Aaron Rodgers to throw him off his game, put at least two good cover corners on the receivers so the quick outlets aren't there and score (a lot of) points.
The Giants finished the season ranked ninth in scoring offense and 25th in scoring defense but that doesn't tell the story. Defensive linemen like Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul can get after the quarterback on their own and cause a little backfield havoc, which is exactly what you need against a team quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers. The Giants defensive line will have to be able to harass Rodgers while leaving enough guys in coverage. It's a chess match and Rodgers usually wins these.
Prediction: But I'm going with the upset. Yep, the Giants wil beat the Packers. They have the formula to do it and it's not that different from what the 2007-08 Giants used to beat a similar team, New England. The Packers beat the Giants earlier in the season, 38-35, but New York gets it done this time and pulls off the huge upset. New York wins, 34-31.
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