New Orleans (14-3) at San Francisco (13-3): 4:30 ET on Fox
These are two teams that match up against each other very well and should provide for a pretty entertaining start to the NFL Playoff weekend. The golden rule of NFL playoffs has been that Defense wins championships, and this match up should put a good test to that theory. The Saints have the number one rated pass attack in a season where they averaged 334.2 passing yards per game and Drew Brees shattered Dan Marino’s long-standing passing yard record. The Saints rushing game was solid as well averaging 132.9 yards per game, good enough to be sixth in the league.
The 49ers finished 13-3 with Alex Smith as their Quarterback, throwing for an average of only 183.1 (29th) yards per game. That and the fact that they held opponents to the league’s stinginess 77.2 rushing yards per game tells you enough about the Niners. They are about defense, running the ball and making the most of turnovers. The 49ers defense led the league with a +28 turnover ratio forcing 23 interceptions and 15 fumbles versus 5 of each from their side. Compare that with New Orleans -3 ratio and you can see what one of the major keys of the game is for San Francisco.
At face value and admittedly not having watched the majority of either the Saints or 49ers games I was pretty ready to make the bold prediction that the Niners would shut down the high-flying Saints and win a “we dominated more than the final score illustrates” kind of game. Looking at the regular season games however I may have to give the Saints more credit than I initially thought they deserved.
The Saints beat some very good teams, Chicago, Healthy Houston and the Giants and [and Detroit] there loses seemed to be more arbitrary than the case of getting outright beaten. I mean they lost to the Rams for goodness sakes.
Another interesting trend is that they really seemed to improve their run defense as the season progressed. In the first 10 games of the season, before the Saints bye, the Saints had the top rusher in the game only twice. In the last 6 games of the year plus their first playoff game, the Saints not only went 7-0 but also held the opponents top rusher to less yards than their own top rusher.
The 49ers on the other hand might be a little but of a paper tiger. They are in a weak division in which they beat the Rams and Seahawks twice and split with the Cardinals. They do have quality wins over the Steelers, Giants and a Vick-led Eagles team but they also beat up on the dregs of Washington, Cleveland and Tampa Bay. The other two losses suffered by the Niners were against Dallas in good weather and ‘Harbaugh-Bowl I’.
The Saints had to prove themselves last week against a pretty good Lions teams that had a high-powered offense as well as a solid defense and did a fine job of putting them away. This week the game won’t be in a dome but it will be in San Francisco so I don’t imagine the weather will be much of a factor in slowing down Brees’ aerial attack. I’m not ruling out the Niners in this game but despite being the top-seed they have more to prove. They need to control the game with there defense and get the turnovers that they have been so good at getting all year long. Perhaps my gut-feeling about the Niners was correct and in Alex Smith and the defense we have the second coming of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens but my second-gut is telling me otherwise.
Prediction: New Orleans 27, San Francisco 13
Denver (9-8) at New England (13-3): 8:00 ET on CBS
If the Patriots were taking the place of the Saints this week I might feel a little differently about the Niners chances this week, but luckily for the Pats this isn’t the case, they are playing the Broncos. Like the Saints, Tom Brady and the Pats are a pass-attack machine that also eclipsed the Dan Marino high-water mark for passing yards. Like the 49ers the Broncos also have a horrible Quarterback.
We all know how good the Patriots offense is and a lot has been made about how awful their defense is. The Patriots offense is good. Tom Brady is playing like Tom Brady again and has regained his swagger and competitive edge. You don’t want to play against an angry Tom Brady, you want to play a against a Beiber-styled, UGG-wearing, Riviera-dance-club Tom Brady.
The other key factor to the Patriots is the sick and I mean SICK duo of tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronk is unstoppable and uncoverable at an athletic 6’6″ and 265 pounds and Hernandez plays like a wide receiver out of the TE position. It’s too bad the Patriots didn’t draft Tim Tebow when they had the chance or they could possibly have the best three TE’s in the NFL. As for the Patriots defense, it’s bad but not as bad as you would think. The Patriots are 31st in both passing yards allowed and total yards allowed but are middle of the pack (15th) in points per game allowed. This is mainly because the Belicheck led Patriots are notably 3rd in the NFL in turnover ratio (+17) and tied for second in the league for interceptions with 23! They may look like the worst secondary in the league but they make halftime adjustments and have ballhawked with the best of them.
The Broncos are another team that benefits from being in a horrible division: see 8-8 and still making the playoffs. While Tim Tebow may not be the second coming of “Our Lord and Savior”, he has turned this Bronco team around and got the team believing that if they can keep it close they will somehow manage to win, which so far has turned out to be true.
The Tebow-led Broncos don’t lose close games unless you count the abomination against Kansas City at the end of the season. The problem is when they lose it’s because they got creamed and don’t have the horses to stay in the game. The defense really isn’t that good either. The Broncos defense has kept a handfull of games close enough for late game Tebowian heroics but in truth the team has a horrendous -12 turnover ratio and only forced 9 interceptions and fumbles.
I don’t think this game is even going to be as close as the regular season match up between these two teams. The Broncos did a good job of dominating a quarter of that game but then the Patriots offense wore them out and one thing the Broncos don’t do well is play catch up. Unfortunately for all the casual mid-40’s female football fans out there I think Tebow is going to be forced to play too much catch up in this game, but at least you can expect a gracious losing speech. I’m just looking forward to being able to watch ESPN again without having to endure seven Tebow pieces.
Prediction: New England 35, Denver 6