Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round

My ability to really enjoy Divisional round weekend will be determined by about 8 PM eastern. If the 49ers defeat the Saints I will be riding a high I haven't felt in close to a decade. However, if the 49ers lose, it will be tough to get too excited for the three remaining games. Some of that also has to do with the fact that Niners/Saints is clearly the game of the weekend. Two teams with a combined record of 27-6 facing off has much more appeal to me than a primetime game between the Patriots and the Broncos, who weren't even over .500 last week. Sunday, it will be the Texans and third stringer T.J. Yates traveling to Baltimore where the Ravens didn't lose a game this season. That will be followed up by the New York Giants heading to Lambeau Field to try to knock off the best team in football, the Packers.

NFC Divisional Round: New Orleans (14-3) at San Francisco (13-3), New Orleans favored by 3

If anyone could ever pull out the nobody believes in us card it would be the 49ers. After the Saints got done destroying the Lions last weekend, many people were already penciling in Saints/Packers for the NFC Championship. That is the game all the casual fans want to see because it will means lots of points and excitement. As a 49ers fan, the thought of that game sickens me. It would be vastly more entertaining to me to watch the 49ers try to slow down powerful offenses in back to back weeks. For the last few weeks of the season the Niners were in a dog fight trying to hold off New Orleans for the 2 seed. If this game were in New Orleans I would not have near the confidence I have that San Francisco can slow down the Saints juggernaut. It can't be denied that the Saints and especially their offense are near unstoppable in the Superdome. But the road has been a different story for Drew Brees and company. All three of their losses came on the road this season, and two of them were to the sorry Tampa Bay Bucs and St. Louis Rams. In those losses the Saints managed just 20 and 21 points against terrible defenses. How will they do when going up against a ferocious defense like San Francisco's? People like to tout the Saints running game featuring Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory and how it makes the Saints more than a one dimensional offense. They are very talented, but they haven't faced the number one rush defense in football, which hadn't allowed a rushing touchdown until Week 16. The 49ers aren't slouches against the pass either, with Carlos Rogers back there, as well as having the good fortune to be able to call on Navarro Bowman, or Patrick Willis to cover Saints star TE Jimmy Graham. It will be a fun battle to watch up front between the Saints offensive line, with its three Pro Bowlers, and the Niners defensive line with Justin and Aldon Smith. No one is talking about the 49ers offense and they did have their share of struggles this season. Alex Smith performed much better but he still is nothing more than a game manager. However, he does have weapons in WR Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis. If those two have big games that will just be a bonus because the pressure is on RB Frank Gore to come up big. Gore has to run well for San Francisco to have a chance. The key to slowing down the Saints offense? It is quite simple, ball control. If you can run the ball successfully that will limit the opportunities Brees and guys like Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, and Robert Meachem will have. I'm not delusional, I know a lot has to go right for San Francisco to win this game. I have a lot of confidence in them and they have given me good reason. They are well coached, they run the ball, and they play good defense. Those attributes have won many teams championships, and I think it can do so again. I think the defense will play very well and force turnovers. I think the offense will be able to turn those turnovers into touchdowns. This cannot turn into a David Akers field goal fest like a lot of the 49ers games were. I think come 8:00 I will be a very happy man.

Prediction: San Francisco 24, New Orleans 21

AFC Divisional Round: Denver (9-8) at New England (13-3), New England favored by 13 1/2

It is Tebow vs. Brady II, or Broncos vs. Patriots, but honestly people care about this because of Tim Tebow and Tom Brady. The Patriots destroyed Denver a month ago in Denver and people trying to come up with reasons why Denver can win this game are grasping. The most popular grasp is that Denver was leading New England in that game before they got the turnover bug. That is true, but in my mind that just sped up the inevitable. The Patriots have seen a complete turnaround in their playoff fortunes the last few years and it hasn't been good. It used to be you never expected to see Belichick or Brady lose in the playoffs, now you never see them win. The Patriots have lost their last three playoff games, and their last two losses were at home. Maybe more than any other reason that is why I am so confident that they get off the schneid this weekend. Belichick and Brady losing three playoff home games in a row? It just doesn't seem possible. It also helps that Broncos are just 9-8 and more a lucky team, than a good team. The Patriots defense is a sieve and can be scored on but Denver is just as inconsistent on offense. Their running game is their strength but even when that is clicking if the passing game is non-existent the offense will still struggle. For whatever reason the last two weeks the Patriots spotted both the Dolphins and the Bills big leads before turning on the jets and running away with both games. I don't think that will happen Saturday. For one, I don't think Denver is capable of running out to a big lead, and secondly, Tom Brady will likely be at his precise best in this game. I expect to see a Brady performance where he maybe throws five incompletions. The Broncos had a hell of a time with TE Aaron Hernandez last time and with them keying in on him, I think the other all world TE Rob Gronkowski will have a big game. I am not crazy enough to actually bet against the Broncos, so I like them to get a backdoor cover, but I expect the Patriots to control this game from start to finish.

Prediction: New England 30, Denver 17

AFC Divisional Round: Houston (11-6) at Baltimore (12-4), Baltimore favored by 7 1/2

This is the game I am least looking forward to. I have never much liked watching the Ravens play, and with the Texans down to a third string quarterback, offense for them will likely be limited. They did put up 31 points on Cincinnati last week, but that was due to a collection of Cincinnati turnovers and the Bengals defense not knowing how to tackle Arian Foster. The Ravens will be able to do much better with monsters like Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody up front. If Foster breaks that wall then he has to deal with Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and underrated Jarret Johnson. T.J. Yates has been serviceable for the Texans but it has helped that Foster and Ben Tate have been able to do the heavy lifting. If they are slowed down, which I think they will be, this game will get ugly. I expect to see Yates taking a lot of sacks and turning the ball over. Yates will have a valid excuse, he is a rookie, but Joe Flacco doesn't have the same excuses. Flacco has struggled with accuracy and holding on to the ball over his career. I think the Ravens have tried to make themselves believe he is a franchise quarterback but he has never really shown it. I don't think he will have a banner day against a tough Houston defense, but I do think that Ray Rice will get the bulk of the touches and will rush for over 100 yards. The only way the Ravens lose this game is if offensive coordinator Cam Cameron gets silly and becomes pass happy. He has done that in the past, but someone, namely John Harbaugh, needs to smack him upside the head and remind him that Rice is far and away their best player on offense. It also can't be overlooked just how good Baltimore is at home. They have won 18 of their past 19 games at M&T Bank Stadium. They feed off their crowd's energy and I don't think the Texans have the horses necessary to win on the road.

Prediction: Baltimore 21, Houston 9

NFC Divisional Round: New York Giants (10-7) at Green Bay (15-1), Green Bay favored by 7 1/2

Everyone is back on the Giants bandwagon. People love to jump on the Giants bandwagon, they could have three or four bad performances but if they have a good one, people immediately forget about the bad ones and declare the Giants dangerous. This isn't 2007 people. The Giants aren't playing a Cowboys team that would have rather vacationed then prepare for a playoff game. They are traveling to Lambeau Field to face a juggernaut. People like to point to the fact the Giants played Green Bay close in the regular season but that game was in New York. I more like to think about last season, when New York went to Green Bay and lost 45-17 and were torched by Aaron Rodgers. The Giants have won four of their last five but if you look at who they beat it was a bunch of mediocre to slightly good teams. The Packers are so far above the Cowboys, Jets, and Falcons that you can't even compare the talent levels. The Giants have been winning lately because their running game finally has a pulse. I still tend to think their rushing attack is more the variety we saw all season, last in the NFL, then the one that pounded the Falcons last weekend. I foolishly believed in the playoff choking duo of Matt Ryan and coach Mike Smith to take advantage of the Giants deficiencies on defense. I know I will not feel foolish believing in Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy to march up and down the field on the Giants. The Giants do have a fearsome pass rush with Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre Paul and Osi Umeniyora, but the Packers will be fully healthy at offensive line for the first time in weeks and up to the challenge. With Greg Jennings returning to complement Jordy Nelson, James Jones, and Jermichael Finley, the Packers just have too many weapons. Eli Manning and the Giants offense can score with the best of them, but bad Eli strikes at times and turns the ball over too much. I think we will see a lot of Manning Face and Manning shoulder shrug in this game. It will take a very good defense to beat the Packers and the Giants defense doesn't fit that bill.

Prediction: Green Bay 38, New York Giants 21

Last Week Straight Up: 2-2
Overall Straight Up: 163-97

Last Week Against the Spread: 3-1
Overall Against the Spread: 130-123-7

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