Friday, January 13, 2012

NFL Divisional Round Preview

Apologies for taking some time off. I could sit here and make a bunch of excuses as to why I haven't been on here in several weeks... so I will. The holidays, work, high school winter sports and just a smidge of laziness. Oh, and I've been watching Skip Bayless talk about Tim Tebow for the last 60 days. It's a streak that has only been matched by Dan Shaughnessy spending decades talking about his cursed Boston Red Sox. Anyway, onto the matchups:

New Orleans (-4) at San Francisco.
I'm trying not to be biased with this game, but I feel really, really good about the 49ers chances of winning this game. And I have a bunch of reasons.
It's been well documented how the Saints can be a different team on the road, and the stats back it up. New Orleans' four lowest point outputs of the season have come away from the Superdome and those games were against Jacksonville (23 points), Tennessee (22 points), St. Louis (21 points) and Tampa Bay (20 points). Those teams were a combined 20-44 this season and only the Jaguars were among the top 17 in the NFL in total defense. Three of those teams (not the Buccaneers) were ranked ahead of San Francisco in passing yards allowed per game, but the Niners were frequently playing with a lead and a shutdown run defense, forcing their opponents to throw more often. Also, no NFL team was within FIFTEEN YARDS PER GAME of the 49ers rushing yards allowed per game (77.3 YPG compared to #2 Baltimore's 92.6 per game).
Did you know San Francisco has scored more points at home this season than the Saints have on the road? The Niners didn't score fewer than 20 points at home and while the schedule was a bit light, the Giants and Steelers were guests at Candlestick Park, and they possess two notoriously good defenses.
Here are the strengths of the 49ers: run defense, turnover margin, special teams (By the way, this is the most underrated aspect of this game. Drew Brees isn't marching that offense down the field on 90-yard drives five times on Saturday. The 49ers offense is good enough to score points starting around their own 40. I'm not saying this is going to happen, but it has for most of the season and if it does Saturday, San Fran wins convincingly.) and confidence/coaching. Here are the strengths for the Saints: passing, confidence/coaching, punting.
"Oh, but the Niners played in the NFC West. Their schedule was so much easier." Really? The combined record of San Francisco's opponents this season was 115-141 (counting two games against the Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams). The Saints? 113-143 (counting two games against the Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers). Boom.
Finally, and depending on how you want to look at it, this could be a negative, but the 49ers haven't been here before. Whether that lack of experience works against them remains to be seen, but I think Jim Harbaugh will have that team ready to play and you know the players can't wait to hit the field. For New Orleans, it's somewhat business as usual. Then again, they're 0-4 on the road in the playoffs, so it's not like they have no pressure on themselves either...
The pick: 49ers 30, Saints 20

Broncos at Patriots (-13.5)
A few weeks ago, we saw the Broncos race out to a big lead at home against New England and it looked like Tebow Mania had no boundaries. Then, Tom Brady shred Denver's defense like they were a man down. After a quick 16-7 lead for the Broncos, Brady led his team to 34 of the games last 41 points to win 41-23. Denver clearly didn't have the personnel defensively to match up with Brady and his endless assortment of weapons. So what's going to be different this time around?
The Patriots might spot Denver a quick score, but they could spot the Broncos 20 points and not lose this game. Yeah, I know New England's defense isn't great, good or mediocre, but Bill Belichick usually has an effective defensive scheme ready and it probably won't have to be a great one to earn a blowout here. I think Denver can probably put up a few points, but if the Patriots don't score 50 in this game, I'll be surprised. Take your pick...Gronkowski, Welker, Hernandez, Branch, etc.
The pick: Patriots 54, Broncos 23

Texans at Ravens (-7.5)
The rule with the Ravens has been fairly simple this year. At home, back them. On the road, don't. Well, the Ravens are at home this weekend, where they're 8-0 on the season and have won five of those games by at least 10 points, including a 29-14 defeat of the Texans in Week 6. They're fairly healthy, whereas Houston will be without Matt Schaub and Mario Williams, who have missed the majority of the season. With T.J. Yates struggling, that leaves quite the load to handle for Arian Foster against the NFL's second-ranked run defense. I don't like that matchup for Houston.
On the other hand, the Texans' defense has been great this season and apparently, Joe Flacco is among the worst two quarterbacks in the playoffs this season. Houston is among the NFL's top four in both rushing and passing defense, so if they can find a way to handle Ray Rice, they'll be in it to the end. I like the Texans to cover, but the Ravens to advance.
The pick: Ravens 20, Texans 16

Giants at Packers (-7.5)
I think the Giants need a second bandwagon, because the first is full. Everybody is jumping on them because they beat the Atlanta Falcons at home; a Falcons team that everyone knew could beat bad teams and would lose to good or great teams. Shocking how this turned out.
Meanwhile, the 15-1 Packers lost to Kansas City and everyone thinks that they can't beat a Giants team who always falters when people believe in them? Please. Green Bay already went into the Meadowlands and beat the Giants, albeit in a close game, but now they're getting them at home, in chilly Lambeau.
The Packers might have a defense which yields a ton of yards, but they're a very opportunistic defense, leading the NFL in interceptions. Plus, many of the yards come in garbage time, which I don't expect to change on Sunday.
The pick: Packers 38, Giants 27

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