One week into the playoffs and the divide between our three contributors is already stark. While Jeff and Sean chose correctly on six of the twelve possible outcomes, Neal fell behind, correctly picking only two of the twelve; however, there are twelve more to weigh in on this week as we enter the divisional round of the playoffs, and any contributor could see their fortune change in a hurry. Which four teams will advance to the Championship round? Our picks are below.
New Orleans Saints -3.5 @ San Francisco 49ers (47.5) – Saturday, January 14, 2012 3:30PM CST
I’m sure you’ve all heard by now the disparities between the Saints offense playing indoors versus outdoors so I will not bore you with those numbers, but the storyline I’m most interested in is the one that has suggested that the Saints’ Sean Payton called more blitzes than normal in a preseason game because Jim Harbaugh failed to call Payton before the game to work out a “gentleman’s agreement” on how aggressive the teams would be. This resulted in 6 sacks and 10 total hits on the 2 Niners QBs that were in this game (Smith and Kaepernick). This bad blood could have each coach looking to send a statement to the other, and if that is the case, I would have to say advantage Saints, because if the 49ers look to come out and be overly aggressive, that would play right into the hands of Saints’ attacking style of defense. The most worrisome part of the Niners’ D is the two incredibly athletic and talented inside linebackers who have a better chance than most to stay with Jimmy Graham and whoever is coming out of the Saints backfield. I think this fact keeps the game close, but the Niners will not be able to score enough to keep up with the Saints in the end.
FINAL SCORE: Saints 27 – 49ers 20
Saints -3.5; Saints straight up; Under 47.5
The defense of the 49ers is spectacular this year, but broken down against the upcoming opponent, it just doesn’t look like it can hold very well. Certainly in terms of yards / game there were only a few teams better than San Francisco, but they did it primarily by shutting down the rush – when it comes to defending the pass, they were 16th in the league and are now going up against Drew Brees and his seemingly-infinite receiving threats. Stop Sproles and Pierre Thomas all you want – Brees will just toss it to Graham…or Colston…or Moore…or Meachem…or Henderson…or, hell, even Sproles again. Each one of those six players had at least 500 yards in the regular season, and each one had a pass go for over 35 yards.
You still have to look at the potential of the Saints defense for when the 49ers have the ball, but it only has to be adequate to allow the Saints to outscore their opponent. The 49ers had the 26th ranked offense in the league this year, and that came with six games against the dregs of the meager NFC West. They were held below 20 points on five separate occasions while the Saints scored at least 20 in every game this season. San Francisco too often plays for the field goal, while New Orleans is always in the running for the touchdown. This one isn’t close.
FINAL SCORE: Saints 34 – 49ers 19
Saints -3.5; Saints straight up; Over 47.5
Biggest thing you can remember when betting the Divisional Round is not to overvalue the teams’ Wild Card performance. The Saints completely dominated the Lions last weekend, but the 49ers are not the Lions, and this game is not in New Orleans. Sounds simple but a lot of people forget it.
Drew Brees & Co. might make offense look like a child’s play at home. Flying through the air, scoring 40 points with the greatest of ease, on Sean Payton’s flying trapeze. But get them out of the “Big Top” and things are a little different. Last time the Saints played on natural grass they were held to 22 points by a Titans defense that isn’t remotely close to the 49ers level. If Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman and Justin Smith can throw even a small wrench in this otherwise finely tuned machine it should provide the opening they need.
At least the 49ers better hope that’s the case, because outside of an early season comeback against the Eagles, they haven’t exactly been known for doing much on offense. Instead, they will rely on playing the grown-up version of keep-away. Grinding out the clock with Frank Gore and the running game and relying on Alex Smith’s new-found ability not to make mistakes. They will need short fields provided by their stellar defense and excellent special teams, but the final outcome will rest in whether or not Smith can get the ball in the endzone or if David Akers is going go to be the main offensive threat.
FINAL SCORE: Saints 27 – 49ers 24
49ers +3.5; Saints straight up; Over 47.5
Denver Broncos +13.5 @ New England Patriots (50.0) – Saturday, January 14, 2012 7:00PM CST
The first time these two teams met, the Broncos actually held an early lead going into the 2nd quarter until everything seemed to unravel for the Denver Tebows and that game was at Denver. I see this game going much the same way. The Broncos are riding high off their huge win over the Steelers in overtime and will come out guns blazing and then as the Patriots settle into their offensive game they will pick them apart.
FINAL SCORE: Patriots 34 – Broncos 23
Broncos +13.5; Patriots straight up; Over 50.0
The Broncos will be riding high, but their wild card victory must be put into perspective. The team the Broncos beat was both banged-up and playing on the road - yet still managed to force overtime – and neither of those luxuries will be there Denver heads to Gillette Stadium to take on the Patriots.
The obvious weakness for the favorite Patriots is their porous defense, but it was mainly their play in the secondary that left them shedding points – they ranked 17th against the run, which isn’t fantastic, but also means that they’re not completely inept. In order for the Broncos to come out ahead in this game, they must click on both sides of the offense, and if the Patriots are able to force the Broncos to stick to the pass while New England keeps an early lead, the game will immediately be over. The Broncos will do their best to keep it close, but the Patriots won’t let up and will break it wide open in the second half.
FINAL SCORE: Patriots 41 – Broncos 27
Patriots -13.5; Patriots straight up; Over 50.0
Last Sunday against the Steelers the Broncos finally unleashed the offense I’ve been looking for with Tim Tebow under center. After all if you are going to complete a low percentage of your passes then why not get the most out of them? The running game, particularly Willis McGahee struggled, but when you average over 30 yards a completion it doesn’t matter. Can it work two weeks in a row?
Well, for Broncos fans and Tebowmania alike it better. Because holding down a Steelers offense captained by a gimpy Ben Roethlisberger and stopping the Brady led double-tight end attack are very different things. Something I’m sure the Broncos defense is aware of given the 41 points the Patriots at home just a few weeks ago.
What could possibly be different this time? Sure Champ Bailey can probably limit Wes Welker, but can the Broncos provide enough of a pass rush to avoid giving Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski the time to get open? Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil better have the games of their lives. And that’s the problem, Denver needs another “game of his life” from Tebow to go with All-Pro efforts from Miller and Dumervil. It’s just too much to expect.
FINAL SCORE: Patriots 38 – Broncos 20
Patriots -13.5; Patriots straight up; Over 50.0
Houston Texans +7.5 @ Baltimore Ravens (35.5) – Sunday, January 15, 2012 12:00PM CST
The Texans impressed me last week and showed that they could run the ball on a tough D that knew they were going to run. That being said the Bengals D-line is not as dominant as the Ravens D-line and the Bengals do not have Terrell Suggs. I foresee Foster and Tate having lots of trouble trying to run it between the tackles and if you try to pile too much responsibility on the young shoulders of TJ Yates then you are asking for trouble, especially against a ballhawking veteran defense like Baltimore. Ray Rice should be focal point for the Ravens on the Offensive side of the ball with some Torrey Smith deep sprinkled in there, and that should be enough.
FINAL SCORE: Ravens 23 – Texans 17
Texans +7.5; Ravens straight up; Over 35.5
Statistically, these two teams comprise one of the closest matchups possible between any of the 12 playoff teams. Houston ranks 2nd in defense while Baltimore ranks 3rd, and Houston ranks 13th in offense while Baltimore ranks 15th. It’s a very difficult prediction to make as both teams have been wildly inconsistent as the season has gone on – the Texans due to injuries rearranging so much of their starting lineup, and the Ravens having difficulties against foes that should have been pushovers.
The teams faced each other in week 6, however, and the team that has changed for the worse since then is decidedly the Texans. The Ravens will once against have the benefit of playing at home, and thanks to the Texans being down to TJ Yates, have the offensive edge in nearly every category. Houston probably has the advantage of Foster over Rice, but Baltimore’s rush defense is solid enough that Houston will likely be forced into many 3rd and long situations, and I just don’t yet trust Yates in those scenarios.
FINAL SCORE: Ravens 26 – Texans 20
Texans +7.5; Ravens straight up; Over 35.5
All week Bill Simmons has been promoting the theory that every year, one of the teams that earns a first round bye just comes out flat and plain doesn’t show up. Now he used that as an argument for why the 49ers might get blown out, I’m going to use it for the the Ravens might lose this game out right.
According to Football Outsiders no team had greater variance in their performance than the Ravens except the Buffalo Bills. That is not the kind of company you like to keep. Led by arguably the best defense in the league the Ravens have been able to overcome some pitiful offense performance, but sometimes not like on that fateful Monday night in Jacksonville. How comfortable do you feel in better on a touchdown favorite that coughed up games to the Jaguars and Seahawks?
That, and T.J. Yates aside, this Texans team is still a lot better than you think. Their defense is not Ravens-good but it’s in the same neck of the woods, and they have the most dominant rushing attack in the league. So could Arian Foster and/or Ben Tate have a big day while T.J. Yates surprisingly outperforms Joe Flacco? I sure don’t think it’s out of the question.
FINAL SCORE: Texans 17 – Ravens 13
Texans +7.5; Texans straight up; Under 35.5
New York Giants +8.0 @ Green Bay Packers (52.5) – Sunday, January 15, 2012 3:30PM CST
If you missed the first matchup between these two then you have to go to the NFL films archives and at least watch the last 3 mins of it. Go do it now, I’ll wait. Okay, now that we’re all on the same page, both QBs have proven over the course of their careers and importantly this year that they can put their teams on their back and make plays when it is absolutely necessary. Offensively I kind of have these teams neck and neck which means that it will come down to the defenses and if that is to be the case, the Giants are at a significant advantage. The front 4 of the Giants’ defense vs the beleaguered O-line of the Packers will be the matchup to watch and I’m going to be very interested how often the Giants put more than 2 DEs. If they can get to Rodgers and he isn’t able to extend the life of the play too often then the Giants will have a great chance to win this game.
FINAL SCORE: Giants 42 – Packers 38
Giants +8.0; Giants straight up; Over 52.5
Judging on the past few games featuring either of these teams, this figures to be a monumental shootout. The Packers actually fell below the Patriots to become the worst-ranked defense when it comes to yardage, but the Giants shouldn’t be too comfortable with that, only marginally better with the 26th-ranked defense. Both offenses rank in the top 10, but neither has much of a rushing game.
I would be more concerned with the Packers against a team that could exploit the lack of a running game, but against the defensively-challenged Giants, I don’t think it will be a big concern. Both teams will be relying on the pass, and while it will work most of the time for either team, I foresee the Giants having trouble on the turnover end. Rodgers is a much safer bet than Eli when it comes to ball protection, especially considering that the Packers had 11 more picked balls than the Giants and threw ten fewer of their own. It’ll be tight, and there will be a LOT of points, but the favorite Packers will advance.
FINAL SCORE: Packers 41 – Giants 32
Packers -8.0; Packers straight up; Over 52.5
Don’t look now but it’s the ghost of the 2007 Giants come back to life! At least that’s what every Giants fan would like you to believe. Dominant pass rush? Check. Eli Manning making big plays in the passing game? Check. Gave the best team in the league all they could handle before losing a close game? Check.
But I’m sorry to say that this isn’t 2007. While the Packers are vulnerable because their defense has not performed anywhere near the level it did late last year, Aaron Rodgers and their offense is performing on an other worldly level. Now this doesn’t always lead to the prettiest wins, but they did manager to rack up 15 of them during the regular season, including one of the Giants.
Now New Yorker’s will point to how close that game was, how it took a last second drive by the Packers, and how thoroughly they dominated the Falcons last weekend. I’ll counter with both the Falcons and earlier Packers game were at home, and my general feeling that the Dirty Birds were frauds from the get-go. This isn’t 2007 after all, and the turnover prone Brett Favre isn’t the one slinging the ball up in Lambeau Field. Without those turnovers the Giants can put up a valiant if ultimately doomed effort, but can’t come away with the victory.
FINAL SCORE: Packers 37 – Giants 28
Packers -8.0; Packers straight up; Over 52.5