Eli Manning and the New York Giants are back this week, so is Tim Tebow, and so am I. And I hope you’ll be back, too, to take me on again in some head-to-head football playoff picks. After a three-for-four showing last week, I’m feeling good about my chances at perfection this time around. Are you? You can email your picks or share them in the comments below and we’ll recap on Monday. Good luck.
Saturday NFL Playoffs
New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers
The last time the Saints and 49ers met was during the preseason, and it wasn’t pretty. The Saints had 365 blitzes during the regular season, the second-most in the league, and they also went on a blitzing rampage during the preseason matchup. It’s been a much-talked about source of tension as the two teams prepare for Saturday’s game—there’s no question that San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh and New Orleans coach Sean Payton are two of the most competitive in the NFL, and Saturday’s game will certainly feature two feisty teams.
For the most part, this game will be a battle of the Saints’ offense vs. the 49ers’ defense.
It is the singular mindset of Payton and QB Drew Brees that has helped to secure the Saints’ reputation as one of the best offenses we’ve seen. (They’re No. 1 in the league with 334.2 passing yards per game.) New Orleans knows how to create matchup problems, particularly with TE Jimmy Graham, who leads the team with 1,310 receiving yards, and RB Darren Sproles, the Saints’ leading rusher with 603 yards. The 49ers will have to contend with having a thinly dispersed interior defense as they work to cover all of the Saints’ weapons.
The outdoor elements may give the 49ers their best chance to stop the Saints, who are so clearly a dome team. New Orleans was 8-0 at home during the regular season, but only 5-3 on the road. The sunny, 63 degree forecast is certainly the best they could ask for an outdoor game, but it will be a challenge for them to put up the monster numbers that have defined their home play.
Overall, the Saints will need their offense to continue clicking on all cylinders if they hope to thwart a 49ers defense that has proven to be tops in the league. The Saints will face the fourth-best defense in the NFL, as San Francisco allowed just 308.2 total yards per game. San Francisco ranked No. 1 in rushing yards allowed, giving up an average of 77.3 per game.
Key for the 49ers is winning the turnover battle and having a strong outing from RB Frank Gore, who leads the team with 1,211 rushing yards.
Players to watch:
Drew Brees (Saints): He hasn’t brought his team to glory on the road, at least by the standards he’s set at home. But the guy broke Dan Marino’s 1984 single-season passing record. No one’s discounting what he can do.
Alex Smith (49ers): The 49ers QB has had a great season, setting career-highs with a 61.4 completion percentage, 3,144 passing yards and a 90.7 passer rating. San Francisco’s defense will no doubt slow down the Saints’ offense, but New Orleans scores a lot of points fast. They’ll be able to break through on a few occasions, and it will be up to Smith and the offense to keep the game close.
-This is the first playoff meeting between New Orleans and San Francisco.
-The 49ers are in the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
-New Orleans is 0-4 in road playoff games. The only other team to have lost all of their road playoff games is Cincinnati.
-The Saints have a six-game winning streak over the 49ers that dates back to 2002.
Pick: Saints over 49ers
Denver Broncos at New England Patriots
Question: Who was looking at their phone when the Broncos-Steelers went into overtime to try to figure out the new rules, only to look up and see Denver WR Demaryius Thomas run into the end zone for an 80-yard touchdown? There have been some great, fantastic, borderline miraculous ‘Tebow Times’ this season, but that had to have topped them all.
And now the Broncos face the Pats. The lethal New England coach-quarterback partnership of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady vs. the pleading-with-my-quarterback-to-pull-the-trigger relationship between Broncos’ VP of football operations John Elway and Tim Tebow. Tebow certainly came through last Sunday, but will he be able to have a repeat performance against the AFC’s No. 1 seed?
Key for the Broncos’ offense is extending their drives and creating more first downs. Tebow averaged 31.6 yards per pass completion during last Sunday’s game, but he’s going to have to complete the shorter passes as well in order to extend drives. Demaryius Thomas had 205 receiving yards on Sunday, and the Broncos will be relying on him to repeat that performance.
The Broncos’ offense should be bolstered by the fact that the Patriots have the 31st ranked defensive unit (they’ve allowed an average of 411.1 yards per game), which has raised questions about their ability to contend for a title. On the contrary, the Broncos have a top-ranked rushing attack. They say that defense wins games – if Tebow and the offense can put up respectable numbers, and if the Broncos defense can cut back on the turnovers that plagued their last meeting with the Pats, they have a solid chance of taking New England by storm.
On the Patriots side, New England can take comfort in the fact that they stomped the Broncos 41-23 when the two teams met on December 18. On paper, their offense should be able to dominate in a similar fashion on Saturday – they’ve averaging 428.0 total yards per game to Denver’s 317.0 this season. The Pats will rely heavily on team receiving leader Wes Walker, but if the Broncos can figure out how to cover him, the game could be a whole lot closer than people are anticipating.
Players to Watch:
Tim Tebow (Broncos): Tebow Time is not a fourth quarter phenomenon. It’s a way of life.
Tom Brady (Patriots): The Patriots need a big game from Tom Brady, as he’ll be relied upon to make up for the shortcomings on New England’s defense.
-It’s been nearly four years since New England’s last playoff win.
-Former Broncos’ head coach Josh McDaniels, who drafted Tim Tebow but was fired last December, has now rejoined the Patriots’ staff as offensive coordinator.
-When Tim Tebow was quarterback for the Florida Gators, he at times painted the Bible verse John 3:16 on his black eye paint, which reads “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” On Sunday, Tebow passed for 316 yards. To top it off, he only completed 10 passes – meaning he averaged 31.6 yards per completion, an NFL playoff record.
-When the two teams met during the regular season, the Patriots ended the Broncos’ six-game winning streak.
Pick: I’m going for it…Broncos over Pats.
Texans at Ravens
All of the hype surrounding the Baltimore Ravens makes Sunday’s matchup seem like a David and Goliath type game, with the Texans and their third-string rookie quarterback playing David to the Ravens’ 10-game home winning streak.
However, the Texans and Ravens’ defenses are very evenly matched on paper — average yards allowed per game: Houston 285.7, Baltimore 288.9.
Offensively, the Ravens may have an easier time rattling Houston’s first-year signal caller T.J. Yates. The Texans will be looking for another strong performance from RB Arian Foster, who is fifth in the league with 1,224 rushing yards on the season. He helped Yates give the Texans their first postseason victory in franchise history last week with 24 carries for 153 yards and two touchdowns. But he was held to 49 yards on 15 attempts when the two teams met during the regular season.
On the other side, the Texans’ chances will largely be determined by whether the defense can hold Baltimore rushing leader Ray Rice. Rice is No. 1 in the NFL this year with 2,068 yards from scrimmage, but he was held to 89 yards on 29 carries during last year’s two playoff games. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco has struggled in the postseason as well, throwing seven interceptions and four TDs in seven playoff games. But, he has a 96.1 QB rating for the last four home games.
Players to Watch:
Anquan Boldin (Ravens): WR Anquan Boldin leads the Ravens with 887 yards per game despite missing the final two games of the regular season. He’s expected to play on Sunday, and looks to mimic his season-high eight receptions for 132 yards, which came against the regular season meeting vs. the Texans.
T.J. Yates (Texans): With the defenses so evenly matched, this game is really going to come down to the offense. If Yates can handle the pressure of being a rookie on the road, he could give the Texans a win.
-The Ravens clinched their first AFC North title since 2006.
-Baltimore is 5-0 all-time against Houston.
-Joe Flacco is the only quarterback in NFL history to have won a playoff game in each of his first three seasons.
Pick: Ravens over Texans
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers
I’m a big believer in playing off of momentum. Who hasn’t had a coach at one time in our life tell us that competition “90 percent mental and 10 percent skill?” The Week 13, 38-35 loss to the Packers has served as a catalyst for the Giants’ explosive style of play. The teams were tied with less than a minute left, as Big Blue proved that they could play with the darlings of the NFL. The offense has only been better since then.
On another note, it was difficult to see Eli Manning sacked in the end zone for a safety just over a minute into the first quarter on Sunday’s game against the Falcons. The play ignited serious questions about whether or not New York would be able to pull it together. Mental mistakes are costly.
Fortunately, they clearly didn’t let impact the rest of their game. The Giants defense played lights-out to hold the Falcons to a whopping zero offensive points. And Giants QB Eli Manning continued his career pro season, throwing for 277 yards and three touchdowns for a final score of 24-2.
The Giants are on a tear, and everything seems to be coming together at the right time for the team. The defense is playing well, the pass rush is making an impact and the running game is surging. Their biggest problem is the defensive backfield, but starting CB Aaron Ross, who left last week’s game with a concussion, has been cleared to play this Sunday.
Challenging the Giants’ defense is Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers. This season, the projected league MVP has thrown 45 TDs, a mere six interceptions, 4,643 yards and league-record 122.5 QB rating.
Again, the Giants can take comfort in the fact that when they played the Packers in December, they put up some of their best rushing numbers of the season – 100 yards on 20 carries. But, Green Bay was without star linebackers Desmond Bishop, who leads the team with 115 total tackles, and A.J. Hawk. The Packers’ defense is far from the best in the league – all they’re really focused on is forcing turnovers to get the ball back in Rogers’ hands—but the Giants will still have to prepare to face them at full force.
In the games since the regular season matchup against the Packers, the Giants’ rushing game has been at least 10 yards above their 89.2 season average. Key for the team is for rushing leaders Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs to thwart the Packers’ defense and help Manning to bridge the divide between his numbers and those of Rogers. Interesting, the Giants barely used Victor Cruz, their leading receiver, in last week’s game vs. the Falcons. (He had two receptions for 28 yards). The team’s No. 2 receiver Hakeem Nicks was on fire with six receptions for 115 yards and two touchdowns. If they bring all of their offensive weapons to Green Bay, they very well could come home with the victory.
An interesting antithesis to momentum, however, is time off. The Giants have had to fight to make it to the divisional championships, whereas the No. 1 seed Packers will have had a solid two weeks off by kickoff time. Rogers and many of the starters have sat out an additional week, as they didn’t play in the final regular season matchup. It’s the age-old debate of how much an impact rest has on the postseason. Will the Giants be tired? Will the Packers be rusty?
Players to watch:
Aaron Rogers (Packers): Rogers has proven to be the hero that Green Bay needed after the strange departure of Brett Favre. (In fact, his 45 TDs, six INTs, 4,643 yards and 122.5 QB rating are better numbers than Favre put up in any single season.) However, his first loss of the season came during Week 15 to a Kansas City team that is currently home watching television.
Eli Manning (Giants): In one sense, this game will be a battle of quarterbacks having career years. In another sense, Rogers has simply proven that he is more dominant. (Manning has thrown 29 TDs to Rogers’ 45). If Manning can continue to limit his mental mistakes, he could lead his team to victory.
- Since 2000, only one defending Super Bowl champion has advanced to the conference championship game the following season. (2004 Patriots)
-When the Giants traveled to Lambeau Field for the playoffs was the 2007 NFL title game. The temperature was a frigid minus-23 degrees. Coach Tom Coughlin’s face defined a new shade of red.
-The parallels between this season and the 2007 Super Bowl Championship year are becoming hard to ignore. Both teams endured a rollercoaster season to finish 10-6 and 9-7, respectively. The 2007 team lost to the then-undefeated New England Patriots in the final game of the regular season, 38-35. The loss obviously propelled their meteoric rise through the playoffs to an eventual Super Bowl Championship win against the Pats. This year’s Giants team lost to the Packers with a final score of…38-35. But the loss spurred the offense and the Giants went on to win the final two games of the regular season to secure their spot in the playoffs. They grabbed the win last week, and the story continues…
Pick: Giants over Packers
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