Reporting Steve Silverman
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By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The wild-card round was entertainment. The NFL playoffs — never call it a tournament — begin in earnest this week as the heavyweights get involved.
The Packers and the Patriots should have the easiest route to the Super Bowl based on their No. 1 seeds, but try telling that to Mike McCarthy. Don’t even bother talking to Bill Belichick because he simply won’t listen. Here’s what each team will do to try to advance to the conference championship games:
Green Bay Packers
The Packers are the gold standard in the league and have been since the start of last year’s playoffs. Once they smelled an opportunity to make the playoffs with a victory in the regular-season finale against the Bears a year ago, they have not let up on the accelerator. Aaron Rodgers is the guy who drives this race car and his accuracy, arm strength and field vision are the tools he uses to get the job done. The Packers have the third best passing game and the worst pass defense which would indicate they are vulnerable. They are not. They will simply make more big plays with Rodgers, Jermichael Finley and Jordy Nelson causing havoc. The unsung heroes for the Packers play on the offensive line. Center Scott Wells and left tackle Chad Clifton lead a unit that keep Rodgers upright and that’s why they have been so consistent.
The Giants may have played their best game of the year in beating the Falcons 24-2 in the wild-card round. The Giants got production from Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs in the running game – something that had been missing during the regular season. The Giants are not going to beat Green Bay by running the football, but they may be able to keep them off balance for a half. The Giants also have the pass rush with Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul to make Rodgers somewhat uncomfortable. But making him uncomfortable does not mean beating him. It will take at least four Packer turnovers for the Giants to have a chance to advance.
San Francisco 49ers
If this were the old NFL, the 49ers would have a puncher’s chance of advancing in the playoffs and getting to the Super Bowl. Jim Harbaugh built a team with knockout power on defense and a consistent running game. However, that’s not the way to go 2012. If you can’t score explosively – and the 49ers can’t with Alex Smith at quarterback – you don’t have much of a chance. The big hope for the Niners is that Patrick Willis and the defense forces turnovers from the Saints and Candlestick Park turns into a muddy mess. The Niners can’t win this game on their own; they have to hope the Saints lose it.
New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees is a Hall of Fame quarterback and the Saints may be even more explosive than the Packers. The question in this game is about head coach Sean Payton. The Saints are basically unstoppable at home, but it’s a different story on grass. They played five games on grass this season and their last one was a 22-17 victory over the Titans. In that game, the Saints were held to nothing but field goals through the first three quarters before salting the game away with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. That lack of finishing ability is not acceptable. This team is too good to let doubt creep in and if Payton can erase it during the week, the Saints will roll.
New England Patriots
If you’ve never seen Bill Belichick dance, you could have witnessed that exhibition about the same time that Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas with the game-winning overtime touchdown pass against the Steelers in overtime. The Patriots wanted no part of the Steelers. The Patriots will simply turn up the pressure by throwing the ball all over the lot and playing fastbreak football against an opponent that has no chance to compete in that type of game. The Patriots may put 35 points or more on the board in the first half and since it’s a playoff game, they won’t relax until they are ahead by 40 points. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez can’t be stopped by anything but a New England blizzard – and even that’s not likely to do it.
It’s over for the Broncos. Tebow showed massive improvement from his regular season numbers in the wild-card win over the Steelers, but the Patriots will turn this game into a track meet. Once they get going, the Bronco defense won’t have the ability to stop them. An accurate passer can attack New England’s secondary with ease, but Tebow is not there yet. It ends in Foxboro for the Broncos.
John Harbaugh plays the game in a very similar manner to his brother Jim, but he has more weapons than his younger brother. Look for Joe Flacco to get warmed up for the AFC championship game against the Patriots by going deep a couple of times against the Texans. That will loosen up the Texans defense and then Ray Rice will take over. The Ravens defense will attempt to set up T.J. Yates and force him into turnovers. No team has been as successful over the years at making big plays on defense than the Ravens.
The best attribute the Texans have going for them is that there is no pressure. They earned a playoff berth for the first time in their history and they won that first playoff game with a backup rookie quarterback pulling the trigger. Nobody expects them to beat the Ravens. That removes the pressure. Running back Arian Foster has a killer instinct, but running against the Baltimore defense (second in the league) is not a way to prolong your season. It would take a perfect game combined with three or more Baltimore turnovers to give the Texans a chance.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.