(CBS) Here’s my take on how the NFL’s Divisional Round weekend is going to shake out.
(Home team in all CAPS)
Saturday, Jan. 14
Saints 27, 49ERS 20 – 3:30 PM
The 2011 49ers earned the NFC West title and a first-round bye by executing what many consider to be a timeless formula for success in the NFL: run the ball and stop the run. So Saturday’s match-up against the high-flying Saints could settle the argument about the viability of this “old-school” mentality in today’s pass-happy NFL.
In one season, rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh has molded a 13-game winner in his image. Much like he did at Stanford, Harbaugh improved the defense, incrementally improved the offense, and decidedly improved the physicality of his team. The 49ers didn’t allow a rushing touchdown or a 100-yard rusher until the final game of the season, which are remarkable accomplishments and illustrate the new nasty attitude in San Francisco.
The 49ers front-seven is one of – if not – the best in football. Anchored by All-Pro Patrick Willis, Pro Bowler Navarro Bowman, and sensational rookie Aldon Smith, they’ve been able to make teams one-dimensional all season. Making division opponents like the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Rams one-dimensional is one thing, but against a team like the Saints, this could be problematic. The 49ers’ Achilles’ heel has been their secondary, so I expect New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees to stand and deliver once again this weekend.
The Saints have carved their place in NFL history thanks in large part to Brees’ right shoulder; however, this team can line up and play smash-mouth football just as well, so it will be fun to watch the ballet of elephants this weekend.
It will be strength-on-strength when the Saints have the ball, so this game will come down to what the 49ers are able to do on offense. Look for the 49ers to try and play keep-away from the explosive Saints, by feeding the ball to running back Frank Gore and deploying a low-risk, controlled passing attack. While this approach may limit the total number of Saints offensive possessions, Brees and company can strike from anywhere on the field. The 49ers’ secondary is vulnerable, so I like the Saints to prevail and set-up an NFC Championship game featuring the last two Super Bowl winners.
PATRIOTS 37, Broncos 23 – 7 PM
Just five weeks ago, I pleaded for Tom Brady to put an end to Tebow-mania and the Broncos seven-game winning streak. As expected, Mr. Brady delivered a 41-23 victory, reminding us of what a real NFL quarterback looks like. This week, it’s déjà vu all over again, and I’m resurrecting my plea to Mr. Brady.
I watched the Broncos-Steelers game in disbelief. No, not at the horrendous officiating, that benefitted the Steelers on several occasions (a common occurrence in the playoffs), but at the Steelers’ game plan. Dick LeBeau chose to stack the box and play man coverage on the edge. All season long, Tim Tebow has struggled to read defenses and throw his receivers open, so why did LeBeau choose this strategy? Playing man allowed Tebow to make easy reads and gain several large chunks of yards through the air.
While we’re doing revisionist history, several weeks ago, I questioned why the Steelers chose to play a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger instead of letting him heal, as there was so little to gain. Home or away, there could be no long playoff run without a healthy Roethlisberger, so why not shut him down until the playoffs began? Clearly B-Ro wasn’t able to make plays with his feet on Sunday, which definitely affected the Steelers offense, and ultimately impacted the outcome of the game.
The Patriots couldn’t be happier with how everything worked out. They have a home game against an inferior opponent who struggles to score points. Seeing Brady had no issues carving up the Broncos in Denver, logic tells you that the Patriots will again put the Broncos in an early hole and force Tebow to actually play quarterback. For those who haven’t tuned in to the NFL for the past twelve or so weeks, Tebow is an awful quarterback. I know, minor detail. Mercifully, after 10PM Central on Saturday night we will no longer have to speak of Tebow.
Sunday Jan. 15
RAVENS 24, Texans 13 – Noon
I was dead wrong about Houston last weekend. The Texans stepped up their game – especially on the offensive and defensive lines – and dominated the Bengals. This weekend, however, they take their show on the road to Baltimore to face a Ravens team that has yet to lose a home game this year. Spoiler alert, they won’t lose this one either.
All season long, I’ve called the Ravens an enigma. At times they’ve looked like the best team in the AFC, other times, they’ve played to – and below – the level of their competition, dropping games to the likes of the Jaguars, Seahawks, and Titans. For the two of you who have read my blogs this year – thanks, Mom & Dad! – you know how I feel about the Jaguars, so I have a hard time believing in a team that lost to them.
Fortunately for the Ravens, they’re playing a one-game season against a team they are seemingly better than on both sides of the ball. I expect the Ravens to limit the Texans running game, and put the game in the hands of rookie quarterback TJ Yates (something the Bengals were unable to do last weekend), a task Yates simply isn’t up for at this point in his career. Savor the moment Ravens fans, as you’re only one week away from Joe Flacco breaking your heart.
PACKERS 34, Giants 27 – 3:30 PM
The Week 13 match-up between these two teams was the most entertaining game of the 2011 regular season. This Sunday, it’s the same teams in a different venue. I still think the Giants got jobbed by the refs on Jake Ballard’s touchdown / non-touchdown call, so they should have revenge on their minds. The Packers are a little bit healthier than they were the first time around; the Giants are battle-tested, having played two straight do-or-die games, so this game should be another epic match-up.
Of all the remaining playoff teams, the Giants are the best at generating pressure with their front-four, which is a huge benefit against a team like the Packers. Recall if you will, the game plan the Chiefs deployed against the Packers, they primarily played with nickel personnel, and Tamba Hali dominated the Packers on the edge. I envision a similar approach this weekend from the Giants, who definitely have the defensive lineman to pressure Aaron Rodgers, but don’t have the same caliber players in the secondary to match-up with the potent Green Bay receivers.
By (wisely) sitting Aaron Rodgers in Week 17, he has had three weeks to rest and prepare for what Packers fans hope is a long playoff run. Will Rodgers be rusty? Maybe in warm-ups. Rodgers is the real-deal, who is rapidly entering the argument for best quarterback of all-time. Rodgers’ footwork, arm strength, accuracy, and complete mastery of Mike McCarthy’s spread attack make him the most dangerous weapon in the playoffs. I picked the Packers to repeat as Super Bowl Champions in my NFC North preview and I’ve seen nothing this season to change my mind.
(I hope that guy Paul who commented in my NFC North preview didn’t put money on that 10-win season for the Vikings. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt; he probably meant 10 total wins by the end of the 2013 season.)
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.