The 49er defense has its work cut out against the NFL’s hottest offense. Tim Tebow tries to eliminate another AFC legend and Joe Flacco gets to prove he’s better than a rookie. Also, three reasons the Giants won’t win.
I’ll warn you now; I had a real good feel for last week’s games. If you come here for gambling advice, you probably already know I went 4-0. (You’re also probably dead broke. Sorry about that.) This week I’m not as confident. Between unproven quarterbacks and erratic defenses, I don’t know what to think. Consider yourself warned.
Last Week: 3 – 1 – 0
Playoffs: 3 – 1 – 0
Saturday, January 14 (4:30PM ET)
(3) Saints at (2) 49ers
I’ve flip-flopped at least six times throughout the week on this matchup. At first, I was very confident in picking the Saints because they’re obviously the hottest team in the NFL. Last week’s 2nd half assault on the Detroit Lions only increased New Orleans’ momentum. Then, I got myself caught up in how good the 49ers defense is. I like defense. I like to believe a dominant defense can slow a dominant offense. This process obviously repeated itself a few times. Since I couldn’t come to a decision, I’ve chosen to ignore both arguments. Instead, I’m looking back at what each team did against opponents similar to this week’s adversary. We’ll start with the Saints.
As I mentioned a few days ago, New Orleans played just one game in temperatures below 65 degrees. While they moved the ball well, they struggled in the red zone, kicking three field goals until finally breaking through for a pair of 4th quarter touchdowns. Aside from the Titans, the Saints only faced what I consider a good defense on three occasions. Two came in consecutive weeks early in the season. New Orleans hung 30 points on the Bears and a whopping 40 on Houston. Later, New Orleans trounced the Giants on national television. Yes, all three were played in the Superdome, but still, that’s a lot of points.
The 49ers reside in the NFC West, so potent offenses aren’t exactly a local product. While they didn’t encounter an offense on the Saints level, the 49ers did face the Cowboys, Eagles, Lions, and Giants – all passing offenses led by good to very good quarterbacks. San Francisco went 3-1 in those contests. They blew a double digit 4th quarter lead against Dallas. Erased a double digit 4th quarter deficit against the Eagles thanks to Alex Henery’s failure to convert a 36 yard field goal (shoot me now). Against Detroit and New York, the 49ers erased small 2nd half deficits to emerge victorious. To review; the 49er defense has had success against aerial attacks. They allowed more than 24 points only once in those four games (and only twice all season).
So that brings us back to where we started. I’m stuck choosing between an unproven Alex Smith and a dominant 49er defense, or Drew Brees and the Saints offense maintaining their torrid pace outside and on grass. It’s not often a team goes from chronic loser to first round playoff bye. It’s even less often a team in that situation moves on to the Conference Championship Game. I like the 49ers, but I can’t pick Alex Smith to outscore the Saints. I just can’t. SAINTS If I were Charles Barkley; Saints -3.5
Saturday, January 14 (8:00PM ET)
4) Broncos at (1) Patriots
Tom Brady needs this victory more than any victory at any other point in his career. That sounds extreme, but give me a few paragraphs to convince you. You see, his playoff legacy is at stake. Sure, he’s won countless playoff games and three Superbowls, but players are more often remembered for how they ended their careers. Brady hasn’t won a playoff game in half a decade. He’s lost two straight at home despite being the favored team. If he and the Patriots were to fall this week, it’d be the 2nd consecutive year the Patriots were one-and-done despite a first round bye and the conference’s top seed.
Even when Brady played in all those Superbowls, he was playing with house money. No one believed Brady could get New England to the playoffs following the 2001 season, let alone the Superbowl. The titles in 2004 and 2005 were icing on the cake, and so was the Superbowl appearance after the 2007 season. We all knew Brady could win big games then. We’re not so sure anymore. Brady needs this win and possibly even one more after it to prove he’s still as clutch as any quarterback in NFL history. Don’t think Brady isn’t aware of this. Don’t believe he isn’t annoyed by the attention Tim Tebow has received, either.
Brady loves to prove he’s the best. As he did in Denver last month, Brady will be out to prove he’s the NFL’s golden boy, not Tebow. Denver’s defense isn’t talented enough in the secondary to slow Brady or his stable of receivers. A healthy pass rush from Denver would certainly be effective in slowing the Patriots, but considering the Broncos struggled at times to pressure a one-legged Ben Roethlisberger, I’m not holding my breath.
Tebow actually played well in his previous meeting with New England. People seem to forget that Tebow and the Broncos jumped out to a 16-7 lead early in the 2nd quarter and owned momentum before Brady took it from them. The Bronco defense could never get it back.
Tebow’s been the best sports story in years. He’s been the most thrilling, exciting, and enjoyable part of the NFL season. I know he has some magical gift for unthinkable heroics that cannot be explained. I just don’t think it will be enough to overcome Brady and a desperate Patriots team. PATRIOTS If I were Charles Barkley; Patriots -13.5
Sunday, January 15 (1:00PM ET)
(3) Texans at (2) Ravens
I don’t like this game. I feel like I’m picking a rookie quarterback either way. Sorry, Joe Flacco, but it’s true. While you have playoff experience and a few NFL seasons under your belt, I still don’t trust you anymore than a rookie quarterback. What’s worse, you get angry because you aren’t “given” the respect you think you deserve. Champions don’t beg for respect. They earn it. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine the Texans pulling an upset.
Houston’s offense is so one-dimensional right now it makes Andy Reid’s offense look balanced. If Arian Foster and Ben Tate can’t continually get four to five yards on first down, Houston will find itself in very big trouble. 3rd and longs against the Ravens get you in trouble fast. Terrell Suggs of “Ball So Hard University” has been the most disruptive defensive lineman in the AFC. Even if Houston is able to slow Sluggs, rookie T.J. Yates hasn’t shown he’s capable of carrying an offense in any of his six appearances this season. Anything Yates accomplishes is the direct result of a successful run game. Without it, the Texans will struggle to move the football and thus, score. You can’t beat an elite defense like Baltimore’s by doing one thing well.
Baltimore’s offense doesn’t exactly light up the scoreboard either. As you can tell, I like Flacco less and less each year. He’s Matt Ryan but with a better defense and scarier facial hair. The Raven offense is entirely Ray Rice. Similar to Houston’s situation with Foster, Rice allows the Ravens to be successful. Stop Rice and it’s likely you stop the Ravens. That’s why if Baltimore is to win, Flacco must make plays with his arm and avoid the devastating turnovers that have plagued him. Houston’s defense is every bit as good as Baltimore’s so the offense that flinches first will probably lose and the offense that is able to establish its running game will almost surely win. I hate picking Flacco to outperform an opposing quarterback, but I feel Yates leaves me no choice. RAVENS If I were Charles Barkley; Texans +7.5
Sunday, January 15 (4:30PM ET)
(4) Giants at (1) Packers
Don’t let one week persuade how you feel about a team. I repeated this to myself multiple times this week. I’ve loved the Packers all season long as the team to represent the NFC in the Superbowl. I was also supremely confident the Giants would rally to win the NFC East and defeat whatever Wildcard team stood between them and the Divisional Round. Now that New York has accomplished everything I expected, I find myself thinking they could win in Green Bay. Nonsense. Here’s why.
The Packers didn’t go 15-1 because the schedule broke their way. They don’t reside in a cupcake division and their schedule wasn’t crafted from marshmallows and cotton balls. No, the Packers went 15-1 because they were and still are the best team in football. The easiest way to make this pick is to refute the reasons many believe the Giants can win.
1. The Giants nearly beat the Packers a month ago. Well, guess what? That game meant everything to the Giants. At the time, New York had lost three straight and was desperate for a win to stay within striking distance of the Cowboys. The game meant nothing to the Packers who were 12-0 at the time and all but locked in to the NFC’s top seed. Green Bay won a game it didn’t have to have while the Giants lost a game they desperately needed. Oh yeah, this one is in Wisconsin, not North Jersey.
2. New York’s pass rush will disrupt Rodgers and the Packer offense. Absolutely possible. The only way to derail a great quarterback is to get after him. However, Rodgers isn’t Drew Brees or Tom Brady. Rodgers can move and he moves quite well. If you watched the Chiefs victory over the Packers, you saw the Chiefs disrupt Rodgers’ pocket and hit him often. On the other hand, although the Chiefs were breathing down Rodgers’ neck all afternoon, Rodgers still escaped to make plenty of plays. In fact, had his receivers held on to catchable balls, the Packers win that game by at least a touchdown. Disrupting Rodgers isn’t enough. You have to bring him down before he gets outside the pocket. If he gets away, you’re done. (Assuming of course his receivers actually catch the ball.)
3. Green Bay’s defense is weak. So it’s statistically ranked as one of the worst in the NFL. Oh well. Guess what it led the NFL in… yep, interceptions. Eli Manning has been spectacular this season and even better in the 4th quarter. However, he’s still prone to interceptions. Manning threw 16 this season. Aaron Rodgers threw six. If the Packers get a lead and Manning and the Giants are forced to commit heavily to the passing game, they’re playing right to Green Bay’s strength. The Packers thrive on big leads and an aggressive defense to capitalize on the opposing quarterback’s impatience and desperation. The Giants best shot is to run the football and hope they can slow Rodgers. I don’t think they’ll successfully do either. PACKERS If I were Charles Barkley; Packers -7.5
Last Week: 4 – 0 – 0
Playoffs: 4 – 0 – 0