We learned a few things during Wild Card weekend. Texans running back Arian Foster is the best in the game; the Giants terrify quarterbacks when their front four are healthy on defense; and Tim Tebow happens to be a pretty good football player. The divisional round will prove to be even better.
The first match-up on Saturday features the New Orleans Saints against the San Francisco 49ers. Both teams finished the season at 13-3, but both earned their 13 wins in contrasting styles.
The 49ers are at their best when they pound the rock with tailback Frank Gore, going 7-0 this season when Gore tops 80 yards, while relying on quarterback Alex Smith, who has only five interceptions on the season, to not give up possession. They controlled the clock and won games by stopping the run.
The Saints, on the other hand, ran more spreads than Playboy and let quarterback Drew Brees steal the show. The Saints average 34.2 points per game this season and scored over 40 in the last four consecutively. The 49ers have played great defense all season, finishing first in opponents rushing yards, but still finished 16th against the pass.
The key match-up will be 49ers safety Dashon Goldson, who has six interceptions, against Drew Brees and his feared offensive weapons.
The Saints’ offense is too hot for anyone to stop right now, and the 49ers are still starting Alex Smith.
Saints 27, 49ers 13
The game scheduled for Saturday night is the New England Patriots vs. the Denver Broncos. This game took an unexpected turn when the Patriots signed former Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels as an offensive assistant to game-plan on a certain quarterback he drafted in 2010. Say what you want about Bill Belichick, but he knows what he is doing.
Whatever special divine power Tebow posseses, he is still a raw second-year quarterback. The Patriots will base their game plan on what the Steelers did wrong in the Wild Card round. Pittsburgh took away the run by playing 10 men in the box and dared Tebow to beat them downfield. It resulted in 316 yards, two touchdowns and the highest recorded playoff rating for a quarterback of 125.6.
The Patriots won’t let this happen again and will constantly change their look. New England doesn’t lose in Gillette Stadium and I don’t foresee their season ending there in the playoffs two seasons in a row. Pats QB Tom Brady is playing with a chip on his shoulder and star tight end Rob Gronkowski is a match-up nightmare.
The key to a victory is defensive tackle Vince Wilfork stopping Denver’s running game. If Wilfork can fill the gaps, it will allow the Patriots to play their safeties deeper in the secondary. Tebow’s magic ends in Foxborough.
Patriots 30 Broncos 20
The first game on Sunday is the Texans against the Baltimore Ravens. I think this will turn out to be upset Sunday. Houston is coming off of an impressive win against the Bengals in which Foster dominated rushing for 153 yards and two scores. The most pressure for anyone in this game is on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. He has won two playoff games but always seems to end the Ravens’ seasons by no-showing in their biggest games.
The Texans’ defense ranks third in opposing passing yards and could disrupt Flacco’s rhythm early, making this “one of those games” that finally puts Ravens fans over the edge.
Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates seems to work perfectly for this system — he’s had no interceptions in his last three starts — and star wide receiver Andre Johnson continues to get healthier.
The key match-up is Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis vs. Foster. If Foster is stopped the Texans can’t win, but I don’t think he will be.
Texans 13, Ravens 10
The last game of the weekend is the Giants vs. the Green Bay Packers. It seems like we are experiencing deja vu with the Giants. A team is making a bid at a perfect season, the Giants play them hard in the regular season (38-35 in week 13), and then everyone is healthy and they pull off the upset when it matters most.
There are many things going well for the Giants right now. Their running game is back on track with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw each getting 14 carries against the Atlanta Falcons, earning 92 and 63 yards respectively. Quarterback Eli Manning finished as the sixth-best quarterback and had the best season of his career, as well as finding a new favorite weapon in second-year wideout Victor Cruz.
Most importantly, the Giants are finally healthy and start pass-rushers Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora on the same defensive line. Their pass rush is frightening. The only way to stop an elite quarterback is pressure.
The key match-up will be Packers second-year left tackle Marshall Newhouse vs. Tuck. Packers All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers must be protected. Despite all of the reasons it seems ill-advised to pick against the 15-1 Packers, I honestly believe the Giants will win. Something crazy always happens in the last game.
Giants 30, Packers 27