NFL Predictions 2011: Divisional Round
Friday, January 13 2012
Contributed by: norcalfella
It's nice to be perfect. Well, almost perfect. I was 3-1 straight up (172-81 overall) while going 4-0 against the spread (128-127-5 overall) and 4-0 on the over/under (151-104-4 overall). I don't recall ever going 8-0 versus Vegas in any playoff weekend so that was cool.
New Orleans (13-3) @ San Francisco (13-3): This is going to be fun. Does defense still win championships? We will find out if that old saying needs to be revised. I'm not certain this 49ers defense is truly elite because they haven't really faced a bunch of great quarterbacks. They were able to squeeze past Eli's Giants and Stafford's Lions while losing to Romo's Cowboys. I'm not going to put too much weight in whipping Big Ben's Steelers because he could hardly move. They also lost to Flacco's Ravens and Skelton's Cardinals. I am concerned about their ability to contain a top shelf passer.
In the regular season San Francisco led the NFL in turnover ratio at +28. The Saints were -3, the only negative team in the NFC. If the 49ers win the turnover battle, they definitely have a fighting chance to win this game. Their goal is to run the ball as much as possible to keep Brees on the sidelines. Frank Gore might be healthier after a week of rest. People might not realize the statistically superior running game belongs to the visiting team. The Saints average a lot more per carry (4.9 to 4.1) and gain a handful more yards per game. Of course, defensively the 49ers have a bigger edge in average rush allowed (3.5 to 5.0) and lead the league giving up a minuscule 77.3 yards a game, 31 fewer than the visitors.
If New Orleans can run for about 100 yards they are in good shape though. Brees can throw for 280 comfortably. He just needs to watch the interceptions. San Francisco has 23 to go along with 42 sacks. Remember, they have faced a lot of bad quarterbacks. There is something to be said for a fired up home crowd hosting a playoff game for the first time in a decade. Everyone seems to think this offense is going to melt outdoors. I'm not so sure about that considering the weather is just fine.
No one seems to be talking about San Francisco's dreadful passing offense. Only Jacksonville's inept attack led by a rookie and Denver with Tebow gained fewer yards per game. They survived because Smith only threw 5 interceptions and rarely fumbles. Conversely, the Saints, like three other teams playing this weekend (Giants, Patriots, Packers) have a bottom 4 pass defense. Unlike those three defenses, however, they do not have 20-plus picks. They have just 9 and only 33 sacks. If they are unable to pressure Smith or force turnovers he will nickel and dime them to death.
I love the special teams for the 49ers, but I feel like their red zone woes are going to do them in here. Settling for field goals is not going to work against an offense like this. I like them to hold the Saints down early while their offense scrapes down the field for a field goal or two. They might even lead 6-0 after the first quarter. Then the Saints might hit an 80-yard touchdown. The trouble with defending their defense is that no one is really a superstar. Brees will spread the ball around and stay patient. The trading of two field goals for one touchdown does not work. It might give the 49ers a 15-14 lead in the third quarter, but they can't hold on forever: New Orleans 23, San Francisco 21 (SF +4/under 47.5)
Denver (8-8) @ New England (13-3): Tebow Time has been fun. I was mildly surprised it extended into the playoffs, and a lot of that had to do with two-thirds of the Pittsburgh defensive line getting hurt early. Let's not make too much out of their win. Meanwhile the Patriots were at home stewing over the rest of the nation praising Tebow and talking about their playoff losing streak. As much as I talk about turnover ratio in the playoffs, this is a great example of how games can really get out of control. New England is +17 and Denver is -12. Maybe that only puts the home team at +1, but it's enough to sway the momentum.
The first time around the Broncos had the only 3 turnovers in the game, all fumbles. Tebow was sacked 4 times, but gained 93 yards rushing. I guess you could say he ran 16 times for 41 yards if you combine the runs and sacks though right? He had a 30-yard run and scored twice. Tom Brady did what he does completing two-thirds of his passes for 320 yards and two scores. The outcome was never really in doubt even though the Broncos built a 16-7 lead early in the second quarter. The Pats scored on six of their next eight possessions and won 41-23.
I am looking for New England's offense to go off here. They want to erase all the memories of losing the past two years at home off a bye week. Brandon Spikes is back in the lineup to tackle his old college teammate Tebow. The funny thing about these rushing attacks is that the team with more scores on the ground is New England (18-11) and they aren't that far behind in rushing first downs (129-107) considering the wide disparity in the passing game where they almost double Denver in yardage and touchdowns.
As bad as the Patriots are in pass defense, they only gave up a couple more touchdown throws (26-24) and have a lot more interceptions (23-9). Think those pick numbers won't hold in a battle of Tebow vs. Brady? The sacks are almost dead even although Denver's rush gets more credit with Dumervil and Miller. Scheme is going to favor New England heavily. I like them to flat out overwhelm a team that is not ready for a stage like this. Tebow Time at home is one thing, on the road is quite another. Even if they are 5-3 away from Mile High most of those were narrow wins over average (or worse) teams. Four of their last five games have been at home and the only road game was a 40-14 whipping endured at Buffalo. I really think this is a similar result to that: New England 35, Denver 20 (NE -13.5/over 50)
Houston (10-6) @ Baltimore (12-4): Another rematch in a weekend filled with them. In this case the previous game was played three months ago. A lot has changed since then. Matt Schaub was healthy for one thing, so even though stud wide receiver Andre Johnson was out the offense should have been more competent than it will be with third-string rookie T.J. Yates at the controls. Even losing the turnover battle 2-0 the Ravens still won the game 29-14 and while it's true the game was close into the fourth quarter, well, the game is four quarters long. In the end, they won comfortably.
Both teams are in the plus category for turnover differential, but not by too much. I think it decides this outcome. Joe Flacco is not an elite quarterback. However, he is at home with a ferocious defense taking on a quarterback in way over his head. He should get set up in position to succeed. On paper the visitors should be able to ride their dynamic running game to keep Yates protected from mistakes. They have run for the second-most yards in the league and Arian Foster is a stud. However, the Ravens counter with Ray Rice and even though they run for almost 30 fewer yards per game they have the playoff tested quarterback and home field.
The crowd noise is going to bother Yates, as will this being by far the biggest game of his life. Even playing a big chunk of the season without Schaub and Johnson, the Texans still have a slightly better passing game on paper which is surprising unless you factor in the opposition. Baltimore had to deal with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh twice each. Still, they don't want to be in a position to rely on their passing game to win. Neither team does. Both pass defenses are in the top 4, barely letting teams complete more than half of their passes. Baltimore leads in sacks (48-44) and touchdown passes allowed (11-18) while Houston leads in interceptions (17-15).
The run defenses are pretty good too, and both are in the top 4 there as well allowing just below 100 yards per game. The Ravens give up a significantly lower average rush though (3.5 to 4.1) and the longest run they have given up is 25 yards. This is setting up to be a real slugfest. I can't see a lot of scoring here unless Baltimore wears down Houston's defense and they quit. Other than that it should be a battle to get into field goal range. In 32 combined games these defenses have given up 47 touchdowns, and if you're not good at math that's about 1.5 on average. If we get three here that sounds right and maybe four.
I am set on Baltimore winning it's just a matter of by how much and if their defense turns this into a decisive victory. I wonder if Houston's running game can do just enough to let them hang around, but I'm pretty sure Yates is going to buckle and turn it over at least twice. When that happens, the Ravens will take advantage. Their pass rush recorded 4 sacks against a seasoned Schaub the first time. They got to Alex Smith 9 times a while back in a big game. I can see about 6 sacks here and as I always say those are drive killers. Field goals are the order of the day, and a defensive score helps put the game away: Baltimore 24, Houston 13 (BAL -7.5/over 36)
NY Giants (9-7) @ Green Bay (15-1): Deja vu is the order of the day here. This was the matchup for the Giants when they undid Favre's Packers en route to a Super Bowl title. In that year they almost wrecked a perfect regular season for the Patriots just like they almost did to these Packers last month. Both games were high scoring thrillers. Will they win the rematch this time as well and is it going to be another defensive struggle? I expect both answers to be no.
The Packers were banged up down the stretch. Once they lost in Kansas City there was nothing left to prove. They were able to rest up a little while still dispatching Chicago 35-21 and playoff-bound Detroit 45-41 with backup quarterback Matt Flynn. Is their defense up for this though? That has been the big question mark because the offensive outpouring, 30-plus points in 11 games, has masked a unit that let 9 teams score at least 23 points. The only teams they flat out stifled were Minnesota (after giving up 27 to them the first time) and St. Louis. They managed the Lions in the first meeting, and Oakland and Kansas City late in the year, but this is not the 2010 version of their defense.
New York is white hot. They whipped Atlanta last week and other than a strange 23-10 home loss to Washington have been playing great football since the calendar turned to December. They had a tough stretch allowing 49, 38 and 34 points in consecutive weeks but have given up just 53 points total in four games since. The running game has gotten going and that makes everything else easier. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 155 yards on 28 carries last week. Eli threw for 277 yards and 3 touchdowns without a turnover.
The Packers have the worst pass defense on the stat sheet, but everyone keeps throwing on them because they are behind. In those prevent spots they give up yards that don't matter. The troubling issue is only 29 sacks considering teams threw the ball almost 40 times per game on them. That's a lot of chances to get the quarterback down. They did have 31 interceptions. The Giants, by contrast have 48 sacks and 20 picks. They gave up plenty of passing yards too so there is no reason to expect anything other than another shootout here. Maybe the weather plays an impact, but if the season finale is any indication it won't hold the offenses down.
Both defenses give up big chunks of yardage in the running game, but during the regular season neither team averaged even 100 yards on the ground. Whichever team gets ahead will have the edge here and all things being equal I like New York's backfield options. Both quarterbacks have been to the mountaintop. If it comes down to a close game I'll ride with Rodgers although not be much. Eli is vastly underrated. This should be a thriller. If anything a few field goals slow down the scoring just a bit: Green Bay 31, NY Giants 27 (NYG +9/over 52.5)