Eight division winners will fight for spots in the AFC and NFC Championships this weekend. The last time no fifth- or sixth-seed teams won their Wild Card playoff games was 2007. Since the 1978-79 NFL playoffs – the first season with Wild Card playoff births (albeit just one per conference) – the higher-seeded teams have never won all their first- and second-round games.
At least one of the better-rested teams will very soon enjoy a much longer respite. Who will it be? Here’s my preview.
Saints vs. 49ers
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. at San Francisco
San Francisco has a very strong defense: first in rushing yards per game, second in points per game, fourth in total yards. Notice which category I left out? That’s right: passing yards per game. And they’re taking on New Orleans – the best passing team in the NFL. Drew Brees can shred even good secondaries like confetti. There are far worse pass-defenses (including New Orleans’), but the 49ers’ biggest weakness plays directly into the hands of the Saints’ greatest strength.
Meanwhile the 49ers average over 10 fewer points per game than the Saints. The 49ers’ offense is horrendous: their best wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, has caught just four touchdown passes, while QB Alex Smith is an untested, above-average quarterback who can only be used sparingly (just 197 yards per game). Frank Gore runs well, but the Saints defend against the run far better than against the pass.
San Francisco can’t match New Orleans’ scoring, so they’ll have to win it by forcing turnovers. Only problem: the Saints showed last week against the Lions that they too can intercept passes.Pick: Saints.
Broncos vs. Patriots
Saturday, 8:00 p.m. at New England
Been there. Beat that. The Patriots already beat the Broncos this season, and they did it in Denver, where Tom Brady sucks. But in Foxboro? With a team finally getting healthy again? Against an offense that prefers to run? And with temperatures in the teens? No chance.
The Broncos earned almost 65 percent of their total yardage against the Patriots in Week 15 in the first half. Bill Belichick figured out that the Broncos play like high-schoolers: keep Tim Tebow in the pocket and his anemic throwing arm will doom him every time. Meanwhile, the Broncos’ defense won’t be able to contain Rob Gronkowski without freeing Aaron Hernandez, and containing them will just spring Wes Welker.
The Patriots have too many weapons, and they know a third straight first-round loss would cause a horrific backlash from the fans. Pick: Patriots.
Texans vs. Ravens
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. at Baltimore
The Texans run a dynamic, big-numbers offense; the Ravens don’t. The Ravens play fantastic defense; the Texans don’t. The Ravens have made the playoffs seven times since winning the 2000 Super Bowl, but have gone just 5-6 during that stretch; Texans quarterback T.J. Yates will start the second playoff game his career, and he’ll have to do it on the road at a very loud MT&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens have the only defense left that can actually control the flow of the game. Joe Flacco won’t get it done on offense, but he won’t have to. This will be the one low-scoring game of the divisional round, and just three touchdowns between Flacco and uber-rusher Ray Rice should be enough to send Baltimore to the AFC Championship. Pick: Ravens.
Giants vs. Packers
Sunday, 4:30 p.m. at Green Bay
This game will come down to the quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning both played MVP-caliber football this season, combining accuracy with strength, intelligence with intuition. And both teams will be throwing against truly atrocious secondaries bailed out by above-average pass-rushers (Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and Packers linebacker Clay Matthews). Whichever quarterback blinks first will lose.
New York’s receiving duo of Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz out-performed Green Bay’s pair of Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings in total yardage, but Green Bay’s caught eight more touchdown passes between them and about nine percent more of the passes thrown their way. Both teams will need to score to win, but Green Bay’s top two receivers are more likely to get the job done.
Green Bay also has more weapons beyond Nelson and Jennings. Both Jermichael Finley and James Jones can get the job done, whether in the field or the end zone. New York’s Jake Ballard, meanwhile, is a spot-use receiver at best. Green Bay can spread it in a way New York can’t, and they’re playing at Lambeau Field. Expect an animated crowd, to say the least. Pick: Packers.