A Nation Divided Makes Great Football

The Saints' Drew Brees is just too good a passer, with too many great receivers, to be contained by the 49ers in Saturday's divisional-round playoff game. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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.

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Wild Cards, You Make My …

The Texans beat the Bengals in week 14 of the regular season. Expect the same result when they open up Wild Card weekend Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Finish the line yourselves, sickos. Here’s my preview for this weekend’s NFL Wild Card games.

Bengals vs. Texans

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. at Houston

Neither quarterback for this game terrifies opposing defensive coordinators. T.J. Yates, Houston’s starter since Matt Schaub went down with a shoulder injury in Week 12, has matched Schaub’s accuracy – 61.2 vs. 61.0 percent – but he’s coming off an injury. He also lacks Schaub’s decision-making skills, throwing three picks and fumbling four times in just six games. Cincinnati, meanwhile, counters with Andy Dalton, a less accurate passer who in his rookie year has thrown a troubling 13 interceptions, despite the 20 touchdown passes.

Fortunately for the Texans, they have one of the most elite running backs in the game: Arian Foster, whose 94.2 yards per game ranks second in the NFL. Houston can overcome a weak passing game with their juggernaut rushing attack.

Defensively, the Bengals are good, but the Texans are better. Texan linebacker Connor Barwin is tied for ninth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks, and the Texans have the third best pass-defense in the league. They also have the fourth best run-defense and allow the fourth-fewest points per game. Supposedly, defense and running the ball wins in the playoffs. If conventional wisdom holds, the Texans beat the Bengals. Pick: Texans.

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