After a frenetic Wildcard Weekend, eight teams remain in the NFL playoffs. Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos were the fairytale last week, as the underdogs overcame the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers in dramatic fashion. The weekend also saw impressive performances from the juggernaut New Orleans Saints offense, the stout Heuston Texans defense and the vastly improved New York Giants.
New Orleans Saints (14-3) @ San Francisco 49ers (13-3), Sat @ 9.30pm
The weekend begins with an intriguing match-up between the New Orleans Saints and the San Francisco 49ers. The Saints progressed to the Divisional Round after an impressive 45-28 victory over the Detroit Lions, while the 49ers return to action after their bye. The game promises to be a toughly fought encounter between the league’s best offense, led by Drew Brees’ high-powered passing attack, and a 49ers defense that only concedes 14.3 points per game (2nd in NFL).
San Francisco’s chances rest primarily on their vaunted defense. The 49ers did not allow a 100 yard rusher in their first 14 matches and allowed a mere 77.2 yards per game, while San Francisco also lead the league in takeaways (38). New Orleans Saints running backs Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory combined for 167 rushing yards and three touchdowns against the Lions, but the committee is unlikely to be a major factor against the 49ers front seven.
Despite the 49ers impressive defensive performances throughout 2011, it is hard to see their secondary slowing down Drew Brees sufficiently. Brees has enjoyed one of the best quarterback seasons in history, breaking NFL season records for yardage (5,476), completions (468), most 300+ yard games (13), most consecutive 300+ yard games (seven) and completion percentage (71.2).
Brees also benefits from an impressive receiving arsenal, which will create mismatches with the 49ers secondary. Second year star tight end Jimmy Graham (1,310 yards, 11 TDs) and receiver Marques Colston (1,143 yards, 8 TDs) are Brees’ favourite targets, while Darren Sproles caught a career high 86 receptions and seven touchdowns out of the backfield.
Brees has, however, been less prolific outside of the domed stadiums. The Saints quarterback threw 37 touchdowns and eight interceptions in domed matches this season, while Brees has only nine touchdowns and six interceptions in outdoor matches. The 49ers will hope the conditions can slow down the Saints’ aerial assault.
The Saints’ main weakness is a porous pass defense (30th), but 49ers quarterback Alex Smith and the 29th rated passing offense are unlikely to fully take advantage. San Francisco’s main attacking tactic will probably be to control the game clock by giving ample rushing attempts to Frank Gore, which will limit Drew Brees’ opportunities to dissect the 49ers secondary.
The match is perhaps the hardest to predict this weekend and will likely be resolved in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.
Total Yards Offense: Saints (1st – 461.1 yards per game), 49ers (26th – 310.9 yards per game)
Points Defense: 49ers (2nd – 14.3 points per game), Saints (13th – 21.2 points per game)
Total Passing Yardage: Saints Offense (1st) vs 49ers Defense(16th)
Total Rushing Yardage: 49ers Defense (1st) vs Saints Offense (6th)
The Odds: Saints (- 3.0)
Prediction: The Saints powerful offense leads Sean Payton’s team to a narrow victory and a second NFC Championship Game in three years.
Denver Broncos (9-8) @ New England Patriots (13-3), Sun @ 1am
Saturday’s late match sees Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos travel to New England to face Tom Brady’s Patriots. Tebow Mania gripped the NFL community once more last week as a dramatic 80 yard pass to Demaryius Thomas helped the Denver Broncos shock the Pittsburgh Steelers on the first play of overtime to win 29-23.
The quarterback has received his share of criticism this season due to his questionable throwing ability, but last Sunday was definitely his best performance as an NFL quarterback. Despite only completing 10 of 21 passes, Tebow slashed the Pittsburgh secondary for 316 yards and beat cornerback Ike Taylor repeatedly for big gains. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas was in superb form and caught four passes for 204 yards and a touchdown.
The Broncos will need another Herculean performance to beat the Patriots, however, as the odds are heavily stacked against them. Denver will only have had six days to recover after their emotionally and physically draining victory over the Steelers. They must also face a New England team who have suffered two successive home exits from the playoffs and will be eager to set the record straight.
The Patriots have the second worst passing defense in NFL history and Demaryius Thomas will create a match-up nightmare with the Patriots secondary, but Tebow is unlikely to have the accuracy to capitalise. The Broncos will try to lean on their running game, which led the league with 2,632 yards and amassed 252 yards against the Patriots in week 15. This may have been an aberration for the Patriots, however, as New England were fairly stout against the run for the majority of the season.
The main task for the Broncos will be to keep pace with Tom Brady’s offense. The Patriots have started slow in many of their matches this season, but have shown remarkable resilience to execute numerous high-scoring, comeback victories. Brady threw for 5,235 yards (2nd in NFL history) and 39 touchdowns, while Gronkowski had the best season in tight end history as he caught NFL records for yardage (1,327) and touchdowns (17). Wes Welker continued to be an effective weapon and caught 122 passes for a career high 1,569, giving him four seasons with 111 catches or more.
The key to disrupting Tom Brady is pressure and Denver has excellent pass rushers in Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. The Broncos defense also boasts good cornerbacks led by Champ Bailey. The defense will not, however, match-up well against tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and slot receiver Wes Welker. The Patriots could start slowly but Brady will dissect the Broncos defense with short passes.
The Patriots beat the Broncos 41-23 in week 15 despite Denver racing into a 16-7 lead. Hernandez was unstoppable on that occasion, catching nine passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. Fans could see a repeat Saturday night, with Brady and the Patriots’ offense securing a comfortable win.
Subplot: Former Broncos head coach and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who drafted Tim Tebow and Demaryius Thomas, returned to the Patriots this week.
Third Down Efficiency: Denver Offense (30th) vs Patriots Defense (28th)
Passing Yardage: Patriots Offense (2nd) vs Broncos Defense (18th)
Sacks: Broncos Defense (10th) vs Patriots Offense (9th)
Rushing Yardage: Broncos Offense (1st) vs Patriots Defense (17th)
Yards from Tight Ends: Rob Gronkowski (1st – 1,327) and Aaron Hernandez (4th – 910 yards) vs Broncos Defense (3rd – 667 yards)
Touchdowns from Tight Ends: Rob Gronkowski (1st -17 TDs) and Aaron Hernandez (Joint 4th – 910 yards, 7 TDs) vs Broncos Defense (Joint 13th – 6 TDs)
The Odds: New England Patriots (-13.5)
Prediction: Despite Tebow’s and Thomas’ heroics last week, the Broncos will not have enough to beat New England at Foxboro on Saturday. The Patriots will earn a double digit victory over John Fox’s team.