The second round of the NFL playoffs starts Saturday with New Orleans-San Francisco (4:30 PM ET, Fox) and Denver-New England (8 PM ET, CBS). Here’s the Notebook’s look at the games…
New Orleans-San Francisco: I know everyone is high on the Saints, but it’s a pretty big slap in the face to the 49ers to make them an underdog of anywhere from 3.5 to 4 points on their homefield with a week off to get ready. There are plenty of reasons to think Jim Harbaugh’s team can win this game outright. Their stout run defense, one of the NFL’s best can stop an underrated New Orleans’ ground game. They can get pressure on Drew Brees from the linebacking positions, with Patrick Willis coming from the inside and Ahmad Brooks from the outside. Frisco’s corners are very aggressive at playing the ball, with Carlos Rodgers and Tarrell Brown able to get interceptions, along with safety Dashon Goldson. Brees has thrown 14 interceptions this year, and while that’s very good, considering the number of times he puts it up, it’s also better than twice what Aaron Rodgers threw and more than Tom Brady. There’s no reason to think San Francisco can’t get some turnovers if they take away the running game. And there’s no reason to think they can’t do that. Finally let’s add in the fact that New Orleans can hurt itself with penalties, costing themselves hidden yardage and with San Francisco every yard counts in the battle for field position.
San Fran’s offense will never win any awards, but they are a good matchup for New Orleans. The Saints’ biggest problem is that they don’t force turnovers and avoiding mistakes is what this Alex Smith-led offense is all about. Teams have also had success in running the ball on the Saints, and if Frank Gore can be a big part of this game it’s obviously a huge boon for Frisco. Making all of this work is San Francisco’s victory scenario and I’m hard-pressed to see why anyone considers it unrealistic.
New Orleans didn’t become the trendiest pick in the NFL for no reason though and I want to start with the less flashy aspects of their offense and that’s the running game and the tight end. The rush game is very well balanced, with Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles all being different types of runners and none really standing out above the other. It gives Sean Payton some options in finding the hot hand. At tight end, Jimmy Graham has been one of the league’s best this year. When you combine Graham, along with the shifty Sproles out of the backfield, you set up Brees up with some tremendous options underneath. That in turn gives him a chance to open things up down the field to Marques Colston. I believe the Saints will be able to move the ball. Whether they score points is going to depend on what should be some great red-zone battles with the SF defense and whether Colston can win his battles with the corners and make big plays.
The Over/Under on this game is 47.5. If you combine that with the pointspread, and we get a final score of about 26-21 New Orleans (trying to make the score sound like a realistic football score). In my playoff pools, I’ve been picking the Saints in this game, but with game day approaching I’m having serious second thoughts. The Saints’ problems with penalties, forcing turnovers and defending the run are all killers in this type of game, but nobody wants to look past Brees’ passing stats. I’m changing my mind here and taking the Niners outright, 20-16.
Denver-New England: There’s a lot of media coverage out there pointing out New England’s recent playoff losses. And I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Denver has this new quarterback named Tebow who seems to have a knack for pulling things out of his posterior at crunch time. I’ve evaluated this game every way I can, but I still can’t find a logical reason why Denver should win. Tebow’s late-game magic is made possible by solid defense and I feel like New England’s offensive style just matches up too well. The Broncos will want to use Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller to get in Tom Brady’s face, but even if they’re successful, the Patriot offense is geared toward quick strikes to the tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Angel Hernandez, along with Wes Welker coming out of the slot. I can see Denver knocking Brady down a few times, but I see the veteran quarterback consistently getting rid of the ball in time. Furthermore, it’s looking like Denver’s free safety Brian Dawkins will be out with a neck injury. Dawkins is a long way from his Pro Bowl years in Philadelphia, but this still a veteran with a lot of playoff games under his belt. His absence opens up the chances for Brady to move a replacement out of position for just a couple big plays that would break the game open. If Denver is going to survive then corners Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman will have to make some big plays and they can’t afford dropped interceptions like the one Bailey had in the end zone last week against Pittsburgh.
Regardless of how well Denver’s defense plays the offense will still have to produce in the high 20s again if they want to pull the upset. Wide receiver Eric Decker is out, so Tebow is going to have to build his passing around Demaryius Thomas again. The running game relies on Willis McGahee and Tebow’s own designed runs. Given how much New England has struggled defensively, there’s no reason to think the Broncos can’t move the ball. And with defensive end Andre Carter out for the year, Tebow should have the time to find his receivers. Do you think he can come through again with 300-plus yard performance? Or even 200-plus? I can see it happening, but this is a best-case scenario for Denver and even if he does, I still think Brady produces enough points to win.
The Vegas line on this game is New England (-13.5) with an Over/Under of 50, so let’s drop the baseline final score at 31-20. That’s closer than I think the game will be. The last time the cities of Denver and Boston met in a sporting event this big it was the 2007 World Series with the Red Sox and Rockies. This one will go about as well for the folks from out west.