The Eye went 2-2 a week ago, correctly pegging the Saturday winners but missing badly on both Sunday games. A quick note about the Steeler game before we move on: if you give up 316 yards to Tim Tebow, your pass defense is not good and I don’t care what its regular season ranking was. The Steelers need to reassess a lot of things on that side of the ball going into 2012. We’ll talk more about Pittsburgh later this year, let’s focus on the teams left in the dance, starting with the game in New England
Broncos at Patriots: These two teams matched up a few weeks ago in Mile High and while the Pats eventually pulled away, the Broncos torched the New England defense for most of the first half and only some poor fumble luck kept that game from being close. The Pats have one of the worst pass defenses in the league this season – part of that is teams passing a lot to keep up with New England’s prolific offense; but when you’re allowing 400 yards+ to the Colts, Bills, and Dolphins – and nine times overall – I think it’s safe to say your defense isn’t that strong. Lest you think the problems are all against the pass, the strong rushing teams also had success against New England – for example, Denver rushed for over 250 yards when they played last month. The only thing the Pats defense did well was force turnovers – 34 in all, and at least one in 15 of 16 games.
The Denver offense is by now something of a known quantity – they want to run a lot, they cannot complete intermediate passes at all, but Tebow showed great touch on the deep ball a week ago, and that was enough to beat Pittsburgh. My guess is that New England will take away the deep pass, give up the middle –in routes that Tebow struggles with, and take their chances with the running game. Denver will likely score 20-28 points against that defense, but New England doesn’t care, they only held four teams under 20 points anyway. New England will play bend-don’t-break, give up yards, and look for turnovers.
Offensively, the Pats are explosive – they gained 400+ yards and scored 30+ points 12 times, and only Pittsburgh held them below 300 yards and 20 points. Tom Brady threw for over 5,000 yards, Wes Welker caught a ridiculous 122 passes, and Rob Gronkowski had the best season of any tight end in history. The only way Denver will stop this offense is to force turnovers or hope Brady gets hurt – both are remote hopes at best, and the Pats only committed 17 turnovers (although 12 came in three games) and Brady has proven to be extremely durable.
I think this game will be closer than many expect – New England will not play well on defense, which will allow Denver to control the clock and score some points. However, I think Denver’s defense is overmatched against the Pats’ offense, and if the Patriots build a significant lead all of Tebow’s flaws will become apparent. New England pulls away in the fourth quarter, PATS BY 10.
Saints at 49ers: Last week I detailed how dominant New Orleans was this season at home, and after a slow start they completely dominated the second half of last week’s game. I was about to research the relative merits of New Orleans on the road vs. at home, but Grantland’s Bill Barnwell did such a good job, I’m going to link to his fine article and quote from it (read the whole thing if you have time, it’s excellent as usual). The relevant stats he found: New Orleans scores 41 points per game at home, but just over 27 on the road…while the 49ers scored just under 20 per game on the road, but averaged 27.6 at home. In addition, the 49ers finished #2 in points allowed and #1 (by far) against the run – they didn’t allow a single rushing touchdown until the last two weeks of the season. This team is built like the 90’s Steelers – ferocious defense, good running game, caretaker QB, don’t turn the ball over and they win. In years past I’ve often held to the axiom that defense wins championships, and I would have tried to make a case for the 49ers in this game. Well, I’m definitely picking the Saints, and let me list a few reasons why:
#1, the Saints didn’t just lead the NFL in offense, they did so by over 600 yards – and third place Green Bay was 1000 yards back. To put this in perspective, 15th-place Baltimore was closer to Green Bay’s yardage total than Green Bay (a top offense in their own right) was to New Orleans. This is a historically great offense when it comes to moving the ball – they’ve gained over 400 yards in 14 of 17 games, over 500 in six games, and over 600 in two (and those are their last two games)!
#2, San Francisco’s other secret weapon is turnovers – they were second in the league in forced turnovers and #1 in turnover differential. The problem is, turnovers are essentially random – especially fumbles. I have no doubt that they will force a turnover this weekend, but the 49ers only turned the ball over 10 times all season, none in their last five games. Those are unsustainable statistics, and the only real question is when will this ‘luck’ even out. San Francisco HAS to win the turnover battle against New Orleans to have a chance in this game, and I believe they will struggle to do so.
#3, Let’s assume that San Francisco totally frustrates the Saints offense and holds them to their season-low in points…that would be 20, no one has held New Orleans below that mark. Seven times this season, San Francisco failed to score more than 20 points, and if you throw away their 48-point outburst against the hapless Bucs their season high was 34. In addition, the 49ers never passed for 300 yards in a game, and were held under 200 yards TEN times. Alex Smith did a fine job taking care of the football, with only five interceptions, but he made very few big plays for the team – and I believe that to win this game, Smith will have to have the game of his life. You beat a team like New Orleans by creating turnovers, frustrating them…but also by scoring enough to keep up; it’s folly to assume New Orleans won’t score 24-30 points in this game and I’m not at all confident that San Francisco’s QB is up to the challenge.
In short, I like everything about the 49er defense, and I admit that the Saints’ ‘D’ has significant flaws…I just don’t think that Alex Smith is a good enough QB to exploit the situation, and I think he will make at least two big mistakes and watch New Orleans pull away. SAINTS BY 14.
Texans at Ravens: There isn’t a whole lot to say about this game…both teams have good running games; both defenses are among the best in the league, particularly against the run; both have a lot of weapons in the passing game, but have QBs who are mediocre at best. The Ravens put a beating on the Texans in October, even though they turned the ball over twice and Houston didn’t commit any turnovers. The Texans were missing Andre Johnson in that game, whereas now they are missing QB Matt Schaub, so I think it’s fair to say that in each case the offense is at less than 100% for Houston. The Texans will try their best to pound away in the running game, control the clock, shut down Ray Rice and force Joe Flacco to beat them. The Ravens will have the exact same game plan.
The difference in the game is that while I’m no great fan of Joe Flacco, he certainly has big-game experience and won’t be ‘in awe’ of the moment – while rookie TJ Yates may well have a major case of the jitters in his first road playoff game. In addition, while the Ravens were prone to laying eggs on the road, Baltimore was downright dominant at home 8-0, with wins over the Steelers, Texans, and 49ers. I hope I’m wrong – I’m rooting for the Texans in a big way this week – but I think the home field and Flacco’s edge over Yates will make the difference. Houston is a strong team and if they force a few key turnovers it might go the other way, but I think the Texans commit the key turnovers and LOSE BY 10.
Giants at Packers: Everyone is playing up the comparison of the 2011 Giants to the 2007 Giants – shaky regular season, hot streak late, get on a roll and win at Green Bay in a big game. I don’t see the comparison as totally apt – that 2007 team REALLY played great defense the whole second half of the season, while the 2011 Giants have only played exceptional ‘D the last two or three weeks – but there’s no question that something has fundamentally changed about this Giants team. The worst rushing team in the NFL ran for 172 yards last week against a good Falcons run defense; a run defense that had been gouged repeatedly held Atlanta to 64 yards rushing; and after turning the ball over in eight straight games (and going 3-5 in those games), the Giants have won two do-or-die games while not turning the ball over at all.
We have another key data point – the Giants played the Packers at home a month ago and while Green Bay prevailed, the Giants gave the Pack their toughest test to date in a 38-35 loss. Green Bay returned an interception for a TD, which turned out to be the deciding score. Both teams passed the ball with ease in that game, and conversely both defenses struggled in all areas – there were only three combined sacks, the Giants ran for five yards per carry while the Packers had five different receivers make four plus catches.
As I look closely at Green Bay, the offense isn’t the question – the team was only held under 20 points once all season, and scored 30+ points 11 times. Much like the Saints, Rodgers will get his yards and the Packers will get their points. The weak point is the defense – they gave up HUGE yardage both on the ground (4.7 yards per carry) and through the air (4988 yards against). The saving grace for the defense was turnovers – they forced 38, tops in the league, and forced at least one in all but one game (not coincidentally, their only loss). As I’ve said before, though, turnovers can be VERY random, and counting on turnovers as your primary method of defensive stops is playing with fire.
Home field advantage counts for a lot – again, much like the Saints, Green Bay was much better at home (40 points per game) than on the road (30 PPG), and the bye week also will help, especially if WR Greg Jennings is now healthy enough to return. A month ago I’d have predicted a Green Bay blowout, but somehow, someway the Giants have become a different team in January – the more apt comparison for the G-Men may actually be the 2008 Cardinals. I still think the home team will prevail, but I think it will be a very close game that could come down to whoever makes the fewest mistakes. Call it GREEN BAY BY 5.
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.