NFL 2011 Divisonal Weekend

Five Quick Hits

* There are four head coaches still in the playoffs, and two of them are Harbaughs. Good year for that family.

* The Raiders are about to hire their eighth head coach in the last 10 seasons. I thought Tom Cable and Hue Jackson both did a pretty good job. But why keep a coach who's made progress when you can start over?

* No one play made the difference in the Giants/Packers game, but what a pathetic excuse for a tackle by Charlie Peprah on the first touchdown. If he wraps up, that play is dead on the 47-yard line.

* There's a poll on NFL.com, with almost 10,000 votes, asking who fans want to see in the Super Bowl. Most have chosen the 49ers (58%) and Patriots (54%), but the most popular matchup is Niners/Ravens (35%). Apparently if the Patriots win, fans want them to face the Giants (31%). Niners/Pats came in a distant third (23%).

* During Saturday's broadcast, FOX repeatedly pointed out that such-and-such was a "Saints postseason record." You know why they kept setting all those records? Because the Saints only have 14 playoff games in their history. It's the equivalent of a season-high. Before the season's even over. Weak.

***

Saturday night, during the Patriots/Broncos massacre, right after the 49ers forced five turnovers and advanced to the NFC title game, Phil Simms really said this, on a national television broadcast: "Only a couple of defenses in the whole league have stood out at times: the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens." Houston had a pretty great year on defense, including more turnovers and fewer yards allowed than Baltimore, but the glaring omission here is the 49ers.

Even if you forget their performance just hours earlier against a record-setting offense, the Niners allowed far fewer points this season (229) than the Ravens (266), with almost 50% more takeaways (38-26). According to Pro-Football-Reference.com's Simple Rating System, the 49ers had the best defense in the NFL this season, with the Steelers second and Baltimore a distant third. To name two teams as having great defense, and neither one is the Niners, is ridiculous.

Divisional Roundups

49ers 36, Saints 32

Well, that was exciting.

After the Saints committed three first quarter turnovers and the 49ers took an early 17-0 lead, it was New Orleans vs. the clock, as fans watched to see how long San Francisco could hold on. This culminated in a thrilling finale, with the teams scoring a total of four touchdowns in the final 4:02, each one changing the lead and looking like it might be the game-winner.

It's hard to overstate the impact of the turnovers — playoff teams who go +4 in turnover differential are now 72-1 — but this game wasn't just about four or five possession-changing plays. The Saints converted a league-high 57% of their third downs during the regular season, and 70% against Detroit. They went just 5/14 (36%) against San Francisco.

New Orleans went the whole game against the Lions without punting. Thomas Morstead punted in every quarter against the Niners, five times total. Against Detroit, the Saints rushed for 167 yards, including three players over 40. Quarterback Alex Smith had more rushing yards on Saturday than any Saint, actually out-gained Darren Sproles and leading rusher Chris Ivory combined. San Francisco's coverage team also did a nice job limiting Sproles and Courtney Roby on kick returns.

It surprises no one that Drew Brees had a big game (462 yards, 4 TDs), but he also threw a couple of picks, and honestly, if you air it out 63 times, you'd damn well better throw for 400 yards. The hero of this game, if New Orleans had won, was Marques Colston (9 rec, 136 yds, TD). Since the 49ers came back, let's anoint Vernon Davis (180 yds, 2 TDs) and Justin Smith (5 hits on Brees). Alex Smith also silenced a few more critics with a performance that won't draw comparisons to Steve Young, but showed admirable grit, leadership, and calm under pressure. Also, major props to the Niners coaching staff for the play-call that led to Smith's 28-yard touchdown run. Superb call.

Patriots 45, Broncos 10

This one was over by halftime. They led 14-0, then 35-7 after two quarters, eventually 42-7 before they called off the dogs. New England dominated on both offense and defense. When Tom Brady threw his 6th passing touchdown, Tim Tebow had 3 pass completions. At one point in the fourth quarter, Tebow had 6 completions and 5 sacks. The game was a massacre, a total mismatch.

Give the Broncos credit for punching above their weight, but the dream is over. In the NFL, anything new (or very, very old) tends to be successful at first. When Denver installed Tebow at quarterback, opponents weren't sure how to defend such an unusual offense. But after a couple of weeks, the tape was out there, and defenses recognized how to shut that offense down. A quirk of scheduling — the 3-13 Vikings and the awful Caleb Hanie-led Bears — created the illusion that the magic was still there, and Denver brought its A-game for last week's win over the lifeless Steelers, but the secret is out. There's a good reason that no NFL team in half a century has used this as its base offense. In today's NFL, you need a quarterback who can be a consistent, decisive, and accurate passer.

Maybe Tebow will fit that description one day. He doesn't yet, and the Broncos are in an awkward bind. The football people who run the operation know they need other options, at the least, but the fans will riot if Tebow doesn't start on opening day. Either he needs to re-tool his game and improve dramatically in the next seven months, or the Broncos could be in for a very rough year. A never-say-die attitude is commendable, but it will only take you so far.

Ravens 20, Texans 13

In the history of the Baltimore Ravens franchise, the team has only allowed a 100-yard rusher 40 times. The only players to do it more than once: Jerome Bettis, Corey Dillon, Cedric Benson, Eddie George, Peyton Hillis, Fred Taylor, current Raven Ricky Williams, and now Arian Foster. Sunday's game was not a thrilling one, even for fans who appreciate good defense, but it featured probably the two best running backs in the NFL.

Foster was brilliant, carrying 27 times for 132 yards (4.9 avg) and a touchdown, with 5 receptions, including a sensational one-handed grab on Houston's lone touchdown drive. Ray Rice didn't post big numbers (60 rush yds, 20 rec yds), but his ability to find the tiniest hole in a defense is unparalleled, and he's so dangerous that he opens up opportunities for the rest of his team. Foster is the only player ever to rush for 100 yards in a playoff game against the Ravens (out of 16 games). The previous high was George, who rushed for 91 in a loss during Baltimore's Super Bowl season 11 years ago.

The magnificence of the running backs notwithstanding, this game was about defense. The only game of the weekend not to feature a marquee quarterback, the game lived up to its billing. Joe Flacco completed barely half his passes (14/27) and was sacked a career-high 5 times. T.J. Yates completed under half his passes (17/35) and tossed 3 critical interceptions.

Dan Dierdorf mostly did a pretty nice job announcing the game for CBS, but he made a ridiculous proclamation after the third pick: "T.J. Yates played pretty darn well today." That's absurd. Yates' passer rating was 28.8, and Dierdorf said this when Baltimore had just clinched the game. Houston's offensive line played very well, opening lanes for Foster and protecting Yates, who was only hit twice, and never sacked. Foster was superb. The defense played at a high level. The Texans lost mostly because Yates did not play well. He's a rookie, and his decision-making just wasn't up to pro standards on Sunday. Let's also throw some credit at the Ravens' criminally underrated cornerback Lardarius Webb, who collected two of the three interceptions and broke up two other passes.

Giants 37, Packers 20

"This offense in no way has resembled what we came to appreciate during the regular season." - Joe Buck

"It seemed like all day long, Green Bay just wasn't the same team that dominated in the regular season." - Curt Menefee

"This is not the same Green Bay team that we saw during the regular season. They had so many missed opportunities." - Jimmy Johnson

The Giants played well on Sunday, and that shouldn't surprise anyone, but the story of this game was how out of synch the Packers looked, especially on offense. They were charged with 8 dropped passes and lost 3 fumbles, while Aaron Rodgers missed on several passes to open receivers. Green Bay tied a season low with only 2 touchdowns and committed a season-high 4 turnovers.

Of course, the Packers hadn't played a meaningful game in three weeks, and Rodgers looked more comfortable running the ball (6 first downs) than passing it, seemed to have no connection with anyone except Donald Driver. Clearly the Giants deserve some credit for that, but the rust was obvious. Over the past decade, the Colts repeatedly underachieved in the postseason after giving the players too much time off, and this year, Green Bay got derailed by the same problem.

I believe the best Colts' team of the Peyton Manning era was the 2005 squad that started 13-0 and never seemed to recover from the death of James Dungy, the son of head coach Tony Dungy. The Packers played Sunday's game following the death of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin's son. I don't know if the team was distracted, or grieving, or unaffected, but I'd find the first two more plausible than the third.

More than off-the-field distractions, though, I blame the lack of on-field rhythm and intensity the team built up during the regular season. Are coaches burned more often by being too risky or too conservative? To me, that's a no-brainer. They are burned far more often by being too conservative, and the Packers' decision to rest healthy players like Rodgers in Week 17 looks like a disaster now. Then again, if you mix in the right kind of "too risky" — two onside kicks, really? — that can bite you, too.

The score of this game could have been even uglier, since both Green Bay touchdowns were set up by questionable officiating calls, first a surprising replay challenge ruling, then a phantom roughness call on Osi Umenyiora. That said, what does Eli Manning have to do to get called for intentional grounding? I thought he should have been flagged twice.

Championship Weekend Forecast

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

For most of the season, this has looked like a matchup we might anticipate in the AFC Championship Game. Maybe not if Matt Schaub had stayed healthy, I guess. But this is an intriguing game, a classic offense vs. defense matchup. In the postseason, the great defense has traditionally had an edge, but I don't know if that will be the case this time. Even more than offense/defense, this game is about home/road.

Since 2008, when John Harbaugh became Baltimore's head coach, best regular-season record at home:

1. Patriots, 28-4
2. Ravens, 27-5
3. Falcons, 26-6

Conversely, the Ravens are just 17-15 on the road. This season fits that pattern: the Patriots went 7-1 at home, and the Ravens were 4-4 on the road. If you have a .500 team traveling to New England in January to face the best home team in the NFL, who do you bet on? I'm taking the Pats.

The Ravens can win this with great defense, especially interior pass rush pressure, and big plays on offense. But I don't think Baltimore can contain New England's tight ends. Even if Aaron Hernandez is banged up, Rob Gronkowski is capable of eating any defense alive, and the Patriots present so many weapons. I also don't believe Baltimore can take advantage of New England's defensive vulnerabilities in a hostile environment. The Patriots advance with a close but comfortable 7-point victory.

New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers

This is my 10th season picking postseason games for Sports Central. Over that time, I'm 64-43 (.598), but I've gone on serious cold streaks. In 2007, I picked against the Giants every round (0-4). In '08, I took the Cardinals to lose every game except the Super Bowl (0-4). I haven't done a great job recently picking Falcons games (0-3 since they got good again), and I was terrified of what would happen last year when I predicted, for the third week in a row, that the Jets would lose (1-2, thankfully). This year, I'm off to a bad start with the Giants (0-2).

The point is, my prediction for this game may not be the most trustworthy. Even if I'm leaning in the right direction, I'm so psyched out right now I could easily talk myself out of a correct pick. I'm terrified that if I call it for San Francisco, the Giants will win the Super Bowl again. I'm also worried I'll predict a Giants victory just because I don't want to risk getting swept again. Like I said, totally psyched out.

The Giants are rolling. They're experienced, they're confident, and they're playing their best football of the season. The Niners just won a huge game. They're playing at home, they were better during the regular season, and they won the first time these teams met (27-20, Week 10 in San Francisco). The 49er defense won't repeatedly give up big plays like the Packers did, and they probably won't lose the turnover battle. But they probably can't match points with the Giants, who have an explosive offense, unless they win the turnover battle by a lot. There are compelling arguments on both sides.

I'm tempted to flip a coin. Instead, I'll go with the home team. Niners by a field goal.

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