While football fans everywhere stock their fridges full and ready their flatscreens for the next installment of NFL action, Luke Hughes takes a look at what’s on tap and makes a few predictions for this weekend's divisional round playoffs.
Another exciting playoff weekend is on the horizon with plenty of excitement and big-hits in store. But, while the NFL's elite eight square off on the gridiron over the next 48 hours, only four of teams will move forth with their Super Bowl aspirations left in tact.
While the national spotlight may be focused on Saturday night's heavyweight bout in Foxboro, this weekend's round of Divisional Playoff games offers plenty of non-Tebow related storylines to watch.
The defending Super Bowl champion Packers host Eli Manning and the Lambeau killers for a postseason rematch of the Week 13 nail biter. New Orleans heads into San Francisco for a battle of the bests, pitting the NFL's most potent offense against one of its stingiest defensive units.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the AFC playoff picture, Baltimore plays host to Arian Foster and the Texans, in what is sure to be a display of defensive strength.
So as football fans everywhere stock their fridges full and ready their flatscreens for the next installment of NFL action, let's take a look at what's on tap and make a few predictions as we head towards Championship weekend.
Breakdown: Jim Harbaugh, in just his first season in the NFL, has returned the 49ers to the days of the glory years, taking a 7-9 team in 2010 and turning them into a 13-3 contender for the first time in over a decade.
A critically condemned Alex Smith was all but branded with the bust logo on his behind, after middling through six straight sub-par seasons out in the Bay. But, Harbaugh's cautious offensive system and a genuine trust in Smith's ability proved to be a motivational factor for the former no. 1 overall pick.
This season, Smith has transformed into a legitimate frontline starter, while putting together his best all-around statistical season. The 27-year-old set career-highs across the board, throwing for 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns while tossing just five interceptions on the year. Smith also posted his highest season passer rating at 90.7 and completed better than 61% of his passes.
While Alex Smith and the 49ers refused to turn the ball over much on the season, they shouldn't have much to worry about Saturday as the New Orleans defense had trouble forcing turnovers in 2011, ranking second worst in the NFL with a meager 16 on the year.
Meanwhile, Harbaugh's staunch defensive front saw San Francisco lead the league with 38 takeaways and a nearly unfathomable +28 turnover ratio.
While turnovers are largely a deciding factor in most any game, they seem to play an even greater role in the playoffs as there's even less room for error. Neither team is likely to turn the ball over on Saturday afternoon, but if a mistake is made, it could very well be the clincher in a game likely to be decided in the final minutes.
Ultimately, the matchup will be a true test for the old cliche "offense wins games but defense wins championships." Saturday could very well be the prime example, putting the age old theory to the test as the Saints high-octane offense faces off against an elite and athletic 49ers defensive unit.
Key Matchup: Establish the running game will be huge for both teams as SF needs to take pressure off of Smith and the Saints have to find some balance against a stout 49ers defense.
In such an evenly matched contest, the team with the best overall player usually prevails. If I were a better man, I'd have to put my money on Drew Brees in this one.
Prediction: New Orleans 24, San Francisco 20
The past week has been full of far too much hype, projections and analysis for this suddenly "colossal" meeting of two of the NFL's premiere quarterbacks.
The suddenly prevalent idea that Tebow is even on the same quarterbacking level as Brady is not only preposterous but down right asinine. No one is questioning Tebow's intelligence, heart or passion for the game. But, the mechnically flawed passer puts together his second career 300-yard passing game, in 15 career starts mind you (14 regular season, 1 postseason), after completing only 10 passes on the afternoon and suddenly he's John Elway or something.
The Broncos' win over the Steelers on wild card weekend was not only enjoyable as a football fan but it was damn impressive. Tebow was poised, Demaryius Thomas was scintillating, the defense was sound and head coach John Fox put together a fantastic gameplan. So, kudos to Denver!
This Saturday is a completely different story. If anyone thinks that the Broncos can execute the same defensive gameplan against a well-rested and ever-precise Tom Brady, not a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger, then there must be something must seriously be polluting the Denver water.
The only way the Broncos will beat New England on Saturday is if the Patriots beat themselves. If Brady makes some errant throws or BenJarvis lays one on the turf, then Denver may have a chance to really seize control. But, just about anything other than a worst-case showing from Brady and Co., and the Broncos are looking at a long flight home and the end of Tebowmania as we know it.
In no way is Saturday night's rematch expected to be a blowout, in fact the 13.5-point spread is almost laughable even considering the Patriots' home-field advantage. About two-thirds of postseason rematches are decided by 10 points or less not to mention New England hasn't had the best track record in recent playoff history, 0-for-3 since the near perfect 2007 season ended in a Giant disappointment - pun very much intended, sadly.
Saturday night's thriller will probably be a lower scoring affair than most might expect, but stingy defensive play and frigid conditions could limit both teams to a good deal of field goals.
Key Matchup: The big boys in the trenches will have the biggest impact on the outcome. Denver needs their offensive line to create holes for Willis McGahee to run through, dropping more Patriots into the box and leaving passing lanes for Tebow.
Expect plenty of excitement and some Tebow magic late, but no such heroics in the way of Pittsburgh last week. Brady dips, dunks and demoralizes the Denver defense.
Prediction New England 27, Denver 16
The Texans head into Baltimore on Sunday coming off a huge 31-10 win over Cincinnati on wild card weekend. The defense was stout, the running game powerful and the quarterback careful last weekend, but now Houston heads to Baltimore for a much more serious test.
Arian Foster may have had his way on the ground against the Bengals, rushing 24 times for 153 yards and two touchdowns, but the Ravens boast the NFL's 2nd best run defense, allowing just 92 yards per game.
Baltimore ranks in the top-5 in most defensive categories in 2011, including average passing yards (4th - 196), total yards (3rd - 288) and points per game (3rd - 16.6). The attacking defense, which also ranks 3rd in forced fumbles with 20, could cause serious problems for Texans rookie signal caller T.J. Yates.
Yates looked steady in the win over Cincinnati, but throw in some more intricately disguised coverages, more athletic linebackers and a gruesome front four and Yates may be in for a very long day.
While the Ravens defense historically gets credit for their strength, focus and consistency, the Houston D has been equally as fierce this season.
The Texans rank just as highly defensively as Baltimore, finishing second in passing yards (189.7), total yards (285.7) and fourth in points per game with 17.4. Houston has also matched the Ravens with 33 sacks on the season but has managed a better turnover differential at +7 over Baltimore's +2.
Each defense has it's standout stars, whether you're looking for Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata andTerrell Suggs on the Baltimore side or Brian Cushing, Jonathan Joseph and J.J. Watt for Houston. Sure, the Ravens have the star power and their players stand out maybe as more well known contributors but the production remains the same and the numbers don't lie.
Key Matchup: Quarterback play will be huge for both sides in this one. Joe Flacco has had a very inconsistent season and needs to find some rhythm early if the Ravens expect to open up any lanes for Ray Rice -- Bengals tailback Cedric Benson rushed 7 times for a measly 14 yards last week.
For Houston, Yates inexperience and lack of a steady deep ball could hurt Houston, especially if Baltimore can limit Foster and Tate out of the backfield. Staying cautious and eliminating turnovers will be huge if the Texans figure to pull the upset.
Prediction: Baltimore 20, Houston 14
The Front page of the New York Post on Friday read "Rambeau" with an oversized photo of Eli Manning toting a machine gun and magazines draped over his chest, as if he were actually Sylvester Stalone in the 1980's classic "Rambo".
While the soft-spoken Manning may in reality be the furthest thing from Rambo, his track record as a giant (not to be mistaken with Giants) killer is widespread.
The mythical comparison of course resonates from Manning's 2007 season playoff victory over then Green Bay QB Brett Favre and the no. 1-seeded Packers on the frozen tundra at Lambeau Field. That season, of course, Manning and Big Blue went on to slay the mighty Patriots, ending New England's not-so-perfect season and winning Super Bowl XLII.
This time though, America's favorite dancing quarterback - no, not you Tom -- Aaron Rodgers is taking snaps for the Pack and the reigning Super Bowl MVP is just pining for another Lombardi Trophy to add to his collection.
With the help of possibly the league's most talented receiving corps, Rodgers has put up Madden-esc numbers this season, throwing for over 4,600 yards and tossing 45 touchdowns to just six interceptions. The stat lines are ridiculous and the 1-2 combo of Jordy Nelson and, what one can only hope is a healthy, Greg Jennings on the outside the Packers offense is near unstoppable.
Both defenses have plenty of star power with the likes of Pro Bowlers Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and so many more manning the lines for both teams. But, the play of the Giants secondary may be the biggest setback fro Big Blue on Sunday.
New York has been patching up their secondary with super glue and duct-tape all season and it showed in games against great offenses - allowing 49 to New Orleans and 38 to Green Bay in back-to-back weeks. Now, with Corey Webster, Aaron Ross and rookie Prince Amukamara all healthy, the Giants should be able to put together a full 60-minutes on defense, like in last week's 24-2 romping of Atlanta.
Key Matchup: Running the ball hasn't been Green Bay's forte at all this season, but if they are going to pull out a win on Sunday the Packers will need Ryan Grant and James Starks to establish some semblance of a ground game.
During their Super Bowl run in 2010, the Packers utilized Starks downhill running style to compliment Rodgers and the passing attack, they'll need to duplicate that this weekend in order to counteract the presence of Ahmad Bradshaw and the suddenly rejuvenated Brandon Jacobs, who is seemingly back to his 2007 form.
Keep an eye on Big Blue late, the Giants will keep this one close and could be holding the ball on the game's final possession with a win on the line. Eli won't be able to repeat the magic as Rodgers proves too much for the Giants defense.
Prediction: Packers 31, Giants 27
Now that we've broken down each game and narrowed the predictions down to four teams for the Conference title games, it's time to kick back and enjoy a few ice colds (if you're old enough) and a whole lot of football. Enjoy!