Saturday, January 14, 2012

2012 NFL Playoff Preview: 'Divine Intervention'

Can the vaunted 49ers D get to Drew Brees?
NFC Divisional Playoffs
New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers
Saturday, January 14th, 2012 - Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA

It's true test time for both teams Saturday when the New Orleans Saints (14-3) offense goes against the solid defense of the San Francisco 49ers.  The Niners (13-3)  have been slightly under the radar this year despite earning the No. 2 seed in the NFC under first year coach Jim Harbaugh and one of the most improved defenses in the NFL.  Quarterback Alex Smith went from possibly being on the trade block last year after being benched midway through the season to starting every single game for San Fran this year.  He has been efficient (17 touchdowns, five interceptions, 90.7 QBR) despite not throwing for 300 yards in a game at all this year.  On the other side, Drew Brees has thrown for 300 yards an NFL record 13 times this year.  The 49ers rush defense is the strong point, allowing only three rushing touchdowns all year, but the secondary will be tested.  Getting a solid pass rush from rookie linebacker Aldon Smith and veteran lineman Justin Smith will go a long way in slowing down Brees and the Saints offense.

Pick:  Saints, 34-20

Key to game for Saints:  Air it out.  Use the short passing game to running back Pierre Thomas and tight end Jimmy Graham as the run to get the linebackers moving laterally.  It will open up the intermediate passing game and the delayed draw that head coach and playcaller Sean Payton likes to take advantage of.
Key to game for 49ers:  Control time of possession.  Running back Frank Gore must have a good game on the ground as San Francisco's best defense will be keeping Brees and the Saints offense on the sidelines.

Brady is burning to lead the Pats back to the promised land.
AFC Divisional Playoffs
Denver Broncos at New England Patriots
Saturday, January 14th, 2012 - Gilette Stadium, Foxborough, MA

If there were ever a matchup more tailored for Tim Tebow to redeem himself as a starting NFL quarterback and shut up his critics once and for all, it is this game against Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots.  The Broncos had a 16-7 lead early against the Pats in the regular season matchup before two turnovers right before the end of the first half put them in a hole they could not climb out of.  Denver (9-8) get a second chance to see what might have been if it weren't for those fumbles.  The Patriots (13-3) have their own redemption story.  They've earned the first round bye in the AFC playoffs for the third consecutive year, but have not won a playoff game since the 2008 AFC championship game against the San Diego Chargers, the game before the New York Giants ended the Patriots undefeated season in that huge Super Bowl upset.  Both Belichick and Brady stand to take big hits in their overall legacies should the Patriots lose this game, so expect both the gameplan and quarterback play from New England to be on point.

Pick:  Patriots, 30-20

Key to game for Broncos:  Stay out of 3rd and long situations.  The Steelers dared Tebow to throw last week and got continuously burned by the deep ball.  The Patriots defense will mix it up alot more and play soft coverages to minimize big plays and keep Tebow in the pocket.
Key to game for Patriots:  Get points on the board early.  New England didn't do a good job in stopping the run in the first meeting (gave up 252 yards rushing, 8.1 yards per carry) and playing from behind could spell disaster.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2012 NFL Playoff Preview: 'Small Thing To A Giant'

Miller anchors a Broncos D that is praying for more Tebow magic.
AFC Wildcard Playoff
Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos
Sunday, January 8th, 2012 - Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, CO

Tim Tebow magic has lost a little bit of its dazzle in the past few weeks (lost last three games of the season) as the Denver Broncos (8-8) had to depend on an Oakland Raiders loss to get into the playoffs after controlling its own destiny.  But if there were ever a time for the Broncos to revive that it would be Sunday against the Pittsburgh SteelersBen Roethlisberger will likely still not be 100-percent after suffering a severe high ankle sprain Week 14 against the Cleveland Browns.  Running back Mewelde Moore is ruled out and Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale and was placed on injured reserve.  All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey is nursing an ankle injury and is also ruled out.  The Broncos defense has to hold the crippled Pittsburgh offense to a low score so come 4th quarter Tebow can do his thing.

Pick:  Broncos, 16-13

Key to game for Steelers:  Keep Roethlisberger upright.  He clearly is not fully recovered from his injury and will not be the same guy that we're used to seeing scrambling out of the pocket and throwing on the run.
Key to game for Broncos:  No turnovers.  Troy Polamalu and James Harrison are ballhawks on that Steeler defense and must be accounted for on every single snap.

Cruz has to play big for the Giants to win.
NFC Wildcard Playoff
Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants
Sunday, January 8th, 2012 - Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ

The NFC East was wide open this year and the New York Giants played its way in to the playoff field after handling division rival Dallas Cowboys in the final week of the season.  The Giants (9-7) have been for the most part inconsistent through out the year (lost four in a row after starting 6-2) but much like the team that won the Super Bowl in 2008, they are playing good ball at just the right time.  Eli Manning has put up great offensive numbers (4,933 yards, 29 TDs, 92.9 QBR) despite his receiving corps leading the NFL in dropped passes.  His go to guy is the biggest threat on the field for either team in the form of wide receiver Victor Cruz.  The Massachusetts alumn broke the Giants team record for receiving yards in a single season (1,536) and has been the game breaker in several of New York's wins this season.  The defense has had to deal with multiple injuries in the secondary but the pass rush has been solid all year, including a breakout year for second-year end Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks).  If the Giants get enough help on offense from running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, and the defensive secondary holds up they should be in good shape.  The Atlanta Falcons have been under the radar all year after being many experts pick to go to the Super Bowl in 2010.  Matt Ryan and rookie receiver Julio Jones head a potent Falcon offense, but its the defense that will be the biggest question mark in this game.  The Dirty Birds (10-6) have to give themselves a chance to win without having to score a touchdown on every drive, and they won't be able to do that if they are playing from behind and the Giants pass rush gets to pin their ears back.

Pick:  Giants, 34-17

Key to game for Falcons:  Stop the run first.  Force Manning and the Giants into third and long situations will take most of the guessing out of the defensive gameplan.
Key to game for Giants:  Stop the run first.  Michael Turner is back and healthy for the Falcons who will look to him to soften up the Giant pass rush.  Stuffing the run will bring up third and long situations and will allow Pierre-Paul, Mathias Kiwanuka and Osi Umenyora to do their thing.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

2012 NFL Playoff Preview: 'To the Dome'

Johnson should be ready no matter who is playing QB.
AFC Wildcard Playoff
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans
Saturday, January 7th, 2012 - Reliant Stadium, Houston, TX

This game will be decided by which rookie quarterback has the best performance despite not being at full strength.  Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has been the starter for every game this year and has put any conversations about Carson Palmer leaving town to rest.  Dalton has started all but one game for the Bengals (9-7) and has kept his team in every game; outside of a 35-7 thrashing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers Week 13, Cincy's widest margin of defeat is eight points.  Dalton enters the game coming out of the flu.  On the other side, Houston Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates didn't get his first start until Week 13 versus the Atlanta Falcons after starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart went down with injuries.  All Yates did was lead the Texans (10-6) on a 4th quarter game-winning drive to knock off the Falcons 17-10 and then the next week he tossed the game-winner against this very Bengals team in Cincinnati for a 20-19 victory.  Yates threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns in that game, despite missing Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson, who missed most of the year due to injury.  But Yates seperated his non-throwing shoulder in the last game of the season and it remains to be seen how it will effect him in his first career playoff game.
Pick: Texans, 20-15

Key to game for Bengals:  Get six points in the redzone and not three.  Tight end Jermaine Gresham should pose missmatches on linebackers and tight ends while receivers A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson occupy space on the perimeter.
Key to game for Texans:  Pound the ground game early and often with running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate.  Success with the rushing attack will take pressure off of Yates and should open up playaction and possible big plays for Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels.

All the Saints have to do is stick to the script.
NFC Wildcard Playoff
Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints
Saturday, January 7th, 2012 - Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA

The Saints literally limped into the playoffs last year (six starters DNP in the Wildcard loss to the Seattle Seahawks) after coming off of a Super Bowl winning season.  This year should be different for New Orleans as they head into the playoffs with the number one offense in the National Football League, in decent enough health, and riding a eight game winning streak.  Drew Brees has put himself in position to pass some guys on the list of all-time great quarterbacks after breaking Dan Marino's single season passing yards mark this year, and he already has one Super Bowl victory under his belt.  And with tight end Jimmy Graham (one of the six injured players that didn't play in the playoffs last year) and running back Darren Sproles playing at high levels, the Saints (13-3) look like they will cruise to the NFC Championship Game.  Quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions are no strangers to putting up big offensive numbers in the confines of a dome stadium either.  Stafford started all 16 games this year for the first time in his three year career and had highs in passing yards (5,038) and touchdowns (41).  Pro Bowl receiver Calvin Johnson also had a career year with 96 catches for 1,681 yards and 16 TDs.  Detroit hopes that its defense can play well enough that it doesn't have to get in a shootout.  The Lions (10-6) will have the best defensive player in the game for either team Saturday in the form of nose tackle Ndamukong Suh.  It might not matter though if his teammates don't help him create enough distractions to slow down Brees and a healthy Saints offense.

Pick: Saints, 38-31

Key to game for Lions: Limit mistakes.  In the regular season matchup between these two teams, Detroit missed two field goals and Suh committed a personal foul at a crucial point in the game.  The Lions ended up losing that game 31-17.  Can't afford to give away points and yardage to New Orleans; they're just too good.
Key to game for Saints: No looking ahead.  New Orleans knows its a good team and overlooking the Lions at a possible matchup with defending Super Bowl champions Green Bay Packers could make for another bitter offseason.