NFL Playoff Preview – Divisional Round
The NFL playoffs enter the divisional round this weekend. Just eight teams remain with a chance of playing in the Super Bowl in Indianapolis on February 5. Green Bay, San Francisco, New England and Baltimore will all host games after enjoying a bye during wild card weekend.
Here’s a preview of this weekend’s contests:
Saturday, Jan. 14
New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers
Candlestick Park, San Francisco; 4:30 p.m. (ET); TV: FOX
After steamrolling the Lions, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees brings the most statistically potent offense in NFL history to the Bay Area to face the NFC West champion 49ers, whose defense this season gave up an average of just 14.3 points per game, an NFC-best. San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith will lead the charge to pressure Brees into mistakes, a rarity this season. The 49ers run defense was tops in the NFL, giving up just 77.3 yards per game, so the Saints sixth-ranked running game may be stifled. New Orleans would like to force San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith into turnovers. He had just seven in 2011. The threat of big gains by 49ers running back Frank Gore may cause the blitz-happy Saints defense to be less aggressive. If so, Smith could have opportunities to connect with receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis against a New Orleans pass defense ranked 30th in the league.
Denver Broncos at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, MA; 8 p.m. (ET); TV: CBS
Denver quarterback Tim Tebow needed only 10 completions to notch 316 yards passing in the overtime victory over the Steelers in the Wild Card round last week. Pittsburgh did not sack Tebow, but he went down four times when AFC East champ New England beat the Broncos 41-23 in Denver on Dec. 18. The Patriots had the AFC’s lowest-ranked defense this season, allowing 411.1 yards per game. New England needs to contain the NFL’s top-ranked rushing attack, which helps set up Tebow’s passes. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has a 14-5 post season record. He leads the AFC’s top-ranked and highest scoring offense against a Denver defense that gave up 451 yards in the teams’ earlier meeting. New England tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski will create coverage nightmares for the Broncos unless Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller and the Denver pass rush can get to Brady.
Sunday, Jan. 15
Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens
M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore; 1 p.m. (ET); TV: CBS
Houston used takeaways and its prime offensive weapons — running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson — to help record the franchise’s first-ever playoff win last week in the game against Cincinnati. The Texans now face the AFC North champion Ravens, whom they lost to 29-14 on Oct. 16. Houston is likely to use its running game, ranked second in the NFL, to control the clock and keep rookie quarterback T.J. Yates from being a target of the Baltimore defense, which is the league’s third-ranked unit. Johnson must help the Texans stretch the field. In the October meeting, the Ravens recorded four sacks of Matt Schaub, Houston’s starting quarterback at the time. Baltimore’s offense is led by running back Ray Rice. He’ll earn every yard against the Texans, the NFL’s second-ranked defense. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will look to receivers Anquan Boldin, back from his knee injury, and rookie Torrey Smith to help keep Houston from crowding the line to stop Rice.
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers
Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI; 4:30 p.m. (ET); TV: FOX
Quarterback Eli Manning and a staunch defensive effort led New York to a dominating win over Atlanta last week. Manning was also very solid when the Giants lost to the then-undefeated Packers, 38-35, in the Meadowlands on Dec. 4. New York receivers Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham will look to get open against the Packers faulty pass defense that ranked last in the NFL. The Giants must maintain the run success they had last week against the Falcons or Green Bay linebackers Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk will be free to make plays and disrupt the offense. Thanks to NFL passer rating champ Aaron Rodgers, the Packers average a league-best 35 points per game. Rodgers will welcome back receiver Greg Jennings from a knee injury, turning him, Jordy Nelson and Jermichael Finley loose on a New York defense that ranked 29th against the pass this season. The Giants relentless pass rush, led by Jason Pierre-Paul, will look to expose Green Bay’s injury-riddled offensive line and pressure Rodgers into throwing the ball when and where he isn’t comfortable.