A quick preview of all four games of the NFL Divisional Round, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Saints (14-3) at 49ers (13-3)
Saturday, Jan. 14, 4:30 pm ET, FOX
A classic offense vs. defense, strength vs. strength playoff matchup pits New Orleans’ top-ranked total offense (467.1 ypg) and passing attack (334.2 ypg) against San Francisco’s No. 4 overall defense (308.2 ypg) and No. 1 run defense (77.2 ypg). The Niners were middle-of-the-pack statistically against the pass, ranking 16th overall (230.9 ypg). In fairness, the NFC West champs played with the lead in most games and obviously stuffed the run in nearly every contest, which forced opponents to move the ball through the air, which was not always a good move — San Fran ranked No. 2 in INTs (23) and No. 8 in passing TDs allowed (20) during the regular season. No matter how good coach Jim Harbaugh’s stingy stop-unit plays, Saints quarterback Drew Brees is likely to put points on the board. All eyes will be on 49ers signal-caller Alex Smith, who is making his first career playoff start after throwing for 17 TDs and five INTs this season. Brees, meanwhile, has passed for 49 TDs in 17 games (including last week’s Wild Card shootout win vs. Detroit) — nearly three times as many scoring strikes as Smith, who is unfazed by Brees’ numbers and Super Bowl pedigree. “I really don’t care,” said Smith. “I’m looking to outscore him.”
Saints by 4
Broncos (9-8) at Patriots (13-3)
Saturday, Jan. 14, 8:00 pm ET, CBS
After taking down two-time Super Bowl champ Ben Roethlisberger in the Wild Card Round, Broncos’ shotgun savior Tim Tebow will take on three-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady in the Divisional Playoffs. It wasn’t pretty the last time Denver faced New England, as the Patriots stomped out a 41–23 victory at Mile High in Week 15. Tebow threw for 194 yards and rushed for 93 yards and two TDs in that contest; Brady passed for 320 yards and two scoring strikes, as well as one rushing TD, in a winning effort. The Broncos’ defeat snapped a six-game winning streak and started a three-game season-ending slide. The Patriots’ win was the sixth of eight straight, a streak that is still alive heading into this weekend. Although New England posted a 13–3 record this year, Bill Belichick’s team was 0–2 against teams (Steelers, Giants) that finished the season with a winning record. But remember, Brady has a 14–5 career postseason mark and three rings; Tebow is 1–0 in the playoffs after last week’s overtime victory over the Steelers. But Tebow threw for 316 yards and two TDs against Pittsburgh’s No. 1-ranked pass defense; the Pats ranked No. 31 overall (293.9 ypg) this year.
Patriots by 10
Texans (11-6) at Ravens (12-4)
Sunday, Jan. 15, 1:00 pm ET, CBS
The Super Bowl window of opportunity is closing for Baltimore’s future first-ballot Hall of Famers — 36-year-old middle linebacker Ray Lewis and 33-year-old safety Ed Reed. It’s not quite now or never, but it probably is now or next season for the Ravens leaders. And if they are able to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy this year, expect Lewis and Reed to ride off into the sunset. But the key to the Ravens’ success in the postseason is quarterback Joe Flacco, who will have his hands full against an aggressive Houston defense coordinated by Wade Phillips. In Baltimore’s four losses this season, Flacco threw five of his 20 TDs but six of his 12 INTs, leading an offense that managed only 12.75 points per game in those defeats compared to the 27.25 points per game the Ravens averaged in their 12 victories. On the other side, fifth-round rookie and third-string quarterback T.J. Yates will have to put together the type of mistake-free outing he did in last week’s win over the Bengals. In the end, however, both teams would be happier having their QBs hand the ball off to their Pro Bowl runners — Baltimore’s Ray Rice and Houston’s Arian Foster.
Ravens by 5
Giants (10-7) at Packers (15-1)
Sunday, Jan. 15, 4:30 pm ET, FOX
The 2011 Giants are reminiscent of the 2007 G-Men who made a Wild Card run through the playoffs, knocking off Brett Favre in his snowy overtime finale at Lambeau Field in the NFC title game before beating the 18–0 Patriots in a Super Bowl XLII upset. New York’s defense — led by pass rushers Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora — has terrorized opposing quarterbacks, much like the Michael Strahan-led group did several seasons ago. But these Giants won’t be playing against a graybeard in the twilight of his career like Favre was; they will be facing an MVP-caliber Aaron Rodgers — who receiver Greg Jennings thinks is the best Green Bay QB he’s played alongside. “Honestly, right now I definitely have to go with Aaron. His body of work at such a young age, his attention to detail, his discipline. I think it’s really second to none, it’s unparalleled,” Jennings told ESPN New York 1050. “You haven’t really found a QB that has done it the way he has done it.” Rodgers passed for 369 yards, four TDs and one INT in a 38–35 win at New York in Week 13. The Giants, however, have a 4–1 record since that defeat.
Packers by 5
Last week: 3-1 // Season: 177-83