Game of the week
The line: Patriots by 13½
The story: Denver wasn't supposed to be here. Pittsburgh was. But that's the thing about Tebow Time. When it strikes, there's no telling whom it takes down ... and it ushered the defending AFC champions out of the playoffs.
Winning that game was difficult for Denver. Winning here will be next to impossible. Tom Brady is 8-2 at home in the playoffs. The Patriots beat Denver last month ... in Denver. And they're 7-1 at home this season, losing only when the New York Giants drove the length of the field on their last series.
Still, it can happen. In fact, Brady and the Patriots have lost their past three playoff games -- two in a row at home. In one of those, Brady played with broken ribs. In the other, he was flummoxed by Rex Ryan and the New York Jets' defense. Now it's Tim Tebow, and there's a feeling that the Patriots just drew the long straw; that a defeat of the never-say-die Broncos is all but a dead-bolt cinch.
The betting line tells you that. So do most of the people who comment on this sport. And maybe it happens. But careful, people. Don't be misled by that 41-23 score the last time these two met. Denver ran over, around and through New England on its first three series, covering 225 yards and scoring 17 points. It seemed it wouldn't be stopped ... until, that is, the Broncos stopped themselves, losing three second-quarter fumbles.
Once that happened, it was over. New England turned three mistakes into 13 points, and, sorry, you don't spot Tom Brady two touchdowns and expect to win -- especially when your offense is all about the run.
So Denver's job here is simple: Do what it did a month ago, only DO ... NOT ... TURN ... THE ... BALL ... OVER. If the Broncos can chew up the Patriots as they did then, they control the clock. You control the clock, you keep Brady off the field. You keep Brady off the field, you minimize the damage.
And maybe then you have a chance to win.
No, I don't see it happening, but I didn't see Denver beating Pittsburgh, either. The Patriots won't commit to defending the run as extensively as the Steelers, which means they won't play man-to-man defense and leave the middle of the field wide open.
But that leaves Denver an opening it can exploit ... as it did a month ago. If the Broncos don't ... or can't ... it's over. I didn't see anyone defend Brady or his passel of receivers in Denver. Tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski had 13 catches between them, and Chad Ochocinco scored his only touchdown of the season.
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But keep this in mind: New England fell behind by 17 and 21 points in its past two games at home, not waking up until halftime. The Broncos can protect leads because they have the NFL's best rushing offense, which means they can bleed the clock. The last time they met New England they gouged them for 252 yards rushing and 8.1 per carry. If that happens again ... without turnovers ... we have ourselves a contest.
Something to consider: Denver hasn't won a playoff game on the road since January 1998.
Three games we're all going to see
The line: Saints by 3½
The story: Maybe this isn't the most attractive game of the weekend, but it's the best. The 49ers are one of the season's feel-good stories, returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and eager to advance to their first NFC Championship Game since 1997. New Orleans, meanwhile, might just be the best team out there ... provided it plays the rest of its games indoors.
But it won't. Not here and not if Green Bay disposes of the Giants. The Saints' only losses this season were on the road, where they were 5-3 and got drilled by ... St. Louis? Uh, no, that is not a misprint. The Rams pressured Drew Brees into mistakes, sacking him six times and forcing two interceptions -- one of which was returned for a touchdown.
I mention that because the 49ers -- not the Rams -- have the best defense in the NFC, with a front seven that is as good as any in the business. They tied with Green Bay for the most takeaways (38). They led the league in run defense. They led the NFC in overall defense. And they were second only to Pittsburgh in points allowed.
In short, they're a nightmare for an opposing quarterback.
Only this opposing quarterback is Drew Brees, who led the league in passing touchdowns and yards and who has been virtually unstoppable over the past two months -- with New Orleans winning nine straight games and 10 of its past 11.
But there's a catch there: Only one of those games was outside, and, yes, that's an issue. The Saints are faster and more effective indoors, with Brees throwing 37 touchdown passes there. But put him outside, and suddenly he's human -- with nine TDs and six interceptions.
Look at last year's playoffs. Then the NFL's defending Super Bowl champions, the Saints went to Seattle and fell to a 7-9 opponent. Granted, their defense stunk, with as many missed tackles as there are baristas in Seattle, but Brees and the Saints offense couldn't close out what should have been an easy victory. In the end, Brees threw for 404 yards, but he also threw 60 times.
This team is better, and this team is on a mission. In short, it's out to prove that last year's playoff loss was a fluke. It can, and I say it will because San Francisco too often takes field goals instead of touchdowns, and that's not how you combat Brees and the league's top-ranked offense.
The problem for San Francisco will be covering Brees' targets, with Darren Sproles the X-factor. I spoke to a coach this week who said he expects the Saints to spread the field, force the 49ers' linebackers and defensive backs to choose potential receivers, see who has Sproles, then aim for him.
The problem for New Orleans is overcoming that injured ankle to safety Roman Harper. He said he's OK and will play, but it's bound to compromise his play. I remember what happened in last year's playoffs when Harper wasn't himself. I imagine the Saints do, too.
Something to consider: The 49ers have started 37 drives in opponent territory, scoring 134 points -- both NFL highs. On defense, their opponents started only 11 drives in San Francisco territory, which tied for first in the league.
The line: Ravens by 7½
The story: When these two met in October, the Texans lost by 15, and Matt Schaub was their quarterback. So how does Houston close the gap with third-string rookie T.J. Yates under center? It probably doesn't.
|The Texans couldn't stop Ray Rice from racking up 161 total yards in their October meeting. (Getty Images)|
Just a hunch, but the Ravens do that again -- forcing Yates to beat them -- and, sorry, it's not going to happen. Not here. Not with the Ravens at home.
Say what you want about Baltimore. All I know is that it doesn't lose at M&T Bank Stadium. It was 8-0 there this year and is 18-1 over its past 19 at home. Plus, the Ravens have the advantage of resting a week while the Texans were playing. They're good. They're balanced. They're rested. And they're home. What's not to like?
Houston's hope is that it somehow can get Foster and Tate going, taking a heavy load off Yates' shoulders. That won't be easy. But the Texans can make plays with the league's second-ranked defense, too, as Cincinnati discovered. And it's there the playing pendulum begins to swing in another direction. If the Texans somehow can bottle up Ray Rice -- and he gashed them for 161 total yards, 101 rushing, in October -- they put the heat on Joe Flacco. And then anything is possible.
Something to consider: The Texans are 0-5 history vs. Baltimore. The Ravens are the only team in this year's AFC playoff field that Houston has not beaten.
The line: Packers by 7½
The story: When the Giants lost their 2007 regular-season finale to New England, they emerged from the game believing they could beat the then-unbeaten Patriots if they met again. And they did. Fast forward to 2011, with the Giants falling to then-unbeaten Green Bay in early December by the same 38-35 score. As they did four years earlier, they emerged believing they could play with the Packers if they met them again. And like then, they will.
Of course, this is a different Giants team than the one that won Super Bowl XLII. The defense isn't as good. Neither is the running game. But life is full of tradeoffs, and the tradeoff here is that quarterback Eli Manning is better and the Giants have more weapons at his disposal. How that translates to another upset, I don't know.
What I do know is that the Giants are dangerous. They're hot. Their defense is improved. Their running game is improved. And they have a quarterback who won a playoff game in Green Bay.
That doesn't mean it's déjà vu all over again, but it does mean this could be a difficult game for Green Bay. I know the Packers are rested, but so was Dallas four years ago when Manning and Co. went there and won. Granted, Aaron Rodgers isn't Tony Romo, but the Packers' defense isn't much of anything, period -- ranking dead last in the league in yards and last vs. the pass.
If the Giants avoid turnovers -- and Green Bay is tied for the league lead in takeaways -- they should be able to make this a contest.
Other than avoiding costly mistakes, however, what they must do is crank up the running game. If it's successful, as it has been the past month, it can force Green Bay's safeties and linebackers to move forward and open windows for Manning if and when he's asked to throw.
Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs didn't get rolling until the second half last weekend, and if that happens again, it could be a problem. I can't see the Giants keeping Rodgers down as they did Matt Ryan, so they better put points up early. Otherwise, they fall behind and are forced out of their game plan.
Green Bay, meanwhile, must shore up its protection of Rodgers. The Giants have 13 sacks the past three games and forced Mark Sanchez and Tony Romo into numerous mistakes. Matt Ryan just didn't make plays against them. The Packers have the weapons to exploit the Giants' secondary, but only if Rodgers has time. He didn't vs. Kansas City, and you saw what happened. Of course, he didn't have Greg Jennings in that game, either.
Something to consider: Since the start of 2009, the Packers are 10-3 when facing an opponent for the second or third time that year. Under coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers are 16-7 in those situations, including the playoffs.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Denver linebacker Elvis Dumervil: He has three sacks in three regular-season games vs. New England.
2. Houston cornerback Johnathan Joseph: He has three career interceptions vs. Baltimore.
3. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco: He's 3-0 vs. Houston, with four touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 99.7. He's also 27-5 at home.
4. Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs: He has 10 sacks in nine playoff games. He has four sacks and one forced fumble in four games vs. Houston.
5. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers: In the playoffs, he has 13 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 112.6 passer rating, the highest in NFL history. He's also 2-0 overall in his career vs. the Giants, with eight touchdowns and one interception.
Five best matchups
1. New England offensive assistant Josh McDaniels vs. Denver: McDaniels left St. Louis and joined the Patriots just in time to help them prepare for the club that fired him last year. Hmmm, imagine that. People tell me it's an advantage for New England, but how? McDaniels didn't coach the Broncos this season; John Fox did. And the Broncos are a different team now than when McDaniels was there. I'm with Eddie Royal. Everything there is to know about Denver is right there on film. "We're going to play Carolina next year," said Fox, the Panthers' head coach until this season. "I don't think that's going to be a huge advantage for me."
2. Houston vs. big pass plays: Baltimore had four passes of 50 or more yards this season, and two of them occurred during the Ravens' 29-14 defeat of Houston -- both in the third quarter. Joe Flacco was solid that afternoon, completing 20 of 33 passes for 305 yards, and if that happens again Houston is toast. "We know what we've got to do and what our mistakes were and how to clean them up," said Houston cornerback Brice McCain. For the Texans' sake, I hope so.
3. New Orleans coach Sean Payton vs. San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh: What is it with Harbaugh? It seems like there's always someone with a gripe against the guy ... only Payton insists he doesn't. So, then, could someone explain why New Orleans blitzed the 49ers so much in a preseason game that meant nothing? San Francisco wasn't happy, and the Saints aren't talking. Reports said it had something to do with Harbaugh not calling Payton before the game, but the Saints' coach called those stories "bogus." So what was it? My guess is we won't find out until after Saturday's game.
4. San Francisco punter Andy Lee vs. New Orleans punter Thomas Morstead: Lee is the NFC's Pro Bowl punter. Morstead is the first alternate. There's good reason. Both produced huge numbers, with Lee setting a league record with a net average of 44 yards. Morstead wasn't far behind at 43.1, and consider these guys the two biggest weapons if the game becomes one of field position. The last time Morstead played at Candlestick Park he had six punts for 46.7 yards each, including four inside the 20. "Field position has been a huge advantage for them all season," Morstead said of the 49ers, "and I'm looking forward to it not being an advantage against us."
5. Green Bay defensive tackle B.J. Raji vs. the Giants' offensive line: Raji is a guest star in Rodgers' latest "discount double-check" commercial. He's also the target of New York's offensive linemen, whom Raji slighted when he said, "Not saying they're soft, but it's not the toughest group I've been against." We'll see.
Five quotes to remember
1. "We're going to win. One hundred percent, we're going to win ... because we're the best." -- Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul
2. "The team that kept us from our potential Super Bowl in 08. Trust me, we haven't forgotten." Tweet from Green Bay wide receiver Greg Jennings.
3. "I'm looking to outscore [Brees]. He can throw for however many yards he wants to." -- San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith.
4. "I'm sure if we win I'll have nothing to do with why we won, according to you guys [reporters]." -- Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco.
5. "This week it's a tough front. Those guys are relentless getting to the passer." -- Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Five things that may interest only me
1. Since the NFL moved to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, the No. 1 seeds in the NFC are 18-3 in the divisional round, while the No. 1 seeds in the AFC are 12-9.
2. Green Bay was 6-0 this season vs. playoff teams.
3. Tim Tebow and Jake Delhomme are the only quarterbacks in NFL history to win four overtime games in one season, including the playoffs.
4. Tom Brady has touchdown passes in 17 consecutive playoff games. With another Saturday, he moves with two of Brett Favre's NFL record of 20.
5. In his past 23 games, including the playoffs, Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora has 20½ sacks and 11 forced fumbles.
Numbers that may make a difference
2-6: Tom Brady's record vs. Denver, including the playoffs
3: Number of rushing touchdowns allowed by 49ers
4-0: Denver in overtime this season
7: Ed Reed interceptions in nine playoff games
8.26: Point differential for New England in home games since 2002, best in the NFL
10-0: San Francisco when Alex Smith has a passer rating of 100 or more
15-6: Bill Belichick's career playoff record
19-1: Green Bay's record over its past 20 games at home
2000: Last time Baltimore won a home playoff game
• San Francisco (Saturday): Partly cloudy, high of 65
• Foxborough, Mass. (Saturday): Partly cloudy, high of 35
• Baltimore (Sunday): Few snow flurries, high of 37
• Green Bay (Sunday): Mostly sunny, high of 21
Where we will be
• I'll be in San Francisco to take your orders at Perry's.
• Pete Prisco will be in Baltimore to worship Sunday at the statue of Johnny U.
• Mike Freeman will be in Foxborough to set his watch by Tebow Time.
• Gregg Doyel will be in Green Bay to freeze.