New Orleans' unstoppable offense meets San Francisco's immovable defense, the Giants seek revenge on the Packers, and Tim Tebow tries to keep his magic playoff run alive.
The best weekend of the NFL season is upon us, as the eight remaining teams pair up in the divisional round of the playoffs. Let's face it, if it weren't for that Steelers-Broncos game, last week's wild-card round would have been a complete dud, because the Texans blew out the Bengals, the Saints blew out the Lions, and the Giants blew out the Falcons. The Pittsburgh-Denver game had the makings of a blowout, too, with the Broncos ahead 20-6 at halftime. But the Steelers are a championship-level club that doesn't roll over, and they charged back in the second half to at least force overtime—an overtime you probably missed if you went to the bathroom. Ben Roethlisberger and the defending AFC champions are now out of the tournament, but the divisional round still features an astonishing four quarterbacks who've won Super Bowl MVPs. And who knows, maybe Tim Tebow will earn the honor this year. (Go ahead, bet against it.) Here are the key storylines to this weekend's games.
New Orleans (3 seed, NFC) at San Francisco (2 seed, NFC), 4:30 p.m. Saturday on Fox
This is San Francisco's first playoff game since 2002. If this proud franchise—winners of an NFC-high five Super Bowls—are to attain any semblance of their past stature, they'll need to stop a New Orleans offense that has scored 45 points in three straight games and decimated the Lions 45-28 in the wild-card game last Saturday, amassing a playoff-record 626 total yards and scoring on five straight second-half possessions. Unlike Detroit, though, San Francisco has a staunch defense. Led by All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and inside linebacker and perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, the Niners were among the league leaders in scoring defense, rushing defense, sacks, and turnovers. They won't be eviscerated like the Lions, especially playing in their own outdoor building, where the swirling San Francisco winds might present a problem to the Saints and MVP candidate Drew Brees, who threw for a league-record 5,476 yards this year. The Saints were 11-1 playing indoors, but only 3-2 outdoors, losing to Green Bay and Tampa Bay (a terrible team), while beating the mediocre teams of Jacksonville, Carolina, and Tennessee.
Oddsmakers seem confident the Saints can succeed, favoring the visiting team by 3 1/2 points and making the Niners the only home underdog in this divisional round. That betting line is a reflection of the Saints' devastating offense (including running back Darren Sproles and tight end Jimmy Graham), but it's also a comment on the Niners' pedestrian offense. Quarterback Alex Smith attempted the fewest passes of any quarterback who started every game this season, with the team leaning heavily on the two-pronged running attack of smash-mouth Frank Gore and change-of-pace back Kendall Hunter. Throughout the year Smith, who threw for 17 touchdowns and five interceptions, has been asked to manage the game and not make turnovers—a formula that worked exceptionally well, as San Francisco led the league in turnover differential (+28). The Saints do not have a good run defense, allowing the third-highest yards per carry average this season (5.0), so if the Niners can run successfully, control the clock, and keep Brees and his fleet-footed arsenal of weapons off the field, the Niners could very well win their first playoff game in nine years.
Denver (4 seed, AFC) at New England (1 seed, AFC) 8 p.m. Saturday on CBS
In last Sunday's wild card, the Steelers' plan against Tim Tebow and the Broncos was to stack the box, shut down the run, and dare Tebow to throw the ball and beat them. Tebow connected on less than 50 percent of his passes (10 of 21), but boy did he make those completions count—amassing 316 yards passing, with two touchdowns, and no interceptions. The Steelers didn't sack him once, and Tebow committed no turnovers. For the Broncos to go into New England and win this week, they'll have to get more of the same; because unlike the Steelers, the Patriots don't have injuries throughout their lineup, and their offense is capable of putting up offense in a hurry.
When these two teams met in Week 15, Denver got off to a fast start, scoring on their first three possessions and leading 16-7. But then the Patriots' offense—led by quarterback Tom Brady, wide receiver Wes Welker, and the unmatched tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski (NFL-record 17 touchdowns at his position) and Aaron Hernandez—rattled off 20 points in the second quarter. Tebow had two rushing touchdowns, but he only completed 50 percent of his passes and had no touchdowns through the air. He couldn't rally his team to a comeback, even though the Patriots had the second-worst pass defense in the league. New England sacked him four times, recovered three fumbles, and won in a runaway, 41-23.
As we said last week, if Denver can play good defense and protect the ball, Tebow has proven he can produce in late, pressure-packed situations. It's not hyperbole to say he had the passing game of his life last week in beating Pittsburgh's top-ranked passing defense. Can he replicate that success against the Patriots? New England is a 13.5-point favorite, so obviously a lot of people think it's safe to bet against Tebow. Good luck with that.