Divisional Round Picks
Before I started looking at this weekend’s matchups, I had this notion that the 2012 divisional round would put to the test the notion that defense wins in the post-season. You know, because three of the four games feature defensively oriented teams squaring off against offensively oriented teams (with the Houston-Baltimore shaping up to be a struggle between two great defensive squads). I’ve rethought that. Sure, we’ll get a look at the D vs. O thing in San Francisco. But I’m not sure that’s what’s on tap in Green Bay or New England. I think one of those games is a good bit more interesting, and the other a good bit less, than simple D vs. O.
Let’s just get to what not to expect.
New Orleans (-3.5) at San Francisco
Here’s your battle of the unbalanced. The Niners are one of the best defensive squads in the league. The 14.3 points per game they allowed over the regular season were second only to the Steelers’ 14.2. And, not surprisingly, they were even stronger at home, allowing just 9.7 points per game (though it bears noting that three of their home games were against weak NFC West opponents; and that the Cowboys and Giants managed to hang 27 and 20 respectively in their visits to San Francisco). And while the 49ers offense is at least a little better than many believe, it’s clearly not operating on the same level as the Saints O, which has been one of the best in the league all season and that has come blazing out of the regular season and into the playoffs. The New Orleans defense is like the New England and Green Bay Ds: Not as bad as they’re made out to be (in reality solidly middle of the pack) but by no means the strength of the squad. So what happens when the all-O Saints and the all-D Niners clash? The consensus is that if there’s something that gives the Niners a chance to pull off the upset here it’s home field. San Fran, as noted has been crazy tough at home. And the Saints have been inconsistent on the road. The Saints also are a team that relies on speed, and playing on grass in San Francisco isn’t going to allow them to operate at their highest levels. I’m not prepared to discount either of those factors. But I think if I were looking for a reason to think the Niners will win this game, I’d look, as I often do, at takeaway-giveaway differential. And there San Francisco’s advantage is significant. The 49ers are a league-best +28 on the strength of 38 takeaways (23 picks, 15 fumble recoveries) and, perhaps more important, just 10 giveaways (five of each). The Saints are a -3. They’re not the worst -3 in football — they’re not giving the ball away all over the place, but they almost never take it away (a stark contrast to the Saints team that won Super Bowl XLIV) — but it’s notable that Drew Brees threw three picks in the last two games of the regular season (though he had none in the wild card round win over Detroit). If turnovers prove to be the difference in this game, you can count on San Francisco being the team that comes out ahead. All that said, I just can’t pick the 49ers. The Saints are too hot and too experienced to lose this game to a young Niners team that arguably overachieved to secure the two seed. I think this one goes down to the wire, but I think it’s New Orleans that comes up with the big play that makes the difference. Trailing by three late, they score with seconds remaining to come out ahead 27-23.
Denver (+13.5) at New England
So here’s one of those games that supposed to be about offense vs. defense but isn’t. How’s that? Well, it’s not because the Patriots are a balanced squad. As noted above, the New England defense, like the Green Bay and New Orleans Ds, is better than fans have been led to believe. But it’s better only in the sense that it’s not awful. The Pats D is OK, middle of the road, just good enough to contribute to wins. A few times over the course of the season, in fact, the Patriots D actually sparked victories. Mostly what the New England defense does, though, is give up fewer points than the high-powered offense puts up. That’s not heavy lifting. The reason this game isn’t about defense vs. offense is that the Broncos D isn’t ultimately that much of a factor. Yes, D is the better part of Denver’s game. Defining beliefs of the cult of Tim Tebow notwithstanding, when the Broncos won this season, it was usually because their D carried them. Tebow’s vaunted fourth quarter comebacks were made possible by the Denver D clamping down on opponents and keeping the team in games. And even then, the Broncos were an 8-8 team. They were a team that finished the season with a three-game losing streak, which started with a 41-23 home loss to the Patriots in week 15. They backed into the playoffs. And through their 8-8 season, the Broncos gave up an average of 24.4 points per game. That is, the “good” defense in this game allowed three more points per game this season than the “bad” defense. That would at least seem to call into question the way defenses are evaluated. Of course, if you’ve watched their games, you know the Broncos do have a good defense. It’s just that it’s a defense that’s typically left on the field for most of the first three quarters of games by an awful offense. And I don’t think the offense playing here is different from the offense we saw all season, no matter what they were able to accomplish last week against a Steelers squad that went into Denver banged up, got more banged up as the game went on, appeared shocked that the Broncos had actually come to play and failed to make adjustments based on what was happening on the field. The shortcomings of Denver’s offense will be the difference here. If you’re going to beat New England in Foxborough, you’re going to have to be able to put up a lot of points. You’re going to have to start scoring early and keep scoring until the fourth quarter. And I simply don’t believe Denver’s offense is up to the task. I’ve seen the Patriots start slow often enough this season that I expect this game to be close through the first half. Denver may even have a lead early on. But in the end, I think the Pats put up 35 or more points. And I don’t think the Broncos can manage 36. In fact, I’m not sure they can get to much more than 20, maybe 23. So I’ll take New England and, nervous as it makes me to surrender two touchdowns in a playoff game, I’m going to give the points. Patriots win 38-21.
Houston (+7.5) at Baltimore
This one’s about defense vs. defense, but what’s odd is that I expect it to be decided by offense. Or, rather, lack of offense. That is to say, one of the Os in this game is going to find a way to overcome the opposing D at least enough to put 13-17 points on the board. That’s not much, but it’s about what you can expect these almost identical defenses to allow. The other offense is going to sputter — or, rather, it’s going to be suffocated. And I think you have to believe the offense that fails to get off the ground is going to be one that’s on the road and that hinges on the play of an undrafted free agent rookie quarterback. I think T.J. Yates has played incredibly well since taking over as starter in week 13. He should be proud of himself. And the Texans should be psyched going forward to know that they’ve got a backup quarterback who’s more than capable of winning games. But there are reasons Yates was a third stringer well into this season, and one of them is that he’s not ready to perform in games that really count, games like this, against the kind of defense the Ravens bring to the field. I think this is where the injuries Houston has had to deal with this season finally do the Texans in. I expect Houston to play well (and I expect them to be a serious contender in 2012), but in the end I think they come up short. Baltimore wins 17-9.
NY Giants (+7.5) at Green Bay
Here’s the other game that isn’t really about offense vs. defense. It’s also the game this weekend that I think is most likely to produce an upset. The reason for both is the same: The Giants aren’t an unbalanced team. Yes, the Giants D, now that it’s healthy, is the better of the team’s units. The Giants bring a formidable pass rush that has the potential to disrupt the Packers’ passing game just as it did with the high-octane Patriots in Super Bowl XLII (a game it reached by beating the Packers in Green Bay in the NFC Championship, though that was a different Packers team). But the New Jersey offense has hardly been along for the ride the way that the San Francisco offense has been. Eli Manning has been having his best season as a pro. He has great receivers to throw to. In the regular season, he threw for 308 yards a game, two fewer than Aaron Rodgers. And, so OK, the Manning threw for 16 fewer touchdowns than Rodgers. The Giants scored roughly 14 fewer points per game than the Packers. And New Jersey has trouble running the ball. That’s all true. But my point isn’t that the Giants offense is as good as the Packers O; it’s that the Giants are a balanced team. So, no, this is not about the Giants defense vs. the Packers offense. It’s about whether that New Jersey D can shave enough off the top of the Green Bay offense to allow Manning and his squad to keep pace. I think it can, but not for 60 minutes. I think the Giants will give the Packers a hell of a game, but I think in the end, homefield and and the incredible potency of the Green Bay offense will prove just too much. The Packers win 31-28.