And then there were 8: Divisional Round game picks

Chris Berman calls this the best
weekend in all of sports, the divisional round of the playoffs. The
big four are coming off their byes, a week after all four home teams
won in the wild card round for just the third time in 22 years since
the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format. However, all four teams
have not won in the divisional round since 2004. However you slice
it, there figures to be a surprise or two this weekend and some
exceptional football. Though Metlife Stadium and Invesco Field are
officially closed for business in 2011, the Giants and Broncos don’t
figure to go quietly. In the last 17 postseasons, only once have both
No. 1 seeds reached the Super Bowl (2009, Colts and Saints).

Last week: 2-2

New Orleans (-4) at San Francisco

Analysis: The Saints’ only baggage
entering this game is never having won a road playoff game. But the
way their offense is performing, that could soon be an afterthought.
They have scored 45 points in each of the last three games, including
616 yards of total offense in last weekend’s win over Detroit. The
Saints have been good but not great on the road, but the 49ers have
not been to the playoffs since 2002, and the biggest question is
whether their offense can put up enough points to alleviate some
pressure on their elite defense. The 49ers seem to represent your
classic one-and-done team in the playoffs, but there is something
about this year’s squad that has people believing. As much attention
that will be paid to Drew Brees, Smith, and the 49ers defense, the
determining factor could be the multifaceted rushing attack of the
Saints. Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, and Mark Ingram add a whole
new dimension to the Saints’ potent offense, but the 49ers were
almost historically good against the run this season, allowing only
three touchdowns on the ground. While I feel that Smith could be
pressing at times, the Saints are always a bit of an enigma on the
road (see: Tampa Bay, St. Louis), and though comfortable temperatures
are expected, I think we finally see a defense rise to the occasion
to neutralize this ridiculous display of offense we’ve been
witnessing. The Saints are still more likely than not to pull this
one out, but San Francisco seems to have a winning formula that could
foul up New Orleans. The pick: 49ers.

Denver at New
England (-13.5)

Analysis: Okay, so
Tebow Time got another chapter last week. Even the biggest Tebow
haters had to be impressed by what he did against the league’s best
pass defense in the cold Denver weather as the Broncos will now try
and become the first 8-8 team to reach a conference championship
game. Whether the Steelers would have given the Patriots trouble is
another story, but trouble is something New England seems to be
pretty familiar with. This week many people are up in arms about them
soiling the “spirit of the rule” with their questionably-timed
addition of Josh McDaniels, the former Broncos head coach, to their
staff. After all, it was McDaniels who drafted Tebow and Demaryius
Thomas two years ago but was fired 12 games into the 2010 season
following a cheating scandal of his own. He guided the Rams offense
this year to be the league’s lowest-scoring unit, but his familiarity
with the Broncos is making this one smell more than a little
suspicious. At any rate, the Broncos’ only real hope of avenging an
ugly, 41-23 loss to New England four weeks ago is to run, run, run.
And perhaps even more importantly, don’t turn the ball over. They had
three fumbles in their Week 15 loss, including one utterly ridiculous
one on a muffed punt at the end of the first half that gave New
England a freebie field goal (somehow the ESPN crew neglected this in
their weekly “C’mon, Man!” segment). What makes me believe the
Broncos won’t even keep this close is the fact that they rushed for
252 yards at home and still lost by 18 points. Defensively, Tom Brady
will carve them up again, and even if that doesn’t work, expect a
healthy dose of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Stephen Ridley, as the Pats
racked up 141 yards of their own on the ground in the first meeting.
Once a hiccup on his resume, Brady should have no problem winning a
second straight game after starting 1-6 against the Broncos in his
career. In typical Patriots storybook fashion, expect a flip of the
script of this postseason meeting six years to the day Denver ended
New England’s dynasty with a 27-13 victory in Denver, playing on a
short week because Roger Goodell wanted to make sure the game would
be seen in prime time. This time it could be the start of a new
dynasty. The pick: Patriots.

Houston at
Baltimore (-9)

Analysis: Is
anyone buying into Yates Time? Okay, he hasn’t gone Hollywood like
Tebow, but T.J. Yates looked like a seasoned veteran in guiding the
Texans to the franchise’s first playoff win last week against
Cincinnati. These are two teams predicated on running the ball and
rushing the passer, so something’s got to give, but the Ravens have
been nearly unbeatable at home under John Harbaugh. They were 8-0 in
Baltimore this season and are 27-5 there the last four years. Houston
is 0-5 lifetime against the Ravens and this one has the smell of a
potential blowout if the Texans fall behind and the game lands
squarely on Yates’ shoulders. He has proven that he doesn’t get
rattled easily, but he also has yet to face a defense of this
caliber. Still, Baltimore has rarely run away with games this season,
with the exception being an opening day, 35-7 rout of the Steelers in
which they forced seven Pittsburgh turnovers. Their definition of a
blowout would be something along the lines of 24-10, but by the same
token if they fall behind Houston’s pass rush could prove
problematic. In the teams’ first meeting in Week 6, a 29-14 Baltimore
win, Joe Flacco topped 300 yards, Ray Rice went over 100 rushing, and
Anquan hit triple-digits in receiving. I wouldn’t expect the same
kind of performance this time around, but I don’t think Yates can
stay mistake-free and Arian Foster may not be able to carry the
entire offense himself. The pick: Ravens.

New York Giants at
Green Bay (-8)

Analysis: Of
course the talk about 2007 is going to start. Here are the Giants
again with some postseason momentum, going to Lambeau Field against a
heavily-favored Packers team that people are doubting for some
reason. At 15-1, the Packers, of scoring 560 points in the regular
season, apparently have plenty of weaknesses that are just waiting to
be exposed. Really, that’s baloney, and even the most hardcore Giants
fan knows it. The Giants have a good shot to keep this one close
because their pass rush could overwhelm Green Bay’s smallish
offensive line at times, but by the same token, their secondary could
struggle to prevent the big play, especially with the return of Greg
Jennings. The biggest thing to keep an eye on is which team’s sub-par
running game comes to play. A week ago, the Giants gauged Atlanta for
172 yards after averaging a league-worst 89.2 yards per game in the
regular season. The Packers, meanwhile, weren’t much better, ranking
27th at 97.4 a game. One-time Giant Ryan Grant has shown
some flashes the past few weeks although he has yet to top 100 yards,
averaging 5.8 yards per carry the last four weeks. The return of a
healthy James Starks could provide an additional boost as well,
although he is questionable with an ankle injury. The Packers, with a
well-rested Aaron Rodgers (he took the day off in the team’s
regular-season finale against Detroit), are likely return to the NFC
title game, but the Giants should get enough from their front four
and Eli Manning to make a game out of it. The pick: Giants.

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