Since Divisional Playoff weekend is far and away the best weekend of football every year, we’re splitting up my monstrously digressive predictions into two parts. Here’s my take on Saturday’s showdowns:
#3 NEW ORLEANS AT #2 SAN FRANCISCO
First off, what’s the best thing about this Divisional Playoff weekend? That the #1 seeds didn’t get screwed this year. As Pierre has mentioned before but probably won’t discuss at length this year for lack of relevant examples, the NFL’s second round has been hurt in recent years by improper seeding regulations. Now, as you know, the NFL rewards divisional winners with home games in the first round regardless of record (thus, 8-8 Denver hosting 12-4 Pittsburgh). I’m cool with this. The problem comes in the second round, when the NFL re-seeds (i.e. the top seed plays the worst remaining seed); however, the league does this based on seed instead of record, still for some reason rewarding division winners at the expense of top seeds. So most years, the #1 seed ends up playing a better team in the second round than the #2 seed.
Most years? Do you think the 13-3 Falcons—two games clear of anyone else in the NFC last season—would have preferred to take on the #6 Packers (10-6) or the #4 Seahawks (7-9)?
Most years? Or the ’08 Giants having to face the Eagles instead of the Cardinals in the second round? The ’08 Titans getting the Ravens instead of the 8-8 Chargers?
Most years? Okay, not most years. But often enough where it’s an issue that should be resolved by re-seeding based on record and not seed in the second round. But like I said, since all four home teams won last weekend, it’s not an issue this year.
Second off, what’s the second-best thing about this Divisional Playoff weekend? This game.
This game? I’ve been looking forward to this game—so long as it was going to be played in San Francisco—for about the last six weeks.
So you think the Niners have a shot? I think they have more than a shot.
Do explain: Well, it kind of goes back to something I said last week, which is that the extent of the Saints’ home-field advantage hasn’t been emphasized enough. On offense, New Orleans is 14 points better at home than on the road! On defense, they’re seven points better at home. (And again, I’ll use the same smaller-sample corrective I did last week to show this isn’t just based on opponent. In their NFC South home games, the Saints allowed 47 points; they allowed 76 in their NFC South road games.)
So New Orleans is three touchdowns better in the Superdome than on the road this season. The Saints’ current nine-game winning streak has included just three road wins: an overtime win in a dome in Atlanta aided and abetted by Mike Smith’s decision to go for it on fourth down deep in his own territory, a narrow escape in Tennessee, and a bludgeoning of Tampa Bay, who was being bludgeoned on a weekly basis at that point.
Man, so the Saints just can’t beat anybody on the road now, right? I’m not saying the Saints are a bad team on the road; they’re just not nearly as good or as unstoppable as they are at home. If this game were in the Superdome, I’d take the Saints going away. But it’s not.
But it’s not even going to be rainy and muddy and generally unpleasant in San Francisco on Saturday! While bad weather would obviously benefit the 49ers, they don’t need it the way most have suggested. Playing outdoors on a natural grass surface represents a significant enough switch for the Saints.
Okay, so give me the home/road splits for San Fran: The 49ers had the fourth-best point differential in the league at +151. They were +134 at home, averaging about a 17-point win (27.6-10.9) in their eight home games—seven victories, one OT loss back in September to Dallas. Aside from the loss to the Cowboys, the Niners played only one other close home game, stopping the Giants on a final drive to beat New York by seven in November.
How much of that is based on schedule? The road slate was, I think, negligibly harder for San Francisco. They played the NFC East, getting the Giants and Cowboys at home and the Eagles and Redskins on the road (DAL and PHI basically even, NYG > WSH, except when they play each other). With the AFC North, they hosted the Steelers and Browns, went to Baltimore and Cincinnati (PIT = BAL, CIN > CLE). And then they went to DET and hosted TB, although their 45-point bludgeoning of the Bucs came early in the year and in fact immediately preceded Tampa’s victory over the Saints.
What was the point of this again? The Niners are better at home than on the road.
Is the location of this game the only reason you think the 49ers can win? Of course not. I wouldn’t be picking just any home team to beat a visiting Saints squad this weekend (for instance, I think the Saints would probably win in New England).
What are the other reasons? Last week I mentioned how Detroit was a team not built to beat New Orleans on the road. To wit:
“The problem for Detroit is that, as you could see last week, it doesn’t possess the attributes most necessary to stop or even slow a potent offensive attack. Namely, the Lions can’t run the ball and control the clock. They’re going to try to outscore the Saints, and I don’t know if even the 2007 Patriots can outscore the Saints in the Superdome.”
The 49ers, on the other hand, do possess those attributes. San Francisco runs the ball a lot—third-most in the NFL behind Denver and Houston. They hold the ball for an average of 32 minutes per game, fourth-best in the league. They have the lowest turnover rate in football.
Ooh, now I’m scared: San Francisco also has arguably the best special teams in the league. David Akers set a record for most field goals in a season (including 7-of-9 from beyond 50 yards), and Andy Lee led the league in both average and net punting. The 49ers start with the best average field position in the league.
Give me some caveats: These are all reasons why San Francisco can win. There are plenty of reasons why New Orleans can win, including that it has a way better offense, that the Niners run the ball a lot but not overwhelmingly well, and that the Saints aren’t as bad at special teams as they were a year ago.
You = Saints fan. What scares you about the Niners? Their ability to make our otherwise underrated rushing attack non-existent, therein making this a completely one-dimensional offense.
You = Niners fan. What frightens you? That our pass defense isn’t as good as our run defense, and I’d love for that to be flipped this week (and if we make it that far, next week as well).
How big is this rivalry from the good old NFC West days? Nobody outside San Francisco calls those the “good old days.” The Niners are 45-24 all-time against the Saints, and that’s despite six straight losses and nine of the last 11 in the series. They have never met in the playoffs.
What’s your take on 49ers vs. Niners? I like the versatility.
Critique Peter King’s take on this game, since you will disagree with his conclusion: The game the Saints want to play isn’t 23-19.
What’s your take on 49ers vs. Saints? The key to the game, beyond banalities such as not turning it over, will be whether San Francisco can finish off drives. There is, after all, a reason why Akers kicked so many field goals. The Niners offense is fine moving the ball between the 20s, but it will need to find the end zone multiple times to pull off the home upset.
And you know what? I think the 49ers do. I think they find Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis when they need to, I think they don’t turn the ball over, I think they get at least one key takeaway from Drew Brees, and I think San Francisco gets its first playoff win since the worst day of my life, 27-24.
#4 DENVER AT #1 NEW ENGLAND
Tebow. Go: He played really well last week.
And…: But, the Steelers played to Tebow’s strengths by allowing Denver to run the ball and then throw it deep. Nobody’s ever accused Tim Tebow of not being able to throw the deep ball, and in Demaryius Thomas, he has a great go-route receiver. But if you keep Tebow in the pocket and make him throw underneath, he’s not accurate enough to matriculate the ball down the field with any consistency.
Yeah, I’ll take your word for it instead of Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau’s: I’ll grant that, theoretically, the Denver offense poses problems because the running game entices you to bring that safety up into the box. But you shouldn’t be playing no-deep coverage against this team ever, and certainly not when a touchdown ends the game and Tebow has killed you deep all game. That said, that wasn’t on LeBeau. Ryan Mundy, I believe, wasn’t properly positioned.
How much stock do you put in Denver’s win over Pittsburgh? I mean, it said a lot about where the Steelers are, what with age and the injuries. Ben Roethlisberger was clearly not himself in the first half, and the Pittsburgh defense couldn’t withstand the losses of Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton on top of playing without Ryan Clark. Ike Taylor had one of the worst games a cornerback as good as Ike Taylor has ever had. So I think it says more about Pittsburgh than it does about Denver.
You just can’t give this team any credit: You didn’t let me finish. It does say something about Denver, which is that the Broncos offense isn’t the worst in playoff history. This team can score when Tebow throws the ball accurately and when it runs it well. These things just don’t happen consistently for the Broncos.
Immediately after the Broncos victory, NY Times writer Pete Thamel tweeted that Saturday’s game would “transcend sports.” You agree? Look, it’s not Balboa-Drago. What is the extra-athletic meaning that is going to be derived from this game? It’s a cultural signifier of what exactly? What is this game going to “say”? For it to have any meaning beyond who plays next week, there has to be some sort of conflict. People will play the religion card, but it’s not like the Patriots are anti-religious. It’s not like Bill Belichick is starting off his press conferences by quoting Richard Dawkins. There’s nothing Manichean about this game.
You’re just being contrarian. People who don’t normally watch football will watch this game: I suppose that’s true. Last week’s Broncos-Steelers game got the biggest Wild Card rating in some lengthy period of time I’m too lazy to look up. Tebow has definitely created buzz and a larger audience for Broncos football. He’s been applauded for using his football platform to discuss religion, but I have seen little substantive conversation about religion. Most of it has boiled down to played-out Chuck Norris-type jokes on Twitter, of which I myself have been guilty of (to be fair, I said Tebow wasn’t God, but that he could make a compelling case for being Q. It was more clever).
So anyone sitting there watching this game and expecting some sort of religious epiphany, I don’t know what to tell you.
But you yourself said, some months ago, that the sports movie storyline you’d most like to see played out in real life is Angels in the Outfield. I’ll quote you:
“Regardless of the veracity of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s belief in angelic contributions, there is no doubt that the sudden rise of George Knox’s California Angels—from a 15-game losing streak to first-place with the help of several inexplicable plays—would be a national story. But add to that Knox’s final-day-of-the-season press conference—in which he turns on his owner and says he does believe in the angels’ intervention and the players, led by Mel Clark, perform a collective Jimmy Chitwood—and you get a story that would transcend sports. Knox’s press conference, followed by Angel Stadium urging Clark on by flapping their arms in the ninth inning to a division title, would likely merit front-page treatment in national newspapers.”
So you’ll excuse me if I’m a little confused by your flip-flopping when the closest thing we’ve got to Angels in the Outfield—and let’s be honest, the closest thing we’re ever going to get to Angels in the Outfield—is happening before your eyes: Psh, not until John Elway threatens to fire Tim Tebow for thanking God so much.
And there’s one play during this Broncos turnaround that can be described as “inexplicable,” and that’s Marion Barber running out of bounds.
Disagree. The Barber fumble, the Jets’ all-out blitz from Tebow’s right side, the Steelers’ lapse into no-deep coverage—these are all inexplicable, what-were-they-thinking moments that, while individually do not strike one as anything more than curious, collectively add up to intriguing evidence of divine intervention and, yes, eventual Tim Tebow sainthood: Is Matt Prater Mel Clark in this example?
Fine, run from your own idealistic notions of fandom and spirituality. Enjoy your cynicism: Oh no, I’m turning into John S!
One more non-football question on Tebow: How do you think the media has handled this whole deal? Well so much of it has been driven by the media, and ESPN in particular. ESPN decides to go all-out on Tebow, making him a topic in virtually every show it has, and that then drives the national broadcasts of those games, the newspaper columns leading up to those games, and the backlash to the coverage. The backlash leads to backlash to the backlash, and so on and so forth. I mean, I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to write a post about Tebow much earlier in the season, but I didn’t have much interesting to say. All I’m talking about now is like backlash to the backlash to the nth degree.
So, on the football field: The Broncos can score points in this one. They were moving the ball at will against New England the last time these two teams met before they turned it over three times in the second quarter. Obviously, Denver can’t win this game if it loses the turnover battle, and it probably needs to win it by two.
And that’s because? New England’s offense is just too good for the Broncos defense. Aaron Hernandez torched Denver that last game, and Denver just doesn’t have the—see what I’m going to do here—horses to stick with all those options for Tom Brady.
How happy are the Patriots to be playing Denver and not Pittsburgh? The Texans win put New England on high alert; the Steelers are probably the AFC team the Pats least wanted to see. But even if Pittsburgh came back to win that game last week in overtime, it revealed way too many warts to go into Gillette and win, IMO.
Pretty one-sided history between these two? Denver has won 17 of the last 22, including that playoff meeting in 2005. Brady is just 2-6 against the Broncos, but that includes that 41-23 win last month.
What scares Broncos fan Tim about the Patriots? The tight ends. The Pats almost had two tight ends accumulate 1,000+ yards this season. At what point do we just stop regarding their statistics any differently from those of wide receivers?
Same question, fandom reversed: Our secondary has been so banged up, and you saw what Tebow can do deep against a team weak at safety. The Pats have had a revolving door at safety, though Patrick Chung is back healthy for this one.
Critique Peter King’s prediction of this game! I think he’s pretty on-target. New England seizes control in the second quarter again, and Denver of course can’t throw its way back into the game once it falls behind multiple scores. Patriots win it going away, 37-13.