Matchups: The Divisional RoundFriday, January 13, 2012
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New Orleans @ San Francisco
Saints Must: Pick on San Francisco's outside corners. The 49ers don't match up well with New Orleans because San Francisco's defensive strength is versus the run, and its weakness is defending the pass. The Saints love to air it out, finishing the season second in the NFL in pass attempts and leading all teams in playoff passing yards. New Orleans' spread-like offense will force 49ers coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense into constant nickel sets, in which top cornerback Carlos Rogers covers the slot, with Tarell Brown and rookie Chris Culliver outside. Brown and Culliver are the defense's weak links. They'll have their hands full against deep threat Robert Meachem and versatile Marques Colston, while TE Jimmy Graham matches up with safeties.
49ers Must: Run early and often, and stick to it. This is where Detroit went wrong last week. Instead of attacking New Orleans' soft front seven with a ground-based approach, the Lions attempted to go toe-to-toe with Drew Brees in an aerial shootout. Eight of the Lions' initial ten offensive plays were called passes, and they finished with an incredibly lopsided 43:10 pass-to-run ratio. First-year coach Jim Harbaugh's offense has been run-based all year, so the opposite comes natural to the 49ers. San Francisco ended the regular season with the NFC's most rushing attempts, and no 16-game starter threw fewer passes than Alex Smith. If Matthew Stafford can't beat the Saints with his arm, Smith certainly won't. Harbaugh made it a point in 2011 to utilize Smith as a game manager. Facing a Saints defense that permits nearly five yards per rushing play, Niners tailbacks Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter will give New Orleans far more problems.
X-Factor: Safety Roman Harper. Dropping Harper as an eighth defender into the box will be New Orleans' best way to minimize Gore's impact Saturday. A coverage liability but one of the NFL's premier run-support safeties, Harper is a physical tackler and playmaker near the line of scrimmage. He's forced eight fumbles over the past two seasons and leads the Saints in tackles during that span. When Harper stays in the back end, he'll be assigned to tight end Vernon Davis.
Why the Saints Will Win: It isn't a good matchup for the 49ers. San Francisco won't stop New Orleans' passing onslaught, and understandably Harbaugh hasn't shown enough confidence in his quarterback to reasonably expect Smith to win a high-scoring, throw-happy shootout. Just once all year has Smith exceeded 275 passing yards, and it hasn't happened at all in the season's past 14 weeks. Brees has gone over 275 yards in 14-of-17 tries. The Niners can stay competitive if they play their season-best game in pass defense, but Smith will be their ultimate downfall.
Prediction: Saints 28, 49ers 17
Denver @ New England
Broncos Must: Let Champ Bailey shadow Aaron Hernandez. Denver's defensive staff wasted Bailey in its Week 15 matchup with New England. Employing a stubborn, old-school strategy, the Broncos kept Bailey at left corner for four quarters while Hernandez tormented rookie safety Quinton Carter and aging RCB Andre' Goodman en route to a season-high nine catches and 129 yards, including a second-quarter touchdown. The Broncos took Hernandez lightly, using loaded coverage to slow Rob Gronkowski (four receptions, 53 yards) and Wes Welker (41 yards, four catches) while Hernandez ran free. Defending New England's offense can be a pick-your-poison scenario, but allowing Bailey to be a roaming difference-maker would be a good first step.
Patriots Must: Take away Demaryius Thomas. Broncos regular-season receiving leader Eric Decker (knee) will not play. Recognizing Thomas as Denver's lone remaining passing-game threat, New England needs to treat him as if Thomas were Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald. Last week, the Steelers made the mistake of selling out strictly to stop the run while cornerback Ike Taylor applied frequent off coverage against Thomas, giving up a sizable cushion. Thomas exploded for 204 yards and the game-winning score. With a 98-yard average over the last month and a half, Thomas has "earned" opponents' double teams. Patriots defensive backs need to get physical with Thomas at the line, and there should be a safety at the top of his route at all times.
X-Factor: Tailback Stevan Ridley. The Pats are a pass-heavy team by nature, but they'd be remiss to overlook Denver's recent run-defense woes. Over their last four games, the Broncos have allowed 581 yards and four touchdowns on 119 carries (4.88 average), including Steelers backup Isaac Redman's 121-yard Wild Card round game. Versatile, powerful, and decisive, Ridley emerged as New England's top rusher down the stretch, playing more snaps and out-producing the likes of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. Among NFL backs with at least 85 regular-season rush attempts, Ridley 2.6 yards-after-contact average ranked fourth in the league.
Why the Patriots Will Win: If they take away Thomas -- and Bill Belichick has a knack for eliminating the opposition's top weapon -- the Broncos will struggle for big plays, yardage, and points. It's where Decker's loss hurts; Eddie Royal and Matt Willis represent significant drop-offs in talent. Denver's pass rush contain Tom Brady for short stretches, but New England's tight end and slot receiver-heavy, over-the-middle offense is an ideal counteraction for big-time edge rushers. I don't think Denver can score often enough to atone for how many points it will allow.
Prediction: Patriots 32, Broncos 20