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Inside the Matchup
Divisional Playoffs

By: Damon Autry | Sal Marcoccio | Chris Eakin | Kyle Smith

 Predictions - YTD
Rk Staffer W L %
1 Autry 47 17 73.4
2 Marcoccio 45 20 69.2
3 Smith 43 22 66.2
4 Eakin 38 28 57.6

NO @ SF | DEN @ NE | HOU @ BAL | NYG @ GB

Saints @ 49ers - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: We all know how good the Saints’ passing attack is, and last week against Detroit just added to it. Drew Brees threw for 466 yards and three touchdowns against the Lions, with wideouts Marques Colston and Robert Meachem each gaining over 110 yards, and Meachem, Devery Henderson and Jimmy Graham each catching touchdown passes. Graham was targeted a team-high 11 times, and their attack is so diversified that fullback Jed Collins had two catches for 20 yards, and running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles combined for 89 yards on 10 receptions. But the 49ers have a much better defense against the pass than Detroit, and the game is being played outside, so things shouldn’t look quite so easy this week.

San Francisco’s pass defense was 16th in the NFL, but a look at the numbers surrounding their ability to shut down their opponent’s air attack indicates it was better than that. The 49ers were eighth in touchdown throws given up, eighth in opponents’ completion percentage, tied for seventh in sacks, fifth in quarterback rating allowed and tied for second in interceptions. In their final seven games of the season, just two quarterbacks threw for at least 230 yards, and only one had multiple touchdown passes. They held pass catchers in check as well, because in their final 10 games of the season, only four wide receivers had at least 80 receiving yards, and only a pair of tight ends gained at least 65 yards against them all year.

Running Game Thoughts: New Orleans continues to run the ball effectively with their triumvirate of Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. We mentioned that Thomas and Sproles had a total of 10 catches for 89 yards, and the duo added 117 yards and three touchdowns (two by Sproles) on a combined 18 carries. Ivory got the bulk of the work, however, with 13 carries, picking up 47 yards in the process. They’ll be challenged in a huge way this week against the 49ers, because no team in the league was as ferocious against the run as they were.

The 49ers had the NFL’s premier run defense this season. They led the league in run defense (allowing 246 fewer yards than the Ravens, who were number two), rushing touchdowns allowed (just three, and two came in Week 17), and yards per carry allowed (3.5). Only two running backs managed to gain at least 65 yards when facing the Niners – Marshawn Lynch in Week 16 (107 yards) and Steven Jackson in Week 17 (76 yards).

Drew Brees: 315 yds passing, 3 TD, 1 INT
Jimmy Graham: 85 yds receiving, 1 TD
Marques Colston: 70 yds receiving, 1 TD
Robert Meachem: 50 yds receiving
Devery Henderson: 35 yds receiving
Darren Sproles: 40 yds rushing / 40 yds receiving, 1 TD
Pierre Thomas: 35 yds rushing / 20 yds receiving
Chris Ivory: 25 yds rushing

Passing Game Thoughts: The 49ers and quarterback Alex Smith had one of the league’s weaker passing attacks. The team was 29th in the league in passing offense, and tied for 24th in touchdown throws. Smith’s 3,144 passing yards was 19th among NFL quarterbacks, and his 17 touchdowns were 17th at his position. He threw for at least 215 yards in just four games, and had multiple touchdowns in only five games. Their leading receiver was Michael Crabtree, but he was 34th in the league with 874 yards on 74 catches (but only four touchdowns), while tight end Vernon Davis was 42nd in the NFL with 792 yards on 67 catches with six touchdowns. Davis has the athleticism and natural ability to make defenses pay, but the Niners will have to make concerted efforts to get him the ball.

We gave you all the numbers from the Saints pass defense last week – 30th against the pass, 16th in touchdown throws allowed and ninth in opponents’ completion percentage. Not great numbers, but somewhat expected considering that teams had no choice but to go pass-heavy to keep pace with New Orleans’ offense. Subsequently, the league’s best receivers had great games against them throughout the season, as Andre Johnson, Victor Cruz, Roddy White and Julio Jones each had at least 120 receiving yards against them in the regular season. Calvin Johnson continued that trend last week with 211 receiving yards and a pair of scores. Crabtree is a quality wideout, but isn’t in the elite category so while he may have some success, it’s unlikely to be overwhelming.

Running Game Thoughts: San Francisco was eighth in the NFL in rushing offense, and tied for 12th in rushing scores. Running back Frank Gore is the team’s main cog in that area, and was sixth in the league with 1,211 rushing yards while scoring eight times. However, after running for 100 or more yards five times in the season’s first eight games, Gore failed to reach 90 yards even once in the second half of the season, which is something for fantasy owners thinking of using him to be wary of.

Like we said, we’ve already gone over New Orleans’ defensive numbers last week, but as a reminder, they were 12th against the run and 15th in rushing scores given up, but also allowed 5.0 yards per carry, which was 30th in the NFL. They only gave up 32 rushing yards to Detroit last week, but the Lions only called eight running plays, so there isn’t much to decipher there. Clearly, if the 49ers make Frank Gore a focus, as everyone expects they will, he should have a solid game.

Alex Smith: 195 yds passing, 1 TD, 1 INT
Michael Crabtree: 75 yds receiving
Vernon Davis: 60 yds receiving, 1 TD
Kyle Williams: 30 yds receiving
Ted Ginn Jr.: 15 yds receiving
Frank Gore: 90 yds rushing, 1 TD
Kendall Hunter: 25 yds rushing

Prediction: Saints 24, 49ers 20 ^ Top

Broncos @ Patriots - (Marcoccio)

Passing Game Thoughts: The last time Tim Tebow faced the New England Patriots (Week 15), it started a stretch of three consecutive losses for the Broncos. In that game, he completed only 11 of 22 passes for 194 yards and did not throw for a TD against the worst pass defense in the NFL. He was able to rush for 93 yards and 2 TDs however. The three game stretch to finish the season had some people questioning whether or not he could keep his starting gig for next season. His opening round playoff victory over the Steelers put those doubts to rest however. Tebow looked sharp despite completing less than 50% of his passes - when he did connect it was at a 31.6 yards per completion clip. It was also a breakout game for fellow 2010 first round pick Demaryius Thomas. The Tebow / Thomas combination went for 204 yards on the day, including an 80-yard pass and catch in Overtime for the game winning TD. Maybe Josh McDaniels wasn’t the idiot that many Denver and NFL fans thought he was. The Broncos had a great game plan to counter the Pittsburgh defense’s propensity to creep 8-9 players into the box, including both safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Mundy. While that was effective to a large extent for Pittsburgh, it left Thomas often in single coverage with Ike Taylor (and no safety help) and that matchup was exploited into the aforementioned big day.

The Patriots will obviously study the film from that game and attempt to not let the same results occur against them. However that is easier said then done, when you consider that the Patriots are a much worse defense than the Steelers. They’re not just poor in comparison to the Steelers either. They were poor compared to everyone else, as they were the worst pass defense in the NFL. The Patriots do not have anyone to matchup with the 6’ 3”, 4.3, 40-yard dash running Thomas and can not generate any consistent pass rush to harass Tebow. What the Patriots do have going for them is the fact that Bill Belichick has been able to confuse much more experienced QBs than Tebow in big games before. It will take another great game plan for the Patriots to keep the Broncos in check.

Running Game Thoughts: The Patriots are much better at stopping the run than the pass, but they aren’t an imposing run defense by any means. The Broncos were able to run for 252 yards against them in the last meeting, led by the previously mentioned 93 yards from Tim Tebow. Willis McGahee was able to gain 70 yards on only 7 carries and even the mediocre Lance Ball was able to gain 64 yards and a TD. Like the Steelers did last week the Patriots will need to keep at least eight men close to the line of scrimmage to limit the ability of Tebow to get outside and help stop the option off the edge. The Broncos can try and counter that with more power runs using McGahee between the tackles or by Timmy once again completing big passes downfield. Many people will be expecting the Broncos miracle season to come to an end in Foxboro this Sunday, but there are many scenarios that I can see where they could survive for yet another week.

Tim Tebow: 195 yds passing, 1 TD / 65 yds rushing, 1 TD
Demaryius Thomas: 85 yds receiving, 1 TD
Eddie Royal: 20 yds receiving
Matt Willis: 15 yds receiving
Daniel Fells: 30 yds receving
Willis McGahee: 110 yds rushing, 1 TD / 5 yds receiving
Lance Ball: 20 yds rushing

Passing Game Thoughts: When the two teams met less than a month ago, the Denver defense game planned to take the Patriots’ most consistent weapons, Wes Welker and TE Rob Gronkowski, out of the game for Tom Brady. While the pair saw constant double teams, it was the Pats’ other second year TE, Aaron Hernandez, who had the chance to shine having his best game of the season - 9 catches, 129 yards and a touchdown. The Broncos should have learned in that game that Tom Brady is able to take what the defense gives him and the Pats are loaded at the skill positions despite most people thinking otherwise. Chad Ochocinco even got into the action opening up the New England scoring with a 33-yard TD reception down the sideline. Tom Brady when given time will find the open man, so it will be interesting to see if Denver uses the same strategy that allowed Tom Brady to throw for 320 yards and 2 TDs in their first meeting.

The Broncos will need to pressure Brady like they did Ben Roethlisberger last week. Brady is not nearly as mobile as even the injured Big Ben, but he is able to slide around and step up into the pocket to avoid the rush. During the Patriots last two home playoff games, both losses, Brady struggled due to constantly being under pressure. Rookie LB/DE Von Miller has been a force for much of the season and could be the disruptive figure the Broncos need. Veteran CB Champ Bailey is still getting the job done even at his advanced age. Bailey held Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace to 26 yards receiving on three catches last week and was able to help limit the NFL’s leading receiver Wes Welker to only four catches in Week 15.

Running Game Thoughts: The Patriots have rotated their running back all season based on their game plan. In Week 15 it was rookie Steven Ridley who led the way with 65 yards on 11 carries but it was veterans Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green Ellis who scored on the ground. The end of the season felt like an audition for rookie Ridley as he started being more and more feature in the offense and was effective for the most part. Belickick does love the dependable Green-Ellis though as the guy doesn’t put the ball on the ground and is one of the better goal-line runners is the league. Danny Woodhead should get a lot of work on passing downs. The Patriots though generally run only to keep defenses honest and that trend should continue with mild weather (for January at least) expected in Foxboro this weekend.

Denver can be run on and they finished the season ranked 22nd against the run allowing 126.3 ypg. Belichick is a big fan of the curveball, so don’t be shocked if the Pats come out running the ball down the Bronco’s throats. Of course that would play right into the hands of Denver since they would love nothing more than to keep the game low scoring and close and see who really has the more clutch 4th quarter QB.

Tom Brady: 325 yds passing, 2 TDs
Aaron Hernandez: 85 yds receiving, 1 TD
Wes Welker: 60 yds receiving
Rob Gronkowski: 75 yds receiving / 1 TD
Chad Ochocinco: 40 yds receiving
Danny Woodhead: 10 yds rushing / 40 yds receiving
Stevan Ridley: 80 yds rushing, 1 TD
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 30 yds rushing, 1 TD

Prediction: Patriots 31, Broncos 27 ^ Top

Texans @ Ravens - (Eakin)

Passing Game Thoughts: No injuries to speak of for either side coming in to this game unless of course you count Matt Schaub. Schaub’s replacement, T.J. Yates, looked poised and confident in his playoff debut against the Bengals. His actual production left something to be desired. Yates threw for just 159 yards, completed only 11 of 20 passes for one touchdown. I suspect the Texans will need more from Yates to beat the Ravens, but at the same time this game has the look and feel of a low scoring affair that could very well be won by the team that simply avoids the big mistake. The Ravens beat the Texans 29-14 at home in Week 6. The Texans were without WR Andre Johnson in that game. Johnson caught five balls for 90 yards and a score last week. He will need to duplicate his performance for the Texans to advance.

The Ravens are 4th in passing defense. The big advantage they will have is safety Ed Reed versus Yates. Reed is considered by many to be among the greatest safeties of all-time in large part because of his ability to play centerfield, read quarterbacks, and create big turnovers. It will be dangerous for the Texans to make deep throws on the outside and over the middle to Owen Daniels. The Texans will avoid this by sticking to conservative routes, thus having to sustain long drives to score. The Ravens defense is awfully tough to sustain drives against - advantage Ravens.

Running Game Thoughts: The heart and soul of the Texans is their two-headed rushing attack of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Foster is the best back in the league over the last two seasons and Houston does a great job of opening holes with their zone blocking. The Ravens will be hard pressed to prevent the Texans from getting outside. The Texans employ a lot of multiple tight end sets but they also have two big receivers in Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter that are good blockers for their position. The Ravens are 2nd in rushing defense so this will be a strength on strength matchup that will set the tone. The Ravens will need DE’s Terrell Suggs and Jarrett Johnson to get penetration up field and turn Foster back inside where Ray Lewis can clean up. Early on the Ravens will be fresh and have the advantage, but if the Texans can sustain some drives and stay in the game, the Raven defense may wear down. This game will come down to whether or not the Texans defense can keep them in the game. Foster had his way against the tough Bengal defense to the tune of 153 yards on 24 carries. Neutral matchup.

T.J. Yates: 175 yds passing 1 TD / 2 INT
Andre Johnson: 85 yds receiving
Kevin Walter: 40 yds receiving
Owen Daniels: 45 yds receiving / 1 TD
Arian Foster: 125 yds rushing / 20 yards receiving / 1 TD

HOU FF Points Allowed vs. QBs: -18.8%
HOU FF Points Allowed vs. WRs: -7.7%
HOU FF Points Allowed vs. TEs: -30.4%
HOU FF Points Allowed vs. RBs: -24.1%

Passing Game Thoughts: My reluctance to giving the Ravens a victory this week is rooted in an utter lack of faith in quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco has a lot of talent but every now and then the guy looks like a deer in the headlights. He has a good arm and is talented enough to make all the throws when he can get set in a clean pocket, but he is too stiff to make plays when he has to move his feet. The Texans pass rush is led by outside linebackers Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed. The Ravens line is excellent in the middle but can be inconsistent on the outside with Michael Oher and Bryant McKinnie. The Ravens have big play ability with Torrey Smith stretching the field and Anquan Boldin working the middle but the Texans get excellent coverage from cornerback Jonathan Joseph. He will have the advantage versus Boldin who has lost a step. With Boldin limited, the Ravens will need big plays from the inconsistent Smith and to take advantage of Ray Rice and their young TE combo of Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. It won’t be easy against the Texans 3rd ranked pass defense.

Running Game Thoughts: These two teams are almost identical. The Ravens, like the Texans, are completely reliant on their running back Ray Rice to set the tone. Like Foster, Rice is as do-everything back that can be a big threat both running and receiving. Both teams are equally strong at stopping that on defense. One difference between Rice and Foster is that Rice is quick and hard to find hidden behind the big trees. The Texans are also very big at linebacker and will be at a quickness disadvantage. Rice managed 100 yards in their earlier meeting while Foster was held under 50 yards.

Joe Flacco: 240 yds passing / 1 TD / 1 INT
Anquan Boldin: 60 yds receiving
Torrey Smith: 70 yds receiving
Ed Dickson: 45 yds receiving / 1 TD
Ray Rice: 105 yds rushing / 2 TD / 40 yards receiving

Prediction: Ravens 24, Texans 20 ^ Top

Giants @ Packers - (Autry)

Passing Game Thoughts: Eli Manning has turned into a very, very good quarterback. I’ve disliked him since he pouted his way out of San Diego on draft day, so you’ll never know how difficult it is for me to type those words. My personal feelings about him aside, Manning turned in the best playoff performance of his career last week, slicing the bewildered Atlanta defense for 277 yards and three TDs. Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham were the main targets last week, leaving regular season receiving leader Victor Cruz with just a couple catches and 28 yards. This game could be a surprisingly high-scoring affair, so don’t be surprised if Manning has another solid performance.

I’m in complete amazement that a team can win 15 games with the league’s worst defense statistically. The Packers are by far the league’s worst against the pass, which is insane when you consider the likes of Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji roam the defense. The Packers have given up more than 400 yards in six of the last seven games, so Manning should have his way. It will be vital for Green Bay to put heat on Manning. If not, the Packers will find themselves in a high-scoring game, and that’s not a good thing when you consider how porous the defense had been.

Running Game Thoughts: Both Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs had 14 carries last week, and each looked good. That’s a far cry from how they performed during the season, as they were the main components that fueled the league’s worst rushing team. With the apparent weakness of Green Bay’s defense, it’s almost a given that New York’s running game will take a back seat to the much more explosive Giants passing game. Bradshaw and Jacobs are both capable of getting a short TD run to salvage an otherwise pedestrian game, but don’t expect much else from this duo.

Green Bay actually started the season as one of the top-3 rush defenses in the league, giving up an average of 76 yards on the ground through the first five games. Teams began exploiting that part of their defense and they ended the season surrendering 112 yards per game. I think the Giants will put the running game on the shelf and attack the Packers where they’re most vulnerable—through the air.

Eli Manning: 255 yards passing / 2 TDs / 1 INT
Ahmad Bradshaw: 65 yards rushing / 1 TD
Brandon Jacobs: 45 yards rushing
Victor Cruz: 95 yards receiving / 1 TD
Hakeem Nicks: 70 yards receiving / 1 TD
Mario Manningham: 40 yards receiving
Jake Ballard: 30 yards receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: A topic was started on the FFToday Board that raised the question of whether or not Aaron Rodgers is a system QB based on Matt Flynn’s success against Detroit in week 17. Really? First of all, the Lions showed what they are against New Orleans; secondly, Rodgers is just hitting his stride as a QB and I believe the best is yet to come. This playoff will be a defining moment for him and will secure his spot as the second-best QB in the league behind Tom Brady. He gets Greg Jennings back from his minor knee injury; couple that return with an emerging Jordy Nelson and you have the makings of one of the best receiving tandems in the league. Rodgers will have his way with New York’s secondary.

Although the Giants pass defense hasn’t been as questionable as the Packers, New York still fields the 29th-ranked pass defense in the league. When these two teams met in week 13, the Giants allowed Rodgers to roll for 369 yards and four TDs. New York’s secondary limited the Falcons to next to nothing last week, but it will be a different scenario this week in every sense of the word.

Running Game Thoughts: When your starting QB has as many rushing TDs as your top two RBs, you know your running game has work to do. Rodgers’ three rushing TDs match Ryan Grants’ two TDs and James Starks’ one. Don’t get it twisted, though. The Packers could care less how productive their RBs are when it comes to scoring. They realize this offense is fueled by Rodgers and his ability to take advantage of susceptible defenses such as the Giants. Grant and Starks will be complementary pieces in this game and each game after it. Keep an eye on Starks availability, as he’s still trying to overcome a knee issue.

Including the regular season’s last game against Dallas and the Wildcard contest against Atlanta, the Giants have only surrendered 113 total yards on the ground in their last two games. The Giants have had their moments this season when teams ran wild on them—New Orleans 205 yards on the ground in week 12 comes to mind—just don’t expect Green Bay to be another one. This game will be won through the air for both teams.

Aaron Rodgers: 320 yards passing / 3 TDs / 1 INT
Jordy Nelson: 115 yards receiving / 2 TDs
Greg Jennings: 85 yards receiving
Donald Driver: 45 yards receiving
Jermichael Finley: 60 yards receiving / 1 TD
Ryan Grant: 40 yards rushing
James Starks: 30 yards rushing

Prediction: Packers 30, Giants 24 ^ Top