Saturday, January 14, 2012

Divisional round preview and picks

This week I was hoping to do a post about the zone blitz as often used by the Steelers, then comparing it to the man coverage that they used more last week against the Broncos, but alas the New Year has brought with it a mountain of things to do and work to be finished, leaving me little spare time so far. What I do have time for ahead of the divisional round action is to throw out some picks.

Starting in the AFC with the Broncos travelling to the Patriots. Personally I don't think any of this weeks games are going to be easy to pick, but I've been struggling in particular with this one. The reason I say that is because the Broncos actually have more of a shot in this than many would think. The Patriots secondary is nowhere near the level of the Steelers and yet the Steelers found themselves routinely getting burned deep. The Steelers had a better pass rush than the Patriots are likely to produce, and injuries to the Patriots O-line could see them struggle against Robert Ayers, Von Miller and company on the Broncos D-line.

The X factor for the Patriots is really how good Brady is. Even if Tebow can get the Broncos passing game going, you still have to score more than Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, who - despite heavy Broncos pressure - should be able to find some connections for big gains? Surely?

See I don't know. My gut instinct is telling me to take the Patriots, but then my gut instinct told me to take the Steelers last week. I don't think the Josh McDaniel move to the Patriots will have much of an effect, because the Broncos offense with Tebow at the helm isn't the same offense that McDaniels ran with Kyle Orton as his chosen guy.

This is the thing with Tebow. Every time he walks out there you say to yourself "he can't possibly win this one. He can't possibly beat this team. He can't possibly come back from this deficit... can he?"

And sure enough, he does, time after time. Right no there is no such thing as ruling this Broncos team out of a game, because time after time the defense comes up huge just at the right moment, Tebow starts rolling on offense and before you know it, boom, they're back on top.

So with some degree of hesitation and accepting this is very much a punt, I'm going to take the Broncos.

Onto Houston @ Baltimore and again we have a game which people seem to think is very clear cut but I wouldn't be so sure about. Baltimore - on its day - should trash Houston who are minus Matt Schaub still. The question is which Baltimore are we going to get? The one that hunkers down on defense and doesn't let anybody past? That runs the ball just about as good as anyone in the league? That hits a couple of deep shots and then unloads on the opponent as they try to fight back?

Or are we going to get the Ravens that struggle to move the ball on offense, with Flacco getting picked off multiple times, and coupled with a defense that fails to show the stoutness and toughness, especially against the run, that the Ravens defense has been famous for over the last few years.

That's before we get onto the Texans having a say in the matter. They have Andre Johnson in healthy shape, the have Arian Foster in healthy shape, the defense is fully fit and raring to go. Even without the experience of Schaub the Texans are still a force to be reckoned with.

And that's why I quite fancy the Texans fairy tale season (sort of) to continue. They did really well against a Bengals team that was expected to shut them down and they brought a solid helping of their own defense to the game to boot. Given then the propensity of the Ravens to collapse in games where they struggle early, I think the Texans have a great shot at making their first ever AFC Championship game. I'm taking the Texans.

Onto the NFC and we'll start with the Giants travelling to Green Bay to face the Packers. At this point I would just like to say that as much as I've enjoyed watching the Giants this season, surely this has to be the end of the road. Beating down Atlanta is one thing. Beating down Green Bay?

I can't see it myself. The Packers pass rush has really failed to ignite this year, but a slightly suspect Giants O-line could be the remedy for that particular ill. More to the point, despite the Giants pass rush being matched up against a still poor Packers O-line, I can't imagine the Giants will have much luck slowing down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers receivers.

Even when Matt Flynn came in the Packers offense still lit it up against Detroit. They're just hot right now and frankly the Giants secondary doesn't have the broad level of talent needed to keep up with so many weapons. For that reason I - like most of the world - will be taking the Packers.

Finally then we have the Saints travelling out West to face my very own 49ers at Candlestick Park. It just feels odd knowing that the 49ers are going to be hosting a play off game once again. I'm getting all nostalgic!

I'm not sure quite how long that will last though. As has been pointed out to death in the media this week, this is the battle of old school versus new school; a tough defense backed by a solid if unspectacular running game, up against a high octane, pass orientated offense with an aggressive but sometimes vulnerable defense.

A lot of this game will be decided by the 49ers D-line versus the Saints O-line. Drew Brees has to key advantages over a lot of quarterbacks in the NFL right now; 1) he has more time than most thanks to a very impressive line (three pro bowlers) and 2) he has a great running game on board that sets up some great play-action opportunities.

And right there is why the the 49ers D-line will be so pivotal. They have a great reputation against the run this year, the sort of reputation the Ravens and Steelers would love to have back. So just how effective is the Saints play action game going to be? Can they really get the safeties to bite down hard knowing that the D-line and linebackers have done so well this year and snuffing out other teams rushing attacks?

Then you have the pass rush, that's been pretty effective this year at getting round the O-line and putting quarterbacks on their butts. Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and so on have had a great collective year that could ruin the Saints season.

Alright, so it's still asking a lot of Alex Smith to try and keep up with the Drew Brees, but the Saints defense is there for the taking I think. The running game has been quite strong for the 49ers and I just genuinely - fan boy hat put to one side for the moment - think that the 49ers could nudge this, especially given the home field edge.

That's why I'm crossing my fingers and hoping perhaps a little beyond all hope that this year could be the one to put the 49ers back on the map. So... 49ers win.

I'll probably be back after the weekends action for a recap and hopefully stick an article of interest into next week. See you then.

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