Last week’s games saw all four home teams win in the first round of the playoffs – meaning the wild cards have been eliminated and this weekend brings matchups between the eight divisional winners from the regular season. The Falcons offense did not score any points – their as their only score was a safety – in their 24-2 loss to the Giants at the Meadowlands. Atlanta lost their first playoff game for the second year in a row, having been dumped out as a number 1 seed by the Packers last season. Detroit put up a valiant effort in the first half in New Orleans – leading by 14-10 at the interval – but the Saints unleashed a barrage of offense in the second half, scoring five touchdowns and making the final score 45-28. In the AFC, the Texans beat the Bengals in Houston, giving the franchise a win in their first playoff appearance. Cincinnati’s rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, threw three interceptions and was outperformed by fellow first-year player T.J Yates – though the Texans’ QB was helped by his team’s running game and the return from injury of their first choice wide receiver, Andre Johnson.
The biggest story of the weekend was the Broncos win over the Steelers in Denver – with Tim Tebow playing his best game at quarterback since becoming a pro. The former University of Florida star threw for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns and added another on the ground – the highlight being the very first play of overtime, which was an 80 yard pass to Demaryius Thomas. Pittsburgh focused on stopping the run, not expecting Tebow to be able to throw deep on them, even against man coverage – they were proven wrong on that assumption and last season’s losing Superbowl team are heading to their offseason earlier than they would have liked.
Regular season 134-122
Saturday 4:30pm Saints @ 49ers
The new “greatest show on turf” will have to play on grass this week, having played 12 of their 17 games in domes up to this point, as New Orleans travels to the number 2 seed San Francisco 49ers. Drew Brees did not look at his best in the first half of the game against the Lions last week, but in the second he led touchdown drives on the Saints’ first five possessions, ending Detroit’s hopes of an unlikely upset. Away from the Superdome this year, New Orleans had a 5-3 record and looked more vulnerable than in front of their own fans. The 49ers will be inspired by all the experts favouring the Saints in this matchup, and believe they deserve more respect as a 2 seed. Their only loss in San Francisco came in week 2 against a Cowboys team that came from behind to win in overtime, so they will not be fearing anybody in their own stadium. The aerial threat of Drew Brees will be the biggest concern, and the 49ers defense ranked just 16th in the league for passing yards allowed, while against the rush they were the best in the NFL. I really wanted to take San Francisco in this game, but I just cannot see them being able to contain Brees for the full 60 minutes. Prediction: Saints -3.5 over 49ers
Saturday 8:00pm Broncos @ Patriots
There’s no way that Tim Tebow can do it again is there? Having recorded a victory over the Steelers in a game that the Broncos were not expected to win, now Denver heads to New England – again with few people believing they have any chance of progressing. When these two teams met in week 15, the Patriots won 41-23 at Mile High Stadium and the Broncos will need to keep the New England offense off the field and the scoreboard as much as possible if they are to have any opportunity of winning this rematch. One stat that might give them hope is that Tom Brady is on a 35-1 streak at home in the regular season, but has lost his last couple of playoff starts at Gillette Stadium – as the Patriots fell at the first hurdle against the Jets and Ravens in the last two years. I cannot see it happening again, bad as the New England defense is, I think they will put up at least another 40 points and comfortably progress to the AFC Championship game. Prediction: Patriots -13.5 over Broncos
Sunday 1:00pm Texans @ Ravens
Houston and Baltimore are two teams that have offenses based around their rushing games – with Ray Rice the key man for the Ravens and Arian Foster and Ben Tate the main dangers of the Texans. This is a rematch of their week 6 encounter in Baltimore, which the home side won 29-14, at a time when Houston still had their first choice quarterback, Matt Schaub, starting under center. Now it is third-string rookie, T.J. Yates, and, although he led them to victory over the Bengals last week, the game against the Ravens will be a much tougher proposition. The Texans will need their defense and Arian Foster to be at the top of their games if they are to have any chance of causing a shock. While Joe Flacco struggled on the road, the Baltimore QB led his team to a perfect 8-0 home record and they will be confident of getting one step closer to the Superbowl with a victory over a franchise they have beaten all five times they have played them. However, I think this will be the upset of the week, with the Texans booking themselves a surprise trip to New England next weekend. Prediction: Texans +7.5 over Ravens (and win outright: Houston 23, Baltimore 20)
Sunday 4:30pm Giants @ Packers
Having listened to, and read, several previews of this weekends games, I now believe that the Packers have no chance of winning this game. The consensus seems to be that the Giants pass rush, combined with the deep threat of Eli Manning throwing to Victor Cruz, leaves New York as the clear favourites to make the NFC championship game. Furthermore, the experts argue that the throwing game of Aaron Rodgers is much more suited to warmer weather and could be affected by a cold and windy Wisconsin day, while the Giants won in 2007 and are invoking that spirit again this year. My main concern, as a Green Bay fan, is that it snows heavily and the running back tandem of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmed Bradshaw cause havoc for the Packers defense. There are also the demons from four years ago to exorcise – when the Giants came in to Green Bay and won a trip to the Superbowl with an overtime victory. But that was a whole different era – back when that old guy was playing for the Packers…Brent something…. Having said all that, this is the reigning Superbowl champions, playing at home, against a team they beat on their own turf just over a month ago. Plus, Sunday is the one day this weekend that snow isn’t forecast in Green Bay. Prediction: Packers -8.5 over Giants