Bet On It: NFL Divisional Round Predictions
Last Week: 4-4
The NFL did not see a road win in the opening round of the playoffs, a fact that sets up four extremely intriguing matchups this weekend.
What will happen as the field gets narrowed from eight teams to four? Here are a few guesses:
• Michael Crabtree will catch a touchdown pass
We can talk up the San Francisco defense until the cows come home -- and the 49ers certainly will give New Orleans more trouble than Detroit did last weekend -- but for the home team to hang with its high-powered guests, the offense will have to make an impact.
And they'll need Alex Smith to find his playmakers in order for that to happen. Crabtree caught just four touchdown passes this season, with two of them coming in Week 17 vs. St. Louis. But he's still the 49ers' most dangerous weapon on the outside.
• Robert Meachem will lead the Saints in yards gained
It's a pick-your-poison proposition when you play the Saints. There are only so many of Brees' weapons that a defense can attempt to take away before someone finds some space. Bank on Meachem being that someone Saturday.
San Francisco has the type of safety in Donte Whitner that can at least give talented New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham some headaches. Likewise, the 49ers' athleticism at linebacker might limit Darren Sproles' impact. All that means Meachem may wind up being the guy Brees looks to most often -- especially if San Francisco uses Carlos Rogers on Marques Colston.
Meachem, though, is more than capable of delivering a big game.
• Denver won't sack Tom Brady more than once
One of the keys to Denver's stunning win over Pittsburgh last week was the amount of pressure the Broncos were able to muster on hobbled QB Ben Roethlisberger. The task will be much more difficult this week against a healthy Tom Brady and the Patriots' quick passing attack.
Denver took down Brady twice for 10 total yards in the team's earlier matchup this season. It'll be tough to match or exceed that total -- Brady and the Patriots will learn from Pittsburgh's mistakes.
• Willis McGahee will run for at least 100 yards
Despite getting blown out by 18 in Week 15 against New England, the Broncos still managed to rush for 252 yards and had enormous success early on the ground. They'll need to follow that pattern again this week. Tim Tebow's playing well and picked apart an over-aggressive Pittsburgh defense, but the Broncos' best chance to pull an upset in Foxborough is to control the clock and hammer New England up front.
• Ray Rice and Ricky Williams will combine for at least 35 touches
It's no secret that the Ravens' offense is better off when Rice gets the ball early and often. Houston's stout front may force a little adjustment to that game plan Sunday -- don't be shocked if Baltimore comes out firing a bit, just to loosen up the Texans' defense.
But in the long run, Baltimore will do what it can to get the ball to its running backs, either on straight handoffs or in the short passing game. That'll be doubly true if the Ravens can establish a lead. In that case, as we've seen in the past, Baltimore will go old school and pound the ball.
• T.J. Yates won't throw a touchdown pass
Yates has done an admirable job filling in at QB for Houston. In seven games and six starts, though, he has just four TD passes. Even if the Texans find themselves in a second-half hole, Baltimore doesn't figure to be the team that the rookie QB busts loose against. If Houston is going to hang in this game and put some points up, it'll have to do it with the ground attack.
• There will be at least 30 points scored in the second half at Lambeau
One thing you probably can count on when two quarterbacks of Aaron Rodgers' and Eli Manning's level get together: There will be offense. The Packers and Giants combined for 35 points after halftime in Green Bay's win at New York earlier this season.
Even if the defenses stand tall Sunday and manage to force some turnovers, these offenses are too good to keep down. And Green Bay doesn't really operate with a traditional time-killing offense when it gets a lead -- the Packers would rather pile onto that lead with more points.
No matter which team holds the edge heading into the third and fourth quarters, we'll see some fireworks.
• Jordy Nelson will score multiple TDs
Nelson did not find the end zone in Green Bay's earlier win against the Giants, but he celebrated 15 scores this season. Thirteen of those touchdowns came at Lambeau Field, where Nelson scored in all eight games he played in 2011. That trend does not bode well for the Giants' secondary, which will have its hands full Sunday. Nelson plays his best in front of the home fans, and he'll deliver another big show in this one.