2012 NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round Preview

Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers is chased out of the pocket by New York Giants Jason Pierre-Paul in the first quarter in week 13 of the NFL season at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on December 4, 2011. The Packers defeated the Giants 38-35 and remain undefeated for the season at 12-0. UPI /John Angelillo

Saints @ 49ers, Saturday, 4:30PM ET
It’s no secret that the Saints have been a different team on the road this year than at home. As I pointed out in this week’s edition of “Five Questions…,” they’ve outscored opponents 329 to 143 at home this season and only 218 to 196 on the road. Sean Payton has seemingly been more conservative with his play calling as Drew Brees has thrown less touchdowns (29 to 17), more interceptions (6 to 8), has a lower average per pass attempt (8.75 to 7.99), and has been sacked more (8 to 16) on the road than at home. Gregg Williams’ defense doesn’t play with the same confidence that it does inside the Superdome either. It’s not that the Saints are a bad road team (they were 5-3 during the regular season), but they’re not the juggernaut they are at home. On the other side, there’s not much that San Francisco doesn’t do well defensively. They’re outstanding against the run, they get after the quarterback, and they’re solid in pass coverage. They also have a great special teams unit so if the Saints are sloppy on Saturday, they will fall. The question is whether or not the Niners will generate enough offense if the Saints start firing on all cylinders. San Fran doesn’t pass protect very well and if it can’t open up running lanes for Frank Gore, that’s when Alex Smith starts to get turnover-happy. It’ll be interesting to see how this matchup unfolds come Saturday.

Broncos @ Patriots, Saturday, 8:00PM ET
Tim Tebow better strap in tight because he’s not likely to see as much one-on-one coverage as Dick LeBeau showed him last week. Bill Belichick will likely keep a safety over top of Demaryius Thomas at all times and force Tebow to go through all of his reads. If he doesn’t and he starts chucking the ball up thinking he can beat New England deep like he did Pittsburgh, he could be in for a long night. On the other side, it’ll be interesting to see if Denver’s stout defense can rattle Tom Brady. One of the biggest reasons the Patriots lost in their first postseason game the last two years is because Baltimore and New York harassed Brady to know end. But New England’s pass protection has been better this season than it was last year, so if the Broncos can’t generate pressure then Brady could eat them alive. It would behoove Denver to jump out to an early lead like Miami and Buffalo did on New England the past two weeks. But with Tebow running the show, that could prove to be difficult.

Texans @ Ravens, Sunday, 1:00PM ET
This game is all about Houston’s defense. If Wade Phillips’ unit can’t slow down Ray Rice, force turnovers and create good field position for the offense, then the Texans’ season will end in Baltimore this Sunday. The Ravens’ run defense is the best in the league and they were stout in pass coverage as well. The combination of Arian Foster and T.J. Yates isn’t going to get the best of Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis. The best Yates can do is not turn the ball over and take what Baltimore gives him. Otherwise, if he’s forced to make plays then the Texans are in trouble. The Ravens were unbeatable at home this season and there are mismatches that they can take advantage of this weekend. As long as they don’t get caught looking ahead, it’s hard to envision the Ravens falling on Sunday.

Giants @ Packers, Sunday, 4:30PM ET
If the Giants play with the same confidence, swagger and determination this week at Lambeau as they did last Sunday versus the Falcons, then they have a shot. In fact, they already have a shot. The Giants have always been a dangerous underdog and when they think everyone is against them, they raise the level of their play ten-fold. It’s no coincidence that the Giants have played their best football over the past three weeks. They’re healthy and the strength of their defense (i.e. their defensive line) is now fully intact. As I’ve written so many times before, the way to beat an elite quarterback like Aaron Rodgers is to pressure him with your front four. If Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Rocky Benard and Justin Tuck play with the same relentless attitude this week as they did the past three, the Giants will have a shot to pull off the upset. Because their offense is certainly capable of matching Green Bay score-for-score thanks to that receiving corps and the Packers’ suspect defense. That said, Green Bay will not hand the game over on a silver platter like Atlanta did last Sunday. The Falcons played not to lose. They were timid – scared even. Rodgers plays with reckless abandon and he’s not going to be afraid to take shots downfield against New York’s vulnerable secondary unlike Matt Ryan, who never once tried to throw deep. Atlanta never adjusted its opening game plan either. You can expect Mike McCarthy to change things up if the Giants are getting the better of the Packers early on. This is going to be a great matchup and a wild ride.

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NFL Week 14 MVP power rankings

Now, I feel like I knew what I was talking about by moving Tom Brady up to #1. The man is simply a man possessed this year to win a title. I mean, it’s been, what? Five years since his Pats did win. Yep. Those guys are in a zone. Here are the weekly power rankings…..

1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots—In a blizzard, Brady completed 27 of 40 passes (67.5%) for 369 yards, 2 TDs and zero picks. Against the Bears’ defense. Someone needs to check to see if Brady actually IS human.

2. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles—He’s only played 10 full games, but his overall numbers are sick—averaging 251 yards per game passing, and another 48 yards per game rushing, with 17 passing TDs and 7 more rushing, with only 4 interceptions.

3. Matt Cassel, Kansas City Chiefs—The fact that the Chiefs didn’t have Cassel available last Sunday and got blown out in San Diego is the pure definition of MVP.

4. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints—At what point do we start paying attention to Brees and his Saints?

5. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers—Here come the Chargers. Sorry, Todd Haley, they are gonna find a way to spoil your postseason aspirations.

6. Matt Ryan/Roddy White/Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons—Sure, they have the best record in the NFC, but Ryan’s numbers aren’t quite backing up MVP vote consideration, so I thought it made sense to group these three together for now.

7. Arian Foster, Houston Texans—Leads in rushing yards (1330), rushing scores (13), and is right behind LeSean McCoy in receiving yards for running backs (504) with 2 more TDs. Just sick, and it’s only too bad the Texans can’t play defense.

8. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers—He leaves the game, the Packers lose to the Lions. See # 3—Cassel, Matt. Same situation.

9. Trent Cole, Philadelphia Eagles—Leads all DE’s in solo tackles (46) and has 9 sacks, but for some reason he doesn’t get much love.

10. Justin Tuck/Osi Umenyiora, New York Giants—Tuck leads all DE’s with 46 total tackles and has 9 sacks; Osi has 40 tackles and 10 sacks. No wonder these guys have been knocking quarterbacks silly.

Giants beef up their defense with additions of Boley and Canty

The Giants signed two players over the weekend that should make their already stout defense even better.

On Saturday, New York signed free agent linebacker Michael Boley (Falcons) to a five-year $25 million contract with $11 million in guaranteed money and on Sunday, the G-Men added defensive lineman Chris Canty (Cowboys) after agreeing to terms on a six-year, $42 million contract. (Canty’s deal also includes $17.25 million in guarantees.)

Not many football fans have probably heard of Boley – especially not after he lost his starting job last year to Coy Wire. But before the Falcons hired Mike Smith to be their new head coach last offseason, Boley was on his way to becoming a Pro Bowl player. He didn’t fit into Smith’s defensive scheme so that’s why he fell out of favor in Atlanta, but he’s a young, athletic linebacker that could excel at the weak-side position in New York given the amount of talent that will be around him. He could become a household name next season.

Canty, who stands 6’7” and weighs 300 pounds, is a massive defensive end best used in the 3-4. But the Giants could use him as a defensive tackle in a 4-3, or an end when they go to more 3-4 fronts next season. He joins an already stacked defensive line that includes Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, so it’ll be interesting to see how NY plans on using all three linemen to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

The G-Men are quietly having a solid offseason.

No Strahan or Umenyiora – how will Giants’ defensive line cope?

In the weeks leading up to the kickoff the 2008 NFL Season, I’ll take a look at position groups that could potentially lift teams to new heights, or bury them and their postseason hopes. Today I take a look at how the New York Giants expect to cope without having Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan on their defensive line.

Michael StrahanWhen the New York Giants selected defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka with the 32nd pick in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft, many eyebrows were raised at the pick. Why would the Giants take another defensive end when they already had Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck on the roster?

After Strahan retired following the Giants’ Super Bowl victory in January and Umenyiora was lost for the 2008 season because of a knee injury, nobody is questioning New York’s decision to draft Kiwanuka now.

Kiwanuka not only has the daunting task of having to transition from outside linebacker back to defensive end, but he also will attempt to fill the shoes of Umenyiora, a highly productive player who registered 52 tackles and five sacks last season.

Playing opposite of Kiwanuka on the line will be Tuck, a promising fourth-year player who compiled 10 sacks last year as part of a rotation. While he’s shown plenty of upside, this will be the first time in Tuck’s career that he’ll be counted on as a full-time starter.

Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins will man the interior of New York’s defensive line. Neither stands out as impact players, although Cofield did show promise in his rookie season when he compiled 44 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

There’s no denying that losing both Strahan and Umenyiora was devastating. The Giants demonstrated what a heavy pass-rush could do for an entire defense in the Super Bowl when they completely flustered Tom Brady and his offensive line. While young corner Aaron Ross is developing into a nice player, the rest of the secondary is average at best – especially after safety Gibril Wilson signed with Oakland this offseason – and will need the front seven to put pressure on opposing teams’ quarterbacks so they’re not vulnerable in coverage.

New York GiantsNew York is going to need Kiwanuka and Tuck to provide the type of rush that Strahan and Umenyiora got last year in order for the defense to not be exposed in certain areas. Both ends have a ton of talent, but how will they do as full-time starters? Can they be as effective as every-down players as they were in a rotation last year? Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was outstanding in devising game plans last year to frustrate opposing teams, but a lot of what he does depends on his ends getting pressure.

Time will tell if the Giants will sink or swim without the two ends that helped them when a Super Bowl last season.

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