01/11/2012 07:11 PM
Broncos And 49ers Aim For Saturday Upsets
NFL division Round action commences this weekend with a pair of battles on both Saturday and Sunday. Although history suggests this round belongs to the home teams/favorites (usually one and the same), results in recent years don’t necessarily indicate as such.
That should come as good news to Saturday’s underdogs, San Francisco (at home vs. New Orleans) and Denver (at New England).
Indeed, since the 2003 NFL postseason, underdog sides stand a respectable 19-13 against the number in Division Round games. Nothing earth-shaking, but an advantage nonetheless, and a departure from the many previous years when the host/favorites were dominating.
The 49ers (13-3 straight up, 11-4-1 against the spread) kick things off on the NFC side Saturday afternoon when hosting the surging Saints (14-3 SU, 13- ATS) at Candlestick Park. A quick check of the Don Best odds screen notes that New Orleans is priced as a 3½-point favorite at the majority of Las Vegas wagering outlets, with the total mostly sitting at 47½. Kickoff time is slated for 4:30 p.m. (ET), with TV coverage provided by FOX. Marv Albert’s son Kenny, plus Moose Johnston and Tony Siragusa, will be on hand at Candlestick to describe the action.
Right off the bat, we note the 49ers’ home underdog status, a rarity in this playoff round in which the host team is almost always the favorite. Indeed, the 49ers are the first home dog in the Division Round since Carolina’s 1996 team was +3 vs. Dallas, a game the Panthers won, 26-17.
Of course, the Saints’ recent form has something to do with the spread, considering how devastating they've been the past two months. New Orleans has neither lost a game nor dropped a pointspread decision since Halloween, winning and covering nine straight since. Moreover, the Saints have scored 42 points or more in four straight games, and their win margin is a whopping 20 ppg over the last seven outings.
It must be noted, however, that New Orleans has been compiling most of those numbers at home, where the Saints have won and covered all nine of their games this season (including last week’s wild card win over the Lions) at the Superdome. On the road, the Saints are a less than overwhelming 5-3 straight up and 4-4 against the number. Further, three of their five road wins have come by five points or fewer.
We caution, however, reading too much into those trends, much as we mostly dismiss the fact the Saints have not won as a visitor in their playoff history. Until last year’s wild card round loss at Seattle, the Saints had never been favored on the road in the playoffs, and had only played a handful of such games in their history. Besides, New Orleans won the most-important game in franchise history, Super Bowl XLIV, over the Colts two years ago, and that one was played in Miami, not the Superdome.
The key to this game will be if Drew Brees and his record-setting passing game can similarly damage the stout 49er defense. That might not be as easy as it seems, considering how Vic Fangio’s San Francisco stop unit ranked first against the run this season, allowing just 77 ypg and 3.5 ypc, not to mention a mere three rushing TDs. Although New Orleans does most of its damage via the pass, the ability to complement the aerial show with a capable infantry allows Brees to use play-action more effectively and buy himself an extra tick in the pocket. And the Saints were not quite as overwhelming on offense away from the climate-controlled conditions of the Superdome.
Still, even if the 49ers slow down Brees somewhat, questions remain whether San Francisco can keep pace. And the answer to that remains elusive.
Specifically, it’s because most keen observers are not sure that Jim Harbaugh’s “small-ball” strategy will translate effectively into postseason success. The 49ers’ formula of ball control offense and smothering defense worked effectively vs. lesser opposition all season but was rendered ineffective in a late-season showdown at Baltimore and further exposed in a subsequent loss at Arizona.
The Saints’ rush defense was not too bad this season (ranked 12th) and figures to be able to withstand the pounding thrusts of 49er RBs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. Much like Baltimore and Arizona were able to do down the stretch, the Saints will try to force QB Alex Smith to beat them through the air. Smith has been marginally more effective with his downfield throws as the season has progressed.
The key will thus be San Francisco’s ability to avoid third-and-long situations that could expose Smith to Gregg Williams’ exotic variety of blitz packages, where the Saints’ big-play defense usually excels. The 49ers’ ongoing inability to convert red-zone trips into touchdowns – they settled for a staggering 52 field-goal tries this season, with David Akers breaking the all-time NFL mark with 44 converted FGs along the way – could come back to haunt them in the postseason.
Later on Saturday, the Broncos (9-8 SU, 8-9 ATS) travel to Foxborough for a date vs. the AFC East champ Patriots (13-3 SU, 9-7 ATS). The Don Best odds screen notes New England as a hefty 13½-point favorite in this matchup. Kickoff time at Gillette Stadium will by 8:00 p.m. (ET), with CBS providing TV coverage. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will be on hand to describe the action.
We don’t need to amplify too much more on the Tim Tebow phenomenon that recurred again last week in Denver’s unexpected win over the Steelers. Unexpected, indeed; Tebow’s 316 passing yards (on just 10 completions!) shocked Pittsburgh and anyone else who saw Tebow and the Bronco “O” struggle in recent weeks.
This is also a rematch of a December 18 game in Denver won by the Patriots, 41-23. New England, as it was prone to do late in the season, fell behind early that afternoon, this time by a 16-7 count, before a spate of Bronco turnovers in the second quarter opened the gates for Bill Belichick’s team to assume a 27-16 halftime edge. That lead was maintained by the Patriots quite comfortably in the second half, as Tom Brady repeatedly burned the depleted Denver pass defense with underneath throws to tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
The Broncos will have some confidence, not only after the Pittsburgh upset, but because Tebow moved the offense fairly well in the first meeting. Tebow’s own stats were acceptable (93 rush yards and 194 pass yards), although he contributed to the Broncos’ fumble issues that doomed them in this matchup four weeks ago.
Denver was also running roughshod through the porous Patriot defense, amassing 167 rush yards in the first quarter alone that afternoon in the Mile High city. The Broncos’ infantry pace slowed thereafter as they finished with 252 rush yards, but the turnover issues in the second quarter also had something to do with play selection changing course as that game proceeded.
Belichick will likely mass his defense to stop the run and dare Tebow to throw downfield, although such strategy proved risky for the Steelers last week. Tebow’s deep ball is adequate, and WR Demaryius Thomas burned Pittsburgh badly last week when the Steelers gambled on one-on-one coverage on the flanks. Tebow, however, will have his chances to throw deep again on Saturday.
Trading points with the Tom Brady-led Patriots might be asking a bit much, however. Brady tossed for 320 yards in the first meeting and posted stats almost equal to Brees this season, passing for a near-record 5,235 yards. The Pats also equaled an NFL record by scoring 30 or more points on 12 different occasions, and uncovered a new running threat in recent weeks with LSU rookie RB Stevan Ridley gaining better than 5 yards per carry.
Brady’s quick release also figures to negate some of Denver’s pass rush pressure from the edge, and his ability to locate Gronkowski and Hernandez, as in the first meeting, would be a big plus for New England.
The Patriots are hungry, too, having lost at this stage of the playoffs at home both of the last two seasons vs. the Ravens and Jets. We aren’t, however, putting much significance in Belichick’s recent enlistment of former aide Josh McDaniels, also Denver’s coach in 2009-10, to his staff, ostensibly for more insight in the Broncos. We note that teams associated with McDaniels are 7-32 over a 39-game stretch since mid-2009, and the Broncos are running a completely different offensive package than when young Josh was in town.
Always remember the 3 G's Girls,Golf, Gambling not in any particular order......:2thumbs: