Divisional playoff observations

The divisional playoff weekend is probably my favourite football weekend of the year after opening day.   You know you’ll have 4 excellent match-ups and there are usually a couple of memorable games.  This year was no exception.

Saints/49ers – First game of the weekend and the last 5 minutes of this one were epic – easily one of the best playoff games I remember watching.  After the 49ers got out to an early 17 point lead, the Saints continued to chip away until they took a 1 point lead on a long TD pass.  That kicked off 3 more TDs in less than 4 minutes with the 49ers winning on a last second toss to Davis.   You had the feeling that the 49ers missed opportunities (only 13 points off of 5 Saints turnovers) would be their downfall, but those points were enough to squeak out the win.  Keys to the 49ers win:

1. Turnovers (obviously): Taking the ball away from the Saints 5 times gives you an enormous advantage. 

2. Tacking by the 49ers: with the exception of the 2 late TDs, the 49ers wrapped up and tackled runners and receivers on first contact, something the Lions last week couldn’t do.

3. Alex Smith to Vernon Davis: Davis had a monster day and every time he was matched up in 1-on-1 coverage down the field, Smith found him with a perfect pass.  Two long gains in the last 5 minutes of the game were crucial after the 49ers offense had no rhythm for more than half of the game.  The 49ers got no production their WRs all game long – Davis had 180 of the 299 yards of passing offence.

4. Taking away the run: People often discount the Saints running game, but they use it to keep defences off balance.  The 49ers made the Saints a one dimensional passing attack which allowed them to generate significant pass rush pressure.  Brees was under pressure on many passes and wasn’t as accurate as he had been over the past 5 weeks.

5. Special teams: Akers made all his FG opportunities (the 49ers are going to pay the price for poor red-zone execution at some point) and Lee had an outstanding game punting forcing the Saints to drive for scores from poor field position.   Coverage units generated 2 turnovers that led to points.  Special teams gets overlooked, but the 49ers are the best in the NFL and it made a huge difference in this game.

Broncos/Patriots – Brady was incredible.  His two TEs were a force.  The Pats defence looked good.  This game was a blow-out in every sense and wasn’t an entertaining game to watch (for the neutral viewer).  I can’t remember Brady even being touched all game long – his O-line was exceptional.  When Brady gets this kind of protection, the Patriots will put up 30+ points every time.   Tebow looked horrible and out of place and was completely outclassed.  The off season for the Broncos is going to be interesting.  They have to either fully commit to Tebow and his style of play (and that would mean altering the types of players they bring in to protect him, to back him up, etc.) or drop him and start fresh with a new QB (which would be a PR disaster).  Anything in the middle of those two options will continue to keep the Broncos as a middling offensive team for years.  Looking forward to watching John Elway to see if he has the courage to fully commit to one of two not terribly attractive options for long term success. 

Texans/Ravens – Joe Flacco complained to the media this week that he never gets any of the credit when the Ravens win – this week he showed he didn’t deserve any for the 20-14 win over the Texans.  The Ravens really won in spite of his inconsistent performance.  The defence and a few Texans mistakes get the credit for this win.  Three interceptions of Texans QB Yates (the last two being very much rookie mistakes – repeated throws deep into double coverage on Ed Reed’s side of the field) and a recovery of a muffed punt were too much to overcome.  

Giants/Packers – The Packers played almost flawless football in going 15-1 this season, then ventured into opposite land for this game: a slew of dropped passes, passes by Rodgers that were well off mark, 3 fumbles, missed tackles and an ill-timed poorly executed on-side kick.  The Giants are proving that it’s all about how you’re playing as the season ends and playoffs start.  After getting to 7-7 (and looking very bad in the process), they’ve rolled off 4 straight wins and look like they’ve fixed their woes on the offensive line and on defence.  In particular, their downfield coverage was exceptional on Sunday.  Early in the game when they were not able to generate much pressure on Rodgers, it was their secondary that made big plays to keep the Packers offence at bay.

Many people had an AFC match-up of New England and Baltimore called before the season started, but I assure you no one had the 49ers and Giants in the NFC championship game.   Looks like two great games next week.

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