Washington Post NFL reporter Mark Maske took a closer look at each of the four divisional round matchups in advance of the second week of the NFL playoffs. This week’s games include a marquee matchup between the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers and New York Giants at Lambeau Field, and a second chance for Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos to take down Tom Brady and the high-scoring New England Patriots. The young Houston Texans visit the Baltimore Ravens in the other AFC semifinal while San Francisco hosts Drew Brees and New Orleans in the other NFC contest. Here’s what each team must do to advance to the conference championship round.
Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Candlestick Park (FOX)
How the Saints can win… Can this offense be stopped? QB Drew Brees, after setting NFL single-season records for completion percentage and passing yards during the regular season, threw for 466 yards and three TDs in a first-round playoff victory over the Lions. The Saints scored 35 second-half points and set a single-game postseason record with 626 total yards. The task becomes more difficult now. New Orleans must face the rugged 49ers defense and leave the comforts of the Superdome to play a road game outdoors. The Saints never have won a road playoff game. The defense surrendered 211 receiving yards to Lions WR Calvin Johnson. But the 49ers ranked 26th in the league in total offense during the regular season.
How the 49ers can win… They get to play at home, where they went 7-1 during the regular season. The formula is clear: They must run the ball on offense to control the clock and the game, and rely on their defense to slow down Brees and the New Orleans offense. The 49ers are built to do that. They ranked eighth in the league in rushing offense. They were fourth in the league in total defense and second in scoring defense, and they had an NFL-best turnover margin of plus-28. The 49ers will try to prevent a passing duel between Alex Smith and Brees. Smith was efficient during the regular season, with 17 TD passes and only five interceptions, but had 2,332 fewer passing yards than the New Orleans quarterback.
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Saturday, 8 p.m., Gillette Stadium (CBS)
How the Broncos can win…The Broncos’ dramatic first round playoff triumph came after they lost their final three games of the regular season and got into the playoffs at 8-8. QB Tim Tebow threw for 316 yards and two TDs on only 10 completions against the Steelers, who led the league in total defense during the regular season. The Broncos started well but couldn’t keep pace with the Patriots when they lost to them in Denver, 41-23, on Dec. 18. The key this time will be to avoid turnovers. They had three of them (to none by the Patriots) in the first meeting. The coach who drafted Tebow in Denver, Josh McDaniels, rejoins the Patriots this week to work alongside soon-to-depart offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
Why the Patriots can win… The Patriots have lost their last three postseason games, beginning with the Super Bowl defeat to the Giants that denied them an unbeaten 2007 season. QB Tom Brady had a superb season in 2011, with 5,235 passing yards, 39 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. WR Wes Welker was second in the league with 1,569 receiving yards but, increasingly, the biggest matchup problem for opposing defenses has been TE Rob Gronkowski, who had 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in his second pro season. The issue, of course, is whether the New Englad defense will do its part. The Patriots ranked 31st in the league in pass defense and 31st in total defense during the regular season. They were better in scoring defense, ranking 15th, and had a plus-17 turnover margin. If the defense can get a few turnovers and surrender field goals instead of TDs, that probably would be enough for Brady to get the Patriots back into the postseason win column.
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Sunday, 1 p.m., M&T Bank Stadium (CBS)
Why the Texans can win… They steadied themselves with their first-round playoff triumph over the Bengals after finishing the regular season with three straight losses. That gave the Texans a win in the first playoff game in franchise history. Now they seek their first road playoff victory. To get it, they’ll probably have to play the same way they played against the Bengals. Rookie QB T.J. Yates had a modest 159 passing yards but didn’t throw an interception. RB Arian Foster ran for 153 yards and the Houston defense did the rest. In a season filled with record-setting passing exploits, this could be an old-fashioned sort of NFL playoff game. The Texans ranked second in the league in total defense during the regular season and the Ravens were third.
Why the Ravens can win… The Ravens went 8-0 at home during the regular season and beat the Texans, 29-14, at M&T Bank Stadium in October. The Baltimore offense showed good balance in that game, with QB Joe Flacco throwing for 305 yards and RB Ray Rice running for 101 yards. The Texans still had Matt Schaub at QB that day but were without WR Andre Johnson, who’s now back in the lineup. The Ravens, if things go as they hope, can match the Texans’ rugged defense and reliable running game while mixing in a few big pass plays from Flacco.
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Sunday, 4:30 p.m., Lambeau Field (FOX)
Why the Giants can win… Forget that they had the worst regular season record of the NFC’s six playoff teams, at 9-7. They’re on a roll now, beating the Jets and Cowboys in their final two games of the regular season to capture the NFC East title and winning easily at home against the Falcons in the first round of the playoffs. QB Eli Manning did the heavy lifting all season. He threw for 400 yards when the Giants gave the then-unbeaten Packers a scare but lost, 38-35, as time expired Dec. 4 at the Meadowlands. But now he’s getting help from the Giants’ running game and defense. RBs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw jump-started the running game against the Falcons and the defense pitched a shutout. The Giants know they can play with the Packers. Now the question is whether they can do it again and find a way to finish with a win this time.
Why the Packers can win… The defending champs are the Super Bowl favorite after their 15-1 regular season, marred only by a “How did that happen?” loss to the Chiefs. QB Aaron Rodgers had the highest passer rating ever in a season, at 122.5, and remains the MVP front-runner even with Drew Brees’s partial rewriting of the NFL record book. But there are some concerns. Rodgers hasn’t played since Christmas. The Packers looked a bit vulnerable down the stretch with injuries along the offensive line and to WR Greg Jennings. And then there’s the defense, which allowed Detroit’s Matthew Stafford to throw for 520 yards and five TDs in the final regular season game and finished the season ranked last in the league. The defense might not need to do too much, thanks to Rodgers, but it does need to contribute something if the Packers are to make another postseason run.
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