New Orleans Saints (14-3) at San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
Denver Broncos (9-8) at New England Patriots (13-3)
Houston Texans (11-6) at Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
New York Giants (10-7) at Green Bay Packers (15-1)
New Orleans Saints (14-3) at San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
KICKOFF: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
KEYS TO THE GAME: Saints QB Drew Brees filleted the Lions' linebacker corps, which failed to provide resistance in coverage of RB Darren Sproles and TE Jimmy Graham last week. The 49ers have arguably the best bunch of 'backers in the NFL, and won't let Brees set his feet and throw on time by using delayed and cornerback blitzes to cloud passing lanes. It's tantamount for the Saints to commit to running between the tackles, using their massive interior linemen to lean on ILBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, the top playmakers on the NFL's No. 1-ranked run defense. Doing so buys Brees time to dial deep throws to Graham and WRs Robert Meachem and Lance Moore (hamstring), who missed last week's game.
No team turns it over less – 10 in the regular season – or takes the ball away more (38, tied, Green Bay) than the 49ers. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman can live in his "jumbo" personnel package. While RB Frank Gore is the central figure in play-action offense, the 49ers are likely to pass on early downs, using quick-hitting crossing routes to TEs Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker – which puts SS Roman Harper in coverage – from bunched formations. The Saints want to force Smith to convert third downs; San Francisco was 31st in the NFL with a rate of 29.4 percent during the regular season. In a close game, the 49ers get the edge. K David Akers had 44 field goals in 2011 and has 31 postseason field goals while P Andy Lee (44.0-yard net) and RS Ted Ginn are valued weapons.
FAST FACTS: The Saints have won six straight against the 49ers, averaging 31 points, and have scored at least 30 points in five straight playoff games. ... The 49ers went 5-0 against 2011 opponents that played the Saints. ... Saints PK John Kasay was 7-of-13 from 40-plus yards this season. Five of his six misses were on the road.
Even though Saints coach Sean Payton likes to keep his team's routine as normal as possible, Saturday's NFC Divisional Playoff game with the San Francisco 49ers required some tweaking of the schedule this week.
The Saints will be playing on Saturday for the second straight week, but last week's wild-card game was at home against the Detroit Lions. A road trip, and a lengthy one at that, changed everything this week.
After wrapping up their heavy work on Thursday, the Saints boarded a chartered plane bound for the West Coast. After arriving later in the night, the Saints will have a full day Friday to get acclimated to a two-hour time change and the natural grass surface of Candlestick Park during a walk-through practice that will wrap up their preps.
"It's kind of always been our West Coast itinerary," Payton said after Thursday's practice. "We've done that almost every trip we've gone out there, the half a dozen we've had. We get to the hotel (two days before) and then get to the stadium and get used to the footing and the conditions."
While it was highly unusual for the Saints to be traveling on Thursday, Payton said his team usually handles change and oddball schedules well. But, he does try to stick to the routine that most NFL players and coaches are used to when they play on a Sunday.
"You try to keep it the same ... you try to get into that routine that put you into that position," he said of the playoffs. "I think the players and team and coaches are all creatures of habit, so you set your schedule.
"What happens a little different in the playoffs is a Saturday game or a Sunday game, but outside of that I think most importantly for the team is getting in your routine and emphasizing the things that put you in that position and not really straying too far from the success you've had."
For the 49ers to upset the Saints, all indications are they are going to have to get a fairly productive game from quarterback Alex Smith. While New Orleans gives up 4.9 yards per carry in the run game, that stat is misleading.
49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said the yards per carry is a result of innocuous 30-yard runs by the opposition at the end of blowout Saints wins. Also, the Saints' run defense improved greatly in the second half of the season, when they smothered the likes of Michael Turner (39 yards), Chris Johnson (23 yards) and Adrian Peterson (60 yards).
Meanwhile the 49ers no longer possess the potent running attack that once saw Frank Gore rip off five straight games of 100 yards rushing or more. Gore hasn't reached the century mark since Nov. 6.
But the Saints do allow yards in the passing game. New Orleans led the league in allowing pass plays of 40 yards or more with 14. Not only that, the blitz-mad Saints might be playing right into what Smith does best, and that's beat pressure. Smith's passer rating against the blitz this year is 96.3, which trails only Aaron Rodgers (131.4) and Tom Brady (110.9). Eight of his 17 touchdown passes and only one of his five picks were against the blitz.
Behind Smith, the 49ers are actually offensively potent at home. They averaged nearly 30 points (29.9) at home, which is fourth highest in the league.
Like Brees, Smith takes advantage of checks at the line and the ability to change the offense in the serene surroundings of friendly Candlestick Park.
"Obviously crowd noise plays into that, especially on third down when you're trying to throw the ball on the road," Smith said. "Anywhere you go you're going to be dealing with crowd noise. So at home, to be able to use the cadence and be able to communicate a little easier, verbally obviously helps. I think that might play into it."
Conversely, only 18 of Brees' 46 touchdown passes have come on the road because much of what Brees does is make last-second adjustments before the snap, which, as Smith notes, are more difficult to make in loud stadiums.
It would therefore not be completely surprising if Smith out-passed Brees on Saturday and, in fact, that's what happened last year at Candlestick Park. Brees passed for 254 yards and two scores in the Saints 25-22 win, while Smith threw for 275 yards and no scores.
The difference? Smith threw damming interceptions.
When asked about the chances of out-throwing Brees this time, Smith said, "I really don't care. I'm looking to out-score him. He can throw for however many yards he wants to."
Denver Broncos (9-8) at New England Patriots (13-3)
KICKOFF: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
KEYS TO THE GAME: Denver moves OLB Von Miller around the field to get him in mismatches. But even if he gets pressure, Miller needs help behind him. The Broncos tackled poorly and blew assignments repeatedly in the first meeting. While containing WR Wes Welker, they neglected Hernandez and fellow TE Rob Gronkowski. Denver plans to use more of its "heavy dime" package with S Rafael Bush playing cornerback; it was effective last week. QB Tom Brady will hold Bush's feet to the flame to find out if he can hold up, while also again targeting undrafted rookie CB Chris Harris. Harris helped keep Welker quiet the first time around.
The Patriots were gashed on the ground with a 4-3 front at Denver, then finished the game using more 3-4 alignments. The wide sets from the outside linebackers kept QB Tim Tebow contained, not allowing him to turn the corner. New England wants to funnel the action inside, where its top playmakers, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, await. To draw the Patriots out of that package, Tebow has to be effective on early downs getting the ball to his receivers. Denver won't veer far from its bread and butter of straight-ahead running, even with expectations that Bill Belichick will have an inventive gameplan waiting after an extra week of prep.
FAST FACTS: The Patriots are the NFL's best home team, 74-15 including the postseason, since Gillette Stadium opened in 2002. ... Denver is one of just five teams in NFL history to start a season 2-5 or worse and reach the postseason. ... The Patriots allowed 74 points in the first half of their final four regular-season games.
The New England Patriots are preparing for their biggest game of the season Saturday night at home against Denver in the divisional playoffs, so there's a heightened sense of urgency around team headquarters in Foxboro these days.
At the same time, there's more optimism than there's been in years past, perhaps because the team is arguably as healthy as it's been all season.
Offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer, who've combined to miss 11 games this year due to injury, are both back on the practice field this week and are expected to play Saturday night. Protecting quarterback Tom Brady is always a top priority on game day, and it looks as though the Patriots will have their best line of defense on the field this weekend against Denver's opportunistic defense.
"I think we've seen progress out of everybody," head coach Bill Belichick said. "All the guys are out there working and I think each one of them is making progress, and we'll see how things go here after stringing these days together.
"We'll probably have some game-time decisions, but, definitely, a lot of these guys are close and getting better."
Certain obstacles have derailed the Patriots in their recent playoff failures, whether it was shoddy chemistry or a key injury, such as the one suffered by Wes Welker in the 2009 season finale, knocking him out of the playoffs.
This year is a different story. The Patriots still have their share of problems, such as their suspect secondary and patchwork defense, but this team is as close to 100 percent as anyone can reasonably expect at this time of year.
That means no more excuses, win or lose. The Patriots are once again the top seed in the AFC with Super Bowl aspirations, and anything short of that would be an absolute failure regardless of the quality of the competition.
For now, no one is thinking negatively within the confines of Gillette Stadium. The vibes are all positive as the Patriots prepare for another run at the Super Bowl.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to play competitively Saturday night," Belichick said. "I think the players are excited to play. It's been a couple weeks, but a week off last week in terms of getting a couple extra days rest, things like that, were good. I think everybody is excited to play, so hopefully we'll be ready to go."
The Broncos seemingly borrowed a page from a Red Hot Chili Peppers song in the second quarter of their December meeting vs. the Patriots:
Give it away, give it away, give it away now.
Three turnovers in four possessions in the final 8 1/2 minutes led to three New England scores and turned what had been a 16-7 advantage into a 11-point halftime deficit.
It may have been the single-biggest factor affecting that game, but, at the same time it's given Denver confidence that if it can avert those kinds of mistakes the team can match up with New England.
"We did some things well," quarterback Tim Tebow said. "And then we definitely made some mistakes that made it a little bit easier as far as the three turnovers."
The giveaways weren't an isolated incident. Denver was guilty of turnovers - including five lost fumbles - during its season-ending five-game losing streak. When the Broncos won six straight prior to the Patriots loss on Dec. 18, Tebow had thrown just one interception and the team added four lost fumbles to that total - which amounts to less than one turnover per game.
Considering that the Patriots' .838 winning percentage is the highest by any team at its home stadium since the 1970 merger - not to mention 11-3 in the postseason, the job of beating them under those conditions hits near-impossible status with sloppy play.
New England over the last decade is 103-4 in games in which it's won the turnover battle.
But the Broncos even with all their miscues in the first meeting managed 393 net yards - including 252 via the rush. So when they hung onto the ball they were able to sustain drives. It would have been better if not for a 4-for-10 performance on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth down.
"I don't think you need to be cautious. You have to be aggressive with what you're doing, but you have to play smart," wide receiver Eddie Royal said. "Whenever you play New England, you've got to play smart, because they're a well-coached team and whenever you make mistakes, you've got to capitalize."
The Patriots led the AFC with 34 takeaways, including 23 interceptions, and the Broncos were one of eight teams to give the ball away 30-plus times.
One other key for Denver will be converting the chances it has in close, since New England inevitably will - New England is No. 2 in the NFL in touchdown percentage inside the 20 (65.3 percent).
"Scoring in the red zone is big. We have a big drive going, we need to score seven," Tebow said, alluding to Denver's 23rd-place ranking in that category at just 47.2 percent. "One time last time we played them we weren't able to do that, and if we could have put that one in, we would have went up maybe 21-7 and two touchdowns is a lot more than 10 (points). That'll be big."
Saturday divisional playoff game scouts
Viking Update Top Stories
Cutler returns, praising Vikings defenseBears QB Jay Cutler is returning to action and expects some rust, but he has immense respect for the Minnesota Vikings defense.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 2:43 PM
VIDEO: Bradford breaks down offensive issuesWhile Sam Bradford has generally had an impressive start to his time with the Minnesota Vikings, that didn't translate last week. He discusses the offensive struggles against the…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 2:33 PM
VIDEO: Zimmer blasts report, talks BearsMinnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer defends his character after an erroneous report that was later corrected went viral, but Zimmer settled in to talk Bears mostly on Thursday.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 1:39 PM
Vikings look to turn the pageComing off their first loss of the season, the Minnesota Vikings are looking to shake the label of being soft and get back to their winning ways at Soldier Field Monday, a place…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 12:28 PM
Patterson sits out; Treadwell, Wright returnThe Minnesota Vikings’ rotating injury concerns at wide receiver continued this week.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 11:52 AM