Sep 3, 2012
Dallas at N.Y. Giants
Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. - TV: NBC
*TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
*Keys to the game: The Cowboys had their top three receivers on the field for just two series in the preseason, yet QB Tony Romo led all quarterbacks with a preseason passer rating of 117.1. With TE Jason Witten (spleen) unlikely to suit up, Romo needs a healthy boost from his offensive line and RB DeMarco Murray in order to continue his stellar stretch of games against the Giants (three straight games with rating of 106 or higher). Murray saw little of the Giants last season but is essential as a check-down option against New York's potent pass rush. Eli Manning has had Dallas' number, clearing the 300-yard mark in five of the past six meetings because the Cowboys haven't been able to pressure him. Without a few familiar faces -- WR Mario Manningham, RB Brandon Jacobs, TE Jake Ballard -- he could need help from former Cowboys TE Martellus Bennett and rookie RB David Wilson in the flat to open passing lanes downfield.
*Matchup to watch - Cowboys LT Tyron Smith vs. Giants DRE Jason Pierre-Paul: Two tremendous natural athletes get to know each other after Smith, the Cowboys' first-round pick in 2011, moved from right tackle. “JPP” had three sacks of Romo in 2011 but Smith's agility and reach give him a better chance to recover than Doug Free -- back at right tackle this season and assigned in this meeting to fend off Justin Tuck.
*Player spotlight - Cowboys FS Barry Church: The fourth starter at free safety in four seasons, Church has a nose for the ball but is best as an in-the-box safety. He worked with Witten and veteran Gerald Sensabaugh to improve in coverage.
*Fast facts: Romo was sacked nine times in two games against the Giants last season. ... The Giants are 5-1 against the Cowboys over the past three seasons and lost the only game in that stretch when they failed to score 30 points.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Giants lost four games at home last season and have a tendency to start slow, but even with a dented depth chart in the secondary they're more prepared for the early opener and eke out another close win over their rivals.
*Our pick: Giants 30-23
Feb 2, 2012
THE STORY: Two Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks, a rematch of one of the biggest upsets in the game's history and fervent fan bases that share much of the same geographic region. Storylines abound for Sunday's Super Bowl XLVI matchup between the New York Giants and New England Patriots, yet much of the hype has centered on the left foot of a second-year tight end. An injury to New England's Rob Gronkowski, whose playing status is unclear due to a high ankle sprain, could have the biggest impact on the outcome when the Patriots and Giants clash in the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons. New York won the previous matchup as a double-digit underdog, spoiling New England's bid for a perfect 19-0 season with a 17-14 victory in February 2008. The Giants are also the last team to beat the Patriots, who have won 10 straight games since a 24-20 loss to New York in Week 9 that snapped New England's streak of 20 consecutive regular-season home victories. In both matchups, Giants quarterback Eli Manning - the MVP of Super Bowl XLII - led a last-minute comeback to upstage Patriots QB Tom Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP.
TV: NBC, 6:30 p.m. ET. LINE: Patriots -2.5, O/U 54.5
ABOUT THE GIANTS (12-7): New York has taken a path that is eerily similar to its Super Bowl run four years ago, shaking off a mediocre regular season to rattle off five consecutive victories that included beating the NFC's top two seeds - Green Bay and San Francisco - on the road. Defense has sparked the turnaround for the Giants, who have surrendered only 39 points in three postseason victories while registering nine sacks and forcing seven turnovers. QB Eli Manning threw for a career-high 4,933 yards with 29 touchdowns vs. only 16 interceptions in the regular season and has been steely efficient in the postseason with eight TDs and one pick. Manning threw for a league-high 15 fourth-quarter touchdowns in the regular season, including two in the victory over the Patriots. WRs Hakeem Nicks (4 TDs in the postseason), Victor Cruz (NFC-high 1,536 yards) and Mario Manningham (3 TDs in the postseason) give Manning plenty of weapons. RB Ahmad Bradshaw, who missed the regular-season meeting, rushed for 74 yards in the NFC title game. He'll be complemented by bruiser Brandon Jacobs, who ran for 72 yards against the Patriots in November.
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (15-3): Brady followed up a record-setting effort against Denver with one of his worst postseason performances in a 23-20 win over Baltimore in the AFC title game. He finished with 239 yards and was picked off twice while failing to throw a touchdown pass for the first time since Week 17 of the 2009 season. Brady overcame a wobbly start to throw for 342 yards and two TD passes against New York in November, but eight of those receptions and one TD went to Gronkowski, who has yet to practice since he was hurt. Gronkowski was the centerpiece of the Patriots' high-powered offense, hauling in 90 receptions and setting league records for TDs (17) and receiving yards (1,327) by a tight end. Brady, who threw for 5,235 yards, 39 TDs and 12 interceptions, will join John Elway as the only quarterback to start five Super Bowls and can surpass Joe Montana (16) for the most postseason victories. WR Wes Welker had a league-high 122 catches, including nine for 136 yards against the Giants. The big question is whether New England's much-maligned defense can stop Manning when it counts.
SUPER BOWL HISTORY
GIANTS (3-1): Def. Denver 39-20 (1986); def. Buffalo 20-19 (1990); lost to Baltimore 34-7 (2000); def. New England 17-14 (2007).
PATRIOTS (3-3): Lost to Chicago 46-10 (1985); lost to Green Bay 35-21 (1996); def. St. Louis 20-17 (2001); def. Carolina 32-29 (2003); def. Philadelphia 24-21 (2004); lost to N.Y. Giants (2007).
1. Sunday's game will mark the first time that both starting quarterbacks have been Super Bowl MVPs.
2. New York is the second team to advance to the Super Bowl (Arizona 2008) by beating three playoff opponents with better records.
3. The previous four Super Bowl appearances by New England, all coming in a seven-year span, were decided by three points.
4. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and New York's Tom Coughlin each served on the same staff with the Giants under Bill Parcells.
5. In the Week 9 meeting, the Patriots and Giants played the first scoreless opening half of the season.
PREDICTION: Giants 27, Patriots 23. A hobbled Gronkowski is too much to overcome for New England's offense, particularly in the red zone, and New York makes it two Super Bowl wins in five seasons.
Jan 26, 2012
THE STORY: The NFL does have a bowl game scheduled on Sunday. No, not the one pitting the New England Patriots against the New York Giants - that one will take place next week with decidedly far more pomp and circumstance. This Sunday, the other 30 NFL teams will showcase their stars in the Pro Bowl. Yes, this is the game that often resembles a flag football competition with countless cameos of the stars on rival teams joking with one another along the sideline. Then again, this is also the contest that often draws larger-than-expected ratings as the scoreboard operator gets a spirited workout. Welcome to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, which for the third straight year comes one week before that "other;" Bowl.
TV: NBC, 7 p.m. ET. LINE: NFC -4, O/U 74
ABOUT THE NFC: Perhaps not surprisingly, the holders of the conference's top two seeds in the playoffs will be well-represented in Hawaii. San Francisco boasts nine players selected to the Pro Bowl while Green Bay is sending six of its finest to Aloha Stadium, headlined by 49ers stud running back Frank Gore and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and veteran cornerback Charles Woodson, respectively. (Gore pulled out due to injury - a common theme for this game.) Green Bay will also send coach Mike McCarthy, marking the second time that he has guided the team in a Pro Bowl (2008). New Orleans record-setting QB Drew Brees will see a familiar face in tight end Jimmy Graham, who will be making his first Pro Bowl appearance. With perhaps a future contract in mind, Chicago running back Matt Forte is expected to play despite missing the last four weeks of the regular season with a sprained knee.
ABOUT THE AFC: Four of the eight Baltimore players selected for the contest ultimately pulled out after the Ravens fell to the Patriots in the AFC Championship. As a result, Denver's six Pro Bowlers lead the conference's contingent - although the highly popular Tim Tebow is not among them. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has opted to play despite being hampered by an ailing ankle, thus keeping Tebow on his couch and preventing myriad non-football media outlets from descending on the nation's 50th state. Baltimore LB Ray Lewis will be making his 13th Pro Bowl appearance while Houston coach Gary Kubiak will be enjoying his first.
SUPER SUBSTITUTES: With New England brandishing eight Pro Bowlers who will no longer play in the exhibition, the AFC needed to significantly shuffle its deck. Cincinnati rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and tight end Jermaine Greshman (replacing Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, respectively) and San Diego wideout Vincent Jackson (Wes Welker) were among the notable additions. On the NFC side, New York quarterback Eli Manning and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul were replaced by Carolina rookie Cam Newton and Chicago veteran Julius Peppers, respectively.
ALL ATWITTER: The NFL has relaxed its rules in regard to social media for this one game. Pro Bowl players will be allowed to tweet during the contest - well, sort of. The league designated specific kiosks on the sidelines for players to detail everything that is on their minds without fear of being flagged by Commissioner Roger Goodell.
LAST YEAR/SERIES HISTORY: The NFC posted a wild 55-41 victory over the AFC last year to claim a 21-20 edge in the all-time series. The NFC has won three of the last four Pro Bowls.
PREDICTION: NFC 49, AFC 35. No field goals here as the teams take turns racing up and down the field. After being named the Super Bowl MVP last season, Rodgers will need to make room in his trophy case (ahem) after being named the Pro Bowl MVP on Sunday.
Jan 19, 2012
THE STORY: With quarterback Eli Manning back at practice Thursday after missing one day with a stomach bug, the New York Giants have no reason to feel queasy entering Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the host San Francisco 49ers. Even though they are facing the league's top-rated defense, the Giants are riding a four-game winning streak and carrying the swagger of a team that feels it is destined to win the Super Bowl. "We; are not going to be denied at this point," safety Antrel Rolle said. "We; have one (goal in) mind, to win a championship." New York certainly looked the part after going into Green Bay last weekend and shutting down the league's highest-scoring team in a convincing 37-20 victory over the No. 1-seeded Packers. San Francisco also showed its mettle in ousting the New Orleans Saints 36-32, scoring twice in the final 2 1/2 minutes to sink the NFL's second-highest scoring team. The Niners have reason to like their chances, particularly since they own a 27-20 victory over the Giants on Nov. 13.
TV: FOX, 6:30 p.m. ET. LINE: 49ers -2.5, O/U 42
ABOUT THE GIANTS (11-7): New York has permitted only 50 points during its four-game winning streak - a remarkable turnaround after surrendering an average of 36 points in its previous four games. WR Hakeem Nicks has been the star of the postseason for the Giants, hauling in 13 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns. He's only the third wideout (Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald) with two games of 100 yards and two TDs in one postseason. Nicks changed the momentum of last week's game by snatching a Hail Mary pass as time expired in the first half. Manning threw for a playoff-high 330 yards with three touchdowns and an interception to improve to 6-3 in the postseason, including a 4-1 mark on the road. DE Osi Umenyiora, who missed the first meeting with the 49ers, had two of New York's four sacks last week.
ABOUT THE 49ERS (14-3): San Francisco allowed an NFC-low 14.3 points per game, but its offense came up huge when QB Alex Smith directed two long scoring drives to KO Drew Brees and the Saints. Smith scored on a 28-yard bootleg with 2:11 to play before throwing the game-winning TD pass to TE Vernon Davis with 9 seconds to play. It was one of two scores for Davis, who turned in a monster effort with seven receptions for 180 yards - a record yardage total for tight ends. RB Frank Gore had 89 yards on 13 carries, his best performance since ripping off five straight 100-yard games from Weeks 4-9. Hindered by injuries, Gore had zero yards on six carries in the first matchup against New York. The Niners sacked Brees three times and picked him off twice last week. Carlos Rogers intercepted Manning twice on Nov. 13.
1. When Manning (2004) and Smith (2005) square off Sunday, it will mark just the second time that two quarterbacks selected No. 1 overall will meet in a conference title game.
2. San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh can become the sixth rookie head coach to lead a team to the Super Bowl.
3. The Giants are 4-0 in NFC Championship Games, including a 15-13 win over the 49ers after the 1990 season.
PREDICTION: Giants 20, 49ers 16. New York's defense has befuddled Atlanta and Green Bay and continues the trend against San Francisco.
Jan 19, 2012
THE STORY: Tom Brady and Joe Flacco will have a similar mindset when they lead their teams into Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Foxborough. Mass. Both quarterbacks have plenty of reason to be wary of the Baltimore Ravens' defense. While Brady is focused on guiding the host New England Patriots to their fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 seasons, Flacco will be trying to maintain his focus after he was criticized by teammate Ed Reed earlier this week for his play in Baltimore's 20-13 AFC divisional win over the Houston Texans last weekend. Pro Bowl safety Reed, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, said Flacco was "kind; of rattled" by Houston's defense and "didn;'t look like he had a hold on the offense." That's not exactly of inspiration needed when going up against Brady, who threw for six touchdowns and guided an offense that produced a franchise playoff-record 45 points in last week's rout of Denver. New England has won all six regular-season matchups between the teams, but the Ravens clobbered the Patriots 33-14 in a playoff game in Foxborough in January 2010.
TV: CBS, 3 p.m. ET. LINE: Patriots -7, O/U 50.5
ABOUT THE RAVENS (13-4): The much-maligned Flacco can become the first QB to win 50 games in his first four seasons. He threw two first-quarter TD passes as the Ravens jumped to a 17-3 lead and held off the Texans. Baltimore's defense, which ranked third in the league with an average of 16.6 points allowed, forced four turnovers but did not have a sack after leading the AFC with 48 in the regular season. The Ravens need to get RB Ray Rice untracked. He was held to only 60 yards on 21 carries after rushing for 1,364 yards and 12 TDs and leading the league with 2,068 yards from scrimmage. Rice rumbled for 159 yards and two TDs, including an 83-yard scoring run just 17 seconds into the game in Baltimore's playoff rout of the Patriots two years ago.
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (14-3): Brady threw for 363 yards and tied a postseason record with his six TD passes in the 45-10 mauling of Denver. Brady, who sat out Wednesday's practice with a sore left shoulder, was not sacked in guiding New England to its ninth consecutive victory. Second-year TE Rob Gronkowski hauled in three of Brady's five first-half scoring passes and finished with 10 receptions for 145 yards. Gronkowski set league records for TDs (17) and receiving yards (1,327) by a tight end this season. Fellow TE Aaron Hernandez had four receptions and added a wrinkle with five rushes for a team-high 61 yards last week. Despite building a 35-7 halftime lead, the Patriots got little out of their ground game. New England's defense ranked 31st in the league during the regular season, surrendering 411.1 yards per game.
1. The last three regular-season meetings between the teams have been decided by a total of 12 points.
2. Baltimore was only 4-4 on the road this season, including a 34-14 drubbing at San Diego in which it looked powerless to stop the passing game.
3. Brady can tie Joe Montana for the most wins (16) in playoff history, and can combine with Bill Belichick to become the first QB-coach tandem to reach five Super Bowls.
PREDICTION: Patriots 26, Ravens 23. Baltimore slows Brady but Stephen Gostkowski wins a field goal duel with Billy Cundiff.
THE STORY: It's no secret the road to the Super Bowl goes through Green Bay. That hardly seems to faze the New York Giants, who are fairly confident they know how to navigate that route - again. The Giants will look to avenge a 38-35 loss to the Packers last month when they visit Green Bay in an NFL divisional round matchup on Sunday. The stakes are considerably higher this time, much as they were four years ago in the last postseason game at Lambeau Field, when the Giants outlasted the Packers in overtime to advance to the Super Bowl in what was Brett Favre's last game with Green Bay. It promises to be an emotional game for the reigning Super Bowl champs following the drowning death of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin's son earlier in the week.
TV: FOX, 4:30 p.m. ET. LINE: Packers -7.5, O/U 52.5
ABOUT THE GIANTS (10-7): Talk about peaking at the right time. New York won its third consecutive game, manhandling the Atlanta Falcons 24-2 - yes, 2 - in last week's wild-card round. Eli Manning continued his stellar season by throwing for 277 yards and three touchdowns - two to Hakeem Nicks - to secure a rematch with Green Bay. Manning has had to carry the load this season due to the Giants' league-worse ground game, but even that changed last week as Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 155 of New York's 172 rushing yards. WR Mario Manningham, who missed the last two games due to injury, had four receptions for 68 yards and a TD. New York's defense has permitted a total of 30 points in the three-game winning streak.
ABOUT THE PACKERS (15-1): While the Giants are eager for another shot at Green Bay, they need to figure out how to stop Aaron Rodgers from carving up their defense. Rodgers threw for 45 TDs against only six interceptions while sitting out the season finale. He burned the Giants for 369 yards and four scoring passes last month, and threw for 404 yards with four TDs in a 45-17 rout of New York in December 2010. Rodgers gets his top target back in WR Greg Jennings, who missed the last three games with a knee injury. Jennings has 14 receptions for 236 yards and a TD in his last two games against New York. Despite ranking last in overall defense, the Packers had an NFL-best 31 interceptions.
1. Green Bay went 8-0 at home this season and has won 13 consecutive games at Lambeau Field.
2. The stakes are usually high when the Packers and Giants meet in the postseason. The first five meetings decided the NFL Championship, and the last one was for the NFC title.
3. New York is in the postseason for the 31st time, a league record. Green Bay is seeking to become the third team (Pittsburgh, Dallas) with 30 playoff victories.
PREDICTION: Packers 34, Giants 27. Well-rested Green Bay wins an emotional game to move one step closer to a return trip to the Super Bowl.
THE STORY: The Houston Texans finally found the formula to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, combining a dominating running game with a stalwart defense. Some would say they simply borrowed from the playbook used by the Baltimore Ravens for the past decade. In many ways, the Texans will have to beat the Ravens at their own game when they visit Baltimore for an AFC divisional round matchup on Sunday afternoon. Houston already had one crack at the Ravens earlier this season, dropping a 29-14 decision at Baltimore on Oct. 16. Of course, that was a typical outcome this season for the Ravens, who posted the first perfect 8-0 record at home in team history. Baltimore has won all five meetings with Houston as it seeks its first home playoff win since the 2000 Super Bowl-winning season.
TV: CBS, 1 p.m. ET. LINE: Ravens -7.5, O/U 36
ABOUT THE TEXANS (11-6): Houston won its first playoff game in franchise history last week, getting 153 yards rushing and two touchdowns from Arian Foster in a 31-10 victory over Cincinnati. Star WR Andre Johnson, who missed the first meeting versus the Ravens and sat out nine games this season, had five receptions for 90 yards, including a 40-yard scoring pass. Rookie T.J. Yates, who was the third-string QB in October, completed 11 of 20 for 159 yards and one TD. Houston had four sacks and an interception return for a touchdown by DE J.J. Watt vs. Cincinnati. Foster was limited to 49 yards on 15 carries by the Ravens in Week 6, but he had 100 yards against them last season.
ABOUT THE RAVENS (10-3): Joe Flacco is often criticized for holding back Baltimore's offense, but he's the only QB in the Super Bowl era to start a playoff game in each of his first four seasons. Flacco is 27-5 at home and will get a boost with the return of WR Anquan Boldin, who missed the last two games with a knee injury. Boldin had eight receptions for 132 yards in the last meeting against the Texans. Still, the offense revolves around RB Ray Rice, who rushed for 1,364 yards and 12 TDs and led the league with 2,068 yards from scrimmage. He rushed for 101 yards and added 60 more receiving against Houston. Baltimore led the AFC with 48 sacks.
1. The Ravens and Texans were the only teams to rank among the top five in total defense, rushing defense and passing defense.
2. Houston was the first team to win its franchise playoff debut since Baltimore in 2000.
3. The Ravens have won their playoff opener in each of the last three seasons. Each game was on the road.
PREDICTION: Ravens 23, Texans 13. Baltimore is most susceptible through the air, but expecting Yates to win in a hostile environment is asking too much.
THE STORY: Tom Brady is hardly ever knocked out of the spotlight, which is saying something when you're married to a supermodel. However, the husband of Gisele Bundchen - and quarterback of the New England Patriots - has been relegated to second billing this weekend with the arrival of Tebowmania in Foxborough. Media lightning rod Tim Tebow will look to pull off a second straight stunning upset when he leads the visiting Denver Broncos against Brady and the Patriots on Saturday night. It will be a rematch of a Week 15 game in Denver, in which the Patriots erased an early deficit and rolled to a 41-23 victory - the first of three straight losses to close the regular season for the Broncos. Denver rebounded from the late swoon to shock the Pittsburgh Steelers 29-23 last week on Tebow's 80-yard scoring pass on the very first play of overtime.
TV: CBS, 8 p.m. ET. LINE: Patriots -13.5, O/U 50.5
ABOUT THE BRONCOS (8-8): Tebow rose from the ashes of two dreadful performances by throwing for a career-high 316 yards in the upset of the Steelers. Pittsburgh dared Tebow to beat him with his arm - and he did with four completions of at least 30 yards, including tosses of 51, 58 and 80 yards to Demaryius Thomas, who had four receptions for 204 yards. RB Willis McGahee rushed for 70 yards on seven carries before he was hurt in the first meeting with New England. The Broncos gashed the Patriots for 252 yards on the ground, including 167 in the opening quarter, but three lost fumbles that forced them into catch-up mode. Leading WR Eric Decker is not expected to play due to a knee injury.
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (13-3): Despite an eight-game winning streak and last month's comfortable victory at Denver, New England has plenty of reasons not to feel overconfident. The Patriots have lost their playoff opener - at home - in each of the past two seasons and developed a disturbing habit of falling behind early in their last three games of the regular season. New England fell behind 17-0 to Miami and 21-0 to Buffalo - both at home - before rallying. The one constant has been two-time MVP Brady, who threw for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns while getting picked off only 12 times. He has 19 TDs and two interceptions during the winning streak. The main concern is a defense that ranks 31st in the league, getting trampled for 411.1 yards per game.
1. The No. 1 seed is no guarantee of success in the AFC, compiling a 12-9 record since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990.
2. Brady is tied with Terry Bradshaw for the best postseason record (14-5) by a quarterback with at least 15 starts.
3. Ex-Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, who drafted Tebow and Thomas, joined New England's staff this week.
PREDICTION: Patriots 27, Broncos 17. The magic finally runs out on Tebow as Brady guides New England into AFC title game.
THE STORY: Does defense still win championships in today's pass-happy NFL? Drew Brees and the high-powered New Orleans Saints will test that notion when they pay a visit to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday afternoon. The game is a purist's dream, matching the league's top offense against its best defense in the only one of this weekend's four playoff games that is not a rematch of the regular season. Brees eclipsed Dan Marino's single-season record for passing yards in putting up offensive numbers rarely seen this side of a video game. Third-seeded New Orleans arrives in the Bay Area riding a nine-game winning streak and having scored 45 points in each of its last three games, including last week's 45-28 demolition of the Detroit Lions in the wild card round. No. 2 seed San Francisco counters with a defense that allowed an NFC-low 14.3 points per game. The 49ers can also point to one critical stat: The Saints have never won a road playoff game, including last season's 41-36 loss at Seattle.
TV: FOX, 4:30 p.m. ET. LINE: Saints -3.5, O/U 47
ABOUT THE SAINTS (14-3): Brees threw for 466 yards and three TDs as New Orleans amassed a postseason-record 626 yards against Detroit. The Saints trailed at halftime before reeling off 35 second-half points. Brees has not been intercepted in 215 attempts - another playoff record - and is the only quarterback to throw for 400 yards in back-to-back postseason games, although one came in a loss at seven-win Seattle last season. New Orleans also showed great balance last week by getting 164 rushing yards from the trio of Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory. While Marques Colston is Brees' favorite target, the biggest matchup nightmares are third-down back Sproles and TE Jimmy Graham. They had a combined 185 receptions and scored 20 TDs between them in the regular season.
ABOUT THE 49ERS (13-3): San Francisco is in the postseason for the first time since the 2002 season, rebounding from last season's 6-10 mark under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The 49ers' formula is pure smash-mouth football, utilizing the running of Frank Gore and an unyielding defense that surrendered only 308.2 yards per game. The first-round bye had to help Gore, who rushed for 1,211 yards and had five straight 100-yard games before injuries limited him over the second half of the season. QB Alex Smith threw for 3,144 yards and was intercepted only five times, but he also had only 17 TDs for a team that too often settled for field goals. K David Akers set an NFL mark with 44 FGs.
1. The Saints have beaten the 49ers six straight times, including a 25-22 victory in San Francisco last season on a field goal as time expired.
2. New Orleans was 5-3 on the road and was held to 26 points or less in four of its last five away from home.
3. The 49ers allowed a league-record three rushing touchdowns for the season.
PREDICTION: Saints 24, 49ers 16. San Francisco manages to slow New Orleans somewhat, but failure to capitalize on its scoring chances makes the difference.
Jan 5, 2012
THE STORY: Deja vu all over again? That's the mindset of the New York Giants, who are beginning to conjure up visions of their stunning Super Bowl run of 2007 as they prepare to host the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC wild card matchup on Sunday. The Giants have rebounded from a four-game losing streak to win three of their last four, including impressive victories over the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys in the last two weeks to secure the NFC East title. Conversely, the Falcons are looking to purge the memory of last season, when they entered the playoffs as the No. 1 overall seed and were promptly shelled by eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay in their postseason opener.
TV: FOX, 1 p.m. ET. LINE: Giants -3, O/U 47
ABOUT THE FALCONS (10-6): Atlanta may not possess the firepower of Green Bay or New Orleans, but it certainly is not lacking for weapons for quarterback Matt Ryan. Roddy White (100 receptions) and rookie Julio Jones (8 TDs) are a dangerous WR tandem and veteran TE Tony Gonzalez had 80 catches on the season. The key for the Falcons, though, will be RB Michael Turner, who rushed for 1,340 yards and 11 touchdowns and can play a huge part in slowing New York's pass rush. Ryan threw for 4,177 yards and 29 touchdowns - both career highs - and was picked off only 12 times. In his last four games, Ryan threw 10 TD passes and zero interceptions.
ABOUT THE GIANTS (9-7): Eli Manning threw for 29 TD passes and a career-high 4,933 yards. He has uncovered a gem in big-play WR Victor Cruz, who hauled in nine scoring passes for a team-record 1,536 yards. Cruz capped the season by putting up 164 and 178 yards in the last two games, including TD receptions of 99 and 74 yards. The running game continues to struggle, ranking last in the league at 89.2 yards per game, but the defense is hitting its stride. DE Osi Umenyiora returned from a four-game absence to register two of New York's six sacks against Dallas. The Giants have 11 sacks in the last two games and finished the season with 48.
1. Manning set a league record with 15 fourth-quarter TD passes this season.
2. The Giants have won the last three meetings with the Falcons, including a 34-31 OT victory in 2009.
3. Atlanta's only losses since Week 3 have come to four division winners: Green Bay, Houston and New Orleans (twice).
PREDICTION: Giants 27, Falcons 24. Cruz makes another game-breaking catch to keep New York's season alive.