Based on the statistical tale of the tape, the New Orleans Saints have such a lopsided offensive advantage over the San Francisco 49ers that they should only have to do about two quarters' worth of work to win their NFC playoff matchup this weekend. Of course, it won't be that easy, because San Francisco is a very solid team that doesn't relent until the game clock expires -- as the Giants and Eagles learned in the regular season.
How will the 49ers' front seven respond to so many receiving options?
The Saints put incredible pressure on defenses because Brees is able to identify the one-on-one matchup he wants to exploit early in the play, if not before the snap. He also has a strong offensive line that gives him the time to do so.
The 49ers, meanwhile, have as rugged a front seven on defense as there is -- a front that recorded 42 sacks and helped force 42 takeaways. San Francisco likely won't back off of its pressure schemes to cover the receivers; why downplay a strength? However, if too much blitzing or gaming occurs, Brees will take advantage of any voids left by the defense.
The Lions were able to harass Brees during their loss to New Orleans last weekend by getting interior push. They weren't, however, able to sustain it, and the Saints exploited Detroit's defensive line by running the ball through lanes created by the upfield aggression. The 49ers are creative in generating pressure, especially with Pro Bowl end Justin Smith and outside linebacker Aldon Smith. The speed and physicality of their linebackers also should help them handle some of the Saints' counter moves. New Orleans hasn't had to deal with a linebacker group like this since it defeated Houston (which, like San Francisco, runs a 3-4 defense) early in the season.
Bay-Bay's stiff-arm could push Broncos
At the rookie symposium in 2010, Broncos wide receiver Demaryius "Bay Bay" Thomas reminded me that he was actually taken in the first round, ahead of Tim Tebow. This may be obvious, but between Tebowmania and Thomas' injury history, you'd never know it.
They don't have to chuck it long to Thomas. Just get it in his hands and let him do the work. Tebow could get rid of it early and Thomas could put pressure on New England's pass defense, opening up running lanes.
The Packers must be strong under pressure
Clifton, and whoever is helping him, must keep Giants defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora away from quarterback Aaron Rogers. While Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL when it comes to evading pressure, the Giants' defensive tackles have been re-setting the interior line of scrimmage, allowing Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora and Justin Tuck easier access to the quarterback.
Clifton is one of the toughest tackles in the NFL, but he'll have his hands full. Green Bay is going to have to slide protections and use tight ends and running backs to stave off the Giants' front. New York defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has been getting creative with his packages, having Tuck, Umenyiora, Pierre-Paul and outside linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka line up as the front four.
The Giants haven't been as prone to giving up big plays during their recent run of success, in large part because of what's going on up front. Still, they are going up against an offense that's had two weeks to prepare. If Clifton and the offensive line can keep Pierre-Paul and Co. at bay, Green Bay could continue its habit of piling up points.
Flacco's got some work to do
Houston finished the regular season ahead of Baltimore's defense in every key area except for rushing, and there wasn't a big discrepancy there. The Texans field a unit that is every bit as violent, fast and deep as the Ravens', and if it can limit Ravens running back Ray Rice, the pressure will fall to Flacco to do something.
Flacco has been much better at home, but he will feel the heat from different directions and he must make quick decisions. Houston's secondary is solid, and cornerback Johnathan Joseph -- the best free-agent pickup of the offseason -- knows Flacco's tendencies, having faced him several times when Joseph played for the Bengals.