The Green Bay Packers dropped from 9-point favorites over the New York Giants at the start of the week to 7½ points by the weekend.
That big spread is based in part on the Packers playing at home, and in part on their 15-1 record against a Giants team that went only 9-7 in the regular season.
But even 7½ points seems high, all things considered. The Giants’ potentially dominating defensive line finally is healthy, and though they don’t have the Packers’ glut of weapons in the passing game, they have the offensive balance that can be especially important in playoff games in cold weather.
The Giants have played their best football in must-win games over the last three weeks. But is that enough to think they’ll come into Lambeau Field and for the second time in four years defeat the Packers in a playoff game?
We talked about the divisional round of playoffs with three NFL scouts this week, and two picked the Packers to win, whereas one took the Giants. One of the scouts who picked the Packers works in the NFC East Division and has scouted the Giants thoroughly.
“(The Giants) want to make a big deal they’re getting everybody back, (but) they just haven’t played hard this year,” that scout said. “That’s just a fact. I don’t think they can beat the Packers.”
The other scout who picked the Packers sees the Packers as vulnerable because of their defensive shortcomings, but in the end, he predicted they’ll win this week, defeat New Orleans in a shootout next week in the NFC championship, then beat New England in the Super Bowl.
“There’s a thing called believing,” the scout said. “They are in that spot that if they want to and they’re right, they (think they) can beat anybody, any time, anywhere. This is a very powerful thing. The New York Giants have had their ups and downs this season, but they’ve kind of gotten a little bit of a roll here. The thing is, they’re a little deficient defensively, and therefore I don’t think they’re as mentally strong to win the game in the fourth quarter as Green Bay is.”
The third scout sees the Giants as an especially tough matchup for the Packers. First, because the Giants’ league-best rotation on the defensive line can pressure Aaron Rodgers without having to blitz, which could camouflage their vulnerabilities in the secondary. Second, because late in the season a healthier Ahmad Bradshaw has teamed with backup halfback Brandon Jacobs to give the Giants the viable run game they lacked most of the season.
“(The Giants’) offensive line is healthy, their running game is starting to come together,” the scout said. “That should give them the advantage on the clock and time of possession. Also their pass rush is clicking, everyone’s healthy. (Defensive end Osi) Umenyiora is looking more healthy than he has all year, and (Packers guard) T.J. Lang has a slow get-off at times and can be exposed by (Justin) Tuck inside. The Packers’ defense will be their weakness, with the Giants’ ball-control offense playing the difference in that game.”
The scouts also discussed the other three divisional-round games this weekend. Following is a synopsis of their predictions and observations:
Saints (14-3) at 49ers (13-3)
The Saints have won nine straight games and are 3½- to 4-point favorites on the road. All three scouts predicted the Saints will win, including one who picked them to win the Super Bowl.
“That’s a freak show down there,” he said of the Saints’ offense.
One of the scouts said the difference between the quarterbacks is too great for the 49ers to overcome no matter how good their defense (No. 4 in yards allowed, No. 2 in points allowed). The Saints’ Drew Brees, who turns 33 next week, played the second half of the season as well as he’s ever played, and in the last nine games has a passer rating of 119.4.
“He moves around the pocket like nobody I’ve ever seen,” the scout said. “He can feel a rat move behind him while looking out the doorway. He can feel stuff and has instinctual movement in the pocket. At the end of the season, I pulled some film up and watched three games. Does their offensive line block better than ours? No. Matter of fact at times they don’t look as good. So, OK, what makes them special? The quarterback is making plays.”
The 49ers’ Alex Smith has revived his career this season but still is mostly a game manager, not a playmaker. His passer rating of 90.7 ranks No. 9 in the league, but the key statistics are he threw only five interceptions, fewest among at least the top 34 quarterbacks who qualified for listing in league statistics, and a 7.06-yard average per attempt, which is a 1.27 yards less than Brees. In other words, the 49ers play it safe.
“To beat Drew Brees, you have to put up 28 points or more,” the third scout said. “They’ll give up at least 28 points to the Saints, and I just don’t know if the Niners can put up 28 points.”
Denver Broncos (9-8) at New England Patriots (13-3)
All three scouts took quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots, who are 13½-point favorites.
This comes a week after Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow scorched Pittsburgh for four completions of 40 yards or more, plus a 30-yard touchdown, even though he was only 10-for-21 passing. The Steelers so committed to stopping Tebow in the option that they often had both safeties playing the run.
“The last game was the first game he looked like a real quarterback,” one scout said. “But here’s the thing: They weren’t able to put a pass rush on him, and he wasn’t throwing a lot of those under pressure. New England’s going to dial up pressure every down, they’re going to blitz him just like (Kansas City coach) Romeo (Crennel) did. They’re going to get pressure on him, and he’s not going to be able to throw it all over the place.”
The risk in blitzing Tebow is creating chaos, which can play to Tebow’s strength, his ability to run after dropping back. But two of the scouts said they’d go after Tebow with run blitzes, not pass blitzes. That generally means less disguising and pre-snap movement, keeping both safeties back, and blitzing linebackers and maybe the occasional cornerback. It also emphasizes rush-lane integrity, which slows getting to the quarterback but is better for stopping the run or scrambles.
The Steelers gave Tebow more margin for error with his elongated throwing motion by playing their safeties so close to the line that the Broncos’ receivers often had one-on-one coverage.
“He can’t consistently throw the ball well enough to beat you,” the second scout said. “People say, ‘Yeah? He’s made some plays.’ That’s because they’re giving him the opportunity to make a playground play.”
Houston Texans (11-6) at Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
The Ravens are 7½-point favorites at home, and Houston’s quarterback is its third-stringer, T.J. Yates, who was a fifth-round draft pick this year. The Texans’ Arian Foster (1,224 yards rushing, 4.4-yard average) is one of the league’s best running backs, but all three scouts said the Texans don’t have much chance with the rookie quarterback against a defense that ranks No. 3 in points and yards allowed.
“If that Houston team had (Matt) Schaub, I’d definitely be taking them,” one of the scouts said. “But T.J. Yates, he’s not ready for this showdown against that defense, and Chuck Pagano, the defensive coordinator, is really good for Baltimore. (The Texans) are definitely going to struggle there.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.