The games were slightly closer in the Divisional Round of the playoffs as we had our first home team and number one seed fall. Find out why the weekend’s results occurred and where the respective team’s go from here.
49ers 36, Saints 32
What happened? The Saints dug themselves a 17-0 hole thanks to early turnovers and when they were able to finally climb out of it, the defense blew some huge assignments at the end of the game as Alex Smith looked like Joe Montana. The 49ers defense was very good for most of the day and the single-season passing yardage record holder will be watching the rest of the postseason from his couch.
The big play- Down 32-29 and in easy field goal range, Jim Harbaugh decided to let his quarterback try to win the game instead of playing for overtime. Alex Smith rewarded his coach’s confidence by firing a bullet in traffic to tight end Vernon Davis for the biggest play in 49ers history in nearly a decade.
Could the outcome have been different? When you turn the ball over five times and lose by only four points you have to leave the football field with a bad taste in your mouth believing that you were the better team. One fewer mistake and one fewer blown coverage on Vernon Davis and the Saints would be hosting the NFC Championship Game.
Where do they go from here? San Francisco: The 49ers will host the New York Giants in the NFC title game, a rematch of a game earlier this season which the Niners won, 27-20. This Giants team is playing much better than the unit that visited in November.
New Orleans: The Saints missed a golden opportunity to go to another Super Bowl and it’s no slam dunk that they’ll be in this position again next year. They need to upgrade the defensive line and most importantly take care of business against lesser opponents. The difference between the Saints hosting the game against the 49ers and traveling to San Francisco was an inexcusable loss to 2-14 St. Louis.
Patriots 45, Broncos 10
What happened? Tom Brady tied a postseason record with six touchdown passes and his opposing quarterback, Tim Tebow threw for just 28 yards through more than three quarters before the Patriots switched to prevent defense. This one was over early as the Pats made the Broncos look like what they are, a .500 team.
The big play- Down 7-0, Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow was stripped of the ball and the Patriots recovered. Six plays later Brady found tight end Rob Gronkowski for his first of three touchdown catches.
Could the outcome have been different? The outcome no, the final score yes. New England was never in danger of being challenged and they could have put up 70 or more if they wanted to.
Where do they go from here? New England: The Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens in a game where they are early seven point favorites. The way the remaining field looks, the Patriots are the team to beat and Brady and Belichick could get their fourth Super Bowl ring together.
Denver: Just when you start to think Tim Tebow can play quarterback, he looks completely hopeless in the franchise’s biggest game in six years. Although Denver has a nice young roster, they have some major questions that need to be answered at quarterback and they must figure out what kind of offense they’re going to run.
Ravens 20, Texans 13
What happened? The Texans played very hard but starting a rookie backup quarterback was their undoing. T.J. Yates tossed three interceptions and Jacoby Jones muffed a punt inside of his own 5-yard line and that was all she wrote in a game which Houston outplayed Baltimore.
The big play- There were several, but perhaps the biggest came early in the first quarter with Houston up 3-0. The Texans defense forced a three-and-out and Jacoby Jones inexplicably decided to try and return a punt that bounced in front of him. Jones was hit immediately after he touched the ball and the Ravens recovered at the Texans 3-yard-line. Baltimore would score a touchdown three plays later and never trailed again.
Could the outcome have been different? Unforced errors by the Texans led to their demise as they lost the turnover battle, 4-0. Houston won almost every other statistical battle and looked like the better football team- with a rookie quarterback and nervous punt returner.
Where do they go from here? Baltimore: The Ravens need to find a pass rush to stop Tom Brady and quarterback Joe Flacco must be more than just a game manager. This will probably be their best chance to get back to the Super Bowl with a veteran team and they need to make the most of the opportunity.
Houston: The Texans future looks very bright as they have a talented young defense. They realistically could have won the Super Bowl if Matt Schaub stayed healthy, but that obviously didn’t happen. The Texans will have a tough decision to make on free agent defensive end Mario Williams who missed most of 2011 with a pectoral injury. They should be back even stronger in 2012.
Giants 37, Packers 20
What happened? The Giants played a near perfect game as they took down the 15-1 Green Bay Packers. New York sacked Aaron Rodgers four times and Eli Manning was almost flawless as the team converted on 50 percent of their third downs.
The big play- With New York leading 13-10 just before halftime, Eli Manning connected on a Hail Mary to Hakeem Nicks to put the Giants up 20-10 and they never looked back.
Could the outcome have been different? The Packers wide receivers dropped an inoridinate amount of passes and some untimely fumbles were too much for the defending champs to overcome. If someone knocks down the Hail Mary, perhaps Green Bay has more life in the second half.
Where do they go from here? New York: The Giants feel ultra-confident on the road and they’ll need to capture one more victory in their road whites before they travel to Indianapolis for the Super Bowl.
Green Bay: After a disappointing end to a great regular season, the Packers need to get better on the back end of their defense and stiffer up front. Green Bay will likely be the class of the NFC North again as they expect to return most of the key components of the roster.
Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for ESPNFlorida.com and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie