Niners, Giants could be this year's party crashers

Jim Harbaugh has ruffled some feathers during his short and impressively successful time as an NFL head coach, and he and his San Francisco 49ers wouldn't mind irking a few more people this coming weekend.

Because unless you're a die-hard backer of the Bay Area's representative in the 2011 playoffs, or you bleed New York Giants blue, chances are you're pulling hard for the blockbuster matchup between the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints to come to fruition.

And why not? The Packers and Saints are universally regarded as being the best two teams of this year's NFC crop (if not the entire NFL), have won the last two Super Bowls, possess arguably the top two quarterbacks on the planet at the moment, and put on one of the most exciting displays of this thrill-packed 2011 season when they went head-to-head back in early September.

A rematch of that memorable thriller, a 42-34 Green Bay victory in which the Packers stopped New Orleans at the one-yard line on the final play, for the right to go to Super Bowl XLVI would be a dream come true for fans without a remaining rooting interest, not to mention having executives at 280 Park Avenue and FOX's headquarters in Los Angeles grinning from ear to ear as well.

The 49ers and Giants have other ideas, however, and both of these budding spoilers may just have what it takes to make everyone's NFC Championship fantasy simply that.

San Francisco may be the most overlooked 13-win team the league has ever produced, with the eternally-edgy Harbaugh masterfully manipulating that perpetual long-shot status into a season-long rallying cry in one of the best coaching jobs in recent memory. He'll get to play the disrespect card once again on Saturday, with the Niners viewed as a field-goal underdog to the soaring Saints despite the game taking place at Candlestick Park.

New Orleans has rightfully earned the favorite's role by orchestrating a sensational two-month stretch in which the NFC South champions have routinely ravaged their competition. The Saints will be entering San Francisco riding a tidal wave of momentum generated by an eight-game winning streak, and their record-setting offense continued its awesome late-season form by piling up an NFL playoff record 626 total yards in last week's 45-28 blitzing of upstart Detroit in the opening round.

The Saints have scored 42 points or more in each of their last four wins, while the 49ers have averaged a modest 18.2 points in their five matchups with playoff qualifiers and have been plagued by red-zone issues all throughout their surprising 2011 turnaround.

Looks like quite a daunting assignment for this season's most notable overachievers, doesn't it?

Well, maybe not.

Having this game held an outdoor environment clearly levels the playing field, as New Orleans' explosive offense has performed at far more mortal levels when leaving the cozy conditions of the Superdome. And history is on San Francisco's side as well, since the Saints are 0-4 all-time in true road stops during the postseason.

Remember that New Orleans was viewed as a mortal lock to get past a 7-9 Seattle squad in last season's NFC Playoffs, only to leave the Emerald City with a 41-36 loss and a damaged reputation.

And when factoring in that the Saints have a minus-seven turnover margin on the road this season and will be taking on the league's leader in that often- decisive category (the 49ers are an incredible plus-28 on the year), there's reason to strongly consider the possibility of New Orleans' tremendous stretch coming to a close at the very least.

The resurgent Giants appear to have an even more difficult proposition in Sunday's trip to Lambeau Field, where Big Blue was dealt a crushing 45-17 defeat in its last voyage back in Week 16 of the 2010 campaign. The Packers also got the better of New York in a nip-and-tuck bout at the Meadowlands last month and have come out on top in each of their last 13 home dates.

The Giants are clearly an improved bunch since that narrow 38-35 loss to Green Bay on Dec. 4, however, and especially so in the areas of running the football and stopping the opposition. After placing last in the league in rushing offense during the regular season, New York amassed a 2011-best 172 yards on the ground in last Sunday's 24-2 First-Round dismantling of highly-credentialed Atlanta, while limiting the out-of-sync Falcons to a non-threatening 247 total yards and no offensive points.

The NFC East title-holders have now won three straight contests in which their backs were squarely against the wall, and one cannot discount the weight that momentum carries at this critical stage of the season.

There's been a sustained trend of one team rising up and making a Super Bowl run from a lower-seeded position, particularly so in the NFC. The Packers did just that a year ago, having to scratch and claw their way into the fray with a late flourish before ultimately claiming the Lombardi Trophy as the conference's final Wild Card entrant. Arizona was an unlikely Super Bowl participant in 2008, one year after the Giants won four straight postseason tests as a fifth seed that included a 23-20 overtime ousting of Green Bay at Lambeau Field in the NFC Championship.

Similarities exist between these current Giants and that 2007 edition, which lost to New England by the ironic score of 38-35 in that year's regular-season finale before exacting revenge on the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII some five weeks later. And Green Bay, which has been essentially on cruise control since wrapping up the NFC's top seed on Christmas night, could be ripe for the upset due to that lowered intensity and the horribly tragic situation the team has had to endure regarding offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, whose 21-year-old son drowned to his death over the weekend.

While it's hard to fathom the Packers being unfocused for such an important game, there's no question that Philbin's absence has altered the team's routine in its preparation for the Giants, which could conceivably give its opponent an unintentional advantage come Sunday.

For what it's worth, the Giants have rushed for 100 yards or more nine times this season and gone 8-1 in those outings.

The one loss? You guessed it, that stinging setback to the Packers in Week 14 (New York ran for exactly 100 yards that day).


The Sports Network's updated NFL Power Poll, which ranks all 32 league teams, can be found at: poll.htm


Like the Giants and Saints, I'll be entering the weekend on a nice little roll after correctly predicting the point-spread winner in all four of the Wild Card Round bouts while hitting on three of the four outright victors, with Denver's stunning upset of Pittsburgh the lone blemish on the docket. For the season, my straight-up record now stands at 159-101 (.612) to go along with a 123-128-9 ledger (.490) against the line.

Favorites were the way to go in the opening round of the playoffs, as the Broncos were the lone team getting points to come out ahead. Is a change in store for this week?

New Orleans (14-3) at San Francisco (13-3), Saturday, 4:30 (New Orleans -3.5)

Storylines: Second-seeded 49ers making first postseason appearance since 2002, while NFC South champion Saints enter contest on nine-game win streak following last Saturday's 45-28 vanquishing of Detroit in playoffs' opening round...New Orleans scored 35 second-half points and rolled up NFL postseason-record 626 total yards against Lions, with star quarterback Drew Brees amassing 466 passing yards and throwing for three touchdowns, and also established new league standards for both total offense (7,474 yards) and passing yards (5,347) during regular season...San Francisco led NFC in total defense (308.2 ypg) and yielded league-low 77.3 rushing yards per game while finishing second overall in fewest points allowed (14.3 ppg)...Saints have prevailed in last six encounters with Niners, including a 25-22 overtime triumph at Candlestick Park last season, but are 0-4 all-time on the road in playoffs and were dealt 41-36 upset defeat at 2010 NFC West winner Seattle in First-Round clash the previous January...San Francisco posted 7-1 home record during regular season, with New Orleans going 5-3 as visitor...Wide receiver Lance Moore (groin), safety Roman Harper (ankle) and tight end John Gilmore (toe) all questionable for Saints after sitting out last weekend's victory, while tight end Delanie Walker (broken jaw) ruled out for 49ers...San Francisco wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle) and Kyle Williams (concussion) both probable, however...Niners had NFL- low 10 giveaways and produced league-best plus-28 turnover margin during 13-win campaign, with quarterback Alex Smith responsible for just three miscues in team's eight home games...San Francisco center Jonathan Goodwin spent five years with New Orleans (2006-10) before joining 49ers during offseason, while Saints defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin was four-year starter for Niners from 2007-10.

Fast Fact: 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and Saints counterpart Sean Payton were both quarterbacks for the 1987 Chicago Bears, though the two weren't actually teammates. Harbaugh was the club's first-round pick that season, while Payton was on the roster for three weeks as a replacement player during that year's strike.

Prediction: Saints may have the wow factor because of their quick-strike capability, but the mundane 49ers may be the more well-rounded of these two teams and should benefit from the slower track of Candlestick Park. 49ers 24, Saints 20.


Denver (9-8) at New England (13-3), Saturday, 8:00 (New England -13.5)

Storylines: Surprising Broncos picked up first playoff triumph since 2005 with 29-23 overtime shocker over defending AFC champion Pittsburgh in Wild Card Round last Sunday, with quarterback Tim Tebow throwing for career-high 316 yards and two scores and young wide receiver Demaryius Thomas accumulating 204 yards on just four catches that included game-winning 80-yard connection to begin extra period...Patriots earned AFC's top seed for second straight year with 13-3 record and enter matchup having ripped off eight consecutive victories, including 49-21 home rout of Buffalo on Jan. 1 in which team outscored Bills 35-0 in second half...New England also registered 41-23 road decision over Broncos on Dec. 18 behind 320-yard, two-touchdown effort from quarterback Tom Brady, who finished regular season with second-highest passing total (5,235 yards) in NFL history...Patriots have lost last three postseason outings since 2007 AFC Championship Game and have been handed defeats at Gillette Stadium in each of past two seasons...Ex-Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels, who served in that capacity for 28-game stint from 2009-10, hired by New England last week as offensive assistant and successor to outgoing offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien...Wide receiver Eric Decker (knee) and safety Brian Dawkins (neck) both doubtful for Denver, while club placed fullback Spencer Larsen (knee) on injured reserve Tuesday...Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins (knee) and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (ankle) both expected to play for Patriots...Brady owns 14-5 career postseason record, tied with Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw for best winning percentage for quarterback with at least 15 playoff starts, while Pats head coach Bill Belichick one win shy of matching Chuck Noll (16) for fourth-place on NFL's all-time list for postseason victories...Denver led NFL in rushing offense (164.5 ypg) and ran for 252 yards in last month's loss to New England...Broncos 5-1 in road games and 4-0 in overtime contests with Tebow as starter.

Fast Fact: Belichick and Broncos head coach John Fox have squared off once previously in postseason play, a 32-29 Patriots' win over Fox's Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII held at Houston's Reliant Stadium on Feb. 1, 2004.

Prediction: Gritty Broncos have been terrific in tight games, but may have a hard time keeping this one close on the road against one of the league's most potent offenses. Patriots 37, Broncos 24.


Houston (11-6) at Baltimore (12-4), Sunday, 1:00 (Baltimore -7.5)

Storylines: First home playoff game for Ravens, who claimed AFC North title and conference's second seed by virtue of season sweep of rival Pittsburgh, since 15-6 loss to Indianapolis in 2006 Divisional Round, while AFC South champion Texans won franchise's long-awaited postseason debut with 31-10 drubbing over Cincinnati last weekend...Ravens have come out on top in all five lifetime meetings with Houston, including 29-14 decision in Baltimore on Oct. 16, and own 6-0 record against 2011 playoff participants as well...Ravens also posted 8-0 mark at M&T Bank Stadium during regular season and have won 18 of last 19 home bouts dating back to 2009...Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin (knee surgery) set to return from two-game absence and had season-high eight catches totaling 132 yards in team's Week 6 triumph over Texans, while guard Marshal Yanda (thigh) also probable for Baltimore and cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Tom Zbikowski both cleared to play for after sustaining late-season concussions...Tight end Owen Daniels to suit up for Houston despite cracking bone in his hand against Bengals...Clash of two of NFL's premier defenses this season, with Texans second in total yards allowed (285.7 ypg), third against the pass (189.7 ypg) and fourth in scoring defense (17.4) and Ravens second versus the run (92.6 ypg) while permitting third fewest points (16.6 ppg) and total yards (288.9 ypg)...Houston also second in rushing offense (153.0 ypg) and received 153-yard, two-touchdown performance from standout running back Arian Foster in Wild Card Round, but team held to 93 yards on the ground in first meeting with Baltimore...Ravens running back Ray Rice led league in yards from scrimmage (2,068) and compiled 161 combined yards (101 rushing, 60 receiving) against Texans earlier in year...Houston defense intercepted Cincinnati's Andy Dalton three times last Saturday, with rookie end J.J. Watt returning his pick 29 yards for critical touchdown late in first half.

Fast Fact: Before the Texans' history-making result last week, the last franchise to win its first-ever postseason game was the Ravens, who bested Denver by a 21-3 count in an AFC First-Round encounter at M&T Bank Stadium on Dec. 31, 2000 en route to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV later that season.

Prediction: Though young Texans quarterback T.J. Yates hasn't often played like a rookie since being pressed into service, he also hasn't faced a defense the caliber of the one he'll see this week. Ravens 26, Texans 10.


N.Y. Giants (10-7) at Green Bay (15-1), Sunday, 4:30 (Green Bay -8)

Storylines: Top-seeded Packers seeking fifth consecutive postseason victory after winning four times to capture franchise's fourth Super Bowl title during 2010 campaign, while NFC East champion Giants riding three-game win streak extended with 24-2 throttling of Atlanta in opening round of conference playoffs last Sunday...Teams squared off at MetLife Stadium back on Dec. 4, with Green Bay claiming wild 38-35 decision on last-second field goal by kicker Mason Crosby...Seventh lifetime postseason meeting between storied franchises and first since Giants recorded memorable 23-20 overtime verdict at Lambeau Field in 2007 NFC Championship...Status of Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin uncertain after his 21-year-old son died in drowning accident over weekend...Wide receiver Greg Jennings (knee), offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) and rookie return specialist Randall Cobb (groin) all slated to play for Green Bay after resting in team's 45-41 home win over Detroit in regular-season finale, while offensive tackle Chad Clifton (hamstring) also probable and leading rusher James Starks (ankle) hopeful to go...Giants cornerback Aaron Ross probable despite suffering slight concussion against Falcons, but running back D.J. Ware (concussion) questionable...Packers went 8-0 at Lambeau Field during regular season and scored second-most points (560) in NFL history...Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers (4,643 yards) and Giants triggerman Eli Manning (4,933) both established club season records for passing yards, with Rodgers also breaking team mark for touchdown passes (45)...Rodgers threw for 369 yards and four scores in Pack's win over New York last month, with Manning ending with 347 yards and three touchdown strikes...Giants defense has allowed 30 total points during current three-game surge and surrendered season-low 247 total yards to Atlanta...Green Bay defense garnered league-best 31 interceptions in regular season, while New York placed third in sacks (48).

Fast Fact: Packers are 3-0 all-time in Divisional Round games after receiving an opening-week bye since the current 12-team playoff format was instituted in 1990.

Prediction: Giants are both confident and capable of wrecking Green Bay's repeat plans, especially with the distractions their opponent has had to endure. Still, Rodgers' past success in this series and the Packers' overall consistency says go with the reigning champs in another close one. Packers 27, Giants 24.