Playbook: Breaking down the divisional round

Four divisional playoff games this weekend to break down. Let’s get right to it.

Saints-49ers

The 49ers will have to establish the run to win this game. The Saints have a middle-of-the-road run defense (No. 12 in the league), and if they can keep the ball out of the hands of Drew Brees, it will go a long way toward keeping the game within reach.

Otherwise, New Orleans has all the measurables to pull away. Because they have such an array of offensive weapons, the Saints convert third downs at a 56.7 percent clip, which ranks first in the league (the 49ers rank 31st at 29.4 percent). On the other hand, the 49ers have the top rushing defense on third down (76 yards allowed).

For that reason, the 49ers will have to exploit every chance they get with the ball, especially if their defense can turn mistakes by the Saints into possessions inside the 50. Unfortunately for the 49ers, far too many of those possessions have turned into field goals or no points at all. On 33 possessions inside the 50, only 12 have turned into touchdowns.

Giants-Packers

The Giants have is a pass rush that — with the addition of DE Osi Umenyiorain recent weeks — has taken its game to another level. But after breaking down the tape of their matchup in Week 13, it’s apparent that the Giants can’t matchup man-for-man with the Packers’ receivers — in fact, we don’t know many teams that can.

If the Giants don’t affect Aaron Rodgers with pressure, he has demonstrated an ability to slice and dice man coverage. When the Giants went man-to-man in Week 13, Rodgers completed 11 of his 14 throws for 178 yards and a touchdown.

He found the Giants in Cover 1 down the stretch of that game and was able to exploit the coverage for three first-down completions for 72 yards.  Although Rodgers was 6-of-8 passing when the Giants used two safeties covering deep halves of the field, the cornerbacks fared better in those situations because the passing windows were tighter with the benefit of safety help over the top.

Broncos-Patriots

The Patriots were able to make QB Tim Tebow a pocket passer in Week 15 via the “mush” rush, containing him in the pocket and forcing him to make throws and sustain drives. Because the Patriots purposively slow-played the edges against Tebow, the Broncos were able to take advantage of downhill runs between the tackles, sending 18 of their 26 designed run plays up the gut for 117 yards and a touchdown.

Expect more of the same this game if the Broncos hope to keep up with New England’s explosive offense. Moreover, expect the Broncos running game to serve as a way to control the ball and keep it out of Tom Brady’s hands.

When Brady has the ball, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil have to bring pressure and make the Patriots convert on third and long. The Broncos do not have the pieces to match up with Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on a man-to-man basis for 60 minutes.

Texans-Ravens

While the Texans’ No. 2 rushing offense averaged 153 yards per game this season, they were only able to muster 93 versus the Ravens in Week 6.

The Texans will have to do better running the ball versus Haloti Ngata and the Ravens and get rookie QB T.J. Yates in more manageable third-down situations. With Matt Schaub, 10 of Houston’s 16 third downs were of 6 yards or more, and only 14.3 percent of Schaub’s second-down throws were efficient.

This is the week rookie Yates really needs to get WR Andre Johnson up to speed. At the same time, it will be on Yates to make good decisions versus the exotic pre-snap looks the Ravens can bring. The Ravens, who allow the lowest passer rating versus the blitz, brought five or more rushers 54 percent of the time on third down. Expect that number to rise with Yates in at quarterback.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show – airs Friday at 9 p.m. ET (Saturday’s divisional playoff games) and 10 p.m. ET (Sunday’s divisional playoff games) on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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