Classic NFL playoff matchup: Saints vs. 49ers
NEW YORK - The Associated Press
San Francisco 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers tackles St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson during the first half of their NFL football game in St. Louis, Missouri, January 1, 2012. REUTERS photoAs NFL matchups go, this one is a classic: Unstoppable offense against impenetrable defense.
The second round of the playoffs begin on Saturday in San Francisco, where one of the league's top defenses the 49ers yielded 229 points and ranked fourth overall in yards allowed, first against the run takes on Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints' record-setting attack.
If defense wins championships, as has been the theory in American football for decades, the edge clearly belongs to the 49ers. Then again, the NFL hasn't seen an offense as prolific as the Saints.
"They've been very consistent all year," Saints coach Sean Payton said of the NFC West division champion 49ers. "The formula has been outstanding defense. ... They're the No. 1 team in taking the football away and they're the No. 1 team in protecting the football offensively. Those are significant numbers." Their offense has been so efficient that San Francisco gave away the ball only 10 times, tying the 2010 New England Patriots for fewest in NFL history.
The Saints tore through the NFL, setting league marks for total yards on offense (7,474) and yards passing (5,347, including sacks), with Brees shattering Dan Marino's 27-year-old record of 5,084 yards passing by throwing for 5,476. He had 468 completions, breaking Peyton Manning's 2010 mark of 450, and completed 71.6 percent of his passes, breaking his own 2009 record of a 70.6 completion percentage.
Darren Sproles had an NFL-record 2,696 combined yards, easily breaking the previous mark of 2,690 set by Derrick Mason with Tennessee in 2000.
"We always go into every game with an aggressive mentality," Brees said. "We're going to throw the kitchen sink at everybody with our tempo, personnel groups, formations, running the ball, outside, drop-back pass, bootlegs, heavy play-action, everything." Also looking to move on Saturday are the AFC East champion Patriots, who host the AFC West winners, the Denver Broncos. On Sunday, AFC South winners the Houston Texans are at AFC North champs the Baltimore Ravens, then the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers host the NFC East champs the New York Giants.
New England has lost its last three postseason games: the 2008 Super Bowl to the Giants, then home matchups with Baltimore and the New York Jets the last two Januarys. Now comes the Tim Tebow phenomenon, and it's become difficult to doubt Denver with the way it has responded to tough times.
After blowing a 14-point lead and being forced to overtime by Pittsburgh, the Broncos needed all of one play a dynamic 80-yard catch-and run by Demaryius Thomas to beat the far more experienced Steelers.
The challenge is just as formidable in Foxborough.
"You're definitely at a high, you're feeling great, a lot of momentum, and that's good," Tebow said. "But you really have to use that as fuel for next week and trying to continually improve on that. I think you can't necessarily relish on it too much because the next day we have to get ready for a big game and the Patriots." Baltimore is getting ready for its first playoff home game under coach John Harbaugh, brother of 49ers coach Jim. The Ravens have made the playoffs in all four seasons under Harbaugh, but as wild cards.
They won their eight home games in 2011, including beating the Texans 29-14 in October.
"We did what we had to do to get that first-week bye," defensive end Cory Redding said. "Guys are fighting on the field with big gashes down their legs and almost bruised ribs, messed up knees and toes and ankles and hands, and yet we still fought our way. That was the biggest thing. We got control in the AFC North accomplished." Like the Texans, the Giants are trying to accomplish a difficult feat: Winning at Lambeau Field, where the Packers were 8-0 this season, and defeating a team that beat them in early December in New York.
The Giants are banking on a revived defense, especially the pass rush, and an invigorated running game which crushed Atlanta 24-2 last weekend.