NFC South: 2012 Quick Takes

Quick Take: Saints at 49ers

January, 7, 2012
Three things to know about next Saturday’s New Orleans Saints-San Francisco 49ers divisional playoff game:

1. On a roll: The Saints have not lost since Oct. 30 when they inexplicably dropped a game to St. Louis. Although that loss was a big reason why the Saints now have to go on the road, it brought about some positives. The Saints made some major adjustments in their pass protection to give tackles Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief help. Since then, the offense has been unstoppable. Everyone talks about the passing game and that’s understandable. But the running game has been almost as impressive with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory sharing the carries. People like to label the Saints a “dome’’ team, but that’s not necessarily true. With this running game, the Saints can also play outdoors and still be able to move the ball if the weather is an obstacle.

2. A different breed: New Orleans’ offense has had a record-setting year. But look back at the opponents. The Saints have yet to face a defense as good as San Francisco’s. Coach Sean Payton will have to be more creative than ever. San Francisco linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are playing as well as any duo in the game right now. Defenses generally have no idea how to match up with New Orleans tight end and Jimmy Graham and Sproles. But the 49ers might have the personnel to do that.

3. Some help from the defense: The offense has carried the Saints throughout the regular season and there was nothing wrong with that because no defense could slow the Saints. But the 49ers have the potential to keep the Saints under some sort of control. That means Drew Brees and the offense could benefit from some help from the defense. Back in the 2009 championship season, the Saints were opportunistic on defense. They produced turnovers in bunches. This year’s defense hasn’t done much of that. But producing a turnover or two -- or at least generating a little bit of a pass rush -- could be a big help in a road playoff game.

Quick Take: Falcons at Giants

January, 1, 2012
Three things to know about next Sunday’s Atlanta Falcons-New York Giants wild-card game.

1. Take the next step. Since arriving together in 2008, coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan have produced four consecutive winning seasons. That’s great, but the big knock on Smith and Ryan is that they have yet to win a playoff game. When they were the No. 1 seed last year, they lost at home to the No. 6 Packers. Going on the road to a cold-weather venue will be difficult. But Atlanta went all-in this season with the trade up to draft Julio Jones and sign defensive end Ray Edwards. They need a postseason victory to make this season any sort of success. Ryan also needs to shed the label that he can’t win the big one.

2. Stop the pass rush. The Falcons had problems protecting Ryan early in the season and that caused lots of problems. The offensive line has played better lately. But the Giants feature a very strong pass rush. They have Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora is back from an injury. The Giants can generate pressure with their front four alone. The Falcons are going to have to use their running backs and tight ends to give left tackle Will Svitek some blocking help.

3. Slow down Victor Cruz. The New York receiver has come out of nowhere to become one of the league’s top receivers. Cruz has lots of speed and has been making lots of big plays downfield. If cornerback Brent Grimes, who has missed time with a knee injury, is healthy, he and cornerback Dunta Robinson can match up with Cruz and the short and mid-level passing game. But safeties William Moore, Thomas DeCoud and James Sanders will have to step up and do a better job providing help than they did in the regular season. Of course, it would also help if Atlanta can generate a pass rush. There are some signs that’s possible. After a slow start, defensive end John Abraham has come on strong in recent weeks.

Quick Take: Lions at Saints

January, 1, 2012
Three things to know about next weekend's New Orleans Saints-Detroit Lions wild-card game.

1. Saints need to ride their momentum. New Orleans has not lost since an Oct. 30 game at St. Louis, and the Saints have looked dominant in that time. Their offense has been unstoppable and quarterback Drew Brees has taken his game to another level. Coach Sean Payton played his starters into the fourth quarter against Carolina on Sunday because he wanted to continue to build momentum. Mission accomplished. The Saints are playing as well as anyone in the league. Although they didn’t get a first-round bye, their mindset is that they can beat anyone.

2. Pressure Matthew Stafford. When the two teams met earlier in the season in New Orleans, the Saints won 31-17, but that game did not feature a stellar performance by the defense. Stafford threw for 408 yards, but only one touchdown. The Saints are a bend-but-don’t-break defense, but they’d be pushing their luck if they allowed Stafford to have another 400-yard game. The New Orleans pass rush hasn’t been a big factor this season. But the Saints did get decent pressure on Stafford in the previous meeting. They recorded three sacks in that game and only one of them came from a defensive lineman. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams needs to use the blitz often and try to force Stafford into a mistake or two in what should be a very loud and hostile Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints also should get a lift because middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma sat out Sunday's game to rest his knee, and should return at somewhere close to full strength.

3. Slow down Calvin Johnson. In the previous meeting, the Saints held Johnson to six catches for 69 yards, zero touchdowns and he didn’t have a catch go for more than 22 yards. Although the Saints don’t have a reputation for being a great defense, their secondary does have some big-time talent. Cornerback Jabari Greer and free safety Malcolm Jenkins are two of the league’s most underrated players at their positions. If they get a little help from the pass rush, they can control Johnson again.