NFC playoff Q&A: Real heavyweights
With three of the past four Super Bowl champs, participants are battle-tested
NEW ORLEANS -- If this were the Final Four, the people who run March Madness would be salivating. If it were a mixed martial arts tournament, the fans would be vexed as to how to pick the toughest badass. This is what happens when three of the past four Super Bowl champions earn their way to the divisional round of this year's NFC playoffs. Everybody starts bracing for what should be must-see competition.
The Green Bay Packers are here on the basis of being the NFL's best team all season, winners of 15 games just one year after winning it all. The New Orleans Saints, the 2009 champs, stormed in on the strength of a breathtaking performance in their wild-card victory over the Detroit Lions, an effort that saw the Saints generate more yards than any team in postseason history. Finally, the New York Giants took their seat in the next round by trouncing the Atlanta Falcons. The Giants last won it all in 2007, but that doesn't matter. They still have the quarterback who led them to that title (Eli Manning) and the look of a team that might go on a similar run.
Of course, the final participant is a franchise that has won more Super Bowls than any of those squads. It has been nine years since the San Francisco 49ers last played in the postseason, and they'd like nothing more than to prove themselves worthy of their respected company. They have the luxury of being rested after a first-round bye. The question is whether such advantages really matter when considering how battle-tested all the remaining playoff participants are. As Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem said, "You have to be confident at this time of year. You can't second-guess yourself."
There will be no second-guessing in this space. Just more questions and answers as we move into the most interesting round of this postseason:
1. Can the Saints play as well in San Francisco as they did at home all season? No. As explosive as New Orleans was in Saturday's 45-28 win over Detroit -- when the Saints amassed an NFL postseason-record 626 yards -- they won't have two things working in their favor next weekend. They won't have the comfortable confines of the Superdome (where they've been unbeaten this season) and they won't be facing a beaten-up, beleaguered secondary. The 49ers ranked second in the NFL in points allowed (14.3), fourth in yards allowed (308.1), and they have playmakers at every level of their defense. What also has to concern the Saints are the problems Detroit's pass rush created for quarterback Drew Brees during a surprisingly disappointing first half in that contest. Though Brees believes his offense will be ready -- "I feel like our offense is built for any conditions," he said after the Detroit game -- the Lions still had him backpedaling and double-pumping often enough to think they could've pulled an upset. The 49ers have the potential to produce such chaos all game.
2. Will San Francisco's lack of playoff experience be its undoing? No. If there's one thing that stands out above all else about the 49ers, it's their mental toughness. They've played five teams in this year's postseason and won four of those contests. They've made five trips back east and returned home with four victories. This isn't a team that's about to wilt now that it's making its first postseason appearance since 2002. In fact, only one team has beaten San Francisco at home all season (Dallas), and the Cowboys needed a late comeback to earn the overtime win. First-year head coach Jim Harbaugh will have this team ready. Count on it.
3. Do the Packers need to run the ball better to win? Yes. As potent as Green Bay's offense has been all season -- it led the league with 35 points per game -- the Packers know full well how important balance was to their Super Bowl run last year. They got just enough out of James Starks in those playoffs to keep defenses honest and emerge as the champs. This time around, they have far more backfield weapons (including their best runner, Ryan Grant), and, to date, far less interest in running the football. The Packers average only 97.4 yards per game on the ground. That's not going to get it done in January, not when the weather will be dicey in Lambeau Field and the upcoming opponents are the New York Giants. Anybody who has watched the Giants lately can see that their defense is peaking. An improved commitment to the run game could help the Packers deal with that.
5. What kind of impact could Darren Sproles have against the 49ers? He could be huge. Of all the weapons on the Saints' offense, Sproles easily creates the most big-play opportunities. His combination of speed, quickness and diminutive size makes him an ideal change-of-pace back when the Saints spread teams out (he has 603 rushing yards this season). He's a reliable receiver out of the backfield and a dangerous runner after the catch (as proved by his 86 receptions and seven receiving touchdowns). He also can kill teams with his return ability (he's averaged 27.2 yards on kick returns and scored on a 72-yard punt return this season). At only 5-foot-6 and 190 pounds, Sproles was seen as just a nice addition to the Saints this offseason. Now he's become everything they wanted from Reggie Bush and he might still have more damage to do against San Francisco.
6. Will Alex Smith deliver in his first playoff appearance? Yes. The 49ers' quarterback has been everything he wasn't in his first six seasons: confident, consistent and efficient. That's not going to change now that he's playing in his first postseason. Smith understands that the secret to the 49ers' offense is pounding the football (with Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore) and avoiding big mistakes (they led the NFL with only 10 turnovers). That formula will be even more essential when San Francisco faces a prolific Saints offense that probably won't work so well if the 49ers dominate the time of possession. Smith will stick with the script that has resurrected his career. The 49ers need nothing more than that.
7. Will Jermichael Finley be a difference-maker? That depends on how you define making a difference. The Green Bay tight end has put up decent numbers this season, catching 55 passes for 767 yards and eight touchdowns. The problem is that Finley is capable of posting phenomenal numbers when he's at his best. He's got size, speed, agility, leaping ability and a nagging habit of not living up to his potential. In a season when tight ends such as New England's Rob Gronkowski and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham became breakout stars, Finley hasn't been nearly as dominant, and drops also have plagued him. In his defense, he isn't the only weapon in the Packers' arsenal. He also hasn't let his status as a third or fourth option on many plays drive him into a funk. That being said, Finley has only 13 receptions in his past four games. He has to be better than that.
8. Has Eli Manning become that dangerous? It's hard to argue with the way he has played all season, especially lately. When the Giants needed to beat Dallas in the season finale to clinch the NFC East title, Manning completed 72.7 percent of his passes and threw three touchdown passes in a 31-14 win. In Sunday's 24-2 wild-card win over Atlanta, Manning threw for three more scores while looking as confident as ever. And can you blame the guy for feeling good right about now? He finally has a decent running game after going a season with one that was hurt by injuries and inconsistency. He's got two big-time playmakers in receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, both of whom seem to step up their games if the other is controlled (Nicks was that player Sunday, with six receptions for 115 yards and two scores). At this point, there's every reason to think the Giants will be a tough matchup for the Packers in Green Bay. New York lost 38-35 when these two teams played Dec. 4. Manning's brilliance should make for an equally close finish.
9. Will the Saints' defense be an issue? Uh, you think? The New Orleans defense should be thankful that its offense is so prolific. That means it doesn't face nearly as much scrutiny as it should for its own shortcomings. This is a unit that generated 38 turnovers in 2009, the season New Orleans won its only Super Bowl. Heading into this postseason, the Saints had only 16 takeaways while ranking 24th overall in total defense. Saturday's win over Detroit revealed even more problems. The Lions drove right down the field for a touchdown on their opening drive, while quarterback Matthew Stafford (380 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions) and wide receiver Calvin Johnson (12 receptions, 211 yards) went off. At some point, the Saints' offense might be slowed down to a point that it puts that defense in jeopardy against more talented teams. When that happens, the Saints won't like the results.
10. Who is heading to the NFC Championship Game? The Packers and 49ers. Green Bay has been too dominant all season to let an ideal chance at repeating as the champ slip away. The Packers have had the bye to rest and heal, and the return of injured wide receiver Greg Jennings will be huge for their offense. As for the 49ers, they've been overcoming skepticism all season. Now 13-3 and coming off their own first-round bye, they should be ready to prove they weren't just a nice little story for a team looking to re-establish its place among the league's elite. Both games will be hard-fought, but the home teams are the smart picks this week.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.